Some girls gave blowjobs in the bathroom stall, and some girls were star basketball players, but I had no distinguishing traits in high school. Even AJ, who lived in ratty sweaters and booed during pep rallies, had the distinction of being an outsider. Though I managed a high level of mediocrity in my classes and extracurriculars, these merits were attributed to some other incarnation of the Studious Asian Girl that cycled through campus. Paradoxically, the more the SAG achieved, the less able people were to tell her avatars apart: my biology teacher congratulated me on placing in the Science Olympiad, though I’d never joined the club.
In my sophomore year, I began writing for the student paper and secured a bit part in the fall production of A Chorus Line. That was how I met Andrew Yang. He bookended my day: a scrawny kid who wore a uniform of cheap square frames, scuffed Vans, and a red windbreaker, Andrew was in my morning journalism class and showed up at nightly rehearsals as a member of stage crew. I paid him no attention except to note his red jacket, which I dismissed as a gimmick. I hadn’t recognized that I was trying to do the same thing—make a name for myself—though I didn’t identify with the aspiring journalists or the self-serious thespians that ran those circles. Mostly, I had been grateful for the excuse to stay at school. I was tired of watching my mother suffer.
She was a waitress, and it wore her out. She would come home with her face a mask of exhaustion and watch television until it was time for sleep, an impossible berth unless she was drunk. It had been this way for some time. In the eight years since my father’s affair had come to light, much had changed: my mother and I had moved into a new apartment; I had eroded contact with him down to the telephone, calls as rare as an elusive bird’s; and she had progressed to drinking two bottles of wine a night. The ritual seemed more insistent now. It was a grotesque molting process that evacuated the person and left behind her sallow skin. Ashamed, terrified, I told her that I needed to put in extracurricular work—after all, it was what college admissions officers would want to see. I told myself that it wasn’t a lie because it was part of the truth.
It was two days before the show’s opening night. The director, Mr. Baker, and the dance instructor, Ms. Sharif, had been growing shrill with panic, keeping us until nine, ten o’clock. We were on the second run-through of the night.
Jittery piano chords tumbled across the stage, and we ran to our places.
“Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch—again!” barked the actor who was playing the choreographer. “Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch—again!”
In the second row, off to the side, I flung myself into the steps. My movements were broad and coarse, but I could at least keep up with the music. Ms. Sharif stood in front of the stage trying to communicate with wide unblinking eyes and upward jerks of her chin. Seated in the middle of the theater, Mr. Baker tapped his pen against his clipboard, then turned to shout at the control room. “Greg, are you sleeping up there? Lights! Lights!”
Warm yellow light draped over us. Laura Lansky in the front row tossed her dark curls, pivoted, and floated stage left with her arms outstretched as if drawn by magnets. She had a ten minute solo number; the clarity and strength of her voice and movements made up for the muddled acting. As I spun, I caught a glimpse of our bodies in the mirrored backdrop, a swarm of legs sloughing off the sawdust that had settled on the black stage.
“God, I hope I get it,” we sang. Blue and red lights flooded the air. “I hope I get it. How many people does he need?”
I wasn’t nervous to perform. For one thing, I was just a background dancer with three appearances. For another, I was confident that no one I cared about would be at the showings. There was a thrilling aspect to being anonymous on stage, like traveling alone in a city and feeling as much a part of the infrastructure as the colored beat of the traffic lights and the crisscrossing trolleys. I did that sometimes—caught the train into San Francisco and wandered around, though most of the time AJ would meet me, and we’d watch the drum circles in Golden Gate Park until it filled with fog.
After the opening number I had some time to kill, so I sat in the front row and started on my algebra homework. The others sat in clumps around me, propping their feet on seat backs and ripping open bags of chips. A thud came from backstage and sent everyone into titters. There was a giddiness at dress rehearsal that had to do with the blaring music, the dark theater, the spandex costumes and smears of greasy makeup. I paused to watch the show and lost my place in the problem set.
“Devin has such a good voice,” someone commented.
“I want his legs,” another girl answered. “He has, like, supermodel legs.”
Then Andrew Yang rustled up the aisle in his red windbreaker, flanked by two other boys in stage crew. He leaned across a chair back and said, “We’re going to get some food, anyone wanna come?”
