Anniversaries: My Mother's Take

Leaving the theater on Wednesday night, I checked my phone and saw that my mother had called during the show. She left a message:

"Zhen Bao," she sang her Chinese nickname for me, which translates almost directly to "Precious Treasure" (why are you smirking - I am.) "It's been such a long time since we've talked. How are things? Good with you and Mr. Tom? Call me back when you have time."

Back at Tom's, I went downstairs to return the call.

She was at Costco with my father. I could picture the cart filled with bulk sized boxes of oatmeal and bags of whole wheat toast, a rotund watermelon rocking from side to side, and a prickly pineapple poking a bunch of large bananas for their morning smoothies, which my father makes for not just my mother, but my aunt and uncle too. They come each morning to do flexibility and strength exercises with my mom, and after, everyone sits down to eat the breakfast my father prepares. A morning routine revolving around love and gratitude.

"How is everything?" my mother asked.

"Great, great, really good," I said, "We just came back from a musical, and yesterday, we had dinner with friends. It was our one year anniversary yesterday!"

"Oh!" My mother laughed, and repeated this to my father.

"One year," he snorted, "so what."

"One year!" my mother said, and I thought she would follow it with a congratulatory, "That's wonderful!" and between the brightly lit aisles of the Yorba Linda Costco, the one I'd practically grown up in, begin to dispense some motherly wisdom about the year ahead.

Instead, I heard bemusement in her voice.

"What's the big deal about one year? It's not like you're married."

I was taken aback and began to say something. Nowadays, it was a big deal! Didn't she know people broke up left and right and who says marriage was the only big deal because hadn't she been there on the other end, when I called a year ago to say, "We're officially 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend!'?" (Though revisiting that moment now I recall she had also laughed lightly). And, whenever I'd called to seek advice or complain about something, hadn't she always said, "Calm yourself and be thankful, be positive," because she knew her relationships - not just with my father - flourished because she focused on the good? And didn't she know that in this world of fickle feelings and broken promises and flakes and liars and cheaters it's always a big deal to find yourself happy in a good relationship? Even if it had only been a year or month or day?

But I had barely began to sputter when I sensed her attention drift away. She was now asking my father if he had remembered to get those bagel thins she liked so much. You know, the ones that she toasted each afternoon and topped with a fried egg?

I heard my father, her husband of thirty-four years, say, "Yeah, I got them. What else do we need?"

She must have made a gesture, or they must not have needed much; her voice turned back to me.

"Well, we're going to go check out now," She said, and laughed again, "But I'm glad you two enjoyed your 'anniversary.' Tell Mr. Tom we said hello."

I sighed, feeling childish, but said that I would. We hung up.

I sat on the big squashy couch - the one Tom threatens to bring with him if, sometime in the future, we find ourselves sharing an apartment (another big deal!) - and pictured my parents, who've I've never heard utter the words "Happy Anniversary" to each other or say anything else remotely romantic in the conventional sense ("I love you," "You complete me," "What would I do without you, Honey Buns,"). I pictured them strolling through Costco on a Wednesday evening, their 1,768th Wednesday evening together as husband and wife. I saw them walking side by side behind the large cart filled with large items. They were not holding hands - my father doesn't do that - but were instead connected by happy anniversaries, thirty-eight and counting.

Loving Couples Dimly Two by Two*

Paul and Minh's homemade pho, perfect for the sudden, unwelcome cold snap. 


It was our anniversary yesterday and I had given Tom the actual day to plan something and taken the Wednesday after for myself (we are going to Briciola, a wine bar, and watching "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" at the Walter Kerr Theater).

Then, on Sunday night he said, "Minh and Paul invited us over for Pho on Tuesday."

He brought it up casually as though it was a passing observation rather than a suggestion, but we both knew it was a suggestion.

"It's our anniversary," I said.

"I know what day it is," Tom said.

Neither of us, however devoted to the idea of "us" we were (I unabashedly place more emphasis on birthdays and special occasions than he does), would ever feel it natural to turn down anything Paul cooks. It is always that good.

