I started hearing stories about Uncle Gum around the time my mother began disappearing. He was my mother’s uncle, and everyone called him Uncle Gum because his upper lip curled up when he smiled, like a fat worm rolling over, to reveal a set of dull red gums. My mother was just a young girl when Uncle Gum rode his bicycle into the river and drowned. She would have forgotten all about him were he not a recurrent topic during family reunions and festive occasions. Funerals and births. By the time I started hearing about Uncle Gum, he occupied a space of mythic dimensions.
We lived in a small mining town. I was going to elementary school. My mother took me on the back of a bicycle on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. It was a military-grade clunker left to her by her dead father, who used to ride it to work at the palm oil estates that wrapped around the outer perimeter of the town. On Thursdays and Fridays, I rode in a lady’s air-conditioned sedan. A luxurious experience. The lady sold Amway products and took the neighborhood children to school for a modest fee. I wanted to know what it would take to grow up to be someone like her. This was before my father could afford to pay her for all five days of the week. My mother accused my father of torturing her — before she got pregnant with me, he’d promised to buy a family car. Look at her now, suffering under the hot sun, bumping up and down on that immovable tank of a bicycle. Was this her destiny?
I loved that bicycle. In the morning, we rode to school in a cool, pleasant breeze. It was the afternoons you had to worry about. The sun turned the air into molten lead. Every hot breath was humid and thick. Or else it rained. Then I held an umbrella from behind, my other arm wrapped around my mother’s waist while my bony butt perched precariously on a metal rack that served as a back seat.
Either way, I hugged my mother tightly, drenching myself in her sweat as she pedaled across different neighborhoods of identical row houses. On particularly cloudless days, when the sky was a pale blue all the way down the horizon, it was difficult to keep my eyes open. The whitewashed walls of the endless row houses reflected the brilliance of the flaring light. I would press my face into my mother’s lower back. My nose flooded with her faint acidic-sweet scent. I felt intoxicated by the certainty that she would never leave me, that she was always within arm’s reach.
Until one morning, when she told me, as the Amway lady honked for me outside, “When you come home later, use the key under the flowerpot.”
In the afternoon, when the Amway lady sent me home, I walked into a profound silence. My mother was missing. But I felt her presence everywhere. She’d left some food out on the kitchen table under three red plastic domes. I lifted the covers gingerly. There was nothing out of the ordinary: oily rice, boiled chicken, and a bowl of soup. In the kitchen, a redfish was thawing in the sink for dinner. Laundry was drying on the clothesline outside the back door. The bathroom tiles were still slippery from her shower. These traces suggested she was not far away. I ate the chicken, rice, and soup. Then I waited. I turned the TV on. Every time I got bored, I lifted my gaze and watched the dust motes near the ceiling, shimmering in the afternoon light.
I was a chatty child, but I knew not to talk about my mother’s disappearances. Not even to my brother, who was a year older and went to a different school. My mother always reappeared before he returned home in the evening with my father. She would ask me about my day. She looked over my homework and made gentle corrections whenever she found mistakes. I stared at her face and could find nothing peculiar. Then she made dinner, and we ate together as a family. I was overpowered by my mother’s pull: I thought colluding with her gave us a special bond. I never asked her where she went; I carried our secret like a silent ache, shot through my heart.
One afternoon, the Amway lady turned the car engine off when we reached my house. She wanted to come inside. She watched as I crouched and reached under the flowerpot. I fished out the key, slowly, as if I were a thief. We watched afternoon cartoons as we waited on the couch for my mother to return. Years later, after I had my own children, I realized that the Amway lady must have noticed I was returning to an empty house. Her intervention only succeeded in getting me into trouble. My mother was polite. She hid her surprise when the Amway lady asked about her uncle who rode his bicycle into the river and drowned. The Amway lady was concerned I might have unprocessed grief, an idea ahead of its time, because she’d heard me proselytizing about the dangers of riding bicycles to my friends in the back seat. I’d told them death was always around the corner.
