The Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
The Americans call this an island since it stands in the center of the kitchen.
She watches her father sifting and stirring by the stove; only this marble island separates the two of them. He chops clumps of potatoes into thin strips and tosses them into the frying pan. He must enjoy watching the chemical reaction of vegetables– how the colors change from light to dark, how raw ingredients pop into place over the hot wire of moving electrons. He is cooking tonight because his wife has fallen asleep in the living room, her face pressed against the ivory cushion that will surely leave red checkered marks on her cheek when she eventually lifts her head. He is cooking without an apron and does not want to wake her.
"Mary's parents say 'good evening' to each other," she begins, spreading her elbows further apart on the marble so that her neck leans more and more forward. Her nose almost touches the glass vase, but the iris flowers tilting over the edge prevent direct contact. She plays with the fallen purple petals that lie under the vase, listless and curled at the edges.
"It's important. It's significant. It means... something," she adds with a hurried glance at the top of her mother's head poking up from the sofa– her glimmering black hay-stack hair static and tangled like the shadows of a beautiful tropical plant. The house is full of potted plants– perhaps the only presents her mother ever receives with true delight: African violets in the summer, yellow tulips in the spring.
Her father responds with a definitive look in her direction, "We not American." Satisfied with this answer, he turns back around and concentrates on the simmering vegetables in the frying pan. Occasionally he pokes the celery-potato concoction with the thicker end of his chopsticks.
"But... but why can't we say things like..." she feels her stomach tighten, "...like Mary's parents always say 'I love you' when she leaves the house for school and when she makes good grades or right after she comes home at night." Her father pours dinner into two plates that curve from the rim. It's a wonder the sauce stays put. She tries again, "Why don't we at least say 'bon appetit'?"
"We not French." He leans over to hide his amusement and takes out finished dishes from the oven below the stove.
One week before it was time to leave Beijing, she wet the bed and bit her lower lip as she slept fitfully at first, then deeply. On the third night, her mother found her entangled in the mosquito net above the bed. Her chubby arms, brown from too much playing in the sun, slouched over the wooden curve of the bedpost like a pair of corduroy pants. What an unruly sight– a body somewhere underneath the net, feet kicking pillows in the air, and heaps of blankets in her sleep.
As she dreamt, her mother packed their belongings into two new suitcases she had bought at the Kunlon shopping center. She woke up the next morning and peeked into her dresser to find only a polka-dot play-dress and underwear lying next to each other. Everything else was zipped up inside the two suitcases, not to be opened again until they were halfway around the world.
Their first American house has the new house smell she loves. The wooden floor boards smell of polish and not yet of feet. She watches the sunset glide effortlessly onto the floorboards and swallow everything in its way– including her mother and the couch she favors so much. The kitchen is not cut off from the living room, so the stir-fry steam flows freely to the other side, and she can see her mother's eyes begin to flutter and her body begin to stir. The rich scent and the inevitable rays of the sunset have woken her at last.
They stand next to each other, her mother and she, perusing the weekly grocery ads in the free newspaper that comes every Sunday. Her mother looks up only to check on dinner's progress. She uses her hands to waft the smell her way. She eyes the unused apron hanging on the knob of the top kitchen drawer. But her mother is still too tired to rescue the broccoli and water chestnut dish herself.
"Not enough salt, Wang Ning." She has never heard her mother call him Wang Ning. So for a moment she forgets the present topic and concentrates on this newfound display of affection. Criticism, someone once told her, is the sincerest form of love. She moves closer, eager to see something else go on between them, something less calculated and more common. She ends up opening the wrong drawer– the one with all the leftover napkins and straws from fast food restaurants instead of the one with the real silverware and wooden chopsticks.
As the two traveled, the tiny wheels of the suitcases skittered across Beijing's most crowded avenues and boulevards, dodging streetlamps and other passenger's heels. Each stage of the journey felt more urgent than the next. Her mother carried both suitcases up every flight of stairs, through every elevated terminal, and hoisted them onto every conveyer belt. She pushed the beasts by grabbing hold of the straps and dragging them across the floor like a matador holds the horns of the bull. So they arrived, hair tussled and tired.
At the terminal, she recognized her father only by piecing small arrays of images together: first his thick hair that swirled up at the back like a rooster's crown and then his high nose, unusual by oriental standards. When he swept her up in his arms, she touched his earlobes and remembered rubbing them between her fingers as she fell asleep. It was a childhood habit– biting her lips and rubbing her father's earlobes as he pretended to sleep beside her.
"How much was the cost?" her mother wondered out loud as she examined the strange texture of her husband's new leather coat, suspiciously poking her thin finger through the middle buttonhole. He quickly adjusted the collar of his new bomber jacket.
"I got on sale at market," her father replied proudly, slipping glances toward where his daughter stood, her short, chubby arms wrapped around her mother's right leg. "We go together next week."
Then it happened. At age seven and a half, she witnessed her mother plant a demure, understated, tasteful kiss on her father's cheek. Or maybe it had landed on the side of his mouth. It had been years, and her mother was a little out of practice. But it did happen.
"Wait. So why isn't it important? Saying 'I love you' like the Americans do. Why isn't it important?" She angrily stabs at rice clumps with the only fork she could find among the random assortment of silverware. Her parents give each other a secret little look, their eyes laughing, and she does not find any of this quite as entertaining as they do. She rebels by turning on the television with live coverage of an actor's wedding.
"We wanted a private ceremony. Very intimate, very classy," the bride gushes, her eyes glimmering into the camera.
