Lily’s mother’s hands smelled like sour milk. Lily remembered her hands in particular, because they were so soft, and because they didn’t smell like the rest of her, which was peanut oil and the squeakiness of those bars of hard yellow soap stacked in the back of the local pharmacy. Lily remembered those hands folding the dough for dumpling skins, smoothing a band of water around the edges so they would seal better, and she remembered those hands tucked up when her mother folded her arms across her chest, like a girl who has just entered puberty. But that was all, those scraps. Those fingers ghosting in the periphery.
By November, everybody who cared enough to know knew Lily’s mother was gone for real. She knew it from the way some of the teachers looked at her in school: poor girl. The quenched eyes and pursed lips, the bunched eyebrows. Sometimes it was only a flash, but Lily saw it, moving across their faces like the last vestiges of summer lightning. She saw it on the waitresses’ faces at the diner, the woman charging her gum at the drug store: poor girl, poor girl. Most of them couldn’t have known, but Lily saw it anyway, and she wanted to punch it out of them, wanted to wear a sandwich board sign saying “I Am Not Pitiable.” But she only smiled prettily and answered the question, placed the order, took her gum, left.
Lily’s mother was the cook at the dumpling restaurant her parents owned in the city, just outside of Chinatown. It was a small shop, dingy, crouched between a funeral parlor and an Indian bodega. There was no air conditioning, and in the summer, you couldn’t hear the crackly radio music because of the big box fan Lily’s father installed in the corner, blasting lukewarm air that ruffled the edges of the tablecloths and scattered unweighted napkins. For a week after Lily’s mother left, Lily’s father closed the store, waiting for her to step back into the kitchen and plunge her hands into a vat of dough, and then he closed it for another, and finally he put a HIRING sign in the window and bought a dozen packs of premade dumplings from the Chinese supermarket and told Lily and Kathy not to tell anyone. They were, supposedly, an authentic dumpling store, aspiring to be the kind Lily’s mother talked about from her girlhood in Beijing, the kind that only opened at 9 p.m. and filled up quickly with the steam of cooking dumplings and the sizzle of the frying pan and people who would debate loudly over teacups of jasmine and chamomile and wine until daylight cracked over the horizon.
Lily’s parents’ restaurant opened during regular hours, but Lily’s mother insisted they make their own dumplings and give their customers good chopsticks of polished wood and no fortune cookies. Lily typed up the menus, translating the names as well as she could. They didn’t sound as appetizing in English, the clash of exposed consonants lacking the fluidity of Chinese: pork and chives, vegetarian, shrimp. The customers who swung open the narrow door ate quickly, their heads down and tucked wrinkled tips under the teapot. Lily’s mother would cluck at them from the doorway of the kitchen and shake her head, but it didn’t matter. They were surviving.
Lily walked home from school most days because her parents were at the restaurant, stopping by the middle school to pick up Kathy. Today, there was a softball game in progress in the teachers’ parking lot, and Lily stopped to watch the boys playing, their bodies long and lissome, folding and unfolding. Jake was pitching. His shoulder and arm and the yellow ball moved like water, one unbroken line. He saw Lily watching and held up a hand to wave. Lily wrapped her braid around her fingers and tugged, blushing.
Lily was still thinking about Jake when Kathy ran up to her at the middle school, her pigtails coming loose, and her backpack jogging up and down her shoulders. She ignored Kathy as she talked, too fast, about her day at school, her tongue tripping over itself in splutters to say everything. Kathy spoke English well—better than Lily, who still picked up the soft-edged accent when she was flustered—but always too fast, stammering on hard consonants and the beginnings of sentences. Lily had begun to wonder if Kathy was getting too old to have it corrected, though she still hadn’t told their parents, who weren’t home often enough to realize.
It wasn’t until they were almost at the house, kicking burrs through the rotting leaves, that Lily realized Kathy was talking about their mother. “She’ll bring us back m-m-moon c-c-c-cakes and b-b-beads and combs made of ox h-h-horns and all those other things she t-t-t-talks about,” Kathy said, jogging a little to keep up with Lily’s long steps. “And um um um n-n-n-next time she’ll bring us with her, and then—”
“Kathy,” Lily said, “What are you talking about?”
“Mom,” Kathy said. She stopped walking. “What else?”
They were almost at the driveway, their yellow house with the peeling door and overgrown shrubs nobody had the time to trim standing there meager and small. Kathy crossed her arms and uncrossed them again. But Kathy, Mom’s not coming back. Lily opened her mouth to say it and thought of their mother standing in the doorway of their shared bedroom that last night, her arms folded across her chest, silhouetted against the light from the hallway, and then she turned and Kathy followed her up the driveway to the house.
The new cook was fat and hard of hearing and did not speak any English. Lily idled in her waitress’s apron by the kitchen, watching her rummage through the drawers for a clean pair of chopsticks to mix the filling. The pot of water the cook had put on the stove was already boiling over, and she didn’t even have a batch ready to cook yet. Lily shook her head and looked away.
Lily only waited tables when her father was shortchanged, which wasn’t often, but lately it seemed everyone was leaving: his last waitress had quit to attend college full-time. Kathy was not yet old enough to work in the restaurant but would be exempted from the duty anyway; she could not speak Chinese, a fact that even their non-Asian customers (wai guo guizi, Lily’s mother called them—foreign devils) seemed displeased about. Tonight the only customer was an old man sitting by the window in sandals and a parka, bunched against the gathering dark. He’d called Lily guniang when she approached with the menu, his voice cracked and speckled as though from disuse.
