Today of all days, the streetcar to Old Town ran more than an hour late. It was almost four o’clock by the time it stopped in front of Uncle Wu’s store at the southwest corner, where the Pearl ends and Chinatown begins. She could see him hanging up dried squid in the gold, octagon-shaped window, but today she didn’t have time to stop.
May’s heart was racing, ears pounding. It was Tuesday. Had it been any other day, she wouldn’t have been running so hard her chest ached, out of breath. The fall wind whipped her cheeks as she pushed harder down the block. The anxiety wrapped around her throat, choking the breath from her. Her mother would be sitting, waiting at their small kitchen table, ready to spring out like a tiger once she walked in.
A month ago it was Chinese New Year. The Year of the Horse, her mother had said with grave disappointment, is always bad luck. This year, she had received more red envelopes than she ever remembered, painted in bold, gold letters in tradition for the New Year. They usually were written with many different wishes, for prosperity, for happiness, for new life. But in the Year of the Horse, they were all for luck (for Fú), to balance out the bad. At the church everything had been red. In the kitchen, they’d cooked red chilies instead of green, dressed the halls in red satin, for luck.
Right around that time, she’d crossed a line she’d never dared to cross before. At home it was the Chinese way, her mother never let her forget, even though they lived in Portland now, not Xi’an. Most other days, there was time to get from her high school, seven bus stops away in Goose Hollow, back home to start her homework before she had to wait tables at Auntie Jia’s restaurant downstairs. But only after she picked up her little brother at An-Mei’s sewing shop before she had to leave for church, and make sure he was fed, a harder feat than it sounded. Her mother loved to tell the story that he was just like the Chinese boy in the fable, too stubborn to eat even if the food was tied around his neck.
But Tuesdays, they would be something different, just this once. She had made a long and hard-earned bargain with her mother to join the art club after school. It would help her get into college next year, she reasoned, knowing this would be the winning move. And it did. Swift as a Wind, it did begin the start of something new. She was breaking all the rules that once were solid and unmovable as a Mountain, asking for more of what she desired from an American life.
And it all crashed down on her, just as soon as she stepped foot in the house. Panting, bending forward to catch her breath, she let her backpack drop like a rock on the hardwood floor.
“Where have you been?” Her mother leaped up to her feet, yelling at her in Chinese. “It’s too late.” She grabbed a hold of May’s slender arm, forcefully pulling her close. “What did you think?”
“I’m sorry. Let me call, there still might be time,” May said while in motion, picking up the cordless phone on the corner table.
She dialed the number by heart, asking the receptionist if the doctor was still in tonight. This was the only time she’d be permitted to speak English inside the home. “Thank you!” May said desperately again and again, when she said they still had 10 minutes to make it. Finally, some luck.
May slammed the car door when they parked in front of the West Side Medical Clinic, over in the Pearl. Her mother was jerky at the wheel; they didn’t ever journey outside their neighborhood, where she knew every face, every corner. They were deep in the Pearl; she couldn’t ever be prepared for what could happen.
“Why do you slam the door?” The embarrassment rippled across her face, because there was no good answer. Her mother prodded her again, wanting answers. “Why are you late? You are never late. Well?” She grabbed her daughter’s arm again, partly for balance as May was quickening her steps. “Mei-Jing,” her voice rose again, waiting for May to look up at her. Inside the elevator it didn’t cease, even though they were shoulder to shoulder with other riders. “You forget your brother last week. An-Mei tells me she was late for service, they did not have music.” May grew flustered again, the redness in her cheeks spreading like a fire.
She was grateful for the silence as they sat across from the doctor in his sterile office. Bright white walls, decorated with purpose in awards May couldn't quite decipher. Dr. Haan clenched his large sausage fingers together in a fist, talking about bloodwork. May’s thoughts began to drift away again. It was a dream, to imagine her life in college. To spend her afternoons discussing Chaucer and Dante and the antifeminist rhetoric of the Wife of Bath with her schoolmates, sitting on a grassy lawn by the dining hall. To shop at the Gap and go to the movies. To have a date with an American man, to break from the isolation of her Chinese home, without thinking about her mother’s medications or translating for her doctors. She dared not speak to her parents about such forbidden wishes, hidden at the back of her mind. A finger jabbed her in the side, suddenly.
“Miss, uh,” stammered Dr. Haan, looking into May’s eyes. “Can you translate what I said?” He pointed with his eyes toward her mother, sitting with her back straight as an arrow, arms crossed defiantly at her chest. She stared at May with a soured face. “What did he say?” she asked twice, raising her volume with urgency.
May leaned in to the doctor’s desk, listening with great intensity this time. “Your mother has cancer. Gastric cancer.” He said it, accentuating each individual word, as if each weighed heavily on his tongue to say it again. She gave the slightest nod, showing she understood every word.
The room began to swallow her whole. All the white surrounding her grew brighter like sunlight until her eyes couldn’t absorb anymore. How could this be? This wasn’t news, really, but every time, the pain came with haste, taking away a piece of her. There had been hope, that maybe Dr. Haan could deliver her the hope to save her, as much as her mother. She’d been praying for good luck ever since Chinese New Year, for a different prognosis.
She took a moment and turned to her mother, hiding away her sadness in a box, concealed away in her mind just as she had hid her dreams of her future life. She spoke firmly to her mother, telling her that the test was uncertain. This threw her into a rage.
“We came all the way to hear nothing?” Her words were sharp and bitter, and even May winced as the air grew hostile between them and the doctor. She jumped up to her feet, clutching her handbag close. “Always more tests! They keep taking my blood. Charging more money. Making us wait. No more.”
May left with her mother without turning back, even though she could sense the doctor’s glaring eyes on them; bewildered, like most outsiders. When they reached the lot, a light sheet of rain was touching down, so soft and soothing as it trickled down from her face to neck. The harsh words still flowing from her mother’s mouth were fading as May tried to make sense of what would come next. Her feet stopped as she collected for next move.
“He’s an American doctor,” her mother pulled her out of her mind. “How many doctors do we have to see? This would be better if I ask An-Mei, her cousin knows a doctor.” May nodded in respect. There were more doctors, there was still time now until her world would come crashing down. She held onto her mother’s arm as they took the long road home.
Angie Walls is a short story writer, blogger, and novelist who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, near the Ozarks. Many of her stories give an honest portrayal of modern Midwestern life, including the hardships of the recession, women’s struggle for identity outside the home, and dysfunctional family dynamics. She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Missouri State University and currently lives in Washington, D.C. Her latest project,www.fictionmeetslife.com, is a comedy-drama story series about the challenges of growing into adulthood in a small Missouri town—chronicling life, love, loss, and everything in between.