My mother was prone to nightmares, so we had an elaborate system to make the house safe every night. In the evening it was my job to go into the bathroom before she took her shower, where I would close the curtain over the square window that looked out over the garden. She had an intense fear of that window at night, convinced someone, whether supernatural, human, or in-between, could press its cold face up to the panes at any moment. At ten exactly, she would go to take her shower, leaving the door open a crack so the yellow light within leaked out into the hallway where I stood watch. She showered for seven minutes, no more and no less, keeping track with a waterproof stopwatch she brought into the bathroom with her. Three minutes were for soaping her face and body, two minutes for shampooing and one minute for conditioner, the last minute for rinsing or relaxing at last, for just sixty seconds, into the hot water.
At eleven she would turn the locks on all the doors in the house ten times each, just to make sure, and always in a specific order: front door, garage door, garden door, front door again. Then we would run water together in the kitchen, turning the taps so that the faucet alternately ran first hot, then cold, for ten seconds each. We repeated this ritual in the downstairs bathroom and the upstairs one. She would open and close all the doors inside the house, in this order: the downstairs bathroom, the broom closet, the laundry room, the pantry door, the top row of cupboards in the kitchen from left to right, the bottom row of cupboards beneath the stove, the refrigerator door, also from left to right, and, upstairs, the door to the second-floor bathroom and the door to the closet in her room. Finally, she would come back downstairs and count the rings of jade she strung up over our front door, rubbing each one with her fingers as a Catholic might their rosary beads. Afterwards we would again go upstairs, leaving the lights in the front hall on, and she would enter her room first and watch me watch her close the door.
We lived in the house in Berkeley that my father left when he passed away. Our house was covered in red: red curtains, red carpets, red lanterns and banners hung over windows and lining doors. I don’t remember my toddlerhood, but my childhood and adolescence were filled with my mother’s fears.
When I was eight, a friend of mine had a sleepover and I asked to go. The next morning I came home and found her huddled in her pajamas, arms crossed over her legs, crammed into the corner between the front door and the wall. Her eyes were huge and ringed with pink, the flesh underneath shiny, tender, and dark. None of the curtains had been drawn open. It was clear she had been sitting there for hours, possibly all night. She started when she saw me, then engulfed me in a smothering hug before backing away and going to take a shower. When she came back downstairs, we didn’t talk about it. I never went to another sleepover.
But in the daytime, when she was well, she was a completely different person. Was there ever a more wonderful mother? She made breakfast every morning, oatmeal with jam and sliced almonds, congee with century egg and fried sticks of you tiao, sweet pancakes filled with red bean paste, syrupy waffles, balls of sweet rice, omelets. Sometimes I had a friend over for lunch or dinner, and without fail, they loved her: Outgoing and kind, she smiled so easily, showering them with compliments and making them feel like the most special person on earth. How loved I felt, then, receiving that same attention every daylight hour.
During the day, she worked in administration at Berkeley. On the weekends she took me on shopping excursions downtown, where we sometimes looked at furniture in hushed, ambient-lit stores rich with the smell of Italian leather, fingering imported carpets woven in spirals of red and black and gold. She hosted weekend dinner parties, too, though they never went late, and important people came: doctors, professors, lawyers, journalists. Many of them came from San Francisco, which seemed to me the most glamorous, glittering, breath-taking city in the world, without the austerity of Boston or the frenzy of New York.
Of the people who came to visit us, flitting in and out of our lives like moths in a hazy evening, one remains distinct: Sara. She was eleven or twelve when I was nine, someone’s daughter who was brought to my mother’s dinner parties. Often she would come to our house on the weekends, too, alone, and I would watch TV with her, mostly in silence, until she vanished just as mysteriously as she came. She was skinny and dark, with a stubborn forehead and narrow, solemn eyes; I didn’t think she was pretty. She was full-blooded Chinese and had been born in China, whereas I was a halfie and barely spoke the language. We didn’t talk to each other much.
