Chicken and Egg

(This is a short story I wrote in June 2006 while I was taking a community college creative writing class. I submitted it to the college’s literary magazine and won 3rd place with a $10 prize. My husband uses this to claim that I am an award-winning writer.)

Charlotte was so excited, the moment she had dreamt of for months had finally come. She hummed “Take this Job and Shove It” as she typed an instant message to her boss, asking him to meet her for a few minutes. Surprise, surprise, he said he was busy, but she sent another IM back insisting that she needed to talk to him today, and it would only take a few minutes. He grudgingly, she thought, agreed to meet her at 5:30.

She went to his office at 5:30, and, of course, he wasn’t there. She sat down in his visitor’s chair and glanced around his office. There were photos of his daughters and drawings they had made for him. She had wondered how he could seem so loving to his two daughters yet be so dismissive and unappreciative of the two women who worked for him.< She figured it must be some passive-aggressive thing.

The paper crinkled in her hand as she toyed with it, her resignation letter. That described it perfectly, she had felt resigned to this job for months. She had stopped resisting, had given up hope that things could get better. But things were getting better. Her face brightened into a grin as Graham walked in.

“I have to leave in a few minutes, so could we make this quick?” he asked.

“Sure, no problem,” she said. “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve decided to leave the company. Here is my resignation letter,” she said as she placed the paper on his desk. “My last day will be on July 4th.” She had decided to stay until June 30th because the next stock purchase was that day, and then it seemed poetic or maybe ironic to leave on Independence Day.

“You’re leaving? Now? When we’re in the middle of a product release? Why can’t you wait until the next version ships?” his voice got louder with each question.

“Well, to be honest, it seems to me that there’s never a really good time to leave. When you’re in the beginning or middle of the project, of course you’re busy, and then towards the end you’re already planning the next release,” she answered testily, angry that she was defending herself yet again when she frankly had the right to leave whenever the hell she felt like it. “This was the longest I felt I could stay.” That sounded rude to her so she added, “I’ve made plans for this summer starting in July.”

“I really don’t need this right now, I already have so much work to do, I don’t have time to find a replacement. Can’t you at least stay until we find someone else?” he said.

“You just said you don’t have time to find a replacement, you’re basically asking me to stay here indefinitely. I’m not sure you heard me correctly, I said I’m leaving. I’m here to inform you, not negotiate with you.” She stood up as she said this, her fists and jaw clenching as she fought back her indignation that he thought he could bully her into staying.

“Wait a minute, you never said where you were going. Are you going to Google or Yahoo! or something?” he asked.

“Let’s just say I’m moving on, and leave it at that,” she said and walked out.

She hadn’t wanted to tell him the reason, figuring it would only reinforce whatever low opinion he already had of her.

She was eight weeks pregnant and instead of waiting until she was bursting with child before she took maternity leave, she had decided to quit her job early and do some of these things she’d always wanted to do before having children.

She’d always felt she should know more before becoming a mother. She should know how to cook, how to sew, and how to speak her parents’ native language, Cantonese, so she could teach her children to speak it. And it would be fun to do a little traveling too.

Charlotte had felt confident about her decision earlier when she had talked to her husband about it, but now that she had finally done it, buyer’s remorse was setting in. She had just resigned from a near six figure job to do what, learn to be a housewife or a nanny? No, a mother, she reminded herself. She needed to learn to mother her future children, and she needed time to mother herself.

One item on Charlotte’s list of things to do before giving birth was to spend time with her mother Su Lin, practicing Cantonese and learning what it means to be a Chinese person. Su Lin had come to the U.S. with $400, Charlotte’s older brother Bruce, and Charlotte still in her womb. There was a bookstore near the restaurant where she got a job as a waitress, and one day in the window she saw a book cover with a girl and a pig and in big letters “Charlotte’s Web”. She didn’t know what a web was at the time, but she thought the girl on the cover looked nice and very American. Years later Charlotte told her that she had named her only daughter after a spider, but she insisted it must have been some other book.

