She—your mother, Lois—finishes her second bottle of Tsingtao. Lois hates her name, a bland name, like all immigrants choose for their daughters: Sally, Patty, Wendy, etc. That’s what she says. Lois is forty but looks older and holds a prawn between her chopsticks above your plate, and you say no, no way, absolutely not. You won’t eat it. The rest of the prawns stare from the table’s centre, antennae and legs sprawled around their pink curled bodies. They spoon each other.
Fine, Lois says. Starve.
She grimaces across the table at Aunt Michelle, who bangs her fifth beer beside her plate. Some Asians have it, some Asians don’t, says Lois of alcohol tolerance. A few years after this funeral – held in honour of great-uncle Wesley, a man you didn’t know – you’ll discover you don’t have it. Your other mother Gia is Irish and can drink and drink and drink. But I don’t! she exclaims when Lois teases her. Gia didn’t travel to Wesley’s funeral because she doesn’t like Lois’s family and Lois’s family doesn’t like her. Not worth the trip to Vancouver, to dislike and be disliked.
Have another, Lois, says Michelle. Keep ‘em coming, it’s a party.
Your mother hasn’t seen Michelle in five years. In the car she scoffed, said Michelle benefits heavily from her inheritance, but now, at this table, they seem to share an appreciation of how impossible children can be. You won’t have children, but at this moment in the Pink Flamingo restaurant, you think you will. A family, not a stack of Rob’s mail that now keeps you company on the sofa.
The Pink Flamingo may be real Chinese – not like Victoria, Lois says – but that doesn’t mean you’ll eat the prawns, because you should be in drama club rehearsal instead of at this funeral, because you have talent. Lois presses her thumb along the creases in her forehead and asks, have you introduced yourself to Iris. Iris, a second cousin, sits beside Michelle and sucks a prawn through puckered cheeks, white cardigan sleeves rolled to the elbows. You ask, how old is she. Fourteen, she says.
You hate that she’s older. Older people act condescendingly: a word you learned recently and use often. Years after this, while you grieve missed opportunities, your friend Riannon will point out that you imagine people judge you more than they do. Poor psychosocial growth, she diagnoses over brunch. Riannon almost holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but you’re not paying her and she’s just ordered her fourth mimosa, addressing the waiter as button-face.
At dessert, you meet your grandmother, Po Po, in a sequined skirt like silver scales to her ankles. She drags a chair next to Lois, who eyes the sheer blouse and says, Are you trying to be my age, Mom? Dessert: fruit and almond tofu enrobed in sweet syrup. Almond tofu is a misnomer, actually made of milk, and crumbles between tongue and teeth like oily Jell-O. It tastes like almonds the way Jolly Ranchers taste like green apples, slides down your throat like it knows where it’s headed, you think of the class newt.
I’m classy as hell, says Po Po. Wait, can I say hell? Oh yes, we’re not in church anymore.
You laugh, and Iris spits almond tofu back into her bowl, dabs her mouth with a napkin. Po Po winks. Slick sense of humour, Caroline, she says. We haven’t met since you were—and she extends her hand a couple feet above the ground.
She goes by Carrie, says Lois. Carrie, because Caroline sounds like North and South Carolina, and those states seem dull, and though horror movies aren’t allowed, you’ve heard about Stephen King and Carrie feels impressive. For a while you’ll have an agent named Mimi who claims, Good actors have three-syllable names, switch back to Caroline. Goldfish can’t do cartwheels. You have no idea what she means. This is before she drops you. But at twelve, Carrie is the name you embody, the practiced autograph. Po Po’s voice stretches Caroline into four syllables instead of three, like the I tripped on the carpet.
Po Po reminds you of a leek, skinny with dyed-black hair that spikes and fans over her forehead. It’s a hairstyle you haven’t seen. Your parents have compared people to produce for as long as you can remember. Lois calls herself a carrot because she has no hips and calls Gia a pear because she does. And in good moods she calls you Kiwi, not because you’re round or covered in brown hair, though some has recently grown under your arms, but because she’s always called you Kiwi.
Po Po asks, how’s school, and you tell her about Mrs. Wiebe, who wrote the drama club play Let’s Make the Most of It and who you adore. Your character Abbey, a housewife who loves to shop, dismisses her husband’s neck pain and is a stereotype. You don’t want your mothers at the performance because they’re feminists. A chubby grade five boy called Felix plays your husband, and he has great potential and you try to be a role model, but right now that’s impossible because you’re in Vancouver at the Pink Flamingo in a skirt and French braids. You tell all this to Po Po.
Right now? she says. Rehearsal is right now!? Po Po folds a paper napkin into a hat. Well, that’s no fair.
