Mother found a lump on the side of her head today, above her ear. She showed Anita in the car, as they waited for Susie to finish her piano lesson, pulling her hand to it like she had eight years before, but now it was to her head instead of to a breast long gone. Same as then, she looked away as she said, “Pray for me. It’s probably nothing.” A familiar wave fought to rise in Anita’s throat— she nodded and smiled and told Mother not to worry as she fiddled with the ring on her right hand.
That finger used to wear her mother’s wedding band, yellow gold and heavy, its weight overwhelming for a twelve-year-old’s small hand. When she first felt the firm lump of sickness, in the corner of their dining room, where they piled untouched magazines that came in from the mail, she recoiled, then immediately filled with shame. “Susie’s too young to understand, but you know what this means,” Mother said, soft, as she lowered her shirt. The next few months fast-forwarded— cooking and cleaning and helping Susie with homework while Mother was shuffled between the hospital and her room, now off-limits because of her weakened immune system. Their routine ran well-oiled, precise and habitual, as Mother retched into the toilet every few hours and Anita vacuumed her pillowcase every morning, dark strands at least a foot long splayed across like modern art. Father grew more silent by the day. Ladies from church would stop by with steaming pots of red bean soup and a constant stream of prayer, and Anita would stack the emptied pots in their trunk for the occasional Sunday Father decided to be religious.
He was angry, she could tell, and muttered to her mother about the chalky, too-sweet syrup of the soup and the accusing eyes of those women. “Don’t they know it’s hard for me too, seeing you like this? You know what it’s like for me when I’m depressed. And I come home to a house full of these— these hens, flocking about like they own the place, like they own you, never even saying a word to me— they speak English, I know they do!”
And Mother would say, “Yes, Jerry, I know it’s been hard. Why don’t you take a break, try to get your mind off it? Your mother’s been wanting you to visit again for months now.” And Anita would listen from the hallway, angry too, and sad and confused and lonely, but mostly afraid, and wondered if her father would really leave like that.
It was early evening on a Tuesday in April, and Anita was washing the dishes, once again piled so high the faucet was trapped in a tower of cups, when Father arrived home from work to a table again overrun by pots of thick, unctuous soup.
“Again? Really?” Anita turned the right handle farther so the water rushed out, loud and cold, so she could pretend not to hear.
“Yes, again,” a cold voice said from the doorway to the kitchen. “Maybe if you’d bothered to learn about Asia before skipping over there to bring back a wife, you’d know that this soup is celebratory. It’s served at the close of banquets. It is the one thing everyone has room for by the end, the one thing everyone continues to choose, even when they’re exhausted. And are you choosing this, Jerry? Are you choosing me? It doesn’t feel like it.”
Anita had long stopped washing, her hands instead leaden beneath the numbing stream of the sink as it roared. Father began to raise his voice, “How many times have we talked about this? I did not just go to China and pick you out, you know that, you were there! And what do you mean I’m not choosing you? I’m here, aren’t I?” His anger climbed with the rushing water as a tenuous unison stretched across the room. Anita wanted to turn around, make him stop, make him realize, when her mother screamed, painful and prolonged.
The blood rushed around Anita’s ears as the sound – what was that noise, even, twenty years of tired? – pulled taut against their eardrums, long and loud. Then Mother stopped, as suddenly as she’d started, and stared at Father as he said, “Maybe it’s time for me to make a trip to Florida.”
“Maybe it is,” she said, and they watched as he turned and went out the door.
Her mother, very calm, told Anita to bring her a bowl of soup, slightly warmed, in about an hour, and retired to her room. Anita descended to the basement laundry and stood and cried, hands shaking with the dryer as it groaned.
The day after, Susie nudged Anita awake. “Where’s Dad?”
“He went to visit Grandma. He’ll be back.”
“Okay. Are you taking me to school today or not?”
“Give me a minute, Suz, let me brush my teeth. Have you eaten breakfast?” Susie had already run off to the kitchen, so Anita hopped out of bed, down the hall to the bathroom they shared. It’d been a while since the mirrored doors of the cabinet were cleaned— they were spotted with water, a gradient of little smudged dots, denser as they went down. Considering how close Susie got to the mirror when she flicked her toothbrush against her teeth, it was no wonder that it’d been covered in stains. Making a note to wipe them off later, Anita pulled her hair up and ran to get her backpack. They’d be late, again, so she scribbled a couple notes, initialed them ‘C.T.’ with the sure, round swoop of her mother’s hand, and zipped out the door, only to rush back in for Susie’s thermos, abandoned on the island as it always was.
