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TO ONE, TO ALL - 2nd Prize Winner - LittleStar CISB Short Story Competition ‘HOME’

April, 2017
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TO ONE, TO ALL

 

ZERO.

I exist because she willed me to. Age thirty-five, the Chinese woman longed for a child, a daughter, to hold. Thus, on January 1st, 2000, the first day of the month, of the year, of the century, I took my first breath, a lungful of lidocaine syringe and alcohol wipes. Thin strands of hair stuck to my scalp, flesh and blood all over. The new addition to the family, screaming.

 

Leaving a balloon and a kiss for my two girls, one just born, I rush out of the hospital. Duty called, and I must answer. Every king needs his kingdom, after all.

I check my watch. 5:34 pm. I can make it before the agency shuts down for the night. Luckily, the hospital is close to the firm. Turning a corner, I see a dingy old building and walk in. There, other men beginning their own enterprises, as am I, line-up in front of a counter, each daring to rise up to the challenge our Chairman has set forth. Indeed, it is the time of innovation, the time of failure. Through television, newspapers, and the radio, Jiang Zemin calls out to us, the blue-collared citizens, daring us to begin anew and realize our potential as entrepreneurs. When I approach the counter, I show a woman my ID. She glances at some papers, rummages through a shelf, and shoves a certificate at me. The Chairman warns us that most businesses will fail within the first term, but that if even 1% last, China will rejoice. I take the thin paper, staring at the inked name. It is officially christened. January 1st, 2000. Today marks the birth of my child.

A bejeweled crown lowers onto my head as I take the oath to guard the survival of my kingdom. The woman clears her throat and glares at me. I scramble out into the streets, stopping only to whisper the name aloud — my first hit. An intoxicating feeling. I guffaw and take another dose, saying it again.

 

Color inks the canvas as I paint the hoof of a horse. My baby sits beside me, opening and closing the tablet bottles, giggling at the pop the lids make. I pause; have I taken my medicine today? Doxazosin, Prazosin, Piroxicam. Loyal servants of mine, they tend to my flaking walls, the pipe leakage, those cracked windowpanes. After her birth, diseases entered my body as if it were the host of a New Years feast-for-all. “Dumplings, niangao, and tea!” my body said. “Come one, come all!” And they did.

Snatching the bottles away, I scold her, warning her to never swallow one of the pills. Here, the diseases have stayed, unwelcome guests that willfully play with my daughter. She squirms around, bored, and finally settles with watching me paint. Look, honey. Mommy paints horses because in Chinese culture, in our culture, horses are carriers of luck, and daddy’s business needs a bit of luck right now.

 

 

SIX.

When I spot the latest edition of Barbie — this time, she is wearing a pink bow — at the mall, I stick there like an Old Piece of Gum. Mom pulls my arm. “Move along and help carry the groceries.” But I cry a big stench about the doll, envious of the locks that cascade down her back. NO.

Threatening to abandon me, she claims she’ll leave me here to become a beggar who cries to strangers for food and sleeps on the cold pavement at night. But she Doesn’t Have the Guts. Go ahead; I DARE you.

I wait for the moment when she kneels down to my level, looks at me eye to eye, and tells me in that severe tone adults have that “we can’t afford another toy”, that I “already own all the other million Barbies”, that “Barbies ingrain in children unrealistic beauty standards”, or something. Anything. But the moment doesn’t come. All she sees is her Little Baby Girl who she adores too much to betray reality to. So, eyes shining, she takes that pink box off the counter and walks to the cashier, as per usual. All of a sudden, I sense this distance between my mother and I. She stands on a prairie with her back towards me, and I, a girl stuck inside a deep, deep trench with only proud pink bows to keep me company, cannot reach her.

 

The board meeting is tomorrow in Kyoto. She holds my pinkie finger as she hopscotches around invisible squares beside me (6:31pm). I wonder how my wife would handle this situation. Strangers passing by stare at her, and I readjust my grip around her hand. At what age do kids stop being embarrassing? I open the gate for her so she can (6:36 pm) dance into the mall. (Passport — check. Visa — check. Plane, ticket, taxi — check.) She giggles at the names of the stores, asking me if Lululemon only sells lemons. Then, she pulls me into some store and begins to frolic around the (6:47 pm) shelves, singing a tune she obviously made up. I follow her aimless wandering around the aisles. (Pack two suits, one black, one grey, and that special Giorgio Armani silk necktie. Include the 1995 Bordeaux wine, Lindt cacao bars the 85% kind — for each executive.)

From the corner of my eye, I see her, still chanting indiscernibly, stare at a doll. One of those American beach girls or something. I snap. Aren’t you too old for that?

She shuts up. For the rest of the day, she walks beside me, obediently silent.

 

 

THIRTEEN.

Oh, I know what it means when she tells me to find a Shanghai Boy. Just because my hair is only long enough for pigtails doesn’t mean “Adultspeak” is foreign to my ears. “He will disinherit her if he dislikes her husband”, she whispers to her friend at the dinner table, thinking I can’t hear her. Disgusting.

