A House of Her Own
Ecotone, the Country and City Issue, Fall/Winter 2016
I stretch the stick of dough as I slide it into sizzling oil, all the while keeping an ear out for my daughter-in-law. To avoid eating breakfast, Hwei-ling often slips out of the house without so much as a good morning or good-bye. Her dieting and her twelve-hour workdays worry me. She places undue importance on her job.
My son shuffles into the kitchen and flashes me his good-natured grin. I break a hot-out-of-the-fryer youtiao in half and sandwich it between toasted sesame bread for him. Chin-ya is busy studying the stock pages, so I sit down next to him, dip his breakfast into hot soymilk, and hold it to his mouth.
He takes a bite and mumbles his appreciation. He lets me indulge him when Hwei-ling is not in the room. I ask why she hasn’t yet left for work. Eyes darting from one margin of the paper to the other, my son mutters that Hwei-ling is not feeling well, but will be up shortly. He acts so strangely that I wonder if what I’ve been longing for has happened.
I angle my face into his line of sight. “Is it morning sickness?” Hwei-ling is thirty-five, and they have been married for nearly a decade. My grandson is long overdue.
Unable to wrestle his breakfast from my hand, Chin-ya takes a bite, a conversation-delaying ploy. Finally, he says, “Have you taken a look yet at the morning qigong group at the park?” He is always telling me that sixty is not too old to develop new interests and pastimes, that he is no longer a fatherless boy in need of my constant protection. “You should get out more, do something for yourself. I worry about you.”
Chin-ya is a good son, but I know all his tactics as well as those of his wife. (She is generous with gifts when I make demands of her heart or her time.) I remind him that a mother’s work is never done and that giving her family a nutritious start to the day should be the only thing on a good woman’s mind first thing in the morning. “Home and family before self—every wife should know that.”
I am not old-fashioned. Chin-ya refused a matchmaker. Dicey as it was, I did not stand in the way of romance. For the sake of household harmony, I’ve even allowed Hwei-ling to believe that her opinions reign in their marriage. I’ve spoiled them, but I know right from wrong.
“Tell me what’s going on.” I stare until he turns pink.
He glances toward his bedroom and lowers his voice. “Hwei-ling is spotting, but that doesn’t mean she’s losing the baby. She doesn’t want anyone to know, not until we’re sure the baby is strong, so promise me you won’t say anything to her. She’s upset enough.”
I know what it’s like to be ruled by a mother-in-law, and I’ve done my best to stay out of their business. In light of this news, however, it is wrong not to offer guidance. I squeeze Chin-ya’s hands. “We can get along without her income.” My easygoing child needs to be reminded of this from time to time. His wife earns slightly more because she sells her health working excessive hours. “It is not in Hwei-ling’s or our best interest for her to continue at her job.”
I frown. “She works much more than is good for her.”
“If she miscarries, it’s not because of a desk job.”
“A cup of tea is not breakfast. If you don’t make her understand, then I will have to. Her lifestyle and habits affect more than just herself now.”
“She can’t help that she has no appetite in the morning.”
“Before the bleeding, did you have sex?”
Red-faced, he leaves the table and me, holding half of his breakfast. With a fingertip, I dab and collect the sesame seeds and crumbs around his plate and listen for his footsteps. I meet him at the front door and ask if she is having cramps. He gives his head an unwilling shake.
“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “I’ll take good care of her today.”
“We must do everything we can to help the baby hold on.”
He grimaces, but he knows I’m right. I pat his hand and shoo him out the door.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I comb my hair into a tight bun and change into a proper skirt for going out. No one can ever say that Bao-guo’s widow discredits his family name. I pull on old sneakers, not looking forward to the trip to the grimy and crowded live-food market on the outskirts of Taipei, where I slipped and fell on a patch of wet pavement last winter. I only shop there now for special occasions, and this is a special occasion: my daughter-in-law is in need of a medicinal brew to replenish her blood.
Unlocking the front door, I hear the whine of a hair dryer. I drop my bag and go to Hwei-ling. Eyes closed, she stands before her vanity, blower aimed back and forth across her face. The back and shoulders of her navy dress are dark from her wet hair. She flinches when I touch her elbow.
