About the Feature
A Most Generous Offer
Photo by Carsten Ullrich
The apartment in Beijing was Lin’s and mine until Ma made the generous decision of allowing old Mrs. Yang to move in. My sister and I spent our summers there. Lin liked to trample through the weeds caulking the patches around the apartment building, gathering the goosefoot and crabgrass in bouquets for imaginary weddings and tea parties, even eating the grubby flowers. I was berated for not keeping a closer eye on her, but we were six years apart and beholden to two fathers—a distance yawned between us that was hard to cross.
The apartment itself was nothing special. The floors sloped and listed at odd angles, so that a pencil rolled joyfully across; the ceilings clipped the tops of our heads; the windows were caked with grime, the light sieving through a nauseated shade. Tumbleweeds of hair and dust hid in the corners. I’d save those and stuff them into Lin’s mouth as she slept, only for the favor to be returned to me the following night. Parts of the flooring had rotted through, leaving toothy gaps. The walls were speckled with black scorch marks that wouldn’t flake off. According to Lin, the apartment contained a spirit, constantly eyeing us day and night—its staggering, yowling form reminded her of Mrs. Yang.
Years later, I could draw Mrs. Yang’s face from memory—the riverbed grooves, the lips bunching into a tight little pit. She was a cousin, a word that held little meaning for me when I was younger. As far as I knew, everyone from the street-sweeper to the butcher was an aunt or uncle or cousin, if not by blood, then by a simple honorific. Later, I’d find out she was actually related to us, on Ma’s side, the daughter of a distant aunt I had never met or spoken to, which might have explained the generosity that Ma showed her but was certainly not the whole story.
That one summer, when Lin was seven and I was thirteen and Ma took us back to Beijing, Mrs. Yang, who lived nearby, visited us all the time. Dragging her gout-stricken left foot like a club, she’d lodge herself heavily into a chair and bark at me to make her a cup of chrysanthemum tea. Unlike other adults, who were patient with, even touched by, Lin’s and my dismal attempts at Mandarin, Mrs. Yang pretended she couldn’t understand and made us repeat our names, ages, and favorite subjects until she was satisfied with our intonation. Making things worse, she fawned over Lin, petting her hair, complimenting her eyes. “Look at this pretty little girl,” she cooed and then hollered, “Porklet! Where’s my tea?” Porklet was her name for me.
“I’ll show that old witch some tea,” I said to Lin, grabbing the fistful of crabgrass she was holding.
“No!” Lin cried, but it was too late.
Mrs. Yang grunted as she took a sip. “Too hot.” Sensing something unseemly in my expression, she latched on to my arm. “Is this the chrysanthemum? It tastes bitter. Did you give me jasmine by mistake? Jasmine gives me hives.”
“Sorry,” I muttered, wrenching myself free.
“Make me another,” she growled after me.
The apartment had been in my mother’s family for decades, an inheritance that each generation received piously and then forgot. By the time it passed into Ma’s possession, the accumulated neglect was impossible to ignore. Cracks appeared in the ceiling, jagged and ominous, like mountain ranges bearing down. When it rained (short, half-hearted, sputtering outbursts that Beijing summers were known for), the cracks leaked a bilious ooze. A blotch the texture and color of moss had sprouted in the kitchen. Our solution was to hustle dishes and pans, the vinegar and salt and sugar, away from the problem area, and otherwise carry on around it as best we could. Repairs were scheduled, canceled, rescheduled, started, and never finished.
No, the apartment’s value was due entirely to its location. Specifically, its proximity to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, used by the central government for housing foreign dignitaries and esteemed guests of the state. The surrounding geography, with Sanlihe, the commercial district, to the east, Yuyuantan Park to the west, and the guesthouse equidistant from both, created a kind of funneling effect. Every day a constant flow of people circled from one end to the other, and back again, on their way to pedal duck boats in the park’s lake, or shop, or run their hands along the guesthouse’s wall and wait for a dark-tinted convoy to pull up. Each time a procession passed, all activity on the boulevard froze. Even the sparrows bit their tongues.
