Nine Months Playing House in Beijing
"Sweet Scoundrel," a new short story by Diana Xin, recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Diana Xin’s “Sweet Scoundrel” is a story of remarkable scope, covering nine months, two cities, and four characters with agility that is at once thorough and efficient. Tiantian, in her mid-twenties and from a rural village, works at a KTV in Beijing. There, she meets Robert Cao. His wife and daughter live conveniently far away in Boston—too far to exert influence over how he behaves on his extended business trips. Robert and Tiantian begin a relationship, and, by the first paragraph of the story, Tiantian is pregnant.
An early moment between Tiantian and Robert showcases Xin’s bold embrace of nuanced omniscience, as well as the attention she pays to language and culture, to the spoken and then unspoken. Tiantian asks Robert if he would be there if their child was injured, and Robert infers from her question that she believes the baby will be a boy. Xin writes:
“Speaking in Chinese, Tiantian had not specified gender, but the image of a child falling evoked for Robert the picture of a boy kicking a soccer ball down a green field. Tiantian herself had been thinking of a bundled up toddler, sex unapparent, walking through a door and tumbling down a long flight of stairs into nothing.”
Each of Xin’s characters are immediately recognizable as complex individuals. In this brief exchange, there is resilient Tiantian, whose practicality fights against her own naivité, and aspirational Robert, who makes decisions based on how he would like things to be rather than how they are. There is also Robert’s sardonic daughter, Tiffany, who is smarter but often less generous than those around her; and his realistic wife, Lan, who, unlike her husband, lives by unblinkingly facing the facts.
Between these four individuals there is a marriage, an affair, a would-be big sister, fatherhood, motherhood, the possibility of divorce. It’s a lot for a short story, but Diana Xin manages it all elegantly, moving the plot in unexpected ways and deepening her readers’ understanding of loyalty, betrayal, and family in the process.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
Nine Months Playing House in Beijing
by Diana Xin
She knew before the lines appeared. She knew before she bought the test. Growing up, there was an old woman in the village over who could tell in one glance if you were, and some of the barren wives who knew they were not would go see her in case her powers could extend beyond sight and inspire them to become so. The barren wives would pay a week’s earnings, for what? Useless soups made from fish guts and chicken scraps, her grandmother had said. Tiantian herself never paid attention. She never cared who wasn’t and why not or who was and shouldn’t be. Other people cared. Other people talked. She did not. Yet here she was.
Wo you le, was what they said: I have it, I got it, I with it. How did that translate?
Wo you le, she thought. And the lines turned pink.
Robert Cao was unprepared. This had become his natural state. Many years back, he had one foot in front of everyone else. When the sparks of unrest began to scatter across the universities of China, he received his acceptance letter to the University of Pennsylvania. After the ugliness passed, his road to citizenship opened. He landed his first job. His wife joined him overseas, and with his connections and her biology degree, found work at a lab. The Chinese were known to be diligent. They opened 401Ks. They signed their names next to mortgage papers. Everything transpired in an upward motion to carry him toward a prosperous future.
Then came economic disaster, layoffs, hair loss, face loss—everything but weight loss. Returning to China, working for an executive half his age, getting re-educated in how to sing the right praises despite all evidence of incompetence. Then came his wife’s scorn, tightly concealed but always detectable. Then came age. Age, and all its embarrassing accoutrements. The minutes wasted in front of the toilet, his life dripping away from him. Tubes shoved up his rectum to trace the growths along his colon. Nothing to be alarmed about, his doctor said before scheduling another scope, six months later. Then came flabbiness. His shrinking limbs flailing against a growing belly. The exhaustion that swept over him from time to time, utter and complete, like he had been knocked to this shore of life by ten-foot waves, his body so battered and waterlogged he could not imagine lifting an arm, much less standing, walking toward the next task.
This was what Robert thought as he sat across from his mistress—beautiful, lovely Tian’er. Occasionally, he still felt a jolt, not of desire but surprise, a sudden disconnect in the pattern of his life. Where had she come from? How did she fit into this? At times, he was unprepared for her.
She watched him from the sofa, her body folded into the space between the cushions. The thin plastic strip sat nestled in tissue papers on the coffee table in front of them. She was waiting for him to say something, but the exhaustion incapacitated him.
He studied the white walls, stained by the harsh Beijing air. When he invited her to move in, almost two years ago, he told her she could decorate as she wished. After all, she was here yearlong, caring for his property, while he toggled between Beijing and Boston. At first he thought that fear of displeasing him prevented her from acting. She wouldn’t want to offend him while they were still learning each other’s habits and sensibilities. Then he attributed it to lack of imagination. Finally, he decided it was lack of effort. Tiantian was one who lived through television and books. She always knew the plot of whatever show was being broadcast and she cried when reading novels. She could live forever in her imaginary worlds, but a child would draw her out, ground her. That was why people had children—to embellish one’s life with milestones, to push themselves forward to the next goal and leave a mark on the world. Back home, his daughter’s growth and accomplishments were framed in rows of photographs—a piano recital, a tennis match, suddenly her high school graduation. He imagined these walls exhibiting the same rhythm of life in progress, starting again from the beginning, a piece of his old tired self made new again.
