Read The Year She Left Us Online

Authors: Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us (5 page)

BOOK: The Year She Left Us

“Just keep Yan happy,” Lesley told me, “or I'll have to move down there and harass you into behaving.”

My husbands were never as bossy as my daughters.

I gave Yan ten dollars to take to the store. Buy a good one, I instructed her, with sewn binding and a sturdy cover. What she brought back was no good, the paper was limp and the coil snagged at my sweater. A little more money? she suggested, looking away. She didn't want me to lose face that I had been tight-fisted, but I don't embarrass, especially when I'm making sure I'm getting value for my money. Some people call that cheap, but it's a fool who is parted soon from his fortune. I gave her fifty dollars and sent her to buy another. Not a coil ring notebook but a leather-bound book from a fancy store because Ari needs a notebook as tough-skinned as she is.

Yan chose well. She brought back a handsome journal, eggshell blue with a thin leather strap that cleverly cinches. Made in Italy. Next to the Chinese, the Italians have the best food and the nicest things, though Paris, not Rome, is a city I adore. With Naomi I could joke, “The third time I marry, I'll choose a Frenchman who'll sweep me off to Paris to live out my golden years.” Naomi would have laughed and named the best contenders. It's not out of the question that I will marry again. I'm eighty-four years old, but there are gents who are ninety. They'd be lucky to have me. I'll bet I could keep them kicking.

If I ever see her again, I'll give the journal to Ari. I want her to keep writing, not on the computer, but on paper, by hand, so that the story moves through her, and when she's done, I'll make her throw it in the garbage. In our final talk, the last time we were together, I told her to do exactly that.

“Then what's the point of writing it down?” she asked, but her index finger twitched like a miser who spots a gold coin on the table. The middle finger of that hand, her right hand, the one she didn't despoil, has a freckled bump at the first joint raised by years of her pressing a pencil and bearing down too hard, as though she were cutting to bone. She's had a pencil in her hand since she was two years old. Before kindergarten, she could read a whole book. Before she could cut shapes out, she was typing on the computer. Her teachers were in awe of her. So was her mother, which was certainly part of the problem.

“It's up to you,” I said. “And when you're done, that part of your life will be finished.” I wrapped the blanket more tightly around my shoulders. Morning clouds misted the mountains, and the chill air had turned my clothing damp.

“Are you giving me permission to tell everything?” she said. In her rosebud mouth, a half laugh lurked. She raised her eyebrows, two furry burrs that needed only a little tending to have shaped them into lovely curves like moon peel framing her pale and delicate face. A metal shank bisected the right brow. It hurt to look at her. Her questions annoyed me, delivered as they were in her most defensive mode, far too ironic to ever catch a husband.

“Don't pretend that you're waiting for my permission. You don't know where to begin? Start with their finding you, poor abandoned baby. You love reading stories. Without much history, yours should be easy to tell.”

“I'll think about it,” she said. She rubbed at the bump on her finger. I saw a blue stain there, ink from the fountain pen, water from the well, leaving a mark where pencil never did.



would have gotten away with it if not for a slipped bandage.

It was an accident, I explained, when Robyn called me the day A.J. and I got back to Beijing. It was just as A.J. had told her. Stupidly, because I wasn't paying attention, I had gotten my finger caught in a heavy metal door at our hotel in Kunming. It was only the tip of my finger. It wasn't a big deal. “I've got it bandaged so it won't get wet,” I said. “I'll keep an eye on it. You don't have to worry.”

“Do you need stitches?” Robyn asked. I was sure I didn't. Robyn put down the phone. “Maybe I should go over and take a look at it myself,” she said to A.J.

