Perfect Gifts For Mothers
ZYZZYVA, Winter 2008, Vol. XXIV, No. 3
After dinner, I seek out my husband in his workshop. Over the years, An-din has taken over the room that for a century had housed the girls born into his family, the room that we had intended for our second child. An-din now spends his evenings there, if he is not at the archery range, fashioning bows and arrows for a hobby he once took up with our son.
I cross our concrete courtyard to the opposite arm of our U-shaped compound. A pungent and eye-watering substance keeps me outside his door. Hunched over one of his hand-built workstations, An-din scrapes a lone arc of wood propped between two blocks. Next to him, a viscous liquid gurgles in a small pot while a fan blows at the rack of bows curing in the corner.
My heart aches as I watch his sinewy arms bulge and flex over a long strip of black sheep horn—the material that gives bows their snap. An-din has remade himself into the kind of man he wishes our son to be. The sound grates at my insides before he peers over his bifocals and notices me.
I smile. “BaoBao told me today he wants to get married.”
My husband studies me for a moment before repositioning the bow.
The glue pot burps.
An-din stirs it with a brush and dabs the liquid in even intervals along the black horn. “You know why not.”
“You never want to help him.”
“You can fight his battles, be his mouthpiece to the world. You can find him a job—even be responsible for his performance at work. But you know you cannot get married for him.”
His oh-so-reasonable tone digs at my insides. “I am going to find him a wife.”
“And then what? Move into their bedroom?”
“Wouldn’t you like a daughter and grandchild? Someone who’ll talk to you?”
“You’re setting him up for failure and us, if we are lucky, with a grandchild we will never see grow up.”
I know An-din’s fears are not unfounded, but I hate that he has reconciled himself to our son’s limitations and accepted it as our life sentence. “You don’t want him to be happy.”
An-din scrapes his stool across the concrete floor and positions the bow onto another wooden horse. He clamps down one end and threads a string walker.
“He is content with the way things are now.” He grunts as he wraps the horn to the middle of the bow. “I don’t need to tell you he is not interested in people. You yourself say he can’t make friends.”
“That’s never stopped you.”
An-din pulls tight the string, and the curved bow tip snaps and clangs onto the cement floor. He groans and slaps the bow down. “Why don’t you help him with something he can be good at?”
I cannot bring myself to say that our son is not good at anything that matters. “What are you afraid of? We have so little to lose.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
After dinner the next night, we play our conversation game. Our thirty-seven-year-old son has been diagnosed with everything from brain damage to attention deficiency to emotional retardation. The last doctor we consulted in Taipei showed us this game. He told us that BaoBao’s condition has no cure, that his impairments will drive him deeper and deeper into himself.
We are to force our son to interact daily with a predictable set of people. With relentless intervention. So we play this conversation game every night.
BaoBao begins by sorting the deck into four piles: zero for non-sequiturs, one for a direct response, two for an on-topic question, and three for an added thought or feedback. BaoBao always goes first.
“BaBa, are you going to the archery range tonight?” He flicks his eyes at his father at the end of the question and picks up a two-point card.
“Yes. Championship titles don’t defend themselves, you know?” My husband gives himself a one pointer and flashes BaoBao a quizzical look as his hand hovers above the two-point pile.
“No points,” our son barks. “Good job, you working so hard. What are you practicing tonight?” He awards himself two cards and starts two piles.
Our child delivers his compliment in a monotone, but An-din smiles, nevertheless. “Thank you. That’s a very nice thing you said. I’m going to try to top my seventeen targets per minute record. Maybe you and Ma can come and help?” An-din picks up two cards.
BaoBao hands him two more. “You added two thoughts and answered my question and asked a question.”
“Oh. Thanks.” An-din tosses the cards atop his pile.
Our son leans over and organizes the stack, and I roll my eyes at my husband. He knows better than to slow the game down.
“Would you like to go with me tonight?”
“I can’t. Ma is forcing me to stay home . . .”
