Fiction and Drama
Why Were They Throwing Bricks?
“I’m born. I’m zero years old. I’m suddenly born.”
We’re pleased to announce that Jenny Zhang’s “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” is a winner of the 2018 O. Henry Prize for best short stories of the year, along with Thomas Bolt’s “Inversion of Marcia,” from Issue 27.
“I lost hearing in this ear when a horse jumped over a fence and collided against the side of my face,” my grandmother told me when she arrived at JFK. I was 9 and hadn’t seen her in four years. “In Shanghai you slept with me every single night. Every week we took you to your other grandmother’s house. She called incessantly, asking for you. ‘Can’t I see my own granddaughter?’ I said, ‘Sure you can.’ But — let’s not spare any feelings — you didn’t want to see her. Whenever you were at your waipo’s house you cried and called my name and woke up the neighbors. You hated her face because it was round like the moon, and you thought mine was perfectly oval like an egg. You loved our house. It was your real home — and still is. Your waipo would frantically call a few minutes after I dropped you off asking me to come back, and I would sprint all the way there. Yes, my precious heart, your 68-year-old grandmother ran through the streets for you. How could I let you suffer for even a second? You wouldn’t stop crying until I arrived, and the minute I pulled you into my arms, you slept the deep happy sleep of a child who has come home to her true family.”
“I sleep by myself now. I have my own bed with stickers on it,” I told her in Chinese, without knowing the word for stickers. I hugged my body against my mother, who was telling my father he would have to make two trips to the car because my grandmother had somehow persuaded the airline to let her bring three pieces of checked luggage and two carry-on items without any additional charges.
“And did you see that poor man dragging her suitcases off the plane for her? How does she always do that?” my mother said. She shrugged me away and mouthed in English to me, “Talk. To. Grandma.”
My father threw his hands up. “You know exactly how,” he said, and went off with the first two bags.
“You remember how uncanny it was,” my grandmother continued, tweaking her hearing aid until it made a small shrill sound and then a shriller sound and then another even shriller sound. “They called me a miracle worker and I said, ‘No, no, I’m just her nainai,’ but everyone said, ‘You’re a miracle worker. You’re the only one who can make that child stop crying.’ They said there was no need for me to be modest. ‘This child prefers her grandmother to even her own mother and father! Why sugarcoat the truth?’ I had to stop myself from stopping other people from saying it after a while. Was I supposed to keep insulting everyone’s intelligence? Protesting endlessly? Your nainai isn’t that type of person. And the truth is, people don’t make things up out of nothing. There’s truth in every widely believed saying, and that’s just true.”
“What?” I said. “I don’t understand Chinese that good.”
“I knew you wouldn’t forget a moment of your real life, your real home — the place you come from. Have you learned English yet?”
“That’s all I speak. It’s America.”
“Your nainai is so proud of you. One day your English will catch up. It’s such a gift to be here now with you. You don’t know how many lonely nights I’ve spent dropping tears for you. It was wrong of me to let you go. Remember how you called for me when you let go of my hand and boarded the airplane with your mother? Remember how you howled that you wanted to take me with you? Four years ago, your father wrote to me, ‘You can’t keep my own wife and child away from me any longer. I’m sending for them immediately.’ I wanted to know if he ever considered maybe you and your mother simply didn’t want to go to America? In those days, you would’ve rather eaten a basement full of rats than be separated from your nainai. Your father’s also stubborn, but I’m not the type to insult the spoonful of food nourishing me. You see what I mean? I won’t say any more. I’m living in his house now and even though he has only made fatally wrong choices, we still have to listen to him. But remember how at the airport you cried and said, ‘Nainai, I love you the most of everyone. I want to stay with you. I don’t want to go to America.’”
“I don’t remember that,” I said to my grandmother. “Sorry.”
“You remember everything, don’t you? But it hurts too much to dredge up bad memories.” Her hearing aid buzzed again and she twisted its tiny hidden knob with her thumb and index finger. “This thing works for a moment and then it goes dead for days. Your father said he would get me a proper hearing aid so I can hear your beautiful voice. You speak up now and let your grandmother look at you. She’s only missed you every minute of every hour of every second of every single iota of a time unit that’s elapsed since you last slept with your nainai every night, refusing to even close your eyes unless I was in the bed with you. You know what everyone’s favorite joke was? ‘Who’s the mom? You?’ Oh, I laughed.”
