Rotten to the Core

Every parent has a pet peeve. My mother’s is dishonesty. In her house, even the little white lies never went unnoticed. Sometimes she would pounce and catch me in the midst of telling a grandiose fabrication. But other times, she would catch a lie on her tongue, roll it around in her mouth, and chew on it for a few days before spitting it back in a heated argument years later. The woman was a lioness. She preyed on the truth and tore apart lies with just a single whiff of suspicion.

Mother grew up in a family of three, and she, of course, was the sandwich child. She never got much attention in the household, and if she did, it was when grandmother beat her with that bamboo cane. When she was in high school, her parents and siblings moved to Germany for a whole year and decided to leave her at home to take care of the house and finish school. Alone, with no family, she failed her exams and went to a second-tier university. But she never says her childhood was a mistake. It was just a really long lesson. And when she first gave birth, she swore to never neglect me the way her parents did. She’s been honest to that promise.

And maybe that’s why it feels so wrong when I lie to her.

I remember that one night when I was eight years old, and I snuck into our kitchen in search of something that might silence my grumbling stomach. We lived in a large condo at the time, cold brick and castle-like, my parents on the third floor, and my brother and I on the first. The kitchen rested on the second floor, nestled conveniently between us so I could sneak out for snacks if I so happened to stay up past my bedtime, most likely engrossed in a fairy tale collection. My mother always said Chinese girls shouldn’t read fairy tales. She said they could poison the mind with whimsical happily-ever-afters.

Still, I know she used to read them too.

My mother never kept much food in the cupboards. The one thing kept in surplus was fruit because it’s the only sweet food she likes and because it was the easiest thing to find in Los Angeles. She’d often substitute our dessert for a platter of peeled and cored fruit, not that I really minded. That night, I found an apple. Fuji, of course, from the local Chinese supermarket. I devoured the fruit quickly, juice dribbling down my chin, then I tossed the core on the jade-green countertop and wiped my hands on my father’s bamboo placemats, which he often used to mold rice.

In the morning, I woke up to the sound of angry shouting in Mandarin. My brother and I crawled out of bed to find my mother, red-faced in the kitchen, hovering over a browned, rotting apple core. She demanded to know who had left the fruit undisposed, and I quickly pointed at my little brother.

Perhaps she detected a hint of the lie in my eyes, or my voice, or whatever sorcery it is that mothers possess. Regardless of the clue, she proceeded to investigate, pulling my lips apart and fitting the oxidized apple core to my teeth. I remember feeling the cold flesh of the fruit against my young teeth and tasting the bitterness of the rotting flesh. But my protests were quickly muffled because the core fit like Cinderella’s glass slipper — a perfect match — only this time, I was no princess.

I was a liar.

In that moment, my mother spoke to me plainly, her voice so devastatingly calm that it would’ve frightened any eight-year-old girl, “In China, good daughters never lie to their family.”

Being young and naive, I thought that would be the last time I ever lied to my mother. But as I got older, it happened again and again, with a seemingly exponential increase in frequency.

I lied often when I told her I was going to sleep, and sometimes she would catch a quick glimpse of me online and reprimand me. I lied about my grades and my feedback from instructors. I lied about my habits, what I ate for lunch, or if I ate at all. There were the big lies, and the little. The imaginary friends, and the very real boyfriends. All of this, she was able to eventually unveil. And with every lie, I felt a piece of lead enter its way into my heart, settle on the squelching valves, and weigh me down in cold, heavy guilt.

Why the petty lies? I never really knew. It was an automated, sequential response really, always beginning with my breath getting shallow and my eyelids starting to flutter. Then the lie would spill out of my mouth like poison. Maybe I lied because I was afraid. I was afraid of not being the perfect daughter. I was afraid of shattering the glass slipper. And so I lied because every lie rouged my cheeks with painted perfection, and I thought, just maybe, that she wouldn’t see through it. I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense. Lying about who left an apple core on a countertop makes no sense either.

But there is one lie that does. At least to me. And that’s the one I tell when my mother asks if I’m okay. I am. That’s what I say. But when the words leave my lips, I’m taken back to the nightmares I had just days before. I never tell my mother about these rancid dreams carved from the shadows on my walls. Sometimes, in my sleep, the shadows take the forms of huntsmen who I have never met, but nevertheless, huntsmen who I have seen — their faces blurred and distorted by my mind in slumber. I fear those men. Sometimes I watch them step off the dirt path with gleaming axes, and they’ll turn them towards the sky with the rigid poise of wood choppers, but then the silver edges whip back at my chest so quickly that I have no time to blink.

And that’s it.

That axe rips through flesh and muscle that has hardened since the years of my youth. They slice within such close range that the blades simply pass through the gaps in my ribcage and my body slumps to the asphalt. And in that moment, I won’t be thinking about those people at all. I’ll be staring at the asphalt thinking about how the cracks look like the edges of a half-eaten macaron, and then I’ll wake.

I’ll wake up, and I’ll remember the lie. I’ll remember that it was my choice to lie to her all those times.

I’m alright, Mom.