Hong was nineteen and had been studying in France for three months when her mother called out of the blue.
“Guess what? I won the raffle at the St. Patrick’s Day Gala!” Hong’s mother’s voice, triumphant, crackled over the phone line. “Tickets for two to Vegas.”
“That’s great,” Hong said, wondering why her mother called just to tell her this. Long-distance calls were expensive, and Hong’s mother hadn’t called since she’d arrived in France in January. “That’s kind of a weird thing for the church to be giving away.”
“I asked Monsignor if I could convert the tickets,” Hong’s mother continued, ignoring her, “and he said I could. So I’m coming to visit you!”
“What? You’re kidding!”
“No, I’m going to do it. I’m going to fly. You can pick me up in Paris. I’ll come for your Easter break.”
“Ah,” Hong said. “Okay.” So she had received Hong’s letter. She’d told her mother that she was going to Paris for Easter with her classmates.
“And then you can take me to see Lourdes.”
“Ah,” Hong said.
“Everyone in the prayer group was so surprised. They can’t believe I’m going to fly.”
Hong’s mother promised to send Hong the particulars of her flights. Then she hung up, because long-distance calls were expensive.
Hong knew how her mother hated to fly.
Hong had spent the first nineteen years of her life sitting in the backseat of cars as her parents drove back and forth across the country. It took three days just to drive to New York for a wedding. A trip for a job interview in California was a week-long ordeal. On the one long plane trip they’d taken when she was eight, Hong’s mother was terrified that the plane was going to fall out of the sky. She’d fussed constantly. At one point Hong’s mother insisted that she smelled smoke and made the stewardess inspect all the lights in the cabin, so sure was Hong’s mother that one of them had a short that was on the verge of bursting into flame.
Hong as a child sometimes wondered if her mother’s fears might be about more than flying. She even wondered if they might have been about the racism, but she couldn’t quite loop that loop, see how the two unconnected things—racism and a fear of falling from the sky—were related, even in her mother’s mysterious mind.
There were the times, too, when Hong’s mother was certain she was going to fall ill—a sudden wind would arise and she’d catch a chill, and the next day, Hong’s mother would take to bed and refuse to rise. It fell to Hong to get her brother up and ready for school, drag him to the bus stop, make sure he did his homework in the evening. As she grew older, sometimes Hong had to make dinner for the family. Her father complained about her bland cooking, her brother whined about leftovers. Once in ninth grade after her mother had taken ill for a week on end, her father had taken all their dinner plates and smashed them one by one against the floor. Hong had made the same dinner every night for seven days—tacos with ground beef and Ortega shells from the box because that was the one hot meal she’d learned to make in home ec. Within seconds the meat and shredded lettuce and cheddar were sprinkled with broken glass, inedible.
Later Hong’s father had apologized to Hong’s mother. She overheard them talking in their bedroom. She’d been working on her geometry homework and had gone to get a glass of water when she’d heard their voices murmuring. She’d knelt outside their door to listen.
“I don’t know what got into me,” she heard her father say.
Hong thought she heard her mother say then, “It’s all right. I should have gotten up. But I didn’t feel well. I don’t know what came over me.”
“No, no, no,” her father said. “Protect your health.”
Their conversation had infuriated Hong. Why was her father apologizing to her mother instead of to Hong? It had been Hong who had cooked and been insulted, all her hard work ruined, no dinner that night, and on top of it all, she’d had to clean up the mess. She’d cried sweeping up the glass and tacos. She’d been hungry and she liked tacos. She’d added spice to the meat, not from the package the way her mother did it, but spices out of the jars from the spice rack, the way the home ec teacher had taught. Each night she’d tried a different combination, trying to come up with the perfect blend.
On these nights, Hong decided it wasn’t the racism. It was her parents. And she vowed to leave when she could. She started planning, keeping her grades perfect, taking the classes her teachers advised. When the time came, she applied only to faraway, out-of-state colleges, private schools with money for scholarships. She decided to major in a language neither of her parents could comprehend.
Still, her mother had found a way to follow her.
▴ ▴ ▴
Hong couldn’t sleep the night before her mother’s arrival. She pictured her mother on the trans-Atlantic flight, clutching the hand of the nearest stranger, drinking the little bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream she favored.