“That’s not a joke.”
“That’s right. It was the plain truth,” she continued. “They all asked me, ‘Doesn’t your granddaughter ever want to sleep with her mother and father?’ And I had to tell them — not in a bragging way, just in an informing way — ‘No. Her father is in America learning how to build computers and her mother works late at the factory and even if her mother didn’t come home from work so late, my granddaughter has made it clear she can only sleep with me. I know it’s not proper while her mother sleeps alone in another room under the same roof, but when a child wants something, how can you look her in the eye and deny her?’”
My grandmother lived with us in America for a year. She taught me how to knit, and after school I watched her make dinner and do dishes and sew curtains. At first I wouldn’t let her sleep with me in my bed. She cried and came every night to my bedroom and sat at the edge of the bed saying nothing. She had small red eyes and no teeth at night, except for four on the bottom row and a couple in the back. She ate daily bulbs of garlic so she’d live to be 117 and see me grow for another forty-five years, and the first few times she brought it up, I imagined myself running away from home just to get a few years to myself. But after a month, the smell was comforting, and I needed it near me before I could close my eyes, and just when I started to call for her more than she called for me, my parents announced that she had to move back to China to be with her dying husband. “Your grandfather,” my grandmother said with disgust, “says the only proper way for a man to leave this world is in his own home with his wife by his side. Have you ever heard anything so spineless?”
My grandfather had been begging her to come back for six months. He had been diagnosed with lesions in his throat and he didn’t want to die without her. For a year, I had slept in her bed, pressed up against her like she was my bedroom wall, and after she left, I stayed in her bed for two weeks, refusing to return to my own bed even after my mother threatened to push me off if I didn’t get out.
“This room reeks,” she said. “It smells like several people have died. You still want to sleep in here?”
“On sheets that haven’t been washed for weeks?”
I nodded. “She said she’s coming back after Grandpa dies.”
“She also said you’d learn English in middle school. She said she learned to drive in her dreams and that’s how she’ll pass the driving test and take you to Mount Rushmore for your birthday. You believe everything she says? Have you gone back in time and lost all sense?”
I shook my head. Finally, she and my father dragged me out, my arms wrapped around the cheap white lacquered bed frame as my father held my legs and my mother pried my fingers free.
“You’re going to sleep on your own,” my mother said. “Like you did before she came around.”
“You hear your mother?” my father said, wiping the tears from my face and blowing softly on my hot red cheeks. “Just a day at a time.”
“Don’t indulge this,” my mother said.
“You want to beat the sadness out of her?” my father said. “Because that’s what your mother wants. For us to be the bad guys and her to be the hero when she comes back.”
“I’m not inviting her back,” my mother said.
My grandmother came back two years later. I was in middle school, and my pathetic puberty struck like a flash of lightning in the middle of the night — I suddenly saw all my surroundings for what they were: hideous and threatening. I had no friends, social life, interests, talents, breasts, straight teeth, likability, normal clothes, or charm, and every day I came home weighed down with dread. I started to fake illnesses so I could stay home with my 2-year-old brother. I followed him around everywhere, crawling when he crawled and walking on my knees when he learned to walk so that we were the same height.
When my grandmother moved in for the second time, she told us that this time she wasn’t leaving. She was going to apply for a green card and raise my brother until he was old enough to be on his own — 18, maybe 19.
“We’ll see about that,” my father said in Chinese, and then to me and my mother in English, “Let Grandma believe what she wants to believe. My gut says we’ll be back at the travel agency in March, or my name is not Daddy, problem solver of this house.”
I laughed at him. “But that isn’t your name.”
I made a point of telling my grandmother that I’d been sleeping by myself this whole time. “I also know how to cut my own toenails and braid my hair and make my own snacks.” My mom was looking at me without pleasure. “Hi Grandma. I missed you,” I added.
Then she was babbling, hugging me up and down and side to side, “Nainai xiang ni le,” she said. “Grandma missed you, oh, Grandma missed you, oh, Grandma missed you — ”
“Kay, got it,” I said.
She stepped back and took my hand. “Baobei, you can sleep with your nainai if you want, but your brother will, too. I don’t know if three will fit, but I’m very happy to try. Does anything make your nainai happier than having her two grandchildren by her side? Your brother will sleep with me until he’s old enough to sleep in his own bed. Most people say 13 is the age when a child learns to sleep on their own but most people are selfish and looking out only for themselves. Not me. I say 16. I say 17. I say 18. And if he needs me to, I’ll gladly sleep with your brother until he’s 21!”
