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My mother has not slept for seven days. My father is arguably the one suffering most from this: she has not kept a rigid schedule ever since she reached pension age as a public school teacher, whereas he works for a local bank and is still going at it after forty-one years. According to him, she tosses and turns for the first few hours, then goes out to the living room and watches television at a daytime volume. (“It woke you up? You can hear it even with all your snoring?”)
It is impossible to tell how accurate my mother’s pronouncement of absolute sleeplessness is. When my father and I wonder aloud whether she ever drifts off without noticing—perhaps a dreamless, fleeting snooze?—she accuses us of ganging up on her.
I have tried to get her an appointment at the National Taiwan University Hospital, the most prestigious hospital and therefore the only one she trusts. But the online portal shows that sleep diagnostic appointments, perhaps the most coveted birthday present among all middle-aged Taiwanese people, are filled up for the next five weeks. Tonight, though my colleagues had plans to eat out, I have come to my parents’ apartment to have dinner and tell her the bad news.
“Five weeks? Are you insane?” she cries. “I’m dying by the minute.”
I’m dying by the minute is one of her favorite phrases at the moment. My father and I joke privately that my mother is like a jukebox. Push the wrong button, and one of her oft-repeated monologues will start to play, regardless of what the conversation was previously about. Among these familiar refrains are: my brother being absent, my brother’s wife “hoodwinking” him into absence, my father’s intolerable snoring, and me “ungratefully” siding with my father over her in every dispute. Once one of her monologues begins, there is no stopping her. The only thing we can do is wait for it to play itself out. Jukeboxes have no remotes—only buttons to push.
“Here we go again,” I say, making meaningful eye contact with my father.
“Don’t you talk back to me,” she says. “I didn’t put all this blood and sweat into raising children just so they can talk back to me.” Continuing to beat eggs with a pair of chopsticks, she raises a mournful face up at the ceiling, resembling a painting of some long-suffering Christian saint. “I already have an absent son and a hoodwinker daughter-in-law, I can’t take an ungrateful daughter on top of it all. I can’t. I’m dying by the minute.”
My brother, four years older, was once an unusually beautiful child and is now a distinctly good-looking adult. I am an average-looking adult but was once a distinctly ugly child. This has become part of the family lore: how ugly I used to be. Hair that shot up as if blasted by dynamite, eyes that were permanently puffy, and chubbiness everywhere except in the cheeks and legs, which made for a pearish, disturbingly adult shape. My mother now laughs about this with acquaintances who express surprise at how much I’ve changed. Heavens, can you imagine if she hadn’t?
A popular saying: A female changes in eighteen ways when grown, specifically used to describe plain girls who turn into better-looking women. The proverb derives from a Buddhist tale whose original significance is now colloquially lost; the number eighteen is, contrary to popular belief, not literal—it just means many.
Being an ugly child has informed my life greatly. Not only has my brother always been handsome, he also showed an early gift for music. Because I was neither physically nor musically blessed, and because my mother could not be certain that I would undergo eighteen or more changes in time, she decided early on that I was an intellectual prodigy. She taught me to read before I started kindergarten. She convinced me and others that I had a precocious, undimmable glint in my monolid eyes. A marker of innate intelligence. A refrain that she repeated often: You are smart, smart, smart.
Back then, I thought that my mother hated me, tolerated my father, and loved my brother—a gradient, a spectrum. I know that I thought this because I wrote it down in a diary when I was seven, complete with a chart. (Smart, smart, smart.) I have always had a passion for symmetry and sketched out the natural reversal in my wonky second-grade hand: I hated my mother, tolerated my brother, and loved my father.
Things got especially fraught with my mother whenever my appearance was put under the spotlight. At the hair salon, for example, she would hover behind the pump-up chair and cite my elementary school accolades to the hairdresser. I remember avoiding the mirror; I did not want to see my own face, or the hairdresser’s, or my mother’s. I fretted silently that she would produce my latest pop quiz from her handbag.