The first thing visitors to our apartment always did was march to the southern-facing windows and crane their necks for a glimpse of the gleaming, pale wall that marked the guesthouse’s boundary. “Ah,” they crowed, “you can almost see right over into the complex,” which was impossible. A perimeter of pines and yews constructed a second barrier. The windows were too filthy. Still, Lin and I blushed with pride. The apartment, smelly and broken and disintegrating, was ours, regardless. We had no reason to think otherwise.
As a child, all I knew was that the apartment afforded multiple opportunities to see Wu Laoshi, who lived in the building over. Wu Laoshi was fifty years old and gave lessons to all the neighborhood children on his piano, though, out of everyone, only Lin showed the slightest promise.
“Now watch my hand,” he’d say, and his long, pale fingers struck the keys like thunder, singularly deft. I tried as hard as I could to please Wu Laoshi. Compared to every other adult I knew, he never laughed to my face, and, though Lin was obviously better in every respect (more docile, prettier, not a single stain on her clothes), he didn’t show any favoritism between us.
“Very good.” Wu Laoshi clapped my shoulder. It was almost the end of my hour, and the tips of Lin’s slippers were visible from around the corner. I made her go after me, so that the difference in our skills wouldn’t be so apparent to Wu Laoshi.
The morning was steeped in sweat. My dress felt shellacked to my skin. Every now and then, a wet drop plopped on the keys; cutting my eyes slowly to the right, I glimpsed sodden patches under Wu Laoshi’s armpits, beads dotting his forehead.
“Now, watch me again. Here.” This time, he rested his fingers against my shoulder and unspooled the allegro in D major. I was wearing a tank top, my arms bare and brown from playing outside all summer, which Mrs. Yang always felt the need to comment on. Raking me from crown to feet, she intoned, “You look like a laborer. A nongmin,” this last part with a chortle of distaste.
“Hmm,” I said, trying to pay attention. The notes being played against my skin felt pleasant. I was about to say more when Wu Laoshi gave a hoarse sigh. Looking up, I saw his eyes were closed, shoulders swaying, lips ajar, as his fingers began to paddle harder against my shoulder. We had reached the recapitulation, the section that always gave me trouble—I was intimidated by the series of trills and concentrated too hard on not messing up and then, immersed somewhere else altogether, lost my place and stabbed the wrong key.
Now my mind shrank to a pinhole, big enough for only splotches of sensation to seep through. Wu Laoshi’s sharp nails. The smell of cigarette smoke. The heaviness of his breathing, ringing like a seashell held against my ear. He was too close. I sat, a mute lump, holding myself all on one side to bear his weight.
“Do you see now?” He took his hand away, where, later, I’d find a cluster of tiny half-moons dug into my flesh. A whisper of hurt remained when I pressed down, but I was already beginning to forget what happened. Nothing had happened.
“Yes.” Suddenly, despite the heat, I couldn’t stop shivering.
“Very good. I’ll see you next week. Lin! Your turn.” As we passed each other, she gave me a look, one I kept replaying to myself in the years to come. A strange, yearning, adult look, which did not belong on her small face.
The next week, I was ill, thrumming with headache and fever. Ma prescribed various wretched concoctions—roots and grass, bird’s nest soup, jujubes boiled down to a slop. Too hot to sleep, I would sit up and peer out the window, trying to glimpse the shadowy wall of the guesthouse, making out only a branch slapping against the glass. My lessons with Wu Laoshi came and went and came again; I watched quietly as Lin clattered about, gathering her composition books, and wondered at the vague sense of relief I felt that I did not have to go.
Once, I woke up to find Mrs. Yang sitting by my bed. “Your ma went out and asked me to watch you. Lin’s outside,” she said. This didn’t perturb me. During the summer, Lin and I barely saw our mother. She crammed her days with visiting old friends, settling my grandparents’ accounts, fetching gifts for coworkers back home, shopping for clothes, perming her hair (“They do it just the way I like it,” she cooed, fluffing the cloud around her face luxuriously). As for Lin, she was dreamy and misty-brained, the corners of her eyes crusty with morning gunk, happiest when wandering through the high banks of weeds, looking for blossoms to weave into crowns.
Mrs. Yang shoved a claw onto my forehead.
