The summer of 1989, in Tampa, a Vietnamese boy tried to take me on a date to Busch Gardens and a lecherous cook pinched my thighs and wanted to buy me a car.
That same summer, my father wrote, in formal stodgy Chinese, from Singapore, that “crucial funds” would perhaps “have to be diverted” from my college education to be put towards treating my mother’s illness. “College may have to be aborted.” Translation: I may have to go home in dishonor, not finishing what I set out to do.
Flat out broke, I shacked up on a friend’s couch while she and her white boyfriend canoodled in a canvas tent in the living room, which was devoid of any other furniture. I’d walk in and find the tent jostling all its corners, as if it had captured two prized pugilists. When Lu Pin and I had dinner, she’d deliberately angle her cheek so I could see the red welting bite-marks on her neck. “I hope we’re not making too much noise,” she smirked.
I got a job passing out pizza coupons, but I couldn’t hack the miles of walking in the baking Florida sun. My sneakers were too tight, hand-me-downs from a co-ed in college, and my soles burned from pounding the asphalt. The Hillsborough County neighborhoods all looked the same to me—sprawling single-family homes camped out around circular graveled drives overlooking golf courses.
I stole a baseball cap from a tourist vendor stand. The cap had hand-stitched oranges and the words “Sunshine State” in bright yellow. I’d walk the neighborhoods, soaked with sweat, and alternately chant, “No more funds,” “No more sun” to the tune of some Beach Boys song stuck in my head.
Desperate, I got myself two waitressing jobs—weekdays at Tok Cha’s and weekends at Hunan Garden. What I loved about Tok-Cha’s were the bamboo lanterns along the floor-to-ceiling windows; it was a high-class establishment even though the clientele was plain redneck. Tok-Cha herself was Korean, but her last name was Martinez. She chain-smoked huddled on top of a stack of old Yellow Pages in an arched nook. The cook wore coke-bottle glasses and his back curved like an anthropod. We all ate dinner together every night. He’d look at me over the egg-drop soup, his glasses all foggy. “What you like? Beef pepper sauce? General Tso’s chicken? You say, I make.” And Tok-Cha would smirk.
Compared with Tok-Cha’s, Hunan Garden was dim and schmaltzy. Someone had stolen a broken police siren and attached it to a hat-stand next to a myriad of old postcards featuring Chinese scenery—Cheng Du, Guilin, Wuxi, Xinjiang. The tables were crowded together so that on weekends, groups of customers had to share tables like refugees. The place was run by a mainland Chinese couple, but the lone waiter was Vietnamese. My first day there, I broke two teacups. To pay for the damage, the Chinese couple garnered my tips. As I got ready to leave that night, the Vietnamese waiter, Lonh, offered to show me how to stack dishes along my arm, like some circus act. I thought I saw pity in his eyes; it made me want to challenge him to a game of hawking lugers just to shock him, and to show him a girl can do these things.
Waitressing had its dishonors. Dishonor was usually no big deal; but sometimes, it left a taste of cinders. The cook pinched my hams, like they were drumsticks, and he gritted his teeth. “Kinda plump, aren’t you?” Under his breath, “ee..i..ya..,” as if he couldn’t stand it any longer. The pinches hurt.
Lonh offered to drive me home at night. I told him I’d rather take the bus.
Florida rednecks were desperate for someone, anyone, to tell them what to do. Customers cracked open their fortune cookies at Tok-Cha’s, trying to glean personal life directives from those slivers of paper tucked in dough. They’d show them to me: “If you don’t enter a tiger’s lair, you can’t catch any cubs,” or “Play the lute to an ox.” They’d shake my arm: “What does that mean, huh? Is that some sort of Confucian teaching?”
Truth had a wildness, like a foraging animal. Tok Cha took me aside, and I watched her overpainted red lips move. “You must treat customers nice, Bea, you must treat them nice or they complain.” I thought about all those Florida rednecks sneaking glances down my blouse, even though there was precious little to see. I thought about how they’d whistle between their teeth, call me “Girlie,” crook their finger and I’d have to go pick up their leftover dishes and lean in to listen to their dirty talk and CB radio lingo.
I wrote home. “Please do what you must to save Mother.” But the envelope wouldn’t stick from too much spit.
The cook kept asking me if I liked Miatas or Hyundais. I never walked past him if I could help it.