When I was ten, my mother was constantly furious that I would let my mouth hang open. It made me look dumb, she said, and I was smart. Now, why would a smart person let herself look so incredibly dumb? One day we went to the dentist, who told her my mouth hung open because I had sprouted overlarge adult teeth and needed braces. Hadn’t my mother noticed how my lips couldn’t close over the buckteeth? She had not, but was thrilled by the actionable diagnosis.
Around the same time, my brother hit puberty and met with a small crisis. Acne. My mother taught him to use her Shiseido products: cleanser, toner, moisturizer. Massage like so. Never scratch. Never pop, for crying out loud. He survived the danger.
Two years later, when it was my turn to be plagued by acne, my mother gave me a tube of topical medicine and told me to eat less junk food. Never mind that I rarely ate junk food because of the braces.
For many years, I wondered why I have always conversed so easily with my father but not with my mother. (The answer is not just that my brother is her preferred child. I am my father’s preferred child, which eases the sting.) Recently, after moving into dormitories for college, then moving south to Hsinchu for work, and finally returning to Taipei and spending time with my parents regularly for the first time since high school, I can at last articulate the cause of this gap: my mother talks past me.
A conversation is an exchange, but not between us. When my mother tells me something—gossip, political news, her latest encounter with shameless youth on the metro—she does only that, tells me. She is never seeking a response or a reaction. Even when she shows me two shirts and asks which she should wear, she turns away with her own decision before I can make a peep.
Meanwhile, when I’m the one speaking, she has a habit of changing the subject abruptly, as if I am a track on a CD that she has chosen to skip. She sometimes does this even when I am speaking to my father and not to her, ejecting me from the metaphorical player and restarting her obstinate jukebox. This is why, I think, I can often predict my mother’s opinion on something before she voices it, whereas she is often baffled by my views. (Her: “It’s because you’re too smart for your own good.”) This is maybe also why I am generally good at finding gifts for her, whereas she is forever shocked by my likes and dislikes.
Another possibility is that I am overthinking, and this is how things always are with mothers and daughters. Either way, the ejection is happening right now at the dinner table:
Me, to my father: “—and then my landlord said that I should just get a plastic cover.”
My father: “But if you cover the drain, how would it drain?”
Me: “Exactly. But he insists that the cockroaches infiltrate from outside the—”
My mother, to my father: “Didn’t Liou Jing-han say he’s going to Virginia for his son’s graduation? Maybe he can go talk some sense into Hao, since that hoodwinker will never . . .”
I do not know who Liou Jing-han is, and I cannot talk “sense” into my brother. Three days ago, I texted him asking him to call our mother, saying she’s been having trouble sleeping. He has left the message as “read.” So when my mother interrupts me, I do not protest.
It was probably lonelier to grow up alongside a bond as strong as my mother and brother’s than to grow up alone. My mother always seemed to have information about my brother that nobody else did. That he wanted to see a new movie sequel, for example, when my father and I didn’t even know that he had seen the first installment. Or that he was running out of lead for his mechanical pencils. She calls him Hao, an abbreviation of his name that nobody else uses—not me, not my father, and not, eventually, my brother’s wife.
Another ancient saying: A country relies on its generals; a family relies on its eldest son. By now, my brother has proven the obsolescence of this sentiment and broken my mother’s heart several times over. First, by marrying young, to a Taiwanese American woman whom he met while she was soul-searching in her ancestral land. Then, by deciding to make a home of his wife’s home, which is Washington, D.C. Then, by consistently siding with his wife over our mother on everything. The little things: whether to buy the silicone spatula or the stainless steel one, whether to have lunch together or dinner. The big things: whether his wife would follow Taiwanese zuo yue zi customs after childbirth or do postpartum yoga instead, whether the grandchildren would spend the summer in Taipei with their grandparents or in the Catskills instead.
Regarding this last point: the verdict arrived last week that the Catskills had triumphed over the grandparents. My father speculates that this news may have triggered my mother’s sudden insomnia. But the dates do not line up: my brother called six days ago with the news, whereas my mother has not slept in seven.
The dinner table is tense now that my brother’s wife’s hoodwinking and my brother’s absence have been monologized. The songs are almost all played out.
My mother has not slept for seven days, going on eight.
