Read The Year She Left Us Online

Authors: Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us

Dedication

For my mother

and

In memory of Dad and Chris

CHAPTER 1

ARI

L
ucky girl. That's what I was told from the first moment I can remember. Another stranger, smelling unlike my mother, would swoop in low with a scary-wide smile to ruffle my hair or pinch my cheek. I would shrink and scamper, hide my face in my mother's knees, hear them laughing at my baby shyness. Later, I stared, black-eyed and baleful. I hated to be reminded. Hello, Ariadne. What a lucky little girl. Now you have a family. I'm the one who's lucky, my mother would always chirp. She knew my fell looks, was afraid of my eruptions, my locked face and the storms that followed. When left alone, I would say please and thank you. When prompted to be grateful, I went gleefully mute.

I had other labels, too. A miracle, a blessing. An ironic twist to a long family saga. That one made me laugh, since I wished I had said it myself. A colossal mistake. That's what Gran called me until the mistake had arrived and couldn't be gotten rid of. Some people bundled me with all the others, for there are thousands of girls like me, like us, who were carried away to the richer nations and raised into families gobsmacked with love, swollen with good intentions. The Lost Daughters of China. The Unwanted, the Inconvenient, the Unhappy Outcome of the One Child Policy.
Rescued
is how my mother, Charlie, sometimes put it. I have a better word.
Salvaged
.

She's hardly worth noticing, that lucky little girl. Most people think they already know her, since she can be found all over America, growing up in cities and towns and suburbs, from the most ordinary places to the unlikeliest of locales. They spot her at the mall, strolled by her white mother and father, and on the swings at the playground and in their child's classroom. She's smaller than her playmates, with hair as shiny as a beetle's back. One quick look at her sends their minds to swift conclusion:
Asian kid, white parents, must be adopted, probably from China
. There are so many of us now that the sight of a mismatched family is as ho-hum as baby's breath tucked into a clump of roses.
Cute kid,
is what they're thinking.
Well behaved
.
Early reader
.

They wouldn't be wrong for a lot of the girls they see. My Whackadoodle group was full of that kind of charmer: the unfussy baby, the adorable child, the soccer midfielder who played the flute and loved her golden retriever. A well-adjusted girl, despite the bleak beginning. A lucky girl with a brief, predictable story.

That wasn't me. I fixed my sights on that bleak beginning and ran straight toward it while the rest of them scrambled away. My story was mine to demand, holes and gaps and secrets and silences and all. Some of it was told to me; some I lived or guessed at. I'm writing it down for all the mothers who wave at us in the grocery store and jangle their car keys and try to get us to smile. For the fathers who glance our way and think,
That's what we would've done, if we hadn't been able to finally get pregnant
. But most of all, I'm talking straight to you: the dropped-off daughters, the loose-change children, the thousands upon thousands whose lives branched when we were hours new. Though we're older now—the oldest of us have grown from babies to girls to women—we can't shake that feeling of
what if
and
I might have been
. My story is as much yours as it is mine, full of the unanswerable questions that invade and claim us, turning us inward until we lose ourselves completely. It's an act of self-preservation, writing down what scraps I know. I'm trying to skirt boggy disaster, the swamp that surrounds us, the dark water that refuses us a clear look at the bottom. I have no idea whether my words will save me. Whether, in the telling, I can flail my way out. I know only that I'm very tired and ought to stop and rest. Like the traveler who swaps a tale in exchange for a hunk of bread and a warm place by the fire, I sink to the ground and begin. I'll leave for you the crucial question: Must I be grateful? Is that your idea of luck?

K
nife or scissors. Scissors or knife. The question was in my mind even before I knew it was there. Knife was sharp, and quick. Scissors snipped. Snip, snap. A cleaner cut, a chicken bone sheared. Knife was swift: one downward motion. Scissors were careful: no room for mistakes. Knife might bounce. Scissors might slip. Knife might miss. Scissors might not cut through.

The artist used a knife. He used a knife and a taxi. The knife was from his kitchen. The taxi was from the street. He paid the driver up front. If I don't come out, come in and get me.

Which hand, left or right? Easy question. Left hand. Right hand writes. Right hand dribbles. Right hand is the only hand that can hold the knife or scissors.

Palm up or palm down? Empty or at rest? Up, up. Let me read your future. Down, down. Hello and then good-bye.

Knife: on a surface. Scissors: in the air. Knife: aim well. Cover up the other fingers. Stretch wide between the one and the rest. Mr. Spock, ha. Live long and prosper.