Lily listened to the dials clicking on the stove as the cook adjusted the flame, the water bubbling. Her father leaned against the far wall, staring vacantly into the air. The morning after Lily’s mother left, he hadn’t even seemed surprised. Lily remembered going downstairs and finding him at the kitchen table, with a cracked cup of tea and that same vacant look, and knowing something was wrong. Then the revelation of absence: the still-smooth pillow cold on her parents’ bed, the space on the shoe rack parenthesized neatly by her and Kathy’s sneakers, the empty lunch sacks crouched on the counter, their lids flapping open like tongues.
Lily’s father did nothing. He drove her and Kathy to school, Kathy protesting the whole way, insisting that they call the police, that they do something, their father deaf to the words. And after they walked home he was still there, dressed in the collared shirt and pressed pants he wore to work, ghosting through the rooms with a careful sterility, as though it was a hospital or the house of a dying man. He was seldom home during the day, and Lily thought he looked out of place, a trespasser, his skin sallow in the pale autumn light that filtered through the blinds.
Among the three of them the departure seemed to exist in a swallowed space, something unspoken, something understood. Lily recalled no argument or final push. For days Lily hadn’t even seen her mother, as sometimes happened when the restaurant got busy — her parents left early in the morning and returned long after Lily had pretended to go to bed. Lily only remembered that final glimpse of her mother caught in the doorway: her arms crossed, her hair falling in a soft shadow over her shoulders.
Lily was half asleep by then, hadn’t known what time it was or if her parents had just returned or if they had long been in bed. Perhaps she had invented her mother there. After all, her mother had always seemed disengaged with her and Kathy, distant, only reaching out to stroke their hair in a vague, detached way when they cried or fell ill, her wooden eyes searching for the cultural stoicism they did not embody. Lily’s mother spoke constantly of her home: the bustle of Beijing, the damp smell of poverty mixed with the sharp tang of fresh paint, the wide lanes of traffic, the cool neon air slipping through the windows late at night. The dumpling restaurant was her piece of that, or hoped to be. But perhaps more fundamentally she had failed: her youngest daughter couldn’t even speak the language.
The silhouette had moved out of the light, and Lily had fallen asleep. And the whole time—that whole day, and the whole week, and the whole month since—Lily did not cry, and did not cry, and did not cry.
The cook gave Lily a tray with a plate of cooked dumplings and a new pot of tea, and Lily brought it to the old man, who nodded at her and began eating without looking up. The cook brought out the extra dumplings and three bowls, and Lily and her father joined her, each taking up a pair of chopsticks. The food was good, the skins soft but not soggy, the filling mixed with the perfect blend of salt and chives. Lily didn’t know what she had expected. They ate silently and quickly and alone.
Lily took Kathy with her to the library on Saturday and left her sitting on the front steps while she went in to return a book. When she came out Kathy was standing up, surrounded by a couple of the boys from the softball game, Jake among them. They were laughing, the sounds harsh and renting at the cool air.
“And, go on, what else is your mother going to bring back?” a boy in a baseball cap said. “S-s-s-some ch-ch-china um b-b-b-bowls? A nice um s-s-s-stuffed um b-b-bear?”
Kathy was crying. Lily hurried down the steps and put an arm around her shivering shoulders. “What are you doing?” she said.
“Oh, hey, Lily,” Jake said, looking embarrassed.
“Oh Lili,” another boy said, pronouncing the name with a thick accent. “Is your mother coming home soon?”
“Shut up,” Jake said. But Lily pushed past him, gripping Kathy by the wrist. Kathy was hiccupping through her tears. Lily didn’t look back until after they had left the parking lot, and then she slipped Kathy’s sweaty hand into hers and wiped her eyes with her jacket sleeve.
The whole way home Lily thought of every time she had made fun of Kathy’s stuttering. Every time she had ignored her when she cried or on the way home from school, every time she would leave her mother to calm her histrionics—her mother’s absence punched her suddenly in the stomach, the comma of her leave morphed into a period. Lily thought of the times Kathy asked her for help with her math homework or to define a word in her book, the times she had fallen asleep on the couch and woken covered with a blanket.
The trees were almost bare. Kathy’s crying had softened to a periodic murmur. Lily slowed down and held her hand more tightly.
That night Lily felt a warm body slide in next to her in the bed.
Lily forced open her eyes and saw the shadow of Kathy’s face, her inky hair fanning out over her pillow.
“C-c-can I sleep here with you tonight?”
Lily shrugged. She could feel Kathy’s heart beating through the sheets, fluttering and quick like her speech. She felt Kathy settling in, the sandpaper shuffle of her hair over the pillow, the slowness of her breathing, the hot imprint of her body beside her. Lily felt her mind drifting again, falling back asleep.
“Mom’s n-n-n-not coming b-b-back, is she?” Kathy whispered it, like a secret she wasn’t supposed to know. Lily shook her head. Oh Lili. And finally she felt the yearning in the roof of her mouth, the burning of tears and turned her head away so Kathy wouldn’t see them leaking out of her eyes, the wetness gathering on her lashes. But she felt Kathy’s clumsy thumbs trying to brush them away anyway, smearing them over her cheeks. Her hands were soft, a mother’s hands. Lily thought of her mother’s arms crossed in the doorway, the way the light streamed around her, shining through the gaps. The new cook kneading new dough. They were surviving, and Lily felt Kathy’s small arms around her, and she breathed in the fresh sweet smell of detergent and the last of summer sunlight on the bed sheets, and she felt Kathy’s breath warm and even on her ear.