“Fever’s broke, Porklet.” She grunted a wad of phlegm into a tissue and tossed it onto my nightstand. I stared, revolted.
“Did you know,” she said abruptly, as though picking up the strand of a previous conversation. “Did you know that, when I was your age, the Red Guards almost burned down this apartment?”
I turtled under the covers, as far down as I could. Ma had told me and Lin the story once. When she finished, though we were brimming with questions, she smiled and hugged us and murmured, “Don’t worry—that was so long ago.”
“Your grandparents were bourgeois enemies,” Mrs. Yang continued. “Two university professors, teaching the future minds of China all this Western philosophy. They were labeled anti-revolutionaries. Everyone begged them to take your ma and go to America, hunker down for a few years until it was safe to come back. Did they listen? Of course not. ‘Nothing will happen,’ they insisted. ‘We’ll be all right.’ They decided to wait out the insanity. Struggle sessions, public firings, even after all that, your Ah Po and Ah Gong stayed. My parents, honest, decent people, offered to help in any way they could. A most generous offer, if you ask me.”
Ma hadn’t mentioned any of this in her telling. I sat up higher.
“The Red Guards came for them, as we knew they would. Came at night, with rope and gasoline. Came right through that door, about twenty of them, just one or two years older than me. In fact, I knew them from school.” She let out a harsh chuckle and scoured her mouth with the back of her hand, the dry rasp the only sound in the room.
“They dragged out your grandparents. Whipped them in front of their neighbors. Oh, I’ll never forget. Your poor Ah Gong. His mind never came back from that night. One of the boys used his belt on him. The buckle caught—”
Mrs. Yang’s red-laced, ruined eyes gleamed wetly. I barely registered Lin tiptoeing into the room, coming to sit beside me on the bed.
“While all that was going on, some of the Red Guards were carting out the contraband your Ah Gong and Ah Po had tucked away. Hardcover encyclopedias. Fur coats. Jewelry. They all went into the fire. Your grandparents kept crying out there wasn’t anything left to be burned, but the Red Guards kept going. The furniture contained, according to them, signs of Western craftsmanship. Dressers. Mirrors. An enormous bureau that Ah Po’s parents gifted to her when she was married.
“Until, finally, they couldn’t find anything else. We thought that was the end of that. Then one of the Red Guards shouted, ‘Why not? Let’s burn the apartment too.’ Never mind the other families in the building! Never mind that a fire could creep utterly out of control. What did they care? They were out of their minds, at that point. So they set it on fire and left, screaming and laughing.
“The rest of the night, my parents and I helped your Ah Po and Ah Gong put out the flames. We had burns that festered and had to be lanced. My father, his hands when he caught the curtains—” She spread her fingers and pushed them in front of us. Lin cringed, but I stared, as though the charred patches of skin were visible.
“In the end, we did it.” Tenderly, Mrs. Yang peered at the crumbling walls and ceiling and floor, one gnarled hand reaching up and stroking an invisible surface, before her face assumed its usual grimace. The light in the room had coalesced into murkiness. Though it would not turn completely dark for a few more hours, I had to squint to see. Mrs. Yang checked her watch, stood up, and surveyed us with something that took a beat for me to recognize as weariness. Before she left, she said, “You tell your ma I always keep my word.”
I would have pestered Ma harder as to what Mrs. Yang meant if it weren’t for the incident with Wu Laoshi and Lin a few days later. I hung around Ma, demanding, nudging, poking, before she finally laid into me. “Now you listen,” Ma said, soft and deadly, a surefire sign that I had overstepped. “That happened a long, long time ago. Okay? It had nothing to do with you. Leave it.” After that, I had to proceed carefully. Ma was impenetrable. Out of principle, I refused to seek out Mrs. Yang. That left Lin, who wasn’t much help. That summer, she seemed completely preoccupied, spinning worlds and stories that couldn’t be divulged, always whispering under her breath, eyes cast downward at the clumps of weeds she tied into knobby shapes. I figured she was trying to withdraw from all the attention she received from our relatives, the old ladies ringed around the apartment building’s entrance, even strangers passing by on the street. They insisted on taking pictures with her, fondled her cheeks, thrust her around by the shoulders like an extravagant purchase.