"What? That’s not true,” I say.
“That’s interrupting, Ma. You owe the bank two points.” He gives himself two cards.
“I am not forcing you to stay home.”
“Don’t lie! You said I have to write letters. Are you trying to go back on your word?” He gives me a card and takes it right back before awarding himself.
“I will gladly wait a day. Go with BaBa.”
“No thanks,” he mutters.
“Who are you writing to?” An-din asks.
“Ma wants me to write marriage proposals.” His voice is even more flat than usual, bored even. “Why do I have to do that?”
“Don’t you want to get married?” My husband directs his question at my son, but his blazing eyes are on me.
“How long is it going to take?”
“At least a couple of months,” I tell him. I am allowed to keep my first point card. “You and the girl will correspond and get to know each other before marrying.”
“No,” he bellows. “To write the letter!”
“We can do one a night. Probably twenty minutes at the most.”
BaoBao tilts his head, waves a hand palm down. “No thanks.”
BaoBao feeds us cards as I defend my plan to find our son a mail order bride from a backwoods region on the Mainland.
My husband and I argue about our son’s intentions, about the difference between his desire for marriage and his resistance to writing letters. We keep our voices calm, saccharine even, doing our best to model civil conversational give and take.
After ten rounds of exchanges, BaoBao accuses us of hogging the conversation. He subtracts our points and announces that our ten-minute game is over. Eager to declare a winner, he adds up the scores.
An-din asks again if he wants to marry, but BaoBao is done with talking.
An-din invites me to the range. I remind him that our son is counting on a letter writing session with me.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Right after our game, BaoBao hides in his room. I give him ten minutes of free time. Standing outside his door, I hear high-pitched commands and thumping, and I know he is enacting video game scenarios in his head. The level of noise suggests turned over furniture and leaping bodies, but when I enter the room, I find, as I always do, my adult child on his belly stretched across his bed, his freestyle feet kicking at bunched bedcovers and an arm gesticulating to no one. As I stand over him, he flips to the next page of his manga.
I squeeze between him and his bedrail and ask him to sit next to me. I show him the photo of my number one choice. Grinning ear to ear in the picture, this woman oozes likeability though she is not what anyone will consider pretty.
I point at the puppy that she hugs to her chest. “What kind of dog is this?”
My son is fascinated by the idea of dog. He watches dog rescue shows and memorizes canine facts, but when we visit my brother and his Pekinese, BaoBao is as lost interacting with the animal as he is with people.
“It’s a cross between a rough haired Chow Chow and a Foo dog.”
“Are you sure?”
BaoBao rolls his eyes and roars, “I have read every dog encyclopedia.”
There is little point arguing with him, and I begin reading:
I am twenty-eight years old. I have never known my parents. I lived in an orphanage until I was eight and my grandfather was able to change my residency. I now live with my most patient aunt. You sound like the loving husband I seek. I am happy to hear you value your family so highly. I would be privileged to live with and to honor your parents. I have always longed for the guidance of mother and father, be it the intention of our good Lord.
By my calculations, the girl was born at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. I wonder about the fate of her parents, about our chances of becoming involved with a damaged soul. I normally balk at this sort of religious fervor, but in this case, I am prepared to accept a charitable heart in any form. I turn to BaoBao, “You like her so far?”
He exhales. “When can I start writing?”
I decide to skip the rest of the letter. Her shoe factory job will mean little to him, as will her interest in cooking and early childhood education. I give BaoBao a clipboard with lined paper and show him the characters of the girl’s name before handing him a pencil.
“Dear Ting-li,” I say as I anchor my son’s calf with my foot. “You can’t write properly if half your body is twitching.”
BaoBao scribbles the salutation in his careless script. His crooked lines and disconnected radicals are no better than those of a six year old’s.
“What are you going to write?”
He begins before I have a chance to direct his thoughts.
Longhaired chow chows are stubborn and sluggish. Mixed shorthairs are better choice.