Then she nearly missed her mother at the airport. After Hong took the metro to Charles de Gaulle the next morning, Hong got off the airport bus at the wrong stop. She wasn’t used to the French habit of announcing the next stop at the current one. So when the bus pulled up at departures but the woman’s voice announced, “Arrivée,” Hong jumped in alarm, her ears ringing, and ran off the bus. Only when she saw the large block letters départ on the wall did Hong realize her mistake, but the bus was already moving on, and she knew from experience that French bus drivers once started wouldn’t stop even if she ran along the bus shouting and pounding on the side.
Hong rushed into the departures door, figuring she’d find her way to her mother’s gate somehow so long as she was inside the airport. There were armed guards with long, black rifles stationed at the entrance and before the escalators. There had been a number of terrorist attacks in France the previous fall, trash cans packed with nails that would blow up, bombs placed on buses, things that didn’t seem to alarm the French people Hong knew but did cause armed guards to be positioned at major public places. The guards glanced at Hong then looked away as she rushed past them and up the escalators. A female guard called up to her, but Hong couldn’t understand. Hong said, “Je cherche ma mère,” and kept moving. No one followed her.
At the top of the escalators, Hong could see that she was clearly in the wrong place. There were no passengers at all. She was faced with glaring white walls and closed doors and empty chairs, and Hong wanted to cry, but then she could hear the high-pitched voice of one of those female gendarmes and then very distinctly her mother’s overly loud, ears-still-plugged voice floating through the plexiglass walls. Hong took off in the direction of her mother’s voice, and sure enough, there she was in a long, chic green-and-tan coat smiling as the Frenchwoman in a uniform was trying to shepherd her through a door into the arrivals section of the airport.
“My daughter is coming to get me,” Hong’s mother was saying.
“No, no, your daughter is not here. Here is wrong for you,” the Frenchwoman said in a tentative English.
“Ma! Ma!” Hong shouted, waving frantically.
Hong’s mother looked up and smiled happily. “There! There is my daughter. I told you she was coming to get me.”
The guard looked shocked as Hong ran up, grabbed her mother’s arm, and pulled her mother after her. “Let’s go to the baggage claim,” Hong said, and off they went.
Hong’s mother later said she had followed a Japanese tour group into this part of the airport. “They seemed to know where they were going.”
And Hong explained that she had gotten off at the wrong stop or she would have never found her mother.
Hong’s mother found their fortuitous mistakes to be a sign that Hong would be able to take care of her just fine while she was in France, and Hong felt all the more nervous, knowing how close she’d come to missing her completely.
Still, she’d called Hong her daughter, and the Frenchwoman hadn’t questioned this. Hong took that as a good sign.
▴ ▴ ▴
Sometimes, growing up, Hong had wondered if her mother was embarrassed by her presence. The way all the white women in their town asked aloud if Hong were adopted, told Hong their stories of their cousins who adopted Korean babies or distant relatives in other towns who’d sponsored Vietnamese refugees in their churches. “Such beautiful children,” these women would say, their sharp white teeth flashing in their mouths.
It was as though the church ladies couldn’t imagine that Hong’s mother, a white woman like themselves, had chosen to marry a Chinese man and had sex with him and given birth to two mixed-race children, Hong and her brother. Instead it was Hong in their eyes who looked as though she didn’t belong. Hong had the dark, straight hair, the dark black eyes. Hong’s brother, Henry, had wavy brown hair with golden highlights, green eyes, height from some long-ago forgotten ancestor. It didn’t mean that the church ladies liked him any better for his passing, just that his presence didn’t prompt the adoption stories the way Hong’s did.
Perhaps worst for Hong was her mother’s silence in the face of these stories. The way she’d drift away from the conversation, turn and walk away, leaving Hong alone with the white women yapping about some beloved Oriental adoptee.
▴ ▴ ▴
They’d been an ordinary family in all the places they’d lived before, first in California where Hong’s parents had met and married and where Hong and her brother were born, then in New York where Hong’s father had accepted his next academic position. Ordinary until they’d moved to this very small town in the Midwest. Hong’s parents had gotten tired of the congestion, of Hong’s father’s hours-long commute to and from New York City. So when the job offer came, Hong’s father took it.