“Forget it,” Tian’er said. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll find a nice river and drown myself.”
“Why would you say a thing like that?”
“What else is a woman in my position supposed to do?”
Robert blinked as he searched for a response. Though they were in a country of government-enforced birth control, he knew nothing of the actual process for procuring an abortion. There would be paperwork involved. There was paperwork for everything. Documentation—sometimes false, sometimes real—and always, always stamped.
“A child is a gift, isn’t it? A mother’s greatest joy?” He heard an echo of his wife’s voice.
“A mother’s joy,” Tian’er mocked, “is also a mother’s burden.”
She pushed on past his silence. “Will you give this child your name? Pay for clothes, toys, school? What if he falls down? Gets hurt?”
Robert moved next to her on the couch. “So. You think it will be a boy?”
Speaking in Chinese, Tiantian had not specified gender, but the image of a child falling evoked for Robert the picture of a boy kicking a soccer ball down a green field. Tiantian herself had been thinking of a bundled up toddler, sex unapparent, walking through a door and tumbling down a long flight of stairs into nothing.
Noiselessly, she began to weep.
Her long hair spilled forward as she hugged her knees, so Robert could not gauge the distress on her face. He patted her shoulder and rubbed circles along her back, remembering the hours he had spent soothing his daughter after her night terrors.
“There, now,” he said. “You’ll be okay, we’ll be okay, and our son will be just perfect.”
Six weeks after Robert’s sperm collided with Tiantian’s ovum, the cascading, rippling ring of cells cleaved and coalesced until it exerted a heart to beat. At seven weeks, a face began to emerge, the outline of a nose, a mouth, printed on a mung bean. The buds of arms and legs twitched.
Tiantian felt none of this, on her knees in front of the toilet. She stocked up on loose-fitting tops and searched for timely moments to ask Robert for gifts and money. When he was assigned back to the U.S., he gave her a good twenty thousand kuai for vitamins and other herbal supplements. She sent some home to an aunt and put the rest into a CD.
At ten weeks, an accumulation of blood along the folds of the chorionic membrane streamed down her uterine lining, leaving a russet stain on her underwear. She did not notice at first while squatting over the toilet at the KTV where she worked part-time—the part during which Robert retreated to the U.S.—but when she wiped, blood bloomed red on the tissue. She stared at the bright feathery petals. Sometimes they tested people for insanity by having them read blots of ink. She couldn’t decipher what signs her body was sending her, so she cleaned up and asked her friend Bella for a pad.
All night, Tiantian waited for the agony. She smiled at guests, sang a few ballads, let them grope her sore breasts, all the while steeling herself for cramps that would squeeze her clean and wring her dry. She hadn’t cried once since Robert left. She couldn’t find the motivation. It was as if she, too, had grown a fibrous membrane. She didn’t care what anyone thought, she didn’t care about anything. Finally, she had grown tough. So tough the pains did not come.
She considered, after that incident, methods of forcing the pain. With Robert gone, she had greater flexibility, but it was too late for the pill. She’d have to do the other thing. Like scraping out a cantaloupe, Bella had said. The last woman they knew who did this got an infection, was laid up for two weeks and returned to the countryside to recover. Bella said she was back now, but no longer hostessing, choosing to waste away at a clothing stall instead, earning next to nothing. Tiantian hadn’t seen her since.
A child wasn’t so bad. She’d always thought she’d have a child, just like she’d thought she’d get married, too. This year she would turn twenty-six. If she had stayed in the village, she’d probably have two kids clinging to her already. In the city, there were years of good money left. Pregnancy was like early retirement. No lotions or procedures could save you after that. But she was taken care of, supposedly. Robert was a good man. A good investment.
Let fate run its course. Wasn’t that what the dao espoused? She let the dao do its work as she poured over episodes of the original Shanghai Bund on Youku, wondering if her compulsive media consumption would grant her child Chow Yun Fat’s soulful eyes or Angie Chiu’s sculpted cheekbones, like how mothers before her had tried to create a generation of tyrannical Maos by poring over his image. She learned that if she shined a flashlight on her belly, the child would turn away and burrow into her womb. It knew a place inside her that she herself had never touched.
Robert, when he could, called between 7 and 8 p.m. They were separated by exactly twelve hours. She pictured him exactly halfway across the world, preparing for board meetings behind a black desk, fiddling with an arrangement of glass paperweights lit up from the inside like Dale Chihuly’s glowing orbs. When he called, she could pretend he was a typical husband apologizing for working late.
