MRS. CHIEN usually volunteers to stay behind to clean and straighten up after the weekly senior Bible study group at the Chinese Baptist Congregation of Oakland, but today, someone else will have to take her place.
"What's the occasion?" Mr. Hu, the church gossip, asks.
"My daughter's friend is bringing his father to dinner tonight."
"This must mean we will hear about a wedding soon!" says Mrs. Wong. "We'll pray for you!"
As Mrs. Chien walks toward the church exit, she hears the excited chatter continue in the room. Her news has lifted Morning Prayer. She thinks about what the group might be saying in the mix of Cantonese, Hakka and Mandarin words they have adopted and borrowed from one another over the years.
"It's about time her daughter finds a husband. She's over thirty years old."
"I hear they're living together. I would never allow my daughter to live with a man before she's married."
"I hear he's white."
"I hear he's younger than she is."
"At her age, anyone will do."
Mrs. Chien quickens her steps and tells herself not to think negative thoughts. With the brilliant sun shining amidst a cloudless blue sky, Mrs. Chien believes it is an auspicious day.
She had planned to walk past the rose bushes on Cerrito Street to pick one or two bulbous flowers for the dinner table that night. However, Mrs. Chien suspects the owners of the bushes are at their house this time of day and perhaps even sitting at their porch expecting her, so she avoids Cerrito Street altogether.
The half-mile walk between church and the supermarket proves too difficult on a hot day, so when Mrs. Chien sees a bus pull up to the curb near her, she gets in line for it.
When it's her turn to pay the fare, she pretends to search thoroughly in her pants' pockets for change and steps deeper into the length of the bus as if to let other passengers go by. The bus driver keeps an eye on her from his rearview mirror.
"Hey lady, senior citizens pay 75 cents," the bus driver yells.
"Wonminit plez," Mrs. Chien responds. She knows her English is incomprehensible to most, so she doesn't try anymore. She's gotten by for over 20 years by pointing and gesturing; she doesn't even know what she means to say exactly.
"What?" The bus driver snarls.
"Wonminit... bez." The words barely leave her lips. Any syllables will do.
"What?" This bus driver is more persistent than the others, Mrs. Chien decides. She thinks he must be new. Others usually give up by now, realizing a few quarters aren't worth chasing down old ladies who don't speak English. She and her husband had perfected this trick, so she's not ruffled by the driver's persistence. Mrs. Chien fumbles through her pockets some more. Within a few seconds, they arrive at her desired stop, the supermarket. She gives a sheepish smile as she passes the driver and says "Tenk Q" on the last step down. Maybe he shakes his head in disapproval as he pulls away, but it is public transportation after all, she thinks to herself.
Sometimes when traffic is slow, and the bus stalls at the red light for a long period of time, she is forced to deposit a few coins in the fare slot before the bus reaches her stop. But today is an auspicious day.
Erika Chien pulls the sheet over her head to block the light seeping through the cracks of the window shade. Soon the sun will sit high enough in the sky to beam directly into her room and wake Paul. She had lain awake all night debating whether to wake him up herself to ask him. Ask him what, she thinks. She doesn't know. There are no specific questions, just a general sense that something is off, like when you walk into a room in a house you've been living in for years and turn on the lights and right away notice something is different-somehow-and it takes a while to figure out that the "difference" is one missing photo that has hung on the wall for years. The feeling that the photo, a small detail in a room, is the root of such deep yet amorphous discomfort is profound. Erika has sensed something is off. Her body works like that-picks up on cues way before her mind is able to translate them into words or emotions.
Paul stirs in his sleep. She studies him from beneath the sheet. The faint light reveals the tiny bumps and dips on his pale skin. His mouth is wide open. He's naked. His belly, which has gotten rounder and softer since they started dating two years ago, sags to the side. Will this man break my heart? Erika asks herself. In the past few weeks, she has asked this question almost every morning.
Paul wakes when the sunlight finally crawls up and settles on the bed. It's 20 minutes before they are to meet their friends, Thy and Emil, for a late lunch. Erika and Paul dash around the apartment to get ready.