At Hunan Garden, Lonh tried to give me take-outs every night. They were customer leftovers. Moo goo gai pan and pork egg foo young were Florida redneck favorites. Who knew? I accepted them gratefully, and Lonh was getting hopeful. He was so earnest that his round dark pebbly eyes gleamed and tugged; when he proposed Busch Gardens, his lip trembled.
“When would we have the time to go?” I said. Who had time for fun, I thought.
“July 4th, how about July 4th?”
I calculated. It was a Saturday. “You sure we don’t have to work?”
“Are we open July 4th?” he shouted out to the kitchen.
“No.” The woman proprietress shoved her head through the swinging doors. “Go have fun.”
“OK,” I said. OK, though I had misgivings.
The evening of July 3rd, after closing up at Tok-Cha’s, I handed her the cash register drawer, cleaned up the kitchen counters. The night’s takings were over a thousand dollars. I looked outside; the cook was smoking with dirty fingers. Inside, Tok-Cha was busy painting her lips. Every Friday night, she closed early so she could go on a date with her husband. I looked at the drawer full of money again and my mouth went dry.
The cook came in while I was getting my bag. “You need a ride?” he said. I shook my head. He stood casually in the doorway. I tried to slide past. His hand shot out. Barely a second—a grope and a squeeze. But the imprint on my breast scalded me red-hot all the way home.
I cried, hot salty tears of humiliation that dampened my earlobes. I cursed Florida, yelled out to no one in particular (Lu Pin and her loping boyfriend had gone away to Orlando for the long weekend) in that living room devoid of any furniture that Florida was one gigantic spewing fraudulent fortune-cookie. “Bai gan jiao ji (there’s a hundred feelings inside me),” I shouted. “You can go anywhere you want if you look serious and carry a clipboard. Every obnoxious act is a cry for help. Find release from your cares, HAVE A GOOD TIME!”
I thought of Mother. What came to me, like a puff of powder from a shaken compact, was how she sang one Chinese New Year—her hands dancing along—she’d stood by the wok in her red jacket, stewing e-fu noodles, and she had on red lipstick. All this before she got sick. And then, it was as if she materialized beside me. As if she took hold of my jaw and pulled open my mouth—“There!” She smiled, pleased. “Your crooked teeth are all there, still the daughter I recognize.”
“Will you give me some advice?” I begged. But all she seemed to say were more fortune cookie platitudes. A fall into the pit, a gain in your wit. Pride is bottomless. Later, when I couldn’t stand the darkness anymore, I went out and bought a light-bulb for the lamp fixture. After I bought it, I realized I had no way of reaching up high enough to change it.
As I neared my friend’s house, I saw a red Camaro parked out front. Lonh was sitting on the hood, twirling something in his hand. When he saw me, he leapt up. He held out his hand to display a red rose with petals made of some synthetic fabric, complete with fake pearlescent drops, fakery so genuine it hurt. I couldn’t touch it. Lonh looked wounded.
I told him the living room had no light. I told him about my predicament. He had a clever idea. He got the black trashcan from around the house and dragged it in. While I held it steady, he clambered up and fixed the bulb. Voila, there was light.
I was so grateful that I looked deep into Lonh’s eyes and allowed him to kiss me. Before we knew it, he was trying to get me into my friend’s tent, which bore a fusty smell that almost made me retch. I told Lonh I’d see him tomorrow, and he left looking discontented.
The next day, Lonh showed up again in his red Camaro, but I let him knock and knock. I pretended not to be home. My heart banged more and more wildly the longer he knocked; I felt like a fraud. How could I have made him a promise if I had every intention of breaking it?
I never actually gave Busch Gardens any serious thought. The idea of walking down the Disneyesque esplanades with him—eating salted pretzels or fine-spun cotton candy—seemed completely unreal, as if we were a movie playing in my head.
The knocking finally stopped, but I didn’t go and see if he’d left. Through the closed door, he shouted, “AMERICA IS FULL OF OPPORTUNITY! Why won’t you let me in?” Half an hour later, the knocking started again. Lonh knocked for hours that day. But I didn’t let him in.
Back at work at Hunan Garden, Lonh’s eyes tracked me reproachfully, but not once did he ask me, ”Where were you?”
I told the Chinese couple I quit. They paid me but didn’t even bother to ask why. Chinese waitresses were a dime a dozen. I couldn’t face Lonh. I didn’t even say goodbye.
