My mom and I are sitting on a bench in the garden that occupies the center of the retirement home. Next to the bench is a minuscule flowerbed populated with rose bushes. A row of summer squashes run alongside them before leading into tomato vines that snake their way through the upturned dirt.
She cultivated a garden three times this size in San Jose. In ghetto soil, you can grow anything. Four variations of Thai chilies, winter melon, corn, lemon grass, spearmint, basil, plants with names that I'd never remember. Without any boundaries, our backyard morphed into the same kind of Asian pacific jungle she grew up surrounded by.
We are sitting underneath a willow tree. It's limbs hang low and sway with the day breeze coming out of the bay. It's the only tree here, rising up over the one story buildings, exactly like how it appears on the logo out front. Because the air is cool, I take my cardigan off and put it around my mom's shoulders. Sarah has gone to Union Square with May, for shopping, so it's only the two of us. Like how it always is.
“How's the apartment search?” she asks.
“Still looking. I'm meeting someone tonight about that.”
“Is it a nice place?”
“It's okay. A three bedroom townhouse. If it goes well, I'll probably take it for a month or two.”
“You can't keep renting forever. Maybe it's time you looking into buying.”
“I can't afford that right now.”
“Have you thought about moving to Oakland?”
Why haven't I? I had always wanted to be in the East Bay. The mild and unchanging weather, the slow but constant activity, slower than San Francisco and less manic--these use to be the things that I wanted in my life. Anne loved living in chaos; I use to think I was the same. Now, I am only indifferent. I've learned that it doesn't matter where you live whether you live or not.
“Maybe,” I say.
“It's just something to think about. For yourself. Not for me.”
My mom falls asleep on the bench with her water damaged copy Joy Luck Club still in her hands. She made me fetch it from her room before we came out to the garden. On the way, I grabbed an old The New Yorker from one of the magazine shelves in the lobby. There was a time where I use to submit to them constantly. I didn't have any expectations back then; it was a fool's dream but I wanted that rejection email. It was better than being ignored.
We sat and read together, occasionally starting a few lines of conversation before sinking back into our pages. I liked the fact that my mom had taken up reading. It was something she never did earlier in her life. It was a timely because I she needed it, to be able to take her mind to places voluntarily, now more than ever.
I read through half a short story about a pair of Dominican brothers in New York--one in the last stages of cancer, the other coping with the fact. It's always the same story, there's a template to them; the only difference is how they're seasoned.
A text from Sarah interrupts me.
“It was nice meeting you and your mom today. I'll see you again if you're town,” it says.
I send her a quick reply, “Sure likewise,” and put my phone back into my pocket.
New people are good to have around. Sarah was mildly attractive. Divorced, alone, relocated, she carried herself with good posture. I enjoyed the few minutes we had while our mothers battled out their chess game. When she smiled, the lines in her cheek and crow's feet stood out. She had the type of natural melancholia I always looked for. But it's also because of this nature that things never worked between me and other people.
I wonder how long my mom will sleep for because I am thinking about the drive home.
After taking her back to her room, I turn the small water boiler on.
Tea first, our visiting routine. Today, it's chrysanthemum. She'd nap
until dinner when the nurses would stop by and wake her up. Maybe she
will see my father again tonight and I will hear some new stories on
the next visit.
“I'm leaving the photo album with you,” I tell her, “You'd enjoy them more than I do. They're right here in the drawer underneath the lamp.”
“When will you come by again?”
“Soon. I'll see you in two weeks mom.”
I remind myself to be true to my word: twice a month now instead of one.
Before reaching Sacramento, I stop at the Wal-Mart in Dixon. I've got to walk around somewhere to keep myself awake. After feeling the rumble from the road shoulder and drifting from 50 to 65 without even knowing it, it's a good idea for me refresh. Being pulled over would be the end of me.
Wal-Mart is a funny place in that I'm sentimentally attached to it. I sing to myself as I'm cruising down the aisles, “If a double-decker bus...”