“You can’t say that!” I tell him. “We don’t even know for sure it’s a Chow Chow.”
“I am not starting over.”
That sloppy writing is not going to win him a wife. I tell him to come up with three statements about himself and three questions for the girl, and I’ll recopy it. BaoBao works diligently for the first minutes. Soon, he is tearing apart the fraying corner of the clipboard.
“Hey, keep writing.”
I tap the clipboard: “I like to spend my free time . . .”
Blocking my view of the paper with his shoulder, BaoBao resumes. I redirect his attention three more times before he is done.
He rolls out of bed before handing me his work. “I’m not rewriting this.” He peers out of a corner of his eye for my reaction.
“Good job,” I tell him. “You’re done for tonight.”
BaoBao runs from his room before I change my mind. I squint to make out his smeared, spidery scrawl.
I am Senior Correspondence Specialist Level V. I handle transactions to 57 cities in Taiwan and 148 cities around the world and the shipping rates of all package Size Weight and Destination. To move up in rank to Communications Manager Level 8 I need 3024 work hours 200 hours of training 3 years of superior job rating. I work 8.30 to 5 Mondays to Fridays 8.30 to 12.00 Saturdays.
I end and separate his thoughts, punctuating and sighing as I read. He’s written nothing of use.
I like to spend my free time gaming. Xbox 360 is my preferred system. Because of its 3 3.2 Ghz CPU 500 Mhz ATI graphics processor 512 MB memory create the most powerful experience for the serious gamer
I want to win gold medal at the World Cyber Games. The premier cyber athletes of the world train 9 hours a day Ma says its not healthy but I want to win 2.5 million US dollars to buy a house
Will you bring your dog? what are your favorite games? will you be angry if I dont marry you
A cursory read makes clear that no woman in her right mind will want to marry the man BaoBao presents on paper. I try out a few openers in my head, doing my best to stay true to him and his original composition.
I have ambitious dreams but my heart is solidly grounded in hearth and home. I am a playful person with an eye and ear for details. My photographic memory will preserve and cherish forever the innermost sentiments we share.
I jot down my ideas and give myself a two-day deadline to answer the five letters.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next day, as I am packing stewed drumsticks and bean cakes into my son’s bento box, An-din returns home unexpectedly a quarter before noon. He sits in the living room. I tell him I’ll speak to him from the kitchen while I slice the cucumber. I’d rather not waste money on a cab ride just to deliver lunch.
An-din comes into the kitchen and stands over me. “Chen just called.” Chen is an old family friend and our son’s supervisor at work.
I put down the cleaver. “What’s wrong? Why didn’t he call me?”
An-din tells me that our son has completed just half his usual shipments this morning. He affixed a label for Nagasaki on a package bound for Singapore and neglected to cushion half the boxes with Styrofoam before taping them shut.
“I’ll go check on him right away.” I wonder if BaoBao had taken a spill from his bike and bumped his head. I search for my purse and run into An-din at every turn.
“Chen said that he seemed skittish. When questioned, he asked if his three hundred thousand and forty-two NT savings were sufficient to buy a house. He also said he is afraid you will be furious with him.”
My ears burn. I edge An-din out of my path and uncover my bag behind the rice barrel. An-din accompanies me to the front door, but leans his back against it when I reach for the knob.
“I’m guessing he doesn’t want to get married.”
"We have yet to mail off any replies.”
“That’s not how he perceives it.” An-din’s words are soft and measured.
“I know,” I answer in an equally deliberate tone, hating him. “I’m going to go straighten this out right now.”
Legs crossed now, An-din still does not budge from the door. “He also told Chen he wants to live by himself because you won’t let him play Grand Theft Auto or Postal, and you forbid fried foods.”
“Chen understands that BaoBao needs rules for his own good.”
“He wants to try living on his own. He asked Chen to help him, and I told them that it was all right with me.” An-din places a hand beneath my elbow and tries to steer me from the door.
“You’re finally getting your wish, aren’t you?” I shake him off. “But you know, out of sight does not mean out of mind.”
