The first time I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, my father walked in front of the screen and announced that he and Mama were getting a divorce. I was to join her in Luo San Ji, California, where she’d been working as a restaurant hostess for the past two years. “Dui bu qi,” he apologized, baring his teeth in a weird grimace.
Onscreen, in the triangular space created by Baba’s hand on his hip, Mr. Yunioshi with his bulging eyes and spit-slippery lips hollered, “Miss Go-right-ree, I protest!”
I was still in my school uniform. I stared down at the pleats of my navy skirt, where I’d been spitting the shells of sunflower seeds, and split the plant fibers with a fingernail. When I looked back up, my father was gone, and Holly Golightly had replaced him. Her eyes gleamed around the apartment. The camera lens clouded over the scene.
Neither of my parents were in love. I knew that much. My mother had left Shanghai for Hollywood with the promise that she would send for us, but she never did. At first, Baba was brave. He picked his teeth on the balcony, his shirt rolled up under his armpits in the heat, and laughed with the passing neighbors. Her job was polishing the white letters on the hill, he said. Guarding the H so that dreamers weren’t zapped like moths on a light, he said. Mama’s gifts from America were practical—vitamins, waterproof sunscreen, sneakers with Velcro straps—but from time to time she included a VHS she had just seen, Gone With the Wind or To Have and Have Not. Humphrey Bogart hanging a cigarette on his lip and Lauren Bacall swinging hippily past a piano. That’s how I knew what love was.
I had a camcorder that I carried in my backpack so that she wouldn’t forget Shanghai: its flocks of rusted bicycles, jars of sour milk, toothless brown faces selling white flowers. Sometimes Baba filmed me playing the violin, and I would sit on a creaky stool and say in my stunted English, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I ready for close-up,” which he didn’t understand, but she would recognize as a summoning.
Three months before the divorce, Baba had picked me up from school with his face wet and shrunken. He stopped calling Mama because we couldn’t afford the long distance. “Then no more long distance!” I yelled, stamping my bamboo slippers against the floor. He had hung my backpack on the back of a chair and said, “Mei yong, Baobao. There’s nothing I can do.” I didn’t know what had happened except that my father had given up. He was brittle and empty, the discarded yellow of cricket skin.
Before I left for America, Baba braided my hair into two pigtails secured with pink bands. He turned me around to face him and cupped my shoulders with his hands. “Your mother is far from who she used to be,” he said. “It’s not anyone’s fault.”
I forced myself to meet his eyes. “It’s your fault,” I said.
I filmed my mother’s arrival at the airport. I expected a fragile woman with downturned eyes, but Mama looked robust. It made me think of Baba at the Shanghai airport, his trousers rumpled around his skinny knees. Waving and waving, and rubbing his face, and waving.
She approached at a clip in high-waisted jeans and a T-shirt that was either yellow or dirty; her hair, brushed back in a ponytail, accentuated a broad forehead that shone as if with the health of her thoughts. Zooming in on my camera, I found a brown freckle at the corner of her mouth that I had forgotten was there. It punctuated a smile I had imagined for years. I could smell the overripe sweetness of her breath as she bent and gathered me into her chest.
“Zhang de hao da,” she exclaimed, measuring me against her body. “It’s been so long!”
I had a vision of Joe Gillis arriving breathless on the overgrown doorstep of a Hollywood mansion in Sunset Boulevard, and of Norma Desmond appearing in the window with her face eclipsed by sunglasses, calling, “You there! Why are you so late! Why have you kept me waiting so long?” Then Joe walks into a stranger’s house and is told who he is.
Los Angeles wasn’t like what I’d seen in old black and whites. The summer was sun-heavy and exhausted the asphalt, which cracked and coughed weeds. Boys, wading in sweat-ringed T-shirts, hooted by chain-link fences and smoked their menthol cigarettes. I preferred to spend time at Jade Flower, where my mother worked as a hostess. She wore a pink qi pao and a chopstick through her hair. She exaggerated her flat mouth with lipstick. How strange that she had to pretend to be what she already was. The restaurant hung red paper lanterns over the tables, and the diffuse light made her seem translucent.
I sat at an open table for two and watched the men and women around me rock with gentle laughter, their eyes dark and loamy, ready to sprout flowers for the other to pick. I dreamed I was waiting for a man who would sit down across from me, brush the menu aside, and draw my hands toward him until my arms were stretched out on the tablecloth, long and yearning.
I wasn’t angry with my mother for the divorce. Instead, I worried about her incompleteness. The vulnerability of being a woman and alone. “Why don’t you and Baba love each other anymore?” I demanded.
We were sharing a plate of fried crab wontons on Mama’s lunch break. Her long fingers picked the crust apart and pinched the meat.
“We do love each other, Baobao,” she said in a rehearsed tone. She toyed with the silk button that clasped the collar of the qi pao around her throat and glanced at something behind me. She continued in a lower voice, “Just not as a husband and wife. Deng ni zhang da yi dian you’ll understand.”