My mother seemed both repelled by Sara and unable to turn her away. It was only when I was much older that I realized Sara was tied to my mother’s nightmares—perhaps even the source of some of them.
I went to Chicago for college, and after two years, took a tiny apartment that looked over Lake Michigan. I was only able to afford it because it was one-room, old, the plumbing half-broken, the floors scratched. In the winter, the whining radiator turned the room into a furnace. It was worth it to me because I liked looking out at the water. In the winter, the lake froze over and the ice looked magnificent—not smooth as you might imagine, but striated with dark lines that made it look like it was made of puzzle pieces.
I floated around in school, taking classes in stats and public policy before settling on urban studies. Then, the class—Modernization and City Spaces in Asia. We learned about the Four Tigers: Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Taipei. We learned about Shanghai. We touched on the Cultural Revolution, and this was my first time encountering it in such stark, troubling detail. On the list of additional reading was Nien Cheng’s memoir, Life and Death in Shanghai . The story began five years after my mother was born. It says something about our relationship that I never asked her about it.
That class was what made me go to China, taking a semester abroad in Beijing. I biked by Tiananmen Square, looked at the picture of Mao, bought cheap keychain replicas at the Forbidden City, and climbed to the top of the Great Wall. Sometimes I used words my mother had taught me long ago, though my Chinese was rusted, barely recognizable. And then, coincidence of all coincidences, I found Sara.
I hadn’t seen her since high school. She had come to our house less and less frequently, and then left for college. Now here she was at the Oriental Plaza, a gigantic mall where I’d dropped in to eat with a friend. I saw her sitting at the window of a Starbucks, though at first I didn’t recognize her. To be perfectly honest, she blended in with all the other Chinese girls there. But as we turned away from the counter, Sara came up to me.
I turned around. After the first wave of confusion and astonishment, I asked her what she was doing there.
“I’ve been here for six months,” she said. “I’m on a Fulbright scholarship.”
My friend nudged me. “Who’s this?”
“Right. Sara, Steven. Steven, Sara . . . Sara’s a childhood friend from Berkeley.”
I saw how Steven was looking at Sara—curiously, with an appraising eye—and I understood he was interested in her. In fact, she looked very different than I remembered: Her blunt bangs covered her wide forehead, her hair cropped in a fashionable bob; she had on short boots with a slight heel and wore a fuzzy white sweater over a pale pink dress. I was reminded of the time I had briefly seen her at my freshman homecoming in high school, when she’d come as the date of one of the senior football players. I’d been surprised by my glimpse of Sara then, too: a glamorous girl with glittery blue eyeshadow. Once again she had appeared in changed form, shape-shifting like smoke to match her surroundings.
She didn’t seem interested in Steven, greeting him only politely. All her attention and curiosity was for me: She asked what I was doing here, when I’d arrived in Beijing, what program I was in, how long I was staying.
Eventually Steven said, “Hey, I’m going to head out,” and before I could protest he had whacked me on the back and walked away, leaving Sara and me facing each other. She indicated the table where she’d been sitting, and we sat down. “I’m really surprised to see you here,” she said. “I never thought you’d come to China.”
I shrugged, embarrassed. “I guess I developed a late interest.”
“It’s your family history, too.”
I changed the subject. “What are you doing your research on?”
“Pollution.” She pointed at the sky. “All that smog.” Indeed, while I’d been in Beijing the sky had hardly ever been blue; today the sun was a lurid orange, like something from an oversaturated film print. Many people wore white masks or coughed as they walked. “I’m doing research into how families are changing their daily lives to deal with it. It’s sort of like a blend of urban studies and anthropology.”
“Wait, I’m doing urban studies, too,” I said. “It’s my major.”
As we talked, I learned that Sara had gone to Tufts, in Boston. When I asked her if she went back to Berkeley often, she admitted that she didn’t go as often as she felt she should. “But my uncle never stopped me from leaving, you know.”
“Yeah, my uncle who I lived with. You know, your mom’s friend?”
Now we were both confused. I’d never asked my mom about Sara. I’d never asked my mom about anything. “I thought he was your dad,” I said. “So, your parents . . . ?”
