Sometimes it’s hard to picture mom—a porcelain girl, lost and determined somewhere in the middle of China.
Today, our sticky Ikea table has been revamped, cheap surface haphazardly hidden under a gingham tablecloth. Mother plucks the cap off a pot of jasmine tea. Refills her cup, laughing at all the appropriate times at a colleague’s story of a disastrous Himalayan hiking trip. A fly buzzes drunkenly around the fruit platter, escaping my half-hearted bats. Next to me, Gerald’s boredom roils off of him in waves.
“Professor Chan” he mouths at me, and I grin. He’s right—right now this woman is not our mother, but rather Sylvia Chan, Tenured Professor at The University Of Central Florida. The signs are all there. Rouged mouth stretched uncomfortably wide. Hands pertly folded. Crisp blouse buttoned to the throat.
I’d never liked it when mom’s colleagues came over for brunch, and Gerald even less. Said it made him sick to eat so much smoked salmon in one go, but I knew it was something else.
“Isa, can we go outside?” a pleading tug at my shirt cuff. I pretend not to hear him, though we both know I’ll cave soon. So we go.
Outside, the sun swelters and settles like cotton candy in our lungs the way only Florida heat knows how. I’m about to scold my brother for dragging us out into the sickly humidity when I see nai nai bent over her strawberry patch, stiff hip forgotten for the moment. Upon seeing us, she beckons with a single gloved hand.
“Look what those damn rabbits do this time,” She twirls the stem of a single strawberry between thumb and forefinger accusingly, sunlight illuminating its mutilated sides, “never have this problem in Sichuan.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make them pay.” Gerald declares this solemnly, like he’ll really hunt the creature down in its burrow and threaten it until it coughs up a syrupy pulp.
I think our grandma must secretly like stuffing them fat and full, because once she told us a story about the lucky rabbit that lives in the moon and how it got there because it sacrificed its own body to an old hungry beggar. The gods were so moved that they sent it to the moon and made it immortal.
I’ve never quite been able to swallow these tall tales the way she does, wholly and reverently.
We spend the rest of the morning carefully trimming around the edges of the fruits until they’re almost perfect little crescents. Finally, nai nai declares them good as new, pops one of them in her mouth. Gerald eagerly follows suit, and soon they’re downing the moon-berries one after another until there’s only one left.
“Isa?” they both look at me, and I pause, can only think about the dirt under our nails and the rabbits’ sour breath. My brother squints like he knows what I’m thinking, but only reaches out and plucks the last strawberry.
The sky is dark when I see nai nai fall onto her knees in the garden a few weeks later, stiff and upright like a sinner praying for salvation. The night air is moist, the trill of nearby cicadas deafening. They hide her grimace and cry of surprise well.
“What’s going on, nai nai?”
“Ah, flowers smell better from here. Don’t you know?” I don’t, but I believe her. Because nai nai never lies. Because nai nai is sure-footed as a lynx and never falls, so this must be the only explanation.
“Come see yourself if you don’t trust me, qin ai de.” My dear.
I hesitate, think of rotten, dying, crawling things in the grass. In my head, Gerald calls me a pussy. So I walk over and lower myself onto my knees until we’re mirroring each other.
But of course she’s right—here, the heady fragrance of the nearby rose bushes threatens to overwhelm me. It mingles with a hundred other scents. Peonies, daffodils, hydrangeas, and other plants I don’t know the name of. Mom tried hard to make this place a home. I breathe in deep, strangely relieved.
Suddenly, nai nai stretches her arms out and falls on her back with a whoop. Her white hair all puffed out on the dirt and her arms sweeping over the earth, winglike, turn her into a bird trying to take flight. And it’s somehow the funniest thing I’ve ever seen so I start laughing and can’t stop and I fall backwards too.
Gerald finds us like that, making snow angels in the dirt until I can’t remember why I’m down here. When he reaches down to pull nai nai up, she grips him like a baby. Hard enough that I see
finger-shaped imprints on his skinny forearms afterwards.
