Double Life

Joy Stoffers

I can still hardly believe what’s happened.

A month before my mother mixed Lunesta into a cup of oolong tea, she asked me to visit her. I should’ve felt suspicious from the moment she invited me in. But the endearment she used threw me off balance — ten years had passed since she last called me “precious daughter.”

Wo de gui nu. So glad you make time for me.”

I stepped inside the same Chinatown apartment I grew up in. Though it was a Saturday afternoon, behind me came the click of the lock, the sliding of the chain. Ma scuttled the four feet it took to get from the front door to the stove.

I stood, wishing it were cold enough for jackets. Then I’d have something to hang up, something to hold onto.

“Sit, sit.”

The wooden bench and its picnic-style table made me feel American, obtrusive. I resisted the urge to swing my legs. My legs were too long for that now.

Moving like a nervous rabbit, she filled the kettle with fresh water.

“I can help. You okay? Any problems?”

She dismissed me with a flick of her wrist. “Hai hao. OK.”

My Mandarin forever faltered but I knew her translation was off. “Passable” wasn’t “OK.” Slowing her movements, she hummed the tune to a Chinese folk song I’d long forgotten. I drummed my fingertips on the table and then stopped. She hated my inability to sit still.

I scoured the kitchen again.

Across from my seat was my mother’s workspace. From left to right. The blank-faced, twenty-year-old refrigerator. Pockmarked beige cabinets. On the handle of a drawer, three clothespin hooks from which three pairs of dish gloves dangled. Grizzled countertops. Microwave with its fifteen-years-broken light. Stainless-steel sink, never large enough for Ma’s cooking and cleaning. Over the sink, a window with half-bent blinds that offered a view of the brick building next door. Red banner still covering the right-hand side upper cabinet, characters in black: 恭賀新禧. The traditional characters morphed into sounds I couldn’t spell out. Gong he xin xi. Happy New Year, all year round.

Ma peeled the paring knife off the magnetic knife rack, placing it on a cutting board. I’d always wondered why she chose to have the knives hanging there. Always the same response. “Easy to grab and get robbers. I know knives better.”

When I stood to take care of the complaining kettle, she reached over to turn off the stove. I’d forgotten: her kitchen, her territory.

She sliced the mango from tou dao wei. Top of head to butt. The mango succumbed, splitting in two.

Watching this ceremony, I regretted my childhood self, how I’d shunned her attempts to teach me. “How do you cut like that? You never make any messes.”

A smile flitted across her face, like a bird launching into flight. If you didn’t pay close attention, you missed it.

“Many things you don’t know, bao bei nu er.”

“No babies here. I mean, I’m not one.”

Ma diced one side of the mango. I open the cabinet for bowls only to find plates.

“I made changes.”

“I can see that. Where’re the bowls?”

She pointed to a lower drawer. Inside, her wedding china.

“Ma, where are the normal bowls?”

“I gave away.”

“You what?”

For a moment she said nothing. A pile of mango cubes was accumulating on the right side of the cutting board. No flesh remained on the inner skin of the mango.

“Always save for rainy day. So many rainy days passed, still never use. No sense to save anymore. Time for moving on. For using good things.”

I moved Ma’s “never-die” plant to the side of the kitchen table. In its place, she set down the gold-filled, gold-plated bowl before arranging the clay tea set.

“Look-see these shoots. Baihao.”

“Are they going bad? Why do they have hair?”

“White Hair Silver Needle.”

“Ew. Will the hairs show up when you brew it?”

She said no more, deeming it a stupid question.

I saw her hands quiver as she brought the kettle over. “Ma, let me. It’s too heavy for you.”

Ai yo! You say I’m weak? Watch me.”

But when Ma finally sat down beside me, she shook out her hands, letting out a sigh replete with fatigue. Then it struck me: Ma looked older than sixty-nine. Wrinkled, wispy, worried.

Frowning, she poured us tea.

“I used to be strong, like gust of wind. Like a typhoon.”

A faint floral smell rose from my cup. In the pale tea, I discovered little pulpy hairs. But I felt Ma’s eyes studying me. So I closed my eyes and sipped.

“Subtle, slightly sweet.”

“See? Most expensive, hardest to make. Only pick best buds for production. From Fujian.”

“Your home province?”