She blew out her bangs with an oh, boy sort of look, and a moment later confirmed that they were dead.
The story is this: In the early 1980s, my mom was in her twenties, a grad student in Beijing. Her closest friends were Zhao Yingying and Wei Hao, who had been a couple since high school and were already married.
Yingying studied agricultural science. She was a sweet, quiet girl with beautiful hands, the hands of an artist. She played the violin, and sometimes she would give a performance in the living room of the apartment she and Hao shared.
Hao was quick-witted, with a long flop of dark hair and shrewd, laughing eyes. He wanted to be an engineer. He had a sharp, bark-like laugh and talked animatedly, moving his arms expressively, and always seemed to be living in a story. Sometimes he would take them all to a movie screening, often foreign titles from France, or America. He was something of a radical, reading books my mother and Yingying had never heard of, going to student meetings and returning with pamphlets filled with calls to action.
My mother had moved to the capital from the countryside in Anhui, and had few friends or connections in the city. She quickly latched onto these two, who had lived in Beijing for most of their lives, and the three of them soon became inseparable. They went out for midnight barbecues in the streets and shared late-night snacks while studying. Sometimes Hao would take the two of them on bike rides, Yingying riding on the back of his while my mother pedaled her old rickety white one, and they’d glide down Changan Street to alleyways filled with used book stalls or to parks where they bought ice cream from men pushing trolleys.
As Sara related this to me, it sounded idyllic in the way only history can. I had seen pictures of those days in textbooks or in museums and now recalled them, transposing my mother’s face onto those of strangers: here, at a wholesale market tasting a watermelon; there, holding an ice pop while leaning against a fence in Beihai Park.
I’ve only seen one real photo of my mother and her two friends. It’s monochrome, but you can tell it’s summertime, and sunny. All of them are squinting slightly, the sun overexposing their faces and casting other parts of the photo in deep shadow. Hao is leaning against a concrete wall, wearing a white shirt open at the throat, one hand in his pocket, the other slung around Yingying’s shoulders. Yingying has one hand over the elbow of her other arm in a protective stance, and she is smiling nervously, clearly not used to the camera. My mother is next to Hao, hands behind her back, wearing a long, loose skirt printed with birds and a pair of black heels, her bangs almost covering her eyes. Her head is tilted a little upwards, and I can’t see exactly where she is looking. Her bike is parked near her, its front half poking into the frame.
It was Sara who showed me this picture, which she’d gotten from her uncle. It was Sara who had asked her uncle for the stories. And when I asked what had happened to the three of them, it was Sara who looked at me as though I were stupid and said, “1989, Tiananmen Square.”
So: Hao and Yingying graduated in 1987. Sara was born in 1988. In 1989, her parents were killed.
My mother hadn’t wanted to protest. She said it was dangerous, and besides, she hated crowds, which made her dizzy. Already the anxiety that would plague her for the rest of her life was manifesting. But Hao was too excited—passionate—and urged her to come to the square, proclaiming they were reclaiming their rights as citizens. There was no talking him out of it, and Yingying always did what he did, so my mother said she’d stay at home and look after Sara.
After the tanks, my mother managed to flee to Hong Kong, where Hao had family who had escaped during the Mao years. That was where she met Hao’s cousin, whom Sara called uncle, and entrusted Sara to him. It was also there that she met an American businessman, my father. They married and moved to California. She brought along two suitcases and her guilt, which never left her. It was she who eventually arranged for Sara and her adoptive parents to come to the States; she who put in the prodigious effort to help them get their residence cards and find them jobs in Oakland.
“She always wanted me to visit,” Sara said, sipping her cold latte. She sounded cool and nonchalant. Only once during our talk had she shown the slightest lingering feeling, and it was more an absence of tone than the presence of it: skimming over the events of her parents’ deaths quickly, the year they had been killed, she was too casual, almost brusque. “I think she even offered to adopt me. To be like a daughter, I guess.” Then, cruelly, she said: “But you noticed how awkward she was?”