“This is Liping’s little girl,” they crowed. “Where is your father?” When Lin shook her head, the question was repeated twice in slow, syrupy drawls.
Titters. Lin’s face was a blank little moon. “Where is he from?”
“Oh, oh.” Hands fluttered in wonder.
“Mine is from New York,” I piped up, ignoring the stares.
“Hmm.” They took a step back, scrutinizing our faces. “Well, you don’t look much alike.” It was true, we didn’t, but it stung no less to hear.
“If it were me,” I said to Lin when we were alone, “I wouldn’t mind being called pretty and cute and sweet by everyone. I’d be happy. At least no one calls you ‘Porklet.’” These little jabs toward my sister never made me feel better; each time the words burst forth, I regretted them. But Lin just smiled as though I were a favorite television show or book and she had come across an interesting part.
Even so, I expected Mrs. Yang’s story to make some dent in Lin’s dreamy world. “Don’t you wonder why Ma never told us any of this? What do you suppose Mrs. Yang meant?” I mused. That day, Lin had enlisted me to help find a particular flower she wanted. We went to the back of the apartment, where the path was pocked with weeds and garbage. Other than Lin, no one, not even the little kids, who were awed by our accents and Lin’s American features, played here.
“Don’t know,” she mumbled. “I don’t know. I don’t know.” She coughed.
“Are you okay?”
Ignoring my question, Lin tilted her face at the sky and stuck her tongue out. Pink and pebbled, it disturbed me for no reason I could explain.
The next day, I was well enough to go to Wu Laoshi’s. At the end of the lesson, he handed me two oranges. “For you. No need to share,” he said, smiling.
“Thank you.” I cupped the fruit to my chest and felt a swell of feeling for him.
Outside, I found a shady spot and gulped down both oranges. Juice spattered down my front. I licked my fingers and the peels, ignoring the acid prickle, when a convoy of black, sleekly shiny vans lumbered up the boulevard slowly, as if basking in the attention.
Throwing the peels down, I barreled back to tell Lin and Wu Laoshi to look out the window. The front door was unlocked; inside was quiet.
I could make out the backs of the two figures sitting in front of the piano, the larger one slumped, head tottering. Except for the left arm that squeezed the nape of Lin’s neck and the right one that levered up and down, working furiously in front of him, he seemed like a boulder, rolled into position by the sea. A wisp of Lin’s shirt poked out above the waistband, a little ducktail. Her hair was done up in braids. They were all askew, tufts sticking out every which way—she had begged me that morning and finally I had given in, though I had worked the hair roughly, letting her know I didn’t appreciate being badgered.
At the sound of my footsteps, both turned to look, Lin a second after Wu Laoshi. I would never be able to recall his expression. Hers, I caught all the time in the way it made me feel—the plummeting lurch in the stomach when I couldn’t remember if I forgot to turn the stove off, or I misplaced a credit card, or I sent an email to the wrong person. Whatever it was, it could not be undone, and now, the only thing left to do was apologize.
Scarcely aware of where I was going, I smacked right into Mrs. Yang. The air outside was limp with impending rain. A family, the little boy crouched on his father’s shoulders, hurried past, while an old man shook out a plastic bag and yanked it over his head.
“Ay! Watch where you’re going.”
“Sorry, sorry.” What had his right hand been doing, burrowing like a worm? Already, the scene was losing its crispness, my grasp of the details slackening. Dazed, I rubbed my eyes.
Mrs. Yang cocked her head. “What is it? Are you still sick?”
Right hand, right hand, I repeated to myself. If only I could sit somewhere cool and quiet, if only I could yank the thoughts from my head and lay them out slowly in front of me. Mrs. Yang hustled me over to a bench under a scrawny, half-dead tree. A froth of midges rose in protest when we sat in their midst.
“Now. What is it?”
“Lin,” I managed.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is she?”
“At—” I couldn’t swallow. I should have said something. I should have grabbed her hand and pulled her out from under him. Instead, I had run.
“Spit it out.”