I laughed. “Allen’s not going to do that. It’s different here. We wrote you about this.”
My grandmother pulled me in so close I faked choking noises to make my point known. “Oh, baobei, I missed you. My hearing has gotten worse. In China doctors are crooks and charlatans. They take your money and make everything worse, or if you’re lucky, exactly the same. I lost my hearing in this ear running away from boys who were throwing bricks. Why were they throwing bricks? Who knows. There was a violence back then no one can understand now. And where did those boys get the bricks? That’s the real question. In those days no one had brick houses. Everyone lived like animals. You wouldn’t have been able to tell your nainai had skin as white as a porcelain doll because she was covered in dirt. These rotten boys chased me until I tripped over a fence and a sharp spike of wood pierced my eardrum. I lay there for a night until the shepherd’s daughter found me, curled up like a child.”
“I thought you lost your hearing when a horse ran over a fence and trampled you.”
“They took me to the village doctor and he grafted skin from my knee to my ear. I was bleeding so much I thought I would die. That was the worst I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve experienced awful things. Your nainai has lived through two wars and saw her own mother gunned down by Japanese soldiers. No child should see their mother die. But do you know what was worse than lying there in the mud with blood in my ears? Worse than seeing my own brother come back from war with only half a leg and no right arm? It was living in China with your grandfather, who didn’t have the decency to die like he said he would, and being thousands of miles apart from you and your brother. I was hurting for your brother so much I told your lowlife grandfather that unless he died right this instant, he would have to learn to leave this world just as he came into it — without me. What could he do? Stop me from going to America? I said to him, ‘Come with me if you need me around so badly.’ ‘But no,’ he says. ‘I’m comfortable here. This is our home. You should want to live in it with me. These are our golden years.’ Blah blah blah. My home is where you and your brother are. Oh, I’ve missed him like I miss the skin from my knee.”
“You just met him today.”
“Speak louder, my heart, so your nainai can hear you.”
“My mom says I can only call my grandmother on my dad’s side nainai, and you’re actually my waipo.”
“Your father said he’s going to replace this hearing aid. I might as well have kept that spike of wood in here. They wouldn’t know technology from the inside of their asses in China. And it’s filthy over there. Can you imagine some illiterate doctor with dirty hands touching your nainai’s ear? This is why I couldn’t stay in China. I missed your brother’s birth because your grandfather said he was dying, and then I go back and guess who isn’t dying? Guess who’s walking around the garden and smoking? Every day he goes to the lao ganbu huodongshi to gamble. Does that seem like a man on his deathbed to you, my sweetheart, my baobei? Do you think your grandmother will forgive your grandfather for making her miss the birth of her one and only grandson? Will your grandmother fall for his bluff again? Not ever. I’ll be here until I pass to another realm, my baobei.”
“I’m not going to call you nainai.”
“All of my grandchildren call me nainai because nainai is the dearest, closest name you could call a person in your family. You refused to call me waipo when you were little. You said to me, ‘You’re not my waipo, my waipo is that strange lady over there who feeds me food I don’t like and who has a cold bed.’ Remember how you said that? Where’s your brother now? I missed him so much. I pray hummingbirds peck my eyes and leave their droppings in my pecked-out sockets before I have to experience this heartbreak again. But I’m healing already. When I see your brother’s precious face, I’ll never know sadness again. My heart will be overrun with joy until my last dying breath. Where’s your brother, baobei?”
The third time my grandmother came to live with us, I was 15 and my brother was 5. “Please don’t let her get to you again like last time,” I said to him. “You were obsessed with her.”
“No, Stacey. Was not.”
But soon he was sleeping in her bed again and talking back to my parents and getting mad when I wouldn’t let him have the last Rice Krispies Treat. Whenever he was upset with me, he ran to my grandmother, and she would come into my room and pretend to spank me in front of him, when really she was just clapping her hands near my ass.
“Your sister is crying so hard from my spanking,” my grandmother said to my brother. “See? Nainai is punishing your sister for taking what’s rightfully yours. You hear how hard I’m spanking her? Her tears are everywhere.”
“I’m not crying,” I said over my grandmother’s clapping. “I’m not crying,” I repeated until I was so frustrated that I actually did start crying.
