The Rest of Our Lives Tonight
In the days after high school graduation, having ridded my schedule of high school effects, I found myself in possession of a remarkable amount of free time. Three months’ worth, to be exact. The last time I had this much free time was probably elementary school graduation, and I had spent most of my high school years yearning for this kind of idleness.
This is great for personal growth, I kept saying to myself. You finally have time to slow down and think instead of rushing to the next thing all the time. This is great. Enjoy life.
I was very rusty at enjoying life. I had spent middle school and high school rotating through a number of bodily, social, and academic neuroses. As far as I could recall, when I last unabashedly, unreservedly, un-self-consciously enjoyed life, no-financial-social-or-existential-strings-attached enjoyed life, I was probably ten or eleven.
To occupy myself now, I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia. When I was a little kid, I imagined my own article on the site all the time: my name in Georgia heading font, a picture of myself, and detailed sections that amounted to a full, rich life. Surfing biographies, I felt like I was trying on costumes.
But mostly I tried to avoid hearing myself think. The world was unfurling and asking, “what now,” in the same way my mother would ask “what major” or my grandma would ask “what if you get a PhD,” neither question I was particularly keen to answer. A line from the novel Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin played over and over in my head: “Whenever you come to a fork in the road, always choose the harder path, otherwise the path of least resistance will be chosen for you.” So what I really wanted now was to dig my heels in and stop time. Unfortunately, I was finding that while I presently had the leeway to slow down instead of rushing to the next thing, time never did.
Three months seemed too little and not enough to prepare for a four-year catapult into what I knew as a murky cycle of waking up, brushing teeth, doing things, eating, doing things, eating, doing things, going to bed, waking up, and so on. I was full of waiting.
In July, I took a trip with my mother to China. It was her parting gift to me as well as an attempt to mend our relationship, which had grown strained over high school. The plan was to hit Hong Kong, visit my mother’s college buddy in Guangzhou, Guangdong, spend a couple days in a Sanya, Hainan resort, and then go back up to Beijing to link with my extended family.
I had been listening to a lot of music. For one reason or another I never really listened to anything for fun in high school. (A small exception occurred in junior year: I cross-enrolled at a local community college for a music history class on Western pop in the latter half of the 20th century and went through a brief glam rock phase.) As if to make up for lost time, I was pounding through genres.
From now on, there’s no looking back, full steam ahead on a one way track…
I’m not a very proficient Spotify user — I usually file songs into playlists labeled with the season and year, hoping to capture some essence of the times to revisit. By the time we arrived in Hong Kong, my summer 2019 playlist was swollen.
Out on the Verge on the rest of our lives tonight, top of the world and we’re dressed to the nines tonight…
Hong Kong was a blur. My mother was strung tight. We arrived in the midst of the city’s free speech movement that year, and we spoke Mandarin, not Cantonese. “We really don’t fit in here,” she muttered to me more than once, which must’ve been a blow to her since here we finally resembled everyone else. I was accustomed to not fitting in in the United States or Asia and had no problem navigating using English.
Afternoons were hot and sticky. Having grown used to dry Bay Area summers, we took shelter in the hotel room. While my mom napped, I sat next to her in bed and rediscovered a lot of stuff:
You would not believe your eyes, if ten million fireflies…
But time gets bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older too
Today is the start of the rest of our lives, I can see it in your eyes…
I never watched Kim Possible, but Christy Carlson Romano’s “Could It Be” was the backdrop recording to fan edits of shows I did watch. It hit me, as I watched the lyrics scroll across the screen, that the first time I’d heard the song was a decade ago.
For most of my life up until then, ten years ago pointed to a time when I wasn’t quite culturally sentient. But now ten years ago meant 2009. I was eight. It was a strange feeling. Ten years would turn to twenty, and twenty to thirty, and thirty to… I was joining the ranks of adults.
Once my mother had discovered a hunk of months-old bread in the back of a pantry, and you could imagine the shape it was in, a spongy body decked out in fine white lace. I imagined the lace stretching before me now. The mycelium at my feet would extend outward into a cloudy distance, and at the end of each hypha would be a different self that grew off the choices I made. I was right now a wisp of a being, not yet fully formed.
At some point it had occurred to me that to move forward happily, maybe I should first try to replicate that old happiness, of being ten or eleven and always the most important person in the world. Back when I was an even wispier being and felt so much more solid. As I was adding fifth-grade staples (Owl City, Ke$ha, Dixie Chicks) to my playlist, my mother woke up.
