I gave her the number, but instead of going to the buzzer, I ran with the Saks bag to the door, down the hallway, and to the garbage chute. I hated contributing perfectly recyclable bottles to a landfill, but apparently, when things came down to the wire, I cared more about saving my butt than the environment. My mother didn't approve of drinking or smoking, and I didn't want to discuss my unladylike behavior. It was better that she continued living in the dark.
A policy I generally adhered to.
"Mom, did it work?" I asked into the intercom, wiping the sweat on my brow with the back of my hand. Through the curtainless window, the summer sun was doing its best to make the studio unbearable.
"I still wait for the buzzer."
"Huh, that's strange. I'll try again."
I'd managed to turn the fan around so it was blowing the stale air out the window when she knocked.
I opened the door wide. She was flushed from the climb up, but she looked fine, the same as always. From her short, puffed-out hair that made her head look disproportionately big to her bone-thin, impeccably dressed body, she was, to my mind, the Korean Nancy Reagan. I took her suitcase from her and reeled backward from the unexpected weight.
"I have to go to work," I said by way of greeting.
"I happy to see you too." She stood on her toes--even with heels on, she was a half-foot shorter than me--and pecked me on the cheek. Regretting my brusqueness, I started to wrap my arms around her, but she shrugged them off. "You wet." She walked around me and into the apartment.
Readjusting my slipping towel, I followed her to the couch but remained standing. I shifted my weight from foot to foot, unsure of what to say or do. I certainly wasn't going to bring up the husband thing. Her relentless drive to get me to the altar was mortifying, and her requirement that this hypothetical husband be Korean put me in a particular pickle, as I had never met an Asian man I wanted to date, let alone spend the rest of my life with. She didn't know about my discriminatory taste, just as she didn't know about the non-Korean men I'd mamboed with in the past. (I didn't dance with them for long--and I made sure they understood I was not long-waltz material.)
I couldn't tell her. When my older brother, George, defied her and married a white woman, my mother made me promise she wouldn't lose me the same way. Granted, I was only fourteen when I made this vow, hardly a legally binding age. But I was all she had. My father left us when I was four.
She waved me out of the way. Sitting in an elongated triangle of light coming in from the window, she surveyed the apartment. It was the first time she was seeing it; I'd insisted on moving without her help. The sun made her squint and brought out the wrinkles around her eyes. She looked tired, stooped a little, the way she had after I dropped out of school and she hustled me out of Madison and temporarily into her house. I'd been planning on staying longer on campus, treading water until I figured out my next step, but she and the movers appeared at my door the first Saturday after I formally bailed from my program. Slowly, she shook her head and clucked her tongue. "What a dump," she pronounced. A real estate agent, she was probably thinking of the house I could buy in Milwaukee, paying the same monthly mortgage as I was paying rent. "You can do better."
"Not on my salary." As it was, she was helping me with the rent, along with food, utilities, and miscellaneous extravagances. Fashion assistants earned well below the median income of college graduates, and perforce lived beyond their means.
"No, never on your salary." She got to her feet and tugged on my cheek. It hurt. "But with doctor salary, yes." She smiled.
Here we go, I thought, rubbing my face.
Reprinted from In Full Bloom by Caroline Hwang by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2003, Caroline Hwang. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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