By this time next week, my parents will have been in New York for one day. They are coming to visit me en route to Canada, where they’ll rendezvous with their retired friends to take in Canada’s fall foliage.
“It’s a good time of year,” I said, when they first proposed the dates, “It won’t be too cold, and there might be a hint of fall colors. And it’s about time you guys met Tom.”
My father grunted, “I don’t need to meet him. I’ve seen his picture.”
“Betty’s right,” my mother said. I could picture her smiling into the receiver. “It’s about time we visited her in New York and met Mr. Tom.”
The last time my mom came to New York was ten years ago, to help me move into NYU. I was eighteen and in New York for the second time ever. My brother and cousin Karen came with and the week before school started, we rented an old but clean two bedroom apartment near Greenwich Village. We bought breakfast foods from the nearby Morton Williams, made toast and fried eggs in the mornings and walked around the city, doing the requisite touristy things – we went to the top of the Empire State Building, saw the Statue of Liberty, took a photo or two in Times Square.
They accompanied me on multiple trips to the first two (or was it three) story Bed Bath and Beyond I’d ever been to, and made sure I had all the necessary dorm room items – scratchy sheets, a too-warm duvet, laundry basket, plastic storage bins, a desk lamp. There was also a shitty, three-cup rice cooker that always produced something closer to congee regardless of how much water I put in. For dinners, because there was no such thing as Yelp! and as I was coming from suburbia and emerging from an age where The Cheesecake Factory was a good restaurant, we ate at restaurants that have surely since been shuttered. There was however one Chinese restaurant we wandered into one evening, and which I continued to frequent after my mom, brother and Karen left. It was called Wok n’ Roll. A quick Yelp! search tells me there are many Chinese restaurants in and around New York with the same name, but the one I, and my roommate too, after I’d taken her there one evening, returned to time and again in Greenwich Village no longer exists. It helped me through some hard times, but the abundance of grease, sugar and MSG in the delicious orange chicken – no doubt it made the hard times harder.
That first week in New York, I ignored the lineup of orientation and welcome activities NYU held for incoming freshman, telling myself my family was in town and my time would be better spent hanging with them. I could, and would make new friends later. This is only partially true.
What happened when they, my familiar cocoon left, is that I cried on the corner of Washington Square Park for a good ten minutes as their taxi drove off. I could see my cousin Karen turning around to look at me from the rearview mirror until my tears blurred her face. They turned left and out of sight. I was alone in New York City.
A few months later, after a tear-ridden telephone conversation with my parents about feeling depressed and directionless, my mother bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room. She would come to New York, she said, and take me home. Unbeknownst to me, my brother told my mother to calm down. He’d come to New York alone and bring me home. He called me one chilly December evening, as I was trudging home from another mind-numbing astronomy class, and asked what I wanted for dinner. He was at JFK, and would be in Manhattan within an hour.
I screamed, then said I could eat whatever. I was very fat then.
“Steak,” he said, because he always wants steak, “Let’s get a good steak.”
I forget where we ate that night, but I remember smiling across the table from my brother, feeling less anxious and happier than I’d been in a long while. I called my mother that night and told her I was coming home, that I was done with New York. For a while.
“Good,” she said, so was she. For a while.
I was sitting with Tom in his room, deliberating what to read before bed.
“Nope,” I said, thinking about all the unread books I had at home, “I’ve got everything I need right here.”
“Good,” she said.
“I’ve been thinking about your visit though,” I said, “Is there anything in particular you and dad want to see?”
“No, not really.”
“No like…scenic spot you guys really want to see?”
“No museums. And I doubt your dad will want to sit through any shows.”
I smiled. My father’s last trip to New York was some fifteen, twenty years ago, when he’d come with a friend cum business partner, Uncle Xia, and Uncle Xia’s sister. They had had a few steak dinners and attended a concert at Lincoln Center, where both my father and Uncle Xia fell asleep, snoring. Some minutes later an usher tapped my father on the shoulder, politely asking them to leave.
My father was sitting next to my mother, who had me on speakerphone. “I want to see Columbia,” he called out, “And that one park in the middle.”
“Bah. Central Park. It’s called Central Park.”
“I just want to see you and your little apartment,” my mother said, “And I want to meet Mr. Tom!”
“I know,” I cast a sideways glance at Tom, knowing he was anxious about meeting them.
“I’m going to get my hair cut tomorrow,” my mother said brightly, “I don’t want Tom to think, ‘My goodness Betty’s mom is a slob!'”
I laughed, “He wouldn’t think that. And besides, at least you have hair to cut.”
Tom heard my mother’s loud laugh and gave me a look. He hears his name enough amidst flurries of Mandarin to know he is often the topic of conversation.
“Don’t poke fun at him,” my mother said.
“He can handle it.”
We discussed the weather (“I don’t know. It might be cold. It might be really cold. It might not be cold at all. It might rain every day. It might be sunny.”) then said good night and hung up. I turned to Tom.
“Did you hear my mom laugh?”
“I did,” he said, putting down his Kindle.
“She said she was going to get her hair cut for you, because she didn’t want you to think she was a slob.”
“I told her at least she has hair to cut.”
He rolled his eyes, “Har har.”
“They’re very excited to meet you.”
He groaned, suddenly looking very tired. “It’s going to be awful.”
I shook my head, patted his arm. There, there. I knew my parents and I knew Tom. I knew it would be anything but.