Mom said we’d be able to find the chair anywhere. She said it wasn’t one of a kind like I believed, with its elegant high back and gentle curve of its rocker legs. She said we could check out any of the shops along the freeway and we’d find the same design, if different wood.
But I wanted the chair to be special, like me. I wanted the chair to prop up my sentimentality, the way it propped up my mother when I was a baby wailing at 3 a.m., her rocking back and forth, begging me to shut up and go to sleep. I wanted to believe it was a custom order made by a burly man-bunned artisan, totally unnecessary since dad could’ve just grabbed a used rocking chair off the side of the road. A silly romantic gift to celebrate the baby on its way, out of budget for two recent Chinese immigrants, a librarian and a postdoc at a tiny private liberal arts university that propped up the town nearby, where rusting cars and grazing horses were just as common as white faces.
Brick buildings began to pop up as we drove, emerging from the ground like stunted trees, jostling each other for elbow room. I peered at the cursive signs hanging above doorways, reading them out loud. Laundromat. The Tavern. Gilly’s Market. Mom, look, did you go there?
We drove further into town, idling at a crosswalk. Mom pointed out the shabby restaurant they used to dine at on Friday nights, gorging themselves on rib plates for two bucks each. Honestly it was disgusting and just made me homesick for Chinese cooking. I wanted to go in—that was the purpose of this trip after all, to see where mom and dad started their journey in this star-spangled country. I wanted to order ribs for two bucks each and sit in their designated booth. Maybe the ghosts of parents past would still be there, practicing English words like siren and lightbulb as they fed each other French fries, but mom rolled her eyes no and kept driving. What’s the point of eating there? Nothing special about that place.
It was just a restaurant; it was just a chair. She had no misconceptions about their bygones like I did. They went to the restaurant because it was the only thing to do in this town when you didn’t have friends or family, and she couldn’t stand another night slumped on the couch watching the beautiful Joan Chen cry in an impossible-to-understand episode of Twin Peaks waiting for dad to get home.
I hmphed, fine, and twisted my neck to watch the peeling faded sign advertising ribs recede in the back window.
We continued driving, the squat town buildings stretching into shingled houses. Mom started retelling stories about their years here, like the neighbor’s dog who barked at whatever dared to move, terrifying her whenever she stepped out for a walk, when they lived in that one-story garish yellow house by the pond reserved for university postdocs and employees. How she just wanted to get out of China when she was my age, so she settled on the first university that gave her a scholarship out to the land of the free. She didn’t know any better and no one else did either, that she easily could have gone to Harvard or Princeton or Yale, because she went to Bei Da. Did I know it’s the Harvard of China?
Yes, mom, I know.
I did know, I had heard it all before, including the tangents that followed, like how she had the best grades in elementary, middle, and high school, so her classmates called her xue ba, the study prodigy, that’s me. How she was twenty-four when she married dad, the same age I am now, so when are you going to meet a nice Chinese boy? How all her classmates who weren’t good enough to move to America ended up being top of the professional class in China thanks to the brain drain. Everyone better was long gone.
But you know, she came here for us. The future us. We only existed in her hopes back then. She insists that growing up here made us more empathetic people, because we had the gift of multiple news sources and freedom of speech. We weren’t surrounded by propaganda; we weren’t taught that love of country is love of government. At this moment in her reveries I remind her that we still had to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning like brainwashed drones, but she always retorts that moving here meant my younger brother could exist. Only one child was allowed over there, and that one child would’ve been me; besides, the washing machine was her favorite luxury back then and she couldn’t have lived without it. Yes, I had heard it all before; therefore I tuned her out, regretfully and consistently, mindlessly injecting yep, no way, really, into the conversation whenever she took a breath, and I turned my face back to the car window, observing the slow buggies driven by mournful bearded men, wondering if any of them owned the same chair we did.
We sped along in our 2008 Ford Lincoln as suburban sprawl transformed into rolling farmland, neatly framed and stretching like a sore muscle. The farmhouses were haphazard, random, like an extra room was added in a matter of minutes whenever the whimsy or new child arose. I yelled stop! when we passed a peeling hand-painted sign announcing Amish Goods in curly handwriting, with an arrow pointed toward a neat white house with a roof overhang held up by narrow poles. Mom rolled her eyes and swerved onto a small dirt road leading into cornfields, reversing the car. We ambled back and parked in the empty unpaved lot.