“Ni zen me zhi dao? What if you see him, and it’s different?”
My mother drew the linen napkin into her lap. “That’s not possible,” she said. “I’m a different person. I have a different life.” Chile sauce dripped from the wonton I held, and I was engulfed in the heat of a cramped kitchen in Shanghai. Mama and Baba speaking that slanted dialect over the hiss of the frying pan. I remembered squatting by a plastic tub that was alive with blue-shelled crabs, their mouths thick with foam, waving dentate claws. They smelled like the sea, green and bacterial. Now, watching the crabmeat disappear into her mouth, I recognized a self-assurance in Mama that she never had at home. Mama, who had married my father at seventeen. They used to laugh about it, the xiang xia ren, the girl who had arrived in Shanghai with her cheeks flecked from the sun on the fields, and mud from the pigsty dried on her shoes.
“You need be kiss, and often, and by someone who know how,” I quoted, but she didn’t laugh. She was looking past me with a determined vacancy. I twisted and saw a man and a woman push back their seats to leave. He had a long face and a bulb-shaped nose; she had brown hair in a messy crop. As he walked with a hand massaging the small of his wife’s back, he glanced over his shoulder at Mama, who swallowed.
On Saturdays, I explored the neighborhood around our apartment. I made a movie about a black boy chasing the ice cream truck on his skateboard and rattling up to the window—“Hey, man!”—with a dollar bill in his fist. He traded it for a popsicle, a blue skull with gumballs for eyes, kicked the asphalt twice, and skated around the corner. I made a movie about a girl with dimples on the back of her thighs who was wringing her blonde hair at the edge of the pool, and about the boy that watched her from a lounge chair with his hands running up and down his torso, as if he were hungry. I made a movie about going to the corner store to buy a gallon of skim milk and the cashier with the peppered mustache pointing at me and barking, “I told you to get that camera out of my face.”
My mother didn’t know it, but I was also making a movie about her life. I already knew how it was going to end with her and that long-faced man with the mousy wife. It was better than anything I could have written: the long-shouldered divorcée of Jade Flower and the man who came to eat once, twice a week. From my vantage point, the camcorder captured the symmetry of her anguished glances at him, his sentinel over her. There would be music, of course: slow strains of violin over ascending piano keys, her voice a hoarse whisper, “Right this way, sir.” If there could be a fitting note from a fortune cookie, too. Double happiness comes your way, or Prepare yourself for love. Close-up on the wrinkled letters. Cutaway to the man’s desirous hands.
He drove a black car with an Arizona license plate. I knew this because I followed him out of the restaurant after his lunch hour; I hoped to see my mother, who disappeared then too, placing her hands on his cheeks and kissing him goodbye in the weary Hollywood way. I never found her, though. I would stand in the parking lot listening to snatches of R&B from passing traffic until one of the busboys, out for a cigarette, would frown and say, “Qué pasa, niña? Te has perdido?”
I slept on the sofa’s foldout bed in my mother’s apartment. The springs hurt my back. I rolled onto my side, and the mattress swayed as if I were lying in a dinghy, oar-less over a long green lake. I could feel the wooden seats, warm and roughened by the sun, pressed against my cheek; I could hear the cicadas shivering in the trees. Baba was singing a song, high and nasal, slurring the words and repeating them. The boat rocked more insistently, and droplets of water hit my cheeks. “You’re going to tip the boat,” I said, but when I opened my eyes I was alone.
It took me a moment to remember where I was. From outside, I heard a cackle and the sound of an empty can ringing on the asphalt. With a small cough, I slid my feet onto the carpet and padded towards the bathroom.
My mother was standing in the hallway. I felt her presence before I saw her, a dark figure with an inscrutable face. Her purse hung from her fingertips like she had just gotten home. “Mama?” I whispered. “Mama?” But she passed soundlessly into her bedroom, shutting the door with a click and sending a chill over my body. Baba was right. There was time in space that proximity could not collapse. The closer I got to my mother, the longer it seemed like it had been.
I found the toilet seat in the dark and leaned over my knees.
Xi Hu, West Lake, was the last trip Baba and I had taken together after he announced the divorce. We didn’t know how to talk without talking about my leaving, so we spent the day photographing water lilies instead. That same night I had found him watching Gone With the Wind with the sound barely audible and the remote balanced on his crossed knee. It was the first time he had ever played a tape for himself, and I despised him for this feeble gesture. He would see Rhett Butler’s roguish grin with his hands firm around Scarlett’s waist and know who he could have been. Baba had invited me to sit, but I had a suitcase to pack.
The blast of a car horn jerked Mama upright, and my body swung against the seat belt as we swerved back into the lane. A red hatchback car threaded past us. The driver, an older woman with lines around her mouth like drawstrings keeping her lips pursed, glared at my mother as she pulled ahead.
“Sorry,” she said, repositioning her hands on the wheel. “I didn’t see her there.”
