Generation 1.8 ... Bert.
"Not really, they all look alike to me."
"What are you talking about, they don't look anything alike! See that glazing on the outside? And the marble veins? Why, this one was made in Phoenicia …" Layla could do little besides sigh to herself. Talking about art was Xiu's pride and joy, and all trip long she had lectured nonstop on every single item that they had seen at every single museum. Layla was mentally drained, and didn't hear a thing that Xiu was babbling about. She was thinking about Mei, wondering if the baby was alright.
"… Mom, look! They have an Egyptian exhibit!"
Before Layla could even respond, Xiu was pulling her into the next room and gushing over the sarcophagi. "I wish I could do this! I want a sculpture station so badly!"
She huffed. "Now I'm jealous as hell of Pascal! He has one at his house and they never use it!"
"… who's Pascal?" Layla asked cautiously. She wasn't sure she wanted an answer.
"Oh, Mom, come on! He's an exchange student from school, he was at the house two months ago—"
"Was he that boy I caught you making out with?" "We weren't making out! It was just a little kiss—"
"With your tongue in his mouth for a full minute. I saw you, little missy. You'd better be grateful that I didn't tell your father!"
"Mom! I swear it wasn't anything. Besides, I really like Bert—"
"Who's Bert?" Layla asked, even more alarmed now.
"Oh my gosh, Mom—" Xiu fumbled in her purse and pulled out a photograph. "You've met Bert Goldman before. I promise."
Layla looked, and sighed. She did know Bert Goldman. She also knew his parents, specifically his mother. Mrs. Goldman did not like Xiu. The local gossip ran that Bert had dumped his girlfriend of six years to begin dating Xiu, and Mrs. Goldman, a recent divorcée, was very displeased by the glaring similarity. "I know what you're thinking," Xiu said somberly. "You're thinking about Bert's mom, I bet. But it's okay, really it is. I already know how she feels, and so does Bert. He told me it's his life and he's going to live it how he wants. And he wants to hang out with me, no matter what she says." Layla could only hope that it would be so. She had been living with her remaining family's disapproval for many years now, and it seemed to be a wound that time had yet to heal.
*** Despite Kim Chong's uncertainty about the family's finances, they were actually quite stable. In his wife and daughter's absence, the little house had been expanded, this time upward.
Lately Layla hadn't been able to write, and the publisher was growing impatient with her. This stressed her, further hampering her writing. Kim Chong tried to soothe her nerves, but couldn't quite shake the feeling that he wasn't going about it in the right way. He was no wordsmith; his reassurances came out clumsy.
Finally, he called an architect and requested an addition. The third bedroom and bath were completed in a matter of weeks, just before Layla and Xiu would return from France. Now both bedrooms on the ground floor were for his children, and he and Layla had the entire second story to themselves.
He looked at the empty bedroom. "Quiet space," he murmured. "Good for writing, good for thinking." He went back downstairs to stretch himself on the couch. He would not sleep in the new bedroom until Layla returned. There was no reason to be there alone.
*** Layla and Xiu returned to town that following Wednesday. Xiu immediately gushed to her father about all of the wonderful art that she had seen and made while overseas. She also accidentally-on-purpose let it slip that she really wanted a sculpture station, and Kim Chong, doting papa that he was, immediately procured one for her. He also bought her a new easel, but she didn't use it—she said that she was so used to the one he had given her as a child that she wouldn't feel comfortable with a different one. So Kim Chong began to use it himself.
"Picking on me," he complained. "Know I not good, why make me paint?"
"Daddy, you're fine! Just keep going."
"You paint creation of universe, I paint stick figure, how I good?"
"Daddy …" she spluttered, but she was laughing too hard to keep protesting. From the outside, they both heard Mei squealing as she took a ride down the brand-new railing of the brand-new staircase.
"Should I make her stop that?" Xiu asked, but Kim Chong shook his head. Layla said that she didn't mind some noise—if she couldn't hear the kids, she would wonder what they were getting up to. As Kim Chong had hoped, she spent a lot of time writing at her new desk. But right now Layla wasn't writing. She had just gotten the news that her oldest sister Mena was dead. Aisha, her surviving sister, blamed her for not being around when it happened. Layla countered that she was in France with her daughter, but Aisha was in no mood to hear about it. "You have a family here in Egypt, Layla, and how many times have you been back to see us since you left? Not once."
"Stop what? Stop reminding you that you left us behind to go run off with some guy? Fine, I'll stop. We're not family anymore, Layla. I won't call you again."
Layla hung up and walked over to the window, hugging herself, crying.
She woke up on the bed in her husband's arms. Neither of them said anything; there was nothing to say.
*** Happier events soon gave them something else to focus on. At the end of the week, Xiu would be graduating from high school at the top of her class. Her artwork had been published in more than one major periodical, and already she had requests coming in for custom pieces. She could be busy for weeks, months if she chose. But right now she seemed significantly more interested in Bert Goldman. And Bert, true to his word, remained interested in her—so interested that Mei whined, "Who's that guy an' why's he keep lookin' over here?" immediately after the ceremonies. "That guy" showed up at the house later in the afternoon and kept Xiu company for a while. Poor Mei didn't know what to think. She hopped onto the couch and pretended to be driving a car, the better to keep an eye on them.
"So you're not moving to Fort Winston, Bert? I'm surprised, they have a really good physics lab there."
"Vroooooom," Mei called, just to remind them that she was still there.
"It's too far, I can't come back a lot if I move three states away, can I?"
"Yeah, but you'd make really good money, you could always fly home." "Why don't I just stay here with you and be happy, and not have to fly home?"
Xiu sighed. "Mei, really? Go get that music box from your room. I thought you wanted me to paint it."
"I did, but you were always busy!"
"Because I was taking final exams! I'm not busy now, go get it." Instantly, Mei went into her room and started hunt for her music box. Its case was marred with Magic Marker scribbles, and Xiu had promised to repaint it.
It took Mei a few minutes to find the toy, and as soon as she returned to the front room, she realized that she had been tricked. "I'm gonna tell!” Mei shouted, but the lovebirds were too focused on each other to hear her childish threats. Bert kept his word, and stayed in town. His mother's attitude did not improve, and he moved out of her house and got his own tiny apartment.
Not that it mattered; he spent his afternoons at the Shin Yi's house talking to Xiu and getting to know her parents better. Layla was still a bit leery of him, but Kim Chong took an immediate interest in Bert and began to train him in the basics of the Path of the Wind.
He trained Bert so effectively that Bert walked away thinking that Mr. Shin Yi was some kind of undercover FBI agent. Xiu just laughed at the idea. "Don't you worry about it," she assured Bert. "Daddy's been trying to find someone to spar with for a long, long time. People around here aren't exactly into exercise."
"I don't need to be his sparring partner! Your daddy is crazy!"
"No, he's not!" Xiu protested, laughing. "He's just …"
"Crazy, Xiu. Craaaaay. Zeeeee."
"Aw, he's gonna be so disappointed. I guess I'll tell him to go back to training Mei." That evening Bert stayed when the family invited him to spend the night. One of Xiu's graduation gifts was a new double bed, and she felt a strange excitement at being able to share it with one of her best friends.
When they lay down to sleep and Xiu felt Bert's arms fold around her waist, she wished to herself that he would stay forever.
~ to be continued
Strangers in a Strange Land -- Gen. 1.8
Apr 20, 2012 by spladoum
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