By Christina Bencin
I remember that sunny Saturday afternoon. The bright light articulating the green leaves canopying the windows, the smell of the freshly mowed lawn, the taste of the warm, gooey peanut butter and jelly goodness, the sound of the children playing in the empty streets. I was sitting at the kitchen table, about three or four years old, licking the remnants of the peanut butter off of my fingers, and you were at the sink, washing off the bread crumbs and jelly that stained the white porcelain.
I watched you just stand there for a while after you had finished cleaning. You were silent, looking out the kitchen window blankly, your hands laying limply at your sides, clenched into fists.
I remember your hands most vividly– smooth as silk, cold as stone, slim as sticks, aged as wine, your always painted nails adorned with painted flowers or something delicate of that nature. You had a sort of unique touch, light and sweet yet commanding and unforgiving.
You dismissively shook your hands out of those balled up fists upon noticing me watching you and rushed over to stand behind my chair.
“What?” I asked with a cheeky grin. You wore the kindest smile I had seen in a while as you threaded your ever so gentle yet demanding fingers over my face and said, “Close your eyes and count.”
Count to what, I didn’t know. You didn’t say, so I didn’t ask. I eagerly nodded, ecstatic to finally see something other than a frown on your face. As I counted, deliberately taking my time to remember the digits above fifty, I could hear your little feet pitter patter around the beige linoleum. I could hear you murmur and grunt as you struggled with the duffle bags, but I said nothing because I thought this game would make you happy and all I so desperately wanted was to please you.
I started to shout excitedly when I got to ninety, proud I had counted this high. I heard the creak of the kitchen door, the draft of the wind from the outside lifting my hair, but I ignored it for you. When I got to ninety five, I heard the car door slam shut. When I got to one hundred, I immediately opened my eyes and bolted out of my chair as I heard the car start.
But I was too late.
I could never fully grasp why you would leave without a warning, without an explanation. Every night when I was six years old, in a quest to get answers, I would ask Dad the same question over the second hand wooden table where you once placed those heavenly sandwiches for me on muggy Saturday afternoons, under the same dingy lightbulb that has continually flickered ever since you battered it with the broom.
“Why?” I would ask Dad insistently, as tears uncontrollably welled in my eyes. “Why did she leave us? Was it because of me?”
Every time, Dad would drop his chopsticks on his porcelain bowl and stare at the dry grains of white rice in silence, as if he was focusing on counting them. Then he would turn his head and comfort me by wiping the tears from my soft cheeks with his coarse, worked fingers, saying, “It wasn’t because of you. I promise.” And we would go back to eating the same over cooked rice in the same chipped porcelain bowls in silence.
After dinner, I would rush to my room and sit by the ink black sky, etching the constellations with my fingers, trying to count the endless diamonds in the expansive darkness. After reaching my limit, usually around one hundred stars, I would wish upon a star that you would return after a long game of hide and seek with that same beautiful smile on your face as to say “I was here the whole time” and ask if I had finished counting.
When I was ten years old, Dad got a promotion to a corporate position at his job, so we moved across the country where I was placed at a new elementary school, a less diverse school compared to my last school. It took me a while to make a friend, but once I did, we instantly started hanging out after school all the time. One weekend, after constantly nagging our parents, we went to the Hershey factory together. Dad, my friend Marley, Marley’s mother, and I all took Dad’s beat up Subaru Outback to the factory to see how Hershey chocolate was made. From the moment Dad extended his hand to shake Marley’s, Marley didn’t say a word. The whole car ride, she kept her eyes locked on the iPad we were playing on, to avoid looking at my father. On the way there, Dad and Marley’s mother didn’t talk much due to them having nothing in common.
Halfway through the car ride, I saw Marley’s mother take out her phone and swipe into a group chat through the reflection in the window. Using my keen eyesight, I caught a few words in the reflection saying terribly untrue, racist things about my father.
But I said nothing.
When we got to the factory and strayed away from our parents to stand up front, Marley whipped her head away from the tour guide, looked me straight in the eye and whispered, “You’re Chinese? I’ve never met a Chinese person before!”
“Oh, um, yeah, I’m half Chinese.” I stuttered, staring at my maroon Converse high tops and counting the intersections of the laces.