The diner is noisy and crowded, but they get seated quickly because Thy and Emil had gotten there early to stand in line. As the host escorts them to their table, Erika notices the women in the room-all flawless and ready to be admired. I live in a city full of gorgeous women, she thinks, smoothing out her loose-fitting cargo pants and stretched-out tank top. Paul and previous boyfriends have puzzled over her choice for loose-fitting clothes. You have a nice figure, why hide it, they asked. But each time Erika looks in the mirror, their words snap and fall away like a tree branch weighted down by snow. She scans the room for women whom she guesses Paul would prefer over her: there's the tall brunette in the tight denim dress that emphasizes her slim waist-she could have any man. There's also the buxom blonde who would be deemed desirable just for being buxom and blonde.
"Ma'am." The host pulls the chair out for her. Paul nudges Erika to sit with the palm of his hand on her back.
"Still waking up?" he says, more to Thy and Emil than to her.
Erika makes eye contact with Thy. How are you? Thy seems to be saying with her eyes. Paul passes out menus stacked on the table.
"No thanks. We know what we want," Thy says and puts her hand on top of Emu's.
Thy and Emil are newly engaged. They started dating the same time Erika and Paul met each other. The engagement ring on Thy's finger is proud and ostentatious. Thy told Erika that it cost three months' salary.
Thy and Erika's relationship is based on couples' activitiesFriday night movies, meals out and weekend getaways. Even when they're alone, they talk about their respective relationships. As a result, Thy knows Erika's relationship with Paul better than most. Erika, in turn, knows every detail leading up to Thy and Emu's engagement-the clues that Emil dropped, the nervousness leading up to "the day," the wine he ordered, the dress she wore, the rose he brought, etc. Thy anticipated each step with amazing accuracy-she knows Emil well. Erika wonders if she can possibly ever know Paul as deeply.
The waitress arrives with water.
"Thank you," Paul says as the waitress serves him a glass. He smiles at her and nods. The waitress smiles back and immediately, Erika notes her perfectly drawn bright-red lips and lean stomach peeking out at the hem of her short t-shirt. A small heat rises in Erika. Paul has a thing about being kind to servers and people who have to wait on others. Usually, Erika admires this about him, but today, the sleep deprivation combined with the unsettlement of not knowing create a suspicion about the flirtatious exchange.
Thy makes eye contact, implores her to stay contained. "Emil and I have decided on a place for our honeymoon!" Thy has a knack for directing all conversations to her relationship with Emil. As Thy continues, she leans closer toward Emil, who in turn smiles sweetly at his fiancee, places his other hand on top of hers, then nods without looking at Erika and Paul.
This is a man who would do anything for his woman, so committed, too committed, Erika thinks. She sees devotion in his every move-his arm draped around the back of Thy's chair and moving up to rub her shoulders whenever she speaks, his constant look to her for approval and agreement every time he opens his mouth. Does a good relationship require one person to wholly submit to another? Erika wonders.
The waitress returns with a basket of cornbread. "What can I get you today?"
Thy and EmN order first. "We'll split that Belgian waffle with blueberries and the Hungry Jack special with eggs, sunny side up, crispy on the edges ... Oooh and add two mimosas please." To Thy, each day closer to the wedding is cause for celebration.
"We'll have the eggs benedict and waffles," Paul says.
"I don't want eggs benedict today," Erika says.
"Oh ... I just thought... that's what we always order..."
"I'll have the burger, medium-well, with grilled onions and fries." Erika immediately regrets her order-she would prefer the eggs benedict actually-but she refuses to take back her words. She said it with such finality and she's proud of that much.
"Uh, I'll just have the eggs benedict then," Paul says. Under the table, he rubs Erika's thigh and gives her a gentle squeeze at the knee. Erika doesn't acknowledge the attempt at tenderness and looks directly across the table to their friends.
Thy attributes Erika's recent malaise to the natural rhythm of relationships. Last night on the phone when Erika revealed that things between her and Paul were different, off, strange even, Thy responded with another story about Emil: "I was close to breaking up with Emil not long before he proposed. I just felt like there was no place to take our relationship. Then, he dropped all these hints about getting married and a lightbulb went off in my head. Of course! That's the natural next step for us. And the whole thing has rejuvenated our love." Thy made the discomfort sound purposeful and valuable. "Be patient," she said, "My guess is that you're both figuring out what needs to happen next. I wouldn't be surprised if he's thinking of proposing."