I opened the door and stepped out of the front seat, admiring the way the sunlight caught the gold threads in my vintage thrifted blazer. I was constantly aware of what I looked like and how I presented myself, even, and perhaps especially, when no one was watching. As I preened in the reflection in the car window, my eyes caught a buggy coming to a standstill in front of the house across the way. A woman and three girls, all dressed in long blue skirts, white bonnets, and white aprons, got out and headed inside. One of them caught my eye and we stared at each other, until I waved, my hand uselessly upright like a white flag of truce flapping in the wind, which made her jolt upward and run inside to follow her family.
Mom was already waiting for me at the store entrance. I pranced over to meet her, aware it felt like I was moving closer and closer to my own reflection, but older, and minus the tattoos and piercings and buzzed head I insisted I would keep forever, to mom’s dismay. I had mom’s face, one that was ambiguously ethnic, and not exactly Chinese—a hooked nose, double lidded eyes, moles spattered like constellations—considered weird-looking or exotic depending on where we grew up. China or America. Neither of us liked other people’s interpretations of our face.
Mom pushed open the door, its hinges squeaky like chattering mice. We shuffled inside, eyes adjusting to the dim aisles of merchandise sitting ready for perusal.
Welcome. The voice came from somewhere behind, like the hinges had formed a mouth and greeted us, tinny and high, with a strange lilting accent that gave the word four syllables instead of two. Startled, I turned around—the sound came not from the hinges, but from a young girl, wearing the same outfit of apron and bonnet I had seen earlier. She stood next to the door, staring at us with unblinking blue eyes.
Oh, hello. I smiled.
The corners of her mouth turned upwards slightly, wobbling, as if any tiny gust of wind could knock her back to solemnity.
What’s your name?
My name is Linda, she replied.
Nice to meet you, Linda.
I waited for her to at least ask my name, so I could then continue the thread and tell her that I lived in New York City as a creative, that I was here with my mom to see where my parents first lived in America. I wanted her to like me, to think of me as fascinating. But she merely continued to stand and stare. So I gave her a small nod and then shifted my gaze back to the store, where mom was already wading through the aisles.
Cloudiness strewed in from the windows as the only source of light, mutating everything into rigid and unforgiving lines. Even the quilts that hung over the railing looked dead. I hurried over to mom, who was standing near the back wall. Look, she elbowed me in the side, like I said. Eight of the chairs, all identical to the one resting dusty in our guest bedroom, sat in a row, waiting to be rocked in varying shades of mahogany. See? The chairs are all here. Your dad probably bought ours years ago at a store just like this. Mom reached out with a finger to push one of the chairs so that it rocked back and forth.
Here, in this store, was proof that mom was right once more. The chair was not one of a kind, like I believed. Here were eight chairs in front of me, of the same design, but different wood. Like mom said in the car. Nothing special.
As we stood there, the phantoms of other Chinese immigrant mothers suddenly appeared, translucent and haunting, bursting out of the stale air into the row of identical chairs, breastfeeding their babies as they gazed down at them with adoring eyes. They rocked back and forth as their love was suckled straight from their breast, just like mom did years ago with me.
But of course, these ghosts did not exist; my brain was projecting yet again, desperate for any romanticism from an immigration I kickstarted but had no part in playing. Because mom tells me all the time that the chair was incredibly uncomfortable, numbing her butt whenever she sat for longer than five minutes, and that I was a difficult baby, refusing to sleep, chewing her nipple until I was sucking a bitter concoction of breastmilk and blood. I wouldn’t come out of her womb until the doctor finally reached into her vagina with clamps around my head to pull me out—that’s why you have dents in your forehead she says—and maybe if I just came out the normal way I would’ve been much smarter, a doctor or a lawyer or an investment banker in the suburbs, instead of a creative. Who knew in this country adjectives could become nouns? I didn’t make it any easier for her when I got older, as a teen but already poking my skin with needles dipped in ink, already having a predilection for being paid for sex and loving it, for sneaking out and coming back smelling of smoke hotboxed in minivans—somehow she always knew even though I was dead quiet opening the bedroom window.