Gently, I say, “Your boss can get by without you for a little while. He’ll understand.”
Her face is more made up than usual, but nothing can conceal her red eyes. “If I don’t hurry, I’m going to be late for a signing I can’t miss.”
She rakes her fingers helter-skelter through her hair and, water droplets coursing down her arms, gathers it with a plastic jaw clip. Wormy pieces plaster her cheeks and neck, but there is no hiding her beauty. She picks up her purse and briefcase.
I edge toward the doorway. “It’s important that you rest and build your strength. You will harm this baby going out with a wet head.”
That fire again in her eyes. “I’m fine.”
I overlook her impertinence as I have so many times before. “I’m going to cook you a black-meat chicken with medicine to strengthen your blood and qi, and treat your kidney imbalance.”
“I don’t have a kidney problem.”
“Your qi is stagnant. That’s why your kidney is having a hard time holding onto a baby,” I explain with great patience. The younger generation does not understand that traditional herbs strengthen and nourish in a way Western medicine does not. “You are carrying the future of our family. You must go back to bed.”
Hwei-ling’s brow tightens. “My doctor says that spotting does not always indicate a miscarriage, that no amount of coddling will hold onto an unviable fetus. He says I can go about my normal activities as long as I feel up to it.”
“You saw your doctor this morning?”
In the split second it takes my daughter-in-law’s eyes to widen and shift, I understand that she has exposed herself to miscarriages in the past.
“That’s what he said when we discussed pregnancies in general,” she says, switching to the velvety, truth-distorting voice of a practiced saleswoman.
I stare until she looks away in shame. “It’s time you put family first. I don’t want you to miss out on the joys of motherhood.”
“Nor do I want to,” she says. “And if I don’t hurry, I will be late for my meeting and my doctor. I am indifferent to herbal soups, so please cook one of Chin-ya’s favorites tonight.” And with that, she slides past me and escapes.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
On the way to the market, pink and blue plastic bags and all manners of trash cartwheel on the streets and snag my feet. I see two stray dogs circling a butcher stand and know instantly that Ah Pung, the man in charge of our district’s dog pound, got drunk again and forgot to latch his gates. This happens from time to time when his wallet grows fat from selling his charges to restaurants on the sly.
I pick my path carefully around chattering packs of Filipino maids, flung water from vendors’ stalls, and the occasional flea-infested mutt, on my way to Old Lee’s chicken stand. I relax after I count five customers ahead of me and at least a dozen beaks amid the mass of black feathers in the one remaining cage.
Old Lee takes orders and barks them to his wife and son behind him. Crouched on a low stool next to a cauldron, Mrs. Lee dips a chicken into roiling water, massages it, and plucks its feathers. Every few seconds, the bird twitches, and she washes off the down with a scoop of water. At the butcher block, Young Lee pulls out chicken entrails and shoos away a lame stray.
When it is my turn, I ask for a twenty-week-old black capon.
“Twenty weeks and not a day older,” Old Lee sings. “I only carry the best.”
He slides open the door to the wire cage and hoists a bird by its black feet for my inspection. I ask its weight. With his free hand, he grabs the fighting creature by the neck, shows me its turquoise earlobes, and hefts it. He claims that it’s one and a half kilos. No tough old bird, I warn him. He clamps the chicken’s feet upside down onto a metal rack. The bird’s furry feathers fluff as it squawks and struggles. I’m looking for the chicken’s fifth toe when a voice rings out behind me.
“Please end this creature’s distress immediately.”
I groan. Still wearing her grey nunnery robe and shaved head, Crazy May has been making a nuisance of herself about town ever since the old Buddhist nuns at the Temple of Ten Thousand Charities ousted her. Rumor has it that May called the old renunciants hypocrites for eating vegetarian “chicken” every night.
Old Lee shouts for Crazy May to get lost, but his customers scatter instead. I wish I, too, could go, but Lee is the only poulterer here who doesn’t pad his chickens’ free-range diet with industrial feed. He unhooks a weight from the end of his hand scale and loops the leather thong around the bird’s neck, silencing it as it is jolted taut from head to feet. Its frantic eyes dart.