My brother cried on the weekends when my grandmother went to work at a factory where she folded dumplings for five cents apiece. Most of the other workers could do only fifty an hour, and when the owner noticed my grandmother typically clocked in at a hundred and was teaching her trade secrets to the other ladies during their fifteen-minute lunch break, he instituted “quality control” rules, mandating a certain amount of flour on each dumpling and folds at the edge between 0.4 and 0.6 centimeters. My grandmother pointed out that he was arbitrarily docking pay for “unfit dumplings” without any real inspection, and all the dumplings she folded, including the unacceptable ones, were thrown into the same freezer bags, and that was exploitative. She persuaded the other workers to collectively demand back pay for all the rejected dumplings, and even organized a walkout one morning for higher wages. “Six cents a dumpling!” they chanted. The owner caved, and that day my grandmother came home pumping her fists like she was at a pep rally. Listening to her recount the day’s victory, even I had to admit that she’d done a great thing.
“Don’t you worry,” she said, “you’ll grow up to be just like your nainai one day.”
“See, Grandma’s a hero,” Allen said. “She can do anything.”
“Ugh,” I said. “She just did it to get paid more. What’s so great about that?”
I tried to save my brother, but my grandmother was too cunning. When we walked around the neighborhood at night, he hid inside her big, long nightgown. If I tried to ignore them, my grandmother would tap me on the shoulder until I turned around and then she would ask, “Where did your brother go?” and I’d begin to say, “Oh God, no, please no,” but it was always too late — by then, my grandmother had already flipped her dress up to expose my brother, tumbling out from under her and onto the grass.
“I’m alive,” he shouted. “I’m born. I’m born. I’m zero years old. I’m born. I’m suddenly born.”
“That’s how you were born,” my grandmother cried out. “It was beautiful and majestic and everyone cried, and I cried the most. When you fell out of me, you awakened the gods and made them turn this world from an evil, corrupt world into one that is good and beneficent, eliminating poverty and hunger and violent death.”
“You have to stop doing this with her,” I said to him. “That’s not how you were born and you know it.”
“Grandma says it is.”
“She’s wrong,” I said.
“And when your brother was little,” my grandmother shouted with her hands in the air as if waiting to receive something promised to her, “he suckled on my breast because your mother’s milk dried up, but my breasts have always produced milk whenever my grandchildren were born. Your cousin drank from my nipple too, but no one drank as hungrily as your brother. He drank until it was all dried up. And when it hurt for me to produce any more, he would cry out in anguish for it. I had to pray to the gods for more milk so your brother could go on.”
“This is disgusting. This never happened,” I said, but as usual no one was listening, not the trees that bent away from me; not the road ahead that sloped up and curved into a C; not my grandmother, who only heard what she wanted to hear; not my brother, who was being slowly poisoned by her; not my parents, who didn’t listen when I said they’d lose my brother if they didn’t start spending more time with us. What time? my father demanded. Yes, what time? my mother asked. Should we stop working and paying our mortgage and saving for your college fund? Should we go back to sleeping ten people to a room where someone’s kid was screaming all night about needing to scratch her legs? Should we stop eating and stop owning clothes and a car for this “time” you speak so highly of?
But I knew what I knew. One day, he’d be 16 and still cowering underneath our grandmother’s dress, clinging to her before she woke him up, waiting for her to make lunch or clear away dinner, curled up around her like a twisted vine in the living room. Don’t you want more than this? I would ask him. Don’t you want to make friends and kiss someone you aren’t related to? And he would say, No, I just want nainai, and then I’d see her next to him, with her toothless nighttime smile and small, satisfied eyes, and the outrageous lies she inserted into our lives until they became strange trivia in our family history, and there was nothing any of us could do to stop it from being that way.
One afternoon I came home to an empty house. An hour later, I saw my brother and my grandmother walking down the street, hand in hand. He was sweating even though it was still winter.
“Why are you sweating like that?”
“I was jumping.”
“Grandma did it too.”
“She was jumping with you?”
“Yeah. On that bouncing thing.”
“What bouncing thing?”
“There’s a purple bouncing thing and Grandma said it was OK to play on it.”
“You mean a trampoline?”
“What’s a trampoline?”
I drew him a picture of our grandmother in her nightgown suspended over a trampoline and, in the distance, five cops with their guns raised and pointed at her. Over their heads, I drew a collective dialogue bubble: Kill her! It’s the LAW!!!!!
