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Authors: Kathryn Ma

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BOOK: The Year She Left Us
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CHAPTER 5

CHARLIE

“C
an I come in with you?” Charlie begged at the doctor's office. It felt strange to be asking her daughter for consent, but now that Ari was eighteen and a half, she had the right to shut Charlie out. To her relief, Ari didn't answer, and when Charlie followed her tentatively into the examining room, Ari didn't stop her.

“Tell him exactly how it happened,” Charlie said. “Tell him everything that the Chinese doctor said.”

“If you don't shut up, you can wait outside,” Ari said.

“Don't say that,” Charlie said, more firmly. She had to make Ari understand that she wanted to make things right. She wished for the thousandth time that she had been there in Kunming when the accident happened. A.J. had handled it well, getting Ari to the ER quickly and then back to Robyn in Beijing, but it was the mother's job to keep her child safe. Of course, Ari wasn't a child anymore, a point Ari kicked home every chance she got, but how could Charlie not worry?

The doctor breezed in and raced through the preliminaries. He was a young guy, last name Bowker, wearing running shoes that squeaked. He spoke so fast that Charlie got the impression of a white coat flying.

“What happened to the finger?” he asked. “Why didn't they try to save it?”

Ari shrugged. “It was an accident,” she said. “The rest of it was pretty mangled. And it was bleeding pretty hard. I didn't stop to pick up the pieces.”

“Too bad,” the doctor said. “The Chinese are brilliant at microsurgery. They could have reattached it. It's a cultural thing, you know,” he said, turning to Charlie. “The Chinese place great value on the wholeness of the body. A Chinese patient would've insisted on reattaching the finger, even though the finger wouldn't be all that functional. Here, in America, we usually let it go. But you being Chinese”—he gestured to them both—“I figured you'd want to go for the replant.”

Charlie stared at him. She had no idea what he was talking about. “Are you saying that her hand won't function properly?”

“I didn't say that.” He manipulated Ari's left hand forward and back and bent each finger in turn. If it hurt, Ari didn't show it.

“Will she have full use of her hand,” Charlie asked, “even without a pinkie?”

“Great,” Ari said, “let's have the same question over and over. How many times does he have to say it? It's perfectly fine. I've been telling you that all morning. It didn't get infected. It's healing on its own.”

“We don't call it a ‘pinkie,' ” the doctor said.

Charlie felt herself contracting. She was already folded into a chair against the wall next to lurid charts of the nerves and muscles of the human hand, but she gathered in her elbows tighter and drew back her feet so as not to take up one more inch of room than she needed. She hated the doctor. She had never met him before; he was the only one she could get Ari in to see on such short notice, but he had barely looked at the wholeness of Ari. If he had, he would have noticed how thin and tired she looked. True, she had just flown thirteen hours from Beijing to San Francisco, but it wasn't her daughter perched on that table. All the dips and dots of anger and unhappiness that Charlie had glimpsed in her before seemed now to be pooled in the dripping sarcasm of Ari's tone, in the dark circles under her charcoal-lined eyes.

“I don't see how that's helpful,” Charlie said to the doctor with as much dignity as she could muster.

“Are we done here?” Ari said.

The doctor held up Ari's right hand as a demonstration model. “Thumb, index, long finger, ring finger, little finger,” he intoned. “Distal, intermediate, and proximal phalanges. In your daughter's case, accidental amputation, leaving a small section of the proximal phalanx on the little finger, left hand.”

“A stub,” Ari said. “I wish the whole thing had come off. It looks like I've got a tiny flipper.” She twitched the half-inch piece in a disturbing wave.

Charlie swallowed hard. She recalled another man, another finger. Only once in her childhood had Ari needed a trip to the ER, after she'd fallen against the coffee table and gashed the back of her head. Aaron had scooped her up, quickly stanched the bleeding, and calmly driven them to the hospital, Charlie trying not to hyperventilate. Ari had cried, waiting for the doctor, until Aaron had sat her in his lap and held out his finger. “Squeeze as hard as you can,” he told her. “Squeeze until you hurt me.” She couldn't have understood him; she was only a baby, but she stopped crying instantly and stared into his face. Charlie, remembering, fused her own fingers into a tight fist. She wiped her mind blank, as empty as she could make it.