"Okay, let's go."
The hostess with the mostest in their cozy living room. 
I call this, "Waiting for Good Pho." 
"He'll have to wait a little longer," says Paul, who consistently produces big flavor within a small kitchen. 
Waiting for the garnishes, I notice my socks kind of sort of match the tablecloths. 
After dinner, a heated discussion about "Gone Girl" ensues. The guys don't get it. 
The finale: whiskey tastings and an HBO comedy special starring Jerrod Carmichael, recommended unless you're very sensitive, love Tyler Perry and/or stupid. 
*The title, from a Henry Green book, stuck with me. I didn't even read the book but saw it while paging through it in class. I was pretending to search for the passage the professor was referring to.

You and I: A Story about Defining the Relationship


“Oh, no, I’m not saying she isn’t a nut — she is — but I’ve noticed before that sometimes someone like that behaves quite ordinarily with everybody, manages everything, you’d never think she was a nut, but there’s just one person, with that person, she’s out of control. It makes you wonder.”
                                                                                                      ― Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist

A subtle selfie at Le Barav in Paris, December 2013

Today, November 18th, marks our one year anniversary. But, you ask, didn't you guys start dating August of last year? Didn't you visit Tom in London at the end of October? Wasn't he still in London on November 18th and weren't you still in New York? 

Yes, yes, and yes. 

But I was disappointed when I left London that first time because Tom had not said anything about our being “official.” 

It sounds like high school stuff, but at the time it gnawed at me. The entire weekend in London and Bath we had walked like a couple, talked like a couple. Held hands. We had made out like mad, and by the time I boarded the Heathrow Express, his stubble- a look I preferred - had left a dry patch on my chin. 

“It looks like you gave me chin dandruff,” I said. 

“Good,” he said, “Hopefully it’ll keep other dudes away.” 

Using twisted, defensive female logic, I tucked the comment away to mean that Tom was hoping I was still exploring other options. Maybe he wasn’t ready to take the plunge and hoped that neither was I. 

So November 18th might seem like an arbitrary date, but I have confirmation via Gchat that it isn't. November 18th was one day before I met my old Slavic Lit professor, visiting his parents in New York, for coffee, and two days after I went on a last date with a guy I dated briefly. Not hedging my bets because he was actually pretty cool but, you know, hedging my bets.  

I told Tom via Gchat that I was going to have coffee with my professor. 

"The one you had a giant crush on?" 

"Yeah." 

He wasn't comfortable with it. 

"That's like me going to get lunch with an ex girlfriend." 

I, alone in my kitchen, had snorted. Because it wasn't like that at all. And to be worried about the Professor! Of all people! When just two days ago Other Dude had taken me to see Wicked and would, within a weeks' time, leave on a family vacation to Paris and call me every night before going to bed. This was before I learned that to get a phone call from Tom (one I didn't have to suggest) meant it was probably a blue moon. 

"Can you call me." I typed. 

Less than a minute later we were on the phone.  

"You’re overreacting about the professor," I said, "I don’t have feelings for him anymore. We’re just getting lunch because he’s in town. I have already written to him too, and told him I’m dating someone awesome.” 

“Well,” Tom said, relieved, “Obviously.” 

“But," I said, "I think it’s interesting that you’re concerned about me seeing my professor when…” 

His voice lowered. “What’s going on.” 

I stood up from my small kitchen table and walked to the mirror on my dresser. I scratched my head and stared at my reflection, wondering if I sounded as twisted up as I felt. My face did not seem as worried though, and that calmed me a bit. No matter what, I told myself, things would be all right. There were other fish in the sea. Yada yada yada…but dammit I was going to define this relationship. 

“What are we?” I finally asked. 

“What are we what?” 

“Like…what are we in our relationship? Are we….exclusive?” 

Tom was silent for a minute, then said, “Yeah…at least I thought so. I haven’t dated anyone else since I met you.” 

“Really?” 

He had been casually seeing a girl in London before he came back to New York for the two weeks during which he met me, and after, had gone back and called it off with her. 

“I told her I was starting something pretty serious," he said, “and I haven’t seen anyone else since. I assumed, since I’d flown you out to London and you came and had a good time and since you’re coming again in December, that…well, we were exclusive. I didn’t feel the need to announce it because I thought you felt the same.”