When they got home, Mother was chatting with Aunt Flora – not their real aunt, but all the church ladies were aunts of some sort or other – on speaker (Mother always refused to put her skin against the germ-ridden surfaces of phones) in Mandarin. “Oh, Carolyn, I was wondering if you’d be free for lunch on Saturday— I can bring some scallion pancake wraps from that new bistro on Campbell,” Flora said through the phone.
“I’m free,” Mother said, “but you know how I feel about Asian fusion. It’s a hack! I heard,” she lowered her voice, “that those wraps have cheese in them. Cheese! In a cong you bing? Unbelievable!” Flora gasped in response, and they laughed.
Having spent her entire childhood eavesdropping on her parents, Anita stepped away from the familiar exchange. About an hour later, Mother called for her. “Anita, can you come for a minute?”
“Coming!” she said as she raced to the master bedroom.
Mother was sitting up, surrounded by pillows, head wrapped in a silk bandana, bright green. “Honey, sit with me for a minute,” she said, patting the bed.
“Ma ma, you okay? Do you need anything?” Anita placed herself on the edge of the bed frame, its leather torn up by the previous owner’s cats.
“I’m fine, bao bei. Don’t worry about me. I wanted to give you something.” Her mother opened her hand, gold band resting in her palm. “This is just for now, until I’m better, and it has nothing to do with your father’s trip to Florida. I know these months have been hard for you, and you’ve been so helpful around the house and with Susie. I want you to wear this, for me, so you know how much I love you and appreciate everything you do. Here, put it on.” Anita’s neck suddenly went very stiff, like the fist inside her somehow tightened further. She held her hand out, and her mother slid the ring on her middle finger. Even there, it was a little loose. “Don’t worry about your father, dear. He’s just going through one of those phases.” Mother smiled a little, shook her head. “Could you bring me some warm water with lemon?”
Susie noticed the ring immediately. “What’s that? Is that Mom’s?”
“Yeah, she’s having me wear it for now.”
“Her fingers are swollen because of her medicine, so it doesn’t fit her right now. I’m taking care of it for her.” Anita had come up with lots of excuses for Susie’s questions. Once, when Aunt Flora brought them two pet fish, Susie insisted on knowing why exactly Rocky had more dark spots than Goopy, so Anita spun a scientific tale about Rocky’s biological deficiency that made him poop onto himself, leaving dark stains. The fish had long gone, but Susie still believed all her stories.
The ring felt weird on her hand. She noticed it constantly— in flute class as she tapped the keys, when holding Susie’s hand as they walked to school. At school, she’d sit on the side, spinning it around her finger silently. Weird that it didn’t fit, since Mother’s hands had always been unusually slender. Maybe it knew it didn’t belong— a little like her. Their school was small – Mother had always insisted on private school for both of her girls, K-12, religiously affiliated in name, uniforms, the works. The plaid pleats of her skirt were dark and starched, the administration plastered with the strange smiles only upper-class Caucasians could produce. Everyone knew her mother was sick, so those smiles surrounded Anita every day.
She thought it was odd that people hadn’t yet come up with a better way of expressing condolences instead of apologizing, since every ‘I’m so sorry’ was really a ‘thank god it’s not me,’ and she wanted to turn on them, tell them to stop apologizing for something that had nothing to do with them, to stop speaking as if her mother were already gone. At night, she’d float her feet up to the ceiling from her lofted bed, imagine a scenario where she could call a school-wide meeting and take them down one by one— leave her name out of your mouth, she’d whisper to her feet, pretending each toe was a well-meaning condescender, this is none of your business, Sharon, don’t you have better things to do with your time, like fix your entire face, my mother is alive, she’s still alive, she’s not going anywhere. But of course her mouthed rehearsals never got their time on stage, and everyone at school continued to excuse her ‘attitude problem’ (read: her surly self) as a mere consequence of seeing her poor frail mother on her deathbed.
With her father gone, Anita began noticing things about her mother that she hadn’t seen before. She chalked it up to the radiation – after all, didn’t some studies say that those treatments can change someone’s entire personality? – but still, Mother seemed on the brink. She’d hold Susie tightly, rock her in her lap, so tight that Susie’d wriggle out, uncomfortable with both her mother’s embrace and her appearance.