The doctor rebandaged Ari's finger, all the while chatting. He could remove that piece, he said, but he advised her to leave it alone, at least until the swelling was down. It was healing nicely. The stump would shrink up some. She might have pain, numbness. Physical therapy would keep her other fingers nimble. The more he said, the more Charlie despised him. At the sight of Ari's injury, his eyes had shone like a gossip's. He didn't care about her daughter, only about his own liability if he didn't guess right on this one. She knew, dimly, that in hating the doctor she was angry at the wrong person, but she hurried away from that thought.

“And you say it was a metal door,” the doctor said. Charlie's chest tightened.

“Yes,” Ari said. Her tone was casual, her expression profoundly bored. A heavy metal door that swung the wrong way, which Ari wasn't expecting. Her friend was coming out, and Ari, stupidly, had her hand in the wrong place.

“It's a very clean cut to have been made by a door,” said the doctor. “But I've seen stranger things. I had a guy in here last week who lost his thumb in a waterskiing accident. It's a whole different thing, losing a thumb.” He grinned at Ari. “You're a very lucky girl.”

“Don't I know it,” Ari said.

“B
ut why didn't you call me?” Charlie asked, unable to muzzle herself when they were out on the sidewalk. Ari sped up, outpacing her to the car, and jumped into the driver's seat before Charlie could get there.

“Things were really busy. I was going to call as soon as I had the chance. You didn't need to send Les to come get me. She was really pissed that she had to cut her trip short.”

“She was glad for an excuse to leave Hong Kong early,” Charlie said. “Her part was over. She said the conference was only half useful.” She looked at Ari's hand, the heavy white bandage wrapped like a knob around the tip of her little finger. “Shouldn't I drive?”

“I've got it,” Ari said. “You made a big deal out of nothing. They have doctors in China, you know.”

Charlie reached up slowly to buckle herself in. Ari steered through jerky traffic with her right hand and two fingers of her left. She had the radio on, tuned to the baseball replay, Jon Miller describing a pitcher's three-fingered grip.

“Maybe I have a career as a closer,” Ari said. She held up her mummified finger. “Better ball control. Better pitching.”

“We can go to a game if you'd like,” Charlie offered—they had used to love going together, Ari cheering from the bleacher seats and Charlie keeping book—but from Ari's cold silence, she might as well have asked, “What are your plans for the rest of the summer?”

Once home, she followed Ari right to the bedroom doorway. “Would you like something to eat? I can make you a sandwich before I leave.”

“Go away,” Ari said, “go away, go away, go away.” She flung herself facedown across her bed, wallowing like a piglet, returned to old habits just by smelling the pillow.

“Oh, honey,” Charlie said. “You've had such a time of it. It won't be so bad, just hanging out for the next few weeks. The time will go quickly. You can get organized for college, buy your sheets and towels, that kind of thing. Say good-bye to your friends.” She told herself not to look at her watch, though she had some prep to do before her next client, a father who, if Charlie didn't help him, might disappear for good and leave his kids stranded. Now that she knew that there wasn't any infection, she could leave Ari to get some sleep. Ari would settle down after a nap and a good meal. She glanced at her watch, asked herself if she'd gotten back the car keys.

Ari sat up, her hair spiked around the crown of her head. “I'm going back to Beijing,” she said. “I had stuff going on before you and Les dragged me back here.”

“But there's only another three weeks. You ought to be getting ready.”

Ari shook her head. “I can't stay here,” she said.

Charlie allowed herself a stir of impatience. She had thought that, in letting Ari go to China after graduation, her daughter would better appreciate her own home and family. She would find out for herself that she shouldn't take those things for granted. She didn't want Ari to be grateful, exactly. Just thankful for what she had, and able to express that thankfulness once in a while.

“I want you to rest, get some sleep, do your laundry,” Charlie said. “When I get home from the office, then we'll talk.”

“Robyn needs me,” Ari said. “Her biggest tour group gets to Beijing in three days.”

“A.J. is there to help her.”

“You don't get it,” Ari said. “I need to go back. I was figuring things out there.”

“You had the whole summer for that,” Charlie said. “It's time for you to focus on your future.” She looked at her watch again. “I've got to get to work. I've got people coming in.”

“Go ahead.” Ari rummaged in her bag. Her hands shook slightly as she pulled out a pack and a lighter.