“I told him to go buy himself lunch today. He has money. He will manage.”
I slam the door to our bedroom and call up Chen. I ask if BaoBao is all right.
“He’s more than all right,” Chen replies. “Your boy is all grown up!”
“How can you do this to me?” I say, letting my voice break. “Who’s going to take care of us when we’re old and sick?”
Chen, of course, has no answer. I let him stew over what he has done before I ask to speak to my son.
I try to reason with BaoBao. “You cannot live on your own.”
“But BaBa promised,” he howls.
“It’s not possible.”
“You never let me do what I want.”
Tears roll down my face. He will never understand. I put down the phone.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I decide to become the kind of mother my son wants, a mother who does not care.
From our bookshelf, I take our thickest tome, Dream of the Red Chamber, and try to lose myself in reading. Late in the afternoon, I am well into the first volume, stuck on a remedy for over-heatedness, a condition that is blamed for the ill health of one of the heroines. The prescription calls for twelve ounces each of the dried stamen of four white flowers—spring peonies, summer water lilies, autumn lotuses, and winter plums—steeped in twelve drams each of rain, dew, frost, and snow. The medicine requires meticulous gathering of copious ingredients in addition to two years preparation. The thought that devotion and two years time are considered so difficult a cure overwhelms me with exhaustion.
I am overcome by a desperate desire to hand off the care of my middle-aged son, to be unburdened of my worry and heartbreak, to love just a little less, this child who cannot reciprocate affection.
When An-din comes home before his usual hour, I look away, my eyes ugly with crying. He nudges me hello with his elbow, but I sit, numb. I hide behind the pages of my book as he brings me tea and sweeps the spotless floor around my feet, all in the vain attempt to catch my eye and flash me his guilty smile.
Then, BaoBao creeps into the house. From the corner of my vision, I sense his right eye twitch and blink.
“Ma,” he says. He blinks again and opens his mouth in an inaudible stutter.
His father strides over and throws an arm around his shoulder. “We are so happy. You are a true adult when you are ready to be on your own.”
BaoBao’s tics ease up, and he grins. “What’s for snack?”
Aware that I have not cooked, An-din announces that we are going out to celebrate and asks our son to pick a restaurant. BaoBao happily chooses his favorite noodle shop, clueless that my silence does not equal my assent or forgiveness.
“I am mad at you,” I tell him. “If you have a problem with me, then you need to tell me, not complain to an outsider.”
“O.K.,” my son says, his eyes twitchy again.
He peeks at me. I glare back and keep my brows knitted. An-din suggests that we discuss and plan the move over dinner. I tell them that from now on they are free to do whatever they like without my interference.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It is Mother’s Day, and I am alone in bed. With my husband’s help, our son moved out two weeks ago. Since then, An-din tells me over and over, “He will find his proper place.” He is intent on having our son play out their grand idea to its absurd conclusion. I decide that the less assistance I give, the quicker the situation will implode, so I divide my time between my Qing Dynasty novel and its love triangle between cousins, and the courtship of potential brides for my son. By the time I finish my three thousand-page serial, BaoBao will be home again, and we will be in the position to propose marriage and start our new family.
In years past, An-din reminded our son of this special day, planned with and coached him through the expectations. This morning, I wake to my husband’s guilty smile.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” he tells me. “Congratulations on negotiating the most important hurdle of parenthood.”
He disappears and returns minutes later in a careful shuffle, hugging our ceramic rice barrel to his chest. As he eases it onto the floor next to the bed, water almost tilts out. Inside, two orange-red goldfish with bubble sacs eyes and tremoring side fins hover next to each other.
“This was my fishbowl when I was a child,” he says. “Did you know goldfish are meant to be viewed like this, from above?”
The fantails undulate like bridal veils.
“They are going to die in there.”
“I’ll get them an air pump.”
I shoot daggers at him with my eyes. “Two fish can’t make up for a son.”