“How’s that?” Old Lee shouts.
Crazy May turns to me and points at the convulsing chicken in Mrs. Lee’s hands. “That bird is still alive. It feels its feathers being plucked. It suffers the scalding water.”
Old Lee orders his wife and son back to work. Kicking at the dog in his path, he comes towards us to loom over May. “Dead birds twitch by reflex.”
Young Lee’s cleaver thumps on the chopping block. May clamps a hand on my arm. “Please, you mustn’t buy from this beast.”
I twist free and order Old Lee to cut his antics. He slides a pail under the bird and stabs at its jugular. Blood, black as the creature, thuds into the bucket. I tell Lee to dress my order. When I return from the herbalist, Crazy May is gone, and Lee has chopped and wrapped up my bird and thrown in some extra backbones for stock. While he diverts the lame ginger mutt circling us, I leave his stall.
Half a block away, I find the animal limping behind me. I shoo the dirty, matted thing away and wave my bag in menacing arcs. It falls back, but continues to stalk me, its eyes hungry and calculating.
I do not want to be alone with it in my quiet alley. When I scurry the last thirty steps home, the dog’s wobbly gait quickens. I yell and holler, but it keeps coming. Turning my key, I kick at it. The dog bares its teeth, its snarl guttural and frightening, and charges at me. I trip over the threshold, and my ankle twists and snaps as I slam onto the floor. I throw the shopping bag at the dog’s head to get it away from me, and it makes off with our meal.
My ankle screams with pain, and I can’t get up. I cry and yell myself hoarse, but no one comes. Smearing dirt into my scrapes, I crawl into the house and drag the phone off the counter to call Chin-ya. He has just left for a client’s office. Hwei-ling is also unavailable, out somewhere signing something or another. I dial emergency and lay myself at the threshold. In that anguish before help arrives, I understand how I have failed. If my daughter-in-law respected me as the venerable elder I should be, I would have had grandchildren long ago, would not have been relegated to do her shopping, cooking, and house cleaning. I would never have been in a position to be attacked by a dog and left on the ground to fend for myself.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
At the hospital, I lie alone between circles of protective loved ones. The doctor informs me that surgery is needed to repair my broken ankle and inquires as to the whereabouts of my family. I tell him an old lady like me has little to live for, that morphine is all I need. That and a quiet end. He adjusts my IV, glances at my chart, and tells the nurse to call my son again.
Chin-ya is at my bedside when I next open my eyes. “Hwei-ling went to the doctor, and the baby is holding on,” he tells me, his eyes wet. “You must endure this. The three of us are going to need you for a long, long time.”
“I am in the way.”
“The doctor is ready to take you into surgery.”
I shake my head. His damp hands grasp mine as the doctor puts me under.
I wake to Chin-ya’s and Hwei-ling’s haggard faces. It is very late, and my blood pressure will not go down.
I stare at Hwei-ling’s ashen complexion. I can feel the baby draining out of her. “Go home.”
“I’m fine,” she says. “We’re more worried about you.”
“I don’t need you here. Go rest.”
She forces a smile and wraps a hand around my son’s elbow, pulling him to her.
Drifting off, I realize that I have never really relied on Chin-ya and Hwei-ling. Taking charge of everything at home, I have spoiled and made them thoughtless. Perhaps this is just the kick in the behind Hwei-ling needs.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I wake the next morning to a woman imploring her mother to have a sip of chicken essence. In the bed next to mine, a middle-aged daughter stands behind a pouting, jaundiced matron and a spread of homemade breakfast, brushing the sparse strands of her hair. The mother chides whenever the comb snags. The daughter rattles on about her husband’s bed-shaking snores, her sister-in-law’s tasteless cooking, the mating habits of her upstairs neighbor. When she notices that I am awake, she explains that her mother has leukemia and has barely eaten or passed stool in days. She then pelts me with questions about my family and circumstance. I give minimal details. Saddened by my own answers, I close my eyes to make her stop.