In actuality, Robert called from the parking garage. He propped the phone on the Camry’s steering wheel as he ate lukewarm oatmeal packed from home. The wireless was not strong enough to support the video feature on WeChat, but he preferred the photos that she texted later anyway.
“Show me your belly,” he said.
“Don’t be silly. Only my boobs have grown bigger.”
“Show me those, too.”
He snuck peeks later during conference calls and in the bathroom, hidden from his wife. On any day, he could count the number of things Lan said to him: Garbage. Dishes. Driveway. Lan was one of those women whose elegance was epitomized by the word quiet. Even slicing sweet potatoes required the same focused intensity Robert imagined she brought to the lab, presiding over rows of test tubes. Perhaps for Lan, the act of cooking really was as complicated as preparing assays. Her family had come out of fortune, then famine. Until they had no food, they had servants who helped cook it. They did not fare well in the revolution. Robert’s family, descendants of a proletarian hero, saved them from dishonor.
Lan did not approve of China. She did not trust economic booms or technological advancements, like the high-speed rail or the subway lines her husband raved about. She did not like that he made his money in China, and she did not like that the promise of easy money and an easy life was drawing her daughter there, too.
“People will take advantage of you,” she told Tiffany over Thanksgiving dinner. Once they were all lethargic from food and pie, Tiffany had announced her plans to study abroad spring semester.
Lan was full of questions about her grades, her credits, and why she would want to leave her friends and that secret boyfriend when this was her last semester, but Robert cut her off before she could figure out where to begin.
“Your mother only knows the old China. Beijing is a lively, developed city. I think you’ll like it.”
Robert always said whatever it was that would win Tiffany’s favor, never bothering to consider consequences. He blithely sailed along, gone for half the year, and left all the worry to her. He knew nothing, and she shot him a look to tell him as much.
“Shouldn’t you stay on campus to work on your thesis?” Lan asked, turning back to Tiffany. “What about the credits you need to graduate?”
“I have one credit left, thanks to all the AP classes you signed me up for.”
“What about your friends?”
Tiffany willfully misunderstood her. “They probably need more credits.” She was already collecting her dishes, getting ready to leave. Her daughter was adept at quick exits, always an excuse at hand: study sessions, acapella shows, her roommate’s cat that must receive its anti-anxiety medication on time lest it tear apart their shoes again.
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” Lan tried.
“It’s done, Mom. I turned in my forms yesterday.”
Silence reverberated after the front door swung shut. Though Robert had only returned a few days ago, they’d already exhausted all the noteworthy updates. Had he known about Tiffany’s study abroad? She didn’t want to ask. He offered to help put food away. She turned him down. He was no good at fridge organization, and there was so much turkey left. Like every year, it was too dry. They’d swallowed down what they could.
“Why don’t you just go to bed?” She was uncomfortable with him lurking behind her, his gaze still bleary from jet lag. She’d rather be alone than in a room with someone half-present.
She scrubbed the greasy pans and listened for the sounds of her husband moving through the house. Always when he returned, this took some getting used to. The stairs creaked as he headed up. The door to the bathroom shut. He could be in there for upwards of half an hour. She tried to grant him the privacy these matters deserved, but she couldn’t help but wait for the sound of a flush.
All around her, inside her, patterns were shifting. Her body was writing a new alphabet, etching a unique set of fingerprints onto the clump of cells growing inside her. She craved the foods she once hated and couldn’t stomach the smell of pork. Her nipples darkened, and she no longer had to puff out her stomach when she posed for photos.
Tiantian was unable to hostess in this state, but Kai was a good manager. Much better than her old manager, at the more upscale KTV where she and Robert met. Kai waived the stage fee and offered her an apron instead. Now Tiantian served drinks and snacks, gagging at the smell of dried cuttlefish. Christmas and New Year’s were busy, mostly with foreigners who left generous tips but didn’t know to ask for additional services.
After her last shift, a few days before Robert was due to return, Bella led her into an open karaoke room and a chorus of other hostesses shouted, “Happy baby shower!” They brandished balloons and stood around a bucket of Yanjing beers.
“Western customs for your western baby.” Bella grinned, handing her a plate of frosted sponge cake, layered with fruit.
Tiantian burned with both embarrassment and affection. She didn’t even know some of these women, but they were her sisters. She knew enough.
One woman pulled out a birth chart that no one could decipher and guaranteed Tiantian a son.
“A boy is better insurance,” Bella said. “No man forgets the woman who gives him a son.”
“But don’t let him take the boy to America without you,” another woman warned.
“Your luck is so good. An American laogong. Do you think your baby will look western?”
Bella scoffed. “How can two Chinese people make a baby with blue eyes?”
“Chinese people in the U.S. look different from us. It’s the milk they drink.”
“No, it’s all the sugar they eat. They grow tall and beefy. Our Sugar will have a sweet, sturdy son. Her namesake.”