But look mom. I’m here now. I see you. And I see these rocking chairs and the ghosts of mothers past who dared to rock too, and how we began, you and me. I love you forever and ever and ever and ever. And thank you for your strength, for starting over, because now I have the freedom to start from the beginning in my country ’tis of thee, to be who I wanna be, even if it wasn’t what you wanted or expected. Thank you for rocking me in this unforgiving chair that has doppelgangers galore, this chair that numbed your butt as I bit off your nipple.
My eye caught a black-and-white woven rug. I checked the price tag. It was only thirty dollars. Fine. If I couldn’t get a special chair, I would get a special rug. I grabbed it and walked over to the checkout counter, digging into my pants pocket for my credit card. Mom followed.
Linda was now standing behind the counter, so short that her head appeared to float. She watched us approach, still unblinking. I placed the rug gently on the counter, hoping Linda would tell me how her sisters had woven it by candlelight, or how it was her favorite pattern, but instead she simply announced That will be thirty dollars in her lilting accent. She picked up a pencil to make a notation on the ledger.
I slid my credit card over, but she shook her head and mumbled, cash only.
But I never carried cash. So mom pulled out her wallet and handed a crisp twenty and ten to the girl, because she was always well prepared, she always knew to withdraw at the ATM before we went anywhere, something I never remembered to do and even if I did, I didn’t want to waste time.
I watched Linda punch the keys on her cash register, smooth the bills against her apron before placing them gently inside. I tried not to stare at the girl—I didn’t want to be the kind of person I hated, ogling anyone different from themselves. Yet I wondered if she observed me when I was standing by the chairs, in the same way I observed her now, beaming an intense curiosity about a different life. Did she ever feel out of sorts, out of place, out of body, like I often did? Especially when I was in an apartment at 3 a.m. tripping balls, surrounded by my sweaty-ass friends as we cloaked ourselves in the sounds of traffic coming from the open window leading to the fire escape?
Linda broke my reverie when she slid the receipt over the counter, raised her eyes and met mine. Startled at the confrontational connection, I cleared my throat and looked down. I pretended to thumb through the Amish cookbook pamphlets sitting in a rack hanging off the front of the counter.
Do you need a bag? she asked.
Uh—no. I can just carry it.
By the way, I like your bonnet. One last attempt in the form of a compliment to soften the stiffness between us.
Linda didn’t respond, but she gave me a smile again—a real smile this time, solid and firm like the rocking chairs in the back of the store. She had dimples, crescent moons etched on her cheeks. For a second I pretended we understood each other—maybe we did and maybe we didn’t, but either way, she lived without electricity and I fell asleep each night clutching my phone lit up with texts from my lovers of the month.
Thanks Linda! Have a good one. I waved, grabbed the rug off the counter.
Linda turned around, away from me, reorganizing the stack of wicker baskets that sat behind her. I wanted to stay, to buy something else. I wanted to learn more about Linda’s life, how she felt when strange women came into her shop to buy a rug. And I didn’t want this road trip with my mother to end. I wanted to learn more about my mother’s life, because I already knew the whys, but I didn’t yet understand the hows—how she found the courage to pick up and leave for two children yet to be born, how she felt as a Chinese immigrant among the Amish, how she survived the intense loneliness.
But once again I was attributing my own aching tenderness to someone or something else.
Linda. A chair. Mom. Myself. Nothing special.
Baobei, are you coming? Mom was already halfway out of the store.
The gravel crunched underneath our feet as we trudged back to the car. I hugged the rug against me with both arms, the thick fibers scratching against my face. It smelled musty, yet dark and rich, like the scent of the spliffs my friends and I shared. Night was falling, a deep dusky blue that settled like silt into the recesses of my skin.
Mom, I promise I’ll pay you back.
No, don’t worry about it baobei. My gift to you.
We climbed into the car and drove back home.
Cover Art by Stephanie Broussard