“No,” A.J. said, as I'd asked her to do. “Ari just needs to rest. We hardly slept on the plane, and the food was awful.” She started to cry. That part was real, she told me. She didn't have to fake that. “I miss California. I miss Daddy and Brent. I want to go home. I'm tired of this place.” I imagined Robyn hugging A.J. tightly, smoothing her long hair, freshening the bed for her to lie down with Robyn next to her, a worried mother holding her daughter close. Once upon a time, I had let Charlie do that for me. Maybe Robyn was feeling guilty that she had brought A.J. with her, making her swelter away her last carefree summer tending to all those orphans. Like a lot of the mothers we knew, Robyn was sure that her own enthusiasm for Chinese culture would give A.J. a boost of ethnic pride, nurture in her an identity she could own. It was all very well for Ari, I once overheard her tell Charlie, Ari, who was adopted into a Chinese American family and didn't have people coming up to ask their ludicrous questions:
Where did you get her? How much did you pay?
But now she had to wonder: Had she pushed too hard on the whole China thing?

“She asked me if you were the problem,” A.J. reported. “Was it okay having you here? Did it make me feel awkward? Was it weird to be with Ari, who comes from a more Chinese background? And who, these days, isn't exactly getting along with her own mother?”

“I hope you milked it,” I said. We both laughed wickedly.

“I got her to take me to the Hard Rock Cafe.”

I listened to her talk, trained my thoughts on a flame-grilled burger. A.J. made me promise that I wouldn't do anything else crazy. I said everything was fine now. I just needed a little rest.

e didn't tell Robyn about the Kunming hospital visit. A.J. took me there; we waited for hours. The doctor didn't ask a single question. “It's going to be fine,” I told A.J. over and over. “I'm sorry. I was being stupid. I was thinking of that picture. . . .”

A.J. nodded. The photo of the artist who had cut off his little finger.

“Please don't tell,” I said. “Please, please don't tell. Charlie will go ape shit. Les will kill me.”

“But this is big,” A.J. said. “Not like getting drunk at a party or kissing some guy you don't like. This means something.”

“It doesn't mean anything. I can't explain it. It was like somebody else was making it happen, and I was just watching. Please, please. I'm counting on you.” I leaned close and sang:

You're like me, and she's like me, and

we're in this to-ge-ther

We'll be friends for-ev-er

Whackadoodle! Whackadoodle!

Tic! Tac! Whack!

A.J. didn't sing with me.

“ ‘Whackadoodle,' ” I sang. We were sitting on plastic chairs in the Kunming airport waiting for Pony, who was buying gifts to take home. Pony, like the doctor, hadn't asked any questions about where we'd been the day before, or why my finger was bandaged. She'd been too busy getting all the families in the heritage tour group on their flight to Hong Kong or off to other tourist destinations. I turned to face A.J. She looked pale with fatigue. Grease and soy sauce had soiled her white shirt, and red bug bites dotted her hairline. Stand next to me, her father, David, always said, so I won't get bitten. You're so sweet, the mosquitoes love you.

“Here,” I said, “put your head on my shoulder.” She lay her head down. I draped my arm around her shoulder and twisted a strand of her hair around my finger, the finger on my good hand, the one that didn't hurt. My jaw ached the same as my bad hand because I was grinding my teeth like a madman.

“They're going to find out,” A.J. said, “as soon as you take off that bandage. They're going to know it wasn't the tip of your finger.”

“I'll deal with it then,” I said. “Right now, nobody has to know.” She looked so young that people couldn't believe she was headed for Cal in the fall. I sang to her some more, “ ‘Whack! Whack! Whack!' ”

“Stop it,” A.J. said, but after a moment she joined in softly. “ ‘Whackadoodle! Whackadoodle! Tic! Tac! Whack!' ” My face relaxed; I could trust her not to tell. I breathed in and smelled myself, rancid.

