The Chinese congregation repeated in their heads the mantra their parents had taught them when they were younger: don’t stare. I thought it was rude for them to pretend that they weren’t looking through the corners of their eyes because I could see that everyone was. Before my mother could stop me, I turned my body in the pew and saw her.
She walked in late, her frizzy black hair tied up in two pigtails that pointed upwards like antennas. An older woman guided her with her hand clamped around the girl’s elbow. The girl gripped one hand over her ear and rapidly slapped it with her palm as if she were trying to knock the water out of her head after swimming. I cringed at the sound of skin slapping against skin and the warbling of her voice as she laughed. It reminded me of seagulls at the beach and their cries when they accidentally flew too far away from their flock.
My mother told me later that the girl’s name was Cherry. She had just moved here from China with her mother. She was going to be a new eighth grader at my middle school in September. I was in seventh grade. I imagined Cherry standing in the blue halls of my school, following me with her mouth gaped open and globs of spit dribbling on my shoulder as she breathed. I imagined she’d watch my every move like a rat.
During my first week of school, I heard a squeak over the loudspeaker as a woman monotonously called me to the school office. As I waited, I noticed the news story on the old, squared TV sitting in the corner. “BOY THROWN IN DRYER AT FOSTER HOME.” The news showed a clip of the dryer, the sound of banging in the background.
I looked up. A woman was standing at the door. She was short, and her stomach fat spilled out of from the bottom of her cream-buttoned top. The tag of her pants was flipped upside down on the side of her waist. I could tell that she was the type of woman who never paid complete attention to someone, but rather was always doing two things at once and never well enough.
“Jenny, is it?” she asked. “I’ve heard that you are someone who is … now how do I say this.” She breathed wetly in between every couple words as if she had phlegm coating the inside of her throat. “I’ve heard that you are multicultural.” She paused and looked pointedly at me.
“I’m so sorry dear, not multicultural. That’s not what I meant at all. Oh, what’s the word? That you maybe speak a different language with Mom and Dad at home, besides English of course.”
I watched her finger her pen nervously, flipping the cap off and back on. With each flip, she accidentally drew a dark line across her thumb so that her finger looked like the drawing of a 2-year-old.
“My parents speak Chinese to me. I speak English.”
The fat underneath her chin jiggled as she smiled, stretching her face into something that reminded me of a distorted Elmo. “Oh, yes, of course honey. That makes perfect sense. So, if I understand correctly, you know Mandarin then?”
“Well, excellent!” She clapped her hands together happily and began walking towards the door. I looked around at the office. It was minimal with only a table and two chairs. With no one around, I followed her into the next room.
Cherry sat at a table, her fingers clutching a book I remembered reading in first grade: Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type.
The woman rapped her knuckles against Cherry’s table to get her attention. Cherry’s head jerked upwards, her eyes wide. “There’s someone I would like you to meet!” The woman enunciated each syllable and stretched her lips on every word. Each word dripped and sounded like it was laced with sugar.
Cherry looked at me with lost eyes. The woman hit the table again. “Cherry,” she said slower. “Look, I brought a friend!” She smiled at me and gestured encouragingly at Cherry. “Say hi, dear,” she said.
I waved and gave a half-smile the way I had seen my mother do to homeless people who ask for money on the streets. The woman frowned. “Dear, she’ll be able to understand you. She isn’t deaf.”
I stared at her. “I told you. I can only understand Chinese. I can’t speak.”
“Aw honey, this is really not the time to be humble. If you can understand it, you can speak it, so go on.” She patted me on the back encouragingly.
I looked at Cherry. She looked back. “Ni hao,” I said.
Cherry’s entire body tensed and her yodel-like voice burst out of her mouth with rushed Chinese. It was different from listening to my parents speak. Every word sounded twisted like rope. She grabbed my hands, and I fought the urge to yank them away. She excitedly repeated, “Meimei, meimei, meimei,” chanting it louder and louder each time when I didn’t respond.
The woman who brought me there had retreated to the corner, her eyes on a computer screen. I opened my mouth, then hesitated, unsure of what Cherry wanted. Cherry put her face close to mine so that I could smell her breath. It reminded me of the farm I had once picked strawberries from with my mother: the sour smell of cow manure and the lingering scent of a skunk.