I wanted her to see the family, says Lois. She looks not at Po Po but at the art on the wall, which is supposed to resemble a painted canvas but is really a digital screen with a waterfall that moves. The cord protrudes from the frame, taped to the wall.
Po Po says, Wesley doesn’t care who’s here, that’s for sure. She waves a ringed hand, plucks an abandoned green bean from the table and sucks it down like an automatic flush toilet.
I wanted her to see you, Mom, says Lois.
I’d rather be at a play rehearsal myself, says Po Po, than be here. Have you seen how much Michelle is drinking?
To go home, you take the ferry back to Victoria, but first, have a spectacular fight with your mother. The ride through Delta, and on the other side, Saanich, is silent until Lois turns on the radio. Sunday afternoon opera, and you don’t sing along like usual, pretend to know German or Italian. No fake vibrato, no rolled R’s. The tenor howls as Lois twists the volume dial higher and higher, and the song drowns the whoosh, whir and grumble of highway traffic.
When Aunt Michelle’s empty Tsingtaos begin to crowd her plate, she snaps at the server. Why haven’t you collected these? Isn’t that your job? Do you want me to keep track? God!
She might be joking, or not. The server, a short man in an orange dress shirt, says, Yeah yeah, and, Sorry sorry, a lot. English isn’t his first language. He carts away Aunt Michelle’s empties on a brown tray. The glow from the chandelier licks the green glass bottlenecks. Yes, a chandelier hangs overhead, hundreds of teardrop prisms that quake and tinkle when talk gets loud. The chandelier tries to compensate for the windowlessness of the room, a special event room separate from the main restaurant. Four round tables framed by cantaloupe walls, clumps of rice ground into the carpet like chewing gum. The server pours more tea and steam rises from the rice-pattern cups. Lois has similar cups at home – and bowls, spoons, soy sauce dishes – blue rims, only the odd chip. When you move out, she’ll offer you half but you don’t take them, instead go to IKEA, regret it later, wish you had the heirlooms.
Steam rises from the tea cup like smoke from a burning building, like the smoke that tendrils across the road from a house fire, twenty-two years later, while you drive to meet your mother. Fire trucks block the road, make you late to meet her.
Take a sip. The liquid trickles down your throat. Picture your lungs as a heat map. You slouch so each vertebrae cracks on the back of the chair, and Aunt Michelle inexplicably yells, You’re perfect! to the room at large. Breathe the used air. Shrimp chips fill a bowl near Iris, and your stomach feels similar, like a styrofoam UFO.
Sit up, Kiwi, says Lois. We’ll go soon.
You could make this easy for her, but you don’t. Slide further, off the seat, and a tiny shock shoots through your spine. Here you are on the carpet. Legs, legs, shoes. Iris’s short skirt.
An earthquake, Lois says, is the only excuse for a twelve-year-old under a table.
Someone has dropped a piece of soggy gai lan and it oozes like a body in its own blood beside the table leg. Oyster sauce seeps into the rug.
Lois taps her beige suede toe. Don’t embarrass me, she says.
Tears strangle your eyes. Another reason to stay under, to stay invisible – Iris would look at you condescendingly if she saw.
Lois says, You make things difficult.
Po Po’s purple vinyl pumps come into view. She tells Lois to give you a break. Give her space, she’s a tween.
Po Po’s on your side – ha. Lois grabs your arm, says to Po Po, Mom, tween isn’t a real word. We’re leaving.
Your nylons make friction with the carpet as Lois pulls you to stand.
Bye-bye, Caroline, says Po Po. See you in Hollywood. She salutes like a sailor. Iris is gone, maybe the bathroom. Aunt Michelle catches Lois’s eye and raises her beer: a toast.
Lois says to Po Po, I’ve never heard you apologize, not ever. She grabs her jacket from the back of her chair—blazer of doom, she calls it, only for occasions that go badly—and you finally start to cry. She tells you not to. I won’t feel sorry for you. Get to the car.
Moss sprouts from the fender of Lois’s Volvo. You begged her not to powerwash it off, it’s like a tiny garden, and she complied. As she fishes keys from her purse, you yell.
You knew I’d be miserable! You wore the blazer of doom, made me come anyway.
We do things for reasons, Lois says. Get in.
The house fire is now, the one that makes you late. Fire trucks line the street. The SUV you never thought you’d own idles. A woman in a glowing vest holds a stop sign. Heat streams from the vent – this February is chilly – and makes the cheque on the passenger seat stir. The cheque is made to you: eighty-three thousand dollars, from Po Po’s estate. The funeral was shortly after Christmas.