They all used English names at the KTV, and hers was Sugar, because tian meant sweet. Sweet girls were naive. They refrained from meeting men’s eyes and only spoke an inch above a whisper. They never failed to notice when a man’s glass was empty or when his self-confidence was low. Sweet girls got pregnant and accepted it as ming yun. Sweet girls surrendered completely, even when they were only pretending.
But Tiantian could not say this, because she was indeed lucky. Robert had stood up for her when his colleagues got too drunk and too rough. He’d continued to support her, even now, when she could no longer work. She said instead that Robert had seen his wealth rise, that his wife was ugly, that he’d build her a second home in the U.S.
Kai, who’d snuck in quietly and stayed back by the corner, looked on with a skeptical smirk, arms crossed over her cropped tuxedo jacket. She stopped Tiantian on her way out, waving a red envelope. “Bonus,” she said. “Take it. Watch out for yourself, Sugar. If you need anything, tell me.”
“I’ll be fine. Robert’s a trustworthy man.”
“Of course. Sure. But you’ll learn.”
Robert, trustworthy or not, was at least good and decent. He was much gentler than her own father, who died years ago after a fit of rage sent a blood clot into his brain. After Robert returned, he woke early to make lumpy millet porridges and soups that coated her lips with salt. He served them to her with American vitamins and hummed off-key lullabies to her belly at night. He took her to see a doctor, and paid the additional fees for someone with no urban registration.
But as attentive as Robert was, she knew he lied to her, too. He swore no more feeling existed between him and his wife, yet he never mentioned any desire to leave her. He said there was nothing he wouldn’t give up for the sake of their child. He came home complaining about having to work late, even though she could smell his clothes and his hair, reeking of grilled meats and cooking oils.
When a phone call came late at night, and he took it into the kitchen and spoke with soft, appeasing tones, she knew he was speaking to a woman, and that this woman was not his wife.
Tiantian trapped him in the kitchen. How could he this to her? How could he get her into this state and then abandon her? Was he really so heartless, so shameless? Had he been placed on this earth to ruin her? Had she been placed on this earth merely to suffer? And if he didn’t care about her suffering, then what about the pain of their unborn child?
Her performance left her breathless, dizzy. She needed to sit down, and Robert ushered her to the sofa, his mouth working noiselessly. She’d stunned them both. Her hands were shaking as she tried to quiet this unexpected rage. The baby inside her thrashed furiously.
“My daughter,” Robert finally said. “She’s here.”
He would introduce them, he promised. He would do the right thing.
All her life Tiffany had wished not to be an only child. Her father knew this, which made the situation that much more cruel.
“The fuck, Dad. If I told Mom that I were having a baby. This is way worse.”
They were seated in a lavish Peking duck restaurant, where she couldn’t cause a scene or even raise her voice. She hadn’t wanted to come tonight. She was sick of rich foods and her father’s attentions, the way he watched her so carefully, like a child fearful of punishment.
“We didn’t plan it,” he said. “It was an accident.” As if this kind of stuff happened all the time.
And maybe it did. Mistresses were common in China. They were called xiao san, little thirds, modern-day concubines. Tiffany knew this but never could have imagined her father being one of these men. Where did he get the money, the nerve, the stamina?
The duck fat clung to her tongue in a tasteless film, coagulating in the back of her throat.
“She wants to meet you.”
“For the baby. For family.” He ducked his head, chastened by her glare. “Lunar new year is coming up. I hope you’ll give her a chance.”
“How did you—” She ran through the places where mistresses might prowl. Massage parlors. Bathhouses. Gross. Maybe she was just some mousy secretary. “Nevermind. I don’t want to know.”
“She’s really nice.”
Tiffany waited for something like an apology—repentance—but there was none.
“You’re grown up now,” he said. “You know that your parents are just people, too. We make mistakes. We’re not perfect.”
“No one asked you to be perfect.”
They left most of the food uneaten, walking back toward the subway station in silence. Cars sped by beneath them as they crossed the skybridge. Squares of light glimmered in the canopy of buildings. For the first time since she arrived in Beijing, Tiffany felt a pang of homesickness, not for home in general but for some kind of cellar, a hiding place. Her mother’s closet, the rustle of skirts above her. Somewhere, far away, her father was counting to ten and getting ready to look for her. Only now, she hoped she wouldn’t be found.
Before they parted ways at the station, her father managed to recover enough paternal instinct to make demands of her again.
“Come to the house for New Year’s. It’ll be good for everyone.” And then, “Don’t say anything to Mom, okay? I’ll talk to her.”
Her stomach sank even before the escalator began to lower her into the tunnel.
“You know.” She turned to look back at her father. “She must have some seriously sad story. Sticking with you for three years.”
