Featured Prose | August 30, 2017
2016 Editors’ Prize finalist in fiction, “The Witness” by May-lee Chai
For the next month we will be featuring some of the past finalists in the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest that appeared in our print issues of TMR. To kick things off, we showcase May-lee Chai’s story “The Witness,” a 2016 finalist, from the summer 2017 issue of TMR. It’s a sensitive story about family, identity, and aging. Chai’s previous Editors’ Prize finalist was an essay, “The Blue Boot,” published in the summer 2012 issue of TMR. It was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2013.
My mother had been calling every night for weeks, always a new complaint. The new dog couldn’t be housebroken, the weather was too windy; finally, the linoleum would not come clean. There was a grayish scum that wouldn’t scrub off. I had no idea what was really going on.
“Replace it,” I said.
“I can’t! It’s too expensive!” my mother practically shrieked.
“Then just ignore it.”
“I would love to ignore it; do you think I enjoy mopping? Your father complains about it.”
I sighed. I had homework, hours of Chinese yet to read. My classmates from China could breeze through a novel in a weekend. I labored for hours with my dictionaries to get through my daily twenty pages. But I couldn’t complain. It was my fault for going into comparative literature. My mother would only remind me that she had hoped I would become a doctor. I had such good grades, I could memorize things, why hadn’t I listened to her? No point reminding her that I was squeamish. Even as a child I’d fainted at the sight of blood, at every vaccination, every time they showed those films on the human body. After I vomited during the video on the digestive tract, the school nurse had had to call my mother to come and pick me up.
I looked at the clock. Ten forty-five.
“Mom, why don’t you come visit me? There’s a conference. Novel of the Americas. You’d like it.”
“I can’t come. Your father needs me.”
“Carlos Fuentes is speaking. You always told me how much you liked his novels when you were a student.”
“Oh, Carlos Fuentes.” Her voice softened.
“Think about it. Don’t worry about the floor.” Then I told her I loved her and hung up. Back to my homework.
That Friday my mother drove the three and a half hours it took to get to Boulder to visit, arriving in the evening. She had waited to leave until late afternoon, first preparing meals for my father to eat while she was gone, taping instructions for reheating them on the refrigerator door, watering all her plants, making sure the dog food was labeled in the laundry room.
As I set up the foam mattress in my living room, Mom looked around my messy apartment. “You like to live like this.” She started dusting, moving my piles of books, scooting the chairs in and out as I sat at the kitchen table.
“Please, Mom. I’m trying to grade papers. Don’t fuss.”
“Oh, so I’m fussing.” She threw her Pledge-soaked paper towel directly onto the floor, missing the trash can by a foot. She sat in the one armchair and turned on David Letterman. She laughed loudly at every joke. “Oh, that Paul,” she exclaimed like punctuation that I could not ignore, until I moved into my bedroom. From the mattress that night she threw her used Kleenex onto the floor as well. “I’m enjoying this,” she called to me. “I never realized I don’t have to clean. This is fun.”
I picked up her Kleenex. “At least aim for the wastebasket,” I sighed.
The next morning the Carlos Fuentes reading was scheduled for eleven. Mom was up before eight. She sprayed herself with perfume. She ratted her hair. She even ironed the blue dress she’d brought in her overnight case. “I can’t believe you have a real iron.”
“Of course I have an iron, Mom,” I murmured from my futon. But I didn’t want to argue. The truth was I was little worried about her. Everyone else worried about my father, who’d had a heart attack two years earlier. But he had recovered quickly, missed a few weeks of classes, and was back to work the following semester. It was Mom who had become unhinged, obsessing about housework and cleanliness and cleaning products for the first time that I could remember.
She’d had a business in town before my father’s heart attack, a small gallery that had featured local artists, but she shut it down afterward. She said she had more than enough work at home.
So I sat next to Mom in the hard molded plastic chairs as Mr. Fuentes read sonorously in Spanish. For some reason, there was no translator at this event, and I was lost. Two years of high school Spanish in a small Midwestern town had left with me nothing, no comprehension, not even a nada.
