Read The Year She Left Us Online

Authors: Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us (2 page)

BOOK: The Year She Left Us



ost days she couldn't believe her luck. She not only had become a mother, the baby they gave her was Ari. As light as a teacup, with a big cartoon smile, she was born to be gazed at and sung to and carried, her pert head fitted into the crook of Charlie's arm like a child in utero, presenting its crown for passage. Her first word was
. Her first smile was exclusively for Charlie, their union two hours old. She had a grip so strong it felt like desperation, though the chuckle she emitted whenever she grabbed for Charlie's finger gave Charlie a shot of pure joy. Les hired an artist to paint a mural in Ari's bedroom and paid a handyman to install safety latches in Charlie's kitchen, and then, since she determined that he'd done a neat, professional job at her sister's apartment, she had him come to her own house to make baby gates for the bottom and top of the stairs and build a custom toy box and put in shelves at toddler height. More than once, Charlie and Les caught each other doing very un-Konglike things, babbling or kissing the air or crooning. Blowing raspberries on Ari's belly, which produced gusting laughter. Charlie and Les would laugh with her: who knew it would be so much fun?

Gran flew up from Los Angeles, intending just to take a quick look, and a one-day trip became a five-day festival, celebrated with extravagant meals, a monogrammed blanket, embroidered shoes, additional instructions. She allowed as to the child's apparent good health and noted the possibility that the baby came from parents of aptitude if not education, pointing out Ari's alertness, and how her expression brightened at the sound of her grandmother's voice. “She follows me with her eyes,” Gran said over and over, and Charlie and Les joked between them that Ari had already figured out that one should, at all times, know exactly where Gran stood.

“She looks just like you,” people often told Charlie. A Chinese person never said that, but lots of others did. In fact, mother and daughter didn't look much alike. Ari had short legs; Charlie, long ones. Ari's nose was a rounded bump; Charlie's, for a Chinese, was Roman. Her baby's hair was silky while Charlie's sprung to unwelcome, crackling life whenever she hastily brushed it. Gran had scrutinized Ari, wondering aloud if she came from one of the ethnic minority populations scattered over the poor rural areas outside of Kunming. No, she decided, Ari was Han Chinese. They would never know for sure, of course, but she had classical features. A delicate face, a smooth brow. A neck of the proper proportion.

“She's perfect,” Charlie replied, dabbing milk from her daughter's chin. She felt she had the right to boast, since the credit was in no way hers. It gave her comfort to know that, when Ari was old enough to speak for herself, it would be for Ari to decide whether to tell people she was adopted. Nobody would know unless Ari told them.
She's fortunate
, Charlie thought.
She has that clear advantage

Their skin tone was exactly the same, not that it mattered.

To Charlie's relief, she shifted more easily than she expected into juggling work and motherhood. She had had long years of practice taking on more than she reasonably should. It wasn't easy, but it didn't overwhelm her. There was a brief moment when she thought, foolishly, that she would give Ari a father, but that moment passed, and she banished the notion for good. She and Gran and Les were all that Ari needed.

Once in a while, worry crept in. Adoption was such a complicated matter. The road would have bumps, but they would travel it together. She calmed her worries by marking her small achievements: a home haircut, a treated fever, a first swing on the playground with Ari clasped in her lap.
Remember this moment
, she said to herself, meaning savor the happiness, though her instinct also took it as a kind of warning. She had noticed with unease that Ari's own happiness was sometimes arrested by a puzzling stillness. In the middle of a string of syllables or a warm bottle or an urgent, five-fingered wave, Ari would stop and aim a hard look at something Charlie couldn't see. In those moments, Charlie imagined another woman standing just behind her shoulder, looking down at the baby—half in guilt, half in rapture. The way Ari stared made Charlie think she was listening, and Charlie would make herself be quiet, too, so that her daughter could hear whatever it was she strained for. At other times, Ari would give a sharp cry of protest and throw her bottle or thrash her tender feet. Then Charlie would scoop her up and do her best to soothe her, getting a kick in the mouth, if she wasn't careful, or a sharp little fist near the eye. The next morning, Ari would greet her with a dazzling smile, standing at the bars of her crib like a passenger at the rail of a gleaming ship, ready for grand adventure. Charlie would clap her hands and return the winning smile.
Remember this moment
, she would say to her daughter, storing their joy like a peasant parcels rice, saving it up for winter time, down to the last gleaning.