Pony returned and we had to stop singing.

fter Robyn called, I took the pills that I got from the hospital doctor and fell asleep in my heat-stifled room. My afternoon dreams were short and skittish. When I woke up, I couldn't remember a single image, but I felt panicky, as if I had lost one of the little girls in our tour group and didn't know where to find her. The room lurched; I didn't want to stay there and have to think about what I'd done, so I snatched dirty clothes off the furniture and floor and bumped a duffel bag down to the corner laundry. My landlady, Mrs. Du, brought me a small pot of soup with dark, bitter greens, and I slurped it down, swallowing the leaves quickly. I thanked her profusely in my lousy Mandarin and gave her a packet of digestive biscuits, which I'd scored at the 7-Eleven. Later, I heard Mrs. Du through the thin wall, snoring. Mr. Du worked the graveyard shift and often came home late. Lots of nights I envied Mrs. Du sleeping while I sat up smoking and writing in my journal and listening to the soft scuffing of the other neighbors.

I closed my eyes. I had taken out my contact lenses and put on my snake-green glasses, and when I reopened my eyes, I saw dizzying ovals of green. My jet lag had felt permanent the whole time that I had been in China. I craved sleep but fended it off with drinking black tea all day long the way the Chinese did, out of a fat glass jar, and smoking in bed and watching movies on my laptop. To stay awake was a nightly competition, me pitted against myself. I knew I needed sleep and tried to dip down but couldn't. The ceiling floated toward me; I blinked, and it lifted. I sat up and opened my laptop. I was blogging for a travel Web site and writing freelance articles for a student-run publication that believed my story, when I dropped the name “Harvard,” about being a college student living in Beijing for the year. They had already paid me enough to buy what little I needed.

I shifted my hand and gingerly raised the finger. My whole hand felt fat and heavy. It looked like a hand that belonged to somebody else. The bandage had slipped; it was wet and sticky. I could see the wound, beef red and oozing. My good hand felt heavy, too, as though it still held the knife, the kitchen knife I had borrowed. The knife from the kitchen, the scissors from the street. A peddler had sold them to me—his largest pair, with big, looped handles and blades he had sharpened at my request just before he took my money. The knife was plenty sharp, it almost did the trick, except for the skin, the flap of stubborn skin, hanging fast, keeping me together. Blood had pumped out from both sides of the finger. Blood and skin, an instant fascination, less blood in my finger than in any single Tampax that I had ever tugged out of my body, but plenty enough to spritz me.

Curious how it had looked. Bright red blood, so bright it was truly pretty. Red marrow, dark as mud. White tendon, yellow fat, the white bone of a chicken. That flap of skin like cured leather. There had been one thing left to do. The scissors did it.

hen I opened my eyes again, I was still in my airless room. I wiped my face. Mrs. Du was snoring. I felt more dizziness and fought it. I wanted to call A.J., but it was two o'clock in the morning, and I was afraid to wake her. No way could I go home to San Francisco. If they sent me back, I would go certifiably crazy. I was probably already crazy, but going home would seal it. The pain in my hand spiked up my arm to my head. The laptop slid off the bed, then I fainted and fell to the floor. Mr. Du rushed over at the sound of the crash. Two days later, Les arrived fuming.

and above my head. Pain above my heart. I remember how angry I was that my cut wasn't perfect. The artist in the photograph hadn't made my same mistake: where his finger was severed looked smooth as a baby's bottom. A.J. and I had gone to a café after the orphanage visit, where a man we didn't know came right up to our table and talked to me as if he knew me and showed me the artist's photo. I can't recall what I did after that, though in recent months I've tried to, for Charlie's sake and mine. I must have borrowed the knife, bought the scissors, found a clean T-shirt for mopping up the mess. That last step means I was thinking clearly, though how can that be, since the day was such a jumble? A.J. said that when she found me, I was sitting on the bathroom floor in our hotel room in Kunming, my hand wrapped tightly and raised high above my head. She heard me swear that, someday, I'd cut off the rest of my finger.



t was WeiWei who named us the Whackadoodles. We were WACD—Western-Adopted Chinese Daughters, corralled on a monthly basis at a playground or a park so that the girls with white parents could see girls who looked like themselves, who also had white parents—a klatch of the mismatched.