They hadn’t expected all the stares. When they walked down the main street of the small town, cars slowed, the drivers craning their necks to stare. Then the garbage dumped on the lawn. Then the obscene letters in the mail, addressed to “The Chinaman” or “The Floozy.” The kids in school with their ching chong jokes, with their fingers to their eyes pulling them slanted. The church ladies with their adoption stories. Henry’s fights in school. It didn’t matter that it was the other boys, the white boys, who started it. He was the one who was blamed.
Hong’s mother began to take to her bed, suffering from mysterious headaches and chills.
Hong’s father threw himself into his work. He attended conferences everywhere—always on the go. Sometimes he’d fly to three different cities in one week. At home he was angry. He locked himself into his office with his books.
Hong’s mother joined a prayer group. When she wasn’t at work at the little dress shop she opened downtown, she was with her prayer group. She began to refer to Hong as her assistant instead of her daughter. She began to speak in a high-pitched girlish whisper. She laughed along when her friends made racist jokes after church, in the bingo hall over donuts and black coffee.
“Ma, you shouldn’t,” Hong would scold at home, but her mother didn’t seem to be able to hear her voice. Her mother drifted away, into housework, or important phone calls, or she’d go for a walk. Returning, refreshed, her cheeks flushed, Hong’s mother declared, “I needed that!” when she came in the front door and brushed quickly past Hong, who’d been waiting. In the kitchen, Hong’s mother clanged pots noisily, or else she headed straight to her car, remembering a prayer group meeting, something urgent.
Hong knew deep down it had to be the racism, not her parents, but it felt like it was her parents, and especially her mother. Henry didn’t want to talk to Hong about it either. Hong was whiny and weepy. She was a girl. She was a smart Asian-passing girl like all the ugly stereotypes, glasses and big teeth and no friends and all that, nobody Henry in his precariousness wanted to be talking to.
By the time she was eighteen, Hong had had enough of this small town. She applied for college far from home, she got a scholarship, she did not return for breaks, then she applied for the study abroad program in France without telling her parents first. Her financial aid covered it.
▴ ▴ ▴
A few days before Hong’s mother arrived, Hong received an envelope from her father. Inside he’d sent six hundred dollars in cash and a note: be sure to take care of mom.
It infuriated Hong that he’d risked sending cash in the mail. That, and the fact that he was still enlisting Hong in his Mom-is-a-fragile-girl enterprise in which he and Hong were to act as guardians for Hong’s mother. It had been this way since high school when Hong’s mother had started to detach, drift, praying for the handicapped children she knew to walk instead of praying, for example, for the racists in their town to stop being assholes.
But Hong knew the money would come in handy. True to form, her mother had not brought any of her own, expecting Hong to take care of her.
To stretch the money as far as she could, Hong arranged their itinerary to Lourdes in the cheapest way possible, which turned out to involve changing a grueling number of trains.
“Can’t we rest?” Hong’s mother said on the platform in Bordeaux, as Hong urged her to hurry to make the next train. “Can’t we enjoy the view?”
“You wanted to go to Lourdes,” Hong said. “This is how to get there.”
Hong wouldn’t let them stop until they’d reached Bayonne. The buses that ran to Lourdes wouldn’t leave until the next morning, so she found a small hotel and checked in.
There was a café attached. By the time they were seated, the sun was setting and the burly men on the street were making nasty-sounding remarks to each other in a patois Hong didn’t recognize.
Hong’s mother opened the menu and pointed to a dish. “What’s this? I want to try this.”
Hong had no idea what it was. Her French, she’d discovered sadly, was only good for reading novels in class; she had difficulty speaking to people on the street, reading menus, anything practical. “Some kind of sheep meat,” Hong said, consulting the small dictionary she carried in her backpack. “I think we should stick to the chicken. Oh, they also have ham sandwiches,” Hong noted, relieved at the familiar jambon on the menu.
“No, I’d like the mutton. I love mutton!” Hong’s mother declared.
Hong was surprised. When had they ever eaten mutton in their family? Never. But now Hong’s mother insisted, and so Hong ordered the strange menu item for her. Hours later, her guts roiling, her forehead feverish and sweaty, Hong’s mother lay on the bed in their tiny room, overcome with food poisoning.
Hong ran to the bar on the street level to use the phone, and the tough Basque men mocked her on the sidewalk. “Oh, ouais, ‘Ma maman est malade,’” they imitated her voice in a high-pitched sickly way that sounded nothing like Hong’s actual voice. Plus, Hong knew she’d said “ma mère,” not “maman.”