“She’s at Wu Laoshi’s. He—” I couldn’t bring myself to say more. My right hand jerked up and down, in imitation of his.
A pause. I didn’t dare lift my head. The thunderstorm broke its silence across the city. Everyone around us had already scuttled inside. The tree above us provided little shelter. I watched my pants darken, the blotches devouring themselves, until my whole lap was soaked, and still, I didn’t move. In a way, it felt like penance.
“Yan. Look at me.” Before, it was always “Porklet” or “child” or, when she couldn’t be bothered, “hey, you.” I didn’t think she even knew my name. I met her gaze, and, in that moment, I didn’t need to say more. She understood me completely.
The incident was fifteen years ago. Long enough to diffuse into dim outlines: the glances I cast in Lin’s direction hooking nothing concrete, no visible sign of disorder or anguish—the many times I tried to raise it with her, with Ma, crumbling into something so unsaid that it couldn’t have happened. In the end, I figured I was mistaken. I didn’t know what I saw. We continued to go to Wu Laoshi every week, though I made it a point to switch my hour with Lin’s. I would pace in the adjoining room, heart rabbiting furiously, prepared to lunge at a creak in the bench, rustling of clothes, Wu Laoshi’s murmur. But every time, I heard nothing out of the ordinary. Lin played without interruption, the notes fluid and slurred. As for the man himself, he was his usual solicitous self with me, blinking innocently when he opened the door to greet us. His hands would stray to my shoulder, and I’d jerk back, which he ignored in favor of flipping to the next page or clearing his throat.
Now the memory had started to fade away. I would have let myself forget about it entirely, if not for Mrs. Yang.
I had moved to New York to take care of Ma, while Lin moved as far away as possible in the opposite direction, to pursue a graduate degree at an arts school in Wyoming, from where, at a safe distance, she called every Wednesday to see how we were doing.
“What did the doctor say?”
“Hold on,” I said as I maneuvered Ma into the bathtub. No matter how I calibrated the knobs, the water always scalded her at first. “He said the same thing as last time. Levels look normal. She’s taking the treatment well.” Which wasn’t exactly what the doctor had said. Instead, he explained, in an infuriatingly calm tone, that yes, the medication was working but not as well or as quickly as he hoped, and by that, he meant it was time to consider some other options that he’d be happy to walk me through. The half lie tasted petty on my tongue, but Lin would only ask questions, the same ones heaving through my head, and I couldn’t stand having to hear them articulated in someone else’s voice.
“Well, that sounds okay, right?”
“I guess. We have another appointment next week. Do you want to talk to Ma? She’s right here.” Ma was sitting back in the tub, humming, with her eyes closed, cupping the water against her chest. I asked this every time, if only to see what excuse Lin would come up with.
“Maybe next time? I have to go soon. Got to finish some work for my class tomorrow.”
“She misses you.”
When I didn’t respond, her voice arced defensively. “I know.”
“Fine.” This was how our conversations tended to unfold, volleying accusations and resentment back and forth in as few words as possible.
“By the way. Did we decide on what to do about the apartment?”
I glanced at Ma, whose eyes were still closed. The apartment had grown into a bruise, its borders encroaching into everyday conversation. Real estate in Beijing had become more precious than gold, with millionaires buying multiple floors of a development and paying in cash, while everyone else waded through years-long waiting lists for merely an opportunity to apply. The value of our apartment in Diaoyutai had tripled. Every week, I fielded calls from relatives asking what our plans were, offering unsolicited advice that we should sell as soon as possible, what with the market at its peak in decades, and recommending an array of lawyers and agents to help with the process.
The problem was Ma. The summer I turned fourteen, she had agreed to let Mrs. Yang live in the apartment indefinitely, in exchange for a nominal monthly sum. From Ma’s perspective, come May or June, when she herself had to stay behind in the States for work and our fathers couldn’t take us, we needed to have someone there to make sure we bathed, went to bed at a reasonable hour, and subsisted on more than crackers and red bean popsicles. It was a shock each time to open the door and be welcomed by the sight of Mrs. Yang sprawled on the couch, bare toes propped on the armrest, cackling at a soap opera. When we protested that we didn’t need a babysitter, Ma switched tactics, trying to appeal to our sense of practicality. For the rest of the year, the apartment was sitting empty, collecting decay and rodents and termites, a potential target for burglars.