y passport (U.S.) reads “Ariadne Bettina Yun-li Rose Kong,” a mouthful of moniker, a free-for-all for a foundling. The name in all its glory doesn't fit on any form—Charlie went overboard with deliberate purpose. My naming provided her a special thrill, a belief in the future that appealed to her positive nature, like labeling desk files or cartons stacked in the garage.
I know what's in here. If I can name it, I've got it under control

At the orphanage, they named me “Zhu An-li,” of which “li” was the only part that trailed me to San Francisco. We all were given Director Zhu's surname, a favorite practice of slaveholders in the South. I mean the American South, not southern Yunnan Province, and God, how offensive, comparing myself to a slave. It's hard to keep track of one legacy over another when you don't know which country's history you belong to. I'll stick for the moment with China, eons old. Maybe at the orphanage they were just following tradition, putting Director Zhu in the robes of the gentleman scholar—rich, proud, influential, boasting a powerful first wife, a string of concubines, and a household filled with children. The idea pleased me. The usual explanation of why we'd been dumped at police stations, public parks, factory gates, hospitals, school yards, dormitories, and the middle step of a fine department store in Kunming, China, hit hard those phrases that preordained forgiveness: “too poor to raise you” and “wanted you to have a better life than they could give.” But it was all a guessing game. Nobody knew a thing. If you could make up your family, why wouldn't you make up a good one? I'd rather I had a rich father than some dirt-poor loser who couldn't afford a condom. A wily financier or a corrupt government official. A man of power with an eye for the pretty ladies. I would have even settled for Director Zhu, who had a unique kind of household at his disposal. My father took what he wanted. And he had money to burn.

That's how I see it, now. It steadies my hand to look at my life that way, to peel off the gauze to check the wound beneath. Better to know what pain you're facing than to cover up the damage, but I'll admit that when I was little, I wanted the happy story. How Charlie named me was my favorite bedtime tale. We would curl up together in my painted pine bed, and she would tell me where each part came from and how perfectly it suited. I can't remember if it made me feel loved or empty or anxious—probably all three, and Charlie knew it—but anyway, I asked, and Charlie told me.

Zhu An-li. “An” meaning “peaceful.” All the girls at the orphanage who were born in the Year of the Sheep had the name “An” as the first part of our given name. It was a quick and easy way to organize us by birth year. “Li” means “beautiful.” They were being generous; I wasn't anything to look at. In the first baby picture that they sent to Charlie, I was scrunched and scrawny, just as Gran predicted, with my eyes shot open, as though I'd just heard a noise go
! Charlie cried when she got the phone call and they read her the particulars of what she'd been waiting months to hear: baby's name, age, location, dates of travel. It was part itinerary, part Annunciation. Three times she had to wipe her teary face and ask them to repeat the name and then ask how to spell the alphabet version. Not being able to speak or write Chinese—she was born during the Cold War, when educated immigrants like the Kongs didn't want their children to speak anything but perfect English and respectable French—Charlie had to wait till she got her referral packet to see the written Chinese characters of my orphanage name. She cried again when she showed the name to Gran.

“What does it mean?” she asked.

“Peaceful and beautiful.” Gran wasn't impressed. “Not very original, but it doesn't matter, since you'll have to change it.”

Change it she did, though not enough to please Gran. She started by giving me a Western name so that teachers and other children would accept me as one of them.

“I knew right away that you were very brave,” Charlie always told me. I liked to spread her hair on my pillow. “You didn't cry at all when they gave you to me. That's why I named you ‘Ari.' ” A whopping lie, though I didn't know that until later. “ ‘Ari' means ‘lion.' You were my little lion, afraid of nothing.” My very own creation myth, meant to make me strong. My bed overflowed with stuffed lions, some that roared when I squeezed them around the middle. A bright green jungle print streamed across my walls—another myth, since lions don't live in the jungle. Ceramic lions danced on my bookshelf. There wasn't any room for a Sheep to shelter.

Les didn't approve. “ ‘Ari's' too short,” she objected. She told Charlie that I needed a bigger name, in case I would someday rise to address a jury or run a large company from behind a polished desk. “You want her taken seriously. ‘Ari' can be her nickname. Come up with something else. Something longer.”

“I like ‘Ari,' ” Charlie said.

“At least give her the option.” Les was a big believer in keeping one's options open.

