by Joan Li
Mr. Dai called to inform his wife that he would be leaving directly from work to pick their daughter up from the airport this evening, so Mrs. Dai would have to buy the fish herself. She would have to, between now and the party, soak the pig’s tongue in the hoisin sauce, steam the tofu, make the dumpling dough, put the bamboo shoots and the pig’s feet into the slow cooker — this would take until approximately noon — and, while the produce cooked, prepare the stuffings: shrimp skin, egg, and leek for the tofu; lamb and coriander for the dumplings; pepper, onion, and ginger for the fish. She still needed to buy the fish and let it steam for at least three hours. Add to that the fact that she required an hour to clean the house and another to get dressed. Taking all these variables into consideration, she had thirty minutes to look presentable, find the keys, and drive to the lot behind the local pediatrician’s office, where an uncle of a Chinese nurse sold his daily catch from the back of his minivan to women who knew about his discreet business through WeChat.
She looked into the rearview mirror, smoothed a stray curl in her hair, and stepped out of the car.
“Aiyo, Donna! It’s you!”
She was greeted, in addition to Uncle, by her neighbor, who, from the looks of her black trousers and a blouse too-pink for her age, was on her way home from work.
“Little sister Dai, I was just telling this little sister that this fish was saved for you.”
Yes, she had heard caterpillar rumors, fuzzy talk that Mrs. Qin had become a recent customer after years of Americanized snobbery towards illegal fish. Some said it was because she was becoming dry and everyone knew that a woman could stave it off with the rich fat of fish. The only problem was that the ones sold at the Stop and Shop were skinned pretty and clean, all the good stuff thrown away by white people who didn’t know any better.
“Is this for tonight?” Mrs. Qin asked. “How will you make it?”
“I’m steaming it.”
Mrs. Qin clucked in admiration. “Did you know, Uncle? Donna is incredibly impressive. She makes her house so clean, so clean. Now, fish — that’s a luxury in my house! We certainly are women of different caliber.”
“Don’t say that,” Mrs. Dai warded off the compliment with a smile.
Mrs. Qin was a typical woman-snake with a forked tongue. Her words went one way while her meanings went another.
“You’re too modest! It’s true, you have the energy of a newlywed chick! At our age, with our nests empty, this old bird is happy spending her weekend night catching up on all the television she’s missed out on for the past twenty years.”
“But you’ll come, won’t you?” Mrs. Dai was quick to ask. “I invited you and you said you would come.”
“Of course, of course.”
And so Mrs. Dai returned to her car forty minutes later having paid the proper amount of chit-chat to Uncle and her neighbor. She set beside her in the passenger’s seat her fish wrapped in newspaper, the tiny print soaked to invisibility in oil. Her mind’s eye trained on the future, funneling past familiar turns, street signs, speed limits, towards home, where the tofu sat atop the steam rack, the dough was raised and ready to be rolled, cut, flattened, and folded, the drenched pork tongue glistened for the knife, and the other cold plates still sat in the fridge. She thought of the cleaning that still needed to be done, and the slippers to be set by the door, and the fish, once fully cooked, to be set at the center of the serving counter.
The completion of her freshwater trout (although she would’ve called it by its Chinese name — 30 years in this country and she still didn’t know her groceries in English), down to the curl of its cilantro garnish, marked the satisfying completion of Mrs. Dai’s weeklong preparations. Underneath the kitchen light, its skin gleamed black with the calm of the local lakes from which it was caught. Its bottom edges were plumped by the absorption of her secret homemade sauce. The recipe was tedious, but durable, like a hardy gene that had survived long distances: from the crowded seafood bazaars of her grandmother’s poor village to her empty, marble kitchen and hopefully to the plates of her own daughter’s children, if only she could interest her daughter in cooking. For now, she had to content herself with simply getting her daughter to come home and eat homemade fish.
I can visit for the weekend, she agreed over the phone. But no parties.