There were several takers. As people filed towards the exit at the back of the theater, he beckoned me with a swoop of his arm. We sat on opposite sides of the room in journalism and didn’t talk here except in passing, so I was surprised at his invitation. “I brought a sandwich,” I said, kicking my backpack to indicate where it was. It was potato bread, peanut butter, and strawberry preserves, same as the one I’d had for lunch. I made them two at a time in the mornings.
“Okay. Don’t tell Mr. Baker we left,” he said, and winked. The gesture was as bright as a camera flash. No one had ever winked at me before.
I glanced at the director, who was massaging his chin and fixated on the stage. When I looked back, Andrew was already halfway up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
The television was on when I got home, but my mother was peering at something in her lap. I slung my backpack over a chair and watched her draw a sewing needle towards her face. Her yellow plastic sewing box rested on the couch beside her, baring a spiny pincushion. An empty glass and a bottle of wine were on the coffee table. When she glanced at me, her glasses bearing the bright reflections of the television screen, it was with the scowl she had been directing at her project.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I tore my uniform.” She held up the black collared shirt so that I could see the rip by the shoulder. The needle twitched on its black thread. “On a shelf in the kitchen.”
I had been in the restaurant’s kitchen before. The tiles were slick with grease, and dead insects studded the strips of flypaper that hung from the ceiling. The chefs had black hair matted to their ears with sweat. When she had first started at the restaurant, she’d said, “Well, it’s tiring work, and the customers bark at you. No wonder your father went looking for comfort when he was waiting tables.” And then she had laughed and rubbed her neck.
My mother filled her glass and had a swallow before bending back over her stitches. She was working by the lamp on the side table, but the rest of the living room was dark.
“Why don’t you have this on?” I flipped the switch. Her body shot out of the shadow: hunched back, short hair dyed an oxblood red.
“Oh, it wasn’t on? I was wondering why it was so hard to see.” There were pink blotches on her cheeks and her breastbone from the alcohol. She shook her head and pawed at the stitches, mumbling, “This isn’t right. This isn’t right at all.”
I sat beside her and took the shirt into my lap. The tear was the length of a finger and ran along the seam. It should have been an easy fix, but her stitches were erratic and puckered the fabric.
“I can do this,” I said.
She was silent as I snipped the threads and started over. The television cut from a grim anchorman to a commercial for furniture polish. Her nails clicked against the glass. I didn’t know what was worse: her soggy presence after she’d been drinking, or the white fog that replaced her face when she couldn’t get to sleep. She said that nighttime was when every anxiety came true, over and over, in her head. We never addressed her problems except through glancing confrontations. One night, while she was in the bathroom, I had emptied her glass of wine in the kitchen sink. When she had come back, she’d filled it with vodka and ice. And just last week she’d remarked that her pants were growing too tight, giving her stomach cramps.
“Well, what do you expect?” I’d said. “You drink every night, and all you do at work is stuff yourself with garbage.” For some reason I could never communicate my concern or dread—only my anger.
“Was it busy today?” I asked.
“Hai hao,” she said through a yawn. She spoke at a plodding pace. “Things were pretty quiet, but nothing went right. I was mixing up orders, people complained about the food. ‘This is too salty, this is too cold. This is chicken, I said beef.’ And the cooks in there, they’re no good.”
I wove the head of the needle back and forth through the fabric. On TV, a flurry of animated sparkles restored a dirty wooden banister to its original mahogany glow. My mother drew a hissing breath and exhaled, “They burn everything. They don’t wash their hands. Hua Long has a tattoo on his hand, but it’s so smudged that it looks like a birthmark. Only gangsters have tattoos. Have you met him? I can’t put my finger on it, but I don’t trust him.”
“I’ve never met him, I don’t think.”
“No, no, you wouldn’t have. Then I got into an argument with my boss.”
She laughed. “He said I was taking too many bathroom breaks.”
Something cold and slippery plunged down my throat, as if I had swallowed a pellet of ice. I wondered if she could be sneaking drinks at work. I’d seen a flask on a kitchen rack, had attributed it to one of the cooks. I willed the idea to dissolve. “That’s ridiculous.”