There was always fault throughout the house (Anita used to think her mother was just meticulous, but now she was cold, hard, uncompromising). Everything seemed out of place to Mother’s eye, and Anita would rearrange the flowers, wipe all the dust away, stop using the cloudy silverware, but still the air around them was uncertain and on edge. She burned the porridge once – left it on the stove simmering while she went to draw a giraffe for Susie’s Friday presentation – and immediately the smell indicated her mother’s poor parenting – “How did you not smell that? Oh god, I can’t believe my own daughter doesn’t notice these things” – which she bemoaned at length as Anita stood, sullen, filled with guilt. And while the charred scent lingered, Mother would suddenly pull herself from the edge of whatever it was, and they’d snuggle under the covers watching some new show.
The phone rang one evening, and Susie ran to get it— she’d been loving picking up lately, and Anita didn’t mind, considering people on the other end would probably rather hear a friendly seven-year-old than a hostile preteen answer. “Hey Dad,” Susie said, as if they’d talked on the phone frequently (had they? Anita wasn’t ever sure if Susie was talking to herself or to someone else throughout the day). “Yeah, she’s home. Wanna say hi?” She trotted over and handed the slim case to Anita. “It’s Dad; he wants to talk to you.”
“Hello? Dad?” Anita wasn’t sure what to say.
“Hey, honey. How’s it going?” That was her father, alright, smooth and easy always.
“We’re fine. How’s Florida?”
“Good, it’s good. Grandma wants you both to come visit some time, what do you think?”
“We can’t exactly leave right now.” It came out harsher than she intended. A pause.
“I know that, honey. And I’ll be back real soon. Must be pretty hard up there, huh?” Why did he sound so relaxed?
She was angry, as angry as she’d get when running through practice takedowns of pity-givers at night. “It’s the same as when you were here.”
“That’s not fair, Anita.” He was quiet for a minute. “Now I know that your mother can be difficult. That’s just how she is. It’s why I love her— she’s volatile, and it keeps me on my toes. Try to see these positive parts.”
“If they’re so positive, why aren’t you here? You chose this, Dad. You picked her. You can’t just choose to leave. I was born into all this, and I’m still here.” Her voice shook as she lowered it and stepped into the basement.
“I said I’d be back soon, and I will. I’m not the bad guy here. I just needed a breather, okay? It can all get to be too much. Maybe you just don’t understand.” He sounded stony now, instead of nonchalant— or had that always been there?
“All I need to understand, Dad, is that you’re not here, and you should be.” She walked back up the stairs and handed the phone to Susie. “Here Suz, talk to Dad.”
Yanking the ring off her hand, Anita stormed into her mother’s room, where Mother sat coolly paging through a recent issue of Better Homes and Gardens. “Everything alright, dear?” she asked, not looking up.
“No, everything’s not alright.” Anita placed the ring on the vanity beside the bed. “I can’t wear this for you, mom. It’s your ring. It’s not mine to have or to wear. It doesn’t even fit me.”
“Okay, bao bei, I understand.” She reached out and slid the ring back on her own hand, continuing to read. Spent from her double act of defiance, Anita had run out of words, surprised that her mother had so calmly accepted this uncharacteristic outburst. Mother yawned, scratching at her skin, “Could you help me lotion my back? It’s been so dry.”
Father came back, after six weeks in Florida. The red bean soup stopped coming, and Anita and Susie brought corn dogs and chicken nuggets to school instead of porridge and cong you bing. Mother finished her series of radiation, and their lives were released from the cusp where it had hung for four months, though it felt somehow like they no longer knew where the equilibrium would land. Soon, Susie grew up, became the teenager Anita would have been, with clique drama and secret boyfriends, careless driving and petty fights with their parents. Anita didn’t know how to have those things. Instead, she retreated, the fist within her not knowing how to unfurl, still straining, its nails digging crescent-shaped holes in its palm. Whenever her parents mentioned something contentious, she’d stiffen, afraid that lashing out would prompt a move to Florida, sickened with a taste between resentment and shame. She felt stuck in that year, while everyone had moved on, and it smelled like adzuki beans soaked in sugary water. And here it was, back again, in the car with her fingers pressed against her mother’s head, and she didn’t know whether she should be more angry or afraid. Mother smiled and said, “It’s okay, Anita. Everything will be fine.” So she smiled back, tightly, and unlocked the car door for Susie as she came out of the piano studio.