Hong raised her voice. “Ma mère a besoin d’un médecin!” She repeated this until the barmaid picked up the heavy black telephone on the wall and called a doctor.
Hong’s mother recovered. Perhaps a doctor made a house call and supplied her with enough antibiotics to reassure. Perhaps she simply threw up enough to expel the poison from her system. Years later, the details lost, all Hong could remember was that she’d purchased a large two-liter bottle of Sprite to keep her mother hydrated.
▴ ▴ ▴
The next morning Hong’s mother was weakened from the food poisoning, shadows under her eyes, but she still managed to dress up smartly in a matching navy knit skirt and sailor’s top with a white bow.
“You look good, Ma,” Hong said, watching her mother tease her hair in their hotel’s small, darkish mirror.
“I bought it just for this trip,” she said. “I mean, I’m coming all this way, to France. I thought I should look appropriate.”
Sometimes Hong’s mother broke Hong’s heart. The way she could sound like a little girl. Not for the first time in her life, Hong felt she was failing her mother. She’d booked the trains wrong, she’d made her tired, she’d let her mother get sick. She wouldn’t love Hong now, she thought. Her mother wouldn’t ever love her.
The bus to Lourdes from Bayonne took a couple hours, and then Hong and her mother were walking slowly up the surprisingly steep hills (It must be so hard on all the handicapped pilgrims, Hong thought), when Hong’s mother looked around at all the tacky shops selling tchotchkes of the Virgin Mary, overpriced postcards, racks of rosaries made from shiny plastic beads.
“It’s nothing like The Song of Bernadette,” Hong’s mother said, startled.
They followed the signs to the grotto at Massabielle, and then Hong glimpsed the line of pilgrims already snaking around the mountain. She thought incongruously of the trip they’d made as a family to Disneyland when she was five, all the lines except no rides.
Hong’s heart sank, but something about all the other people waiting reassured Hong’s mother. “I read in my guidebook that you can take a bath in the water for free,” she said.
“I don’t think that would be sanitary.”
“Some people drink the water,” Hong’s mother added.
“I don’t think I could do that. I think your father would say it was full of germs. You know how he is about germs.”
“No, don’t drink it. You’ve already had food poisoning once.” Hong was genuinely alarmed.
“All I really want is some of the holy water to take home,” Hong’s mother said, and Hong could breathe again.
The line inched forward. The mountainside was covered with crutches and canes strung about on thick ropes. There was a placard claiming formerly handicapped people who’d been cured had sent their crutches back to Lourdes in thanks. It felt to Hong as though they’d stumbled upon some ancient battleground or one of the lesser Grimm’s fairy tales that never made it into the canon. Closer to the actual grotto, there were even a few antiquated wheelchairs parked and rusting by the newly paved sidewalks.
They’d been standing for hours, Hong’s mind blank, thinking only about the possibilities for lunch, when suddenly Hong noticed everyone around them was carrying their own empty jugs and bottles. You have to bring your own bottles, she realized. She looked at the line behind her and just knew they couldn’t start over again.
“Wait here, Ma. I’ll go buy some bottles.” Hong took off running.
“Get enough for everybody!”
Behind her, Hong’s mother was rattling off the names of her prayer group, but Hong refused to turn around, pretended not to hear that her mother thought of them even here when she was with Hong.
Hong ran back to the winding main street lined with tchotchke shops. The merchants could smell her desperation. A large Frenchwoman smiled, revealing crooked nicotine-stained teeth, and held up a plastic bottle emblazoned with a likeness of the Virgin Mary outlined in gold.
“Combien?” Hong asked
“Cent cinquante,” she replied.
“Merde!” Hong exclaimed like an idiot. She couldn’t pay a hundred fifty francs for one bottle. That was almost thirty bucks. She tried to calculate how much money she needed to save just for their meals before her mother flew home.
“Vous n’avez pas des bouteilles moins chers?” Hong asked.
The Frenchwoman sneered in disgust, shook her head, and turned her back to Hong. There were apparently few things more repugnant than a cheap American religious pilgrim.
Hong darted back and forth across the street, but all the shops had fixed their prices accordingly. So she jogged down an alleyway, figuring the farther from the grotto, the cheaper the prices. Finally, she found a tiny shop run by an African woman. The woman appeared to be bored of her job and sat glued to a small black-and-white television in the corner. She allowed Hong to bargain, and Hong managed to buy one Barbie-sized plastic water bottle shaped like the Virgin Mary and a large jug with a gold stamp saying lourdes, france on the side.