Tiantian followed her grandmother’s steps for making the dough and the dumpling filling, chopping up cabbage, ginger, pork. When she was young, she would watch and wait until her aunts returned from their shifts at the textiles mill and the groceries stall, gossiping and laughing as they maneuvered rolling pins with the heel of their hands and shaped ingots and lotuses inside their palms. A cloud of flour-dust would rise around them, and soon there would be enough dumplings lined up on the bamboo mats to feed all the uncles and cousins and perhaps a few neighbors who chanced to wander by.
But now her aunts were all old and bitter, her cousins scattered across different cities, no one very satisfied with the decisions they’d made and even less happy when they compared their lot to someone else’s.
Tiantian folded the dumplings herself. With each one she sealed, she resolved to hold tighter to this life she had stirred up. The baby inside her kicked. Robert’s gurou. His bone, his flesh. The same cut as his daughter’s.
The girl showed up just shy of seven, two hours late. “I thought it was dinner,” she said.
Tiantian assured her that all was fine, no need to be polite. After all, there were no outsiders here.
She studied the girl hungrily, drinking in each detail of her face. There was Robert’s nose and brow, but the lips and jaw were someone else’s, more delicate. Pretty. Her hair hung loose and messy over her shoulders, streaked with coppery highlights. She wore no jewelry or makeup, and her oversized sweater hung shapelessly down to her knees. She had no reason for pretension and made no effort to hide her displeasure. She was insolent and rude, but she ate with exquisite care. She took small, delicate bites, and her lips never parted while she chewed.
Tiantian could copy her poise but not that other thing, that American-ness. Tiffany was not burdened by worry or guilt. She acted in a way that was only possible when you were a hundred percent assured of your own safety. She had done nothing wrong yet, or she had not been taught to recognize when she did wrong.
Would her child learn these same Western ways? Robert had started looking at schools, not in America but here, where there were plenty of ex-pats coming as teachers. He could pay the expensive tuitions and also tutor the child at home, ensure he would be ready to apply for universities abroad. Harvard and MIT were both near Boston.
Tiantian had learned some English when she first started hostessing, to better attract western patrons. She’d select a few phrases to practice during each shift. After she met Robert, he’d bought her language-learning apps and helped her study so she could apply for different jobs that would put her into a better career. He made introductions and bought her a suit jacket for interviews. When those jobs turned out to pay less than what she made before, she gave up looking and he didn’t push her.
Now she studied to make herself a suitable mother. She downloaded podcasts full of stilted English conversations and stole two books from an ex-pat café. One cover featured a cowboy and a big-breasted woman in a ripped dress, the other one an ancient Roman coin. She got a notebook and wrote down each vocabulary word.
When the girl switched to English, Tiantian could understand little bits.
“Did you talk to Mom yet?” the girl wanted to know.
Robert said he’d been too busy. Work was exceedingly stressful.
“Should we call her? It’s a holiday.”
Robert switched back to Chinese. “The holiday doesn’t start until the 19th, and I’m needed in Boston before that.”
This was the only holiday they would have together, so Tiantian insisted on a family photo. She set her phone on Robert’s desk and started the timer. Robert raised a freshly cooked dumpling into the air, but the skin ripped. Hot soup and oil spilled onto his lap, followed by the nugget of meat. The camera managed to capture both his frank astonishment and Tiffany’s grim smile.
Tiantian made the best of it. “So cute,” she said. “I will print copies.”
Later, when she and Tiffany were in the kitchen, she said, “You miss your mom?”
The girl shrugged.
“I miss my mom. She die when I was baby.”
The girl looked genuinely sympathetic. “I’m sorry.”
Tiantian shrugged. “Is good she does not see that I am scoundrel.”
“Well, that’s kind of harsh.” The girl took a plate from her and began drying it. “I mean, we all make bad choices.”
The girl seemed to soften, and Tiantian wondered what kind of bad choices she was imagining. She didn’t want the girl’s pity. Pity could only be played one way.
She smiled conspiratorially. “Are you scoundrel?”
“I’m lying to my mother.”
“So we are scoundrel sisters.”
“Actually, I’m sister to that one,” Tiffany corrected, pointing to the belly. “But age-wise, nothing makes sense.”
“I hope that one not scoundrel.”
“You should maybe find a different word.”
“You help teach me English?”
The girl didn’t like that suggestion. She set the plate down. It clattered against the counter. “Look. We’re not actually family.”
And then she left to join her father in front of the television.
When Spring Festival arrived, Tiantian was alone all day in the apartment. Firecrackers thundered across the city. After a sleepless night, she stepped out in the early morning, walked abandoned streets littered with torn red paper. Storefronts were shuttered as migrants returned to the countryside and locals ventured out on vacation. She relished losing herself in the quiet morning fog, walking aimlessly for hours while running through vocabulary lists in her mind. The movement lulled the baby to sleep inside her, and each word she conjured was like an incantation to guard the child and project to it pleasant dreams. The least she could do while they still shared her body.