Sitting at the diner, Erika suddenly resents Thy for her advice, her speculations, her vested interest in Erika's relationship with Paul and her making palpable a life which Erika doesn't feel ready for.
Drunken chicken requires meticulous preparation. The chicken must soak in rice wine for several hours, then simmer in water flavored with ginger. The dipping sauce is a careful blend of raw garlic, scallion, ginger, salt and olive oil. Mrs. Chien has made the dish only once before for Mrs. Ming's 81st birthday. At that dinner, Mrs. Chien's drunken chicken was clearly the favored dish-the old lady asked for serving after serving. Several months after that party, the old lady died. Mrs. Chien has always thought of that event as Mrs. Ming's "Last Supper," her drunken chicken the center of the meal.
While the chicken marinates in rice wine, Mrs. Chien prepares dessert, red bean soup with tapioca. Paul, her daughter's boyfriend, is fond of the treat. Mrs. Chien introduced it the very first time he had dinner at her house. Erika had been nervous about her preparing something "weird" and cringed at the idea of red bean and tapioca. But Paul took a liking to it immediately, even asking for a second helping.
Mrs. Chien enjoys having Paul over for dinner. Their gesturing and pointing bring life to the meal-with Paul trying to understand how she prepared each dish, while she tries to explain. It's nice to watch someone else converse without using words. Perhaps things that can't be expressed in those simple ways need not be expressed at all. During those dinners, Erika is forced to translate, a role she despises, but it pushes her to practice Chinese, which she loses more of each day.
Once she brings the red bean to a simmer, Mrs. Chien starts on the dipping sauce for the chicken. The key is chopping the garlic and ginger into tiny cubes. From years of restaurant work, Mrs. Chien has chopped enough garlic and ginger to do it blindfolded, but she focuses on this task because she doesn't want any mistakes tonight. If only her husband were alive to share the joy. But he's at a better place, she knows. The Lord has meant for her to experience this joy alone.
Preparation for her wedding was not much more meticulous than this. Mrs. Chien, the oldest of three girls and the only one unmarried, had come from a plain family. Since they didn't have much to offer in dowry, her father had agreed to a match with a young widower who had lost his wife and parents in a house fire seven years before. Fortunately, the young man turned out to be a good husband, providing for her and proving that he had a vision for his family. There were no familial ties to keep him at the village, so when he brought her to America twelve months after they were married, he made it clear their stay would be permanent and, once here, they bore a child to lay their roots.
Mrs. Chien believes her union with Mr. Chien was the luckiest thing that could have happened to her, setting her life along a new trajectory. Mrs. Chien had grown tired of constantly seeking permission, her parents becoming stricter as years passed with no materialization of a marriage proposal. Mrs. Chien was happy to accept an offer, even from a man whom she hadn't met, just to gain a bit of independence. On the first night Mr. Chien raised the topic of moving to America, she said to him, "You do as you please. I don't like rules. If I don't like it there, I'll come back." But she knew the effort required to get to America and that she would never live in her village again.
This is not a wedding banquet, Mrs. Chien reminds herself, but images of a gold double happiness, the word's large hollow squares at the base of each character opening like mouths in laughter, linger in her mind.
The telephone rings. It's Erika.
"I'm marinating the chicken now, the dipping sauce will be done soon, and the red bean is already on the stove. Should I also buy a roast chicken from Albertsons in case Paul's father doesn't like Chinese food? I think they are on sale this week ..."
"Mom, listen. Paul's dad isn't going to make it after all. His flight is delayed."
Mrs. Chien's shoulders immediately droop. "Oh, is he alright? Should we wait for him? I can keep the food warm."
"No. Mom, he's fine. It's just a storm or something. Flying through Chicago is always a pain in the ass. He won't get here until midnight. It'll just be me and Paul."
"Oh, okay, but we will prepare a dinner box for Paul's father. He's going to be so hungry when he lands! I'll pray for his safe arrival. We will reschedule, yes? When does his conference end?"