Eighty-three thousand dollars is over twice what you’ve ever made in a year. The current job you found when you met a guy online, when during drinks he didn’t flirt but self-promoted and offered a job, which you needed, so accepted. Daily, from seven a.m. to noon, you phone high schools to ask if they’re interested in a stand-up comedy show for their gymnasium. The show stars the man you are not dating, is funny and age-appropriate and concludes with an anti-bullying message. No acceptances yet – no commission. You think, sometimes, of moving back to the island. With eighty-three thousand dollars, you could quit the job. But a signed contract lives in the desk in Vancouver, and you stick to commitments as surely as hedge maple seeds plaster themselves to your car every fall. This fierce dedication made Rob leave you. Obsession, he said, like those people on TV who eat paint. Everything, he said, but me, but us. For what?
The Gorge waterway is lovely in the late afternoon. The SUV pulls crookedly to the curb behind Lois’s Volvo. Lois leans on the trunk and says, No improvement at parallel parking, Kiwi, haha.
You’d phoned this morning, told her you were on the ferry. Let’s meet. The walk along the Gorge has been the thing you do with her for decades.
There was a fire, you say. Sorry I’m late. Early cherry blossom petals coat the path. The flowers in the public beds are neglected but have buds.
Lois begins to walk. She wears skinny pants on sinewy legs and since December has gotten her hair cropped short. Anyone hurt?
Couldn’t see. You follow along the chain railing that separates the path from the water. Once, the city cleaned the area to allow swimming, but the toxin levels rose again – goose feces. On the opposite shore, a dragon boat race finishes by the playground with the red slide. Two people carry a thin boat above their heads. I’m in Victoria to visit a friend, you say, though Lois hasn’t asked for a reason. She cups your elbow. People stroll with dogs. The sun sets, the sky like blueberry ice cream. A pure white cat rides on a man’s shoulder. Lois says, Good evening, and the cat man says, It’s a beautiful night for love, and lopes away.
When you moved to Vancouver, Po Po hosted lunch twice a month, and you enjoyed the easiness, complained about the business, how you rarely heard back after auditions, how Lois and Gia said, You’ll get the next one, keep working, and Po Po said, There’s always law school, which made you laugh and not take failure so seriously. You lived in Po Po’s basement for five months, and when you landed a lead role as an owl at the children’s theatre on Granville Island, took Po Po to the after-party, introduced her to a co-star, Aaron. Did your grandma raise you? Aaron asked after sex one afternoon. Yes, you said. She and my mother are estranged. Aaron said he grew up with grandparents too, his father in hospital and his mother in prison, and you felt bad, like ingesting sour milk, for giving him false relatability.
Lois drapes her scarf behind your neck. The night sets in, she says.
It’s okay, Mom. I’m not cold.
Lois drapes her coat on a rain-dappled bench and sits, facing the Craigflower Bridge. Beyond it, the neon of the shopping centre. The bench’s brass plaque reads Rose Marie Murdo. Wife, mother, daughter. Always selfless. Dirt smudged over self. You tell Lois about Rob. She hums and says, Remember when I sprayed him with oil from the wok, how his hands flew to his face?
You pull the cheque from your pocket and hold it to the faded sunlight. Po Po left me this, you say, and press the thick paper between your mother’s knees.
She looks at it, then folds it in half and says, Well, better go to the bank. She leans to examine your braid. Split ends happen fast. Get Gia to trim them. Gia cut your hair when you were small.
I’m an adult, you say. I have a hairdresser named Cory in Vancouver.
Well, give Cory a call. She tucks the cheque back into your pocket, asks how long you’re in town.
On the other side of the water, the dragon boat people pack their boats onto trailers. You drive away. Turn the heat off. Open the window, make yourself cold for twenty minutes. Open your pea coat at a red light, then close the window, with its filmy dust build-up, so that the sounds of the road, the rushing and grinding of tires, disappear.
Twelve years old, on the Fraser Delta Thruway. La traviata billows through the silence that would otherwise stretch, and you daydream about being a movie star, thanking your mothers in speeches. Are your parents proud? They couldn’t be more excited.
Now, you’ll wonder if you could live in Victoria again, if you could stand the familiarity.
On the ferry, Lois buys you a sandwich. At the front of the boat, two tables fused to metal chairs. The five p.m. sailing is quiet. Lois sips hot water. That cha siu sure was good, she says. Michelle sure is funny. I’d forgotten. The sky deepens to school uniform navy. Thanks for the sandwich, you say. Or maybe you don’t thank her. She unfolds an abandoned Globe and Mail, and you pick mustard-soaked tomato from the bread, drop it on the tray’s green-checked parchment, where the moisture seeps into a stain. Outside, islands of trees float by like furry caterpillars. Another ferry, windows aglow, forges in the opposite direction, interrupts the current like a finger in a bathtub, sends a ripple your way, and you imagine you can feel the impact when it hits.