“That’s—that’s what I said.” She twisted to lean against the armrest and drew her legs onto the couch. Her toes edged up to my thigh and stayed there. That was how I knew she was drunk. She had come from a family that didn’t prolong touch. From my early childhood, I remembered grasping picture books in my father’s lap, and giving him back massages with my feet while he lay like a seal on the floor, but I had no memories of even holding her hand, though I knew it must have happened. Her caresses were perfunctory, prescribed like pills. I used to pretend to fall asleep on the couch so that she would have to carry me to bed. Careful not to wake me, she would coax my limbs into pajamas and tuck me under the blankets with unspeakable tenderness.
“But I think it was an excuse,” she continued. “He wanted to talk to me in the storage room while I was getting more takeout boxes. He said if I didn’t work harder, there would be consequences.”
I waited. “And what did you say?”
Her bleary eyes flicked back and forth. “I didn’t say anything. I left as quick as I could.”
I could tell that she was done talking about it, so I held out the shirt to her.
“Good. Now the overstitch.” Seeing me pause, she put down her glass, scooted closer to me, and demonstrated how to run the thread over the top of the seam. “See? You should know how to do this. Makes it stronger.” She left the rest to me and returned to her previous position, closing her eyes.
I finished the stitch and trimmed the excess thread. My mother’s eyes were still closed as I latched the lid back onto the yellow sewing box. The lines that radiated across her slightly parted lips were stained red. As I watched, her face relaxed, and her fingers slackened around the wine glass balancing on the cushion. Fear roared past me like a freight train. Suddenly, her nodding head snapped upright. She peered at me and said, “Is it fixed?”
“Yeah.” I folded the shirt and set it on the coffee table. Then I mustered my courage and asked, “Hey, Mom, do you think I could have ten dollars?”
This roused her. “What for?”
“For dinner tomorrow. At rehearsal.”
“I’ll pack you a dinner. I have leftovers from the restaurant.”
“But we’re all going, a group of us.” This had worked when I was much younger. Panicked about money as she was, she had nevertheless tried to keep me from feeling like an utter alien. “We’re celebrating the start of the show.”
“Yes, the start of the show. Then you celebrate during the show, and after the show.” She rose and lumbered to the kitchen, clapping the glass on the counter. The skin between her eyebrows accordioned in irritation. “You can’t just do everything you want to do. When I was your age I came straight home after school because I took care of the house. If I didn’t buy groceries and make dinner, then we didn’t eat.”
“Okay,” I said. “Never mind.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever see the day when I can rely on you,” she spat. Her eyes were watery, the skin around them inflamed.
“I said never mind!” I dug the nail of my index finger into the pad of flesh on my palm to keep from spouting something more, and it worked. She dragged her purse across the counter and rummaged for her wallet. Sighing, she counted out the damp bills and left them doubled on the countertop. “That’s ten,” she said, “plus an extra five so you don’t have to keep asking. If only I’d been so pampered by my mother.”
It seems impossible that a wink and an invitation could enthrall me, but that was all it took. The next day at school, part of my awareness followed the red windbreaker around the classroom as though he were north and I, the trembling needle. Now he was tossing a pen into the garbage can; now he was foraging through the filing cabinet. At lunch, as AJ and I shared a concrete bench in the quad, I wondered where Andrew fit in: was he at the Amnesty International meeting announced through the intercom, getting stoned in a senior’s car, or scribbling down answers to a homework assignment? Nothing I came up with seemed likely.
“I’ve seen this before,” said AJ, picking up her soda, one finger outstretched and capped with green gum. “It’s the White Rabbit effect. He poked his head out of the rabbit hole, and now you’re curious as hell what’s down there.”
AJ had started dating in fifth grade while I had never been kissed, so I usually deferred to her opinion on boys.
“I feel so stupid,” I said. “I don’t know anything about him.”
“It has nothing to do with him. You coulda been tapped on the shoulder by some guy whose face was just one giant zit and you’d have the same reaction. You’re totally jacked up on hormones, dude.” She poked the gum back into her mouth. “What’s he look like, anyway? Is he cute?”
“He’s okay. Kind of skinny and dorky.”
AJ shimmied the cardigan off her shoulders. “Ooh, just your type!”
She was wrong, though—I didn’t have a type. Or if I did, it wasn’t Andrew with his baby face and glasses, his jeans that dribbled over the tops of his sneakers.
