• The Year I Became My Mother

    Grace Chao

    Spring 2023

    On the day I turned twenty-five, I decided I would give my mother the life she never had. And by that I mean I planned to live the life she was never able to live. It was the seventh of September, 2018, and I was going to be my mother. She had been dead for one-and-a-half years. I would give myself a year to do everything. I would wear whatever I wanted, change my job, travel abroad, live without any rules or responsibilities. There was more to this list, of course, but I would add to it along the way. The first thing I did was get my hair cut like my mother’s when she was twenty-five. I had a color photograph, taken in Taipei the day before her wedding in 1989. I got bangs and a shoulder-length perm, and I asked the lady at the salon to dye each of my blond highlights back to black. I wore green, my mother’s favorite color and my father’s least favorite. I bought a few boxy blazers on sale at Topshop, in houndstooth and olive, which weren’t hard to find because eighties businesswoman fashion was always making some comeback or another.

    My mother, Lisa, had never gotten to be a businesswoman, let alone have what could be called a profession. I suppose you could say that I desired to become my mother because I was bored with my own life, and maybe that was partially true. Nothing truly spectacular had happened in the first quarter century of my life. I didn’t like to think about the years before I turned eighteen. I read about a lot of movies and travel destinations online, but I felt stupid when I had to admit I hadn’t gotten around to watching most of the famous films, or that I had never even been to New York. People didn’t care that I knew you could drink stunning coffee in Morioka, Japan, or that an extra had been run over and killed by a massive chariot in the original Ben-Hur. (I’d imagined a muscular pair of legs sticking out from under gold-adorned wood, gladiator sandals shorn clean off.) And I had only slept with two people in my entire life: the six-foot-four boy to whom I’d lost my virginity, exhilaratingly, and then dejectedly, in college; and Paul, the boyfriend whom I’d met at a bar after graduation. We’d gone to the same school but never crossed paths, and he’d been so drunk he had to ask for my name the next day.

    I broke up with Paul the second week after I turned twenty-five, in a lime green dress and a khaki mac jacket and chartreuse smoking slippers from the Gap. It helped that Paul had been a hair-gelled banking associate for three years and was going to leave for business school in a few weeks, albeit not very far away, and that my mother had disliked Paul, so much that they’d only met once. “It’d probably benefit you to sleep with more girls,” I said, and he agreed, in a way that made it clear that he wanted to sleep with more girls, not that he could’ve tried harder with me. “Thanks for sticking it out with me,” I said, though I didn’t really mean it. I tucked my freshly dyed hair behind my ear. Paul, who primarily wore grays and browns, who had more money than I but only ate Jack in the Box and liked to hold me but never say I’m sorry, shrugged before asking why I was dressed like a string bean.

    When I left, I took the bus and then the K train from Paul’s eighteenth-floor apartment back to my place, a room with one shabby window in a three-story lavender house that leaked in various corners. I took the wooden stairs three at a time, threw open the door to my room so hard that my poster from the original screening of Claire’s Knee at the Victoria unstuck from the wall, and began yanking out all of Paul’s old presents from their various hiding places: a navy-striped cashmere sweater; a heart-shaped Tiffany necklace, gifted to me for Christmas one week after I had pointed out the double infinity rings on a silver chain in the window display; an acrylic chess set that had been signed by a hawkeyed national champion whose name I’d promptly forgotten. We hadn’t ever fought like my mother and my father had. Paul had never yelled in my face or spat on my food or broken things when he got angry. But he had a way of looking at me that told me he was better than me. I ripped up the only letter he had ever written me, a six-line poem on printer paper about how he was going to miss me during his family vacation to Morocco and hoped I wouldn’t forget him. “I’m more of a verbal person, Lara,” he’d said when I asked why he never included cards with his gifts. “I’m better at networking, babe, you know that.”

    Networking, or initiating conversations with strangers, were things I didn’t know how to do, which was probably why I’d ended up with Paul and not a saxophonist, or a writer. Or an introverted chef, who could prepare me coq au vin or lobster mac and cheese or plain, fatty eggs and bacon, depending on what I’d be hungry for that day. Someone who would sit down and smile and listen to me as I talked between gracious spoonfuls of mushrooms and chicken. It was why I was paying more than my fair share of rent, and why I’d backed out of the junior year spring job fair and then the senior year fall job fair and finally the senior year spring job fair, sprinting from the Annenberg Auditorium back to my dorm room within the first ten minutes, sweat-soaked and unable to speak but equally dreading Monday’s nine o’clock phone call from my tall, high-nosed father, whose name was Thomas and whom I was still talking to back in college. “What did you accomplish today?” he’d say, in a tone that implied he would soon be disappointed. “I would like to know.”