I received another letter from Father. Mother was rallying. The treatments were working. “Maybe you don’t have to come home. If you’re able to find a way to pay for the rest of what you owe the college after your scholarship, maybe you won’t have to come home.”
Two days later, Tok Cha left the cook and me alone to close up. He came up to me and said, “You want to go for a drive later? See my new Miata?” He pointed a finger at the parking lot where the Miata must be, but all I noticed was the dirt encrusting his fingernail, rimmed with black. I grew afraid when I saw his eyes, sneaking glances full of a furtive delight. I told him I was busy closing up, and quickly counted up the night’s takings. He rested his arms on the counter, very close, leaned over and his glasses slipped down his nose. “We’re from the same village,” he said. “You and I have the same Chinese surname, we’re relatives.”
His shirt was ecru and streaked with oil stains from the wok. He reeked of stale pan-fries and something else, sweaty and heavy.
“So what?” I said.
“Don’t you trust me? I’m a generous man, willing to help someone from my own village. If you like my Miata, I’ll buy you one. But first, you have to come for a drive with me.”
“If you touch me again, I’m going to call the police,” I said.
He laughed. He wasn’t afraid of the police.
“I have a boyfriend. He’ll beat you up if I tell him to.” It took a lot of mental steadying for me to say it in one breath—I pictured Lonh sitting on his red Camaro to calm myself—then looked the cook in the eye and made every word count.
He backed off. Walked out the door without saying anything else, his shirttails flapping. I breathed deeply for respite and found myself staring at the pile of cash in the register. I could easily skim off five hundred dollars, no way for Tok-Cha to find me, not knowing where I was shacked up. The greasy green-backs seemed to be floating on the tabletop, the face of George Washington fading into a patchwork pattern.
I peeled off two twenty dollar bills, stuffed them in my bra. I also threw one of the customer receipts into the trash can. All night, I dreamt of sirens and the police coming. They would arrive at the doorstep of my roommate’s house and refuse to come in because the light wasn’t working. The next day, I replaced the money in the roll of bills. Tok Cha asked why the intake exceeded the customer receipts. With a start, I realized she was none too bright. Why had I ever listened to any of her insipid advice about men?
That night, I took pencil to pad. Like soldiers, the things I wrote paraded past, marching, triumphant. Like a horde of multitudes. Bai gan jiao ji. I wrote until dawn arrived, pink-hued and dewy, and I took all the paper with my writing and stuffed it in my bra, where it scratched me for two days. Then I burned it in the backyard of Tok-Cha’s restaurant. The only person who witnessed this was the cook. He didn’t say a word, only watched me behind lenses flickering with the reflection of my burning words. Only when the lit piece of paper singed my fingers did I finally let go.
One week later, Lonh showed up at Tok-Cha’s. He sat at a table, making me wait on him. All he ordered was a Chinese iced tea. I fumed, setting it down with a heavy thud. He twiddled the fake rose in the vase, he fingered its pearlescent drops.
“What is it you want?” I said.
“Why didn’t you tell me you quit?”
“I don’t owe you anything.”
Lonh looked at his iced tea as if he was about to cry. “Can you bring me a menu?”
“Please go. Please. Get out.”
“Civility, I’d like to order some civility,” he said.
Tok Cha jerked her head out from her alcove. The cook was rolling chicken in breadcrumbs. I covered my eyes with both my hands.
“Nothing like that on the menu,” I said. “Moo goo gai pan. Try some moo goo gai pan. Try some America.”
I looked at it. Dishonor, humiliation, acceptance. No fortune cookie would ever spell that out.
I looked at it some more. People lost little pieces of themselves all the time in America.
Then I pocketed it.
Elaine Chiew lives in London, England. Her work has most recently appeared in the following anthologies: One World (New Internationalist, 2009), See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming (Better Non Sequitur Media, 2008), Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books), Hobart (the Games Issue, 2008), and Alimentum, (2008) among others.
“My childhood front porch had a full chicken coop and a mango tree yielding hybrid mangoes the size of bowling balls. My father’s yellow Austin mini often had its hood decorated with hibiscus petals, which my Dad loved to plant. The best thing was that neighbors dropped by all the time with food. Kraft cheese has never tasted as good since that first time. We played round-and-round-the-mulberry-bush and traded toy soldiers through the chicken-wire fence with our boy neighbor. I’ve often wondered what happened to him.”