Hong ran back. Hong’s mother was at the front of the line, waiting while a group of five pilgrims knelt and prayed before the gaily painted statue of the Madonna set inside the grotto.
“Oh, you should have bought more like this.” Hong’s mother held the Virgin Mary bottle up to the light.
“They’re horrible, Ma. And everything’s too expensive.”
Hong’s mother was disappointed, but there was no time to go back. They had arrived at the miraculous grotto. They followed the tourists in front of them and knelt before the Mary statue and Hong’s mother prayed silently, moving her lips, while Hong tried to figure out how to fill up the bottles with the holy water.
She’d been expecting an actual pool of water that she could dip the bottles into, something mystical, like a secret pond in a shaded alcove. But instead there were rows of rather ordinary faucets, like something anyone could screw a hose onto just to water a lawn. Hong tried turning one and it released quickly, as though regularly oiled.
Some of the holy water splashed and dripped onto the pavement. Hong looked up anxiously expecting to see an angry flock of nuns descending upon her, ready to make her lap up the holy water so that not a drop was wasted, but no one was watching. Other pilgrims were filling up their bottles. No one else got suckered into buying the over-priced touristy crap except Hong. Worse yet, the Virgin’s head was too narrow, it took forever to fill. Then when Hong tried screwing the gilt plastic crown back on, she noticed the gold paint was flaking off already, exposing the dull white plastic beneath.
There was a line to go into the baths—which were indeed free—but Hong’s mother decided she’d rather not. (Thank god, thought Hong.) And then it was over. There was nothing more to see.
Hong’s mother was tired, the food poisoning taking its toll, so they returned to the bed-and-breakfast in Bayonne. Hong’s mother was lying on the bed, resting with a hand over her eyes, while Hong tried to fit her water bottles in her carry-on only to discover that the Virgin-Mary-shaped bottle leaked. The crown wasn’t secure, and the bottle was dripping holy water onto Hong’s mother’s clothes.
Hong couldn’t believe it. She’d managed to fuck up the whole point of the trip. Her stomach plummeted. She was a child again. They were in a restaurant trying to eat, and the white people at the table next to them were staring, full out just staring, and Hong and her brother felt like giggling, when Hong’s mother said it was time to go, just go. They didn’t even get to-go boxes, and on the drive back home, on the highway past the empty fields of long-harvested corn, the sky wide and empty, touching down on all sides like a giant inverted bowl, Hong’s mother had another attack, the kind where she couldn’t breathe. Slow down, slow down, you’re driving too fast! she cried. I’m not driving too fast! Hong’s father shouted and sped up. Slow down, oh, slow down! Hong’s mother started crying, and she covered her face with one hand and braced the other against the dashboard, as though bracing herself against the inevitable crash to come. The children, the children! Hong’s mother cried. You’re scaring the children! Slow down! Hong’s mother began to pray loudly, a rosary, starting in the middle, Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou… Hong’s father shouted, Stop crying! How did I raise such timid children! Stop crying! You’re too timid! You’re no children of mine! Even though Hong and her brother, Henry, were not crying. They were staring out their respective windows, not speaking. Hong wished the moment would end, had never occurred, even as time collapsed and it felt like the last time Hong’s mother had gotten nervous, had gotten sick, and she hated that she was being blamed, that she was called the timid one. But deep down, she thought it was true, too. Because wasn’t she timid? She should have yelled at those racists in the restaurant, What are you looking at? She should have mocked them, but she’d let them drive her family away, and now as her father shouted and her mother cried, she couldn’t find her voice to yell as she wanted, to yell at her parents, and tell them, Cut it out! What’s wrong with you?
Hong sat on the floor of the tiny hotel room, kneeling before her mother’s carry-on, trying to wring out the clothes that had gotten soaked, laying the blouse and the pajamas on the back of the sole chair in the room, trying to shake off this familiar feeling of having failed to anticipate disaster that was making her think of her childhood all over again.