No parties, Mrs. Dai reassured her.
Seriously Ma, I’m not obligated to see any of your judgmental lady friends. Okay?
Okay, okay, Mrs. Dai huffed, annoyed at her daughter’s stubbornness on the subject.
What happened last year upset everyone, but no one more than Mrs. Dai. The matchmaking crows of their community had set their eyes on the two children since middle school. Mrs. Dai’s daughter had lived up to the promise of her father’s intelligence and her mother’s long legs — her physique more beautiful, more western than the average Asian girl. Mrs. Qin’s son likewise received high marks and was well-built for an Asian boy. Both were the only two students in the history of the tiny town to be accepted into an Ivy League college. Together, they were a shiny couple for Chinese immigrants to desire for their own suburban nests. Mothers and fathers built their homes out of the best of the cultural scraps they could gather and measured compatibility by a laundry list of accomplishments rather than the traditional ideal of balance — perhaps that was why things went wrong. Like the fish recipe, old wisdom triumphed, proving its rigor over new pollutants.
Sometimes Mrs. Dai still confused the memory of her daughter’s call with episodes of American television. The repetitive scripts and structures unraveled from their usual neatness and hijacked her daughter’s voice, taking her hostage. The dean of the college was as white and spectacled as the ones on the screen. He spoke at her and her husband about Title Nine and Disputable Evidence. Little did either man know that Mrs. Dai was familiar with this lingo from watching reruns of daytime crime shows. He said, she said, another phrase she recognized. The college administration moved Mrs. Dai’s daughter to another dorm. Case closed. Except Mrs. Qin was also involved, and that working woman loved to tell a good story about herself.
How frustrating it was to be the brunt of gossip! To have lies circling around her like vultures, and then be accused of being the liar! No one heard her daughter’s voice curl like a baby’s. No one else felt the reality of the once-illustrious girl’s regression to a cocoon of twisted bed sheets. And no one else would, for if there was anything Mr. Dai couldn’t stand, it was a crying woman who made everyone uncomfortable by pulling aside the curtains to her private life. Best to move on and not cause a fuss, he said. Their daughter agreed, saying that she didn’t want to be an object of sympathy. The girl’s mouth ran like a river, foaming with college words against her mother’s good advice, but when it came time to really defend herself — where was that knife-sharp intelligence? Where was that fight?
Mrs. Dai moved on to tidying the living room, where she vacuumed the carpet and collected the scattered remotes. She slapped away the unruly depressions in the couch where Mr. Dai would sit and pay no notice to the decrease in party invitations they received.
I never liked them anyway, Mr. Dai said when she had pointed out the slights from their social circles. Mr. Dai, content with lazing in his usual corner, browsing the news, would leave his daughter and wife prey to liars and false accusers. Mr. Dai, that old man — she plunged her efforts into tidying the cushions — said their daughter might reconsider her lipstick and crop tops and, clueless about women’s fashion, criticized Mrs. Dai’s wardrobe as well. Mrs. Dai couldn’t begin to understand the way her husband’s mind twisted matters. He thought himself so wise, but was ignorant about matters of human emotion, never even had the sense to buy her a ring after they were married. She unleashed her dissatisfaction until the throw pillows stood proud and preened.
She barreled upstairs to change. Earlier in the week, she had riffled through her mental catalogue of her wardrobe and decided that she would be the most winning in her magenta dress. That she looked young for her age gave Mrs. Dai no sense of complacency. The Chinese community the Dai’s had come to know longer than their hometown neighbors showed its love through an amalgam of camaraderie and competition. They went to war with any one of theirs who suffered racial discrimination, but they also warred with one another beneath a thin blade of racial quotas.
But the Qin-Dai affair shattered the delicate ecosystem of solidarity and competition unique to upper-middle class minorities. Months later, the community still felt its effects. Upon the impact, they found themselves having to choose sides. The edges of their division crumbled into a growing crater as they traded accusations and political articles with the swift ferocity the Internet could afford them.
