Generation 1.5 ... Xiu.
Despite the lack of money, Kim Chong was his usual, cheerful self, and that was good, because Layla was grouchy enough for both of them. He soon learned to ask regularly if she needed her back rubbed, and she always accepted. His touch was often the best part of her achy days. They argued—briefly—about the color of the furniture. Layla was holding out for a boy, and Kim Chong was certain that she was going to have a girl. Not that either of their opinions mattered, since there was no money for a doctor and there was no way to be certain.
In the end, a mistake dictated the baby's new room. The furniture that the movers brought was pastel pink, and the store couldn't accept returns on clearance furniture. So pink it was, then.
Soon after the new furnishing arrived, the waiting came to an end, and one afternoon Layla found herself doubled over in pain, giving birth. There was no time to call a cab or an ambulance. She just endured it until there was a brand-new child wailing in her arms. Kim Chong was right; their first baby was a little girl.
Even though he claimed a glaring lack of experience with all things soft, Kim Chong doted on his daughter, whom he promptly named "Xiu." The name, he said, meant 'beautiful.' Layla, however, was disappointed; she had hoped desperately for a boy. The wish was perhaps influenced by a recent visit from her elder sister Aisha, who, in the space of four hours, managed to dredge up an entire lifetime of bad memories with a single sentence—
"Well, someone's looking thin, aren't they? Is that why you got married, to cook and slave for him?"
But Layla wasn't Mena, and although Layla might have a bit of a temper, she knew better than to take the bait. Eventually Aisha grew bored with berating her and left. And life went back to normal—as normal as a life like this could be.
*** Kim Chong was enchanted by the small pink bundle that his wife had given him, and if he could have gotten his way, he would have taken the baby everywhere. Layla wouldn't hear of it, though, so he had to leave his daughter at home when he left. And lately, he was leaving quite a bit.
He had not been able to create art or music since settling in Riverfront Meadows. An easel was a luxury beyond reach; a piano was not to be dreamed of. Almost in desperation, he began to perform the only art he could—martial arts. He smashed boards over and over, just the way that his grandfather had taught him all those years ago. If he couldn't walk in the Path of the Wind, at least he could re-affirm the beginning. Layla didn't care for it in the least. "Why should you hit boards? What have the boards done to you?" she teased, but there was a bit of an edge to her voice. If he became obsessed with breaking wood, what was to stop him from deciding to just go back to Shang Simla and picking up the life that he had left behind?
"Just practice, Layla. Not learn new."
"Then why spend time to do it?"
"You like body, yes?"
… and she couldn't argue with that. But eventually these practices caused real trouble. A local farmer had torn down his barn, and given Kim Chong the old timber to shatter into bits. Twenty barn beams made an enormous amount of planks, and he was determined to break them all. He stayed at the dojo late into the night. Layla spent her afternoon, evening, and now night alone. Her new novel was about a family, torn apart by the seeds of jealousy. Normally the quiet helped her write, but lately it just felt empty. She hadn't been able to get much written, and after little Xiu fell asleep, she sat at the table and stared at the notebook. No more words would come. With a sigh, she went out to the tent to lie down. She didn't think that she had fallen asleep, but she was suddenly sitting up, heart pounding. She had heard noise. Specifically, the sound of quiet footsteps creeping over the big field behind their tiny house.
If she had been the only one there, Layla would have stayed very still in hopes of not being noticed. But all she could think about was her daughter, alone in the back of the house. She darted out, startling the burglar who had just crossed the threshold of the garden gate. They stared at each other for a horrible moment before Layla ran by and locked herself into the nursery with Xiu. She reached for her phone with a trembling hand and dialed 911.
"Emergency," an operator's voice drawled.
"We are being robbed," Layla whispered.
"What's your address, ma'am?"
Layla didn't answer right away. She could hear the thief scratching at the nursery door. "… ma'am?"
"We are in a field, near the cemetery."
The operator hesitated, but quickly said, "I'll send a squad car by."
The officer came within 90 seconds. Layla held Xiu close as the sound of a scuffle echoed through the silent night. She didn't leave the nursery until she heard a completely different voice—a man's. Kim Chong had come home to see flashing lights on his property. The officer had detained him for several minutes to fill out a missing items report (the burglar, unable to get into the nursery, had instead stolen several vases from the stone chest), but finally he was free to enter his house.
"Layla?" he called.
Her arms had gone numb from holding Xiu, so it took her a moment to get to her feet. She felt a great sense of relief when she saw him, but inexplicably, all that came out was her anger.
"Robber come, police come, me and daughter here, where have you been?"
"Layla, I—" "No more excuses! You spend time at dojo hitting boards, but not here to hit burglar! Stupid, Kim Chong! Very stupid!" She marched over to the waiting cab (in the excitement, no one had paid the driver) and ordered him to take her away.
Kim Chong stood there, too stunned to do anything. In a flash, both his wife and his daughter were gone, and all he had to show for it was a piece of paper from the police that he could barely read. He waited alone for a while, but the taxi didn't return. Tired, and sick and heart, he finally just went to sleep.
*** When he woke up later that day and still found himself alone, he did what any reasonable person would do—he went straight to the local bar and got drunk. That wasn't particularly hard to do, as Kim Chong had never touched alcohol in his life, and the bar was running a special on gimlets. He didn't realize that he had spoken to the bartender about his problems, but quite suddenly the glass was completely empty and the man was handing him a fresh drink.
"Look here, man," Johnny said, nodding seriously. "I got four sisters, so I seen everything you just told me. You wanna know how to get out of trouble? Go home, tell the woman that you sorry. That's it."