My brother gets his nose in a lot of places it shouldn’t be. He was the one who discovered that the family trip to Orlando a few years ago wasn’t just so we could meet Mickey Mouse. That was back when we lived in a Chinatown in New Jersey and mom was a poor grad student waiting tables on the side like all the other poor grad students.
I had been lathering on my fourth layer of sunscreen when mom finally emerged from the hotel bathroom in a crisp white blouse, black blazer, and one of those pencil skirts they wear on lawyer shows. She stretched her rouged lips wide, and Professor Chan made her first appearance. Gerald squinted.
“What’s so important that you’d skip Disney?” He said Disney like it was something holy, and it kind of was. The closest thing we’d experienced was going to the county fair the year before with our fat cousin from China who had eaten deep fried Oreos until she puked. Mom only smiled and said nothing.
My hands were still covered in cotton candy when we returned to the hotel room in the evening. Mom was there, still in her formalwear. She clasped her hands together like a schoolgirl and gushed, gushed about how she was going to be an assistant professor at the local University, how the interview went so well, how we could go to Disney every weekend once we moved here, all in a continuous breath.
But I wasn’t thinking anything except how hard melted sugar was to get off your fingers because how was I supposed to know that on that day, Mother was split in two. That the new one would learn a sitcom laugh and invite old white people over for brunch and read Architectural Digest to build us a white picket fence house in a picket white fence town.
The layers of sunscreen hadn’t worked. My skin peeled off in strips for weeks, just another thing that was no longer Chinese about me.
The flowers are supposed to be shedding their petals already.
It’s the beginning of October, yet they remain pert and cheerful. Somehow it infuriates me, how even nature defies nature here. Mom’s working late again, and Gerald and nai nai are nowhere to be seen. I feel like I should have somewhere to be too, but I don’t.
Nai nai comes home holding a plastic shopping bag with a yellow smiley face and Have a Nice Day! printed on it. I recognize it from the Asian supermarket. She pulls out something hard and vacuum-sealed. Mooncakes—it must be Mid-Autumn festival today. Offers me one tentatively, and I accept.
Zhōng qiū jié kuài lè, we chant, knocking the pastries together. Happy Mid-Autumn festival. This sounds like a lie too, like we’re playing a part. The mooncakes taste exactly how I remember, dusty and flavorless. But what can you expect from the frozen section of some dingy store in America.
Nai nai searches for summer in December. At breakfast, she suddenly stands up and slides open the screen door. I watch her shuffle past the rose bushes and peonies and daffodils, stopping beside her strawberry patch. Right now, the plants are bare and stiff, buds tucked into themselves for the winter. She stretches her hands towards the ground and my hands tense as if ready to catch a falling thing. Then she’s searching the tops and bottoms of the plants, each leaf and each stem. As the seconds pass her search grows more frantic.
She returns wild, mutters something like where are my strawberries, must be the rabbits again, little thieves all of them, and I don’t know what scares me more, the manic light in her eyes or the fact that she thinks strawberries should be growing six months past their season. I say it’s okay it’s winter and the rabbits are in their burrows just like the strawberries but they’ll come back next spring and it will all be okay, but it’s just as much for me than her.
“How long has she been gone?” Mom asks, even though she must know because she always asks questions she knows the answer to like that will change the truth.
“Three hours, maybe,” Gerald offers.
“She tell you where she was going?”
“Nah, not really. Maybe the Asian supermarket? Sure she’s okay though.”
Nai nai likes taking afternoon walks like all old people, though what she sees in this rundown shoulder of a neighborhood I’ll never know. Three hours is past the acceptable length of time for any kind of walk, but no one moves. If I close my eyes for a moment, I see her bending over a storm sewer on the way home, admiring a dandelion that has pushed its way through the concrete slats. Blooming against all odds. She will think of her own daughter and how she reminds her of the dandelion. Nai nai is taking the long way home, groceries in the crook of an elbow. Whistling one of those old Chinese tunes she used to sing to me before she said her voice was too old and scratchy for an audience. I see this so clearly that it becomes the truth.