The artist's hand was beautiful. Soft and smooth. The hand of someone young. A perfect cut. A yawning gap. Lack, emptiness, less, fewer. Less is more. Absence speaks louder. Negative space. Wiggle-waggle. As wide as the sky. As vast as the ocean. Count backward from ten. Ninepins left standing.

Knife wants steady. Ready, aim, chop. Scissors want strength. Powerful grip. Elbow grease. Clamp shut. Put your back into it.

Afterward, what? Blank, blank, blank. Blankety-blank. Fill in the blank. Soft as a blanket.

Knife or scissors? Scissors or knife?

Both.

CHAPTER 2

ARI

I
was born in the Year of the Sheep, though where I was born and into whose arms I slid—I was little, a slip of a thing—and who my mother was and who was my father are not known to anyone but the woman who birthed me and then left me on the middle step of a local department store, or let somebody else do it, which is practically the same thing. At the orphanage they pinned a crudely drawn picture of a sheep on my blanket. “Sheep,” A.J. used to read to me off the paper place mat at Panda Panda. “Wise, gentle, shy, pessimistic.” What a joke. None of that's me except for maybe the gloomy part. “Often puzzled about life.” Yes, but who isn't? “Sometimes called goat, sometimes ram. Not well spoken.” Well, you'll be the judge of that.

At the Kong family gatherings—George Kong was Gran's first husband; Herbert Hsu was her second—at the family roundups, part mud wrestle, part on-demand tribute, and in our Whackadoodle playgroup, how I longed to be a Monkey. Monkeys were intelligent, nimble, inventive. Very impatient, which I consider a virtue. My friend A.J., she's a happy Monkey. All the Whackadoodle girls were Monkeys; all born, like me, in 1992, but I was born three days before Lunar New Year, on January 31, if you believe the one page in my onion-skinned orphanage file, and so I missed out on being like all the rest. You'd think, since she was going to dump me, my mother would have lied and stuck a note in my basket—not a basket, actually, but a plastic tub; this wasn't Moses in the bulrushes or some other romantic shit—stuck a note on my blanket or wedged into my grasping hand a letter claiming a birth date after Lunar New Year so that I could enter life as a clever Monkey, not a woolly-headed Sheep who clods about, waiting for slaughter. She didn't leave any note. She didn't even leave a birth date. The orphanage guessed at it, based on the pull of my greedy suck, my pinked-up coloring, the fuzz on the rims of my ears. Ten days, they guessed. Ten days from birth to the middle step of a fine department store in Kunming, China, in a plastic washing tub. And so life began for me, Sheep/Ram/Goat/Not Monkey, one girl among thousands set down and then picked up.

Of the orphanage, there is nothing I remember, and it is gone now, moved, reorganized, expanded, absorbed into a social welfare institute, which means orphans and old people housed together in a jolly happy place, built in a redeveloped section of Kunming, City of Eternal Spring, Yunnan Province, China, seven thousand one hundred ninety-seven point oh-three miles from where I was raised, which was San Francisco. A pockmarked nursemaid at the orphanage claimed me as her favorite. She cried when we parted. I like to imagine that I left her behind, just as my mother left me, although I was five months old and didn't do much under my own steam, save for eating like a horse, or maybe a sheep or ram, and squirting my brains out—apparently I went through a lot of diapers. This was reported to my mother, Charlie, by that ravaged nursemaid, scar-faced, saw-toothed, with hands, Charlie said, like a football receiver's: Auntie X, who then fell to weeping. There was a string around my neck, to Charlie's horror. She snatched it off the minute she got me out of the sight of Mr. Zhu, the orphanage director, and Auntie X, who had probably tied the string out of simple kindness, a note from one ersatz mother to the next. On the string a little card in English dangled: “Like eating. Like the Bowns.” A mystery, that word, though I have my theories. A foodstuff, maybe, that I couldn't get enough of, or a toy that rattled, drawing my hungry gaze. Maybe it referred to my crib buddy, whom I like to think of as my first and only sibling—I make him out as a brother, though statistics run against me. I have three mothers. Four, if you count the one who threw me away. No father. I'm due a brother, don't you think?

A brother, then. Baby Bowns. They laid us two by two in little burrito bundles, no mother's breast to smell but at least another human, whose every kick was a kind of comfort. Or was “the Bowns” a place outside in the garden where they let me sun in a wheeled bassinette parked with all the other bassinettes between the plastic flowers and the spittoon? I made up the flowers. The spittoon I added because I've seen them in Beijing's public places, and I figure there must have been one bent brass spittoon in the orphanage garden for the use of Director Zhu and the occasional visiting official. There aren't many men in orphanages other than the shadows of the anonymous breeders.