That wasn't the reason, Charlie told me more than once. It was for
. Affinity groups mattered.

Whatever. I went. And so did forty others; the swing sets could hardly hold us. The Bay Area was lousy with Whackadoodles, cred-carrying members of a group that was still going strong last time I heard, all of us part of China's grand experiment in crib-time crowd control. At the beginning, it was mostly about making friends. Later, mothers like Robyn brought in outside speakers—adoption specialists, culture bridgers, researchers who reported on the mounting numbers of abandoned girls and the Fates of Those Left Behind. The parents would assemble for lectures and discussions, leaving us with finders and minders. A group of Russian women from San Francisco's western end had serendipitously tapped into this steady source of employment and showed up every month to make sure we didn't crack heads. They fed us piroshki and stale cookies out of a Costco tin. Their big bosoms were the best mothers one could hope for. I loved their brusque voices, their knit pant legs I grabbed onto, the wattles they let me swat. When Charlie showed up to fetch me, I screamed and ran from her until one of the babushkas put me firmly into my car seat.

A.J. was in the group. So was Becca Kamin. We were the same age, though Becca was from a different orphanage and she had a younger sister, adopted three years later. The three of us ran the Monkey playgroup—I threw in with the Monkeys, who let me be the boss. I sent them all scrambling, some to dollies, others to building blocks. A.J. was my enforcer. Becca reported the names of anyone who didn't do what I said. It felt good, behaving badly, knowing that our mothers and, later, our kindergarten teachers would have made us share and talk through our feelings. The babushkas didn't care as long as we let them stroke our hair and chuck us under the chin. Their own grandchildren—I saw them occasionally in the backseats of the crummy cars that dropped off their grannies—were fat little boys who made rude faces at us. No wonder the babushkas enjoyed our pretty smiles. We were everybody's pets. To see us nourished and laughing made everyone feel good. We stood as proof positive of fundamental goodness, that race didn't matter, that a baby was a baby no matter from what part of the world.

In first grade, no more babushkas. Instead, they trucked in specialists at handling orphans, eager women in long, loose skirts and shapeless sweaters who studied adoption trends and wrote articles for magazines. They had a great deal of experience counseling families and children.

“Draw a family picture,” they said, passing out paper and markers. “If you could draw a picture for your birth mommy, what would it look like?”

“How was group today?” Charlie asked me.

I showed her my picture. An empty house, a garden thick with weeds. “That lady was gloppy,” I reported. There was something sticky about her that I didn't want to go near. I missed the babushkas with their tins of stale cookies. I distrusted trust builders, shut my mouth as they attempted to apply their listening skills. The next time, I threw a fit on the sidewalk. Charlie hurried me home while I yelled for A.J. to follow. The month after that, Charlie tricked me by saying it was Becca's birthday and there would be cupcakes with a candle in each one. The cupcakes showed up; so did a beskirted lady. I angled for the door as soon as I saw her warm smile. A skinny arm shot out and grabbed my T-shirt.

“You have to stay here,” a tall girl told me. I gazed up at her, saw her glinting braces. She had me hoisted up on my tiptoes with her fist next to my windpipe.

WeiWei Chang.

A crush bloomed in my chest.

he was eight years older than us and, by that fact alone, a demigod from the start. Tall and skinny, with blue and yellow rubber bands in her braces. “Cal colors,” she announced. “That's where I want to go.” That immediately made WeiWei the object of love from A.J., whose father, David, was a Cal grad and a diehard Golden Bear. She came with her own mythology, for we had already heard from the older groups, the Dragons and the Snakes, about the Girl Who Put Her Hand Up. To us, she was a legend. Our fates had been decided by central agency bureaucrats who had matched us up with our parents' dossiers. Our parents of course described the process in more golden terms—“You were waiting for me but we didn't yet know it”; and “We were meant for each other, that's why they joined us together”; and, for the faithful, “God moves in mysterious ways”—but WeiWei had chosen her future, which gave her the glow of a hero.