I was afraid my mother might be disappointed. Mr. Fuentes was in his late sixties, with thinning hair and a slight paunch. He wasn’t the dashing figure she remembered from her school days in Mexico in the 1960s when he was the literary hero of her profesores.
However, my mother remained on the edge of her seat, leaning forward into the sibilant consonants, the assonant vowels, eager as a schoolgirl, as though the language itself could bring back the sun from her Mexican school days.
I’d seen the Super 8 films as a child. They were less about the sights and sounds of Mexico than they were a catalog of my mother’s wardrobe. Here was my mother in a white piqué sundress at the Plaza de la Constitución, here in her full skirt and puff-sleeved blouse. I knew from her descriptions that the skirt and blouse were red, although the film was black and white.
“I told John to film the sights, not me,” Mom sighed.
But in truth, my mother’s biggest discovery in Mexico had been that she was a beautiful woman.
Before Mexico, she’d been a mousy girl in her mother’s home. There was always a baby on my mother’s hip in her family’s black-and-white photographs, whereas Grandma was always child free and dressed in her Sunday best, hat and gloves just so. But in Mexico, as an exchange student, my mother’s life changed. No one there knew the capable daughter; instead they saw the glamorous gringa art student. She was tall and slim and, because she’d recently taken to dyeing her hair, under the hot sun, her hair turned a deep cherry red, such a contrast with her tanned skin and her bright green eyes. All her teachers, men, remarked upon it. Angela, you are such a beautiful young lady, they told her. Beautiful Angela, careful when you walk on the street alone. Angela, you make me want to leave my wife. Angela, Angela, Angela.
My mother came back to the States but left the mousy persona behind. No more Angie O’Connor, dutiful daughter, queen of domestic drudgery. Her own sisters didn’t recognize her at the airport. She’d changed that much.
Back in California, she ignored her mother’s entreaties to marry the boyfriend who had proposed. She went to graduate school; she earned her teaching degree; she taught art to junior high students and sold her own paintings on the side. This was how my parents met. My father had just moved from the East Coast to California for his first tenure-track teaching position. He saw her standing in the community art show in the park and liked what he saw. He even bought one of her paintings.
I always thought this was a romantic story. When my parents told this story when I was growing up, they never brought up the fact that my mother was white, my father Chinese. Other people brought up the race angle.
When Carlos Fuentes finished his talk, my mother rushed to the table of books and bought two copies of his latest novel, one for her and one for me, although she knew I couldn’t read Spanish. We then stood in line to get our books autographed.
When we got to the front, my mother gushed, “I’ve read all your books. I attended university in Mexico.” Then she added something in Spanish.
Mr. Fuentes nodded, signed her proffered book, then turned and asked me how to spell my name.
Then he was on to the next person in line.
My mother stood to the side, her eyes still glowing, her face alight, as though she weren’t quite ready to return to the dark of my graduate-student apartment.
I watched her face carefully, wanting to make sure she was happy. But I couldn’t tell how she really felt. Whether this reading had done the trick.
While we walked home, my mother was silent. There’d been a brief snow shower; October in Colorado could be unpredictable like that: sunny one moment, snowing the next, then sunny again. The trees were dusted with white like powdered sugar, the golden leaves frosted, the slender limbs edged in icicles that sparkled now in the midafternoon sunlight. Some aspens were beginning to thaw and drip. Water pooled in the cracks of the sidewalk, reflecting the light of the sky like molten metal, like magma from a smoking volcano.
By the time we arrived at my apartment, the moment I shut the door behind us, my mother was ready to unleash the emotions that had been building with every step home.
“He only looked at you! He didn’t look at me at all,” my mother cried, in fury. “Carlos Fuentes thought you were good-looking. I could tell.”
I didn’t know what to say. “That’s not true—” I tried to speak, but she cut me off.
“I saw him! I saw him looking at you!”
“Well, I wasn’t looking at him. I don’t care about Carlos Fuentes. I don’t care what he does.”