Over the course of the day, this woman and her two sisters-in-law take turns bringing hot meals from home. Keeping up a non-stop chatter, they feed, wash, massage, and encourage their mother on the toilet. They besiege doctors and nurses with imported biscuits and caring questions.
I overhear from one of these magpies that Crazy May found at the pound upward of twenty animals caged together, covered in open sores, trampling their own feces and feeding on the dead. She was the one who freed the dogs and made off with Ah Pung’s wire loops and jaw traps. Crazy May is the reason I am in the hospital.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
That same day, Chin-ya checks in on me by telephone three times and Hwei-ling, once.
The daughter of my roommate is back for a second shift, ready to spend the night on the floor next to her mother when Chin-ya finally staggers in, his arms wrapped around an unwieldy pot of flowers. Their shock of funereal white stops my breath.
“Look at the gorgeous orchid Hwei-ling bought for you,” he exclaims as she trails in behind him. My roommate’s daughter oohs and aahs. Her mother shoots me a quizzical look.
“Thank you, but you shouldn’t have.” I know Hwei-ling is untraditional, but it still feels as if she’s wishing me toward my grave.
Hwei-ling catches Chin-ya’s eye.
He forces a laugh. “Of course we should. It’s not every day you break an ankle.”
After mere minutes of small talk, my two disappear in search of a nurse and an update on my condition. They could have just asked me.
When they finally return, I implore Hwei-ling—her face still pale and papery—to sit and rest at the foot of my bed. Even as I insist, she demurs and hangs off Chin-ya’s arm, useless and empty of talk, her weight clacking from one dangerously high heel to another.
I pretend not to be bothered and begin recounting my trip to the market for a black-meat chicken and herbs. I tell them of my valiant struggle to save dinner.
“Why would you fight a wild dog?” Chin-ya says.
My roommate clears her throat with great indignance—she has finally taken offense for me—and I smile as if my son is teasing. “Everything I do, I do for the good of my family.”
I expect Hwei-ling, at the very least, to acknowledge that my trip to the market was for her benefit, but she owns up to nothing. Exactly one hour after arriving, Chin-ya declares that Hwei-ling is eating for two and excuses themselves to go to dinner. My roommate’s daughter pries Hwei-ling’s work number from her and promises to look out for me.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Except for one frigid hour each evening and the occasional break Chin-ya steals from work, I spend the remainder of my stay at the hospital alone, my care left to strangers. I tell myself not to fret, that Hwei-ling will soon have her hands full with my recuperation. Stepping back from her job before the baby and I become her full-time responsibility will take time and planning. I see that I am right when she arrives to claim me on the morning of my discharge. She helps me into a taxi, and I am heartened by the rarity of her touch.
When we reach home, Crazy May and her father are waiting at our doorstep. He approaches the taxi to open my door and bows deeply.
“I could not leave the dogs like that,” Crazy May mutters to the ground, her fingers wringing the flap of her nun’s robe. “I did not mean for you to get hurt.”
Hwei-ling takes May by the shoulders and walks her toward me. “May has offered to take care of you until you are recovered.”
Her father bows again. “I apologize for my thoughtless daughter and thank you for giving her this chance to redeem herself.”
I glare at my daughter-in-law. Watching her hand off my crutches, I forget about my bad leg. It is all I can do not to bat May’s hands away when she catches me off-balance and wincing. Her father follows us into the house with a small knapsack.
After a week away, I’m struck by the dark air of our living room, the hard lines of our heirloom rosewood furniture. Coins, receipts, and mail litter our family altar. My twenty-year-old ficus has dropped most of its leaves. Hwei-ling has also left my brassieres and underpants—sloppily folded, I might add—on full display atop a dusty dining table. My cheeks burn at what these strangers are seeing. I hobble in the direction of the kitchen.
“Ma, won’t you lie down and rest?” Hwei-ling asks.
I frown until she, in her honeyed voice, invites May and her father to settle her things in my husband’s former study.
“She’s crazy,” I hiss.
“Chin-ya and I have interviewed half a dozen caregivers. Believe me, she was the best.”
“I won’t have her.”
May and her father reappear. Hwei-ling whispers her promise to find someone else if May does not work out. There is no love in her eyes.