Her parents were American-born Chinese from San Rafael, California. Her mother, Michelle, a fluent Cantonese speaker, was working in Guangzhou in the late 1980s. She wanted to adopt a Chinese baby. She had heard of a few Chinese American couples who had worked U.S. State Department connections to get the Chinese to let them adopt girls out of orphanages that, the rumors said, were chock-full of children, mostly girls, many of them healthy. China didn't have a program yet for international adoption. Michelle, schooled by her mother in the fine art of
, worked her own connections, generous with gifts and relentless with questions. Her husband sent daily faxes from home: proof of their citizenship, their marriage, their childlessness, their income. At last, Michelle found herself in one of Guangzhou's many orphanages, holding out her arms to the five-year-old girl who'd been selected.

“Don't cry, don't cry,” the aunties chastened the girl. “This is your new mother. You're so lucky that this lady wants you. You're going to America.
Gam Sahn
, Gold Mountain. Life is good there.” And when she didn't stop screaming, “Don't be a fool. Run away from this place.”

Michelle cajoled the girl in her own language; the officials joked and offered candy, but the girl kicked and hollered. She clung to two aunties and bit a third one who was trying to unloose her. A crowd of children gathered, looking impassively on the chaos. They had never seen a Westerner before. The lady looked Chinese, but she wore funny clothing. Her hair was cropped and curly. She towered over the aunties.

“Let me stay, let me stay,” the girl heartbreakingly begged. Michelle was almost crying at the cruelty of her own need. The aunties began to look helplessly at one another; two started crying themselves, and the eldest drew breath to apologize to the American and the officials from her government who were no longer smiling.

“Hi lady, hi lady,” a voice called out in English. A girl stepped forward, a seven-year-old scarecrow in a Harrah's Reno T-shirt, her hand straight up in the air like a miniature radio tower. In Cantonese she volunteered: “I'll go with you.” Michelle and the aunties gaped. The officials frowned and muttered. The girl's hair was cut short, one-inch long around her whole head, so they all could see her scalp crusty with ringworm and a boil or two along the side of her neck. Her feet were bare; a front tooth was discolored, but the smile was confident and altogether dazzling. “You look like a very nice lady,” she said. “I would like you to be my mother. What do you say?” she petitioned.

Michelle said yes. The officials weren't so sure. Michelle apologized to them for taking so much of their time, but she felt she had to say again how impressive their orphanage was, such a well-run facility and the children looked so happy. Wouldn't it be wonderful, she mused aloud, if they could put their heads together and do even more for the children? More books and paper, art supplies and music. Formula for the babies and better refrigeration.

The officials left the room for an agonizing ten minutes. When they returned, they were beaming. They said they were certain that Michelle and her husband would be very good parents. It was clear they understood Chinese ways. This little girl—WeiWei was her name—was actually the child they had first chosen for the Changs, but they didn't introduce her earlier because they weren't certain that the Changs wanted a child as old as seven.

Oh, but they did, Michelle assured them. Any child of China would be welcome in their family, but with this child in particular she felt an instant bond.

Twenty minutes later, they shook hands all around. Michelle thanked the aunties with gleaming jars of L'Oreal face cream. She promised to bring WeiWei back to visit. WeiWei didn't even say good-bye to the other children. She walked out the door proudly, leading Michelle away.

“I feel bad for that other little girl,” her father said later. They were in San Rafael, making pancakes together.

“She was a stupid girl,” WeiWei said. “She believed everything that I told her.”

“What was that?”

“That the American lady and her husband were going to eat her. The aunties chose the fat ones for foreign devils to dine on.”

Her father laughed. By then he was in love with his daughter. He told his wife the story; Michelle wondered, but she was in love, too. Who could blame WeiWei? They were meant for each other. They just didn't know it until WeiWei put her hand up.

ou have to stay here.” WeiWei let go of my shirt and punched my shoulder lightly. “Get a name tag,” she ordered. “Look, I've got one.” I obeyed her. She watched me try to scrawl “Ariadne,” and when I botched the job, she got me another name tag and said, “Don't you go by anything else?”