My father stands to collect the dishes.
“What are you doing?” my mother demands.
“I’m doing the dishes. You said you’re dizzy.”
“And having you chip all the plates is going to make me less dizzy?”
This is not unfounded. My father is an undeniable klutz. I stand. “I’ll do it.”
“You always side with him,” my mother says. “Even though all he does is snore.”
“Side with him? It’s just dishes, Ma.”
“A daughter-in-law who’s never done the dishes for me, a thirty-year-old daughter doing my dishes, single. What kind of logic is this?”
There are separate verbs for sons marrying and daughters marrying. Sons qǔ, marry-in: they bring new members into the family. Daughters jià, marry-out: they leave the family for somebody else’s. Old ideas take longer to cycle out when baked into the very vocabulary. My brother and, supposedly, his wife and children, belong to our parents; I only belong to them for as long as I am unmarried. Can one blame a mother for growing more attached to the child she would keep forever?
“Don’t be so old-fashioned,” my father says.
“Old-fashioned? If there’s anything old about me, it’s because you made me old.”
Until my brother’s marriage, I could only ever see one interpretation of our family dynamic: that my mother and brother’s love for each other was so overpowering that it shut out everything and everybody that attempted to partake in it. It was my brother’s wife, the “hoodwinker,” who first suggested otherwise. She is of the belief that my mother had suppressed my brother’s individuality with her all-consuming attention, making him unable to partake in our family as his true, individual self.
She told me so at the after-party of their wedding, in a Taipei night club, when she was extremely drunk. The words she used to present her theory sounded preselected—these were words that had been said to other ears before. It both horrified and thrilled me a little to think that my brother may have selected these words with her. He was not a boy—and is not, today, a man of many words. To think that he had put these particular ones together is uncanny.
This “heart-to-heart,” as my brother’s wife called it in English, was not without hurdles: my English is only functional, and her Mandarin is barely passable. Also, I am more talkative than my brother, but not extremely. I told her so. She seized on this point. “But he is talkative.” He and she had talked through the night when they first met. Here her theory strikes again: he is not talkative in Mandarin because my mother’s suffocating pampering had sapped his ability to assert himself as an individual in his native tongue. In English—she winked at me, a thing nobody had ever done to me in real life—he’s not only demonstrative, but even romantic.
Was this theory possible? Do I concede that my mother had suppressed, suffocated, stunted my brother’s powers of expression? Perhaps. But has he suffered? Can anyone who has watched my mother and brother pat Shiseido cream into each other’s faces claim that he has definitively suffered from her love?
My brother’s wife knows best, I suppose. That night, she told me uncorroborated tales of his talkativeness and his thoughtfulness. She is the one, nowadays, who would know if he wants to see a movie sequel, or if his pencils need more lead.
At the kitchen sink, I take the ultimate measure. I text my brother’s wife, my sister, a thing that I do even less often than texting my brother. I pull out my phone and type in English: Hi sister! Does my brother has time to call? My mother can’t sleep for a week and we are very worried.
“This article says to try counting down from ten thousand,” my father says.
“Don’t start,” my mother says.
“Well, have you tried it?”
“I’m so dizzy. I’m dying. Truly.”
The phone rings. My mother jumps up, catapulting her chopsticks into the air.
My brother must be something of a talker after all, because my mother isn’t saying very much on our end. But there is exchange—I can see it in her face. Her face softens. It is soft as a cloud. If I were to put a finger to her nose, her face would disperse like a smoke ring.
After they hang up, even though it is only eight o’clock, my mother changes into her pajamas and shuts the door to the bedroom.
It is past midnight when my mother shows up at the door of my apartment.
“I’m dying by the minute. I didn’t sleep a wink after talking to Hao. One more millisecond of your father’s snoring and I’ll—”
“Come in, then.”
“Eight nights. Eight nights! Over a week!”
I am a little annoyed, for she is almost always annoying to me, and I was in the middle of watching some YouTube vlogs of Taiwanese people living in California, which I know would remind her of unpleasant things and which I would therefore have to cease watching. But, as I open the door for her, I am also feeling curious: Does she really not sleep? At all? What does she do with all those hours? If I stayed up with her, would we actually get to talking, exchanging, conversing? Can a night with me cure her, when even a call with my brother can’t?
