In the Crossfire
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The employees could tell that the company was floundering and that some of them would lose their jobs soon. For a whole morning Tian Chu stayed in his cubicle, processing invoices without a break. Even at lunchtime he avoided chatting with others at length, because the topic of layoffs unnerved him. He had worked here for only two years and might be among the first to go. Fortunately, he was already a US citizen and wouldn’t be ashamed of collecting unemployment benefits, which the INS regards as something like discredit against one who applies for a green card or citizenship.
Around mid-afternoon, as he was typing, his cellphone chimed. Startled, he pulled it out of his pants pocket.
‘Hello,’ he said in an undertone.
‘Tian, how’s your day there?’ came his mother’s scratchy voice.
‘It’s all right. I told you not to call me at work. People can hear me on the phone.’
‘I want to know what you’d like for dinner.’
‘Don’t bother about that, Mom. You don’t know how to use the stove and oven and might set off the alarm again. I’ll pick up something on my way home.’
‘What happened to Connie? Why can’t she do the shopping and cooking? You shouldn’t spoil her like this.’
‘She’s busy, all right? I can’t talk more now. See you soon.’ He shut the phone and stood to see if his colleagues in the neighbouring cubicles had been listening in. Nobody seemed interested.
He sat down and massaged his eyebrows to relieve the fatigue from peering at the monitor screen. He yawned and knew his mother must feel lonely at home. She often complained that she had no friends here and there wasn’t much to watch on TV. True, most of the shows were reruns and some were in Cantonese or Taiwanese, neither of which she could understand. The books Tian had checked out of the library for her were boring too. If only she could go out and chit-chat with someone. But their neighbours all went to work in the daytime, and she dared not venture out on her own, unable to read the street signs in English. This neighbourhood was too quiet, she often grumbled. It looked as if there were more houses than people. Chimneys were here and there, but none of them puffed smoke. The whole place was deserted after nine a.m., and not until mid-afternoon would she see traces of others – and then only kids getting off the school buses and padding along the sidewalks. If only she could have had a grandchild to look after, to play with. But that was out of the question, since Connie Liu, her daughter-in-law, was still attending nursing school and wanted to wait until she had finished.
It was already dark when Tian left work. The wind was tossing pedestrians’ clothes and hair and stirring the surfaces of slush puddles that shimmered in the neon and the streetlights. The remaining snowbanks along the kerbs were black from auto exhaust and had begun encrusting again. Tian stopped at a supermarket in the basement of a mall and picked up a stout eggplant, a bag of spinach and a flounder. He knew that his wife would avoid going home to cook dinner because she couldn’t make anything her mother-in-law would not grouch about. So these days he cooked. Sometimes his mother offered to help, but he wouldn’t let her, afraid she might make something Connie couldn’t eat – she was allergic to most bean products, especially to soy sauce and tofu.
The moment he got home, he went into the kitchen. He was going to cook a spinach soup, steam the eggplant and fry the flounder. As he was gouging out the gills of the fish, his mother stepped in.
‘Let me give you a hand,’ she said.
‘I can manage. This is easy.’ He smiled, cutting the fish’s fins and tail with a large pair of scissors.
‘You never cooked back home.’ She stared at him, her eyes glinting. Ever since her arrival a week earlier, she’d been nagging him about his being henpecked. ‘What’s the good of standing six feet tall if you can’t handle a small woman like Connie?’ she often said. In fact, he was five feet ten.
He nudged the side of his bulky nose with his knuckle. ‘Mom, in America, husband and wife both cook – whoever has the time. Connie is swamped with schoolwork these days, so I do more household chores. This is natural.’
‘No, it’s not. You were never like this before. Why did you marry her in the first place if she wouldn’t take care of you?’
‘You’re talking like a fuddy-duddy.’ He patted the flatfish on a paper towel to make it splutter less in the hot corn oil.
She went on, ‘Both your dad and I told you not to rush to marry her, but you were too bewitched to listen. We thought you must’ve got her in trouble and had to give her a wedding band. Look, now you’re trapped and have to work both inside and outside the house.’
He didn’t reply; his longish face stiffened. He disliked the way she spoke about his wife. In fact, prior to his mother’s arrival, Connie had always come home early to make dinner. She would also wrap lunch for him early in the morning. These days, however, she’d leave the moment she finished breakfast and wouldn’t return until evening. Both of them had agreed that she should avoid staying home alone with his mother, who was lecturing her at every possible opportunity.
Around six-thirty his wife came back. She hung her parka in the closet; stepping into the kitchen, she said to Tian, ‘Can I help?’
‘I’m almost done.’
