By JACQUELINE XIONG
Glenda Dawson High School, Pearland ISD
Teacher: Tianmei He
In the summer of my sixth grade, Lǎomā drove me to thirty-minute piano lessons in an ivy-clad brick house every Sunday. The drive to and from downtown was two hours in total, but my mom was unemployed back then, and I was never aware of how much time I occupied in her life. So it became a ritual of sorts for us to make the two-hour drive on Sunday afternoons, buckled into a sticky, itching kind of silence with our windows down and the August breeze streaming in.
That year was my fifth year spent in America. Before then I had spent a bright, happy childhood in the busy archives of Wuhan, sucking on Tanghulu and skipping rope between the crumbling buildings of my hometown. Then in the lapse of one summer, I had been shipped to cold, chilly Milwaukee— where the aunts and uncles who raised me were absent, and where I was introduced to my parents at last. My mother, Māmā, and my father, Bàba.
The terms of address had never stuck. From some point on, my parents had become Lǎobà and Lǎomā. Old father and old mother. They were not old at that time, but they were plain and common, unlike the powerful kings and beautiful queens who I’d envisioned as my nameless parents.
Five years later, my mom— who was not nameless now, but who was as foreign as a stranger all the same— rolled up the car windows and parked us near a Chinese bakery ten minutes from my piano school. The August sun was heatless but unwavering. I pushed open the car door and jumped out onto the melted concrete, two dollars balled in my sweaty palm. My mom tried to take my hand, but I slapped her hand away.
Like the two-hour drive, the bakery, too, was a ritual of ours. Maybe bribing me with egg tarts and pineapple cakes was the only way my mom could think of to make us less strangers. It had worked for a week or two, until last Sunday, out of the blue, she’d pulled to a stop near the bakery and tried to tell me a story.
The story was a true one that happened before my birth. It was about how my mom was planning to go abroad to college in Canada, and then she’d found out that she was pregnant with me, and after that she had to remain a jobless stay-at-home mom for my sake. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t really care about her life, but the story wasn’t over yet, and my mom was still talking about how Auntie Xue and Auntie Li had always hated her and raised me in China away from her. Like my aunties were evil villains, and she was just a poor princess from Andersen’s fairytales.
The story went on for a long time. The two dollars I carefully took out from my piggy bank every Sunday were beginning to turn gooey in my palms. I pried my fingers away and held the dollar bills up to the afternoon sunlight, and they were already drenched with sweat.
My mom asked, Are you listening?
I stuffed the money in my fist again and nodded. She said, I wish you could love me more.
I thought about how my aunties had warned me against my mom. Auntie Xue had taken me into her arms and said that my mom hadn’t meant to be absent in my childhood, of course. My mom only had to because she and my dad were too poor at the time, and if I wasn’t too careful with my future, I’d end up like her. But my mom was still a stranger. No amount of sweet buns would change that.
Are you listening? My mom said again.
She tried to take the dollar bills from my fist. I looked at her and saw that she had been crying— her face was blotchy and red and her eyes were watery, and princesses were much prettier than she was. I snatched my hand away from her and jumped out of the car. Behind me, my mom shouted something, but I was running toward the bakery, eager to buy an egg tart before the money disintegrated entirely.
Now, my mom didn’t try to hold onto me any longer. Even as I ran for the bakery, I could feel her eyes on me, uncomfortably heavy.
On the Friday my mom packed everything into a multi-compartment backpack and flew to upstate New York, there
was still one day left of my eighth-grade final exams. We were adapting to the drowsy humidity of Houston compared to the perpetual chill of Milwaukee, so when my dad burst into my room with the news at seven AM, I was still half- asleep, blissfully ignorant of what had happened two hours prior.
My dad had been the first to discover the departure. He’d woke up at four thirty to prepare for work, and when he pushed open his bedroom door, he’d come face to face with my mom. My mom was dressed for the northern weather. She had a black backpack over her shoulder and a plane ticket in her hand. She had been unemployed for years, so when my dad asked her where she was going, he thought she’d tell him that she was going for a job interview. My mom gave him a kiss on the cheek and said that she needed a break.
And on the last day of your final exams too,Auntie Xue said over Skype.She doesn’t care about you at all. My poor, poor sweetheart.
Uncle Xue said, Did she tell you that she was going to leave? No, I said. I had no idea.
My face was blank. My dad had gone off to work in a daze. Maybe I was stressed about my exams, which were starting in an hour. Maybe my mom was still a stranger to me.