Lan had always credited herself with a sixth sense for disaster. Many women had it. Intuition, they called it in the U.S. Hers was different. Hers was an inheritance from the women in her bloodline who had watched their husbands wracked by opium, their children hunted by the Japanese, their riches burned or pillaged by the Communists and the Kuomingtang. Generations of misfortune had taught her how to sense imminent peril.
Naturally, she thought first of her daughter. At a dinner with family friends, she cornered Tiffany’s confidante and asked all the leading questions. She knew how to find her way in. A few compliments and some light discussion of college life, then a rapid interrogation about drugs, alcohol, mental health, sexual behavior. By the time she was done, the girl couldn’t form a coherent sentence, but Lan had gathered nothing useful.
When her husband returned, she peppered him with questions, trying to uncover every detail her daughter had hidden about life in Beijing. So preoccupied with this task, she failed for weeks to take note of her husband’s unwarranted cheerfulness. He walked around the house, humming—old Chinese ballads from the ‘80s, a children’s song their daughter used to sing about washing her white handkerchief. The praise came showering down, too. How she had flavored the pork just right. How sharp she looked in her green blouse. Yet he made no overtures in the bedroom. So, he had taken a lover. She hoped he did not embarrass himself. How a man his age must exert himself to keep a lover. A costly endeavor, too. She completed a thorough review of their finances, but found nothing amiss. He had a separate account in China she couldn’t access.
She meted out her punishment in small doses. A raw spicy pepper hidden beneath a slice of beef in the bowl she served him. A small slit to the garbage bag before he took it outside. She waited to start the laundry only after he had jumped into the shower. Although the house was too big for her to hear his yelp of surprise when the water turned ice cold, she still found satisfaction in it.
Yet her right eye continued to twitch in anticipation of the danger she could not see.
“Don’t eat from any street stalls,” she told her daughter whenever her daughter deigned to pick up her call. “Don’t ride in any black cabs. If the driver kidnaps you, no one would ever know.”
“Why would they kidnap me? There are tons of wealthier kids in Beijing.”
But she had two healthy kidneys, a fertile or yet to be proven otherwise womb, and a pretty face. Her life was full of riches she took for granted, but she’d only get mad if Lan mentioned this.
She should have checked her husband’s phone sooner. She’d been generous not to. It only took three attempts to crack the password. The year Tiffany was born. The evidence took more searching. She knew it would be linked to WeChat, but the app required some navigating.
The girl was very pretty. Big eyes and long black hair, no dyes or highlights. A traditional beauty. Robert looked ridiculous next to her, his broad smile an assault. Lan burned with shame on his behalf.
Other photos followed. Adventures in paddle-boating. Adventures in fine dining. Adventures in buffet dining. Enough time passed that the girl began to look more comfortable, more settled. Her hand latched tightly onto his arm. Years, the relationship had gone on. But then came the change. Out of both respect for the girl’s privacy and distaste for seeing others exposed—physically, yes, but also spiritually—Lan flipped quickly through the stream of photos documenting the stages of metamorphosis from girl to mother. At the sonogram image, a distant heartbeat came thudding into her ears. Her own, it turned out. She scrolled forward until the screen stopped at the image that stopped her heart entirely.
Her daughter, seated at the table with her father and his mistress. In the photo, Robert had yet to recover from the surprise of getting caught and Tiffany smiled cruelly, looking directly, it seemed to Lan, at her, laughing at her foolishness.
The belly continued growing. It reached the point of grotesque and kept going. Tiantian no longer wanted to be seen in public with it. In a moment of stupid weakness, she called Bella, who rushed over all too happily.
“Look at you,” she cried. “How could he leave you in this state? Men. They are worthless. You shouldn’t be alone right now.”
And that was how Bella moved in. She was a messy roommate, and she brought her business with her, one or two guys a week. Tiantian could hear them from her bedroom, but it was always over in a few hours. Worse was how much talking Bella did. She had an Eileen Chang quote for everything, which she’d recite in an even more supercilious register.
On all the new girls Kai was hiring at the KTV: “So you are young? So what? In two years, you will be old.”
After Tiantian ended a call with Robert: “A man will never love a woman he thoroughly understands.”
When Tiantian’s irritation finally broke through: “She grew angrier and angrier. Then she had a child.”
Without being solicited in any way, Bella offered up all kinds of solutions to rescue Tiantian from whatever troubling predicament she had imagined. Hold the baby hostage and charge him every time he wanted to see it. In cash, of course. Get him to pay for an education. Learn a new trade, something on computers.
As Bella went on about her friend’s sister’s computer vision glasses, Tiantian’s phone buzzed with a WeChat ID she did not know. WuZhenLan. The profile photo was the standard gray silhouette.
The message: This is Robert’s wife. It is time we talk.
She shut her phone before Bella could catch anything amiss.