When that too failed to move us, Ma said, with the air of someone holding the trump card, that Mrs. Yang never had an apartment to herself before. Her life, up to then, was a series of cramped, stinking spaces. The sink built into the space above the toilet. Someone else’s shit clinging to the bottom of the bowl. The communal kitchen, sugar and soy sauce stolen in inconspicuous increments. Didn’t we think Mrs. Yang deserved to have her own space for the years she had left? It was unlike Ma to be so explicit about death, and this, more than anything else, made me and Lin relent. What was the harm, we thought.
Until our mother fell sick. Her thick curly hair, her only vanity, tumbled to the floor like pine needles. Chopsticks were too precarious. Where she parked or put the keys, her favorite books and songs, the details of her arrangement with Mrs. Yang—sifted away like sand. When I would probe about a contract, any sort of written agreement, Ma buttoned out her lower lip and folded into herself. I was left to ransack through her papers, amazed by the little scraps she had squirreled away over the years (dentist bills, report cards, test scores, college brochures) and found nothing. My father and Lin’s hadn’t known; if they had, they each insisted, they would have certainly talked her out of it.
At my silence, Lin cleared her throat. “It’s just, well, you know. The money could go a long way. I could open my own gallery. I’m sure you’ve considered it too,” she added hastily. That she had tallied up the sum and figured out its allocation for her own purposes was not surprising. What pricked was the truth of her assumption that I had done the same.
“Well, actually, I’ve been thinking about how most of it will have to go to Ma’s care.”
Lin was quiet, not even a sigh. I decided to change the subject. “I don’t know. It feels off. Evicting Mrs. Yang.”
“It’s not really evicting, though, is it?” Lin was parroting the lawyer in Beijing that we had hired. He liked to switch showily between English and Mandarin and had an off-putting habit of shouting at random intervals, but he was plainspoken about the situation. “You have a squatter on your hands,” he declared. “You’re saying she’s been there for more than five years by now? Ten? And she pays almost nothing? Well, I advise you to get a move on with proceedings! The longer she remains, the better her argument that your mother wanted her to have the apartment and you did nothing to signal your dissent.”
“Well, you let her just stay there all these years, right?”
“Your mother wouldn’t have drawn up a will before her illness, would she?”
“So, there’s nothing in writing that says who will hold title to the apartment once your mother passes?”
“No . . .”
“Then, you really have only one option. Talk to this woman in person. See if you can convince her to leave on her own. The apartment is in utter squalor—that’s your recollection, yes?” Ignoring my sputter of protest at the word “squalor,” he continued. “Take pictures. Write down what you see about the conditions. We may be able to argue that it’s in her best interest to vacate. After all, once you involve the courts”—he sighed—“legal proceedings often gain their own momentum, and, once they get started, you have no idea how they will resolve.”
Mrs. Yang had refused to answer any of my calls. The lawyer said no one would open the door—he had gone by multiple times.
Lin was saying into my ear, “It’s ours. Ma wanted us to have it. You know that, right?” The water had cooled. Squawking in discomfort, Ma slapped the sides of the tub.
“I’m coming,” I said to my mother. To Beijing.
The apartment was the last thread tying us to that city. I had not been back in years, less from any outright dislike than sheer inconvenience. The time difference caused massive havoc, requiring more than a week to recover from. Necessities that I usually took for granted were stripped away: orderly queuing, free and unencumbered internet access.
Not to mention how Beijing was a city made up of layers and layers of its own bones. The years in between visits were enough for parks, buildings, blocks, entire neighborhoods to be razed and rebuilt, with no resemblance to what existed previously. Every time I left China, I thought I had gained a foothold—I could walk to and from the bank and grocer and subway station without having to ask for directions. But every time I returned, I lost any sense of direction all over again.
Lin had refused to come with me. “I’d only get in the way. You’ve always been the savvy one, the daughter who knows how to get things done,” she said. “Ma always said so.”
“She did? She never said that to me.”