“I wish I were like you. Then I wouldn’t care what I look like.”
“Didn’t you used to belong to that group? What were they called? Fierce Women? I want to be like them. Except I don’t want to wear leather.”
“I wasn’t actually a member—”
“I’m getting old, I look old,” my mother moaned.
It was too exhausting to argue with my mother. And she was genuinely alarming me. Her misery was like the bell to Pavlov’s dog: I was a teenager, consoling my mother all over again.
“You look beautiful. You have a beautiful face. You’ve always had a beautiful face.”
“No, I’m old now. I look like Grandma.”
My mother’s Maginot line that must never be crossed. I tried to think of something to distract her. And keep her from attacking me.
“Well, if you want, there are plastic surgeons here. Let’s go and get an estimate.”
“You think I should?” Mom turned to me, openmouthed. She was too surprised to be angry anymore.
“No, I think it’s a terrible idea. But we should go and see what a plastic surgeon says. It’s an option. I think it’s a bad option. But we should check it out. Then if you want to get a face-lift, you could get it done and stay with me until you’re healed and go back home and no one would know what happened.” I spoke in an adrenaline rush without pauses. I couldn’t stop the feeling of panic rising inside me, and the words just poured out till they were done.
But suddenly my mother was excited. “I could do that. I could just go and check it out.”
“Yes. Know what your options are. Check it out.”
And as I looked at my mother’s still-beautiful-to-me face, her familiar, lovely face with the straight nose and the high cheekbones and the pointy chin, I thought how surgery could go horribly wrong. I didn’t want my mother to end up looking like Joan Rivers or some other ageing Hollywood former starlet.
I didn’t say it, but I thought it, I wished it, even as I tried to push the thought out of my mind: it was so heretical, I knew, to my mother’s sense of self, but at this moment I wished that my mother could be more like her mother. I had to hand it to Grandma, give credit where it was due: in her old age, after having survived everything else, Grandma was secure about her looks. She’d had actual jowls, and bags like mine under her eyes, and batwings for arms, yet many men wooed her after Gramps died. As a widow she’d had three different marriage proposals before she died.
Still, not one of Grandma’s daughters wanted to end up looking like Grandma. My mother especially.
Mom kept a framed portrait of Grandma on her dresser. It was the Sears Portrait Studio print that Grandma sent to everyone, even my mother, one Christmas after she’d come out of her depression following Gramps’s death. Grandma looked sweet, her hair permed and floating bluish about her head, but she was wearing crazy-old-lady knitwear, the kind you make yourself when you have too much time on your hands, and she had triple chins and thick, unfashionable glasses. It was the portrait of a woman who was at peace with herself. It was nothing my mother wanted to be.
“I don’t want to be a shallow person,” my mother had said upon receiving the portrait in the mail, “but I hope I don’t end up looking up like Mother. I think we’re all afraid of that.”
Grandma did not speak to my mother for the first ten or so years of my parents’ marriage. My parents were early adopters of what other people might label color-blindness or optimism or naiveté, but they chose to call it “love.” They married even before Loving v. Virginia made laws against interracial marriage illegal. My father’s parents in New York City sent their blessings, my mother’s parents not so much. They were so conservative they didn’t even believe in birth control; my mother was the eldest of ten. But after my mother met my father, she declared that she was in love. She didn’t care what Grandma said, what Grandma forbade her to do, what her parents claimed their God opposed. “Your father’s love was enough,” Mom said long ago.
After a few years, they left California for my father’s next academic job. In that new town in the Midwest, people used to dump their trash on our lawn. They sent anonymous letters to my parents and called my mother “the Floozy,” my father “the Chinaman.” I was the mixed-breed, the mutt, the half breed. I had been too young to remember all this; I heard about it later. It was a story my father told for laughs at faculty parties: Oh you won’t believe what the peasants used to do.