Gathering her composure, she stopped the other woman mid-sentence. “You’ve been so kind to stay here with me, but I shouldn’t trouble you anymore. Robert will be home soon, and I will need to make sure the place is clean and fresh.”
Bella prepared to leave the next day. “We’ve known each other a long time, haven’t we,” she said, her face as guarded as a walnut shell.
Tiantian nodded. “You’re a good friend.”
“I helped you. I got you a good job. You’ve had it easy, but a child is a serious matter. A child can take a mother’s life, and then come back asking for more.”
“You’re not wrong. But a child can also bring life’s greatest reward.”
After the woman left, Tiantian let the solitude expand around her. She steeped within it all night, sitting with her back against the wall, facing the heavy front door with its gleaming wood finish.
In the morning, Robert called at the usual time, her phone juddering next to her on the floor. She readied herself for news, but he was full of unexceptional cheer. She bored of his rambling thoughts, clenched her teeth at the onslaught of details and trivialities she had no use for.
When it was done, she wolfed down some breakfast and waited until her hunger abated before she began. Even though Lan had written in Chinese, Tiantian used a dictionary to compose her message in English.
I am called Tiantian. My parents died young, leaving me and my very poor grandmother. We worked hard but received little wages. In China, life is difficult for a woman. You are pushed always to be stuck. As a woman yourself, you must understand me. Will you find it in your kind heart to lend a helping hand? Can you do it yourself to drag someone out of her struggle?
After Lan picked up her daughter from the airport, Tiffany seemed to sense her displeasure and thus desire her closeness. It was like when she misbehaved as a child, needy for affection after her time-out or her scolding. Instead of going to bed as she should, Tiffany requested a movie—any movie, and sidled close to her on the couch. Lan could not get comfortable. China had stained her daughter. Even after her shower, she smelled polluted.
Later, she wanted to climb into bed with her. “Just for awhile,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get sleepy. It’s not like Dad’s here.”
Robert had returned to China two weeks ago, blissfully ignoring Lan’s coldness toward him. And while things were still unsettled, subject to the caprices of fate, she had nothing to say to him.
“Do you miss him when he’s not here?”
“Who? Your dad?”
Tiffany nodded. Only her head poked out from under the covers.
“I’m used to it. When you’ve been married for so long, some separation is helpful. Everyone needs to live their own lives.”
“What if one person goes too far? Takes on too much of another life?”
“Do you have an example?”
She wanted her daughter to say it, to tell her, to be on her side. The silence stretched into the space between them.
“No. Not really.” The girl’s voice was soft and miserable.
“You sleep now,” Lan said. “Get some rest. I have some more work to finish up.”
“I’m glad to be home,” Tiffany added.
“Well. Home is where you belong.”
Downstairs, with her laptop glowing on the kitchen island and all the lights in her house turned off, Lan composed another message to her husband’s mistress. Across the dark expanse of lawn, shadows moved over the lighted window shades of the neighbor’s house. So many lives locked into each square of land. How odd, that the person she felt closest to lay across the ocean, in bed probably with her husband. But who else knew the topology of her husband’s body? Who else knew the weight of his child, tucked against her bones? As she typed, affection rose from the pit of her stomach, something like gratefulness. Here was this person with whom no more secrets needed to be kept.
After suffering for hours the indignities of childbirth, Tiantian clawed free from the pain to find a small purple mass squealing on her chest. The child was a boy. He did not look right to her.
The nurses and Robert cooed over him, calling it little treasure, budding scholar. “Mom’s still recovering,” one of the nurses told Robert. “She must take great care during the convalescence month. Bonding will come naturally.”
In the end, Robert could only get two weeks off work so he compromised by working from home, which meant that he constantly got in the way without being able to offer any real help.
Tiantian gave herself over to the child’s unceasing needs. She searched his small, pimpled face for a sign of intelligence, character, or warmth. During the brief hours the baby slept, she scrolled through articles about autism and hydrocephalus and birth defects related to paternal age or air pollution. What was not readily apparent now would take many more years to manifest. She had no doubt something was waiting to emerge from those tangled strands of DNA.
Robert, however, was pleased, swearing a resemblance only he could see.
“Must be all the wrinkles,” Tiantian said, feeling mean and knowing she could get away with it. This was probably the closest she would ever get to the insolence that buoyed every day of Tiffany’s life.
The child was underweight but voracious. Every hour, he cried for her nipple. By the end of the month, her milk was gone and her nipples cracked like dried riverbeds. Despite the pain and inflammation, she was relieved to no longer be the child’s only source of sustenance. Robert had, at the very least, brought back a supply of formula. Her body adjusted slowly its new shape, and she reveled in its lightness.
The morning Robert left to complete the citizenship paperwork at the embassy, to get all the proper stamps, Tiantian called Lan via WeChat while giving the baby a bottle. She had to try three times before Lan picked up.