“Oh." 

“Unless…” Tom continued, “You fly to other countries all the time to visit guys you’re just dating.”

“Oh, no,” I said hurriedly, “I don’t do that.”

I wondered if it had been obvious that we were exclusive, but I shook my head. It hadn’t been obvious to me. And I’d heard my fair share of stories of girls burned by men they assumed were their boyfriends because of the men's boyfriend-ish actions, only to realize they weren’t girlfriends, just girl friends. With benefits. 

“Wait,” Tom said, “Are you still seeing other people?” 

Now I was silent.

“Um…” I said a beat or two later, “I am.”

“You’re still dating other guys? Even after you came back from London?”

He hadn't asked, I pointed out, and I had not wanted to assume.

“I didn’t think I had to! I flew you out here! I planned this like whole romantic getaway and we've been talking every day!"

I didn't want to assume, I repeated, and before he could say anything else added, “Tom, the whole point of my bringing this up is that I don’t want to see other people anymore. I just want to see you.” 

“Well, good, "he said, “Same here.”

“Good.” 

“Good.” 

"Yeah." 

“Yeah, so tell those other guys to fuck off.” 

And I did, though not in those words. 

New York Encounters: At Bergdorf Goodman

Over the weekend, a friend with expensive taste visited from Philadelphia.

"Take me shopping," she said.

"Bergdorf Goodman," I suggested, not because I'd ever purchased anything there, but because once, I had afternoon tea there with my cousin and, over a tier of rather bland cakes and scones, observed such a medley of people: from the rich to the superrich to the not-so-rich pretending to be rich - all rather idle - that I thought my friend ought to see the same. For purely anthropological reasons if nothing else.

We went on a Saturday afternoon and as per the average price tag of most items hovering around $3,000 (perhaps a Bergdorf merchandiser will stumble upon this blog and laugh at how off the number is), it was decidedly less crowded than say, Macy's or Forever 21. I picked up crocodile clutches and put them back down. My friend, her mother having raised her with different material standards than mine (who proudly shops at T.J. Maxx and boasts how everything, regardless of what or when she bought it, costs "around seven dollars") pointed at a few two to three thousand dollar handbags.

"I have that. I love it. Oh I have that one too. It's great. Very functional."

There was a Balenciaga I really liked. I tried it on and then looked at the price tag. $1,670.

"Ah." I smiled the "just looking" smile at the sales woman who was coming closer and closer and put the bag down. "Perhaps another time."

"That's actually a really good price for a bag that quality," my friend said with kind earnesty.

I marveled at how two young woman could be shopping in the same very real place, each operating in their own fiscal realities.

"I want to see Moncler," she said, citing an expensive maker of down jackets and winter wear. We had already seen a small selection of Moncler at the Barney's in the Upper West Side, but the styles were not "outrageous" enough, as my friend put it. She is a small, thin girl with big, fat style, and a budget to match the latter. I shrugged, "Sure," and asked a rather bored young man wearing a Barney's lanyard around his neck what floor.

"Six," he said, nodding towards the escalators.

The day was getting late and I wanted to head home after Moncler. I had to do some reading for class and thought it better to let my friend shop in her natural state, that is, without a less budget-sensitive friend hovering around. I suspected my friend was holding back many a credit card swipe.

"Let's take the elevator," I said.

We waited but two minutes at the elevator bank before the door furthest to the right dinged. A moneyed young couple stepped out, like walking mannequins from a Brooks Brothers window. Seeing no one else, we started towards the open door.

As I stepped in, an elderly lady wearing an enormous, blonde fur coat emerged, as suddenly as a woman her age could.

"Oh," I said.

"Oh," she said. She looked dazed, and had one foot out the elevator and a tentative look about her creased face, which was poorly made up. Her lips and cheeks were too pink and the complexion around it nearly grey, as though the foundation had expired some decades ago. There was, above the deeply creased lips a thick mustache which she decided to leave three, four shades darker than her hair, which was too blonde. I wondered if it was a wig. It had a plasticky sheen to it. Her recently manicured nails, the only fresh thing about her, were painted a ghastly shade of teal.

She looked at me without really looking at me.

"Is this going down?"