Charlotte spent the first few weeks after quitting her job cleaning the house, watching daytime TV, and napping frequently. She finally called her mother and arranged to get together for lunch.

She was driving to the restaurant when, as usual, her cell phone rang fifteen minutes early. “Hi, Mom.”

“Where are you?” her mother asked as though she had no idea where Charlotte could possibly be.

“On the freeway,” Charlotte said, trying unsuccessfully to hide her annoyance.

“When will you be here?”

“At 11 o’clock, which is when we’re supposed to have lunch,” she said sarcastically, abandoning her attempt to be nice.

“Well, call me when you get close.”

Charlotte hung up her phone and thought, “I’m fifteen minutes from the restaurant now, isn’t that already close?”

Charlotte hugged her mother in front of the restaurant, sighing at her mother’s quirkiness.

“Hi, Mom, how’ve you been?” Charlotte asked as they sat at an empty table.

“Oh, Sophia gave me some persimmons, you have to take some after lunch. And I bought some pork buns for you. Do you want some flowers?”

“Um, Mitch and I just bought some, thanks.” Charlotte eyed the menu even though they usually ordered the same dishes every time they ate at this restaurant.

After the waiter came by and took their order, Charlotte tried to make small talk. “I started my Cantonese class.”

“Oh, that’s good. How’s the baby doing?” Su Lin asked as she took her napkin and started wiping off her plate, her cup, and then Charlotte’s plate and cup.

“The baby’s fine. I’ve started getting some morning sickness, but it’s not too bad.”

“I never had any morning sickness. Your mommy is very strong. I came home and cooked dinner the day you were born.”

“Yeah, right, so you’ve said. Now remember, you’re supposed to help me practice my Cantonese so by the time the baby is born I’ll be able to speak more,” Charlotte reminded her firmly.

“Yes, yes,” Su Lin said absently, looking around at the dishes being served to other tables.

“I want to learn some of your recipes too,” Charlotte said as she poured her mother more tea.

“Sure, when I have time.” Su Lin paused and her voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Have you told your father yet?”

“No, we stopped talking. I don’t plan on telling him.” Charlotte sipped her tea and noticed her hands shaking slightly.

“You should tell him, it’s his grandchild.”

“So what? He was never around enough to be my father, I’m sure as hell not going to let him near my child.”

“Well, when is he going to be released?”

“I’m not sure, but I think in February of next year.”

“That’s when the baby’s due, isn’t it?” The food arrived, and Su Lin started spooning large portions onto Charlotte’s plate.

“So? He’s probably going to get deported once he’s released. He’ll go back to Hong Kong, and there’s no way for him to come back here unless one of his children petitions for it. Even if Bruce or I do, it’s unlikely they’ll agree to allow someone with a criminal record back here.” Charlotte realized suddenly that her hands were gripping the sides of the table. The table creaked when she let go.

“Look, Mom, I don’t want to talk about it. Just drop it.”

Su Lin didn’t say anything more about it over lunch, but Charlotte knew that was probably not the last she would hear about it. Su Lin had nagged Charlotte for years into calling her father for Father’s Day or for his birthday, and always out of love for her mother, she would do it, feeling like a fraud, pretending to be the loyal daughter. She was loyal all right, to her mother, not her father.

Charlotte’s grandiose plans of learning to knit, cook, sew, and travel quickly fizzled into lying on the couch, desperately fighting to stay awake while listening to her Cantonese tapes, and ripping off her headphones each time she vomited into the trash can beside her.

Weeks passed and even though she lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, some trees’ leaves did begin to glow fiery red and yellow in the early rays of dawn.

Charlotte’s belly grew larger and larger until she didn’t bother wearing anything with a zipper or buttons anymore. It was all about stretchy spandex. Her morning sickness finally subsided to the point where she could be around food without having to carefully sprint to the nearest toilet or sink. And finally to where she could start learning her mother’s recipes.

Charlotte sat in her mother’s cluttered kitchen one day folding won ton wrappers around a mixture of choy sum, shrimp, green onion, and ginger.