The thin morning light fell on our polluted windshield, casting a layer of dust over the city as we nosed our way to Jade Flower. I watched a girl carry an armful of white sheets into a laundromat, a bulldog lift its leg on a stop sign.
“Mama,” I said, “zuo tian wan shang, where were you coming back from?”
I could see the powder on her cheeks in the light. I could see a tiny globule of mascara bobbing on the end of one eyelash. She glanced at me and seemed to consider the truth. “I was saying goodbye to someone,” she said, signaling left.
“Goodbye to who?” I pressed, though I had an idea. “It was late.”
The car lumbered over a speed bump and found a parking spot. “We’ll talk about it tonight, Baobao,” she said, exhaling through her mouth. She leaned into the mirror on the sun visor and rubbed her lips together though she wasn’t wearing any lipstick. She sat for a while with her mouth clamped shut like that before ducking to retrieve the purse by her feet. That’s when a black car from Arizona pulled into a space diagonally across the lot.
“Come on,” said my mother, tugging the keys from the ignition. “Tian ah, can’t you leave that chou camera at home for once?” She pushed open the door and trotted away in her low heels.
The man in the car watched her enter the restaurant. This was it. This would be my Holly Golightly and Fred Baby agreeing on love in the rain, shoes filling up with water as they ran towards each other so that in the end they swam for a kiss. It was the long-faced man coming to tell Mama that it didn’t have to be this way. They didn’t have to say goodbye or even pretend to be strangers—he could divorce his mouse-wife and belong to her; no more sneaking around, no more snuck glances by the red light of a make-believe restaurant. I pushed the record button and perched the camera on the dashboard, pointing the lens at the man’s car.
In retrospect, I don’t think I was making a movie about my mother. I was making a movie about me, about how I wanted the world to be, because the one I lived in was quick and fragile, nothing to pause on the screen and point at and say See? This is how it was. This was a movie about my father, too: his wet coughs like he was choking on a fish bone when he thought I was asleep, and me sitting cross-legged in a room papered with Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly, unable or unwilling to comfort him. This was a movie about hating him for staying in Shanghai instead of following her across the sea, and my atonement for it.
In this scene, the large-eared man revolves around his car in a two-hour stakeout. Now he lowers his seat to recline behind the steering wheel; now he stands in the lot with his body leaning against the car door. He cracks his neck, squints at the Jade Flower, crosses one foot over the other. A pigeon shits on the hood of an adjacent vehicle, and he crawls back inside his car.
Settling in the front seat with a magazine, he flips through the pages. When he reaches the back cover, he does it again, but backwards. Then, raising his arms over his head in a stretch, he checks the rearview mirror. Freezes. His face narrows in concentration like he’s reading tiny print. He mouths an explosive syllable. He punches the dashboard. His lips still moving, he puts his hand on the latch of the door, ready to spring from the car—but it’s like someone has pulled the plastic nozzle in him, and he deflates: first his head droops, then his shoulders relax in the front seat. His eyes meet the camera lens, but he doesn’t see it. Finally, he plugs his keys into the ignition and drives away, accelerating out of the slot.
With the car gone, you can see his wife, the small woman with a swirl of mousy hair, at the far end of the parking lot. She’s yelling at someone, her thin arms making short jabs at the air, backing the person into the trunk of a car. When the wife sidesteps and puts her face in her hands, there’s Mama with her silk qi pao reflecting the sun. She’s taller than the wife, but seems somehow smaller, shrinking into herself with arms crossed over her chest. When the woman reaches out for her, Mama catches her wrist and flings it away. She puts her hand over her mouth. They stand still for a long time, moving only to signal to an SUV that they’re not leaving.
The wife stirs first. She shifts her weight as if coming out of a trance and pulls my mother’s hand off of her mouth, using it to draw them closer together. Then she lifts herself slightly on her toes and they kiss, sweetly, like they’re whispering into each other’s mouths. Mama breaks away and steps backward, far enough for the woman to nod and get into her car. She leans out of her window to say something before driving away, leaving Mama in the center of an empty space. After a while, my mother smooths the front of her dress, pats her hair. She walks out of the camera frame.
At home, sitting cross-legged on the cot, I rewound the tape and paused it at the point of contact. I tried to imagine Baba in the woman’s place, but I couldn’t. Mama’s body leaned forward like a reed caught by water; her hands knew exactly where to catch hold of a familiar bank. I leaned back against the pillows and turned the camera off. The light evaporated from its giant eye. As it clicked into sleep, my mother emerged from her bedroom. She had taken off her makeup and looked skinny in her gray pajama top. “Come in here a moment, Baobao,” she said. Mama waited expectantly, but I couldn’t move. I was focusing on the freckle at the corner of her lip. That’s what I was watching when she opened her mouth and started to speak.
Jenny Xie is the recipient of the Devil’s Lake 2014 Driftless Prize in Fiction and a finalist in Narrative’s 2014 30 Below Story Contest. Her writing appears in The Monarch Review, Riddle Fence, Bound Off, and Front Porch Journal, among others. She lives in Baltimore, where she is an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University.