Ma nodded proudly as she filled my bowl with mango. She used pointed chopsticks to serve and eat. But the fruit was too slippery for me. I forked the cubes into my mouth, savoring their juicy sweetness, trying to satisfy my craving. Ma would later drink the leftover juice. If I made faces, brought up decorum, she’d say Bie lang fei. Don’t waste.

Xi er. Time for shuo zhen de.” She translated to erase my blank stare. “Tea-time talk.”

I returned to my hairy tea, waiting.

“You know your name, Shuang xi. Double happiness. Born on a qi xu. Double Seven Festival. You’re now thirty-three. Doubles align, lucky time. Time for making change. I see your look. You think I don’t know your secret. Amy a yi saw you at OB. Don’t hide your face. Now I tell you my secret. Your father just die. Yes, not true that he died when you little. Sit-sit! Calm down with more tea. I’ll tell you how I met him.

“Your father, important man in politics. An American. Yang gui zi, white man. You have his height. Yang gui zi work in Hong Kong for US Consulate. I flee to Hong Kong from Wenhua Da Geming. Yes, Mao’s Revolution. I was star performer at famous club. I sing, he fall in love. He already married, but wife feng le. You know, you make circles with your finger. Yes, yes. In insane asylum. We secret meet many times. Then he pay for good lawyer. I move here. I join church, marry Chinese preacher. With him no kids. Raise you like his own. When he died, you remember. Sad time, good-heart man.

“Why then I didn’t marry yang gui zi? No, I can’t tell his name; I know your look. You Goog him up and cause all kind trouble! His wife still living. Even now! All my life, waiting, waiting. We write many times before he die. I’ll give you letters before you leave.

“Of course you meet him. Remember Uncle Churchill? No, that’s not his real name. You think we weren’t careful? One slip, ruin his repute…yes, yes, repyoo-ta-shon. You think English easy, try Chinese! One slip, ruin his career and turn his family against him. What you mean, what about my happiness? Family first. We have saying for this. Jia he wan shi xing. If home in harmony, all things prosper.

“Look at painting on that private screen. Yes, yes, privacy screen. Our love not possible on earth. Like famous Chinese romance legend. Two lovers, Niulang and Zhinu. Cowherd and weaver maid. Double Seven Festival. Celebrated on your birthday. How to say in Chinese? Qi xu. No, try again. ‘Ch’ sound. Chee. No, don’t make cave with your lips. Chee. Yes. Now xu. ‘Sh’ sound. Like ‘shu.’ Yes. Now both together. Right, but you look like a fish. I’m not making fun! Just tell you what I see.

“More tea? Bring your cup close. What’s the story of weaver maid and cowherd? I tell you. A young poor cowherd, Niulang, met a weaver beauty named Zhinu. What you say, when? Bu zhidao. Don’t know. Long time ago, happy? Weaver girl was Goddess of Heaven’s number seven daughter, visiting earth because bored by heaven. Wah, too stupid! But they fall in love, marry in secret. They have two children. Then Goddess find out. Ai yo, fairy daughter married peasant! Yes, cowherd is peasant. Politics? No, just story.

“Goddess make daughter return to heaven. Cowherd stuck on earth, but ox speaks to him. Yes, just happens. No more interrupt! So ox says, kill me and wear my skin. Cowherd cries, loving ox, but kills ox and takes children with him to heaven. But Goddess tears river in the sky. The river is Milky Way, divides lovers forever.

“But one day out of year all magpie fly to heaven and form a bridge. This bridge lets lovers together for one night. This night is night seven of seven moon. Yes, lunar calendar. They meet every festival. Meantime du ri ru nian. Each day drags like one year. This how I feel for your American father. In next life we together. Xia beizi. Next life.

“Why I tell you all this? You’re not like me. You have chance to make change. Go. Go divorce your man. Yes, I know he cheat. You OK on your own. You’ll have daughters. Teach them strong, how I used to be. How I know? Di liu gan. Six sense.”

A month after this conversation, my mother drank Lunesta oolong tea. An entire bottle of pills coaxed her into a never-ending sleep. She flew to the heavens, crossing the Milky Way to meet my father. Both of my fathers.

My ultrasound has vindicated her: I’m going to have twin girls. But Ma was wrong on one account. She was strong till the end. I’ll tell my daughters. Like the wind, she’s now invisible. Unseen, but unmistakably felt.