Well, mother, all the better. My pigtails swing in the air. What if my husband doesn’t speak your language, much less bleed Chinese blood? What if we fall in love at a dance I won’t tell you about? What if we kiss on my bedsheets and ruin the clothes you ironed with your two bare hands? What’s most important, mother dear, is to keep in mind that he’ll try to learn about your Chinese Culture.

Yes, I know the ending of this tragic romance; he will disapprove, and you will follow suit; we will elope and escape that pastel pink house you love so fondly, your asylum that doesn’t provide asylum. Because I refuse to be committed, and so does my theoretical fiancé.

 

Only a structured house is durable. Opening the unusually unlocked door, I foray into her bedroom. My blood pressure rises as I take in the ungodly sight. A dress I had spent half an hour ironing is tossed haphazardly over the bed. An Everest of shirts, socks, underwear, avalanche onto what little remains visible of the hardwood floor. Clothes are strewn all over, in every which way, on every surface available. If even one wall of a house loosens, ants and spiders and worms and bacteria will enter. Everything would topple.

Sighing, I pick up a shirt and begin to fold.

 

The issue with the kingdom is that it changes coordinates regularly. Beeep. Beeep. We’re sorry. We are unable to complete your call. I shut my phone, tuck it away. (Probably away at a school trip I’m unaware of?)

An arm that extends to a hand gripping a cigar moves closer to my lighter. (There are more than 172 toxic chemicals in a single cigarette.) As king, I must travel with the expansion of my land. Swipe— on. The lighter fires up, burning the cigar deafeningly, a tiny bud of flame gradually transforming leaves of tobacco —“From Morocco!” — into ash and nicotine. A trail of gravelly smoke drifts over my eyes as the other men suck in the poison. (Smokers lose ten years of their lives.) Following suit, the armandhand, a foreign-looking contraption, moves to my lips, the cigar inserting in my mouth. (Nine out of ten lung cancer cases are caused by smoking.)

For her, cheers — I inhale, as if in suspense before an audition. The bitterness enters my lungs, and I sputter. Cough. Attaboy.

 

 

SEVENTEEN.

Vapor rises. Sizzling in the pan, the beef transforms from red into a dull brown. Only for food do they come out of their caves, and then promptly leave afterwards. Wisps turn into biting smoke. The house’s wallpapers flake and crumble, vulnerable under any breeze. Indeed, a housewife I am. I flip the meat over. The smell of flesh and boiling blood fills the entire room. Like the captain of a ship, I will sink with my house.

Everywhere I fly to, I buy a book to commemorate the business conducted there, a trail of crumbs that guides my daughter to cities that are her kingdom. This time, it was on The History of Paris.

I fold the wrapping paper carefully against the gift, parroting a woman on the internet. A present’s clean edges are more difficult to create than they appear. Every year, dad bestows upon me books on cities I have never seen — every year, he jabs a big smiley-face sticker on a wound, pats himself on the back, and leaves.

I never read his books.

The door opens, and, for the first time in months, I come home. Too soon, work calls and my phone vibrates. Reluctantly, I drop my suitcase and luggage, hurry into the study, and answer. (Hello? Yes, this is he.)

Housewife, ˈhousˌwīf/: A wife whose purpose is to wear an apron, cook, and clean the house — essentially, to housekeep. Shaking my head, I take a deep breath. Drizzling sauce on the beef, I call out to them. Dinner’s ready. We are a family. Resolved, the sheep wipes its hands, the mother in a pack of lions, and decides to call a family meeting.

(Why wasn’t I made aware of this conference?)

Suddenly, mom calls. “Dinner’s ready!” I hastily tape the paper ends together, accidentally sticking my hair in. It’s grown too long over the years. Hidden underneath a disposal of clothes that probably keeps mom awake at night are red gift bags. I dig them up, put the presents in, and leave.

(This isn’t my problem at the moment. Today is a holiday in my country.)

She always comes fifteen minutes late. He takes longer, his voice able to be heard from the other room, soft mumbles quaking the walls. Suddenly, the vibrations stop. The house stills, eavesdropping on his call.

(Well, then. It was a pleasure working with you.)

Finally, we each sit at the dinner table, husband on the left, daughter on the right. Xin nian kuai le! They nod. Noticing the silence and the pink buds on their cheeks, I realize: authority is in my mouth. I bite it, hold on to it. Wo ai ni. They nod. The first roses of the year bloom. I feel the urge to pluck and display them in a glass case.

It’s time. Almost shyly, I unveil the gifts from behind me. Eyes widening, they each take their gift. Mom keeps looking from the present and back to me as she delicately unfolds the paper edges. Dad rips the wrap off of his and, in seconds, stares at the heart of the gift. A lighter for him, a flower pot for her. They grin. Suddenly, a wave washes over me, carrying me across the prairie to join my parents.

I saw the prairie that could not be crossed. I was the sheep, the conceited king, the little girl stuck inside a trench. Poisoned by my career, I hid behind hair, a dying house all too aware of the family welfare.

Who? Irrelevant. Today, I take my fork and knife, cut into the beef, and take a bite. I, the Zhang Family, feel at home, at last.

 

 

By Dannes Zhang,

Shanghai American School, Puxi Campus

 

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