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I grabbed my backpack off the bed and imagined my mother falling off a bridge. “Do I have to spell things out for you?”
“Yes,” she said. “Spell it out. Did something happen?”
“Why don’t you ask ah yi. She knows her son better than I do.”
“I’m asking you.”
I threw my bag over my shoulder. “You’re being vexatious. I’m going to be late for school.”
It was a trick I had learned long ago: English. My mother was afraid of words she didn’t know.
She didn’t respond, just stared at me like I was an everyday object slightly off kilter. A slanted telephone pole. A chipped mug.
Collin made popcorn and put on a sci-fi movie. I hated sci-fi, and he apparently wasn’t a big fan either. He fell asleep in the first ten minutes.
I kept checking my phone for texts and missed calls. I’d told my mom I would be at Natalie’s working on a biology project, and that I wouldn’t be home until midnight or later. Still, it was 11 p.m. on a Sunday and I had school tomorrow. I was surprised she didn’t want to make sure I was where I said I’d be, doing what I said I’d be doing.
Lately she’d been acting unlike herself. Twice that week, we ate dinner at eight instead of seven because she forgot to push the button to start the rice cooker. A couple weeks earlier, my dad came home to an unmade bed and panicked, thinking someone had broken in because my mom hadn’t left a bed unmade since before they were married. She had started humming Chinese folk songs to herself with an expressiveness that I’d never heard from her before.
“Your mother used to sing like this all the time,” my dad said. We were taking a break from our books to watch her pin damp shirts onto the clothesline in the backyard. She had made the line herself, tying a thin, sturdy rope from one tree to another. “She’s singing Jasmine Flower now. It’s very famous in China. Everyone knows it.”
Without any announcement, a relaxed atmosphere had settled in our home; books lay splayed out on armrests, revealing where me and my father had been, and my mother—whom I had never known to tolerate a mess, no matter how small—would walk right past, undisturbed. She no longer pestered us about separating our socks from our underwear in the wash, or got upset when we used the counter rag to do the floor rag’s job and vice versa. She left dirty dishes in the sink overnight.
“To soak,” she said, which was the excuse I liked to use.
One night I asked my father if he thought her behavior was odd.
“Your mother’s just happy that you’ve committed to a decent school,” he said. “She knows how hard you’ve worked.”
My immediate thought was that my father must be a stupid man. How could he still be this clueless, after all these years married to my mother? It didn’t take long for my upset to dissolve into admiration, the kind born from pity. My father loved my mother, which made it only a little sad that he might never understand her.
An explosion in the movie jolted Collin out of his slumber. His upper body tore away from the couch cushion, the sudden momentum causing his head to lurch forward.
“How long was I out for?” He ran his hands through his hair as he leaned slowly into the couch again.
“Half an hour,” I said.
He cleared his throat and stood up. “Sorry about that. What’s happening in the movie now?”
I looked at the screen. Two men in shiny black masks were hiding behind a wide pillar. They were both holding guns.
“I think that one guy from the beginning got shot by another guy,” I said.
He came back from the kitchen with two bottled waters and handed one to me. “I’m sad I missed that.”
We drank in silence for some minutes. His eyes stayed on the TV. I pushed the home button on my phone.
“Your boyfriend message you?” Collin set his half-empty bottle on the table next to mine.
I looked up from my phone and gave him a tight-lipped smile. “Don’t have one of those.”
And then, in what my mother would have called an exercise in propriety, I did what I figured was the only correct thing to do in this situation. I swept the hair away from my neck and swung my leg around. Straddled on top of him, I put my arms around his neck—taking my time, left first then right—and pulled myself closer.
We started kissing. Our rhythms were off. He liked to use a lot of tongue and I didn’t, but I was able to adjust, wiggling my tongue in his mouth in a way that I thought he might like. We moved to the bedroom. He bit my neck and touched me in places I felt most self-conscious about: my fleshy hips, my flat chest.
After things ended with Ethan, I stopped eating and lost twelve pounds in a month. There was no noble asceticism at play, no attempt to make a statement. It was a simple loss of appetite. Without much weight to lose in the first place, my head had started looking disproportionately large. My hair became thin, fraying at the ends, and began falling out.
