The following is from Delia Cai's Central Places. Cai was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up in central Illinois. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and her writing has appeared in BuzzFeed, GQ, The Cut, and Catapult. Her media newsletter, Deez Links, has been highlighted in The New York Times, New York magazine, and Fortune. She is currently a senior correspondent at Vanity Fair and lives in Brooklyn.
At first, I can’t tell if the jabber of Mandarin is real or just part of my dreams, or either way, what it is that my parents would be fighting about: Money, again? Me? How much my mother hates living somewhere that gets so cold in the winter? But then the contours of my room blur into view and I realize the steady stream of consonants is coming not from my parents, but from the China Central Television midday news report on the TV downstairs. I sit up, relieved but also aware I’ve overslept. We got home after eight last night, while my mother was still at her evening Bible study at the Eastwoods Community Church, and after a quick dinner of steamed crab, I barely had the energy to give Ben a half-hearted tour of the house before escorting him to the apparently renovated basement, where my parents have set up a guest bedroom for Ben. “They’re so old-fashioned,” I told him, hoping Ben didn’t mind sharing the room with a bookshelf of my dad’s old textbooks and three DVD towers crammed with every possible movie from the American action canon along with my mother’s favorites from the eighties, all covered in a thick film of dust. By then, it was technically eleven in New York and we were both too exhausted from the day to even think of debating the sleeping arrangements, so I climbed upstairs afterward and said good night to my dad, who had retreated into his room at the end of the hallway.
After scrolling through a few emails on my phone, I realize that the sensation of waking up in my childhood bed isn’t nearly as disorienting as I thought it would feel, as if my body and my subconscious actually know too well exactly where we are: everything as familiar as any given morning in high school, when I’d bolt up from my alarm and cycle through the usual anxieties over which class might have a pop quiz and which songs I could burn onto the CD mix to trade with Kyle Weber that would finally make him see me as more than a friend. It’s unnerving, this realization that if I don’t push too hard, I could easily forget the last eight years of my life in New York and peer into the mirror hanging on the back of my door to find the same teenager, plagued with whiteheads and unrequited longing, late for class. I reach for my ring on the nightstand and slide it on, turning it over and over on my finger like a rosary as I take a better view of my old bedroom. Thankfully, there are plenty of visible cues that give away the passage of time: the appliance boxes in the corner, as if my parents gave up on putting certain things away and resigned them to the purgatory of my room. My old flute case sits under a cake of dust on the dresser. There are the school portraits, hung up in ascending order, my hands folded primly as my Picture Day outfits get successively nicer, peaking with the velour tracksuit I wore freshman year, right before my mother got laid off and we lost her employee discount. There’s a framed photo from the days of my figure skating classes from fourth grade, and a handful from family vacations—my face noticeably tense as I stand next to a sign for the St. Louis arch. Proof of life. Hanging from an uncurled ribbon of Scotch tape are a few Polaroids I put up in high school, and I take care to not look too closely at them.
I pull on a pair of stiff jeans and a sweater from my carry-on, then remember to knock twice before entering the upstairs bathroom that my dad and I share. It’s funny to see the contents of my makeup bag spilling out on the counter, next to my dad’s wet toothbrush and extra-large jar of Tums. We moved into this house when I was four, after my dad finished his PhD and got a job with the manufacturing corporation in downtown Peoria, also after my parents officially stopped pretending they would ever sleep in the same room again. Whatever negotiation occurred that gave my mother rule of the downstairs bedroom and relegated my dad and me to the top floor, like occupants in a tenant house, is evidently still in effect two decades later. I take a steadying breath and carefully wash my face, making sure to dab on an extra bit of serum and concealer and to slap my cheeks lightly to make them seem more glowy, healthy, happy to be here. I almost feel good about the resulting effect until I knock over my liquid foundation and watch its contents drip down the drain. Fuck, I hiss at myself. Get it together.
Downstairs, Ben sits at the kitchen table with my dad, who is eating a bowl of congee with kimchi and pork floss and keeping one eye on CCTV on the living room TV. If the smell from the open kimchi jar bothers Ben, he doesn’t let on. He’s also eating a bowl of plain congee that he’s apparently tried to season with salt and pepper, judging by the shakers standing next to him. When Ben sees me, he winks from across the table and then lets his attention slide back over to the TV, where the newscaster talking in rapid-fire Mandarin clearly has him spellbound. Part of me is relieved Ben knows to maintain a chaste distance in front of my parents, but I can’t help but wish he’d at least come over and walk me through this next part as I register my mother standing at the kitchen island, dabbing a Clorox wipe at the smudges on the suitcase I left downstairs last night.
“Mom, you don’t have to do that,” I say in greeting while avoiding having to look at her directly. “It’s just going to get banged up again when we fly back.”