“Feed them. Forget to feed them. They’ll reward you just the same.”
“What about BaoBao?”
“He is who he is.” His voice drops to a whispery plea. “Let him be.”
I stare at the fish—sure targets for predators—and seethe. Three generations of An-din’s family have lived under this roof. Not one of them would have allowed a son—an only son—to move out. By the time noon rolls around and my stomach rumbles with deprivation, I am beside myself with An-din for relegating my special day to chance, for sacrificing me to a larger life lesson. I pick up the phone and call for the first time since he moved out.
“Do you know what day it is?” I say. “It’s Mother’s Day.”
“But I thought you’re mad at me.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see you on Mother’s Day. Don’t you know you have to do something nice for your mother on Mother’s Day?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
At five o’clock, my husband and I ring BaoBao’s doorbell. A rhythmic din pulses from an upstairs window as we wait. A minute goes by and our son does not answer. We push the doorbell again, and again another minute later. I tell my husband that BaoBao cannot hear us over his video game and that we should use the spare key.
“We are his guests,” my husband says. “We will wait to be let in.”
I imagine his disappointment on Father’s Day and on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death when his son and I will do nothing. An-din urges me to move to the shade, but I do not. I mop the sweat from my brow and suffer. I hold down the doorbell.
Ten minutes later as worry and visions of my son knocked unconscious in the bathtub overtake my anger, a heavyset figure appears at the end of the street shuffling toward us, his torso bulging inside a tight, batik t-shirt I have not seen in five years and his bottom in clashing madras shorts.
This sight of him breaks my heart anew. I regret not helping him pack. I regret staying away for so long. Arms weighed by bags of groceries, BaoBao stands rail straight as I throw myself around his waist for a hug. He has thickened since he moved out. I take two bags from him and feel sick when I see the packages of junk he’s bought for himself.
“You left your mother sweltering in the sun for fifteen minutes,” An-din says as we climb the stairs to the third floor. “When you make a date, you must be on time.”
BaoBao hunches his shoulders and looks back to check if I am angry. I shrug; his dad can be the bad guy for once. Our son proceeds on up the stairs and offers no explanation.
“How’re you doing?”
“Fine.” BaoBao is flights ahead, unaware that his parents are old and arthritic.
“Do you miss us?” I yell.
“No . . . I mean, yes.”
“Ready to come back home?”
His forceful “no” echoes down the stairwell.
BaoBao takes his groceries into the kitchen. My husband points to a floral paper bag from a cosmetic store on the living room table. I grin, but my eyes drift to the new desktop computer next to the television and the dozen new video games that neatly line the space between them the way books nestle in a real home. Dead or Alive, Halo, Need for Speed, War Hammer, Counter-Strike—I read the game titles and dread my son’s regression. I thumb through the game covers, glancing at soldier robots and buxom blondes, and soon realize our host is not going to rejoin us. We find him in the kitchen watching over two pots of water on the stove.
“You forget about us?” my husband jokes.
“You said I should never leave fire unattended.”
We both agree right away that he is correct. I ask what he is cooking, and he tells us that he is boiling vegetable dumplings for me and pork dumplings for his father and himself.
“I don’t get meat?”
“You like vegetables.”
I am heartened that my son has considered my perspective even though he has confused my concern for a balanced diet with my personal preference.
The three of us stand together and wait and wait and watch the water come to a boil. I tell my son he can drop in the dumplings. He glances at his timer and insists the water needs to boil for fifty-two more seconds. I explain that when bubbles burst to the surface, the water is ready.
“You’re wrong,” he states and refers to the back of the dumpling bag. Step 1: Boil a medium saucepan of water for five minutes.
When his timer finally dings, BaoBao fills a ladle with frozen dumplings and eases them into the pots.
“Nice. No splashing,” I say.
BaoBao grins. “I figured that out after I burned myself.”
I gasp, but my husband smiles.
“You should offer your mother something to drink.”
“Sorry Ma.” He talks to his feet. “I only have Coke.”