What really happens is this: nai nai can’t find her way home. We find her two streets away waiting on a stone bench like she’s exactly where she means to be, like we’re the ones late to a meeting.
“Mother, there you are,” mom says with her Professor voice, “enjoying the weather, I see.”
Grandma nods like yes, the sun is beautiful today, like she hadn’t just forgotten a route worn old and tired by her own feet. But I’ve been learning how to catch things like the trembling in her legs as she slides off the bench, so I’m not fooled again.
She’s a good liar. I wonder if she always has been. I wonder if her feet have always dangled above the sidewalk like this, if her eyes have always hung milky with cataracts. If, after all this, I’m the blind one.
The little things hit me. How clean it smells—the air is thick with it, this strange pine-tree-Clorox-first-winter scent. The squeaking of the floor as I step foot into the lobby. The pearly smile ‘Hi My Name is Amber’ flashes at us from behind a tall receptionist’s counter.
“Hello, we're here for Deborah Chan.”
We follow Amber down a few long corridors, colorful posters flitting at us from both sides. Discover Your Inner Yogi, one declares, while another trumpets that Friday Bingo is the New Black. Finally, Amber stops in front of one of the dozens of doors lining the hallway. Opens it, and there she is. There’s a single thin metal bed in the center of the room, and my grandma is tucked into it like one of the china dolls she gave me when I was younger. The reception lady walks right up next to the bed, pats the top of her head. Deborah has been doing just great, haven’t we, Amber says, but I can barely hear her. Mother insisted on a new name for nai nai when she determined Rui An was too much of a mouthful for certain tongues to twist around. But hearing it coming out of this woman’s mouth just makes me think of PTSA moms and crocheting, when nai nai deserves secret gardens and rabbits in the moon.
“Well, I’ll be in the lobby,” Amber says.
Nai nai looks the same. Her hands cupping each other like doves over the sheets. Hair just as white and wild as when we last saw her. But I suddenly can’t think of anything to say.
“Don’t you look cozy,” Mom says, “how are you?”
“Good. Good food here but not enough Chinese.”
“Yeah I know you can’t go long without your jiaozi. You should teach Isa how to make them next time! Wow, you got a nice view.”
“Best in whole building.” Nai nai’s smile is proud.
They’re both avoiding the elephant squeezing all the air out of the room. If I have to listen to a second more of this I might explode just like a water balloon. Nai nai shows us around— the swimming pool, the garden, the cafeteria. All of it smells the same. Old people and Axe. And through it all, a terrible offness pervades the air, slipping in our noses and behind our collarbones.
The car ride back is silent but for mother’s animated babbling about the weather and how she would also like a vacation like nai nai, the lucky bastard.
“Just say she has dementia,” Gerald says venomously, “I mean everyone goes batshit crazy at some point. Part of life, right?” Mother recoils like a slingshot, and I am sickly satisfied.
The strawberries are the worst part. Rabbits in the juice, rabbits in the moon. Summer is a reminder of what we lost. In the Chinese tales, the gods always reveal themselves to the deserving in their darkest of times. So where is her immortality, her jade prince, her palace in the clouds? Maybe Florida stomped it out like it stomped everything else out. Instead, we will watch her skin curdle and mind bend into itself until she forgets her own name and all the stupid stories that couldn’t save her.
When mother’s colleagues come over for brunch again, neither Gerald nor I bring up going outside. I am a porcelain girl to mother’s perfect porcelain woman. Even if we tried, I don’t think either of us could manage anything more. Besides, there is nothing worth going out into the sickly heat for. Let the little beasts glut themselves on fruit until they swell and burst. Let the roses grow a wall around the garden so thorny that they poison themselves.
Nicole Li is a rising high school senior at Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China. Her writing has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the New York Times, and can be found in the Eunoia Review and Polyphony Lit, among others. She enjoys making lists, discovering new podcasts, and petting other people's cats. She hopes magic finds you today.