She apologizes for the mess and thanks May in advance for her efforts. Claiming to be late for yet another important deal, she whisks the bowing father out the door, cutting short his exhortations to his daughter to be sensible.
Crazy May bows her briar patch of a head. “Young mistress told me that you keep an impeccable home. That you’ll give me instructions.”
I want to scoff at Hwei-ling’s laziness disguised as compliment, but remember whom I am dealing with. May’s eyes do not possess the fire of the other day, but an unmistakable pigheadedness shines through. Though somewhat homely, her facial features are well-proportioned. She looks about Hwei-ling’s age and is skin-and-bones like her, too.
May apologizes again for her part in my accident. She vows to do everything to help me get well. “But I will not participate in your consumption of other creatures.”
That’ll leave Hwei-ling something to do, I almost say. I hobble in the direction of my bedroom and then turn back to the living room, unsure where best to keep an eye on May. Home for five minutes, and I am exhausted. Hwei-ling has made me a watchdog in my own home.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I settle into our hard armchair. When I next open my eyes, I find myself bound like a mummy. Crazy May has propped both my legs onto a dining chair and tucked a blanket tight around me. Wriggling free, I knock over a basket I keep in the kitchen. Gone is my store of reusable plastic bags. Scattered on the floor are my deceased husband’s reading glasses, the TV clicker, and an unfamiliar copy of Confucius’s Four Books and Five Classics. May appears and offers to help me to the bathroom.
“Where are my plastic bags?” I bark.
“They were housing ants. I took the creatures outside.”
“Don’t move my things,” I tell her as she slips a hand beneath my armpit and helps me up. She offers me my crutches and accompanies me to the bathroom. May has placed a chair next to the toilet. She helps position me and reminds me to hang onto the chair back as I sit down. I tell her I know how to use the bathroom, but she refuses to leave until I am safely seated.
She leaves the door cracked. I watch her return to a water bucket and a pile of my good dish towels—now soot-colored—in the hallway. She pulls up her robe and bell sleeves and kneels. She wipes the centimeter-wide top of the baseboard. With another part of the rag, she goes over the same section again. May then does this a third time. It most certainly cannot hold that much dust. I close the door. When I peek out again, she is cleaning the floor tiles. Three times over each surface appear to be her obsessive method.
When I am done tinkling, she is instantly at my side. Handing me my crutches, she warns that the floor is slippery. She walks me back to the armchair.
“How much is she paying you?” I ask.
She bows her head. “It is my duty to care for you until you can walk again.”
Her answer breaks my heart. Hwei-ling is cheap towards me as well as lazy. She thinks that handing over her pay to me each month absolves her of emotional obligations.
Wary as I am, I find nothing so far to dislike about May. I could not train a servant or, for that matter, a family member to do for me all that she has done in just the last few minutes.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Without direction from me, May gives our home a thorough cleaning. She starts by ridding the ceiling and light fixtures of cobwebs. From vertical to horizontal surfaces, she eradicates dirt from crevices I’ve never paid mind to, chanting quietly when she thinks she is alone.
Whenever I make a move to stand, May stops whatever she is doing and tends to me. I do not like to ask for help and rarely have to. She brings me the newspaper every morning, tea on the hour, and medication when appropriate, escorts me to the bathroom, and serves three meals punctually each day. She expresses herself—always with thoughtfulness—only when spoken to. I keep waiting for her to force onto me her views on vegetarianism, on humane living, on her Confucian texts, but she stays mum.
I have no complaints except one. Despite my protests, May adheres to monastic standards. Not only has she taken meat off our menu, but she is sparing with soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and sugar as well. Her mountainous plates of cardboard greens wrench and bloat my gut.
I tell Hwei-ling that to nourish a healthy baby, she needs meat at every meal, but she continues to come home too late to cook.
One day at lunch, after I have consumed a mound of tofu and blanched pea sprouts with my rice, I smile at May and jokingly ask if, like me, meals without meat make her hungrier.
Her face falls. “It was never my intention to starve you. I don’t expect you to give up anything.”