    My mother had been a compulsive list-maker: there were the sort you’d find on any refrigerator, like groceries and phone numbers, but she’d made lists for everything else, too—restaurants we’d eaten at for milestone birthdays, dog breeds she liked and had encountered in person, all the episodes of a Taiwanese historical drama that she could remember watching as a teenager. She kept them in her bedside table, her handwritten words compact, slanted, intentional. On my own list, which I’d written on notepaper and kept on my nightstand, was to quit my job, which would also free me from its three-hour round-trip commute. But after Googling for resignation letter templates, I realized that I hadn’t saved enough for more than two months of rent, much less food or leisure. I’d keep my job until I’d found a better place to work. Without money, I wouldn’t have the means to do the other things I’d planned, either, and my mother, who hadn’t worked, would’ve wanted me to stay employed.

    I was an editorial assistant at STANFORD, the university’s bimonthly publication for alumni—an actual, eighty-page print magazine that was located on campus and was staffed by twenty-five full-time editors, designers, and advertising managers. I’d started as a student intern, fact-checking stories and organizing files, and then never had the intestinal fortitude to quit, even after I’d moved to San Francisco as motivation. So there I was, taking the train to put in my third year of service to an institution whose students and alumni, other than myself, were launching ventures and publishing books and giving keynote addresses like doing so wasn’t any different from eating a snack, all with an irritatingly well-adjusted spring in their step and the smoke of humility in their testimonials.

    The bagels in the office were good, though: the perfect amount of chewy and studded with sweet blueberries and dark chocolate chips. I was munching on one at my desk when my supervisor, Gladys, a senior writer with frizzy silver hair, tapped my shoulder a little harder than usual. Standing next to her was a guy around my age—black hair, medium height—wearing a red sweater that, thank God, didn’t have STANFORD or a redwood emblazoned across the chest.

    “Your new co-editorial assistant, Ivan,” Gladys said, gesturing toward Ivan like I’d won a stuffed banana at the fair. “You’ve got help now. We’re lucky we’re adding new people when print is all but dead!”

    “I’m alive and well,” said Ivan. He lived in San Francisco too. He’d graduated that spring, History with a minor in East Asian Studies. You were officially old, I figured, the day you stopped sharing what you’d studied with other Stanford alumni in your introductions.

    I was to show Ivan the ropes, get him up to speed with our daily tasks and weekly deadlines. It occurred to me that even though I had three years of experience on him, he’d entered with the same title as me.

    “It’s Obituary Day,” I said, sliding the alumni obituary style guide, a red three-inch binder, in Ivan’s direction.

    “Fantastic,” Ivan said in a voice that was either too excited or too sarcastic, I couldn’t tell.

    Actually, every other day was Obituary Day. Some staff writer who worked remotely composed these for each recently deceased alumnus from a template their relatives would fill out, and I’d fact-check them, by the dozen, before I turned to other tasks: blurbing books written by alumni or proofreading any of the other articles that had come my way during the week.

    “The families don’t always remember details like the deceased’s class year or whether they were really in Kappa Sig or not,” I said, pulling up our password-protected database, TreeTrunks, where you could search all the details about the alumnus related to their time at the university: every dorm in which they’d lived, what they had studied, clubs they’d joined, how long they’d taken to graduate, any parents or children or grandchildren who had also attended Stanford, and their class years. Sometimes this list of names was so long that it opened up in its own separate tab.

    I plugged a name from the obituary copy into TreeTrunks. Ivan tapped his fingers on the desk. “See,” I said. “Rosemary W. Wilson, Class of 1957, English. Equestrian club. Three grandsons: Robert, Edward, and William, Class of ’03, ’06, ’07. The facts in the draft match the facts in TreeTrunks, which means everything’s correct.”

    “TreeTrunks. Sounds lame,” Ivan said. “No one cares if you get those details right.”

    “You should care because it’s your job,” I said. “And weren’t you a history major?”

    “Who’s even reading these obituaries?”

    Had he ever worked before? I squinted at Ivan’s sneakers to see if I could tell how expensive they were. “You check other things too,” I said. My armpits were beginning to sweat. “Outside of TreeTrunks. You call up relatives and Google stuff to make sure the non-Stanford details are also true.”

    “The phone,” Ivan said. “The internet. Do the families ever lie about the dead person’s accomplishments? That’d be more interesting.”

    He was half-sitting on his desk, which was next to mine, with his arms crossed, like a disdainful teacher in a movie. I slowly swiveled my chair to face him.

    “Why are you even here?”

    “I want to write,” Ivan said. “I mean, I’m going to be a writer, and this seemed decent to do in the meantime.”

    I noticed that his expression had changed then, like something new and beautiful had come into his view.

    Onboarding a resistant employee had left me exhausted and hungry, and on the train back to San Francisco I hunched over to keep my stomach from growling savagely. The most depressing thing about cooking was that it took way too long to shop, wash, chop, stir, and clean up afterward for just ten minutes of eating in front of a peeling wall, so usually I didn’t. Sometimes the magazine would cater lunch or dinner from the Mediterranean place on University on busier days, and I’d bring Tupperware and have enough for the next three. The editor-in-chief, Douglas Stevenson III, class of ’84, had even begun letting me know ahead of time to prepare my Tupperware. It didn’t look as weird if you were the youngest person on staff.