I've been to this particular Wal-Mart many times. I brought Sam here on the way back from the San Franciso airport. We got shampoo, lotions, body wash, some oversized t-shirts that were on sale, one of them with a huge four leaf clover on the front and “One more pint!” directly underneath it. She wore it on the day she dusted out my room, which was not clean enough for her even after I had spent the entire afternoon doing just that.
When we heard that Polaroid was stopping production of 600 film, we drove here and emptied out their entire stock of twin packs, $300 worth. And on her last day in California, passing by Dixon on the way to San Francisco, we bought candy bars, Hershey's Cookies and Cream, for her to have on the flight back. She was on her period and needed chocolate.
But this was a very long time ago. Small details are the sum of what I remember about that relationship. This is the end result of “moving forward”, which are her present words. We're able to talk as polite acquaintances since there are worlds we are no longer welcome to.
Honeys, darlings, the image of kids on the front lawn, a boy and a girl. Puppy love at 22. After the first one is through with, subsequent ones get easier to get over most of the time. I laugh at the old image of myself.
The store aisles have not changed much. Then again, why would they? The sterile white lights and the bright blues calm me as I make my way through the store. So does the pop radio playing over head. I stop singing when Colbie Caillat and Jason Mraz come on: I have heard this song from somewhere before. Puppy love at 25. Now I feel stupid.
Neon blue Powerade, a tube of Aquafresh toothpaste, bath towel, and Fruit of the Loom undershirts--I put all of these things go into the shopping cart. Before going into the check out line, I stop and think. Plain white undershirts are all I wear these days. Since they're on sale, I go back and grab another pack.
“How you doing hun?” the cashier says to me. Dixon is the kind of town where some older women with wrinkled and drooping skin still refer to strangers as “hun” and “darlin” or “sweetheart”.
She's likely around the same age as my mom. Maybe she's bored and wants a job to pass the time. My mom would be like this too if she could if she was still able to make change for more than a few minutes at a time For the cashier lady, it's probably for the money. Her wrist brace and the grimaces she makes as she punches the keys on the register tells me this.
“I'm doing just fine,” I say.
“Looks like someone is gonna go on a trip,” she says, “Where you goin'?”
“Sacramento,” I say. I decide to go along with it. Why not. “I'm going to see my girlfriend. She works there.”
“And where are you from?”
“Atlanta.” It was the first city on my mind, which works alphabetically sometimes.
“That must've been quite a long drive.”
“About four days.”
“My my. She's quite lucky to have someone be devoted enough to make that trip.”
“I'll her you said that. I hope she agrees .”
I laugh. Light laughs always makes it more natural.
“I'm sure she does,” the woman says.
“$18.55,” she says, “How long are you going to be staying for?”
“Out of twenty?...When I was younger, my husband use to work in Canada. I'd only see him every months but they were some of our happiest times. Distance always makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Amen to that. Thanks,” I say.
One liners for common wisdom are not to be trusted.
The sky is deep blue and purple outside. I stand next to my car, open one of the bottles, and withdraw a cigarette from the pack I keep in the glove compartment. I hardly smoke these days, after a while you realize that you can't stand the smell of them, but I light one up for the long day that's behind me now.
It's gorgeous up there. Things always seem more gorgeous when you're in the middle of nowhere because there is nothing else to pay attention to. Anne and I use to drive to the middle of nowhere all the time along the Sacramennto River Delta. Abandoned towns, farms, plantations, dive bars with fishermen, boats, retractable bridges we'd walk across while the lights swirled around us.
The person I'm suppose to meet about the room has called and canceled. I listen to the voice mail, there's all kinds of garbled highway noises. He says something about having pick up his nine year old and if it would be okay to reschedule. I'll just text him when I get home.
Underneath the purple, the sky shifts into lavender. It's a perfect gradient from dark to light. And underneath that, on top of the Lake Berryessa mountains, is a long line of orange, like the center of fiery furnaces. Seeing the sunset like this makes me feel good. It makes me want to do something. I can drive all night, stand here and smoke an entire pack, go home and finish packing the house. Drink some, write some.