Su Lin stood over a big pot of water that she set to boil. “When the baby is born, I’ll make you ginger soup and pig’s feet.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know why, that’s just what women who have babies are supposed to eat.”

“Mom, you’re supposed to be teaching me what it means to be a Chinese person. All I’m getting is a bunch of strange traditions that have no meaning or purpose except you said to do them.” Charlotte dipped her finger into the bowl of water and used it to seal the won ton she was assembling.

“Well, you asked,” Su Lin retorted.

Charlotte sighed. She enjoyed learning her mother’s recipes, but she couldn’t imagine having the time to cook once the baby was born. She was still exhausted most of the time, and she knew she had many sleepless nights ahead of her.

Su Lin adjusted the temperature on the stove and said matter-of-factly over her shoulder, “Christmas is just a few weeks away now. You should send your father a card and tell him about the baby.”

Charlotte inhaled and exhaled deeply enough that she could hear her breath. “Mom, I already told you. I stopped talking to Dad a while ago, and I don’t plan to start talking to him now. Regardless of the circumstances.”

“But he’s your father. This is his grandchild. Your brother probably isn’t going to have any children, this is his only chance.”

“Why do you care? He’s never been nice to you, and you haven’t even seen him in over 10 years.” Charlotte heard her voice getting louder as though it were someone else’s voice.

“This is not about me. This is about doing what’s right. You want to know what being a Chinese person means? It means respecting your parents, even though they’re not perfect.”

“Not perfect? That’s an understatement. He shot someone.”

“Well, that’s all in the past.” Su Lin took the bowl of won tons Charlotte had made and added them to the pot of boiling water. The pot sizzled as the hot water touched the dry parts of the pot.

“Can’t I just leave him in the past?”

“It’s not right. He has a right to know that he’s going to be a grandfather. You don’t know, maybe he’s changed.”

“Mom, you really should stop. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I wrote to him for four years, and I thought he had changed, but in the end, he was the same jerk I thought he was my whole life before that.” Charlotte grabbed a nearby towel and roughly wiped her hands clean.

“Charlotte, you have to tell him. I’m not going to let you rest until you do the right thing.”

“Mom, that’s enough. We are done with this conversation.”

“No, it’s only done when you write and tell him about the baby.”

Charlotte slammed her hand on the kitchen table with so much force the bowl jumped up and water sloshed across the table.

“Enough! Do you want to know why I stopped writing to him? He got mad at me because I refused to help him with something, and he wrote me hateful letters about how ungrateful I was, about what a bad mother you are; he blames you for the fact that Bruce and I don’t keep in touch, and the last thing he wrote was that he wished one of the two abortion attempts you made with me had succeeded!” Charlotte’s face was bright red and her voice burned from the fury she felt, remembering those letters she had shredded long ago.

Su Lin’s face was white. “He told you about the abortions?”

“Yes, and that wasn’t the first time he told me. He used to joke about it when I was little, he said I had such a strong will to live. I used to laugh with him because I didn’t understand, until Bruce told me, ‘You know, it’s really not that funny.'”

Su Lin sat down at the table and folded her hands in her lap. She looked like she hadn’t heard what Charlotte said. Keeping her eyes facing downward, she said, “You have to understand. We were very poor. We couldn’t even afford to take care of ourselves and your brother.” Her eyes pinched at the sides as though they were trying to cry, but they had already cried themselves out a long time ago.

Charlotte knelt at her mother’s feet. “Mom, I don’t blame you. I do understand. I know how much you love me now, and how much you’ve always loved me. But don’t you understand? He doesn’t care about us, he only cares about himself. When he gets mad or hurt, he says the worst things a person can say. I want to surround my child with loving people, like you, not him. He doesn’t deserve to know his grandchild.”

Su Lin nodded absently, then suddenly jumped up. The water was boiling over the pot, and she rushed to lower the temperature on the stove.

Charlotte remained kneeling by the table, and said a silent prayer, asking for forgiveness. She had always planned to keep it secret from her mother that she knew about the abortion attempts. She feared that she shocked her mother just to serve her own ends, to get her mother to stop pestering her about writing to her father. But deep down, she thought maybe they both needed it out in the open, so they could heal each other.