"Ha! She on TV and she say 'private'?" Her father gets up and helps himself to a second portion of rice. He points to the bride darting across the television screen in a clingy ivory dress dancing away in a ring of red orchards. "Marry today, divorce tomorrow."
He shakes his head and takes his seat across the marble island. This time she can see through the vase and notices the sudden rush of blood to her father's cheeks as they interact with the purple hues of the iris bouquet.
Yesterday, she woke up to a sample of diet pills carefully arranged next to her morning teacup.
As soon as she heard the garage door close, she looked out from her bedroom window across the snow and array of white houses. Her parents' blue hatchback Honda pulled out of the wave-shaped driveway like a lone humpback whale leaping from the sea. She bolted downstairs, heading straight for the kitchen cabinet. There it was, on a post-it note barely the size of her palm: "Do Not Eat!"
She could have cried, with her head sticking into the cabinet like Marie Antoinette's before it was cut off with a clean sweep of the French guillotine. Could she have stretched one finger out and taken the Twinkies slumped by the cereal boxes? Those cream-filled sugar worms squished so grotesquely on top of square packages of Ramen noodles will be the death of her in more ways than one. Her mother would know if she cheated again. Tomorrow– more post-it notes, neon and miniature, each with second warnings printed on them– something along the lines of "Yesterday six pop-tarts, today only five!"
Should she have to sit with thunder thighs through another night of their karaoke and poker parties– the men patting their beer bellies and roaring with laughter after each gambler crawled under the table; the women singing duets and getting all tangled up in the microphones' extension cords– she would refuse all their company.
She retreated from the cupboard and pinched the layer of fat around her waist. Her back pressed against the marble island, and she turned to see a platter of fruit arranged neatly in the center– free for the taking. Post-it-note-free. She laughed out load even though no one was there, picked up the telephone hanging vertical and elegant from the kitchen wall, and began to dial her father's office number. She planned to leave a message: Ha-ha! I get your hints! Clever! Clever! But when the tone sounded, she quickly put the receiver down. Then she grabbed a Granny Smith apple and felt the blood pounding in her palm.
Her mother shoots rabbits with chemicals and releases hundreds of malaria-infested mosquitoes into the cages of hamsters as part of her work as a research specialist. One morning she asked to borrow her mother's lab coat; she needed a Halloween costume.
The next night she woke and crept downstairs to refill her glass of water. The kitchen light was on. A tiny figure was leaning against the sink, her shoulders and arms heaving up and down like a black-feathered crane catching fish in the early morning swamps. When her mother turned around, a guilty look flashed across her face.
"I forget to wash this. You need for tomorrow?" There it was– the white lab coat dripping tap water into the sink. Soap stuck to her mother's forearms and her sleeves were giving way and threatened to slip down. She rolled her mother's sleeves up one by one.
She did not sleep that night.
Her father had taken her out on the boat he borrowed from the lab. They floated out of the harbor and drifted along the freshwater shore, watching beach goers transform into bobbing heads in the water. Were they still in China, she could have reached out with one hand to grab hold of water lily petals so big they'd fill up half the sky. Her father handed her a loaf of bread that had gone green and moldy at the edges, and she threw a few crumbs, laughing at the delightful sight of nearby ducks fighting over her charity: their quacking and flapping of wings, their splashing mess sending miniature tsunami waves across the lake. Her mother watched from the shore. She was the lighthouse to their stranded ship; her bright yellow ribbons sashayed wildly in the wind like rotating flash signals.
"Tell me another one," she pleads.
He smiles at the idea and continues. "I ride my bike to market because your mother send me for cucumbers. You ride on my bicycle beam and I worry you fall," he sets his chopstick down and scratches his forehead to draw up more context, more detail. "We live on campus; I am doing graduate research with Professor Yi.
"I turn my back for one moment to pay the grocery man, and then you not there anymore." She can picture him frantically jump back on his bicycle– circling the market square, past fish on ice, past flower stands, past green beans drying in the sun. She must have darted past the human traffic easily– like a fish swimming between other schools of fish and blending in rather than blocking anyone's right of entrance. She had made her way out of the market gates and turned back to the main street that would eventually lead to campus apartments.
"I cannot find you," her father continues, nodding at the memory, "five times I circle the market. I don't know how many times I ask people, "Have you seen a little girl with hair cut short like a boy?" How far you could go? He shakes his head and begins to smile.
"Then I saw you with old woman. She see you run by yourself, so she ask what is your name and where you go, and then she walk with you to police station."
"Was I crying?" she asks, imagining herself being carried away by an ancient soul with pointed straw hat and wooden cane on her way to morning tai chi in the park. Her father does not answer and stuffs leftover spinach into his mouth. He really does eat too fast. She starts to laugh as she sees her mother's disapproving glances. She leaves the newspaper clippings sitting on the counter and reaches out and grabs hold of her father's arm. He looks up from the bowl of rice long enough to notice and start coughing and chocking. He spits out little flakes of rice and his eyes are closed. She lets out another laugh.
There it was. Always she wanted to say the words.
"Hey," she cries out, leaning her head toward both of her parents sitting next to each other like poetry and wine, like dear old friends, like Virginia and Leonard.
But she panics and stands up straight, fumbling with the bar stools beside the marble island. "I– I'm going to wash the dishes tonight." They nod approvingly and hand her empty bowls ready to be stacked in the sink. And for once, she receives the porcelain without protest.