“Hi,” I said.
“Having fun?” she mumbled. She had been making an effort recently to talk about our feelings.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Good that you’re having fun,” she said. “You should have all the fun while you still can. Before you get to my age, ha.”
That’s encouraging, I thought. “OK,” I said.
My mother’s buddy had become a hotel manager in Guangzhou, which meant we got a room at a vastly discounted price and were treated to excursions to landmarks around Guangdong and in the neighboring province, Guangxi. The last time I slept in the same bed as my mother, I was six.
In the hot, heavy Guangzhou summer we took air-conditioned rides to museums and restaurants. The Nanyue emperor’s partially excavated tomb, the sleek asymmetric Guangzhou opera house. We hiked the park next to our hotel and took shelter under a pagoda during sudden torrential rains, and my mother and I peeled and fed each other mangosteens without meeting each other’s eyes. China’s transformation-in-progress was palpable: we walked through narrow, cloying-smelling streets surveilled by CCTV cameras overhead, and shared the road with rickshaws when we rode in cars. We drank egg milk pudding in tiny dessert shops adjacent to stores selling counterfeit designer clothing.
I watched my mother unravel in the sweltering air. Reserved and compact did not fit in the effusive Guangzhou, and she loosened considerably. She giggled when the chauffeur called her a pretty lady, and cracked jokes with fellow restaurant patrons, glowing with mirth. This was the most emoting I’d seen her do in a long time, but I hadn’t observed her as a person for years.
“She’s very quiet,” one of my mother’s buddy’s friends remarked about me.
As the crowning bit of his generosity, my mother’s buddy took us to a hot springs hotel. We arrived in the early evening and were treated to a meal with a couple of my mother’s buddy’s business associates. He was networking and hosting us at the same time. Waitresses brought out platters of yellow-skinned duck and sesame buns, food I didn’t know the names for, and they sat beside us and toasted us with whiskey, and pointed out each dish’s specialty and coaxed us to eat.
“You know your mother was the top of our class in chemistry?” my mother’s buddy asked.
“Yeah,” I said, glad I finally knew something.
“Oh, stop it,” my mother said.
The men took over as the dinner wore on. They chattered and laughed uproariously, teased the waitresses, shoveled food into their mouths and pronounced it delicious. Occasionally the conversation spun to me or my mother, where they invited us to toasts, but mostly they talked politics and business. Trump was a firebrand, but at least he inspired patriotism in youth. Couldn’t Xi do the same? China was old that way, poor for too long, the kids growing up learning other countries were better.
I did not know Chinese businessmen had such specific opinions on Trump. I don’t think my mother knew either. The tightness came back to her, and we sat stiffly next to each other. I am not sure if my mother was quiet because she had been gone from China for almost twenty years and had not followed the news, or because she was surrounded by unfamiliar men, or because she was surrounded by men. I didn’t trust myself to say the right words so I smiled and nodded along. I wished my mother would say something because I couldn’t. I hoped she wouldn’t say anything because she was my mother. I stared at her. She stared at her food, lips pursed, separating duck meat from bone in little birdlike pecks with her chopsticks.
She is so obvious, I thought. If she could be more poised — or maybe if I could be more poised, or worldly, for the both of us — wait, do I look like that when I’m self-conscious?
Dinner was a cacophony of sound, but our room, located in the middle of a grove of trees, was serene and beautiful. I shoved the chewing and laughing and smoking from earlier out of my mind. After we unpacked, I spun around slowly to memorize the lay of the beds, desks, lamps. By the time I opened the glass door to the fenced-in outdoors extension with the stone tub, my mother was already halfway in.
“It’s hot,” she said with a grimace.
The sun had almost completely set by now, and the sky was purple-gray. Steam curled around my mother’s face and body.
I stepped out of my slippers onto the porch boards, then took off my robe. The night was mild and comfortable; I didn’t even shiver. I placed my foot on the raised stone edge of the hot tub.
The water was hot. Scalding, in fact. I hissed.
My mother chuckled. “I wasn’t lying, right? I think I’ll just do this.” She rose out of the water. Dripping, she crouched on the edge of the tub and scooped up a handful of water, tongue between her teeth, and poured it over her legs.
“But that’s not a soak,” I said. My legs were in now. They were pleasantly numb. Only the line where the water met air was slightly uncomfortable: cool and hot at once, as if my body couldn’t decide which.
She laughed self-consciously. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m doing this right.”