My mother served the Amway lady oolong tea and told her it was a blessing to know that someone was looking out for me. They chatted for over an hour. As soon as the Amway lady left, my mother’s face darkened. “I’ll deal with you later,” she said, and vanished into her bedroom for a nap. She did not look over my homework. That night, we ate at eight o’clock instead of the usual seven. She told my father I was spreading the family business like public news. She called me a stupid girl. I was surprised by her agitation. I wanted to clear my name and shout, “But I didn’t tell anyone about your disappearances!”
My father reached for my mother’s hand and said, “Honey.”
My mother looked at him, then at me, and laughed.
I can still hear the ringing sound decades later, easy and clear. She laughed as if taken by surprise. She’d suddenly remembered she was not herself — she was a mother, a wife — and had to return to her role.
“Destiny is fixed,” she said to me as she stood up to clear the dishes, even though I wasn’t finished with my plate. “My uncle tried to fight against it. He really tried.”
When she emerged from the kitchen, she had a serene expression on her face. She set down a plate of sliced pears and began telling his story again.
Uncle Gum was nineteen years old when he met the girl. He was working for a shoemaker. He cleaned the shop, oiled and wiped the heavy equipment, sorted the raw materials, and delivered orders to local customers. The shoemaker was teaching him the trade. By the time he drowned, Uncle Gum was a renowned shoemaker.
(Here, my father interjected: “Wasn’t he a doctor’s apprentice?”
“Shush,” my mother said. “You’re mixing him up with the girl.”)
One day, Uncle Gum was squatting at the back of the shop, scrubbing glue stains off the cement floor. He did not notice the girl coming in to drop off her mother’s order. She came back the following week to purchase more shoes for her mother. Uncle Gum lowered his eyes when he saw her, standing with a very straight back by the front counter. She felt his stare and turned around to meet his gaze, but Uncle Gum had already retreated to the back to sort out some inventory. Over the next few weeks, the girl kept returning. She started making orders for herself too. She collaborated with the shoemaker on elaborate custom designs copied from Western fashion magazines. She tended to each lining, sole, upper, and stitching as though she were apprenticing to be a shoemaker herself. She was such a valued customer that the shoemaker ordered Uncle Gum to serve her hot oolong tea every time she visited.
One day, the girl asked for some ice. She found the tea too hot in that weather. The shoemaker, embarrassed, apologized for not considering this before. He barked at Uncle Gum: “Run, boy, to the kopitiam to buy some ice.”
“Wait,” the girl said. “I’ll walk with you.”
Her long, lace-trimmed skirt fluttered as she stood up to follow Uncle Gum down the street toward the town square. The pair made a curious sight: Uncle Gum in his stained, faded work pants and white singlet, the girl dressed impeccably in the latest fashion. The small space between them charged with impossibility.
Secrets take a toll. I was thin and tired by the time I entered fourth grade. My mother’s disappearances remained our private language. The school kids gave me a nickname: Dead Fish. Because of the way it punned with my name in Mandarin. And my lethargic demeanor. I nodded without disagreement, too tired to retaliate.
Things changed when Alicia joined our class midyear. We lived in a world where adults could suddenly lose everything. You could eat a hearty dinner and go to sleep rich, then wake up destitute. This had happened to Alicia’s family. She’d started the year at a different school, the kind that had painting classes and drama performances taught by Americans, but her father lost his business, and she was back at the government school. My mother said their loss was nothing compared to that of her own childhood: she’d grown up in a world where people had nothing extra to lose except what came from their bodies — blood flowing from wounds, fingers cut off, hair fallen out from worry.
Alicia wasn’t very pretty. She had small eyes and a mouth that curved down, but also a bright certainty that made others appear lifeless in comparison. Her messy hair curtained a clear face that shone like a lake. Being the new girl didn’t seem to bother her. She talked to everyone. She didn’t agree with the government way of schooling: she didn’t read along when the whole class chanted from the textbooks; she rose to go to the toilet whenever she pleased; Mr. Gao threw her schoolbag out the third-floor window after she told him he’d be imprisoned if we lived in Finland. Children had rights in other countries. He shouldn’t be slapping her. She spoke as if we all knew this.