They must take sick joy in the group chats, Mrs. Dai thought. Mrs. Dai’s daughter, once the head of the flock, the brightest star in the constellation of children, the daughter-in-law of parents’ dreams, was now the kind of girl who used that word so loosely. An archeological dig into their memories created a telltale map, verbal obscenities among other unflattering habits, that forebode the girl’s downfall.
Ma, school sucked today. Ma, this blows. Ma, I was raped. Ma, he raped me.
Didn’t the girl know modesty? Couldn’t she be more discreet?
Mrs. Dai, indignant, yanked at the vile gossip poisoning her mood as the zipper jammed against the bulge of her hips. Rape, rape…
How could a man rape his own woman?
Rape! Mrs. Dai’s hand flew into the air, zipper still in her fingers. The word ripped the fabric that kept everything tidy and sensible, serene and palatable.
Mrs. Dai looked at the triangle of bare flesh that ran beneath her armpits to the hem of her white panties.
Back in her sanctuary, her walk-in closet, where her armory of once, at-most twice worn, dresses awaited her choosing, she thumbed through the fabric, past the chiffon and sequins, past the small, luxurious joys, nothing faded, everything well-preserved in their clear storage bags. She grabbed a collared blouse and pleated skirt towards the very back of the rack. She slapped the dust away from the bag, unzipped it, and held fabric for the first time in 30 years, hiking it slowly up her soft legs. The weight of this new country spilled from the waistband. But she released the hem from her grip and out tumbled fond memories, shaking up landscapes that had been compressed as they are in snow globes and encased in the irrevocable past. Flurries of childhood: dear friends in pigtails; first love; compliments on her new skirt that fluttered in the salty wind. She had always looked pretty on bicycles, balanced atop the seat, her straddle tastefully curtained while the spokes spun and bumped on unpaved road. Not at all old-fashioned. Just a few weeks ago, during a window-shopping excursion, she saw a model that she nearly mistook for herself the outfit was so similar. They say that girls these days are inviting, dressed in this unimaginable shirt or wearing that inconceivable neckline, but the fact of the matter was that a girl’s intent was always more everlasting than diamonds. Mrs. Dai could intuit that clothes worn by girls from all the days in history were never meant to beckon. If anything, drastically the opposite. A shield, a spear for the judging eye.
Don’t misunderstand Mrs. Dai. She had no interest in the politics, Woman versus Man, Yellow versus White, and all the big words in between, slung like mud from both sides, making no progress, none at all. She chose messes she could clean. She was an American citizen, but never voted because she was too busy cleaning. All the candidates were old, unattractive. If that woman detective from Law and Order: SVU ran for office, she would vote for her. Mrs. Dai liked her hair and her work outfits. Every afternoon she ironed Mr. Dai’s shirts in front of the television and imagined herself marching into the police station, trench coat following her heeled boots up to the beautiful office furnished with red wood. She mouthed along with the daytime reruns: You can say no to anyone, always. Sweetie, you’re not ruined. Don’t let him win.
Her husband scoffed whenever he caught her watching, said that television was all liberal media these days, but Mrs. Dai didn’t think it was politics. She never would’ve considered herself a feminist. All she liked was the sensation of being in intense agreement, of having something familiar inside her stirred, perfectly articulated by strangers who felt like long-lost sisters.
When it came to the root of all matters, Mrs. Dai’s allegiance belonged to her home. She could no more stop herself from loving her family as her mother had loved hers and her mother’s mother before that than a fish could stop swimming in water: she cooked and she cleaned and she spoiled her daughter. She believed in her daughter as staunchly as the white women believed in salvation, heaven, karma, or whatever it was they squawked about at her doorstep. The girl was, as both Mr. and Mrs. Dai could agree (a rare, and therefore telling, thing), the best thing that came out of their marriage, and thus the best thing that Mrs. Dai had ever achieved. Top of her high school class and furthermore, a journalist, not interested in math or science like the others. Don’t forget, an Ivy League scholar. She was a hard worker, but not without her mother’s strict guidance. Mrs. Dai saw herself the follower, but also the maker. She was the force of an entire backstage crew, from the light technicians to the director, underappreciated by men and children, championed by mothers who used to come to her for advice on how to raise their own daughters, even their sons.