Then Hong remembered the two-liter Sprite bottle. It was still sitting where she’d left it on the flat wooden writing desk listing against the wall. She poured the rest of the Sprite out into the bathroom sink, congratulating herself on having reserved a room with its own bath, then washed the bottle out thoroughly, over and over again. “The Virgin Mary bottle leaks,” Hong said. “I’m going to transfer the water.” There was no way to dry it really, so some regular tap water was going to mix with the holy water. She wasn’t sure if that jinxed things, mixing the profane and the magical.
“It’s okay,” Hong’s mother said from the bed without opening her eyes.
Hong filled the Sprite bottle with the holy water and secured it tightly. Thank goodness its white plastic cap was leakproof. Hong shook it, turned it upside-down over the stained porcelain sink to test, and nothing spilled out, not a drop.
“Remember, don’t drink this,” Hong said, emerging from the bathroom to pack the Sprite into the carry on.
Hong felt the knot in her stomach unclench, just a bit. She was not so useless; she may have just saved the day.
“It’s too bad you didn’t get more of those Mary bottles,” Hong’s mother sighed, her eyes closed. “Everyone will want those.”
“It leaks! And they were too expensive, Ma,” Hong said. “You have no idea. I had to bargain like hell just to get this one.”
“That’s my daughter. Never pay full price,” Hong’s mother said. Then she laughed. “Do you remember when Mrs. O’Connell asked for a discount on the dresses for their daughter’s wedding? And you told her—”
“I said we weren’t getting a discount on our rent, so no.”
“She still remembers that. She came up to me the other day after Mass, wanted me to special order her size in a skirt. I told her if she ordered the matching jacket, I’d throw in a scarf. And she said, ‘Well, you wouldn’t dare if that Hong were still here.’”
“She called me ‘that Hong?’”
“Well, maybe she said Hung. She’s always had trouble pronouncing your name. Your father and I never imagined people would have such difficulty when we chose it. I thought it was a pretty name—”
“No, I mean, she called me that Hong?” Hong said.
“Anyway, I told her you left and you don’t have time to think about the dress shop anymore, so she needn’t worry,” Hong’s mother said.
“What does that mean? I didn’t just leave. I left to go to college. That’s normal.”
“Well, it’s normal for some people.”
“Ma, did you expect me to stay in that shithole town?”
“That ‘shithole town’ is my home too, you know.” Hong’s mother sniffed. She turned her chin and held her nose at an angle. “But I don’t expect you to come back and visit me.” Sniff, sniff. “You have your own life to lead. Your father is the one who’s hurt since you abandoned the family.”
“I didn’t ‘abandon the family.’ I’m in college. It’s normal to go away to college! It didn’t even cost you anything!”
“You’re shouting. You and your father are always shouting. I have a headache.” Hong’s mother shut her eyes and rubbed her temples.
Hong’s heart was racing, and it was just like she’d never left home. It felt as though her heart were going to explode in her chest. Explode and explode and explode. Then ash.
▴ ▴ ▴
The next day Hong and her mother took the bus to the train station in Biarritz, but the train that Hong had bought tickets for didn’t leave until late afternoon. Hong couldn’t remember what she’d been thinking. That they might want to spend more time in Lourdes? That there might be something else to see in the surrounding towns? Hong wondered aloud if she should try to exchange them for an earlier train back to Paris.
Hong’s mother was not particularly pleased with this idea. “Oh, more trains,” she said. “Can’t we at least go to the beach before we start all those trains again?”
“Sure,” Hong said, feeling guilty, like a bad daughter, again. Always.
Hong remembered the walk from the train station toward the shore, the ocean hovering quiet and blue in the middle distance. Later, she wouldn’t recall what she’d done with their luggage. Maybe left it at a hotel near the station? Was that even possible? Were there lockers at the station? The bags were not in her memory anymore, but she could see her mother clearly still. Hong’s mother was still wearing her navy-and-white knit sailor dress, the one she bought for the trip, her winter coat draped over her arm. Hong was wearing her long, magenta down coat. Hong’s mother’s blond hair was glowing in the sunlight, while Hong’s own dark hair was pulled back with a scrunchie. At least no one was staring at them whereas back in the U.S. in their small town, even after all the years that they’d lived there, people had still stared at Hong and her mother and father and brother when they walked together down the sidewalk. Hong had learned to stand apart from her family, trail behind, or else to walk as quickly as possible, as though she weren’t part of them at all.
Hong began to think maybe it wasn’t her mother who had first drifted away. Maybe it was Hong who had chosen to leave her mother behind.