Would you have stopped her if she told you?Auntie Li asked.
Yes, I said. Then, no.
I still have exams to study for, I told her. She relaxed a little, told me to keep the Skype call open, and waved me away. I went to my room and closed the door. A slab of wood away, I could hear my aunts and uncles talking to each other in hushed voices. They had been muttering about my mom again last night, their voices just loud enough over the phone for her to hear. How temperamental, they said. What if she never comes back?
But even then, I knew that she would always come back.
When my mom was thirteen, my grandpa gave her a plastic keyboard for her birthday. Back in 1980s Wuhan, every little girl dreamed of hiring a Western piano teacher and dressing up for piano recitals in puffy white dresses. But even back then, grand pianos were a luxury, nothing an ordinary family would buy for a little girl’s silly dreams. So all my mom got was a 44-key plastic keyboard from the convenience store, a flimsy thing that scraped at your nails whenever you pressed down too hard.
Two months before the summer of my sixth grade, I’d fallen in love with the piano somehow— maybe it was a month of continual Piano Tiles or a recording of Étude Op. 25, No. 9 that sparked my own twenty-first-century pianist dreams. I dreamed of notes flowing like water from my fingertips, dreamed of storming through some furiously-paced sonata that ended in thunderous applause from a full hall of audiences in Carnegie Hall. My dad considered my dreams too insubstantial to purchase a full grand piano for; in the end, it was my mom who pursed her lips and lugged home a one-thousand-dollar electric piano on her own.
We had just arrived in Houston when I began to play piano again. I sat in front of the unboxed keyboard and played Piano Sonate op. 27-2 “Mondeschein”— the first movement of Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata. I quit piano lessons after the summer of my sixth grade, and the electric piano had gathered dust for two years. The Moonlight Sonata ended up being the only sonata I learned well enough to play. Now, those two-hour drives to downtown Milwaukee seemed like years away.
That night, my mom asked over the phone whether I would like to continue lessons here in Houston. She was out getting Taco Bell for my dad after a long day of moving. I had already checked the map, and the nearest piano school was half an hour away, just enough time for her to tell me another story.
She heard something in my voice and said, a little snappishly, You’re too old for stories now.
I told her that I didn’t want to go to lessons, and even if I did, I was going to learn how to drive soon. I didn’t need her to drive me any longer.
My mom didn’t respond immediately. She pulled out of the Taco Bell line. I’m coming home. God, I’m so tired. Stupid moving all the way across the United States.
Can you bring something for me before you come home?I asked, but it wasn’t a question, not really. Only an expectation.
She was still unemployed. Over the international phone, my aunts and uncles still muttered about how she was useless, lazy, aging. My mom paused over our call and laughed under her breath. See, you’re like this again. Like what again?
You only call me when you need me. When you’re all grown up, you won’t need me anymore, and you won’t talk at all to me by then.
A lapse over the call. Static buzzing. I tried to think of something to say. At last I said, That’s not true.
I could hear a rustling as she shook her head on the other side. Do you know, she said. Do you know what your second uncle said to your dad about me on the phone last night?
I didn’t know what second uncle said. I had no idea who second uncle even was. What else could they say about my mom— this plain, no-income, unloved woman who demanded too much? Just what they usually say, I said. Just ignore him.
She laughed again. There was triumph in there, victory at being proven right. You think it’s easy to ignore something like that? He wanted your dad to divorce your mom, you know. He thinks your dad deserves better. Do you want a stepmom? A prettier, smarter stepmom who makes two hundred thousand dollars a year?
I stared down at my phone screen and said, You should divorce if you want to. There’s still you, she said.
I wouldn’t care, I said. It was meant to make her feel better. But from the other end, I heard the abrupt, faraway screeching of a car. Someone shouted, Watch where you’re going, fucker!
I waited until the sound of brakes was replaced by a long stretch of white highway noise. Well, she said at last. Well.
You’d be happy if I left?
I said, You should be happy too.
How selfless of you, she said, a little mockingly. She was thinking about all the times I had abandoned her; in the parking lot as I ran toward the Chinese bakery, in the waiting lounge as I greeted my piano teacher, in the four- walled living room as she argued with my aunts and uncles. Suddenly she asked, When was the last time you practiced piano?
I was practicing just before she called. She laughed. God, how proud you sound.