Then we moved again, to a slightly larger small town. It was better, but not better. Less overt, but somehow that made the snubs more painful. Sometimes in the grocery story, white women would come up to my mother and tell her about their cousins who had adopted an Asian baby and then talk about my mother’s bravery, as though having a child of a different race were an obstacle to overcome. Sometimes at parties, people would tell racist jokes, transpose ls and rs when talking world politics, Japan this, China that, “Buy American or bye-bye jobs!”
My father threw himself into his work; he was always busy, never home. My mother had panic attacks. She’d be driving me to school or to McDonald’s or to the mall in the next town over, and suddenly the sky grew too large, the cornfields around the highway were threatening, something was wrong. She could feel it. We had to turn around. We had to go home immediately.
Try explaining to the school secretary that you couldn’t go to school because your mother was nervous.
I didn’t tell my parents about the things that kids said to me at school, the ching chong jokes, the Jap this, Chink that. I didn’t want to add to their burdens. Instead I threw myself into my school work. I was determined to leave, to find a better place, a place free of race. I left for college. I studied Chinese. I went to China. I got paid less than white kids for teaching English. I saw Chinese call African students hei gui, “black devils,” to their faces. I realized there is no place free of race and its distorted power dynamics. But I went back to China for a language immersion program as preparation for graduate school, thinking if I could study enough, if I could fight the racism with information, with concrete facts, we would overcome. I would triumph over the hurt.
While I was on my study-abroad program, my father had the heart attack. Mom had to deal with it alone.
The neighbors were kind this time; perhaps the looming threat of a death made them feel guilty. They brought over potluck. My father’s colleagues brought his computer home from work, helped set up his home office.
When I came back to the States, Dad was better. He and Mom never talked about his illness. But Mom had changed.
She never had another panic attack. Instead she called to complain. Everything made her angry. The weather, the floor, the dog.
These were the things we talked about. The things she said bothered her.
My parents never talked about the past. They never used the r-word. Only after I had left for college could I discuss the racism we’d endured and only with other students, never with my parents.
I found a plastic surgeon in the Yellow Pages.
The one I found had his own clinic, according to the ad, but when I drove my mother there, I found the squat wooden building small and unimpressive. Still, I figured we had to start somewhere.
The first thing I noticed after we stepped inside was that the doctor was balding and pink with very taut skin around his eyes and painfully bright, chalk-white teeth. He looked like he’d had some work done. I thought that was a bad sign: the fact that I could tell.
“Let me show you around,” he said. “This is my clinic.”
He ushered my mother through a different door, and I hurried after them. Several women lay in what looked like dental chairs, shining faces sweating.
“How ya doin’ there, Deb?” the doctor greeted one long-haired woman of indeterminate age.
“Just great.” Deb could speak without her face moving. Her skin was unnaturally pink and moist, like deli meat.
“This is our chemical peel room,” the doctor explained.
I had no idea what a chemical peel was, but the words evoked the Mafia and quick ways to dispose of corpses.
I began to feel ill. The smiling women looked like skulls with skin and hair attached.
By the time I’d followed my mother into the doctor’s office for the consult, I was sweating; my vision was blurring and my ears buzzing. I could hear the fluorescent lights humming overhead. I could feel our footsteps rebounding on the cheap, thin carpet. The plywood walls shook when the doctor shut the door behind us.
“How ya doin’, Mrs. Allen?” he greeted a toothy, busty woman seated behind a desk. I assumed she was some kind of receptionist/walking advertisement for his work. She could have been forty—or seventy with a lot of work; it was hard to say. My eyes were beginning to blur.
“Great, Doctor. Here are your files.” Mrs. Allen flashed a chemically brightened smile as paper exchanged hands. I felt behind me for a wall to lean against as my mother took a seat at the doctor’s desk.
I thought of the women smiling as we had walked around them, the germs circulating freely as they were chemically peeled like so many grapes. I could imagine the shiny meat of their faces poking through the fragile layer of skin.
I was going to be sick.
But for my mother’s sake, I clenched my stomach muscles and dug my nails into my palms, trying to buck up.