But in Biarritz, the chic French people walking on the boardwalk did not so much as glance their way as Hong and her mother walked toward the ocean.
It felt quite chilly, but Hong’s mother declared that the breezes there felt like spring indeed.
“Let’s sit on the sand,” Hong’s mother said. “Feel this sunshine! Doesn’t it feel good? Oh, it’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean!”
They didn’t have a blanket, but Hong’s mother spread her green-and-tan overcoat onto the sand, and Hong plopped down next to her. Hong hugged her corduroy-clad knees to her chest and buried her chin into her collar because it in fact was still quite cold in early April. Hong’s mother tilted her head back and let the sunlight brush against her cheekbones and her long, straight nose.
Apart from the two of them, it was mostly locals on the beach, it being too early in the season for tourists. Some young people set up a net for a game of some sort, an older couple strolled by hand-in-hand, children chased a luxuriously coiffed spaniel. Their beautiful, soft, southern-inflected voices bobbed on the air, blending with the cries of the gulls, so that it seemed to Hong as though the birds were calling to each other in French. Then a family strolled onto the sand and set out their towels. The mother and daughter sat a few yards from Hong and her mother; both were fair-skinned with reddish-gold hair that glowed coppery in the sunlight. Hong watched as first the mother, then the daughter—who seemed about thirteen, fourteen—shed their jackets then their tops and finally they unhooked their brassieres and sat topless facing the ocean.
In the picture in Hong’s mind, Hong and her mother sat perfectly parallel to the French mother and daughter like reflections in a long, angled mirror.
Hong’s mother smiled, turned toward Hong, laughing, embarrassed. “Oh, can you imagine?”
“I would die,” Hong said, huddling over her knees. It was mortifying to imagine herself or her mother naked and observed on a beach, and especially together.
Hong’s mother put a hand over her eyes, shielding them from the sun. “Should we try?”
“You know.” She giggled. “When in France…”
“Mama,” Hong said.
Hong’s mother began to strip off her clothes, first her heels, then her hose, then her skirt and sailor top. Hong thought she’d stop, but she unhooked her bra and placed it neatly under the pile of her things.
“Come on,” Hong’s mother said. “Spoil sport.”
Without waiting, she walked off toward the sea in her half slip.
“Don’t leave your purse!” Hong called.
Hong didn’t know what to do.
She jumped up and tore off her sneakers, her socks, then her coat, her cords, her sweater, her button-up blouse, the T-shirt she wore under the blouse for extra warmth, and then, goddammit, she took off her glasses and tucked them into her mother’s purse, and then stuffed all her clothes in a pile under her coat on top of her mother’s coat.
Blind, Hong squinted at her mother’s blurry form retreating into the ocean. She ran across the sand in her saggy underwear, her mother’s heavy leather purse hooked over her shoulder. “Don’t forget your purse!” Hong shouted.
Hong’s mother was already at the edge of the surf when Hong caught up to her. The wet sand was freezing under Hong’s toes and made her nerves jump as though she’d tripped a live electric wire.
A stream of clear water came rippling up the beach and splashed across her feet, her calves.
“Oooh! Oooh!” Hong’s mother squealed.
Hong shouted as the icy water hit. The water was cold enough to feel metallic, like a knife stabbing her flesh.
Hong’s mother laughed and grabbed Hong’s arm. She nearly knocked Hong off balance and into the sea.
“Let’s go,” Hong said. “It’s cold.”
But Hong’s mother pulled her toward the ocean. Hong’s mother stood with her arms outstretched, her face tilted to the sun, as though she could embrace the sky.
Hong squinted at the shining ocean. A larger wave was coming their way.
“No, no, no!” Hong shouted as the icy wave hit.
“Oooh! That’s cold!” Hong’s mother clung to Hong’s arm, as the water surged and foamed around their knees. And then another wave hit, higher.
“FUCK!” Hong gritted her teeth. Her vagina clenched. Every goose pimple on her body stood erect.
Hong could feel the water pulling back, retreating into the ocean.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Hong pulled her mother with her; Hong’s mother was laughing and shivering, and nearly made Hong trip, but Hong managed to half-drag her across the sand back to higher ground. The world was a blur, the sand a golden mass, the French people columns of light, the distant buildings smudges on the horizon. Hong found their pile of clothes on the sand when she stumbled across them and fell.