She kissed his nape and whispered, ‘Thanks for doing this.’ Then she took some plates and bowls out of the cupboard and carried them to the dining table. She glanced into the living room, where Meifen, her mother-in-law, lounged on a sofa, smoking a cigarette and watching the news aired by New Tang Dynasty TV, a remote control in her leathery hand. How many times Connie and Tian had told her not to smoke in here, but the old woman had ignored them. They dared not confront her. This was just her second week here. Imagine, she was going to stay half a year!
‘Mother, come and eat,’ Connie said pleasantly when the table was set.
‘Sure.’ Meifen clicked off the TV, got to her feet and stubbed out her cigarette in a saucer serving as an ashtray.
The family sat down to dinner. The two women seldom spoke to each other at the table, so it was up to Tian to make conversation. He mentioned that people in his company had been talking about layoffs. That didn’t interest his mother or his wife; probably they both believed his job was secure because of his degree in accountancy.
His mother grunted, ‘I don’t like this fish, flavourless like egg white.’ She often complained that nothing here tasted right.
‘It takes a while to get used to American food,’ Tian told her. ‘When I came, I couldn’t eat vegetables in the first week, so I ate mainly bananas and oranges.’ That was long ago, twelve years exactly.
‘True,’ Connie agreed. ‘I remember how rubbery bell peppers tasted to me in the beginning. I was amazed—’
‘I mean this fish needs soy sauce, and so does the soup,’ Meifen interrupted.
‘Mom, Connie’s allergic to that, I told you.’
‘Just spoiled,’ Meifen muttered. ‘You have a bottle of Golden Orchid soy sauce in the cabinet. That’s a brand-name product and I can’t see how on earth it can hurt anyone’s health.’
Connie’s oval face fell, her eyes glaring at the old woman and then at Tian. He said, ‘Mom, you don’t understand. Connie has a medical condition that—’
‘Of course I know. I used to teach chemistry in a middle school. Don’t treat me like an ignorant crone. Ours is an intellectual family.’
‘You’re talking like an old fogey again. In America people don’t think much of an intellectual family and most kids here can go to college if they want to.’
‘She’s hinting at my family,’ Connie broke in, and turned to face her mother-in-law.
‘True enough, neither of my parents went to college, but they’re honest and hard-working. I’m proud of them.’
‘That explains why you’re such an irresponsible wife,’ Meifen said matter-of-factly.
‘Do you imply I’m not good enough for your son?’
‘Please, let’s have a peaceful dinner,’ Tian pleaded.
Meifen went on speaking to Connie. ‘So far you’ve been awful. I don’t know how your parents raised you. Maybe they were too lazy or too ignorant to teach you anything.’
‘Watch it – you mustn’t bad-mouth my parents!’
‘I can say whatever I want to in my son’s home. You married Tian but refuse to give him children, won’t cook or do household work. What kind of wife are you? Worse yet, you even make him do your laundry.’
‘Mom,’ Tian said again, ‘I told you we’ll have kids after Connie gets her degree.’
‘Believe me, she’ll never finish school. She just wants to use you, giving you one excuse after another.’
‘I can’t take this any more.’ Connie stood and carried her bowl of soup upstairs to the master bedroom.
Tian sighed, again rattled by the exchange between the two women. If only he could make them shut up, but neither of them would give ground. His mother went on, ‘I told you not to break with Mansu, but you wouldn’t listen. Look what a millstone you’ve got on your back.’
Mansu was Tian’s ex-girlfriend and they’d broken up many years before, but somehow the woman had kept visiting his parents back in Harbin.
‘Mom, don’t bring that up again,’ he begged.
‘You don’t have to listen to me if you don’t like it.’
‘Do you mean to destroy my marriage?’
At last Meifen fell silent. Tian heard his wife sniffling upstairs. He wasn’t sure whether he should remain at the dining table or go join Connie. If he stayed with his mother, his wife would take him to task later on. But if he went to Connie, Meifen would berate him, saying he was spineless and daft. She used to teach him that a man could divorce his wife and marry another woman any time whereas he could never disown his mother. In Meifen’s words, ‘You can always trust me, because you’re part of my flesh and blood and I’ll never betray you.’
Tian took his plate, half-loaded with rice and eggplant and a chunk of the fish, and went into the kitchen, where he perched on a stool and resumed eating. If only he’d thought twice before writing his mother the invitation letter needed for her visa. The old woman must still bear a grudge against him and Connie for not agreeing to sponsor his nephew, his sister’s son, who was eager to go to Toronto for college. Perhaps that was another reason Meifen wanted to wreak havoc here.
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