The doctor was showing Mom pictures in a folder: a black outline of a human face on a white piece of paper, then a woman’s face with black lines drawn on it, next a picture of bloody tissue and meat, and then the woman looking like she’d died and been found in a river a week later except she was smiling and still alive. It was horrible. I looked away, hugging my ribs and rocking back and forth.
Suddenly the doctor was looking at me.
“For example, if I were going to operate on her face—” he reached toward me with the end of his pencil.
“I’m twenty-five. I’m not getting a face-lift!” Alarmed, I pulled back from his pencil.
“That’s the perfect age to start. The key is to keep up with maintenance.”
Mom’s lips were thinning, drawing into a tight line, the corners of her eyes stretching tighter, too. She looked angry. “I’m the one here for the consult.”
“Twenty-five is almost too late,” the doctor continued. He leaned forward, excited, licking his little rabbit lips. “Here’s where I’d pull her skin back, and we’d just make a little slit here,” he gestured in the air with his pencil, “and pull the skin up behind the ears.”
The world went completely black, and I fell onto the floor in a faint.
The plastic surgeon’s voice hovered in the air: he was talking about my mother now, something about stitches and the hairline and the chin and her ears. I lay on my side, I could feel the nasty carpet through the fabric of my jeans. Then the ageless Mrs. Allen was leaning my way, her horsey hair swinging forward over her firm, large bosom. She was coming into focus, and I found myself wondering if she had breast implants, and then I thought, If you think they’re fake then they’re fake. I blinked and saw the world clearly.
“Mom,” I said, “I’m going to be sick. We have to go now.”
“Do you want to see the something-something-something?” the doctor said.
“I really have to go now!”
“My daughter is ill. We have to go now.” Mom spoke in her apologizing voice, the one she used to use with my elementary school teachers after my bouts of vomiting. My mother picked up the folder of faces and her purse, and I crawled up to my knees and pulled myself up onto the edge of a padded chair.
There was a back door, and I went out that way so I didn’t have to walk through the rooms of peeling women again.
In the cool, fresh air, I felt immediately better.
“Hurry up,” I said as I ran to my Honda. My mother kept up and climbed in the passenger side.
In the car, I leaned my head against the steering wheel and took deep breaths, hoping I could make the world stop spinning.
“What do you think?” my mother asked.
“I don’t think you should do it,” I said. “The whole place looked unsanitary. Cheap, thin walls. There was dirt on the carpet.”
“Are you going to do it? He said it was almost too late for you.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Mom, please.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, held it.
“Isn’t it funny? He couldn’t take his eyes off you. The doctor barely glanced at me.”
“It was not a compliment, Mom,” I said, weakly.
“Oh, is that what you think?”
That night, after she turned off Letterman but before she went to bed, Mom sat down heavily on the rattan chair opposite mine. I was at the kitchen table, grading my students’ papers.
“He doesn’t look at me anymore. He won’t even talk.”
“Your father! He puts his newspaper up when we sit at the table to eat. He reads. He won’t look at me. He won’t talk to me. He just ignores me.” My mother’s voice trembled. “He acts as though he can’t stand me.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“Then why won’t he look at me?”
“You need to talk to him.”
“I’m not going to talk to him!”
“Mom, tell him how you feel. Tell him to stop reading the paper.”
“I can’t do that.”
“He should know better. I shouldn’t have to say anything.”
I didn’t know what to say. Maybe this was the heart attack. Maybe it was the onset of old age. Maybe it was my mother’s imagination taking over. Maybe it was all true.
My mother stood up now. She was examining the books on my shelves. She picked up the Carlos Fuentes novel and set it down again.
“You don’t really know that language,” she said. “You can’t really read those books.”
“You didn’t have to buy me the Carlos Fuentes book. You know I don’t read Spanish.”
“Spanish? I’m talking about Chinese. It’s a waste. Why are you bothering with that ridiculous language?”
“Mom, I’ve been studying Chinese for seven years! It was my major. It’s why I’m in comp lit!”
“You know, you’re half me. You’re my daughter, too. You’re siding with him. You don’t care about me!”