“Oh, Ari. Please don't do that.”

“Everybody smokes in China.” She opened her bedroom window.

“Not in the house at least.”

“It's like one big cloud,” Ari said. “
Da kun.
One big cloud of blue smoke.” She slipped past her mother out the bedroom door.

“Honey, wait,” Charlie called.

In the hallway, Ari glanced back, her face white with exhaustion, her mouth trembling.

“Stay here and talk to me,” Charlie said, but Ari turned and tossed the car keys into the bowl on the table. Quickly, she left, boots clattering down the staircase, surprising Charlie all over again that her light-as-a-feather daughter could make such an angry noise.

S
itting at her desk at work, Charlie tried to think clearly. She understood how difficult transitions were. Ari needed time and space to process her two months in China. She was tired, and upset at being summoned home, but beneath that, Charlie wanted to believe, ran Ari's familiar pluck. Les had alarmed her, saying, “She needs help. She's way out there. You've got to reel her in,” but Charlie wouldn't hear it. In a day or two, Ari would relax and tell her all about her summer—the job with Robyn in Beijing and her visit with A.J. to their orphanage in Kunming. Robyn had convinced Charlie to let the girls go to Beijing together. “They'll learn so much,” she had said, “and be all that more ready for college.”
I ought to call Robyn
, Charlie thought,
and tell her that the doctor said everything was fine.
Instead, she dropped her phone into her briefcase. A part of her, the same part that hated the doctor, blamed Robyn for Ari's accident, though she knew that wasn't fair: Charlie herself was to blame. She should have listened to her misgivings when Robyn proposed that the girls come work for her this summer, but it was hard for Charlie to say no to people she admired.

Robyn had been a magnificent friend from the moment they'd met at the airport, the beginning of their journey to bring home their daughters, Ari and A.J., born just days apart. Eight families had traveled together to the orphanage in Kunming. Robyn and David brought David's son, Brent. Auntie Rose came, too, an indispensable helper. Charlie was sad at the time that Gran didn't want to go, though it had turned out for the best, because Auntie Rose was kind to all whom she met. What would Gran have made of those families gathered nervously at the gate with their mountains of luggage, their money belts full of cash? The start-over dads, the infertile mothers? Their earnest attempts to thank the nursemaids at the orphanage while pulling out alcohol wipes to swab everything down? Even Charlie had had to keep from rolling her eyes when Robyn told her the name she and David had chosen for their baby: Asia Jade. Thank God they'd shortened it to “A.J.”

As soon as they got home to California, Robyn made sure that the girls would be friends. The Reises lived across the bay in Oakland, but Robyn organized playdates, swim lessons, birthday parties, adoption playgroup, and she handled the driving, too. Working mothers like Charlie, especially if they were single, owed a huge debt to stay-at-home moms like Robyn.

Later, when the girls turned twelve, they took Ari and A.J. for a heritage visit to China. The trip had gone badly. “I can do better than this,” Robyn had said, and started her own nonprofit business arranging tours for adoptive families who wanted their daughters to see China. Now she worked full time on the business and spent every summer in Beijing. Her Web site was a treasure trove for thousands: “How to Talk to Your Three-Year-Old About Adoption . . . Your Four-Year-Old, Your Five-Year-Old, Your Teenager, Your Neighbors.” Charlie found the resources incredibly helpful. There were books to buy and Listservs to sign up for and recipes to download and tips on celebrating Lunar New Year. A cottage industry had sprung up around adoptive families, a global village, complete with its own vocabulary, therapists, and gurus.

Ari had jumped at the chance to go when Robyn offered.

“They're only eighteen,” Charlie had objected.

“A mature eighteen,” Robyn answered. “They're both so capable, and they'd have such fun together. A.J. loves Susan and the tour staff.” Susan was Xiu Xiu, Robyn's Beijing partner. She had a staff of six young women who led the tours; she had let them choose English names: Cricket, Willow, Nan—Charlie couldn't remember them all. One was called Pony. Every tour group began in Beijing, then went to Xi'an to see the terra-cotta warriors, and on to Chengdu to visit the captive pandas. From there, the guides took small groups of families to their various orphanages in different parts of the country. Robyn wanted Ari and A.J. to help staff the office and welcome the families when they arrived in Beijing. Most of the girls were between eight and fourteen, though some were as young as four.

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