After the last bell had rung, I reported to the theater dressing room. Girls were pulling on their nude tights and dance leotards, leaning over the makeup counter to fluff their eyelashes. Snapping elastic punctuated the chatter. I struggled into my turquoise bodysuit and turned to appraise my butt in the mirror. Except for a lean year in the first grade, I had always been full-bodied; I used to hunch over my aching breasts until my mother began slapping my sloped shoulders with a ruler. Someone edged in front of my reflection to twist her hair into a bun, her white hands flitting overhead like two attendant seagulls.
An outdoor breezeway separated the dressing room from the backstage area. Andrew and a couple other kids knelt over the backdrop for the finale, when all the dancers performed high kicks with canes and glittering top hats. They were gluing plastic gemstones to a golden panel. He didn’t see me; he was performing a crude belly dance with two emeralds held up to his nipples. Normally, it would have made me roll my eyes, but today I forgave it as boyish clowning.
I submitted to the ceremony of the last dress rehearsal. Energies were high, but there was something else, too: a seriousness with which we waited backstage and burst forth on our cues. Mr. Baker and Ms. Sharif sat side-by-side in the front row and whispered in each other’s ears. (Students would make up stories about their clandestine romance, professing that they’d seen them making out in a darkened teachers’ lounge.) After the first run through, the cast sat scattered across the stage to wait for our notes. Mr. Baker always did this with gravitas, reading the clipboard in a gray sweater and bow tie, crossing the notes off with extravagant swipes of the pen. Laura Lansky lowered herself to a cross-legged seat beside me. She grinned and said, “That was so on point, don’t you think?”
Flattered that she sought my opinion, I said, “Yeah, it looked pretty good.”
“I’ve never had such a big part, I’m so nervous.” She spread the hem of her red wrap skirt over her knees.
“But once you’re on for real, you’ll forget about all that.”
“Okay, yeah, you’re right. I wish you had a bigger part! You’re good! Why didn’t they give you the part of Connie Wong? You’re Chinese, right?”
She gave me a sympathetic look as if to say I was robbed. Trying to retreat from the conversation, I looked over her head at the propped double-doors opening onto the breezeway. Andrew sauntered past with a gaggle of stage crew members, presumably on his way to dinner. I felt a beat of disappointment, and then Mr. Baker began speaking.
In a defiant mood, I set out for the strip mall after the conclusion of notes, determined to spend the cash that I had whittled out of my mother. It was a short walk through the surrounding neighborhood. Early evening gave the houses a drawn and sullen look. I had tugged on a jean jacket, but beneath that I still wore a dance costume, and a car honked as it jiggled over the asphalt. Jerking to attention, I saw a carnivorous flash of teeth before it drove away. It made me feel mean, which gave me some satisfaction. I kicked a soda cup into the base of a tree and stretched my legs as long as I could.
The shopping center by the school had a grocery store, a Laundromat, a bagel shop, a video store, a psychic, and a smattering of fast food restaurants with teenagers draped over the patio tables. Entering a Burger King and joining the line, I smugly collected the curious glances that peppered my body while I read the menu. Then I watched myself shift from foot to foot in the surveillance video. To my surprise, Andrew in a gray jacket walked into the grainy footage, his face also turned up to the screen. I looked to my left and found him standing a few feet away, hands rammed into his pockets.
He gestured with a flap of his elbow. “They just started heading back to campus. You want some company?”
I shrugged. “You don’t have to stay.”
“No sandwich today?”
Masquerading my grimace as a smile, I realized how transparent my timing was; now he would know that I had arranged to come. “I didn’t—I ran out of time this morning.”
“Yeah, zero period is killer,” he said, moving closer.
I ordered at the cash register. “I’m used to it now,” I said. I folded the receipt with my number on it into smaller and smaller squares. “So…why’d you decide to take journalism? It doesn’t seem like you like writing for the paper.”
“Yeah? Where’d you get that from?”
“Um, sometimes you put your head on the desk and, like, fall asleep. And you’ll go to the bathroom for twenty minutes at a time.”
He zipped up the jacket. “You calling me a slacker?”
He smiled, the cheekbones becoming even more pronounced in his thin face. “I took it because my mom was on my ass about looking serious for schools. I guess that’s a stereotype. My parents met at Stanford, so it’s kind of where me and my brother have to go. I’m hoping he doesn’t get in. That’ll make it easier on me.”