Thinking back, my mom wasn’t always this way. At some point, she didn’t complain about these two-hour Sunday drives. She didn’t cry when I never listened to her story, when my aunts and uncles muttered about her late at night, or when the piano she lugged home gathered dust. She didn’t object when we moved all the way across the United States and heaved three people’s belongings into a house that looked exactly like every other down the street. But sometime in the midst of all that, after giving without receiving too many times, we became more obligation than love. One time, even before my mom left, I ran away first. It was some hazy time in third or fourth grade when the April snow was just beginning to thaw. My mom was repeating what she always told me— I’m your mom. But this particular phrase that she always went back to, this phrase that seemed to contain the obligations of the world, I could care the least about.
That afternoon, I snuck out of the back door and ran as fast as I could. I crouched behind the hydrangea shrub next door and waited for my mom to burst out, turn on her car engine, and drive off to look for me. As soon as she left, I could run and run and never look back again.
At five or six PM, the sky was just beginning to darken. My mom stepped outside of our house and closed the door behind her. She didn’t turn on her car. Instead, she rolled out the old bicycle my grandpa gave to her on her eighteenth birthday, checked the brakes, and began to bike into the distance. No car keys, no backpack on her shoulders. Only her and her ever-lengthening silhouette, blurry and orange under the last rays of sunlight.
My legs aching and the rest of me feeling utterly stupid, I waited until she was gone, then stood up and returned to the unlocked house.
When she returned an hour later, none of us mentioned anything. My mom put dinner on the table and talked about how she heard someone playing the Moonlight Sonata today. That night, she gently looped the first movement of the sonata in the background as she searched for piano schools for me to go to next summer. Piano school would be the only thing she ever asked of me.
Lǎomā came home on a cloudy gray morning at the end of June. Everything was pretty much the same before and after her departure, so we slipped back into an effortless routine. I spent my summer days reading novels and playing the piano. My mom spent her days buying takeout for our family and searching for job applications she would never go to. We co-existed, two figurines in a fairytale music box, the Moonlight Sonata lilting softly alongside our movements.
Four days after her return, I was playing the first few bars of the second movement when I looked up to find her leaning against my bedroom door, nodding along.
When our gazes met, I was strangely relieved. I knew what she was going to say. It was like how I knew her stories were coming, but I didn’t hate this one.
My dad was out today. The international phone line was yet uninstalled. The newly familiar house was hushed and quiet around us. Outside, cicadas hummed as the summer breeze streamed in through the open window. It was not August, but it was summer again.
“How was New York?” I asked.
“Good. I saw my uncle— your great-uncle.”
“Was he nice?”
“Very.” She paused. “I missed your piano playing.”
“I play the same song every day,” I said. I wondered, briefly, whether she was going to say that she missed me. She shook her head, a little amused. “You only learned one song from three months of piano school.”
“I’m not a good pianist.”
“That’s fine. I wasn't training you to be the next Lang Lang or anything.”
She had no expectations for me now, I realized. My mom had no more dreams of piano recitals with puffy white dresses. Somehow that was unthinkable.
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
She looked at me upon that, almost surprised. She was going to say that it was fine. Then she changed her mind and said, “Me too.”
I shook my head. My mom stopped what I was going to say and said, “I’m going to start traveling when you go off to college. God, I hate the humidity of this place. I would much rather live in the countryside up north where we have fewer neighbors and more moon to look at. What do you think?”
“I think that’s nice,” I said. I did think so. “Okay,” she said. “Good.”
Two days before my mom packed everything into a multi-compartment backpack and flew to upstate New York, she sat me down on the molten asphalt outside our house. The May sun was heatless but unwavering overhead. Lǎomā handed me a pineapple bun and, instead of telling a story, told me a plan.
Her plan was this: two days later on Friday, the first day of June and the final day of my eighth-grade exams, she would take a 5 AM taxi that drove her all the way from our house to the George Bush Intercontinental. From there, she would take the earliest morning plane and land in upstate New York at noon, and by the time everyone else in our family heard about it, she would already be two thousand miles away. She would dwell in New York for a month or so, figuring out where she could go from there. She was tired of doing things, she said. She wanted to take a break and figure out her life.
There was relief on her face. Anticipation. She was telling me because I deserved to know. My mom looked at me and in the moment, under the May sun with a half-melted pineapple bun sitting on my palm, I knew that my mother would stay behind for me.
So all I said was, “Okay, Mom.”
Somewhere far away, the first movement of Piano Sonate op. 27-2 continued. The notes listed on, a perpetually unfinished song: A-D-F-A-D-F-A-D-F-A-D-F…