"I'll talk to Paul about it, okay? see you in a bit."
The news is disappointing. Mrs. Chien wonders if this is a sign, a harbinger of an event that will bring a dramatic shift in her life. Surely this is some sort of nuptial forecast, she concludes. The cooking is nearly complete. She mixes the finely chopped ingredients in a bowl and places it in the refrigerator to chill before cleaning the knives and bowls used in the afternoon's preparation.
Water from the faucet bounces off the hard surface of a cleaver, splattering the sleeves of Mrs. Chien's maroon sweatshirt. The sweatshirt has taken its share of abuse for the day, evident by oil spots and bits of garlic, ginger and green onion. She is most comfortable in a sweatshirt that is slightly soiled, one that wears the stains of daily life.
A clean sweatshirt was the way Mrs. Chien discovered her husband's infidelity. He came home one Tuesday evening supposedly from a full day of work at the restaurant. She noticed his clean clothes right away, but did not mention it until he came home like that three Tuesdays in a row. Erika was ten at the time. When Mrs. Chien confronted her husband, he slapped her and said, "You don't make the rules around here." She didn't talk about it again, the village of her childhood so far away. But he didn't come home with spotless sweatshirts ever again either, and Mrs. Chien always assumed that the quick exchange brought back the better of him. Each year beginning at their thirteenth anniversary-Erika started reminding them of their anniversary that year-he would get her a single red silk rose encased in a clear plastic tube. Sometimes there would also be a small greeting card with a short pre-printed message like "I love you" or "You are the sunshine of my life." Erika translated all the unsigned cards. Mrs. Chien figured she could offer the artificial flower to someone else when needed, but the need never came and the ten or so plastic tubes sit in the top drawer of her rosewood dresser to this day.
"Is your mom okay with everything?" Paul asks as Erika returns the phone to its base.
"Yeah, she's fine."
There's an uncomfortable pause, each person waiting for the other to offer more.
Paul jumps in first. "So, she's not too disappointed or anything?" he asks with the repetitiveness of someone who doesn't know what to say.
"She's probably a little disappointed. Wouldn't you be?" In those words she means to express her own disappointment.
Earlier on their drive home from brunch, they barely exchanged a word. Granted, Thy and Emil, whom they offered a ride, talked most of the way.
Now, muffled voices and music, unmistakably from the TV set of the Santeros' apartment below, begin to fill the room. The Santeros own the four-unit building. The elderly couple is hard of hearing and fond of drama series from the Philippines. On nights when Erika was alone, she'd turn to the same television station with the volume all the way down and curl up on the couch, half attempting to decipher the Tagalog seeping through the floors. These sounds remind her of her childhood-living in close quarters with parents who talked loudly and constantly, she always felt she had space to herself. As if she could enter a different world simply by switching the language she used. Cantonese was reserved for the world of her parents and English was the world of her friends and school. When one world became difficult, she turned to the other. In this apartment she shares with Paul, she has no such refuge.
"It's six o'clock. We should get ready," Paul announces, charging into the room. He doesn't make eye contact. Erika knows this to mean that he is uninterested in continuing the conversation they started earlier. But the heat that rose in her during brunch is rising again. For weeks, Paul has seemed evasive and introspective, creating an invisible canyon between them that Erika doesn't know how to cross.
Erika and Paul take turns in the bathroom and dress in separate corners of their bedroom. The waning sun offers little illumination and in the near darkness, Erika focuses on muffled Tagalog.
Later in the car, Paul turns on the radio, adjusting the dial to NPR. The rattle of something loose in the dashboard competes with the reporter's drone. They had meant to get that checked, but neither had gotten around to doing it.
"Can we not listen to the radio right now?" Erika asks.
"Are you going to object to everything I do today?" Paul retorts.
These are the exact words she wants him to say, so she can in turn respond with a defiant yes, or fuck you, but ultimately she doesn't say anything at all.
Erika wishes she could cancel dinner, but she's aware of her mother's excitement and after Paul's father's abrupt cancellation, not going would be a double blow. Erika rolls down her window to stir the warm stale air of the car. The wind laps at her skin. Paul squeezes her right shoulder. She fights her impulse to pull away. Paul's hand slides across her back. Erika gives in to his tenderness and feels her face warming, her eyes welling up. Paul kisses her lightly on her head, again on her cheeks, her ears.