“Is that why you’re doing stage crew, too?”
His head shrank back as though someone had pulled his hair. “No, I dig stage crew. I get to hang out with my friends and build stuff. I dunno—why are you doing theater?”
“Similar reasons,” I said, and hoped he would stop there.
When my order was up, he carried the tray to a booth of padded puce vinyl while I filled my cup at the soda machine. The gesture confused me; it was like the wink, bold and unequivocal. Much later, he’d tell me that he hadn’t meant to do it—he’d felt drunk. He watched me eat my meal from across the plastic tabletop, fidgeting with the discarded straw wrapper. With a fingertip, I let fall a drop of water on the cinched body and made it worm in both directions. Over the next half hour, I didn’t come to regret my arbitrary crush: Andrew was thoughtful, talkative, funny—confident for being so nerdy.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you since that one day in journalism,” he confessed.
I squinted. “What day?”
“You were mad,” he said, “because Sawyer made these cuts on your story without checking with you first. And you were standing over his desk, pointing down at the paper, ranting about how now the story didn’t make sense, and he shouldn’t have changed ‘menagerie’ to ‘zoo.’ It was hella funny.”
I scraped a fry through the remaining ketchup on the serving tray. “Yeah, I remember that. I guess it was a little overdramatic.”
“No, it was awesome. Sawyer looked like he wanted to cry.”
“And all this time I thought you slept through zero period.”
He made a bouquet of fries and swallowed it whole. “No, I’m listening.”
It was well past dark when rehearsals ended. The school parking lot, lit up in sickly yellow circles, held only a half dozen cars. Cutting across it towards the bus stop, hands tucked under my armpits, I was caught in a pair of high beams that flashed on and off. I heard Andrew’s voice call, “Hey Kathleen, need a lift?”
Suppressing a smile, I turned on my heels and walked to the passenger side of the sedan. Andrew was leaning out of the window, gesturing over his shoulder with a thumb. “My brother just got off work, you want a ride home?” A serious, square-faced version of him sat behind the wheel.
“That’d be nice, yeah.”
I slid into the backseat. The car seemed new: the stiff smell of leather, clean floor mats.
“Kathleen, this is my brother Mike.”
Mike nodded at me in the rear view mirror as he edged the car onto the street.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said. “Is this a new car? It’s nice.”
“No, he’s just anal about keeping it clean,” said Andrew. “Hey, where do you live?”
“Macarthur? And 35th?”
“You got that, Mike?”
His brother’s voice was deep and expressionless. “I know where I’m going.”
I held the backpack in my lap and toyed with the zippers. It felt important that I was in an upperclassman’s car with a boy who was interested in me, and though long silences crowded the space like a languid flock of balloons, I endured them as part of the rite. I was fifteen and curious to see what I would do next.
When we pulled up to my building—an ugly, rectangular, two-story walkup—I saw my mother’s car parked diagonally in the driveway. The front tires trespassed on the strip of grass that separated us from the neighbors. A cold misgiving came over me.
“Sweet parking job,” said Andrew.
“Thanks again,” I said, swinging my backpack on as I exited the car. “I’ll see you tomorrow!”
“Hey, what’s wrong?” he said, but I was already at the stairs, which rang metallically as I bounded up to the apartment.
I thrust the key in the door, paused, and eased it open. This time, all the lights were on. The living room was empty, though my mother’s purse sagged on the floor, and the shoes that were normally lined up against the wall were sprayed across the tile entryway.
I didn’t have to go far to find her: my mother was in the hallway, lying on her side. She still wore her work uniform of black dress pants and polo shirt, the one I’d repaired last night. Her face was hidden in the crook of her elbow. She might have been sleeping. Pressing one hand to the wall for support, I said, “Mom?” When she didn’t respond, I bent down and shook her shoulder. “Mom, go to bed.”
Her tacky eyelids peeled apart, and her black pupils rolled back and forth across my face. There was no recognition; hers could have been the shrouded eyes of a rhinoceros. She propped herself up on an elbow and, with a slimy, croaking noise, released a stream of acrid liquid from her mouth.
“No, not here,” I said. “Qi lai, qi lai.”
Pulling her up by the arm, I managed to get my mother on her knees before she lurched forward again and began crawling to the bathroom.