I looked up and saw that the down arrow was lit.

"It is," I said, and took a step back, expecting her to do the same.

"Can you get in?"

I cocked my head, wondering if she'd heard me wrong.

"We're going up," I said.

"It doesn't matter," she said, putting one wrinkled hand up on the doors to keep them open and waving the other at me towards her, "Just get in will you. I hate riding alone in these things."

My friend looked up from her phone, "What's going on?"

I did what I felt was the obvious thing and motioned for her to get in.

"It's going down," she said.

"Just get in," I said, switching to Chinese - my friend is from Taiwan - "This lady is a bit senile and she doesn't want to ride in the elevator alone."

My friend raised an eyebrow, said nothing else, and followed me into the elevator.

In the short ride down, I snuck glances at this strange, old creature, though I doubt she would have noticed even if I had ogled her, so rapt was her attention to the lights indicating which floor the elevator was on. She tapped her fingers against the fur coat, which my limited experience with such luxe materials prevents me from describing accurately, except I can say with confidence that it was real - perhaps an heirloom piece from another time. Her perfume was very strong, (equally inadequate is my sense of smell. I cannot describe perfume any other way but to say, "It was strong," or "What? She was wearing perfume?") and I saw now that the lipstick was not just on her lips, but all around them too.

For the ten seconds we rode in the lift together I wondered about her life and her fears and, as I usually do with women her age who are out and about alone, if her husband was still alive. I also wondered whether in God's name her house had any mirrors. I imagined her living in a dark, unaired, unkempt, formerly glorious Park Avenue penthouse like a New York cousin of Miss Havisham, and was beginning to mentally squint my way through its musty dark halls when the elevator dinged and the doors slid open to reveal, almost incongruously, the glossy white floor of the spotless beauty department.

In keeping with her fear of elevators, the old woman practically jumped out with surprising lightness of foot as I stood slightly slack-jawed in the middle of the elevator.

"Thanks," she warbled, lifting her hand and tossing a breezy wave in my general direction, "Bye."

The doors began to close and I, amused the second time that day by a discrepancy in realities, watched the blonde head on the blonde coat make a beeline for La Mer.

Taipei Jeans: A Flashback

“You have it too easy,” my aunt said, said stroking my hair, “You’re not depressed. You just have difficulty.”

"When I was your age, I didn’t have the choice to either go to college or do what I liked. It wasn’t even that my parents made me. We had one road, and that was education. We had no other thought but to get out of Tainan. We needed the freedom that came with a good education.

“I remember moving into the dorms and thinking, “Wow, this is great. I’m finally on my own…” but really, it was the most crowded living situation I would ever experience.

“Nine girls in one room with three-level bunk beds. The rooms were so small we had to take turns studying at the desks. Everything was shared. The first day I arrived I was so embarrased. I unpacked all my things and the oldest girl in the room came and patted me on the back.

“It’s okay,” she said, “We share all our  clothes anyway.” I stared at my belongings: two white shirts, two pairs of socks, two pairs of threadbare underwear and a skirt that had been let out at the hem so many times there were lines at the bottom where the wash had faded the cloth. The older girl waved at her closet- it wasn’t much more, but at least she had two pairs of shoes. “Feel free to borrow what you need. But we all try to keep everything in the best condition.

“Back in high school, my friends and I dreamed of moving to the big city. You see, we grew up in Tainan, the southern part of Taiwan where people are considered…country bumpkins. We studied hard and knew that no matter what, we were going to Taiwan National University in Taipei. My mother didn’t think I could make it. She told me not to aim too high. 'Set yourself up for disappointment,' she would tell me whenever I brought it up, 'Why not just be a teacher and stay at home? Save money.'

“You’re probably thinking, teacher? Is that freedom? Well… back then, being a teacher was a respectable job to have. And if you studied to be a teacher in college, you were guaranteed a job after you graduated. But I knew in my heart I wanted to go to Taipei- I did not want to stay in Tainan and become a teacher, even if it meant my education would be paid for by the government.”

“I didn’t tell my mother when I was accepted into Taiwan National University. She kept on asking me when I was going to move into the teacher's school, but I just talked about something else. Finally, when she found out, it was too late to get angry. I was already packed (even though there wasn’t much) and ready to leave. We said our goodbyes and I left for Taipei.