“Oh yeah, that’s the bounce thing,” he said, ripping the police officers out of the picture. “It was at the purple house.”
“Let me get this straight. There’s a purple trampoline in that purple house down the street where no one lives?”
“Not in the house. In the backyard. Grandma said I could jump on it. She did first.”
“She jumped on the trampoline?”
“Like thirty times.”
“Did you tell her to?”
“No, she just did it on her own. Then she was like, ‘Allen, come jump on the trampoline with nainai.’”
“My God. You two are criminals. How many times did you do it?”
“Jump on the thing?”
“How many times did Grandma take you there?”
“I don’t know. Every day.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Didn’t you see my picture? You’re breaking the law.”
“No, we’re not.”
“Yes, you are, and you’re going to go to jail if someone finds out. I could call the police right now,” I said, walking toward the kitchen phone.
“Stacey, don’t. Please don’t put Grandma in jail.”
“Who cares if she goes to jail?”
“I don’t want her to. Please, Stacey.”
“Who would you rather go to jail, then? Someone has to go. Mom or Grandma?”
“I can’t believe you just said that.”
“I don’t know.”
“This is stupid,” I said.
“Don’t call the police, Stacey. Grandma didn’t do anything.”
“Grandma didn’t do anything,” I said, imitating him.
She left that year after a neighbor’s dog knocked her down against the asphalt. She split her head open and had to get stitches, several CAT scans that turned up inconclusive, and an MRI. She had overstayed her visa and we didn’t have insurance for her, so the hospital bills ended up burning through several months of my parents’ savings. They were never able to diagnose her with anything, but she complained of frequent headaches and started sleepwalking. Once, our neighbor down the street, a retired judge who’d fought in Vietnam and walked on crutches, returned her to us. “She knocked on my door. Now I’m knocking on yours.”
“We have to send her home or we’ll have to sell our home just to keep her alive,” my father said to my mother, later.
“I know,” she said. “She won’t go. But I know.”
Things reached peak crisis mode when one night my grandmother sleepwalked her way to the main road and stepped out into oncoming traffic, causing a four-car pileup and several police to show up at our door.
“I won’t send her back in a body bag,” I overheard my mother say to my father.
“We’ll have to tell her that she either leaves on her own accord or INS will have her deported and banned from ever coming back.”
“I’m not going to lie to her.”
“Do you think she agonizes like you do every time she tells a lie? Look, I know you want to be fair to her, but this isn’t the time to be virtuous.”
The night my grandmother left, I told my brother she was never coming back and he tried to hit himself in the face with closed fists.
“You have to get used to this,” I said, holding his hands together. “I know how you feel. I felt this way once, too. I thought I was going to die without her. But it’s not so bad. You think it is now, but it’s nothing. You just have to get used to it. Every day you’ll miss her less. And then one day, you won’t even think about her at all. I promise. And you can always talk to me if you feel sad.”
He wasn’t listening. His face was red all over like someone had slapped every part of it. The only time I had ever heard someone cry so violently was in a documentary about the Vietnam War. This village woman had jumped into her dead husband’s freshly dug grave. She wanted to be buried with him. The sight and sound of her crying, seized-up body being dragged out of her husband’s grave haunted me for days.
“This is a good thing, Allen. It’s not even the worst thing you’ll ever experience. Honestly, I’m happy. I’m happy she’s gone, and you know what? I won’t let you ruin this moment for me,” I said, my voice cracking a little.
The fourth and final time my grandmother came to live with us, I was 17. My brother had forgotten her in the two years that had elapsed. He and I were close again. He slept on my floor or in my bed whenever I let him and played computer games with headphones on while I did my homework. He asked me to sit with him when he practiced the violin, which he was terrible at, though it wounded him if I laughed. When my friends came over, he lurked in the corner pretending to check the doorframe for bugs. I told him he couldn’t always attach himself to someone, even though I liked it. I liked his small body leaning on mine in restaurant booths, and the way he pulled his chair up close to mine at home and sat with half his body on my chair, and how he often said he wished I didn’t have homework or friends so I could spend all my time with him.
My grandmother tried to get him to sleep with her at night again, but he only wanted to sleep in my room. He taunted her sometimes, like when she asked if he would get under her dress like old times, and he did, but then punched her between her legs and scurried out and into my room. That was one of many days when she came and sat on the edge of my bed, waiting for my brother to apologize and tell her that he loved her and never meant to hurt her, but he never did.