    Most nights, though, I stopped by the Chinese place on the corner by my apartment, which had purple walls and family-sized portions of fried rice for twelve dollars.

    “House Special and Diet Coke?” The teenage daughter of the restaurant’s owner had recently started working the register. She had a chin cut and pink glasses. The restaurant was called Giuseppe’s, because the space was previously leased to an Italian spot, and they hadn’t bothered changing the name after moving in. Even the photographs on the wall were still of pasta and meatballs, as if the owners assumed they’d be replaced by another Italian restaurant in due time.

    After I paid, the teenager repeated, “House Special and two Diet Cokes?”

    I turned around, and there was Ivan, looking as astonished as I was.

    I shoved the rice under my arm. “What are you doing here?”

    “Picking up dinner for my girlfriend and me.” Ivan stuck a Coke in each of his coat pockets. “What’s that rule called? The one where after you see someone once, you see them everywhere all the time?”

    I should have said something like, “We’re coworkers so obviously we’ll be seeing each other all the time,” but instead what came out of my mouth was, “So there’s at least one person who loves you.” It sounded mean as soon as I said it, but Ivan just laughed and accepted his box of fried rice from the teenager with both hands.

    After Giuseppe’s, Ivan wasn’t as pompous with me, as if buying a gallon of fried rice at the same purple-walled hole had either dropped him down a level or perhaps bumped me up one. At work, his questions were more personal.

    “Why do you wear so much green?”

    “I like green.”

    “Why won’t you tell me what you majored in?”

    I had a bagel in my left hand, and the mouse in my right. “English.”

    “Why English?”

    “I don’t know. It seemed easy. Why History?”

    “I like learning how things came to be.”

    I opened the folder of articles that we had to fact-check for the week. “I have tons of work to get through,” I said, though actually I’d had a lot less to do since Ivan had been hired.

    “Where’d you grow up?” Ivan was sitting on the desk again, like he’d just founded his third start-up. He’d have probably done the same if there wasn’t a cubicle wall separating us from the rest of the employees.

    “San Jose. We have to check this obit for Alan Spike, the mountain climber who also started an outdoor clothing brand.”

    “I’m from LA.”

    “Is Disneyland the happiest place on Earth?” I clicked on the first article I could find about Alan Spike. He’d died in a car accident en route to a climb.

    “Never been.”

    Ivan’s father was an orthodontist; his mother was a director at a biomedical lab. He had a younger brother and an older sister, and his family still spoke Korean with each other. He’d played the violin as a kid and won some awards for his rendition of the Mendelssohn concerto but hadn’t touched the instrument in four years. He’d made his way around Europe, not just France and Italy but also the eastern parts, before starting this job.

    “Sounds about right,” I said. I’d never left California, or the Bay Area, for longer than a week. I knew Ivan was trying to get to know me, but I wanted him to stop talking. “Look, here’s a record of every peak Alan Spike scaled since he was twenty.”

    “I’ll shut up, then.”

    I logged into TreeTrunks and entered Alan Spike’s name, then instructed Ivan to do the same. Before I’d started college, the five of us—my mother, father, my two younger sisters, and I—had flown to Taiwan every three summers to visit our relatives for a week at a time. After those tickets, there wasn’t money left to go anywhere else, unless you counted the San Francisco Zoo. At the Rainforest Cafe, my mother would stand guard while my sisters and I ate, so the seagulls wouldn’t swipe our hotdogs from our fists.

    “All clear.” Alan Spike’s ascents of Half Dome and Mt. Everest had checked out, Ivan announced. Same with Alan’s graduation year (’79), and his survivors, a wife named Kelly and two daughters, Jess (’11) and Jennifer (’13).

    I gave Ivan a thumbs-up, and he took a seated bow. There was one other vacation I could remember from more than ten years ago. We drove up to Lake Tahoe to meet another family that we knew from church. They’d departed earlier that morning. My father put the snow chains on backward, the car got stuck, and my mother yelled at him for not being more careful. I yelled because I didn’t want to be late. He got out, like he was going to fix what was wrong, but then disappeared for more than an hour.

    Ivan tapped my chair with his foot. “What should I do next, boss?”

    “Proofread this article about that freshman who has a new theory about the catalysts of World War II.”

    When my father returned, it was dark, and snowing hard, and he looked half frozen to death, his hair hanging in strings around his face. But he wore a strange smile. Flora and Jeanie were buckled into their car seats, crying. My mother’s eyes were absent of emotion. “That’ll teach you all a lesson,” he said, climbing into the driver’s seat as I tried to shake the whites of his teeth from my brain.

    Grace Chao is completing her MFA at the University of Oregon, and was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was previously a finalist for the Iowa Review Award for fiction and is currently at work on her first story collection.

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