Jade was hiding under the dining table, wondering how many more times she could fold her body in half in order to conceal herself from the screaming.
“You know how important presentation is. The fish was for the customers. I cook for the customers. I serve the customers. They are the ones paying for this house.” Her father’s Mandarin was a potent, pained voice that made the room heavy. It was scarier than the time Jade thought the thunder outside had found its way into her head and would stay in there forever.
“Do you think I’m a dabendan?” her father continued, a curse Jade tried to erase, but it would not disappear, so she quietly translated it into English because it sounded funnier that way. Big stupid egg, she kept repeating to herself, big stupid egg.
“No face. Challenging me in front of the customers. Why couldn’t you wait until after we closed? Did you think I wouldn’t see? I saw you.”
“I wanted you to see me,” her mother asserted calmly, the poetic strength of her voice more powerful than ever. Jade could see her mother seated at the table, and she wanted to tug at the ends of her mother’s light floral dress that smelled of fresh-cut ginger and hug her legs. But the little girl didn’t want to move so, instead, she watched her father’s feet pace, taking steps that strangled love and replaced it with angry breaths.
Earlier today, Jade’s mother had taken a whole steamed halibut from the selections lined behind the serving glass. She brought it to the table at the corner of the restaurant nearest the bathroom and called her daughter over, separating the fish into two pieces, one for her and one for Jade. Jade had stared at the tender, white meat of the steaming fish against the black bean and ginger sauce, excited for a meal that wasn’t just rice and vegetables. But before her mother could put each piece on their respective plates, her father had come over, glared at her mother, took the plate with one livid, swift motion, and dumped it all in the nearest trash can. Jade’s mother straightened her back, her expression blank, her mouth pressed together in a way that made Jade think of the silver rims of one of those closed coin purses. Her mother continued to serve her daughter spoonfuls of rice and stir-fried green beans in hoisin sauce. “Eat up,” she said, picking up her chopsticks.
Now, too, Jade’s mother had picked up her chopsticks while listening to her husband’s angry yells.
“Tamade,” he cursed, another phrase Jade tried to erase, but this one she dared not translate.
Seeing his wife’s indifference, he swept everything off the table, making porcelain plates and bowls crash against the floor—a loud chain of shatters that forced Jade to cover her ears and close her eyes, but not before she saw her mother’s chopsticks fall with the tofu and ground beef they were having for dinner.
“Jade, go to your room,” her mother’s voice echoed from above the table.
The little girl could not look at her parents’ faces and made her way down the hall as the voices escalated. She crawled under her favorite blanket on her bed, the one that always hid her from all the fat, black roaches that took the night with their crusty wings.
She turned to face Little Hu and traced her finger on one of his furry stripes. Her parents had bought him for her when she performed in a talent contest at the Chinese school. She recalled the song in Mandarin she sang that day.
Two tigers, two tigers, run so fast, run so fast.
One has no eyes, one has no tail, so strange, so strange.
The last note broke in the air, off tune. Jade swallowed in defiance of the tears that wanted to make her weak and alone.
“Do Baba and Mama love each other?”
The stuffed tiger didn’t answer.
Jade took the pillow from under her head and turned her body away from Little Hu. She folded herself against the pillow and closed her eyes, repeating the song in her head, picturing her parents sitting in the front row, clapping and smiling—a shared plate of rice dumplings resting on their laps.
Angelica Lai's nonfiction work has appeared in the Columbia Journal, Mom.me, Babble, AOL, and Yahoo!, among other online publications. She received a BA in English, Creative Writing from UCLA and was the senior prose editor of Westwind Literary Journal in 2012-2013. This is her first published work of fiction.
Illustration by Meghan Murphy.