This time around she was deafer than ever and wore hearing aids in both ears. They were a new model my father had purchased at Costco but worked just as poorly because she’d only use five-year-old batteries. Sometimes I saw her in her bedroom taking old batteries out and putting new old batteries in. She’d developed new interests and was teaching herself calligraphy and the history of American Indians. “America belongs to the Chinese,” she said. “We were the first to settle North America.”
“I thought the Native Americans were first.”
“The Indians are the Chinese. Christopher Columbus saw Chinese faces and called them Indians. We invented spices and gum and paper, block painting on wood and then movable type for paper, paper money, gunpowder, fireworks, tea, silk spinning, alchemy, which later became modern chemistry, navigational tools for maritime exploration, weapons for war and machines for peace. That is why China sits in the center of the map.”
“Not in American classrooms.”
“This is why you should be proud to be Chinese.”
“Nainai, the Chinese aren’t Indians.”
“The first Africans were Chinese. The first South Americans were Chinese. No one lived in Australia for a long time. The civilization there was and is backward. Just think — all of North and South America, all of Africa, and most of Eastern Europe, all of Russia, Siberia — all first settled by the Chinese.”
All of her was laid bare now — I saw her. She was just an old woman, raised in the country without education, who’d been told as a girl that women had been put on this earth to give birth and rear children and not be a burden in any way but to live as servants lived, productively, without fatigue or requirements of their own, yet had been resourceful and clever enough to come up through the feminist movement that Mao had devised to get women out of the house and into fields and factories, who had been given more power than any of the women in her lineage, who alluded to all the people she “saved” but never the people she turned in during the Cultural Revolution, whose hearing loss fed her fears of becoming useless, and who to counter those fears adopted a confidence that was embarrassing to witness, an opinion of herself so excessively high that it bordered on delusional. She tried to make her children believe they would perish without her, and when they learned better she tried the same with her grandchildren. But we were learning better, too, and it would be years before we had our own children, and by then she would be dead. My grandmother’s unwillingness to be a victim was both pathetic and impressive, and she deserved compassion. But fuck, why did she have to be so greedy for it? It repulsed me that she wanted my brother and me to love her more than we loved our own parents, more than we loved each other, more even than we loved ourselves.
So I taunted her. I ignored her. I told her that she spoke Chinese like a farmer, the deepest cut I could make. “Here comes the Trail of Tears,” my brother and I would say whenever we heard her whimper and sniffle. We bet on how long she could hold out, sitting on the edge of my bed and being ignored by us, before she went downstairs to practice her calligraphy. She had a third-grade education and was teaching herself characters so that she could write a book about her grandchildren.
“The world needs to know about you two,” she said. For a moment, I was moved. But I knew that for either of us to grow up into the kind of people other people would ever want to know about, we had to leave her behind.
“You should write about your own life, nainai,” I said. “People should know about you, too.”
“You and your brother are my life,” she insisted, tracing the strokes of my Chinese name in the air.
After I graduated high school, my parents took my brother and me on a cruise to Canada with some other Chinese families. The night before we left, my brother started crying and wouldn’t tell my parents why.
“Are you worried Grandma will be alone in the house crying a Trail of Tears?” I asked him when we were alone.
He nodded. “Don’t you feel bad for Grandma, Stacey?”
“I mean, it sucks to be alone in the house, but she can handle it. I know she can. That’s life. Not everyone can have everything they want.”
“But Grandma doesn’t have anything she wants.”
“That’s not true. She got to go to America four separate times and live with us each time. Some people don’t get to come even once. Ever think about that?” Allen’s lip was trembling again. “Look, why don’t we find her something really cool to bring back from the cruise. Wanna?”
The cruise was so much fun we forgot to get her a gift. On the car ride back, I rifled through my backpack and found an empty mini Coke can with a bendy straw stuck in it. We tossed the straw and wrapped the can in a food-stained pamphlet about onboard ship safety.
“We got you a present, nainai,” Allen said.
“It’s a souvenir we bought from Ontario,” I added.
“Sorry we drank it already.”
“Oh, my two precious baobei. You have given me a gift fit for kings.” She hugged Allen, then hugged me, then hugged both of us in an embrace so tight that all three of us started crying for different reasons.
That summer, my grandfather wrote to tell her that he was about to be diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. It was real this time, he wrote, and she had to go home and be with him.