"What's going on, baby?" he whispers in her ear.
The glow of taillights from the cars ahead blurs as her eyes fill with tears. For a split moment she thinks about pulling off to the shoulder, but decides against it. Crying never solves anything, Erika thinks. She focuses on willing her tears to drain without spilling over the edges of her eyes. She has seen her mother do it many times as though grief was something to be swallowed. The hum of the freeway-sounds of rubber gliding across the road-offers a brief reprieve; the sky too, clear enough for a few stars to shine through, offers a welcomed distraction.
"What's going on?" Paul whispers again, his lips grazing her ear.
Somehow with this, Erika thinks, he does love me, and at once her tears pour out of her eyes and down her cheeks as words tumble out of her mouth. "Things don't feel right, Paul. They feel off. Something's off." There's a lot more to say, but Erika stops to gauge Paul's response before resuming. Paul, still holding her, rests his head on her shoulder. She feels the warmth of his breath against her neck and continues.
"This morning at brunch for instance. I kept thinking you were flirting with the waitress and that you'd prefer to be with some other girl in the room. I don't know why I've been feeling like this. I guess I feel you've been distant lately."
Now it is his turn to respond, to tell her she's silly, to counter her unsubstantiated thoughts. She waits for him, her eyes focused on the road in front of her. She realizes she had slowed the car significantly during her outburst and now cars are speeding up behind her to pass. The sign for "Cerrito Street Exit-3 miles" is in view.
Paul shifts his head, takes a deep breath, and then abruptly pulls away from her to sit up straight. His hand remains on her shoulder. From her peripheral vision, Erika sees that he is looking out the window. Like he wants to be out of this car, she thinks.
With a protracted squeeze of her shoulder, he says, "Erika, we have to talk."
To Mrs. Chien, the swelling aroma of cooked rice is one of the most delightful scents. It's clearly inviting to flies and mosquitoes too, as several have gathered in her kitchen, hovering above the warm pot. Without taking her eyes off a large fly which has just landed on the countertop next to the rice cooker, Mrs. Chien reaches to her left for a fly swatter. Around this house, there is always a fly swatter within reach. Her husband used to sit out back on the patio-one hand holding a newspaper, the other, a fly swatter. On a nice day, Mr. Chien would spend hours outside reading and killing insects. Sometimes for fun, they would count the number of kills he made before feeding the carcasses to birds. The two of them used to joke that fly swatting was one of the great luxuries of retirement.
Stepping out of her kitten-heeled slides to gain better footing, Mrs. Chien lunges for the fly and hits her target. For several minutes she remains barefoot to finish off the remaining pests. For old time's sake, Mrs. Chien rounds up her hunt in a neat pile and sets it aside on the tile floor by the trashcan. RVe in three minutes, she thinks, that's pretty good. Tugging at the bottom of her velvet jacket to smooth the wrinkles that had formed, she slips back into her shoes.
By the time Erika and Paul ring the doorbell, Mrs. Chien has finished her first bowl of red bean and tapioca. She checks for red bean on her teeth before answering the door. She gasps at the sight of her daughter and her boyfriend. Erika has obviously been crying, her eyes and nose puffy and red. Paul, who's slouching more than usual, attempts to be cheerful.
"Hi, Mrs. Chien!" Paul speaks with more enthusiasm than necessary. In his hand is a small orchid plant, Mrs. Chien's favorite flower, which he raises up to her in offering.
"Tenk Q. Tenk Q," she says in English and musters a smile as she accepts the gift, but her eyes are locked on her daughter, whose downcast glance indicates she's hiding something.
Possibilities race through Mrs. Chien's mind-accident, loss of money, news of bad health, pregnancy. Paul's father comes to mind. "Oh goodness, is everything okay?" She grips her daughter's forearm, shakes it a little, and then asks again, "Is everything okay?"
With no response from Erika, Mrs. Chien turns to Paul. "Yor fada okay?"
Paul is one of the few people who understands the little English she knows. Sometimes, he comprehends better than Erika.