The smell of the kimchi makes my stomach curl, and I move to the nearest kitchen cabinet in search of the matcha latte ingredients that I know we don’t have. I pretend to consult the contents of the cabinet—canisters of loose-leaf oolong, a jar of Tylenol Extra Strength, Ziploc bags, and three tubes of aluminum foil—as I let the corners of my mother sink into my periphery: the mannish short hair, jet black from her zealous box dye efforts; the pilling elbow of her sweater; the familiar floral print of her loose cotton pants.
“You should take better care of your things,” she intones.
“So,” I say, “I guess you’ve met Ben?”
My mother shrugs like I’ve asked her about the weather and gives me a frown. “You slept in late.”
I glance at her without meeting her gaze. The tattooed eyebrows she must have gotten done on her last trip to China give her the effect of an angry bird, and for a moment, I feel powerful for making this observation and not saying it out loud, knowing she’s scanning my face in return for something to comment on. She just can’t help herself. From the corner of my eye, I sense Ben watching our interaction and wish I could tell him that this is why I’ve shielded my life from my mother for so long. My dad uses this moment to announce that they got bagels, which I now see wrapped in Kroger packaging on the counter. I reach for them, pretending to busy myself with untwisting the plastic sleeve as I await my mother’s verdict.
“Your color’s off,” she says finally. “Are you sick?” Then she eyes my bare feet on the hardwood floor and makes a pained sound that I’m not wearing one of the guest slippers she keeps on the rack by the front door.
“I’m fine.” I hold my jaw carefully as I say it, working to keep my voice neutral. It was a dumb move to leave my foundation open on the sink like that. The bagels are stuck together, and when I pry one out, I pretend not to notice it’s already stale and focus on tying off the sleeve with a meticulous knot.
“Are you even going to look at me?” my mother asks now, satisfied with her opening salvo. “I haven’t seen you in years, and I don’t even get a hug?”
I can feel my face get hot. I move to the fridge and check for cream cheese that I also know we don’t have.
“Probably shouldn’t get too close,” I say. “Especially if I’m sick.” I keep my voice light, and this rhetorical pirouette annoys her. I can only wonder what Ben thinks of this entire conversation, of the way my mother and I are circling each other in the kitchen like boxers assessing each other’s weaknesses, knowing this is only round one.
The last time my mother and I were together, it was right after Ben and I met, when she and my dad came up to New York to visit because they had Easter off. We were having dinner at one of those high-end hot pot places on the Lower East Side that I thought would impress them. But my mother was still able to find fault with the menu and the noise, asking me irritably as we ate about when I was going to really settle down, as if my New York life was just a vacation, as if the chaos of the restaurant was yet another sign that I should have followed the twenty-year plan she’d set out for me. At the end of the night, when the waiter brought the check, I set my card down with a decisive clatter. My dad protested immediately. What we were supposed to do was go back and forth on it, but I was exhausted from working a sixty-hour week and said something briskly like, “We all know I make more than both of you,” a comment as irrefutable as the checks I had started sending home every few months to help with the mortgage. Of course, part of me felt smug about it, after all the grief my mother had given me in the years since college about robbing myself of a real shot at success. That’s when the table went quiet. My dad gave me a look. Later, as I walked my parents out the door and hailed a cab to get them back to their midtown hotel, my mother said quietly, angrily, “You didn’t have to shame us like that.” It was another critique born out of desperation, I later realized, after a night when she had exhausted her usual topics of displeasure: my life, my appearance, the crime rate in Brooklyn. The fattest paycheck in the world wouldn’t have made a dent in my mother’s internal calculus of doing enough if I wasn’t respectful enough or grateful enough first.
Now I’m the one standing in her kitchen grinding my molars, aware that she currently holds the power to embarrass me in return. This acknowledgment seems to pass between us like an understanding toward our mutually assured destruction. If you scare Ben away, I silently telegraph to her now, I’ll really never forgive you.
“You know, I’m not that hungry,” I say, abandoning my efforts to make this bagel breakfast happen and tipping it into the trash bin under the sink, where it lands with a thud. “Ben and I should get going, actually. We have errands to run.”
On cue, Ben sails over to the sink, empty bowl in hand, hair slicked back from his shower. He compliments the congee and flashes a wide grin at my mother. The comforting frost of Ben’s cologne shakes me out of my defensive posture, and I can’t resist touching his arm to make sure it’s really him. My mother’s gaze flicks over to him. It’s not clear if she seems impressed that Ben is here, saving me from the rest of her critiques, and also here, towering with his princely, agreeable confidence in her home. Seeing Ben next to my mother is at least proof that I haven’t simply dreamed up the past eight years, and I watch the tip of her mouth turn upward slightly at him as he thanks her for breakfast. Not even my mother is immune from Ben’s charms, I start to think, until she glances back at me and mutters in unmistakable Mandarin, “So skinny.” I pretend not to hear and tell Ben we’re going for a drive. Over my shoulder, I make sure to ask my mother in the sweetest, most winning Sales Rep of the Month voice if I can pick up anything for her from the store.
Excerpted from Central Places. Copyright © 2023 by Delia Cai. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.