She stops here, looking me in the eye. Wondering what I’m thinking. I am intrigued, but I am tired.

“Betty, I know New York is different and you regret going there, but you must think of it this way: at least you know. I think you’d be far unhappier if you’d never left your hometown.

“Taipei was a whole other world. The college girls there, the older ones anyway, looked down at first on us girls from the south. They thought we had no style, no class. Which was true, but we were fast learners. My roommates and I saved up all our money for six months just so we could each buy a pair
of jeans. I could not believe how expensive the western styles were, but I wanted to fit in so badly. We were growing up, you know? We wanted to do it right.

“The jeans…they didn’t fit. Well they did, but it was like walking around in a cast the doctor had wrapped too tightly. I remember asking for my size and then trying them on in the store. When the button couldn’t meet the hole, I asked the saleslady if she could get me a larger size. She snapped at me and said, “That’s how they’re supposed to look. They make your legs look thin and sexy.”

My aunt gets a dreamy look then shakes her head, smoothing down my hair once more.

"Those jeans," she said, "I had a love-hate relationship with those jeans.'"

Monday Musing: Diaries

Lately, I have not been feeling like myself. But then I wonder, what is "myself?"

A few nights ago at dinner, Tom said to me, "You are cheerier than usual."

I looked at him over the flame of a small votive candle. 

"Am I normally not?" though this was a dangerous question and one I did not want him to answer honestly.

This last month, perhaps longer, has been trying. I have cried more than anyone in my situation (a good relationship, making slow but certain progress in school, surrounded by friends, most of whom I met through Tom, and with kind, patient parents who came to visit and found my boyfriend charming if not the city) ought to, for reasons both big and small and sometimes, for no (apparent) reason at all. I have started fights at midnight and made both of us bleary eyed with exhaustion. 

Tom shook his head, "No, you're usually pretty cheery -" he paused - "You're always cheery. But tonight you're super cheery." 

I was indeed cheery that night - we were having a pizza date in the East Village - and the night before. For two days a certain peace had washed over me - I had, I thought, accepted things that I was either to accept or reject.

I was cheery too, yesterday, when we, along with two friends, drove an hour to the New Jersey countryside to do east coast fall things: a brisk hike through a crisp, golden forest, a small lunch of cider hotdogs and doughnuts, and a corn maze through which we entered and hours later - chilled, exhausted but triumphant - emerged. 

Some days, when outings are planned and the weather is fine and there is nothing to do really, but move your legs and breathe the air and listen and add to the chatter, it is easy to be cheery. But by the day's end, you are tired and one misinterpreted word from your lover's mouth can push your fatigue into a darker mood.

I over think things. I know this. But by now, at the age of twenty-eight and having gone through what I think, what I hope, are similar times, I should know now how to tell the difference between my mood in a time of change and uncertainty versus my general temperament. I wonder if it's something physiological. Some chemistry I don't quite understand but which I try to temper by taking fish oils and Vitamin C and making sure I get enough sun on my face and skin and eyes... But nothing. In short, I should know the answer to, "Is this how I am?" or "Is this how I am right now?" 
-------

This morning I struggled for the answer while zoning out in lecture. I thought about the diaries I'd written when I was younger and when, I assume, I was "happier." Happier in that I didn't think so much, didn't plague myself with thoughts about the future, which won't reveal itself anyway, not it's full face and shape, until it arrives. I looked forward to things most children looked forward to: the weekends, or more specifically, the hours after Chinese school. I relished warm Thursday afternoons in early summer, when I'd finished my homework and there was nothing left to do but climb the tree outside my window, then swim, and eat dinner. Maybe, if my mother allowed, I would watch some television. I counted down the days to winter break ski holidays with my cousins, and Christmas and Thanksgiving and Halloween! I'd anticipate the end of the year at the start of fall, and allow my excitement to build backwards. 

When I was sixteen a particularly nasty mood hit me - a petulant, tyrannical dark cloud that screamed, "out with the old Betty and in with the new!" - because back then, I used diaries as an attempt to reinvent myself, to just myself - and I threw those diaries away. 