Our friendship did not even begin when she issued new names to the boys who called me Dead Fish. She taunted them back: Rotting Turnip, Floating Saliva, Chicken Skin, Foreskin, and so on. I found the names perceptive. Ah Fatt, the meanest boy, launched himself at his targets like a rolling turnip. Ding Ding had a wandering left eye and spat when he spoke. Jee Long had a crinkly face, just like chicken skin. Bahman was a known thief and had an older brother who’d undergone circumcision, then had to be hospitalized for a month after an infection spread from his leftover foreskin into his blood. Her insults drew their ire. She got tripped by extended legs, her books sometimes went missing, her hair grew even more uneven from being cut by stealthy scissors, rumors about her father’s debts worsened, and her name was scribbled on the toilet walls in connection with perverted acts.
I was not oblivious. I understood she was standing up for me. But the boys were, in truth, submerged so far below my awareness that I hardly registered their existence. I found it easy to ignore their heckling. Her retaliation was inconsequential to my well-being.
I only realized that my behavior surrounding my mother’s disappearances was unusual when my own children, years later, could never let me out of their sight without a detailed investigation. They wanted to know where I was going, when I was returning, who I was seeing, what I was doing. Why had I not thought to ask my mother? I never found out where she went on those long, drowsy afternoons that I spent alone on the living-room floor, staring at the ceiling instead of the cartoons that played on the TV. I was old enough to understand that my mother would not have told me the truth even if I asked, and I did not want to be left with nothing.
After the girl went along with Uncle Gum to fetch some ice from the kopitiam, they began meeting outside the shoe shop. They returned to the kopitiam for ice-cold milk tea. Then they headed to the market to buy street snacks: fried squid, fish balls, turnip cake. They stopped by the clothing boutique for the girl’s mother’s orders. The bookstore for her schoolbooks. The wasteland outside of town to catch the moonrise. The abandoned tin mine behind the girl’s house to roll in the wet grass.
The girl always brought her younger brother along. He could not have been older than eight or nine — my age when I began carrying the secret of my mother’s disappearances. I tried to imagine how he’d felt. Did the secret lovers ask him to stand guard and watch for passersby? Or did they bribe him with toys, candy, gifts, anything to get him to stay quiet? What did it feel like to bask in the hot center of their shared veil?
The whole town knew what was happening. Their love was the kind of fire that burned everything outside of the two people who shared it. Nothing else existed. What was plain to the rest of the world eluded them. Uncle Gum was uneducated; the girl had been born to a famous doctor. She was studying in her father’s footsteps to inherit his medical empire. Uncle Gum shined shoes and washed the shop floor.
If destiny was a fixed thing, here were two lives that were never going to collide.
Change swept through our lives like a burning wind: my father could finally afford to pay the Amway lady five days a week; my mother’s disappearances got more frequent, until one night she didn’t come home at all.
I felt relieved. I no longer had to keep her secret. Instead of worry, I found a quiet anger. I thought that if my mother had left me, she deserved to be dead. I steeled my heart and refused to grieve. But when I tried to cling on to this determination, a cascade of guilt washed over me, and I thought that I would die from anguish.
All night, my emotions swirled without a moment’s rest.
In the morning, my father hugged us before he left for work. He was not the sort who gave out hugs. When I came back from school in the afternoon, everything was untouched. My mother remained gone. I waited for my brother to come home. We rode our bicycles to the nearby warung to spend the emergency money my father had left inside a kitchen drawer. I had always imagined emergencies would occur like tornadoes, but the day had a permanent stupor that would not lift. I could not eat the noodles, sweets, and chocolates we had bought at the warung.
My brother devoured everything. For the first time, I noticed his face. He had fragile features. His skin was creamy. His eyes were sharp. His mouth was fluffy. I was told, often, that I had the same mouth — the mouth of our mother — thick lips, uncertain around the edges, the main attraction of a face. I looked at my brother with envy: he felt to me like an adult, even though he was only a year older. I felt I would forever stay a child. What I liked one day nauseated me the next, my happiness depended wholly on my parents, and nothing could take my mind off the anxiety that coiled tightly around me like a snake.