“Hey, is everything okay?” said Andrew’s voice.
I spun around. I couldn’t control the look on my face. “Who said you could be in here? Fucking leave!” When he didn’t move, transfixed by my mother’s progress on her hands and knees, I stomped towards him.
“Sorry,” he said, hurrying towards the door. “I shouldn’t’ve—”
I slammed the door and turned the lock. A half-sob, a wet syllable, left my throat, and then I rushed back to the bathroom.
My mother clung to the toilet bowl, her heavy breaths and garbled sounds ringing against the porcelain. Fear made me rigid. I wanted to leave her, to hide in my room until she was someone I recognized, but I knelt on the tile and rubbed her back. Swaying, she tightened her grip on the toilet. A strand of mucous hung from her bottom lip.
After a few minutes, she said indistinctly, “Go away.” My hand stopped its progress; I was surprised to hear her speak. “I don’t need your help.”
I resumed tracing a circle with my palm. Having a goal made the situation more manageable. “You’ll feel better once you get it all up.”
“I’ll handle it—don’t touch me.” She threw my hand away.
“Just let me—”
“No!” She tried to pull herself upright by the rail on the shower door but only yanked the bath towel to the floor. Frosted glass trembled on its metal track. She turned to me, the features smeared unintelligibly across her face. “Let me—let me be,” she insisted, but I kept my hands on her shoulders and positioned her over the toilet.
“Do it now, or you’ll get it all over the bed.”
She clapped a hand against the upright toilet seat and said in a hollow voice, “I want to go home.”
“You are home. You’re right here at home.”
“I want to go back,” she said, and I understood she meant Shanghai. Kneeling over her, I could see the top of her head and the bright scalp under the hair, flakes of dandruff caught in the follicles. “Why am I being punished? I do my work, I don’t bother anybody.” She drew a shuddering breath and growled, “Could you please just stop touching me!”
I took my hands off her back, but I didn’t leave.
“There’s punishment for an unmarried woman. There’s always bad news coming. You understand that, don’t you? Listen to me,” she said, twisting to look at my face. “It’s going to get worse. Sooner or later, it’s going to get worse. You idiot, have you let anyone touch you?”
“What are you talking about? No one’s touched me.”
“Don’t lie!” She gripped my forearm.
“I’m not lying,” I said, trying to wrench it away.
“You don’t listen. You don’t come home.” Her voice was a low croak, and her breath was sharp with bile. “You’re bad, you’re bad.”
I couldn’t pry her fingers off. Her nails dug into the flesh. “You’re out of your mind,” I said. “You need to finish up here and go to bed.”
“You,” she said, enunciating each word as best she could, “are the reason why I’m here, why I have to go to that restaurant and face that man every day. Without you, I’d have a chance at the life I wanted. And look how you treat me.”
My eyes and throat felt coarse with salt. “You’re an ugly drunk, Mom.”
“I have an obligation to tell you the truth.”
Finally, I tore my arm away, and her nails scored the skin with white trails. “If it’s true, then you shouldn’t have had me at all!”
“How would I know I didn’t want a child,” she said, “until I had one?”
I stared at her until her slack face swung back over the toilet, and her back convulsed, neck straining with the vehemence of what came up.
That night, in a dream, I wove through the black woods, chasing a light that drifted between trees like a lamp on a passing boat. It led me to a clearing where the moon was setting. The luminous, cratered surface sank into the grass, making no sound, and I realized that it was the backdrop from the musical. The stage crew had scraped off the cheap gold paint, the plastic gemstones. Invisible dancers began to project their shadows across the moon and the trees, deepening the darkness. Intent on stopping them, I pointed a gun at the ghoulish figures, but I couldn’t figure out how to fire it; it was a weapon out of a science fiction novel, silver and gleaming, outfitted with impossible triggers and switches. Engraved on the surface, over and over, were the words I say what I see, I say what I see.
I woke up to find my mother in the bed. She was sitting against the headboard, staring ahead with the comforter pulled up to her waist. For a moment she bled into the dream— inscrutable mother, unfathomable gun—and then I recognized my bedroom and remembered the contours of the night before. My mother looked down and saw that I was awake. I sensed that she didn’t remember what she’d said, so I tried not to remember, either.
“I quit my job,” she said. She chewed the inside of her cheek. “I’m not going in today.”