"But I already say, and she leave!" "Man, come on. Let me 'splain somethin' to ya. You wanna know the best way to piss off a man? Mess with his stuff. You wanna know the best way to piss off a woman? Mess with her kids. That's why she's mad, man! She's scared."
"But police come—"
"Yeah, man, but you weren't there. If you had been there, she wouldna left, cuz there wouldna be no reason to leave. But you weren't there, and since she was scared, now she's takin' it out on you. I'm tellin' you, man. Just go on home and 'pologize. It'll blow over."
He hoped so. As small as the house was, it was too big for just him.
He spent another hour looking around the town square for any sign of Layla or Xiu, but they weren't there. Or maybe he had just missed them. His eyes were swimming. He returned home, tired and sad. The house still appeared empty, and he didn't want to go in and sit alone. But he knew that no one would want him around after he'd been drinking, so he had no choice. He sat at the table, head in his hands.
"… are you hungry?"
He nodded. Layla set down the empty baby bottle and made two bowls of pasta for them to eat, and they ate together for the first time in a while.
"I want a bed, Kim Chong," she said, finally.
He didn't speak. The very next morning, Kim Chong went to the museum and sat on the front steps until the curator unlocked the doors. They were deep in conversation in minutes. Within a half hour the man had given him a firm offer for the Egyptian vases that the police had recovered. It wasn't a lot of money (perhaps §5000), but it was enough collateral for the bank to extend him a line of credit. From that day forward, the builders were at the house on a daily basis, and Kim Chong, Layla, and Xiu were back to living on the lawn. There was no more writing at the kitchen table, because there was no kitchen. The furniture and appliances were all kept well out of the way. The little nursery was choked with dust as the construction workers carefully uprooted the foundation and rotated the entire building by 90 degrees.
"Dada, what doin'? Dada!"
"Ah … get fruit for cake. You be big girl tonight!"
"Big girl?" Xiu repeated, timidly. The idea didn't seem to appeal. Kim Chong laughed and mussed her hair.
"Yes, big girl. Have nice room, own bathroom, bed, toys. Good?"
Xiu looked puzzled, but once her father mentioned the cake again she smiled. She pointed at the half-built house and clapped her hands. She would realize much later in life that what the builders were making was not so much a house as a battleground.
"Hey, Xiu. Ready go school?"
"No," Xiu said.
For the first four years of her life, Xiu had only known two people: her mother, and her father. There were no morning play dates with the neighbor's children, no afternoons at a playground, no parties to attend. She didn't know what any of these things were and didn't miss them, and she would have gladly continued to pass her days with only her parents. But she had to go to school. At least, that was what Dada said.
The bus pulled up, big and scary. She walked towards it slowly, wishing that she could stay home and help Dada water the trees. A young child responds to change more readily than most adults, though, and it wasn't long before Xiu looked forward to school. But she was always glad for the last bell that released her back into the sunlight and Dada's arms. She wasn't sophisticated like her classmates … her father's hugs never embarrassed her.
Today he said he had a surprise for her. He took her to the grocery store and pointed to five crates full of various fruits. Her job, he explained, was to go in there and sell the fruit to the owner.
"But I can't do that!"
"Yes, can! Go in, talk nice lady, ask for money. They give."
"But I'm just a kid!"
"No, you young lady! Go sell."
Resistance was useless, so in she went. To her surprise, the owner was very willing to buy the cases of fruit. The clerks did laugh when she asked to be paid with bubble gum, but the transaction went very well and soon she was standing outside again, squinting at the money in her hand. "Count all," Kim Chong told her. Xiu did, soon finding that she was holding almost §2000. She tried to give the money to her father, but he wouldn't take it. "Go to furniture store, you pick out bed you like best."
Xiu was excited to be able to go into a store and just point to what she wanted and be able to take it. "Are you getting a bed too, Dada?"
"Mama already buy bed. In house."
Kim Chong did not say anything more, but Xiu would recall this statement years later. There was something about it—the way he had said the words, or maybe just the expression on his face—that warned her that her father was not enamored with the arrangement. Wisely, she said nothing about it. They went home. Xiu and Kim Chong ate while Layla wrote. When Xiu asked her mother why she wasn't eating, Layla immediately answered that she needed to finish writing a chapter. When Xiu suggested that her mother would like the salad better if she put bacon on it, the way they did at school, Layla left the room. Bewildered, Xiu set her fork down and looked at her father.
"Time for bed," Kim Chong said quietly. "Did I make Mama sad?" Xiu asked as she sat on her new bed. Her father sat next to her, playing with her hair.
"No," he said at last. "I make Mama sad. I get call today. Old man from hometown want me teach martial art technique. I going to China tomorrow."
"Can I come?" Xiu asked hopefully, but as soon as she saw his face she knew the answer would be no.
"Mama sad," Kim Chong continued, "because last time I leave her and you alone something very bad happen. She scared will happen more time. But I must go. Want to give you good thing, but must pay first. Cannot get job here, cannot pay for house with apple and carrot." The next morning when Xiu woke up she heard an odd sound. She pressed her ears to the wall to listen, and she was very sure that she heard her mother crying. She had tried to go into the bedroom to hug her mama's neck and wipe the tears away, but the door was locked, and she didn't know why.
When she got on the school bus, she looked out of the smudged window at the house. It looked lonely and afraid under the clouds in the sky.
~ to be continued
Strangers in a Strange Land -- Gen 1.5
Apr 2, 2012 by spladoum
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