Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Why Were They Throwing Bricks?

“I lost hearing in this ear when a horse jumped over a fence and collided against the side of my face,” my grandmother told me when she arrived at JFK. I was 9 and hadn’t seen her in four years. “In Shanghai you slept with me every single night. Every week we took you to your other grandmother’s house. She called incessantly, asking for you. ‘Can’t I see my own granddaughter?’ I said, ‘Sure you can.’ But — let’s not spare any feelings — you didn’t want to see her. Whenever you were at your waipo’s house you cried and called my name and woke up the neighbors. You hated her face because it was round like the moon, and you thought mine was perfectly oval like an egg. You loved our house. It was your real home — and still is. Your waipo would frantically call a few minutes after I dropped you off asking me to come back, and I would sprint all the way there. Yes, my precious heart, your 68-year-old grandmother ran through the streets for you. How could I let you suffer for even a second? You wouldn’t stop crying until I arrived, and the minute I pulled you into my arms, you slept the deep happy sleep of a child who has come home to her true family.”

“I sleep by myself now. I have my own bed with stickers on it,” I told her in Chinese, without knowing the word for stickers. I hugged my body against my mother, who was telling my father he would have to make two trips to the car because my grandmother had somehow persuaded the airline to let her bring three pieces of checked luggage and two carry-on items without any additional charges.

“And did you see that poor man dragging her suitcases off the plane for her? How does she always do that?” my mother said. She shrugged me away and mouthed in English to me, “Talk. To. Grandma.”

My father threw his hands up. “You know exactly how,” he said, and went off with the first two bags.

“You remember how uncanny it was,” my grandmother continued, tweaking her hearing aid until it made a small shrill sound and then a shriller sound and then another even shriller sound. “They called me a miracle worker and I said, ‘No, no, I’m just her nainai,’ but everyone said, ‘You’re a miracle worker. You’re the only one who can make that child stop crying.’ They said there was no need for me to be modest. ‘This child prefers her grandmother to even her own mother and father! Why sugarcoat the truth?’ I had to stop myself from stopping other people from saying it after a while. Was I supposed to keep insulting everyone’s intelligence? Protesting endlessly? Your nainai isn’t that type of person. And the truth is, people don’t make things up out of nothing. There’s truth in every widely believed saying, and that’s just true.”

“What?” I said. “I don’t understand Chinese that good.”

“I knew you wouldn’t forget a moment of your real life, your real home — the place you come from. Have you learned English yet?”

“That’s all I speak. It’s America.”

“Your nainai is so proud of you. One day your English will catch up. It’s such a gift to be here now with you. You don’t know how many lonely nights I’ve spent dropping tears for you. It was wrong of me to let you go. Remember how you called for me when you let go of my hand and boarded the airplane with your mother? Remember how you howled that you wanted to take me with you? Four years ago, your father wrote to me, ‘You can’t keep my own wife and child away from me any longer. I’m sending for them immediately.’ I wanted to know if he ever considered maybe you and your mother simply didn’t want to go to America? In those days, you would’ve rather eaten a basement full of rats than be separated from your nainai. Your father’s also stubborn, but I’m not the type to insult the spoonful of food nourishing me. You see what I mean? I won’t say any more. I’m living in his house now and even though he has only made fatally wrong choices, we still have to listen to him. But remember how at the airport you cried and said, ‘Nainai, I love you the most of everyone. I want to stay with you. I don’t want to go to America.’”

“I don’t remember that,” I said to my grandmother. “Sorry.”

“You remember everything, don’t you? But it hurts too much to dredge up bad memories.” Her hearing aid buzzed again and she twisted its tiny hidden knob with her thumb and index finger. “This thing works for a moment and then it goes dead for days. Your father said he would get me a proper hearing aid so I can hear your beautiful voice. You speak up now and let your grandmother look at you. She’s only missed you every minute of every hour of every second of every single iota of a time unit that’s elapsed since you last slept with your nainai every night, refusing to even close your eyes unless I was in the bed with you. You know what everyone’s favorite joke was? ‘Who’s the mom? You?’ Oh, I laughed.”

“That’s not a joke.”

“That’s right. It was the plain truth,” she continued. “They all asked me, ‘Doesn’t your granddaughter ever want to sleep with her mother and father?’ And I had to tell them — not in a bragging way, just in an informing way — ‘No. Her father is in America learning how to build computers and her mother works late at the factory and even if her mother didn’t come home from work so late, my granddaughter has made it clear she can only sleep with me. I know it’s not proper while her mother sleeps alone in another room under the same roof, but when a child wants something, how can you look her in the eye and deny her?’”

My grandmother lived with us in America for a year. She taught me how to knit, and after school I watched her make dinner and do dishes and sew curtains. At first I wouldn’t let her sleep with me in my bed. She cried and came every night to my bedroom and sat at the edge of the bed saying nothing. She had small red eyes and no teeth at night, except for four on the bottom row and a couple in the back. She ate daily bulbs of garlic so she’d live to be 117 and see me grow for another forty-five years, and the first few times she brought it up, I imagined myself running away from home just to get a few years to myself. But after a month, the smell was comforting, and I needed it near me before I could close my eyes, and just when I started to call for her more than she called for me, my parents announced that she had to move back to China to be with her dying husband. “Your grandfather,” my grandmother said with disgust, “says the only proper way for a man to leave this world is in his own home with his wife by his side. Have you ever heard anything so spineless?”

My grandfather had been begging her to come back for six months. He had been diagnosed with lesions in his throat and he didn’t want to die without her. For a year, I had slept in her bed, pressed up against her like she was my bedroom wall, and after she left, I stayed in her bed for two weeks, refusing to return to my own bed even after my mother threatened to push me off if I didn’t get out.

“This room reeks,” she said. “It smells like several people have died. You still want to sleep in here?”

I nodded.

“On sheets that haven’t been washed for weeks?”

I nodded. “She said she’s coming back after Grandpa dies.”

“She also said you’d learn English in middle school. She said she learned to drive in her dreams and that’s how she’ll pass the driving test and take you to Mount Rushmore for your birthday. You believe everything she says? Have you gone back in time and lost all sense?”

I shook my head. Finally, she and my father dragged me out, my arms wrapped around the cheap white lacquered bed frame as my father held my legs and my mother pried my fingers free.

“You’re going to sleep on your own,” my mother said. “Like you did before she came around.”

“You hear your mother?” my father said, wiping the tears from my face and blowing softly on my hot red cheeks. “Just a day at a time.”

“Don’t indulge this,” my mother said.

“You want to beat the sadness out of her?” my father said. “Because that’s what your mother wants. For us to be the bad guys and her to be the hero when she comes back.”

“I’m not inviting her back,” my mother said.

by Jenny Zhang, N+1 |  Read more:
Image: CD Wu, Untitled. 2016