“That’s not true! Studying Chinese literature doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I have a right to be proud of my heritage. I’m not going to let the racists define me. I am half you, but society sees me as Asian. I have to have knowledge to protect myself. That’s how race functions in society. We don’t get to choose. I can’t fight ignorance with ignorance.”
“Oh, is that so? Is that what you think? Well, what about me? Who is siding with me?”
I’d studied all these issues in college, I could write a sophisticated paper about the construction of race, I could talk about power dynamics and property rights and the Oriental Exclusion Act and intersectionality, but I couldn’t talk in a way that my mother understood, that made her feel loved, that undid any of the damage others had done to us. It was the practical part of life that academics didn’t help with. The nitty and gritty. This failure made my stomach burn, made my heart skip beats, propelled me to work harder, yet I felt I always ended up in the same place.
I looked at my trembling mother. Once upon a time she’d been a glamorous art teacher and she’d fallen in love, and she’d done what she believed was right and married the man she loved and started her own family. She’d endured the silence of her mother and the scorn of her small-town neighbors, and she’d survived it all.
But enduring didn’t feel like a victory. I knew this. I got it. I also knew it wasn’t my fault. But my mother’s sadness made me sad.
I didn’t know how to make the world right for her.
“Let’s go out, Mom. Come on,” I said.
“I’m sure there’s someplace open.” And I got her to get up, throw a coat over her pajamas, and follow me to my car.
We ended up ordering ice cream in the drive-through of the McDonald’s on Baseline, a vanilla cone for me, a hot fudge sundae for my mother.
“I shouldn’t eat this,” Mom said, her mouth full.
“It’s yogurt. It’s good for you,” I lied. “Probiotics.”
“It’s very delicious,” she said. She sighed. “Your generation really knows how to live. I wish I could have been born like you.”
“You’re my mother. You raised me.” I had no idea what she was getting at now. “We used to go to McDonald’s all the time.”
“I mean younger. No, not younger. I mean, someone who doesn’t care what other people think.” There was a sneer to her voice that I couldn’t understand, as though she were blaming me for something. Her tone hurt me more than I knew how to explain.
“I care what other people think, Mom. No one can not care about other people. Not completely.”
“Oh, is that so? Is that true? Well, what about me?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Haven’t I had to pretend my whole life? And who was there to tell me that you can’t stop caring? Not completely. Who?”
Mom put her face in her hands and cried.
I stared out the windshield at the parking lot, at a seagull pecking at some smashed French fries on the pavement in a puddle of yellow light from a streetlamp. I could have been a teenager again, fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, my heart thrumming in my chest, the beats drumming in my ears, too loud for my own thoughts. I was twelve, consoling my mother again, trying to think of new excuses for life’s unfairness. Except I’d run out of words. There was nothing more to say.
It’s true that I used to wish my mother were a better ally. Stronger. More vocal about racism. Less fragile. She didn’t need to become my father and hold her pain inside until it literally gave her a heart attack, but there were times I was tired of consoling her. But she had dared to give birth to me. That was not nothing. Bravery came in different forms.
As a child, I’d felt powerless in the face of my mother’s emotions. As an adult, I knew that eventually she would stop. I would drive us back to my apartment and we would go to bed and sleep. The world was not ending. We were fierce women, and we would find a way to go on another day and another day and another day, just as we had in the past.
But suddenly, this night, I had an insight. I didn’t need to fix the world for my mother. No paper I could ever write would make up for the past. What my mother really wanted was for me to let her cry. She needed someone to see her pain. Someone she trusted. Her daughter. Me.
In that moment, my heart slowed down, my stomach ceased its burning.
I wrapped my arms around my mother and patted her back. I laid my head against her shoulder and rocked as best I could. We stayed entwined like this until at last she was finished. Mom sat up, she blew her nose, sighed. Then I drove us home.
May-lee Chai is an educator and author of eight books, including the memoir Hapa Girl, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and the novel Tiger Girl, which won an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Her short prose has been published widely, including or forthcoming in the Rumpus, Seventeen, Glimmer Train, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle. She has lived in fourteen states of the United States and four countries.
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