An-din tells him that we both like Coke—a drink I don’t stock at home due to BaoBao’s weight problem. Our son looks up, mouth unhinged. He opens his refrigerator and blocks the bottom shelf full of two-liter Coke bottles. I glare at my husband, but he will not acknowledge me.
"I only drink one glass a day,” BaoBao stammers and blushes.
My husband claps him on the back. “You’re the boss.”
The water has come to a boil again, and half a minute later the timer rings. BaoBao turns on the faucet, fills a measuring cup, lowers his eye to the counter to check the water level, and dumps out some excess liquid. He does this until he has exactly 250 milliliters before adding the cold water to each pot. His precision is comical, maddening even, but I find myself silently cheering him on. He follows every step of the cooking instructions, and when he scoops the dumplings out into bowls, my heart swells with accomplishment.
An-din and I carry the food to the table and sit. I am starving, having spent the day fasting in bed in quiet protest, but again our son does not come. Back in the kitchen, I find him washing rice. “What are you doing? Let’s go eat.”
“We only have one food color.”
I want to point out that rice and dumplings are both white and starches, that the filling is another color, but think the better of it. I help retrieve the frozen peas while BaoBao fusses with the water for the rice cooker. I watch him read the directions and steam the peas to perfection. We wait twenty long minutes for the rice. By the time we sit down to eat, the dumplings are cold and stuck to each other, the peas shriveled. There are no real dishes to accompany the rice, but I am heartened by my son’s newfound abilities. I ask him what he has been doing the last two weeks and how he likes living on his own.
“It’s good practice for my move to South Korea,” he informs us.
I look at my husband in alarm. An-din asks what’s in South Korea.
“The best cyber athletes in the world live and train there. They have over 26,000 bangs.”
I am about to ask about bangs when An-din covers my hand with his own and smiles at me.
“I like that you dream. Everyone should have hopes and dreams.”
BaoBao gulps the dumplings and as always, answers no questions and attempts no conversation. He counts out his peas and swallows them in one go. After he has eaten his quota of dumplings (two dozen), rice (two bowls with a half teaspoon soy sauce each), and vegetables (a pea for every year of his life), BaoBao disappears. We hear the toilet flush, but he does not return to the table. We finish eating and then find him in bed on his stomach reading.
“You should always be with your guests when they visit,” An-din tells our son.
“Oh. Sorry.” He blinks three times, but stays put.
“Are you ready for us to go?”
“Walk us to the door then.”
I look at An-din in disbelief. “I’m not ready to go. I have a letter to show him.” I had commissioned one of our potential brides to answer in the form of a comic book.
“Another time.” An-din places his hand on the small of my back and maneuvers me out of the room.
Our son clomps along behind us. His dad thanks him for dinner and points at the present as we pass the living room table.
“Oh, yeah, happy Mother’s Day,” BaoBao mumbles. He picks up the paper bag by the handle and swings it toward me.
An-din lunges and catches the presents as they slip out. He passes me two unwrapped bottles of scented body lotion. My son has never before bought me a gift of his own volition.
“Dinner was delicious. And this is just what I wanted,” I tell him.
“I know,” he says. “There was a sign outside the store that said Perfect Gifts for Mothers.”
I throw my arms around BaoBao’s neck and bury my face in the breadth of his chest, staying there until he starts to fidget. I leave the hand-drawn comics on top of the television.
Our boy stands at his apartment door and waves. Soy sauce stains the front of his shirt, but he wears a contagious grin. I clutch the two lotions to my chest and beam back at him. An operating manual of sorts and the possibility of a step-by-step future for all of us unfold in my head. Before I take my first step down the stairs, the door slams, and our son is gone.
An-din does not follow, and I turn to see his face wet with tears. I tell him gently it’s time to leave, but he shakes his head and remains rooted, his mouth grasping for composure. I climb back up, take hold of his elbow, and coax him to lower one leg after another down the steep flights of steps toward home.