When my father returned home, my brother asked him, with unusual passion, “How could you let her get away with this?”
My mother didn’t return for a second night. In the dark, I entered a dreadful debate with myself: I felt certain she was dead. I drowned in unbearable grief. Then, to cheer myself up, I convinced myself she was not really gone. I imagined she had only disappeared around a corner. I only had to sprint forward to find her waiting for me. But I could not move my legs. I was too slow. I couldn’t see clearly in the darkness. I stayed awake and vigilant until daybreak.
This went on for many nights.
I grew forgetful. I left my books at home. I made careless mistakes on my homework. I wore my clothing inside out. I forgot to brush my teeth or comb my hair.
One day, at the start of geography class, I opened my bag to find it empty. My heart went still. The night before, thinking I’d lost my favorite pen, a gift from my mother on my eighth birthday, I’d dumped everything out of my bag to find it. It was the only item inside my bag now, a mint-green pen with a penguin figurine.
Mr. Bu, our geography teacher, was thumping his thick rattan cane against his desk to quiet the noisy classroom. I felt especially anxious because he was a brutish ogre. He’d had a chip on his shoulder since being twice passed over for the role of school principal. The first time, he lost to a junior teacher. The second, the school hired someone from the outside. After that, he became the sort of authority figure hell-bent on equality. Punishment was meted out indiscriminately. No exceptions.
Mr. Bu ordered Alicia to get up after she made a loud snorting noise. The whole class turned to look at her. The girl next to Alicia had said something funny. “Switch seats with Pei Chai, now,” Mr. Bu ordered. Pei Chai, my desk partner, stood and gathered her things. Alicia came over. I puffed out my chest and nodded as she sat down next to me. I was sure that Mr. Bu’s command was a direct result of my goodness. He saw me as a positive influence on Alicia. I would teach her obedience.
But when Mr. Bu started making the rounds to inspect our homework, I was jolted back to my present predicament. I prepared to receive his caning. A cold shiver ran down my spine as I turned up my palm. My fingers must have quivered. I felt the world around me unwind, and the classroom began to blur in my vision.
Then I saw something moving: Alicia was sliding her exercise book across her desk to mine. Her homework lay open in front of me, as if I were its rightful owner. She stood up to confess. She received three strokes of the cane. Each thwack-thwack-thwack was a debt between us. Her palm swelled up instantly with a big welt. I looked at her and saw that she was made of a wholly different substance: whereas I was inconstant, always oscillating, she was crystalline, unwavering. The side of her face was illuminated by courage.
Mr. Bu was not content to stop there. He reminded Alicia that while she may have spent some time at an expensive school, it was telling that she was no more refined than — he swept an arm across the room — this wretched lot.
His eyes rested on me.
“Look at June. Learn from her. Diligence and humility. If you think you are too good for homework, hide your face away and don’t come back.”
I swallowed the poison of Mr. Bu’s praise. I did not say, “You are mistaken, Mr. Bu. Alicia did bring her homework.” I disguised my greed for his praise as common subordination.
I never asked Alicia why she had done that for me. But after that day, I became fixated on her. It was not an honest bond. We did not become friends in the way other girls our age were friends. Whereas they giggled and played every recess, Alicia and I barely spoke. To assuage my guilt, I convinced myself that I could not have stopped her. That would have meant rejecting her gift. But I lay up at night wishing I had received the caning instead — the pain would have passed; the welts, receded.
Instead, I received a mental torment that dug in deeper as the days went by.
A week later, consumed by sleeplessness, I marched toward Alicia’s seat after class ended. I held her gaze as I slipped three exercise books into her bag: Mandarin, mathematics, and geography. The day’s homework, completed. Alicia’s eyes were large black buttons, walled off, though I knew she understood.