I have no written record of what life was like before that age. It makes me sad to think that I might be writing over words I'd written before, on some ream of recycled paper I bought from Staples. 

Shortly thereafter, I started my first blog. A Xanga. I wrote in it for a few years before another mood struck and I began a new Xanga. Another mood, another time. A few years after that, something changed again, and I was on Blogger, as Very Highbrow, to which I am still faithful and intend to keep. 

Some things don't change, as much as I would like them to - not because they can't, but because they shouldn't. But from time to time I want to reread my old stuff, revisit the old me, because the old me is always, still me. 

I remembered the password to my old archives for my second Xanga, but could not for the life of me remember the first. Xanga, now defunct, had archived all my old entries, but I could not access them with neither the password nor the email I had used over ten years ago. I have tried at least twice a year for the past three years to remember or retrieve that password, but the archives remained infuriatingly out of reach: just a small password box in the way. 

And then in class today, zoning out, I heard my professor say a few familiar words, among them, my old password sans the numbers I attach to the end of most password. I sat up, startled.  

I opened my computer and a few minutes later, voilà: Betty at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. Betty from a decade ago downloaded onto present Betty's computer in five seconds flat. 

Just a few pages of code but several hundred thousand words explaining, exploring. A person growing. 

Write this City: A New York Diary

On a whim, my professor changed the final assignment. 

We were reading "What I saw" by Joseph Roth and thumbing the pages during our class discussion, he revisited something valuable. 

"Why not let's do this," he said, waving his hands as though to stir up the proposal still taking shape in his head, "Yes, yes, this is much better than the original assignment I have planned." 

It's simple: keep a journal. An urban diary of life - your life - in the city. Write it longhand if you wish, and for God's sake don't agonize over it. That's what workshop is for. Try to write every day and at the end of the semester, turn in your best, your favorite 1500 words. 

A few of us groaned. More writing on top of the twenty to thirty pages we were already expected to churn out each week for our thesis workshops. Also, we haven't been asked to keep a journal since elementary school... 

"Dear Diary, 

Today at recess I kicked a girl in the stomach..." 

A girl from Egypt raised her hand. She is a journalism student with a concentration on arts reporting. What was the original assignment? 

The professor looked at her with a curious expression that said, "Does it matter?" 

He is a curious man with wild salt and pepper hair and a chin that protrudes slightly more than the rest of his face. He is well-dressed in a New York not-quite-young but not-quite-old professorial way: fitted, faded jeans, blazer, worn but probably expensive polo shirt in dark blues and greys. Sometimes he wears a narrow, striped scarf, the kind that makes me wonder: "Yes but...does it keep the neck warm?" It certainly does nothing to tamper the scratchiness of his voice. 

On his narrow nose rests narrow black framed glasses and always at his ankles sits a single, slim briefcase, probably hand-stitched, the leather on the handles worn as well as the bottom, from being placed then picked up on classroom and subway floors. He wears no wedding ring, though he is reasonably handsome and reasonably successful, and it is only after our third or fourth class that I go home and Google him - he's written two memoirs, one about his daughter's mental illness and another about his struggles as a writer. 

I once saw him reading on the subway, sitting between a fat black woman and a student not unlike myself, a young Asian woman with hair pulled back into a pony tail, wearing a light sweater and jeans, flats. She was reading a printout, dense with text. My professor, the briefcase now between his ankles, read a slim volume I couldn't see the title of but was certain it wasn't something he'd assigned for our class. 

I stood half a car away and wondered if I should walk over to say hello - there was space in front of him - but decided to stay put because I felt it would be awkward to tower over him, my belly in his face trying to make small talk. I guessed he would get off the train at 96th and transfer to an express train - the 2 or 3 to Brooklyn where I swore he lived. I wanted to know where he lived so I could pat myself on the back and say my assumptions were right. 

But he remained seated and I, disappointed, got off. I remembered what he'd said in class. 

"When you write this diary, see if you can put your assumptions away." 

I pushed through the turnstile, momentarily jostled by a group of young musicians and their sleek instruments made unwieldy by nylon cases and hard shells, and wondered if for me, that was possible.  
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