Light illuminated the streaks on the window. I closed my eyes, wanting to slide back into sleep. After a moment I dragged myself into a sitting position beside her.
“What happened?” I asked. “Did you drive home drunk?”
“Your shirt…you didn’t tear it on a kitchen shelf, did you?”
She shook her head. Silence yawned between us, a sparse yellow landscape.
“It was your manager,” I said.
My mother nestled deeper into the blanket. “He found me in the storage room, and he kissed me. I couldn’t believe it. He’d always look and make comments, but this—and when I snapped at him, he grabbed me by the shoulder. I almost couldn’t get away.” As she spoke, I tried to imagine the manager, whose hand I had shaken once, who had seemed so innocuously boring with eyes that drooped at the outer corners like teardrops threatening to fall off his face—I tried to imagine him folding himself around my mother and planting his lips on her neck and felt horror spread through every capillary. She described the next night, how he had found her in the office and pawed her beast. “He threatened me by saying he knew about the beers I stole at work—because, Kathleen, I do—” Abruptly, she stopped talking as though someone had put her on mute. But her shoulders were shaking.
I leaned over to put an arm across her, and she gripped it for support. I couldn’t remember the last time we had embraced like this. I could feel her wet coughs in my own throat.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t say that. Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It’s so pathetic. I’m supposed to be the adult.” As if reminded of the fact, my mother nudged my arm away. She lifted the blanket to reveal her bottom half, clothed in nude briefs, and slid her feet to the ground. Then she retrieved her glasses from the bedside table and put them on, blinking at the window. A bird flew past the building, its shadow skating across the room.
It was Saturday. I was missing the afternoon preview of the musical; by this time, I should have been in costume and finishing with my vocal, physical, and facial warm-ups, alternating between terrifying “lion face” and wincing “lemon face.” Instead, we spent the day on the couch: my mother scanned the classifieds for jobs while I flipped through a fantasy novel, absorbing nothing. When it got dark, she didn’t pour herself a glass of wine, though I could hear her thinking about it. It was such a nice day aside from the attendant trauma that I committed myself to being absent for the opening night performance, too.
I hadn’t expected to be missed, but an hour before show time, Andrew rapped at the door.
He stood on the landing in all black, the uniform for stage crew members. I morosely noted the fact that his black clothes made him invisible.
“Hey,” he said. “I said I’d come fetch you. Mr. Baker’s pissed.”
“Really? I didn’t think he’d notice.”
“Of course he’d notice. You’re one of the best dancers up there!”
I let my features slump.
“Too much? Okay, and you’re strategically placed in front of Jacqueline, who has no idea what she’s doing.”
“Who is that?” My mother approached the door, but stood a few feet back.
“Mom, this is my friend Andrew.”
She was too far away for a handshake, so Andrew rubbed his chest with one hand and then raised it in a wave. “Hi, Mrs. Cheng. Nice to meet you.” He gave no indication that he’d seen her careening on all fours, and I felt a surprising burst of appreciation for him. No one knew what to say. Andrew broke the silence with “Well, if you’re coming, you gotta come now.”
“Ni yao chu na li ah?”
“I’m supposed to perform tonight,” I explained to my mother.
“What! You not tell me,” she said in English, for Andrew’s benefit.
“My brother’s waiting in the car,” he said.
My mother and I scrambled to collect our things, and then hastened down the stairwell. Andrew brushed my back with his palm and said under his breath, “Everything okay?”
I nodded. Behind me, my mother complained, “So stupid, you not tell me about play! All your practice for nothing!” I couldn’t believe it; she would see me perform after all.
Andrew’s brother Mike had the radio tuned to an erratic techno beat. As we pulled away from the apartment and Andrew pumped his fist in the air, I let out a laugh that soured as it died, and my mouth contorted to mimic the mask of comedy, the mask of tragedy. A great loneliness had broken for my mother and me, but I couldn’t see what would come take its place. I couldn’t know the wavering future: my mother would get a job at the Macy’s perfume counter; she would quit drinking, twice; Andrew and I would kiss and squirm in the very backseat that I now kneaded with my palms. All I knew with certainty was that by the end of the night, I would be advancing upstage toward a dark and enraptured audience, bouncing against the golden backdrop with each high, exuberant kick.