When Shermantown High took its first foreign exchange student from Hong Kong, it seemed only natural she’d stay with the Cornmires—John Cornmire and his wife with the long name no one remembered, who went by Irene. She was a tiny Chinese woman with an impossibly loud voice. It was Irene who answered the phone when the school board called, and accepted their offer. She shouted in a broken English that made the board uncertain she understood what she had agreed to, but simultaneously assured them she was a fit for this particular visitor.
The school didn’t recognize that Irene spoke Mandarin, and that the student spoke Cantonese. Nor did they check the Cornmire home thoroughly enough to recognize there were only two bedrooms, which meant Xiaomei Lin would share her sleeping quarters with the Cornmire boy, Tim.
In the weeks preceding Xiaomei’s arrival, Irene cleared closet space. She donated not only jeans Tim had outgrown, but also t-shirts he still wore to that day. She bought groceries for four, until an evening when John had to remove three different kinds of peppers to reach what turned out to be his last beer. He called Irene nutcase and said this was worse than the first time. Tim could only guess this was a rare reference to life before he was born. He listened for more.
“You don’t care. You bad man.” Irene said.
John left to buy another case of beer.
For all her preparations, Irene neglected to think of a bed for Xiaomei until the day before her arrival. John posed a practical solution—an inflatable mattress from when he used to go camping.
In his first kindness toward Xiaomei, before she arrived, Tim moved his bedding to the air mattress and spread the new crimson sheets across the real bed for her.
Xiaomei seemed shell shocked at even Tim’s slow, clearly enunciated English, using the simplest vocabulary he could think of. She seemed to comprehend Mom’s Chinese, but struggled to make her own understood. Tim didn’t know the difference between dialects then, and assumed Mom’s language skills were too rusty to understand anyone but herself.
His second kindness was to introduce Xiaomei to his few friends from school. She didn’t seem to know what they were doing when they offered her hands to shake, but got the hang of it, and soon offered her own hand by way of greeting, rather than introduction, to people she’d already met. Tim paid for her ticket when they all went to a movie—one about star-crossed lovers in Manhattan, filled with pratfalls and declarations of love.
It was not kindness, but self-interest when he stooped to kiss the little Chinese girl outside the theater. It was not cruelty as much as confusion when Xiaomei turned her head and offered him her cheek instead. Later that night, though, when she lay flat on her back at the edge of the bed, she dangled her arm toward Tim, where he lay on the air mattress. He held her hand until he fell asleep.
Two weeks later, Tim kissed her again, this time at the school bus stop. Xiaomei met him, lips to lips, tongue to tongue.
They hid from teachers and Tim’s parents. They made out when they should have studied in their room. They held hands beneath the ends of her pea coat on the bus.
Before long, Xiaomei, like Tim and his father, slept in rather than joining Irene on her Sunday promenades to church. Xiaomei ignored Irene’s invitation to help with dinner in favor of playing Risk on the living room floor.
Four months after Tim and Xiaomei first shared a bed to watch The Ball drop on New Year’s Eve on his little black and white television, a couple weeks after Irene first saw them kiss, and mere hours after Tim first said I love you, Xiaomei told him she couldn’t see him anymore.
Tim followed her through the house. He told her he loved her for the second, third and fourth times as she prepared the powdered macaroni and cheese he had taught her to make, sat on the sofa, and turned up the volume on the television. He told her a fifth and a sixth time as she washed and dried her bowl. He held her hand and told her again even after she explained she hadn’t come to America for a boyfriend.
Tim lingered at the kitchen table when Xiaomei left him to brush her teeth and ready herself for bed. He pressed his face to his folded forearms and moaned out his sorrow in such an exaggerated fashion that he didn’t notice when his parents returned from dinner. John cracked open a beer and retreated to his recliner. Irene stood by Tim’s side and asked what was wrong. He told her about Xiaomei.
Looking back, he was never sure if his mother were more upset about the breakup or that Xiaomei’d dated him at all. Regardless, his mother tore Xiaomei’s suitcase from the hallway closet and threw open the bedroom door. His mother snatched Xiaomei’s things—sweaters, photos from home, school books—and flung them into the suitcase. When Xiaomei asked what she was doing, his mother screamed in Mandarin, then went on in English, “You leave now! You leave now!”
A policeman found Xiaomei wandering down the road and drove her to another family that already hosted a student from London and that had bedrooms to spare. Someone from the school board called and yelled at Irene and she yelled back until John hung up the phone. He left the receiver off the hook for the rest of the night so he could watch baseball in peace.
John talked things over with an old friend from the board the next day, and chalked things up to cultural misunderstandings and language barriers. On the agreement that no one from the Cornmire household would interact with Xiaomei the rest of her time in the country, no charges were filed around child endangerment for kicking her out.
Tim called the new host family that June, just after school closed. The woman on the other end of the line told him Xiaomei had already flown home.
Tim moved to Brooklyn after college and split his time between retail jobs and failing as a freelance writer. He went home for Christmas, not every year, but more often after his father drank himself to death. He never brought Eliza.
Tim and Eliza were comfortable. They went to Saturday matinees and he paid for pancake dinners at the diner across the street from his apartment. She escorted him home on the subway after he had his wisdom teeth out, and washed his dishes now and again.
There came a point when Tim thought they’d done one another enough kindnesses that he ought to do something to make their arrangement more permanent. They ate takeout burritos in his studio apartment in the glow of a TV movie about a single mom who fell in love with the ghost haunting her house. During commercials, Tim fetched the white plastic keychain he hadn’t touched since he moved in six years earlier. “I want you to have these.”
“Why?” Brown rice overflowed Eliza’s tortilla.