Charlie listened to Les, as Charlie always did. She stretched the name all the way to “Ariadne,” and then tacked on “Bettina,” the way a gluttonous diner passing through the buffet line throws extra mashed potatoes on his plate though he knows he won't have room to swallow another bite. It's a heady thing, naming a little baby. Creating for her an identity that she'll be sure to grow into. “Bettina” came from Gran's name, “Betty,” though that was all wrong, too, because Gran's name isn't short for “Bettina.” Her name is simply “Betty.” She picked the name when she came to the U.S. and cast about for a Western name—a Christian name, Gran called it—that was close to her given name, “Pei-nan,” meaning north
south. The perfect contradiction.

“But Gran,” I once said when she told me that she was mistress of her own fate, right down to choosing a name for herself. “ ‘Pei-nan' doesn't sound like ‘Betty' at all.”

“Ha,” Gran said. “What name would you have had me use?”

“I don't know,” I said. “How about ‘Penny'?”

“Exactly,” Gran said. “The cheapest name in the book.”

“Penny” wouldn't do for Gran; “Betty” wouldn't do for Charlie. She dressed it up to “Bettina,” and then had only my Chinese name to choose.

“Get rid of the whole thing,” Gran insisted. “Don't leave a trace of ‘Zhu An-li.' Who knows what they really know? What records they have that they aren't saying? Change it completely. Don't let anyone come looking.” Gran didn't trust that my real mother wouldn't show up, along with fifty or sixty relatives, to ask for money or sponsorship or worse. She had left during the war. She knew what it was like among the hordes of the hungry.

But Charlie had read all the adoption manuals. She had studied the books, pored over the articles, surfed the Web, wept as she read the memoirs of all those blessed, transformed, humorous, humbled, rueful adoptive parents who told in unstinting detail of their own personal journeys, not to brag about their children or hear themselves talk, but to
share their experiences
build community
with the many other parents choosing international adoption. They were Charlie's gurus, her Sacagaweas, her faithful familiars who led the way into the fraught unknown.
Keep your daughter connected to her heritage
, they all advised. That was the wisdom of the particular cultural moment into which we were born and then transacted.

Charlie had a Chinese name; so did Les. Adopted or not, her baby would need one. She decided to keep “li,” meaning “beautiful.” “An” she dropped and replaced it with “Yun,” meaning “cloud.”

“Does that work?” she asked Gran. “ ‘Yun-li'? Cloud beautiful? Would a Chinese person think those names go together?”

Gran sniffed. What did it matter? It wasn't the baby's real name. It was all made up after the fact. There was no need to have the geomancer, a feng shui expert, count the brushstrokes or consult the astrological charts to choose the best day for naming the child. No need, for a baby who had started so unlucky in the world, to place the furniture, arrange the fish tank, remove the mirror, hang the proper scrolls. Bad luck was bad luck. One might hope for a tolerable outcome, but the beginning couldn't be altered. Besides, Gran didn't hold with the old superstitions. She admitted only to true-blue American ways.

“Just be done with it,” Gran said. “A long name like that, for such a tiny baby?” She was mad that the baby wasn't called outright “Betty.” Her sister, Rose, had a grandson named “Rosen.” What was this “Ari” name that sounded uncomfortably Hebrew? But then, to Gran's greater displeasure, Charlie at the last minute added “Rose” as well, because Auntie Rose had traveled with Charlie all the way to Kunming to pick up the baby. Gran ground her teeth, too proud to admit she was jealous. At least the child would carry the Kong surname. Even Gran couldn't complain about that.

“Yun-li,” Charlie told me as she tucked the blankets tight. “Cloud beautiful. There were beautiful clouds above the Golden Gate Bridge the morning I flew to get you.” She taught me how to write the American parts of my name, my crooked letters taped to her bedroom mirror and hung in her office for everyone to see. Together, we learned how to write my Chinese name, taking turns with a thick pencil on a big pad of paper we propped on her knees in the bed. Sometimes I practiced with my finger on Charlie's back, drawing big sweeping lines as we counted the strokes together, bumping my fingertip across her spine.

“I was so happy for us both,” Charlie liked to remember, “that I cried every time I saw your name in print.” The doctor's certificate of vaccinations. The adoption order, signed by a California judge. The U.S. passport, stiff as the wings of the eagle emblazoned across its plasticky blue cover, with the bearer's new name officially stamped inside:
. It's a heady thing, renaming a baby.

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