“Meimei, meimei,” she said. Little sister, little sister. She brought my hands up to my chest, maneuvering my hands so that I pointed at myself.
I shook my head. We stared at each other in a standoff, her chanting “meimei” until I wanted to clamp my hands over my ears to block out her whine. I looked down at the holes in her pink Crocs where her purple socks peeked through. By the large clump of sock at the front of her foot, I could tell she had worn the sock backwards. I finally whispered, “Jiejie.” Big sister.
Cherry laughed and released my hands. Happy at her new title of big sister, she stopped her ominous song. Spit dripped down her chin.
On my way out the door, the woman stopped me. She said she would call me to the office a couple times a month in case the special education teacher needed translating for Cherry. Apparently, Cherry’s mother had told them I went to their church, and Cherry needed a Chinese friend. I nodded and walked back to class.
At lunch, my friends Allie and Claire sat in the middle floor of the cafeteria. Where we sat and whom we sat with were the best indicators of our social status. Allie and Claire were the type of girls who acted in all the right ways, but fatally lacked the trait of confidence. Despite their black leggings that hugged their pre-teen curves in just the perfect amount of sluttiness and the little swatch of lip-gloss they applied religiously, they would never be able to venture into the bottom floor of the lunchroom where the popular kids sat. I had always felt as if popular kids had an aura that couldn’t be intentionally gained or lost. The aura was merely something innately owned. Allie and Claire, on the other hand, believed that they lost their chance at popularity because of something they could have done better. I never believed I had a choice in my own popularity. Asians couldn’t be popular unless they weren’t Asian.
I watched Cherry in the lunch line. She was holding a red tray with only one apple on it. She was holding up the line, and the entire eighth grade was waiting behind her for her to choose between a bag of animal crackers and a bag of potato chips. Her teacher was standing nearby.
Allie saw me staring and set down her milk carton mid-sip. “That girl’s in my gym class!” she said.
I tried to ignore the conversation and turned my attention to my tray. Lunch today was tacos. Even though this was the lunch that everyone loved to hate, I adored everything about it. The ground beef and slightly stale corn chips tasted so artificial, perfectly American.
“She is so adorable!” Allie continued. “When Ms. McCormick told us to line up according to our grade, she followed me into my line because she couldn’t remember what grade she was in.”
“Totally,” said Claire. “I saw Taylor Kingston take a picture with her. Apparently, Cherry tried out to be a cheerleader, and Taylor gave her a spot right away, even though it’s the middle of the season.”
I eyed Claire. “She’s autistic.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“What do you think it means?”
Claire picked up a piece of my taco shell and clumps of beef-stained lettuce tumbled out. “Why are you eating this? It smells like farts.”
At the end of the school day, the students either waited outside of the school for their stay-at-home moms to pick them up in their white Jeeps or walked the quarter of the mile to the high school where the buses were. New Glarus was a small town, so our middle school was within walking distance to the single high school and the two elementary schools in the district. My mother would sometimes pick me up and sometimes she wouldn’t. I never knew ahead of time, so after school, I would always scan the roads for her blue van while hesitantly shuffling towards the high school.
Cherry sat alone on a bench next to the road. She saw me near the buses and stood up to wave. “Meimei, meimei!” she said. The kids around me immediately turned. Unsurprised at the source of the noise, they looked away just as quickly.
She made a gathering gesture with her hands. “Come, meimei. Come here!”
I pointed slightly with my thumb towards the high school and mouthed “bus” even though I knew she wouldn’t be able to see me from far away, nor would she understand.
Before Cherry could run across the green lawn towards me, her mother drove by in a used Toyota minivan. Without opening the car door, she told Cherry to get in the car. Cherry’s father would wake up from his nap soon, and her mother needed to prepare dinner for him. Her mother told Cherry to go faster and faster and banged her fist against the side of her car when Cherry continued to wave. Cherry’s mother was loud and impatient, and I felt embarrassed for the both of them until I remembered that no one, except me, would understand their words. To them, they just saw a Chinese girl walking into a Chinese van with a Chinese mother who wasn’t happy, but for all they knew, that could have been because she was Chinese.