“They’re spares.” He jangled the keys together—a big copper one that unlocked both the deadbolt, a little silver one for his mailbox. “They don’t do me any good.”
“Why would they do me any good?”
“You could let yourself in,” he said. “Even if I’m not around.”
“Jesus Christ, are you asking me to move in with you?”
He said of course not, his apartment was too small. She asked if that meant he wanted to move in together someplace else. Eliza spoke the word marriage with more bile than any curse.
At one point in the argument, a lock of her bright orange hair tumbled from its ponytail and fell over her forehead. The stray hair reached to the corner of her lips. He forgot how long she’d been a redhead—she was a brunette when they met, and he had a photo of the two of them from when her hair was black. She was always so careful about brushing her hair before she went out in public. The first time he saw it spread haphazardly across a pillowcase he felt special.
That afternoon, just as quickly as her hair had fallen, Eliza brushed the lock back behind her ear and kept talking, her forehead bare, her eyes emerald and cutting.
Irene didn’t complain that her son didn’t visit or call often. She bypassed the symptoms to identify his core flaws: his cruelty, his negligence, his failure to love anyone enough. She hassled him for, again, choosing not to bring Eliza home for Christmas. “If you don’t treat her better, she’ll leave you just like Xiaomei.”
His mother went on to remind Tim of how she found him crying alone at that very kitchen table, and that that was how she would find him again if Eliza left. Irene said he was lucky that she, herself, still welcomed him home after the way he ignored her.
“Ma, the rice.”
Don’t yell at me, she said in Mandarin, one of a handful of phrase she had used with his father often enough for Tim to remember it.
White foam boiled over from beneath the pot cover, over the sides, onto the burner. His mother turn off the flame on the gas stove. She looked smaller to him with every visit home. It seemed impossible he could have ever looked up to her. She couldn’t have been much taller than Xiaomei had been; her shoulders even slighter.
“You yell at your own mother. You bad man. End up alone.”
Tim’s mother had yelled at him longer and for less reason, but he didn’t want to tell her about Eliza and felt all the more certain he would explode if he stuck around. She would call him mean again, but the nerves of his arrival would have worn away by morning, and she would digress to a more steady, routine nag.
Nothing that mattered ever changed. Not his mother. No woman. When Eliza left, it was like Xiaomei’s departure. She stayed behind in the long hairs stuck between the fibers of the bathmat that he could only see when he sat on the toilet. She stayed in the smell of her body lotion on an oversized t-shirt she had slept in that he hadn’t washed yet. Xiaomei left behind a miniature Statue of Liberty she had bought at LaGuardia when she first landed in America; Eliza left behind a half-empty carton of pad thai that stunk up his fridge for a week and a half before he had the heart to toss it.
Tim thought about leaving everything behind. When he saved up money to buy his first car, he hadn’t had a vision of any particular destination, but rather the simple idea of driving away. In his adult life, his Civic was the final, impractical vestige of his small town upbringing. He did most of his driving in the form of laps around a city block so he could switch sides for street cleaning. That Christmas Eve, he thought he would drive until he ran out of gas. It had been years since he came close, and felt the engine draw on the final skim of fuel or the car refuse to give beneath the weight of his foot on the accelerator.
Maybe he would fill up again and again and keep driving west until the car broke down. He bet the old junker wouldn’t make it to California. Wherever he stopped, he would start a new life.
The escape seemed real for a period of minutes, but before he hit the interstate he thought about the lease on his apartment and how little money he had in his checking account and how he didn’t have a single change of clothes in the car with him. His suitcase waited where the air mattress meant for Xiaomei once sat in his old room.
He ended up at The Lucky Dragon restaurant. His father had liked the place’s battered, fried meats, coated in glossy sauces. His mother said that wasn’t real Chinese food.
A white woman worked behind the counter. She had dyed blond hair and looked about Irene’s age. Tim ordered orange chicken over lo mein with two pork egg rolls and a can of Sprite. The woman served his food in front of him from a series of metal troughs on the other side of a glass dust shield.
Other customers stopped to order take out or pick up the orders they’d called in, but no one else stayed. Tim ate alone at his little table, his back to the old woman. He watched drifts of snow blow past the front window, just visible past the neon Chinese characters and OPEN sign.
The old woman came to him, the little tin of orange chicken in hand. She scooped out what was left and plopped it atop his meal, doubling his portion.
“What do I owe you?” he asked.
“I was going to throw it away, sweetheart. Enjoy it.”
It was damn near the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him. He remembered the nice things he had done for Eliza, and for the girl before her and for Xiaomei, and the nice things they all did for him. All of these little kindnesses could add up and make you think they meant something, until people had expectations and ideas and misunderstood each other and ended up never speaking again.
He wondered if his mother held off on dinner and paced the floor, awaiting his return. More likely, she had eaten, watched that evening’s episode of Jeopardy!, and already gone to bed.
He finished his chicken and wiped all the stray grains of rice and a gob of sticky sauce from the table so the old woman wouldn’t have to. He checked his wallet. The only cash he had on him was a twenty. He left it for the woman, folded beneath the rim of his plate where she wouldn’t notice it until after he was gone.
A cold wind pushed against him the moment he stepped outside. A new layer of snow had obscured, but not erased the tire tracks he left on the way in.
The engine stalled for a second before it caught. He cranked the rear defroster and got out of the car to fetch the snow brush from his trunk. His mother gave him the brush one Christmas, but he had rarely needed it except when he came home. He cleared the front of the car, and then the side windows. By the time got to the rear windshield, the snow had melted enough that he could see through the glass.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. His hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press and he has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.