Her eyes watered from the residues of her closet. Frustrated, she stepped from one mirror to another, from full-bodied reflection to scrutiny of the face, which needed more serums from Macys, but her husband had placed a limit on her credit card. That was an instance of the real problem at hand. What really bothered Mrs. Dai, even more than the accusations of her vanity, was that her husband wouldn’t spend the money to get the family a lawyer. She gave up on putting on makeup, went back downstairs to arrange the slippers by the front door. The rubber soles hit the hardwood floor in quick, angry raps.
She was soothed by things her hands could touch: the flowers, the scented candles, the match, the frames that contained her daughter’s photographs: one with her medal for that essay (Mrs. Dai had helped her choose that lace mini-skirt for the ceremony), one copy of her senior photo, taken in that dress she had bought from Nordstrom, one with her on a bike, wearing short shorts, legs red with the beginnings of a tan — one by one, wiped clean of their speckles and smudges, placed on the accent tables.
The clock above her daughter’s amber-lit smile informed her that her guests were late. But Mrs. Dai was a veteran party planner: Tell people to arrive at 6:30 and the cars won’t pull up until 7. They’ll play for four hours before the first woman pipes up with some excuse to leave. Four hours.
Headlights waxed and waned across the living room wall. She dimmed the ceiling lights.
The women, cautious at the front door, were all praise once they stepped into the soft slippers. The New Years’ shine to the floor and likewise, the sumptuous fish, disarmed them. As Mrs. Dai ushered them into the kitchen, a deck of cards and sunflower seeds waiting for them at the dining table, they wondered what in the world had taken so long for them to return to this heaven of homes. It’s been too long! they exclaimed. A year, she exacted.
Mrs. Qin arrived late with a store-bought fruit tart, which none of them would eat, aging women watching their diets. Mrs. Dai insisted that she try the fish.
“Donna, you made this?”
Mrs. Qin was struck by the provincial sauce of her own mother’s southern meals, which comprised of fish whenever she met a boy, good luck for her relationship; Mrs. Huang, another southern sister, cried ecstatically over her reunion with stewed bamboo shoots; Mrs. Ping held her nostalgia in her mouth, bites of lamb melting into happy childhood, while Mrs. Pan described the meat-stuffed tofu her big sister loved eating until she was pregnant with the village tofu-vendor’s child.
Wine flowed from the bottles, the tides pulling their girlhoods from separate shores into warm fog. Memories of spring before children and husbands condensed on the windows, where outside the night was stark and cold, showed signs of the beginning of a New England winter.
It did not register with Mrs. Qin that as she spoke, she was gazing at the photograph of Mrs. Dai’s daughter on a bicycle. Somewhere, deep in the recess of her consciousness, she noticed that the candlelight had snatched the smiling face of the girl from the photo, the glass white, the girl’s smile expanding like a cloud before her eyes. But the thick mixture of alcohol and nostalgia subdued instincts of flight, and she continued swirling the red contents of glass in contemplation that slowly, rhythmically, approached its destination.
She touched her cheeks. Her fingers parted, wet.
“It’s getting late,” she said, and the others agreed, murmuring of husbands and children. “I’m sorry.”
Her apology was met with the gracious curve of the hostess’s lips that waxed with a light that beamed into the room from outside the window.
“Already? It’s only 11. Stay just a while longer. I’m expecting another guest…”
Joan Li is a New England native living in Chicago. Her work has been published in Chicago Quarterly Review and recognized as a Notable in Best American Essays 2017.
Featured image courtesy of Lablascovegmenu.