My mother also prepared dinner for my father before he came home from work every day. My father didn’t like coming home to an empty dinner table.
“I hate Cherry,” I said that day as I sat down at the kitchen counter. I liked to watch my mother while she cooked.
“Jenny, get me the spinach from the refrigerator.”
I looked inside the refrigerator. All green vegetables looked the same to me. I didn’t know the difference between lettuce and spinach until I went to elementary school, and a white boy made fun of me for calling the lettuce spinach. Before hand, I couldn’t have cared less about what they were called. They had all tasted the same to me.
“I hate her.”
“You need to be nice to her. She has had a very difficult life.” She chopped the spinach with a knife and tossed it into the soup. Each chop echoed through the house like a heartbeat. My mother told me that Cherry’s father wasn’t a nice man and that her mother was a “good woman who did her job well.” Choosing to be the mother of an autistic child is to give oneself over to suffering, she said, especially when you don’t have money and can’t speak English.
My mother had a habit of telling me things I wasn’t supposed to know. I was only in fifth grade when she told me that sex was something that was always on a man’s mind. “It is for men to want and women to give,” she said. She told me I needed to marry a man who would be good to me, but that you never know who a man will become after 20 years of marriage. “People change,” she said, “but never for the better.”
I watched my mom stir-fry spinach in the pan, the oil popping like firecrackers. “Why did they move to America?” I asked.
My mother dropped her voice to a whisper. “In China, autistic children are called ‘children from the stars.’ They cannot go to school or even speak. That is why autism is called the loneliness disorder. Parents suffer alone in China.”
The second time Cherry came to our church, my best Chinese friend Jane spotted her lingering near the snack table after the sermon. Today, we had preserved egg congee, homemade by an older woman in the church we called Aiyi.
“What’s your name?” said Jane in her authentic and accent-free Chinese. My mother always told me to learn from her because my Chinese was littered with American slang and accented Chinese that only I could understand.
Cherry laughed and spit out her name.
I waited for Jane to turn away from Cherry. Jane nodded. “Cool. Come sit with us.”
I followed Jane and Cherry toward our usual room on the far left corner of the church basement. It had previously served as the high school Sunday school room, but the majority of kids stopped coming once they reached 16. They were too old for Jesus, they said.
I sat on the rusted water pipe protruding from the ground. Robert, Jane’s older brother, flopped onto the wooden table in the middle room. His hand spilled over the edge of the table like a limp fish.
Robert arched an eyebrow at Cherry. “So, why Cherry?” he asked.
She cocked her shoulder to her ear and rubbed them against each other. “I liked the taste of the pits.”
Robert nodded knowingly. The four of us stayed together and listened to the Sunday morning pass.
When we left the room, we realized that Cherry wasn’t the only stranger at our church today. White people. They were entering our church in swarms. They stood in circles on the other end, laughing and grinning with their perfectly straight teeth and looking only at each other. I saw a white woman wearing a long yellow sundress bring egg sandwiches with soft bread and platters of cheese. Their coffee with its two creams and four sugars wafted across the room. My friends and I watched from the other end of the church basement, our mouths salivating.
I asked Jane where they had come from. She told me she had heard our Chinese-born pastor had allowed this all-white Church and all-American pastor to rent our church for 10 dollars a month out of the goodness of his heart. We were, after all, brothers in Christ. Jesus didn’t see race, so neither should we.
Yet, when two boys dressed in slacks and white shirts walked across the basement towards the Chinese — toward us — my friends and I huddled in our own little circle. Cherry stood off to the side and watched. We waved our hands in large gestures, laughing and grinning. The taller boy with blond hair approached and held out his hand. It reminded me of a man offering his palm to the bared teeth of a wild, quivering horse.
I shook his hand, pumping it up and down in exaggerated enthusiasm. “Welcome to Madison Chinese Christian Church. We’re excited to have you,” I said. The white boys and their sisters walked back to their side of the church, and I felt a twinge of disappointment when I realized I would never be able to taste the white woman’s egg sandwiches and her platters of cheese. When I turned around to celebrate my victory with my friends, I realized that they, along with Cherry, had gone back into the Sunday school room.