“Awkward.” There was an emotion I couldn’t articulate rising in the back of my mind. “Yes. Definitely.”
You’d think life would change after a revelation like that. But information is only what you do with it. Humans are what cause change, and I—I didn’t.
I didn’t call my mother. After we left the Starbucks, I went to Sara’s apartment, where she showed me the photograph. Then I finished out the rest of my study-abroad program and went back to Chicago. I saw Sara a few more times before I left; sometimes we had a casual lunch, sometimes she came to an event with my friends, but we didn’t discuss our parents again.
After college I started working in San Francisco; I couldn’t afford my own place, and lived at home. I spent the evening hours drifting through the city’s bars, bookstores, cafés. “What time do you think you’ll come home?” my mother would always ask me.
“Not sure. I might be out late.” My standard response.
“If you’re early,” she would say, “let’s have dinner together.”
Sometimes the guilt was enough to make me come back in time for the meal, which we spent in silence, one I fooled myself into thinking was companionable. Occasionally we talked about inconsequential things: TV shows or movies, a book she was reading, my old friends from high school, how work was going. Other times, even the ticking of the wall clock sounded too loud. It was a relief when I got the job offer in the Chicago suburbs, an hour out from the city. Even though the countryside is flat and the wind howls, even if the landscape seems empty, at least it offers no history.
I speak of her as though she is dead, but she isn’t. My mother is still alive, though she no longer resides in Berkeley. Our old house has been sold. She lived by herself for a long time, though she rarely went out and had few friends left. Most recently, she has been consigned to a facility in La Jolla for dementia patients. She chose to go in herself once she realized what was happening to her. It’s a pink building near the beach, and all year round the weather is mild and warm.
When I had been packing up her things for her to move into the home, I’d found an old photo album made of cheap brown suede. It was hard to tell whether the album was worn with age or with use. Inside was a photo of me as a baby; her wedding photo; a picture with Sara’s family, Sara a grumpy five-year-old, standing off to the side; at the end of the album, the same black-and-white photo Sara had shown me in Beijing, with Hao and Yingying standing next to my mother. On the back of the picture my mother had written in faded ballpoint their names and the year, with no other comment. But it was the only photo with anything written on it. I placed the album on her nightstand in the rest home. She never touched it—at least, not in front of me.
The nurses at the home tell me she is a model patient, very sweet, who gets along with the other patients extremely well. “What a shame,” a nurse said wistfully once, not long after my mother entered. Another nurse interjected, “She’s still got a sharp mind. She’s not all gone yet.” On my way out, I couldn’t decide whether that last comment was intended as solace or torture.
People often think about what they could have done differently in the past. Was I right to . . . ? Should I have . . . ? Why didn’t I . . . ? As an adult, I replayed my childhood endlessly in my head: What could I have changed, what could I have done better, how could my choices have made the present different? Maybe I could have stayed—stayed with my mother longer, stayed with her forever. Maybe it was wrong of me to leave the way I did. Maybe if I hadn’t, then—
But thinking this way is no use. There is no could’ve, should’ve, would’ve; there is only what you did. What I did was leave, secretly, like a fugitive. Packed a suitcase and a duffel bag, and, one morning in September, just before dawn, when I was eighteen years old, I slipped out the back door and got on the plane to Chicago alone. I came home, of course, but I never really came back.
The last time I saw my mother, she had stopped dying her hair and it had turned completely white, a short shock of it crowning her head and framing her face down to the chin. The strands were loose and untidy, as if she hadn’t combed it in days.
She turned her face from the window when I came in. I turned thirty this year; she, sixty. Early-onset , the doctors said. Young for dementia . Young for her to be in a rest home. Young for her to be looking at me as though I were still thirteen, or sixteen, or twenty, and saying, “What time do you think you’ll come home? I’ll leave some congee in the kitchen for you.”
“Early,” I told her, my voice as warm and open as I could make it, as it hadn’t been when we’d lived together. “I’ll come home early tonight.”