I averted my eyes. Her laugh had broken the naturalness of the moment — too aware, too nervous. I slid deeper in, feeling the line of water rise up to my ribs. I watched the outlines of my thighs waver from above and admired how firm and smooth they looked, even through a watery prism.
We did not talk about the dinner.
It started to rain. Pockmarks interrupted the water’s surface, and as the steam around us thinned out, the trees in the distance grew obscure. Mist, I thought, and raised my face. Little pinpricks of coolness landed on my cheeks. I could just slightly make out the dusting of stars on the warm, dark, open sky.
I closed my eyes to the sound of sloshing water. Behind my eyelids was the image of my mom, naked — how long has it been since I saw my mother naked? — and squatting beside the pool, her pale, plump limbs like hams. She was tall, but she was getting older.
The sound of spilling water ceased.
“I’m going to leave,” my mother whispered. “Take a shower, then sleep. You can stay.”
My eyelids were sticky. I nodded — did I nod? — and kept my eyes closed. I was floating in the sky, tiny among the stars. I heard the soft sloshing as she rose out of the water, the receding pat of her wet footsteps on the wooden flooring, and the sliding sound of the door as she quietly went back inside.
I do not know how long I stayed in that tub. I was warm, light, weightless, numb. Just at one point my eyes slid open as easily as they’d slid closed, and the water was much cooler than it had been earlier, and I knew it was time to go.
When I finally rose, my muscles quivered. I felt like a newborn foal. I dragged my legs heavily through the water and clambered back onto the deck. The rain had stopped, but the night was cooler too. I shivered. I was slick, but also a little sticky, perhaps from the minerals in the water. I removed my robe from the hook on the fence and wrapped it back around me.
Inside, I saw my mother emerge from the bathroom, her hair stringy from a shower. She moved slowly, dreamlike. In two days, as she’d said to me earlier, we would head back to the hotel.
The last few times I’ve been to China I’ve been too young to truly cherish it, I thought. I’m old enough now. But in years I’ll remember merely images, not videos, and not necessarily the sequence that it happened either, and I don’t even know if the sounds will stick. Probably not, we forget sounds faster than we forget pictures. How is she alive? How is my mother alive, like this? Do things stay special as you get older? I thought the shine wears off. These are happy experiences, but these days will never come again.
The trees overhead rustled softly. The light from the moon dimmed. I stood on the warm porch boards, soaking in the sight of the dark stone tub at my feet, the soft yellow glow of our room beyond the sliding doors, my faint reflection fogged onto the glass. Inside, my mother’s solid fleshy body undressed to sleep.
Yiyi was the child of one of my mom’s college roommates. I had only a faint recollection of meeting her ten years earlier, when I was seven. She had been wearing a chartreuse-yellow dress with some kind of red pattern. She was grown now, half a head taller than me, still fond of ankle-length dresses and wide-brimmed hats that prevented tanning. When we walked out of the airport terminal in Sanya, it was her waving hi that I saw first.
“I’ve always wanted a little sister,” she said. She was three months older than me.
When we headed up to Beijing, Yiyi learned that I was fond of museums, and she suggested the Forbidden City to visit. We went on an overcast day. Yiyi led me by the elbow through courtyards and gardens she’d walked through on school trips as a kid, narrating the placards out loud because I couldn’t read them fast enough myself.
We stopped at a small well. “This,” she said, “an imperial concubine drowned in during the Qing Dynasty. They say she committed suicide but it’s probably more likely the dowager empress had her drowned.”
“That’s awful,” I said. I wondered if she considered this a possible fate when she became a concubine. I wondered if she chose to become one. At least she has a placard, I thought. Most concubines get nothing. I was thinking of the concubines who had been buried alive with the Nanyue emperor back in Guangzhou.
“Yeeeeaaaaaaah,” Yiyi said. “Court politics get nasty. Moving on.”
We moved through displays of imperial jewelry and of gifts from other empires over the centuries. These emperors, who were so obsessed with immortality and longevity — some of their names I was just learning now. As we waited in line for a Zheng He exhibit, I Googled “qing dynasty concubine well” on data (which I found could bypass Chinese Internet restrictions) and found her on Wikipedia — Consort Zhen, a woman with an oval face, doe eyes, and puckered lips. Wrong place at the wrong time, I thought.