“I mean, she didn’t need to.”
I would have resisted harder, if not for the fact that she volunteered, without my having to ask, to look after Ma while I was away. Standing there on the porch, my suitcases piled around our feet, we hugged for a long time. She had been drinking tea, but underneath I caught a sour tang of morning breath, a constant smell from when we were little and slept in the same bed. The night before, I had overheard her talking on the phone to someone—a friend? A lover? Lin had always been cagey, ever since she was little, and to this day, I had no idea how the interior of her life looked. With whoever she was speaking to, she sounded so unlike how I knew her, her voice an octave higher, flirtily pitched, laughter and cries of “Oh, stop it. No, stop.”
Lin helped me put the suitcases into the car and slammed the trunk shut. I turned to look at her.
“When I get back, let’s catch up. Really catch up. I want to hear how you’ve been.”
“Sure. That sounds great,” she said unconvincingly, not meeting my eyes.
On my second day back in Beijing, I paid a visit to the apartment. The sky rasped a startling, rare blue. The cabbie made several wrong turns down alleys barely wide enough for a car to pass. He cursed and railed against a particular contractor who had built a luxury condo across a major throughway, creating more traffic on top of an already congested stretch—every now and then, he flicked his gaze up to the rearview mirror to see if I agreed. I shrank against the seat and repeated the last thing he said, having no idea how to say “bulldozed” and “injustice” in Mandarin. Before long, I caught a glimpse of the guesthouse’s wall, a pale streak darting through the trees. The wall had always seemed so intimidating, this glistening, pristine relic, but now, as I pressed against the window, I could make out a grimy lattice of handprints smudged across its surface.
No one answered the door. A flicker in the eyehole. I knocked and called for Mrs. Yang until a woman on the landing above emerged. “Shoo,” she huffed.
“Have you seen anyone going into this apartment today?”
She peeked at me suspiciously. “What’s it to you?”
“I’m Xie Liping’s daughter—” I gave up. Her face held no flicker of recognition. “I’ll just try again later.”
Outside, I paced and, having nothing better to do, walked the loop in the back, once teeming with weeds and wildflowers, where Lin wove her little fantasies, unruly and vast and abandoned. Now the weeds had been cleared away, the uneven dirt path paved over by asphalt, bustling with kids on their bicycles, families hurrying to the market before it closed. Before I knew it, I found myself standing in front of Wu Laoshi’s old building. I stared up at it, then turned around and trudged back.
This time, when I knocked, the door creaked open.
“Well. Come in,” said Mrs. Yang. Her left foot did not seem to bother her at all. She seemed much sturdier than I expected, an octogenarian who would go on living for years just to prove everyone wrong.
Inside was nothing like I remembered. The rotted bits in the floor had been mended, producing a patchwork of shiny spots. The cracks in the ceiling had disappeared. I wondered how Mrs. Yang had gotten the money to replace the entire drywall. The windows too had been swapped out for new ones, or so I thought, until, at close range, the teeny circles of repeated efforts at rubbing and polishing appeared. The only traces that lingered from our time in the apartment were the scorch marks. It occurred to me that perhaps Mrs. Yang had left them there on purpose, as a reminder.
“You’ve taken very good care of the place,” I admitted.
“And now you want me to leave.”
“It’s mine. Mine and Lin’s.”
She sniffed. “Technically, it’s still your Ma’s. How is she?”
“Not good.” Immediately, I regretted being so candid. I almost never told anyone, including Lin sometimes, how quickly Ma was fading. I felt it was the least I could do for her.
“I’m sorry.” Mrs. Yang pronounced this with an earnestness that undid my bravado. I couldn’t think of what to say next. There was a script the lawyer prepared, certain phrases I needed to make sure to convey, but those were as remote to me as ancient Greek at that moment.
“I’m making some tea,” she said over her shoulder. “Chrysanthemum.” Walking into the kitchen, the smell of bleach was overwhelming; bending over, as inconspicuously as I could, I scrutinized the grout in the tiling above the counters. Not a speck of black. A toothbrush, the head brown and frayed from regular scrubbing, lay within reach.