"My father's alright," Paul says, forcing a smile. "He's flying in late." Paul raises both arms to the side to imitate the wings of an airplane.
Mrs. Chien motions for everyone to sit down. Her eyes are still fixed on Erika. As she removes the lid off the last dish, she pleads with her daughter to reveal what's going on. Erika practically ignores her-picking up her chopsticks and digging into the roast meat before Mrs. Chien has a chance to say prayer. Mrs. Chien decides to excuse the rude behavior this time, but taps her daughter's wrist with impatience and says, "What's wrong? Why won't you tell me?"
They eat in silence during the first part of the meal. Several times, Paul attempts to ask Mrs. Chien questions, but Erika refuses to translate, and the pointing and gesturing soon cease. Finally, Paul places his bowl on the table with a pronounced thud. He starts speaking very fast to Erika. Mrs. Chien can't make out a word he's saying. Erika responds with the same speed of speech and force in tone. The quarrel takes Mrs. Chien aback; she has never seen them fight before. Mrs. Chien pleads with them by putting her hand in between them, then by tugging at their elbows, but the couple continues with their rapid exchange. Mrs. Chien opens her mouth, but all that comes out is "Stop! Stop!" when what she means is something much more than her vocabulary allows.
Their heated argument suddenly halts. Mrs. Chien is flustered, unsure of what to do. She offers to scoop more rice into their bowls. They reject in unison. The argument resumes as abruptly as it ended. This time, however, Erika jumps up from her chair to slap Paul across the face. She motions for him to get out by pointing to the front door. This is oddly familiar to Mrs. Chien, except she was on the receiving end of a slap years ago and was told to leave if she didn't like things the way they were. She had felt so trapped then-the command to get out was only a tease.
After several minutes of back and forth between Erika and Paul, Mrs. Chien finally feels offended by the couple's behavior. She regains control of her house by smacking her hand hard against the table, the wedding ring on her finger facilitating an effective crack. Erika and Paul turn to Mrs. Chien. The couple is standing up by this point. Mrs. Chien emphatically motions for them to sit down. Having gained their attention, Mrs. Chien leans over to her daughter and pleads, "What's the matter?"
The anger in her daughter's face has subsided and what is left is the look of pain and sadness that would melt any mother's heart. She tenderly touches her daughter's face and asks, "Did he treat you wrong?" They both know that they can safely talk without Paul knowing what's being communicated. But Erika rejects her mother's offer of consolation and confidentiality.
"Sit down," Mrs. Chien says, waving her arm up and down. Her gestures are clear and Erika and Paul remain seated. Mrs. Chien turns to Paul. "You like," she says, in the attempt to say, "Your favorite dessert is coming."
Mrs. Chien leaves the couple for a moment. In the kitchen, she listens for any commotion from the dining room. It's quiet, very quiet. She assumes the two are staring at the dishes on the table and not at each other. After Mr. Chien had slapped her, they did not talk for several days. Around Erika, Mrs. Chien pretended that things were normal. Even when Erika had explicitly asked, "Mommy, what's wrong?" Mrs. Chien pretended she didn't understand what her daughter was referring to. "What do you mean what's wrong," Mrs. Chien had said in a tone that was meant to make the questioner ashamed for asking. Erika didn't ask again.
Mrs. Chien's shoulders ache from the tension of the dinner as she ladles an equal amount of red bean gruel into three bowls. Over the third bowl, she sprinkles the fine dust of fly carcasses, which she crushes between her fingers.
Diana Ip is working on her first collection of stories. She attended residencies at Hedgebrook, Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) and Blue Mountain, and recently was awarded an emerging writers grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She lives in Oakland and is a graduate of the Mills College MFA program in creative writing.
Writer DIANA IP, whose short story "Drunken Chicken" is this issue's Literature feature, spent her childhood working at her parents' Chinese take-out in Baltimore, and restaurant workers and Chinese food pop up regularly in her stories. Ip, who now lives in Oakland, CA, said that even in such impersonal settings, "people find incredible ways to connect with others and sometimes learn to trust that primal sense of knowing: intuition." Compiled by Lisa Wong Macabasco