The sky was still overcast at noon, and the diffused sunlight made everyone’s features soft and shadowy. We found the cafeteria and squeezed in on a bench. At Yiyi’s insistence, I was treated to a bowl of noodles. As we ate, I watched the passersby: mothers with fanny packs slathering sunscreen on their children, strings of elementary school students wearing matching yellow shirts, a cluster of French tourists shielding their faces with brochures as they looked about the broad walkway.
“Do you come here often?” I asked Yiyi.
She gave me a look. “Usually not if you’re a local. It’s always so crowded.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said.
“Oh!” She patted me. “It’s not an inconvenience. You’re a guest, and you haven’t been before. Of course you have to see it if you come all the way here.”
Being at the Forbidden City was an interesting feeling, those centuries of history under my feet. I hadn’t considered myself American in America, because I was Chinese, but I felt very American in China, both because I wasn’t quite fluent and because “old” in America was 200 to 300 years. Not this. Most of the structures had been built over, but the essence remained, the imposing sense of an empire that had once been great and will reclaim its greatness in the coming years. Fortunes, I thought, change quickly.
The world gets so big. I was scared that without an anchor I would get lost in it somehow, swept away by the tides of history, which I saw as a big, twisting, circular rope braided from tiny channels through which each person could shoot, channels whose shapes were dictated by the choices people made. Buffeted by the world’s impulses, I would float down narrower and narrower straits until I’d lost sight of the bigger picture. But as long as I stayed at the base of the mycelium, straddling all my different options, I had the full view of the lives I could live.
Full steam ahead on a one-way track…
There was an innocence to not knowing. New experiences inevitably color older ones. The shine wears off and a path just becomes life. But suspended in this in-between, I could be everything at once. I did not have to worry about dissatisfaction, or discontent, or all the rest of life’s petty worries because none of it had happened yet. An artist, painter, scientist, translator, doctor, professional globe-trotter. It was never enough, and it was spilling over.
This is the problem, I thought. You want to live and you are so afraid of life. You want and you want and you can never choose, but you have to.
After the visit, before heading up to Yiyi’s apartment, we stopped by the grocery store on the building’s first level to pick up some fruit for her mother. As Yiyi knocked on the watermelons for quality, I stood hefting the mangoes. These were fresher than I’d seen in any Safeway or Trader Joe’s, or maybe it was just the atmosphere of the whole store that was like a fruit stand melded into a building: crates of papayas and oranges spilling out onto the sidewalk outside, tall stalks of sugarcane framing the doorway. The mangoes were so heavy and ripe.
“Do you want one?” Yiyi asked, looking at me.
I thought she meant the watermelon before I realized she was pointing to the mangoes in my hands. “Oh,” I said. “Oh no no, you don’t need to.” She had already spent so much on me.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I like mangoes. I want some too.” She took the ones I had been holding. “Good choice,” she said. “These will be sweet.”
She brought the mangoes and a watermelon to the cashier.
In the apartment, Yiyi’s mother cut up the mangoes and watermelons for us, and Yiyi chattered away about our day while I ate. Like me with my mother, Yiyi did not physically resemble hers, but unlike me and my mother, they seemed to carry out complex conversations just fine.
“She’s always wanted a little sister,” said Yiyi’s mother. “But by the time China’s one-child policy lifted it was too late to have another one. You know the one-child policy?”
At night, we clambered into the same bed. As she pulled the covers over us, Yiyi asked, “Are you excited for college?”
I never was able to come up with a satisfying answer to this question. “Excited, but a little scared.”
“It’ll be a lot of fun. Your first time making your own decisions. I’m excited for you.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Yiyi was so different from me; I wondered how I would’ve turned out if I’d grown up with her.
“Okay, I have a lot planned for you tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s go to sleep.”
“Good night.” She turned off the light and flipped around.
I laid in bed for a while longer, staring at the dark ceiling. It always takes me a while to fall asleep in new places. This apartment building was on the outer parts of Beijing, but you could still hear the sounds of the city through the walls, the beeping and the honking and the shouting.
This is it, I thought. This is it, now. Alright.
In just a month I would be in a Lyft, heavy suitcases in the trunk, watching Cambridge pass me by.
Today is the start of the rest of your life, I thought. I can see it in your eyes. God, shut up. Atta girl. You got this. Alright.
For now I was lying in bed in my family friend’s apartment in Beijing, right above a grocery store that sold fresh-wrapped sugarcane and watermelons with thin rinds, the surrogate little sister to a girl who had always wanted one. Next to me Yiyi’s chest rose and fell. She never felt more solid, or more present, than in that moment. At the end of forty seconds, the beat of her breaths had become one with my own.