“My daughter-in-law does not cook.” I turn away, not wanting May to see my shame or my sadness.
Her callused hand envelops mine. She promises to buy some bean curd sheets and black mushrooms and fix me vegetarian “chicken.”
“I don’t want you to betray your beliefs for me.”
“I would never do that.”
“I heard you left the nunnery because of mock chicken. Is that true?”
“Monastic life is at its core a selfish act. I’d rather be in the world and a light unto myself.”
I have not noticed until now how her complexion seems lit from within. She radiates warmth and goodness. “You are beautiful, both inside and out.”
May turns pink, more pleased at my compliment than I would have thought possible.
“To be effective in this world, you should consider dressing more like the rest of us.” I’ve been itching to tell her that.
She concedes that her father makes the same argument. I see that May has been waiting for someone to lead her out of her self-imposed corner. I take her to Hwei-ling’s room, rifle through both closets, and pry out old housedresses that she has not worn in years. I tell May to put on an emerald green one that shows off her skin. She is hesitant, but I coax and help her into it and show her how to belt it to advantage. I tell her that she has a good figure, that rather than contributing to her cause, the grey robe makes people question her sanity. I compliment the perfect oval of her face and advise her to grow her hair into the kind of boyish do I imagine she’d be comfortable in. She blushes at my attention, beaming gratitude, and my eyes grow damp, overwhelmed by how much I’ve longed for a daughter. A daughter-in-law.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When Chin-ya returns from work, his eyes cannot help lingering over May’s dress and her newfound curves, and nun or not, no woman is immune to that kind of attention. Her face glows rosy, turning a shade livelier every time Chin-ya looks in her direction, and I am glad. When Hwei-ling comes home, May apologizes and promises to retrieve her street clothes from home the next day.
I wrap my arm around May’s shoulder. “Of course Hwei-ling doesn’t mind.” I tell my daughter-in-law that I have given May two of her old dresses. “None of us can thank her enough.”
Smiling tightly all the while, Hwei-ling echoes my thanks, calling May a true treasure. She offers to comb through her closet for additional items.
When we are all seated for dinner, I present May with a white jade bangle. I take her hand, slip it onto her wrist, and tell her it is a gift from my mother-in-law. “By enclosing me in this perfect circle, she welcomed me into the embrace of this family. You have been more than a daughter to me.”
I enjoy every single moment of my family’s bug-eyed silence.
After May recovers from her shock, she tells me she’s touched. “But I can’t accept such a valuable gift.”
I can scarcely believe the rebuke in her voice. I grab her hand to stop her from sliding off the bangle. “You’ve taught me these last weeks that I give little when I give of my possessions. It is the giving of oneself that is the greatest gift.” It took some thinking to come up with this Buddha-inspired bit of wisdom to satisfy May and impress upon Hwei-ling.
“I have no need of material possessions,” May says, her brows cinched in familiar pigheaded resolve. “I would only donate your heirloom, and I don’t want to do that.”
“And you will do nothing of the kind.” I thought she had moved past that sort of behavior with me. I drop her hand. “Talk to her, Chin-ya.”
“Please, May.” He hesitates, and I urge him on with a flick of my chin. “We would be most honored if you would accept this small token of our appreciation.”
May broods. “All right. I will wear it while I’m here. When I go, I will carry your warmth in my heart, but I will give the bangle to Sister Hwei-ling.”
“Oh no. Please give it back to mother.” Hwei-ling’s “I don’t deserve it” disclaimer comes a beat too slow.
I have a mind to strangle them both.
“It’s my bangle, my decision, is it not?” May says.
“Of course,” I say, shaking my head with dismay. “It is my wish for you to have it, but if you must deny me, then give it to Hwei-ling. I am saving all my jewelry for her.”
May bows her head oh-so-reverently. Hwei-ling reiterates that she is undeserving, and then we stew in silence. It appears no one wants my bangle. Chin-ya clears his throat.
“What’s next for you, May?”
“I’m not ready for May to go,” I say.
“I’m just making conversation, Ma.”