“Not worth ruining your life for,” Gran told Charlie when Charlie put in the application. Gran is Charlie and Lesley's mother. Once I came into the picture, everybody called her “Gran.” Aunt Lesley is Charlie's older sister. Charlie calls her “Les”; she's a big-time judge in San Francisco. Everyone's afraid of her, except for Gran and me. Charlie is a lawyer, too; she works for the poor and downtrodden. Great-Aunt Rose is Gran's younger sister. She married Bennett Kong, George Kong's younger brother, and had four boys—a host of sons, a wealth of riches, a triumph for Rose and an elbow in the face to Gran. Charlie and Les never married, much to Gran's eternal disgust.

So “not worth ruining your life for,” Gran told Charlie. “The cart before the horse. A burden you can't afford.” She didn't want Charlie to adopt a baby and ruin her chance of finding a husband. Charlie was thirty-three when she got me, an age at which plenty of men were already divorced with dangling children of their own, but it was different for a man, said Gran. Their children had mothers. For a woman, dragging along a kid was worse than bad credit. “You've still got time,” she said to Charlie. “You're all alone. What business do you have adopting a baby?”

“From your homeland, Ma,” Charlie tried to tell her. “A way for me to connect to you and Dad.”

“Who asked you to do that?” Gran flicked her huge hand like she was batting away a pigeon. “We made you American. All that
Roots
stuff is nonsense.”

“But this is a chance to help a child.”

Gran groaned. Where on earth had it come from, her daughter's zeal for doing good? “If your father were alive,” Gran threatened, and Charlie interrupted her to say that Dad would have loved having a granddaughter, and Herbert, too. Both doctors, both dead. Gran was used to losing husbands.

“Besides,” Charlie argued, “work is okay with it. Work is anyway all about families and children.” “Work,” Charlie named it, like her job was a person, which to Charlie it was, and a most beloved. “I'll still have time to take care of you.”

Gran thrust out her jaw. Her skin was soft and papery, with little hairs like cactus prickles stuck on the point of her chin.

“I manage fine by myself.” It was true. She did. Nothing got in her way. She's eighty-four now—eighty-two at the time I ran away—and I'm pretty sure that she's going to live forever. Gran's a Dragon. The zodiac got that right.

They argued the whole time that Charlie was waiting to get word that her baby was ready for pickup. Les didn't help. She didn't come to Charlie's rescue. “It's your life,” was her only wisdom, “though it's a game changer, that's for sure.” After the phone call finally came, Charlie received a tiny picture, but Gran refused to look at it.

“They fake those pictures. They show you the prettiest one and give you a different baby. You don't have to tell me she's small and scrawny. Not like you girls. You were healthy from the start. You'll have to take that iron-fortified formula, the small cans, which are more expensive, but you won't have a refrigerator. Very inconvenient. And then she'll get constipated. Iron does that. So you better take prune juice, too. You'll need it anyway, with all that travel. Why can't they bring her here? Why do you have to go and get her? You're doing them a favor. They should pay you to lessen their burden.”

She wrote out more instructions, which she faxed to Charlie five days before the journey. “Keep her covered at all times. If she gets sick, don't go to a Chinese doctor. Call your cousin the pediatrician, the one who lives in St. Louis. George's medical school classmate was your cousin's professor, so we know he got good training, though why he's in St. Louis, I cannot imagine. Wait till you come home to buy her toys or clothing. Don't buy the cheap stuff. That's all they have in China.” Two days before, she called again to rail. “You don't know what you're getting. Her mother is poor; she's probably a peasant. She never went to a doctor. Who helped her to have the baby? Maybe there's a birth defect that they're not telling you about. How do they know anyway? The really big problems always show up later. What are you going to do if she takes after her father? He couldn't be any good or he would've prevented the mother from leaving her baby like that.”

I'll say this for Charlie. She was stubborn when it counted. After I was grown, she could hardly face me: my waiflike body, my raggedy hair. The piercing at my eyebrow, which made her wince. She didn't want to see the stump of my little finger, the two missing joints like the ache in my breastbone, unmet, unmatched, unshriven. When I abandoned her to go in search of my father—the trail stone cold, the scent long faded—we turned away as strangers. Trouble spilled, just as Gran predicted. But in the beginning, Charlie was full of love.

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