The next day, she added my books to the neat stack on the teacher’s desk. She inserted mine into the middle of the pile, whereas hers went to the top, so they were never found next to each other. We went on like this for a long time: I raced against the last bell to finish my homework, then slipped it into her bag. She’d copy it, then turn the books in the next day. We operated in stealth; we left no evidence of what we shared.
My mother did not return for a whole month. I missed her terribly, but the excitement of my cheating with Alicia occupied me. I gained a focus in school that energized me; every class lesson was an extravagant opportunity for me to shine. My father was also making considerable efforts to comfort me. He reassured us that our mother would return. Every evening, he brought home something to bribe us: sweets, plastic bracelets, board games. One night, he had two books, hardcovers: a children’s encyclopedia of the world for me, an illustrated edition of Aesop’s Fables for my brother. They must have cost a fortune.
The books were precious, but I could not feel happy. Why had my brother received an interesting book of stories, while I was given a boring book of facts? I asked for an exchange. My brother said no with uncharacteristic firmness. I felt the atmosphere around me pinch shut. I grew determined. I tried to pull the book out of his hands. He did not relent. I felt a burning inside me. We engaged in a tug-of-war. I knew I deserved the book. I didn’t notice my mother entering the house until she stood right in front of me.
Without warning, she slapped my face.
My father rushed up to wedge himself between my mother and me.
“If you didn’t ruin them with wasteful gifts, they would be better children!” my mother said. Her normally shiny, long hair was disheveled. Her mouth did not move as she spoke through gritted teeth.
My father spoke in a low, soothing tone. “We can afford a few books — ”
“You think you are a rich man now. That anything goes.”
“I just thought it would cheer the children up.”
“Oh, I made the children feel so sad? It’s not a crime to catch a break for a few days.”
“It’s been more than a few days.” He turned to us. “The children miss their mother.”
My brother and I nodded, though I did not mean it at the time. The heat on my cheek had spread down to the center of my heart, a place filled with hatred. I’d been hoping for my mother’s return. I felt sure she’d greet us with love, gifts, a warm touch, and a new readiness to play the role of my mother again. Or had she forgotten how?
I heard a huff and saw her entering the kitchen. She came out with some ice cubes wrapped in a dish towel. When she put the ice to my face, my father sat down too. He began to read a story out loud from my brother’s book. My mother smelled terrible, like wet cigarettes. The whole time she iced my cheek, my eyes watered from the stench. But I did not move. I felt the bitter hate recede in my heart as triumph washed in. We were a family again. I was greedy for the warmth of my parents on each side of me. I surrendered to the danger of desire — so powerful that it allowed me to blend fiction with fact and think, Look, the locus of love is right here, surrounded by these three people: my mother, my father, my brother.
I could finally sleep. I stayed home for a week. I tried to stay alert when I heard my parents quarrel. I wanted to find out if they still loved me. I felt that if they got angry at each other, that was a sure sign they did. But they spoke in low voices. I got worse again. If I woke up and my mother was not beside me, I wailed as though I were dying. She called me a stupid girl for causing trouble. She complained about a list of unfinished chores because of me: she let the rain soak through the clothes left to dry outside; she let the hot soup boil over on the stove; she left expensive cuts of meat to burn black on the frying pan. But she stayed by my side. I confined myself to an inner world. No school, no birds, no trees, no father, no Alicia, no homework, no Uncle Gum, no neighborhood children, no ice cream man, no sunny downpours — nothing could take my mother away from me again.
Uncle Gum’s snarl often got him into trouble. It made him appear rude, angry. My mother thought this was funny, since Uncle Gum would never so much as hurt a fly. In her memory, he was thin as a reed. One night, Uncle Gum was closing the shop at eleven o’clock at night. The town square was deserted save for a group of teenagers clustered around a park bench in the middle of the square. He’d stayed later than usual because the store had recently received a rush batch of custom orders for a customer’s imminent wedding ceremony.
Uncle Gum locked the shutters and turned to leave. The group of teenagers appeared in front of him, obstructing his path.
“You’re getting too comfortable with our little old lady,” one of them said.