“Jia, you have to eat,” my mother had said, standing over my bed with a bowl of tofu egg drop soup, extra seaweed, only for me to coil into a fetal position and face the other way.
Despite my mother’s reassurance that I looked the same as before, I still thought the weight had redistributed funny. My appetite returned eventually, ravenously, and I regained all of what I had lost but to different places. So as Collin ran his hands along my body, exploring its textures, dips, and folds, I felt like I was the one learning a new landscape.
There was only a beat of hesitation. I was afraid it would be painful, and as my underwear brushed against my legs, stopping at my ankles in a tangle of lace, I thought, I’ll have more chances before college. No rush. But as he fumbled with the condom, his very-pink penis erect and resolute, I wondered what might happen if I backed out now.
I scanned the room for my mother, expecting to meet her harsh, indifferent stare. I couldn’t find her.
During it I kept forgetting his name. Corey? Cade? It wouldn’t stick for some reason, so between breathy, exaggerated moans, I shouted “Baby!” to be safe. He was on top for the duration. Every time he tried to change positions, I wrapped my legs tighter around his waist. When it was over I checked for blood.
He crawled into bed next to me wearing only his boxers.
“That was great,” he said.
The only visible liquid was translucent, gray spots on a white bed sheet. The sex had not been enjoyable, but it was also not painful at all. I was still a little wet.
I remembered his name. Collin. Col-lin. “I actually have to go,” I said to him.
“Why? You’re totally welcome to stay here.”
Already he was making the decision for me, pulling the covers over my naked body and putting his heavy arm around my shoulder so that we lay spooning. Just as he started pressing his nose to the back of my neck, I heard my phone ring from the living room.
“I have to get that,” I said, and before he could say anything, I threw the covers aside and ran to the couch, dancing over the cold tiles on the balls of my feet.
My phone was sliding off a white canvas pillow when I picked it up.
“Ma,” I said, out of breath.
“What are you doing, running a marathon?”
I put my hand over the speaker and took a sharp inhale, exhaling out my mouth. Hearing my mother’s voice gave me sudden clarity of my surroundings. Little details came into focus: the water rings on the table, a California-shaped stain on the pillow where my phone had been sitting. Above the TV, held in place by thumb tacks, was a horizontal banner that I hadn’t bothered to read until now: PASSION IS PROGRESSION, in black italicized letters. Stacks of DVDs on the windowsill. An orange paper lantern hanging from the ceiling, the Chinese symbol for love painted on it.
It was a depressing apartment, and yet profound giddiness came over me as I soaked in the high definition, inane ugliness.
“It’s past midnight. Is the project almost done?”
“Yes, we’re done. I’m coming home soon.” At that moment, the clarity turned inward, and I became acutely aware of my nakedness. “Why are you awake?” I asked.
“Bathroom. I’m going back to sleep now. You have your key?”
“I have it.”
“Okay, then. Good night, Jia.”
Back in Collin’s room, I dressed quietly. He was sleeping sideways in the other direction, as though he’d found someone else to spoon in my absence. I got as far as my right sock before he stirred and turned to face me.
“My mom wants me home,” I said in a neutral voice, twisting the sock so the heel pouch aligned correctly.
He yawned and stretched his arm out behind him. “I get it.” He folded a pillow in half and laid his head on it. “Are you close with her?”
“Not really,” I said. “I just do whatever she says.”
“I don’t know.” It came out sounding bitter, but I hadn’t meant it to.
I stood from the bed and tried to flatten the creases in my shirt.
“I think it’s cool that you and your mom are tight like that,” he said. His eyelids were heavy with the lethargy that, I would learn later, was common for guys after sex.
He’d misunderstood me, but he spoke with distinct tenderness, a note of longing. He was silly and ridiculous—the whole night had been silly and ridiculous—but he wasn’t indecent. If I had asked him to stop earlier, I think he would have.
“I’ll text you in the morning?” he said mid-yawn.
“I look forward to it,” I replied. I avoided his gaze as I walked out of his room into the living room to gather my things.