(So perhaps my father’s preference doesn’t completely cancel out the sting of my mother’s non-preference. Perhaps nothing in the world can cancel out the sting of a mother’s non-preference.)
I suggest that we try a meditation podcast together.
“I hate those breathy voices. So pretentious.”
“What about some warm milk? The oldest cure.”
“. . . Fine.”
“OK, I’ll just pop right down to the 7-Eleven.”
“You don’t have milk? I’ll just have whatever you have here, then.”
“Well, there’s only orange juice and water. But—”
“You’re thirty, and the only thing you have at home is orange juice?”
How quickly she manages to bulldoze my resolve. I ask if she would prefer to take the bed or the living room, which has the television. She chooses the television. I tell her that this seems like accepting defeat before the battle has even begun. She scoffs with so much gusto that a sprinkle of saliva lands across my dining table. “I’m an old woman. I’m done with battles.”
There is nothing to say to this, so there is a pause. She cuts it short: “You know those old couples who’ve retired together and do everything together? Tai chi classes and calligraphy classes and cruise vacations? Walks in the park—holding hands and everything?”
I nod encouragingly. I prepare myself for a private confession of her affection for my father. I soften my face.
“It’s disgusting. When you get to that point in your life, you should focus on being on your own. Not relying on anyone. That’s how you’ll die, anyway. On your own. Clinging on to your spouse before you’re about to kick the bucket—it’s pathetic is what it is.”
This is a new monologue, a new song I have never heard. It sounds likely to be a hit single, to be played on a loop for years, if not for the rest of her life. (How many years are left?)
“So should I give up on finding a spouse? Get a head start on learning to die alone?”
“I’m talking about old people. It goes like this: get a job, get married, have kids, raise them well, retire, learn to be on your own, die. Don’t rely on anyone when you’re near the end.”
It occurs to me that she has ticked off most of this list—that she might truly believe she doesn’t rely on anyone. Maybe she doesn’t.
She says, in a low grumble, “It’s stupid Confucius who had us believing we all owe something to each other . . . stupid . . .” Her hands are busy straightening the things on my dining table: a pen, a box of tissues, a mug. “That includes you.”
“You and I don’t owe each other,” she says.
Seven, almost eight days ago, my mother came across me reading a book by a Taiwanese woman working in Silicon Valley. The title: My Little Dreams: Immigrant Life in America.
No, it isn’t that I want things simply because my brother has them. And no, it isn’t that I simply want to spite my mother. It is mostly that I am more than a third of the way through my life and work and books and first dates are beginning to feel recursive and I am beginning to suspect that my life, were it to continue this way, will simmer down to a less flavorful broth than others’ by its end.
It is mostly all that.
I raise my face. “Ma, let’s go to bed.”
I fall asleep immediately, almost as if to taunt her. I am having a rather stressful dream about having to acquire fancy chocolates to express gratitude for my teachers when I wake to noise outside my bedroom.
It takes a few seconds to recall that my mother is outside. She is using the microwave, I gather. What can she be microwaving? There are only raw ingredients in the refrigerator—a couple of onions, some ground pork, uncooked rice. The only other thing is the juice.
The television is on, but softly. My bedroom door is directly behind the couch, so I cannot open it to spy on her without her noticing. And I do not want to speak to her.
I press my ear against the crack, and am so focused on making out what she is watching that I don’t hear the other sounds until a little while later. Slurping. Throat clearing. Shuffling. Thudding of a mug on a coaster. Sniffling, or maybe something else.
Minutes and hours pass. I stay awake, crouched against my bedroom door. I stay awake, making crescent marks on my thighs with my nails. I stay awake, wondering if moonlight pushes shadows from one corner to another the way sunlight does.
Until I hear a gentle snoring.
Lin King is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. She translates from Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, Asymptote, Public Books, and The Margins, among others, and has won the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize. She is an MFA candidate and instructor of undergraduate writing at Columbia University.
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