A blade of light flashed in the dark. A knife? As the kids got closer, Uncle Gum realized they were all grown men. He counted six of them. Two were holding baseball bats. One had a knife.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“You are overreaching. She’s arranged for marriage with someone else more deserving.”
Uncle Gum smiled. His lip curled up. “Did this deserving man send you?”
The beatings rained down before Uncle Gum finished his sentence. His snarl did nothing to protect him. He’d lost consciousness by the time the girl arrived on the scene. She threw herself onto his body and sustained a few injuries before the gang of men realized who she was. Uncle Gum spent months in the hospital. The girl never left his side. Her father allowed their marriage after the girl threatened to kill herself. The star-crossed lovers enjoyed eight years of marital bliss, until the girl vanished without a trace. Her disappearance was registered as an automobile accident. A month later, he rode his bicycle into the river and drowned.
(“Destiny is a fixed thing,” my mother repeated.)
I was embarrassed when Alicia came up to me during recess on the day I returned to school. I was sitting in the schoolyard eating a skewer of fish balls by myself.
“Why didn’t you come to school?”
“I was sick. I ate something wrong.”
Alicia’s eyes widened. “Did you go to the doctor?”
“It went away on its own.”
“I was worried.”
“You didn’t care.”
“You were only worried about your homework. You fell behind on your homework while I was gone, didn’t you?”
My accusation shocked us both. I stared straight into her eyes and saw them flinch. She quickly lowered her gaze and stared at her shoes. She was silent for a long time. I felt a searing inside. I wanted to relieve her suffering, but my cruelty could not wane. I stared at her and said nothing.
“I won’t copy your homework anymore,” she said finally, in a resolute voice.
I remembered what my mother would say when she got upset at me. “It’s pitiful,” I told Alicia. “You are only hurting yourself. You don’t even know it!” Then I spat a half-chewed fish ball at her feet and walked away.
The weeks passed. My mother stopped disappearing. She was waiting for me every day. It was Alicia I began to miss. Our final confrontation had unraveled me. In school, I sat at the back of the classroom, far away from her. At home, I hid away in my bedroom and willed her to appear in my imagination. One day, she really did: she materialized near the ceiling, hovering like a spirit. At first, she stared at me. Slowly, she floated down. I made room for her on my bed. In the stillness of the afternoon, she turned to kiss me. I was stunned. Then pleasure came. I writhed and groaned in the wake of the fugue. A feeling of lightness rippled from between my legs to the ends of my limbs. It terrified me to forget myself so totally, to know such delirium was even possible.
I felt cut loose from this world.
After that day, I raced to my bedroom every afternoon to repeat the same fantasy: Alicia kissed me. Then she was on top of me, then by my side, then in my arms. Nothing could take this Alicia away from me.
In reality, we’d stopped talking to each other.
One day, I was called to the front of the classroom. Mr. Bu was so angry at me that his right eye bulged from the pressure. I no longer turned in any homework; I didn’t care. I was instructed to pull on my earlobes and do twenty squats. I felt my heart hammering as I looked at the sea of faces. I wanted to find Alicia, who hadn’t spoken to me in months. For some reason, I thought she would be gloating. I wanted to catch her in the act. But her face was pale and blank. The rest of the class, forced to watch me finish out my punishment, turned hungry, eager to consume my humiliation. As I bent and straightened my knees, up and down, up and down, I could feel nothing in my own legs. Instead I was fixated on Alicia’s face, which I scanned for signs that proved her complicity in my suffering. I felt that if I could blame her, then I did not have to endure my punishment alone. But her face stayed like an anchor held fast under a vast lake. By the time I stood from the final squat, face flushed, a torrent of blood flooding through my legs again, I realized I did not want to be unmoored from her anymore.
I ran up to Alicia after school. She took my hand and walked me to the sports field. There, we pulled our knees to our chests and sat shoulder to shoulder on a shady patch of grass. She waited as I cried. My loneliness was a deep, dark well. When I finished crying, I rested my chin on her knee and felt her kiss my hair.