“Hmm. Well, you don’t look Chinese at all.” Marley responded, turning back to listen to the tour guide.
Once she diverted her focus from me, I glanced at the conveyor belt of little chocolate squares and started to count them, thinking of all of the moments you could have filled the awkward silence when my friend’s parents would meet my father, the number of times you could have defended your husband against people who talked badly about him behind his back, the plethora of my friends you could explain to that I had features of both you and him.
For a long time, up until now, I couldn’t remember– or rather I had blocked out this memory to preserve my belief that you were good before you left– but a few days before you left us, we went to Dad’s friend’s house for Chinese New Year. We didn’t visit Dad’s friends very often when I was a child, at least not as often as we met yours, but I was excited whenever we did meet them. I loved to learn more about the culture of my other half, all while getting to see Dad comfortably speaking Chinese and enjoying his rare treat of hot pot. While Dad and his friends were talking a storm, you took me outside to play, thinking that it would be boring for the two of us to just sit there listening to a foreign language. But I wanted to stay inside and impress them with my (very limited) vocabulary. I wanted to ask them if they could share their stories and teach me how to make 四川 (sichuan)* style 麻婆豆腐 (mapo doufu)* and introduce me to the art of 京剧 (jing ju)*.
As we sat out in Dad’s friend’s garden, you cupped the February lilies in your hands while I kept myself as distracted as possible from your words by counting and tearing off the petals. But I could still hear you complaining to me about Dad and his friends– unfortunately, as per usual. You said their overly strict parenting style was crass, that they were too humble and polite to the point that it annoyed you, and many more extremely hurtful, judgemental things. You stopped for a while, releasing your hands from the flowers to stroke my hair with one hand. I yanked at the stubs of dead grass and counted how many I had torn from the soil with tears in my eyes, trying to forget all that you said.
At around 9:30, Dad called us in and his friend handed me a 红包(hong bao)* and I bowed to receive it, thanking him very much for the generous gift. You donned an insincere, razor thin smile as I took it from his hand and after we got in the car, you tore it from my hands and slid it into your purse.
The next day, during dinner time, I asked Dad if I could go to Chinese school. It was an innocent question, really, and it was expected for a biracial child to want to experience both sides of her heritage. I could tell it made him happy to hear, but you, you would have none of that. I saw it in your eyes, right before you plastered them to your meal the rest of dinner.
After you tucked me into bed, I shut my eyes to count sheep so I could go to sleep. But I couldn’t because downstairs, I could hear you yelling at Dad at the kitchen table, blaming him for exerting his “Chinese-ness” on me. You violently battered the kitchen light so that the glass skeleton broke and the filament dimmed. When he asked you to be quieter, for me, you moved him to your room and heaved books at the walls and smashed vases on the ground and fiercely complained about his friends all while Dad said nothing.
Around 10:30, after your fit of rage, you went to sleep and I heard Dad softly sobbing. I counted. He sobbed for 17 long minutes and I stayed up, the sheep disappearing from my thoughts, for another 24 minutes.
The first time this horrific memory I had kept away, hidden, for years played through my mind, suddenly Marely’s words of not looking like my father rang through my head. Marely was truly right: I don’t look like Dad.
I look like you.
Yet I still wasn’t enough for your liking, was I?
Why did you marry Dad and have a child with him knowing the child would be Chinese, that you would have to hang out with Dad’s friends, that your child would one day naturally want to learn more about her other half?
Why did you commit to this relationship with us if you knew you were going to leave us for a “better” man and a “better” child?
In all honesty, I would do it again, count, I mean. I would count years on end for you to learn and grow and love your husband and child despite their race. I would count until my voice became raspy for you to come back and truly apologize for the years of sadness you have caused and for your irrational anger and racism toward us.
I would count to infinity and beyond for you to become a real mother.
*四川 (sichuan): Southwestern province in China known for its spicy food, pandas, and for holding a section of the Yangtze river
*麻婆豆腐 (mapo doufu): popular dish from Sichuan province made with tofu, spicy sauce and beef
* 京剧 (jing ju): Most popular form of Chinese opera (also known as Peking opera or Beijing opera) which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics*红包(hong bao): a red envelope to contain Chinese New Year money in