I found my tongue and told her. “It means ‘lion,' ” I said.

WeiWei approved. “Stick with the nickname,” she said. “ ‘Ariadne,' huh?” I nodded back. “Weird name for an orphan,” she said.

I clutched the hem of her shirt, delighted. She had said the word
, a mysterious word that made grown-ups shush and stammer. I knew what the word meant but didn't know the source of its power; it didn't seem like a potty word, like
, but it carried some secret I hadn't yet figured out. I felt that WeiWei would tell me if I asked.

“Her mom's name is Charlie,” A.J. informed her. I had forgotten all about my friend. With my second hand, I held on to another piece of WeiWei's shirt. “It's a boy's name,” said A.J., “but her mom is a girl.” I glared at A.J., who was making me out to be different.

“That's cool. You got a father?” WeiWei asked.

I shook my head.

“Well, we can share,” WeiWei said. “Right?” she asked A.J.

“That's what my mom says,” said A.J. sourly. She inched closer to WeiWei, but I body-blocked her, stepping on WeiWei's toes. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the lady with the paper pad and markers coming to fetch us. This one was named Linda. She had the Sheep, Monkeys, and Roosters all sitting together in a circle. She had a guitar, which boded badly.

“Bend your arms,” WeiWei said. “Tight, like this.” Her fists were at her shoulders, and her elbows pointed at her toes. We held ourselves stiff as fence poles, and WeiWei carried us upright, her hands cupped under our elbows, first A.J., and then me. I felt the other kids' envy as she tacked across the room and then casually hoisted me higher before “Elevator down!” and lowering me to the circle.
WeiWei Chang
, their wide eyes told me.
The Girl Who Put Her Hand Up

fter that, I never missed playgroup, and neither did WeiWei, because she was getting paid, she told us, “to keep you little mutts in line.” She started calling us the W-A-C-Dees, the Wads, the Wickeds, and finally the Whackadoodles. She made up our song and told us to be nice to the younger girls and not let the older girls boss us. She read to us from a children's book she had written—“for girls like us,” she said—a real published book starring WeiWei on a visit to the orphanage she came from. The ladies in skirts, she told us, deserved our attention.

“Some things they tell you are kind of helpful,” she said. “Some of it you know, like that China got so crowded that they couldn't let people have more than one kid, and so parents had to give up their second baby, or maybe they gave up their first kid because they were peasants and needed a son to work in the fields. You've heard all that already.” We'd heard it, yes, but to hear it from WeiWei's mouth made it thrillingly ordinary. Her matter-of-factness made us believe those things we'd been told from our earliest ages, explanations delivered in such hushed tones of concern and regret that they sounded as false as fairy tales. When WeiWei said it, it didn't sound like a lie made up to protect us.

“There's some other stuff, though,” WeiWei said. “Like what to say to people who ask stupid questions about why you're Chinese and why your mother and father aren't, and how to talk to people who don't like China.” Magnificent with scorn in crop top and jellies, WeiWei surveyed us, infusing us with her courage. She leaned in; we held our breath. “A lot of people are afraid of China, because it's a huge country and it's basically taking over the world. Well, if China takes over the world, none of
has to worry. And you'll get nasty kids at school saying stuff to hurt you, like your mother put you in the garbage, or she was a prostitute, or your parents bought you off the black market from the guy in Chinatown who sells the restaurants their frogs and turtles. They're ignorant. That's bullshit.”

“WeiWei,” the lady in the skirt objected. “A little at a time. At age-appropriate levels.”

“A bullshit detector is appropriate at any age,” WeiWei told us. We asked her, what was a prostitute? She grinned and wouldn't say. The next time the lady asked me to draw a picture, I put WeiWei in it, lifting me to the ceiling. At the last minute, I added a tiny A.J.

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