After that day, Alicia and I consumed each other. We wrote notes and slipped them into one another’s bags. We held hands every recess. We snuck into the bathroom, hallway closet, science lab, music room. We experienced no notable disorder. I felt the dark well inside my chest shimmer and clear up; I could finally peer within and see all the way through. If she walked into the sun, I would have followed her.
For eleven months, I felt happiness like a soft rain. I learned to ride a bicycle. I took myself to school and back. My mother had resumed disappearing, but her absence ceased to hurt me. I roamed everywhere. Too much freedom for an adolescent girl.
One evening, I came home to an eerie silence. The air was so deathly quiet. I was sure my mother had disappeared again. The living room was empty. I checked the kitchen. Nothing there. I went upstairs to my bedroom and found my mother waiting.
In her hands were the loose pages that bore my handwriting, my private markings, imbued with impressions of love, desire, longing, devotion, and beauty, collapsed into something I could only, much later, describe as evidence. Alicia’s mother had paid her a visit. She’d collected everything I’d ever written for Alicia. I understood that I was expected to display remorse from the way my mother interrogated me: she embodied a mixture of rage and resignation as she recounted Alicia’s mother’s horror. At times she appeared strangely energized, as if she were getting closer to some truth she’d been pursuing. Then she became reticent, almost wistful. Finally her emotions receded; she was worn out.
She resumed the role of a mother, smiling softly as she told me, “I just want you to be happy. Everything will be okay.”
I believed her. Alicia and I shared an ineffable love. The idea that we could be targets of evidence — against us! — felt as preposterous as the idea that our private world could, with the tiniest prick of a needle, deflate into nothing.
Alicia’s mother came by again that night. My mother acted agreeable. She listened to Alicia’s mother’s anxieties with great eagerness, as though her worries were reasonable. She carried herself with great tact; she interspersed the conversation with commentary about the weather (constant, hot), the prices of onions (fluctuating). She acted like an adult who knew her way around an outside world inhabited by other people. It was a side of her I had never seen. I felt certain I would see Alicia again, though I was not allowed to go to school. “Lay low for a few weeks,” my mother advised. I wrote long unsent letters to Alicia, calling her my North Star, the pearl in my oyster, the venom sting to my scorpion tail, the spring bud to my winter frost.
One hot night, my mother entered my bedroom. I was asleep; her voice entered my dream to greet me. “Darling girl,” she said. She stroked my forehead. “Destiny is a fixed thing.” I murmured and pretended I was still asleep. My mother said a few more reassuring things. Her words carried an unusual tone of comfort. When she finally said goodnight, she told me, “I love you.” It was the only time I’d ever heard her say those words, and instantly I understood. As soon as she closed the door behind her, I shot to my feet, climbed out of my bedroom window, and jumped onto my bicycle, racing toward Alicia’s house.
My mother was waiting when I got home. I cried into her bosom. “They’re gone, Mama,” I cried. “Gone.” My mother stroked my hair and told me that she’d heard another version of the story about Uncle Gum. One with no bats, no knife.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’ll see. You’ll see why I tried to protect you from suffering.”
The doctor’s daughter did not spend all her time with Uncle Gum. There was someone else. Poh Lee, another girl from her medical school. Uncle Gum learned about Poh Lee on the mid-autumn harvest day. He was carrying some paper lanterns, leftover from decorating the shoe shop, and was on his way to meet the girl at their usual meeting spot two streets away from her house. Around the bend, he saw the girl and Poh Lee walking toward him, holding hands in affection.
He jumped into the monsoon drain and crouched in hiding.
The girls stopped right next to Uncle Gum’s hiding spot. The girl’s younger brother was missing. Strange to see her without her shadow. Then the girls kissed on the mouth.
Poh Lee pulled away. She looked furtively over her shoulder. “Must you always risk everything?”
“You taste like nectar.” The girl was playful. “You are my little blossom.”
Poh Lee said, “I must go home now. My parents are going all out tonight.”
