“宝宝, we were always so hungry then.”
“亲爱的, don’t say things like that. Not to the kids.”
It’s a still July evening when my father ushers us away from my mother’s voice. He never mentions the place where they used to live, letting the television fill our silence instead. We’re eating lobster garlic noodles homecooked in oyster sauce and sesame oil, a secret recipe perfected by my mother. Once my father finishes and leaves, my mother leans back into her chair, rests her eyes on the clock above us, and begins to recall the lovers of her past.
It was summer—always parched, sour summer that lingers on her breath—when she met him. There were many hims in her life, rarely more than one at the same time. But when there was, she would be in no dilemma at all, laughing and singing along to the drum of her heartbeat. Except for her final hims.
This story, about the hims who left her dreamless, is one I don’t hear often.
Summer was skirt season, and my mother, ever the elegant modern woman, was dressed in a pink skirt that trailed just below her knees. Everywhere she traveled on bike, pedaling to her librarian job, to the 煎饼 food stalls, to her mother’s second floor apartment. City girl, experiential girl, living-the-life-in-Beijing girl. Pedaling her days away.
He was three years younger, frequented the local libraries, and studied the arts in college. A romantic, with his sweet-as-candied-hawthorn words and discussions of the latest literature. That side of him, she loved. The age gap and fresh out of school spiritedness, she did not. But the attraction between them sizzled louder in the summer heat; anyone could tell by how they shared even a meager dinner of preserved vegetables and rice. Between her gigs and sparse meals and bike rides, she’d fill her mind with forbidden texts and literature, sinking into pages and pages of rebellion. So each time he gifted her another draft of his unpublished protest speeches, she showed him a little more of herself—a drawing, a nipple, a bruise.
The same year, she met my father, an ambitious engineering student at the top university in the city. There was prestige that came attached with his school, prestige that she herself could not find in the stops of her bike route. She was stuck on it like soup dumplings to their bamboo steamer, practically seared to his side. Their courtship was quick and efficient, the way my father would prefer it. He was leaving for America soon, and he’d been looking for a wife for fear that no women shaped by his mother language would await him on the East Coast. It was mission and madness.
As for my mother, she tells me how she had a particular soft spot for the romantic young boy, how he had gifted her handmade records of their favorite songs, how he had carried off her tongue after she left him. The youth in her, the freedom to drift away from responsibility for a little; all of it went with him. She continued on to day trips and long drives and fine restaurants with my to-be father. But the merry-go-rounds, the moonlit food stalls, the love for truth in fiction—those were all pieces she’d leave with the boy.
My mother finishes re-telling the story, minutes before my father has gone to sleep. She rises to climb into the same bed they’ve shared for 47 years, and I sit still, stewing in the heat. What if she had ended up with the artistic boy, three years her junior? Would they write stories together now, in China? Would I be born? Would I learn to love the world with their revolting passion?
Now, the reel is rolling back, and the movie unplays itself. My mother walks away from my father that fated summer day where the Olympics’ Bird Nest would be now. She’s pedaling backwards, minutes and hours and days back, to the boy with the forbidden books. They read under lamplight, share secrets under starlight. She opens a button on her blouse. Then another. And another. And they stay, letting what she thought of fiction between them turn into reality.
It is midnight then, as it is now. My parents do not meet.