May assures me she’s not going anywhere until I’m back on my feet. “After that, I’m headed to Tainan, to a slaughterhouse that wires their cows by the nostrils”—her eyes burn brighter with every word—“and floods them with hoses down their throat to pad their weight.”
“Your father agrees to let you live so far away?” I say.
“I don’t live with him now.”
“I’m watching over you now.”
“He’ll be relieved not to worry about me.”
Her logic confounds me. “Parents never stop worrying about their children, especially their single daughters far from home.”
“I’m not easy to live with. What I want to do is not easy,” May says. “My father has already raised me. It doesn’t make him a lesser parent if he doesn’t suffer my day-to-day struggles.”
I shake my head. Her father doesn’t strike me as one who considers his job with her done. “You don’t want anyone questioning your choices. You want your selfish freedom.”
May cocks her head, but doesn’t argue. Her expression is so serene that I wonder if she truly thinks she will be doing him a kindness by leaving.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Chin-ya gives May the morning off and accompanies me to my cast removal. Ever since I made a gift of the bangle, he has been cool with me, and today seems no different. He stays on the far side of the room, his eyes staring off at nothing as, centimeters from my skin, the buzz saw blindly severs.
The nurse leaves us a tub of suds afterwards, and it should be Hwei-ling, rather than him, kneeling before me, soaping my smelly feet and sloughing the layer of grime from my leg.
I tell him that his wife is one of the smartest people I know. “But she is not naturally intuitive. It wasn’t until May came along that I realized it was my fault. I should have been more explicit, telling her outright what I expect of her.”
He stops scrubbing and stares up at me, his Adam’s apple bobbing. The hardness in his eyes says I’ve got it all wrong. “You really shamed Hwei-ling—and me—telling May that she is a better daughter to you.”
“I never said that.”
“You gave her jewelry from Grandma that was meant to go to my wife. What do you call that?” Chin-ya picks up the towel on the ground and wipes his fingers one after another.
I wave away his objection. “You know I didn’t get anything of value from your grandmother until after she passed. Tell Hwei-ling I have much better jewelry saved up for the day she produces us an heir.”
“Hwei-ling doesn’t care about the bangle. I’m the one objecting.” He stands and paces, his face red. “And that green dress you so generously bestowed upon May? That dress was the first gift I ever gave my wife.”
I apologize immediately. “I didn’t know.”
“Hwei-ling thinks you’re trying to push her out and set me up with May.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Even as I protest, I see that in the deepest reaches of my heart I wanted Hwei-ling not to be Chin-ya’s wife. I had vowed never to become that sort of mother-in-law. My face pulses with heat. “I would not have given May anything if Hwei-ling had had the decency to pay her.”
“You think she’s cheap, too? She contributes more to this household than I do.” He rarely speaks to me with such disrespect. Such vitriol. “Hwei-ling feels so unwanted she’s been begging me to get our own place, to move out before the baby is born.”
“If Hwei-ling wants to move out, tell her to say it to my face.”
“I’m going to tell her yes.” His words come slow and measured. “I don’t ever want my wife to feel so unappreciated in her own home.”
Never did I suspect that Chin-ya and I were not on the same side, that the tug of war is between him and me. I pull at my collar to loosen its chokehold, and brace my aching heart against my hand.
Chin-ya grimaces and looks away. “After we move, I’ll sleep at home every other night until you get used to the change.”
I take the towel from him, lean over, and scrub my own ankle.
“What is so wrong about me?” I ask him. “I’ve only tried to do what’s best for Hwei-ling. For the two of you.”
“You know that she tells everyone how accomplished a cook you are, what a perfect house you run.”
“She says it as a rebuke. As do you.”
“You can understand why she wants a home to be in charge of, a child all her own?” Even as pain shoots up my ankle, I stand and hobble to my shoe. Chin-ya lurches for me, and his alarm is a small, but welcomed relief. He helps me back to the chair. He kneels, and I let him put on my shoe. I lift his chin with a hand. The plea in his eyes unmoors me: Chin-ya, too, yearns to be free of me. There will be no changing his mind. After a moment, he rests what feels like the weight of his entire marriage there.
“I don’t want to fight with you,” he says. “And I promise I’ll bring the baby to see you every day.”