“Good daughter you are.” The girl’s nose wrinkled in a way that Uncle Gum had never seen. “Happy Mid-Autumn.”
“You have that shoeshiner,” Poh Lee said.
“Now look who is being small-hearted.”
“I’m not worried. I know he is nothing.”
“You are so sure of yourself!” The girl pulled Poh Lee in by the waist and tried to kiss her again, but Poh Lee pushed her away.
“Come now,” the girl said. “Don’t spoil yourself with anger.”
Poh Lee pushed the girl with greater force this time. The girl stumbled backward. She threw her arms out to her side to steady herself, but her feet kept slipping. Then she was stepping on air for a brief second before falling into the drain. She broke many bones, including some in her face. She stayed unconscious for a few days. Uncle Gum was not allowed into the hospital, despite being the one who carried the girl there. Poh Lee, though, stayed by the girl’s side; her eyes swelled up from daily sobbing. When the girl finally came out of the hospital, she asked Uncle Gum to propose marriage. She told her father she would try to kill herself again if she was forbidden from marrying her true love. She was not interested in any of the dozens of wealthy suitors who had been marching through their house like war generals. So Uncle Gum did as the girl asked. He married her.
At this, I jumped to my feet and started shouting.
“You thought this would comfort me? Where is Alicia now? Did you know about us all along? You knew how impossible this kind of love was, and you still let them destroy it?”
My mother would not say anything. Obscenities I had never uttered flew from my mouth. I called my mother a coward, a liar, a destroyer, a bigot, a useless mother who was never my mother. My brother came downstairs and waited by the foot of the stairs, a small distance away from us in the living room, listening quietly. A dark shadow obscured his face, though I knew he also found refuge in my anger toward our mother.
“Let me finish,” my mother said.
The girl regained her health. Her father, afraid of another accident, permitted her marriage to Uncle Gum. After the wedding, the girl spent every day with Poh Lee. Uncle Gum knew they would someday leave together; the girl made that clear. But it took them eight years. He returned home one day to find a note, some missing clothes, no more than could fit in a light suitcase, and was surprised to feel a great relief. They’d finally done it. Not long after, said to have fallen ill in the head, he rode his bicycle into the river and drowned.
I was inconsolable. I would die too, I told my mother. I would. My body obeyed my mind’s invocation: the next day I burned a fever that would not cease. I hallucinated that Alicia was still by my side. I could feel no relief from the throbbing ache of missing her. Now and again, I woke groggily to my mother performing a collection of strange remedies on my body. She rolled hard-boiled eggs over my stomach. She laid wet cloths over my forehead. She plastered my arms with cooling pickled onions. She forced liquids — syrupy, salty, bitter, sour — into my mouth. I threw up most of them. I grew averse to my mother’s harsh touch, but I didn’t protest. I felt too weak and sad, and could do nothing but endure the new reality and let my mother nurse me to health.
I never found Alicia.
Years later, on my wedding day, my mother had tears in her eyes. We were sitting in the dressing room, looking at each other in the vanity mirror. She had grown shorter over the years, and her expression of stupefaction made her face appear almost childlike. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, I told her a self-satisfied thing.
“You see, Mama? I did it. No one had to ride a bicycle into a river to die.”
My mother looked pensive. Instantly I felt regretful. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. But then she looked at me like I had grown an extra head.
“Who died? What bicycle?”
My mother swore she had never heard of an Uncle Gum. She laughed as she looked me dead in the eye. “You have the most peculiar stories.” But this time I would not let her back away from the truth.
“Uncle Gum! The man who married that doctor girl!”
I trembled with anger. My memories returned. But then the door opened, and my wife entered. Her emerald-green tuxedo gown conferred an impartial presence. I grew self-conscious and swallowed my words. My mother said, “I only wanted to protect you, June. All these years, Mama failed…” But she could not finish. I saw traces of suppressed emotion on her face. I stared as if to goad her, until my wife walked toward me. Time to go. I stood up. At the precipice of the doorway, I turned back and told my mother, “Life is long, Mama. Destiny is a long road too.” And something inside me lifted.