The child was not easy. She was often sick, wailed at all hours of the night and for some reason, flinched at her mother’s touch. She preferred her father’s voice, which soothed her finicky ways and it was always a relief when the husband came home from work and could, at least for an hour or so, take the baby into his arms.Oftentimes, when the baby slept in the afternoon the woman would lie down next to the small bundle and stare at the baby’s face, searching for signs of herself. She studied the little girl’s forehead, the tiny crease between the brows, the round little nose and the soft tiny lips that curved slightly up towards the requisite chubby cheeks that framed every baby’s face. Was this her daughter? She did not know if it was her or the child, but if the woman was absolutely honest – and in the quiet of her high rise home, what else could she be but honest – she knew it was both. Even when the girl was still inside of her the woman had felt a strange detachment, and now that the little body was out, the cord cut, mother and daughter were permanently severed from one another, the detachment was confirmed. The woman did not imagine it when the little girl pushed herself away with tiny fists, or leaned back from her mother’s face.
The baby was not the only person who seemed averse to her mother’s appearance. The pregnancy had left the woman in a physical lurch – she was still hanging onto her baby weight and there was hardly anything she could do about her skin, which had taken on a permanent tone of yellow, as though she were jaundiced. Dark rings encircled her once bright eyes and deep lines had appeared at the corners of her mouth. The worst however, was that no amount of washing could revive her limp and now perpetually greasy hair. Her husband had not shied away from hiding his distaste and in the beginning, joked that he missed being able to put a single arm around her waist and now needed to use both, but he seldom did that. Not one to sugarcoat things, her mother-in-law had remarked one day, “My goodness having this child seems to have aged you ten years.”
The woman did not know quite how to respond except to nod. A few minutes later, trying to catch her breath in the bathroom she saw herself in the mirror and nodded again. Her mother in law was right – she looked terrible. But still, the older woman could have been kinder and recalled her own difficulties after pregnancy. But they were living in a different time now –economically, things for the family were moving ahead splendidly. The company had expanded rapidly and the man was gone more than ever, having added plenty of international travel to his schedule, but soon after their daughter’s birth they had moved into a larger apartment in a part of town and arranged for his parents to relocate to a nicer apartment close by.
The mother-in-law was pleased. Her son had brought them a life they could never have imagined and she was getting accustomed to a life of luxury and the air of authority she thought such riches brought. Before she had felt a sort of inadequacy to her daughter-in-law’s family, but now it was clear her son was the sole and quite successful provider of the family’s financial well being. It was only a matter of time before the daughter-in-law’s parents would reap the benefits as well. She, as the mother to the son had a right now, to point out the woman’s shortcomings and make sure things were well at home. Slowly, in this way things began to shift. The baby cried and grew longer. The woman, less audibly, cried as well and grew too, as she learned to pass the time with food, the only source of emotional nourishment she could find in abundance.
They hired a full-time, live-in housekeeper, which meant the woman had less to do around the house and could instead focus her attentions on their daughter’s growth and development. She knew what to do, after all, her parents had done a fine job with her, but like many mothers from Taiwan, did not know quite how to balance care for the child with care for oneself. When she was younger she had wrinkled her nose at the women her mother’s age (though not her mother), who had all but let themselves go when they became mothers and by focusing their energies on their daughters, began to live vicariously through them, shunning what they deemed to be frivolities now that they were mothers: visits to the nail, skin and hair salons; new clothes; fancy purses and shoes. These women were eventually cuckqueaned and left utterly alone.
Now it was time to remember. As a young girl the woman had observed many marriages built not on love, trust or partnership, but it seemed, on time alone. Perhaps a man and woman had met and fallen in love and intended to feed and nurture this love until the end of their days, but after marriage, after children, and after all the million other small or large things that a marriage between two people is comprised of, their love was stretched thin, became brittle and eventually shattered. Was love limited? The woman was hardly a romantic but she didn’t think so – love could be endless, but it had to be fed just as her baby daughter needed to be fed, just as her husband’s enterprise needed to be fed. But after they both attended to their most pressing and prominent relationships, what little energy was left could hardly be applied to their relationship. The woman realized that neither she nor her husband would do anything further to better or destroy the marriage – at least not that she could see. She played her role as mother dutifully, drove her daughter to and from school and piano lessons and various tutors until the girl was old enough to navigate the public transport system, and even then it was she that made sure her daughter received her monthly allowance.
In the evenings the woman read quietly, waiting for husband and daughter to return home. When they did, there was little if any conversation. Sometimes the woman would look up and gaze at her husband, who sat and stared at the television or spoke on the phone, his voice still young and full of authority. She had loved his voice and didn’t mind, she realized, listening to him conduct his affairs at home, but still, he had little to say to her. On certain evenings she felt estranged from the whole scene, as though she were watching two people move around an apartment she didn’t live in, but of course she lived there. It was decorated in her taste, adorned with photographs she had taken and hung. But the photographs told a very different tale than the one unfolding slowly, minute by minute, hour by hour in the high rise apartment. The smiling man and woman, slim and content looking in the photographs had both gained weight and their faces more lined. At least he still had his hair.
From her seat on the couch she watched him lean back and talk, head bent slightly into the receiver, which held with his right hand. The lamp shone a golden glow on his hair, its color absorbed into the thick black strands. He liked to keep it short but when things got busy the last thing he had time for was a haircut. When he was thinking about something he would reach up with his left and run his hands over it. She could almost hear the strands bending with an obedient whoosh. The woman would self-consciously touch her own hair, half of which she seemed to have lost. Still, she found romance in his gesture, remembered it from their college days, when in the park he would walk with his arms behind his head. And suddenly it would be as though her gaze became too heavy and he could feel its weight. He would turn, their eyes would meet, and he would push himself up and away to continue his conversation in another room.
As a couple they made appearances at family functions and company dinners where the woman rather enjoyed herself until when it was time to leave the man would make a terse but cruel remark: “Could you please not wear that again, it makes your belly protrude,” or worse, if the woman asked him something about someone – perhaps a female colleague whom she’d observed being excessively fawning of him, “Who was she? She was quite pretty,” he would say nothing at all. And under this neglect, what else could the marriage do but pass the time?