Mrs. Yang took out two mugs and a ramekin of sugar cubes and sat down with the kettle. “I suppose your ma never told you about the offer for this apartment?”
“Only after you had already moved in. She said she would let you live here until, well . . .” I trailed off.
She swatted the air with the flat of her palm. “I’m not referring to the offer she made.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m referring to mine. Sit down, Porklet. You’re making me anxious, just standing there.” I remained where I was. Shrugging, she popped a sugar cube into her mouth and sucked.
“You see this apartment as only a tidy sum, no? It’s all right. I’m sure you have things you want to do with it, dreams and hopes. As does your sister. The money from the sale will go a long way toward fulfilling those.”
Finding my voice, I retorted, “The money will be for Ma’s treatment.” The same thing I had said to Lin, ringing even more dully in my ears now.
“Of course. All that matters is what we tell ourselves, right?” She traced the rim of her cup. “That summer, when you told me about the piano teacher and Lin, remember? It was quite some time ago.”
A shadow of an afternoon, those two figures hunched at the piano bench. I bit the inside of my cheek.
“Ah. You do remember. Well, I wanted to make sure I could be here with you both. In case it happened again.” So, the spirit in our apartment that Lin had told me about turned out to be real. I finally sat.
Mrs. Yang shook her head. “He’d been teaching every boy and girl in this neighborhood for decades, and no one ever said anything. Until you. Your ma, she was confounded as to what to do.”
“Ma knew? You told her?”
“Yes. She wouldn’t believe me at first. Said you were just a child. Said you didn’t know what you saw. ‘Yes,’ I told her. ‘Quite possible that Yan may have gotten confused. So why not ask Lin?’”
My mouth was open. I was aware of every breath I took.
“Do you know what she said?”
“No,” I replied, dazed.
“She said she liked piano and wanted to keep playing. And then she said the reason she liked it so much was because Wu Laoshi played piano on her.”
“You mean with her?”
“No.” Mrs. Yang’s face blazed. “On her.”
Outside the open window, I could hear the rabble of children playing or fighting—it was hard to tell. Piercing through their noise, the calls of a vendor selling tanghulu. Lin and I used to get a skewer apiece, competing to see whose stick had the biggest date or strawberry.
“Well. After that, your ma told Lin no more lessons. Oh, how she screamed. Threw herself onto the floor and sobbed until she frothed at the mouth and whacked her head against the wall. Your ma also wanted to go confront Wu Laoshi, but how was this any proof? He would only deny it and, besides, imagine the impact that would have had on Lin. An accusation could take on a life of its own. But I had an idea. In the summers, when your ma had to work, I would stay here and watch you girls. I would know if it happened again—no, not from Lin, of course. From you.”
I pictured Lin, the way she held everything back and how easily, in comparison, I gave up how I felt. On the wall facing us danced bright lozenges of color cast by the sun.
“I kept watching all these years. You may wonder how an old, weak lady like me could have gone up against him even if he tried but”—she cleared her throat—“I would have figured it out. Your ma was grateful. Said I could live here for as long as I wanted.”
“Why? Why would you do that for us?”
Mrs. Yang gave a cluck, as though, by needing to ask, I had missed the point.
I didn’t know what to make of this generosity, the kind that didn’t need to be written down, or explained, or dangled right in front of our noses, begging to be acknowledged. It had the quality of a memory, timeworn, yellowing around the edges. Flaring and sinking down into a single spark, only to be revived, day after day. I thought of how I’d explain to Lin that I’d spoken to Mrs. Yang and we’d reached an agreement, how my sister would brush past my reasoning and ask, “Just get to the point—what does this mean for us,” and I’d have to spell it out—how the apartment wasn’t really ours in the way I had always assumed it to be. How letting Mrs. Yang stay (“Just for a bit longer,” I’d tell Lin and the lawyer. “She’s kept it up well.”) was doing her a terribly meager kindness. How Lin wouldn’t understand, not at first.
But I would spare her the entire story. I could be generous too.
About the Author
Joy Guo is a writer and regulatory attorney based in New York. Her work has been published in Passages North, Craft, SmokeLong Quarterly, Chestnut Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.joyguowrites.com.