Christmas that year was festive if perhaps a bit solemn. Su Lin made no mention of Charlotte contacting her father. Charlotte and her husband Mitch made Christmas dinner out of a combination of Su Lin’s recipes. No turkey or stuffing, but crab with green onion and ginger, won ton noodle soup, steamed sea bass, bean curd with salted fish clay pot, and walnut soup for dessert.

Charlotte could barely reach over her protruding belly to eat her food. She had found out she was having twins, a boy and a girl. She was only 5’2″, and the babies were growing out way in front of her.

She looked over at the wrapped gift awaiting her mother. It was a small photo album that contained photos from Su Lin’s early days in the U.S., baby photos of Charlotte, and Charlotte and Su Lin together during Charlotte’s pregnancy. There were a few empty pages they would fill with Su Lin holding her two grandchildren.

At the end of January, Charlotte got a voicemail from her mother that sounded like she was upset. When Charlotte went to see her, she found Su Lin sitting at the kitchen table with a letter open in front of her. The letter was from Charlotte’s Aunt Virginia, her father’s sister. Charlotte’s father had had a history of high blood pressure, and three weeks before he was due to be released from prison, he had a fatal heart attack.

Aunt Virginia said there would be a memorial service, but she didn’t want Su Lin to come because she was a bad mother who had failed to raise her children right — she didn’t teach them to respect their father.

Su Lin said, “I don’t even know why she wrote the letter if she didn’t want us to come. I tried to help you love and respect your father, but I could only do so much. Now he’s gone and he never really got to know you.” The paper crinkled as she wrung the letter in her hands.

The bell from the church down the street began chiming the hours — one, two, three, four. The room darkened as a cloud hovered, then brightened as it passed.

Charlotte moved closer to Su Lin and hugged her around the shoulders. She said, “Aunt Virginia doesn’t know anything about what a great mother you are. I feel more prepared being a mother now because of all the time I’ve spent with you these last few months, and everything you’ve taught me over the years. You’re going to be a wonderful grandmother too.”

Su Lin put the letter aside and stood to face Charlotte. She didn’t say anything, but hugged Charlotte tighter than she ever had before. In her embrace, Charlotte felt everything her mother could not say — that she loved Charlotte, that Charlotte was a good daughter, and that Charlotte would be a good mother too.

Just as suddenly as she had embraced Charlotte, Su Lin abruptly let go and started cleaning the table. “My friend Sophia told me, a grandmother’s job is to spoil her grandchildren,” she said, smiling at the idea.

Charlotte’s face softened as she watched her mother’s busy movements. She answered, “Whatever, as long as you babysit so I can catch up on some sleep.”

Charlotte grabbed the table as her whole body suddenly went rigid, and she experienced a jolt and pain she had never before thought imaginable. Her face sweating and her breathing rapid, she said urgently, “Um, I think maybe we should call Mitch. Right now.”

Su Lin picked Charlotte’s cell phone off the table and asked, “What’s his number?”

“Just hit the number 2 button and hold it,” Charlotte answered, closing her eyes. She tried to slow her breathing. She thought if she didn’t focus completely on breathing, she would probably hyperventilate.

Charlotte realized minutes had already passed. She asked her mother, “Well, did you reach him?” She opened her eyes. Su Lin still had the phone in her hand, a bewildered expression on her face. “Oh, for crying out loud, give me the phone.”

Charlotte pressed the number 2 key until “Hubby Mitch Cell” came up on the display.

“Hi, Sweetie,” Mitch cheerfully answered.

“Hi, Sweetheart. I hope you’re ready to be a daddy, because it’s pretty much imminent now. My mom’s here, we’ll meet you in the emergency room. Hello?” It sounded like the phone had been dropped.

“Yes, I’m here. Or well, I’ll be there. Um, I love you! See you soon.”

“I love you.” Charlotte hung up the phone and reached for her mother’s hand.

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