That night, my mother came up from the basement with her hands hovering lightly around her throat. I could see a patch of blue hidden behind her hands. Her sobs croaked, as if she were drowning, gasping for air. She brought her hands to her face and scampered to her bedroom. I followed her. My father was downstairs.
She was on the bed, her body spread like a corpse. I crawled beside her. I tucked my face into her chest and felt the skittering of her heart.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she whispered, her voice like the fractured patterns in glass. “The police will take him away.”
I went downstairs. My father stood in front of the oven. The spinach sizzled in the pan. Dinner was late.
My mother drove me to school the next day. She wore a green turtleneck sweater. “Have a good day,” she called.
At lunch, Allie invited Cherry to sit with us for the first time. Allie asked me to scoot over to make space for Cherry. We had breakfast for lunch. The scrambled eggs tasted like plastic.
“Did you hear that Charlie Matthews is a getting a new Labrador retriever?” asked Claire.
Cherry sipped from her milk carton. When she took her mouth off the spout, milk lingered on the cardboard. It looked wrinkled and pale. “Cute!” she said. She had learned a new word.
Allie set down her fork. “Is it going to be a puppy?”
I stabbed a French toast. Syrup dribbled from the holes.
Claire nodded. “I think so. Isn’t that adorable, Jenny?”
“Dogs bark,” I said. I cleaned my tray and walked to class. Cherry watched me.
Although Cherry continued to sit with us at lunch, I avoided talking to her without the buffer of Allie and Claire. The next time I talked to Cherry alone was nearly three months later, the day before Christmas break. My teacher had organized a “Winter Celebration.” She lined the classroom with paper snowflakes and the fluff that falls from couch cushions.
A squeak came over the loudspeaker, and I was called to the office. Cherry sat in a chair too short for her legs. The woman I met months before stood to greet me. She wore a red pantsuit stretched tight across her hips, and her lips were colored the same shade.
“Honey, how good to see you. Now, how have you been?” I picked up a paper clip resting on the receptionist’s desk. I untwisted the paper clip until it was a crooked strip of metal.
“Excellent. So, I just want you to ask Cherry a really simple question. Can you do that? Can you ask her where the scratch on her cheek came from? It’s just a little one. You can barely even see it. Do you think you can do that?” She licked her lips, pushing her lipstick to a clump in the corner of her mouth.
The pink scratch reached across Cherry’s right cheek to the bridge of her nose. It wasn’t large, but it wasn’t little, either. As I watched, she rubbed her fist against her eye, rubbing the sleep gunk away.
I took the seat next to her, and she looked up from the table. I prepared the Chinese words in my head, knowing I needed to get the words right. I knew there wasn’t room for any mistakes. “Who hit you?” I asked in Chinese. I paused briefly. I was afraid Cherry wouldn’t be able to understand my Chinese with its incorrect lilts and tones. I hoped I wouldn’t have to repeat myself.
“My mother.” When she blinked, I was reminded of newborn babies opening their eyes for the first time.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “You need to be sure.” I rubbed the deformed paper clip against my palm. The pointed end ripped into my skin, and I could feel blood being drawn.
I walked to the woman. She was waiting just outside the office. The lining of her blazer was crumpled into her hand. I wondered if Cherry would say anything to her. I wondered if Cherry knew enough to say nothing.
“It was her meimei, her little sister. They were playing. She accidentally scratched Cherry’s cheek.” The woman unclenched her fist. I could see a faint wrinkle in the red.
I thought back to the first time I was in this office, and the story I had seen on the TV about a boy who was thrown in the dryer by his babysitter. He had walked away with second-degree burns. I wondered whether he would ever learn to love his mother again for leaving him alone with a babysitter. I wondered whether he would ever be a babysitter himself.
On my way out, I glanced back at Cherry. She opened her mouth as if she were going to say something. Then she smiled. I thought, briefly, that the scratch on her cheek appeared to have faded already, or maybe it was a trick of the light.
I left Cherry behind and walked back to class.