“Tell you what,” I say. “You’re free to move out if Hwei-ling quits her job. No grandchild of mine is going to be raised by a stranger.” Bitterness courses through me even as I console myself: my sacrifice will be worthwhile if I am able to secure a dedicated, full-time wife and mother for my son and grandchildren.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Before I go to bed, I inform Chin-ya that his pregnant wife must eat breakfast with us from now on. The next morning, still in his pajamas, he rises almost an hour earlier than usual and accompanies her to the table, his breath sour, his hair mushed to one side, a gob of sleep in the corner of an eye. She hardly needs an intermediary.
“Go wash up first,” I say.
He grins, the only one in our household who can get away with looking unkempt. “I’m not awake yet.”
Hwei-ling pushes her bowl of rice congee toward Chin-ya. I slide a fried egg in front of her and smile until she manages a bite. May enters from the kitchen with plates of boiled peanuts and pickled turnip and sits down with us.
Chin-ya opens up the newspaper and, arms stretched wide, erects a screen that shields his wife. “Some women have started a mahjongg group at the park. Keeping the brain sharp while enjoying the great outdoors. A good idea, don’t you think, Ma?”
He knows I hate gambling, not to mention gambling in public, but I don’t argue. I will not bring discord to the table and risk souring our baby’s future disposition.
Chin-ya flips to the next page. “There’s a dim sum making class at three today.” He asks Hwei-ling if the cooking school is near a subway stop.
“Ma should take a cab.” She turns to May and repeats herself, as if to register her filial goodness.
I pull down Chin-ya’s newspaper and stare at Hwei-ling. “When will you quit your job?”
Her eyes grow big. “I wish it were that easy. I’d like to, but I don’t know how we could manage on one income.” She throws out a high rental figure for apartments in the area. “And children are expensive. You’d like your grandchild to attend a private school and take music lessons, wouldn’t you? And have the best tutors and doctors?”
She must think I’ve never raised a child before. Seeing as she expects me to sacrifice everything when she intends to give up nothing, I furrow my brow and consider a way to make it easy for her.
“Our house is too big for one person,” I say. “I need no more than a small studio apartment. You can afford to quit if I move out.”
Hwei-ling blanches. “We can’t let you do that. This is your home.”
I turn to my son. “This house is your inheritance. I am an outsider, a daughter-in-law. Our ancestors will strike me down should I dare make off with what rightfully belongs to you.”
Chin-ya, too, looks pale. What I left unsaid—what should be going through both their heads—is the fact that only a woman who has dishonored her family is ousted from her marital home. A woman who has been a pious daughter-in-law, a compliant wife, and a self-sacrificing mother does not deserve such a fate.
“You mustn’t think that way,” Chin-ya says.
I say, “This is not the time for Hwei-ling to move or lift anything and risk another miscarriage.”
She stiffens, and Chin-ya wraps his hand around hers, his knuckles white. My own inauspicious words echo in my ears, and all of a sudden, I feel unbearably tired.
I take a deep breath and ask May if she would become my live-in companion. With pay.
She thinks a moment before replying that she could give me two more months. “I have to free the slaughterhouse cows.”
Everyone wants their freedom. I tell Chin-ya to start searching for my apartment. “You’ve shown me how difficult I am to live with. I am the mother. I will move out.”
Chin-ya frowns. “This is not what you want.”
“I would never want to be the source of your suffering.”
I answered Chin-ya in a pique, but my own words grab me and refuse to let go. I love my child too much to willfully cause him or his wife pain. My late husband would agree: my good intentions and hard work mean nothing when they are unwanted or misinterpreted. I remember how, long ago, he and I had also dreamed of a house of our own.
I look away from Chin-ya and force myself to envision a comfortable and sunlit space with furnishings of my choosing. A place where I could dress and eat as I please, lose myself to lazy afternoon naps, and not be the master of diaper changes. A home where I could speak what I feel and act without first considering everyone else. A haven where I am neither the paragon of familial virtue, its enforcer, or its watchdog. I line up my chopsticks and wipe my eyes. Would that be so bad, so very, very wrong?