“He’s a liar, you know,” she told me and my brother.
“We know, nainai.”
“He’s jealous that it’s my fourth time in America when he’s too chickenshit to come even once. Why should I leave my grandchildren and my real home for that worthless sack of bones?”
She returned to Shanghai shortly afterward. At the last minute, as my father was dragging the last of our grandmother’s suitcases to the car, I said that I wanted to go to the airport with them.
“There’s no room for both of you,” my father said.
“Who said I wanted to go?” Allen said.
“Well, you can’t stay alone,” my mother said. “I suppose Daddy can stay with Allen.”
“Forget it,” I said. “It’s too complicated.”
My grandmother was kneeling next to Allen, who was on the couch playing Super Smash Brothers. She was trying to turn his body toward her but he kept shrugging her off.
“My own grandson won’t even look at me because I’ve let him down so completely,” she said. “I’m so ashamed. I’d rather die by his side than live a long life in China without him.”
“He doesn’t give a shit,” I mumbled in English.
When we finally got my grandmother into the backseat of the car, she reached through the open window and grabbed Allen’s arm. My father started the engine.
“I said I don’t want to go,” Allen said, and started to cry.
“Oh,” my grandmother wailed. “And now he’s crying for me.”
My father nodded at me, and I stepped between them. It took all my strength to pry her fingers off his arm.
“It’ll be too sad for him, nainai,” I said quickly. “We love you, have a good trip, see you next time.” Allen ran back into the house without looking back or waving. I heard my father raise the windows and engage the child-safety locks. My grandmother was trying to open the door, banging on the window with her fists like an animal. My father backed the car out of the driveway and drove up the C-shaped hill out of view. I heard a familiar low whine by my feet and looked down to see one of her hearing aids on the ground.
“It’s like you just won’t go,” I said. I kicked it away from me, then ran to pick it up. I cradled it in my hand and tenderly brushed the sediment away, just like I did when I found my grandmother three years earlier, fallen on the asphalt, bleeding from her head.
The night my grandmother told me she was leaving again for the third time, I felt strange inside. My father reassured me she would have the very best doctors back home, who would figure out what was going on with her headaches and sleepwalking, and once she was healed she could come back again. I wanted her to get better but I didn’t necessarily want her to come back. I lay in bed until everyone was asleep and then crept downstairs and out of the house, as I often did back then. I circled the neighborhood under a sliver of moon and imagined being born to a different family. On the walk back, I stopped in front of the purple house and followed the stepping stones to the backyard.
I had a feeling she would be there, and she was, crouched by the chain-link fence, facing the purple trampoline. “Nainai,” I called out, even though I knew she could not hear me. I wanted to jump with her. Though I would forget in a few days, though my resistance to her would rise again, I felt her loneliness and it scared me.
She stepped forward and then she was running, so fast that she looked like a young girl, no longer saggy and round in the middle. She was a straight line — something I could understand, something I could relate to. I closed my eyes, afraid she would trip. When I opened them again she was high in the air, her dress flying up. I knew there might come a time in my life when I would want to sleep next to her again, return to her after the uncertain, shapeless part of my life was over, when no one would mistake me for a child except for her. Her children and children’s children were children forever — that was how she planned to become God and drag us into her eternity.
I was about to run to her, to reveal myself, when I realized she wasn’t awake.
“Mother,” she said, as she jumped on the trampoline. “Mother, I didn’t want to leave you, but I had to go with Father into the mountains. Mother, you told me to take care of my brother and I let him fight and he lost his legs. Mother, I let you down. Mother, you said you wanted to die in my arms and instead I watched our house burn with you inside as I fled to the mountains. I told Father I wanted to get off the horse and die with you and he gripped me to his chest and would not let me get down. Mother, I would have died with you, but you told me to go. I should not have gone.”
I took a step toward her. Her eyes were open but they did not see me. In the dark, I thought I would always remember this night and be profoundly altered by having seen her this way. But it was like one of those dreams where you think to yourself while the dream is happening that you must remember the dream when you wake — that if you remember this dream, it will unlock secrets to your life that will otherwise be permanently closed — but when you wake up, the only thing you can remember is telling yourself to remember it. And after trying to conjure up details and images and coming up blank, you think, Oh well, it was probably stupid anyway, and you go on with your life, and you learn nothing, and you don’t change at all.