Hong’s mother was still laughing. “Oh, that was fun! I’ve missed the ocean!”
Hong grabbed her mother’s clothes with one hand. “Here,” Hong said. “You’re going to get sick.”
Hong threw on her down coat without drying herself, then turned to help her mother.
She found her glasses in her mother’s purse, and then her T-shirt on the sand, and used it to wipe her mother’s body dry. Hong’s mother was shaking from the cold.
“Don’t blame me if you get pneumonia,” Hong said. “Don’t blame me for this!”
Hong’s mother’s teeth were chattering as she put her bra back on and then her sailor top. Hong held her mother’s coat open as a kind of shield, in case anyone was watching. Hong refused to look at any of the French people on the beach, as though not seeing them would mean that they could also not see her as she helped her mother dress. She held her mother’s arm as her mother pulled off her wet slip then pulled on her knit skirt over her bare legs.
After Hong’s mother had finished dressing, Hong threw on the rest of her clothes, stuffing the now-wet T-shirt and her mother’s sopping slip into her mother’s purse.
Hong’s mother was shivering as she clung to Hong’s arm as they walked up the beach together.
“Your purse is so heavy,” Hong said, shouldering it on her right arm, as she held her mother up with her left. “What do you have in it?” It felt as though she were carrying a cannon ball.
“It’s always this way,” Hong’s mother said.
Later Hong would think of all the times she’d seen her mother carrying her purse, basically her entire life, and never thinking to ask what was inside, never imagining the weight of it, just seeing it there, hanging off the crook of her arm, like an extra limb.
They made it to the boardwalk, and it was a little warmer farther from the ocean and the sea breezes. There was a café across the street, and Hong suggested they get some hot coffee.
“Oh, no,” Hong’s mother said. “I need a drink. You’d better order me some red wine.”
Hong was surprised. “I thought you didn’t drink.”
“Hurry up,” said Hong’s mother. “I could catch pneumonia.”
Then the old white-haired French man at the door smiled at them both. “Bonjour, mesdesmoiselles. Such beautiful mother and daughter,” he said in English.
“What makes you think we’re related?” Hong said, out of spite.
“Oh, I can tell immediately. You both have this—” and he made a gesture with his right hand, circling his face, round and round. “Such beautiful round moon faces,” he said.
And Hong’s mother giggled like a schoolgirl—no, Hong realized, like a grown woman used to flattery, who knew how to respond to a man’s charm—and Hong followed the maître d’ and her mother to a small square table at the window, silenced. Round moon faces! she thought, and immediately she knew this was true. Her mother and she did share the same round face. It was the one thing about her mother that was not completely Caucasian looking, and it was the reason Hong secretly suspected that she had turned out so Asian looking, despite being half. She had her mother’s moon face.
▴ ▴ ▴
Over the years, Hong and her mother continued to have some problems, some smaller than others, some larger, but their relationship had taken a turn; there was no more running away for Hong. She returned to her family for major holidays. Wasn’t this what normal families did? Besides, Hong had decided in college there was no such thing as normal anyway.
If Hong still felt not quite at peace with her mother, there was acceptance. Hong no longer pined for another, fictitious woman, the loving, rational, and self-reliant one Hong had dreamed her mother might become someday when Hong was younger, when fleeing seemed the only option for dealing with the pain that fluttered under her ribcage. Hong’s mother, on the other hand, still complained at times about Hong, as though complaining might produce the compliant, pious, and simple daughter she had expected Hong to become, rather than the distant, rational, and self-reliant woman that Hong’s mother found herself stuck with, but that was another story.
Hong’s mother would sometimes allude to their trip to the beach, although to Hong’s knowledge, she never let on to her father or brother what they’d done. She’d say things like, “When in France, do as the French,” and Hong’s mother would bring out a bottle of red wine that she’d purchased just for Christmas dinner. Or she’d serve éclairs after the Thanksgiving turkey instead of pumpkin pie, and say, “This is how the French celebrate.” Then she’d look to Hong with a wink, and Hong would nod, “Yes, that’s how the French do it.”
“Well, you would know,” Hong’s father would say. “Hong studied in France and Eileen visited her there. They went to Lourdes!” And there’d be no more debate, no complaints from Henry about missing pie, because you couldn’t argue with such expertise.