The other woman sounded breathless, as if she had rushed. “You’ve thought it through?” she said. “You won’t change your mind?”
Her putonghua was flawless, unaccented by country or city.
“I stand by my word,” Tiantian promised.
“He’ll come after you. What will you do if he finds you?”
“He won’t find me.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“He thinks he knows China. He doesn’t.”
She would go back to the KTV and talk to Kai, who had connections across many cities. With the money, she could sign up for proper classes somewhere. There were endless paths one could take. It was re-tracing steps that was hard.
“Will you be safe? The boy. What if he gets sick?”
As if on cue, the baby began fussing, letting out a mewling cry as its tongue rooted for food. Tiantian gave him the tip of her pinky.
“You could give us more money then.” Sweet girls did not ask for things or make demands. Perhaps it was time to change her name, too.
“Hospital bills can add up so quickly.”
Tiantian tamped down her impatience. “Haven’t you made up your mind? Don’t let a crying baby break you. Today’s my chance. Will you let us go cleanly, or will you tether us down with your worry?”
“Your child is my husband’s. We’re connected whether we like it or not.”
“Your daughter’s very beautiful.” Tiantian wanted to say something nice. “Smart, too.”
“She graduated from college today.”
“You must be very proud.”
“Childhood is so brief.”
“Yet I still feel like a child myself.”
A long pause on the line. Tiantian held her breath.
“Take care,” the woman finally said and hung up.
Tiantian confirmed the transactions and double checked the amounts as she packed her suitcase. She’d only take one bag to clear out of this borrowed space. There were only so many things for her to keep. When she finished, she gazed deeply into the baby’s sleeping face, trying to see, finally, what kind of face it would become. In the end, she had to accept that his would never be a face she could recognize.
Before she left, she sent one more message. Scoundrel sister. I have left you a brother. Treat him nicely. Don’t be too mean.
Tiffany was half-dressed when her phone buzzed, straddling her not-boyfriend, Andy, whom she had been not-dating for the past four years. Breaking up a non-relationship, as it turned out, was nearly impossible to do, but surely they would graduate from this soon, too. As with all things graduation, it deserved some final fanfare.
“Leave it,” Andy said, when Tiffany reached for her phone.
“It’ll just take a sec.” She was worried about her mom, who seemed so distant and vulnerable now. At any moment, the secret could overcome her, and Tiffany will have failed to give her warning.
“You’re ruining the mood.”
She read the message again, trying to make sense of it.
“Do you want to, or not?”
When she looked back down at the boy, a curl of disgust licked her stomach. Why had she wasted so much time with him? Four years of college gone by, and what had she made of it? All this time, money, opportunity. Had she squandered it?
The next chapter was waiting for her to enter. Could she be better this time? Could she be braver? She wondered what would it take to become someone she admired and was happy to be. She wondered how long it would be before she found someone she actually enjoyed passing the time with, and whether she would take his word for truth, or shadow his every step, searching always for a lie.
When Robert returned home, the infant was crying weakly in wet soiled clothes. He turned about in search for Tiantian, a curse under his breath, no patience left for her laziness and negligence. All day he had stood in line and argued with idiots, all for her. Then he froze, noting the open bureau doors and pillaged closet. He picked up the closest object, a pen, and held it in front of him as he prepared to approach her dead body. When he was certain she had left of her own accord, simply packed her things and walked away, he kicked the desk in rage and stubbed his toe. Then, he fed the baby.
In the years that followed, a tingling numbness would occasionally creep over his toes and remain there for days. Each time, humiliation seeped forward from the past, as fresh and fetid as in this moment now, sweat pooling at the small of his back and within his armpits.
His wife asked for a divorce when he returned home with the child. Before the divorce papers went through, she discovered a lump in her left breast, and accused him of bringing it about through the bitterness he had caused her. Because she needed him, she stayed. Over time, mutual guilt tempered mutual anger.
They told their friends they had adopted the boy from distant relatives, recently deceased. He grew up healthy and gentle-spirited, never quite displaying the same quickness as Tiffany. Because of Tiantian’s many assertions that the child was not right, Robert appraised him often for signs of disability. There appeared to be none, but he remained so watchful that he was significantly gratified when the child was placed in a remedial math class.
At eight years old, Albert Cao loved cars, Legos, and art. He did not like writing or subtracting. His favorite person in the world was his sister, who built the best Lego cars and who never studied him as if she were trying to measure up something inside him. He liked to draw pictures of his sister, his cars, and his mom, whom he had never met. His auntie said that his mother was not here because she had no heart, because wolves had eaten her heart. He did not believe her, though, because his sister told him this was not true. Then his sister had shown him his mother, on a narrow strip of photo paper. She was sitting at the dinner table, smiling broadly over a bowl of dumplings. Albert asked if he could keep the photo, and Tiffany had let him.