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filial daughters

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The thing about Flushing, Hwei-Lan thinks sourly, is that everyone knows everyone else’s business. She’s sick enough of the gossip that she’d rather stay home to amuse herself with cooking and her drama collection, but she still has to buy groceries, and Flushing’s produce is cheaper than Chinatown’s. Besides, most tourists never make it to the end of the 7 line.

She bumps into the Chens at the butcher shop and the elder Mrs. Yao at 金門, and Raymond Wong is just leaving the newsstand with a copy of The Economist when she goes to pick up the 世界日報. Hwei-Lan smiles politely and straightens her spine and pretends not to hear the scandalized whispers that erupt every time her back is turned.

Her father never confronts her about these weekly visits. She never sees her mother.

***

"Wai Po," Wil says, smiling. "Have you eaten yet?"

"Yes, but you’re just in time for some tea." Her grandmother sets down the teapot and pulls her into a hug. "Is that a new shirt?"

Wil plucks at the clinging fabric uncomfortably. "Yeah. It was a present."

Wai Po raises an eyebrow. "You went clothes shopping with your mother?"

"Do I look crazy to you?" Wil says wryly. "No, it’s from a friend." From Vivian, actually; silk blends are so not her thing. Her other friends have long since given up on trying to change her style, and her coworkers know better than to try.

"It looks lovely. Your friend has good taste." Wai Po winks. "You’d better not wear it in front of your mother, or she’ll replace your entire wardrobe."

"I know. There’s a t-shirt in my bag," Wil admits. "She’s already rearranged my entire apartment and restocked my fridge and bought enough toilet paper to last us a year; I’m not about to bring her attention to anything else."

"Smart girl," Wai Po approves. "Is she-"

Wil sighs. "Still depressed and lonely, still keeping busy. She won’t admit to it, but I think she misses you a lot."

"I miss her too."

Wil hesitates. "Wai Po, do you think maybe- if you just came for a visit-"

But Wai Po is already shaking her head.

"Then you could see each other, and-"

"-and cause a big fuss, which would make your mother even more miserable," says her grandmother. "No, Xiao Wei. You know your wai gong is very... traditional, and stubborn enough that I can't change his mind. Our community is already talking. Anything I do would only make things worse for her."

Wil sighs and finishes her cup, then winces as her work phone rings. "I’m sorry, that's the hospital-"

"That’s my granddaughter." Wai Po smiles, passing her a bakery box. "Here, take some 蛋撻 with you. And some 菠蘿包, they just came out of the oven. I'm sure your mother will be craving sweet things."

***

Hwei-Lan nurses her too-sweet coffee at the corner deli, watching the film store clerk across the street. It’s the same one who checked out the... well, that DVD for her on her last visit. She should have come earlier, Hwei-Lan thinks, but it was raining so much harder an hour ago, and she has no idea how long his shift is anyway.

Well, her rentals are due and she can’t justify paying late fees, especially not now that she’s already here. Hwei-Lan gulps down the rest of her coffee and rummages through her bag for the DVDs. And a scarf. And her sunglasses. If she has to face him again, she might as well make things as painless as possible. He’s a 老外, after all, she tells herself; he'll probably mix her up with some other Chinese lady.

She emerges triumphant a few minutes later, new selections tucked safely into her bag. Taking off her sunglasses and disentangling the scarf, she blunders into someone and shrieks a little when she recognizes her daughter. "Xiao Wei! Don’t surprise me like that."

"Ma?" says Xiao Wei, equally startled. "What are you doing here? I thought you’d be at home."

"What, I can't go out for a walk? I was returning a movie I rented," says Hwei-Lan. "Besides, I thought you'd be happy that I'm learning my way around your neighborhood, it saves you a lot of trouble. Aren’t you supposed to be at work?"

"I had an early morning shift, so I’m off this afternoon. Why were you renting movies from here, anyway? I have a Netflix account, we can get DVDs mailed to us."

"Netflix? Do they have anything in Chinese?"

Xiao Wei rolls her eyes. "Yes, Ma, you can look things up online. Anyway, I'm sure they have a much better selection than-" she waves her hands- "that."

"That wouldn't be difficult," Hwei-Lan mutters.

"I'll show you when we get back. Honestly, Ma, did you even try the library first? I know it can be kind of disorganized, but-"

Hwei-Lan listens with half an ear and tucks her scarf into her bag, carefully obscuring the Asia is Major DVD from sight. She makes a note to ask Xiao Wei when her next night shift is so that she can be sure to watch it undisturbed.

***

"Wil!" Wil turns away from the turnstile and blinks at Xiao Yu.

"Hi. You, uh, aren’t actually waiting here to waylay me, are you?" she asks, gesturing at the envelope in his hand. "It's practically two in the morning!"

Xiao Yu laughs. "No, this is my regular shift. I'm doing nights on Thursdays now. These are for your mom."

"I figured," says Wil. "I guess your dad insists, huh."

Xiao Yu makes a non-committal noise. "Hey, I’m just the messenger. I don’t know what he thinks. It's just that your mom's 麻將 group has been visiting his shop lately, and you know how they can be."

Wil makes a face.

"I, um. Hope she's doing okay."

"Yeah, well. She's healthy enough, at least. I don't know why your dad keeps sending this stuff. Have you ever actually taken any of these remedies?"

"Well, that one's specifically for pregnant women, but yeah, I grew up with them," says Xiao Yu. "If you’re asking me whether they work, I haven’t gone to the pharmacy once in my life."

"Huh," says Wil.

Xiao Yu laughs. "Hey, subway’s coming, you’d better go," he says, and Wil tucks the envelope into her bag and runs.

***

Hwei-Lan fidgets, turning this way and that to examine herself in the mirror. This is far from her first date, but the nervousness never gets any better. She slides her hand along her belly; she won’t be able to hide behind empire waistlines for much longer. Sooner or later, she’ll have to make a choice.

"Ma? Are you done in there? It’s almost seven." Xiao Wei peers around the bathroom door.

"He’s not here yet, is he?"

"No, but you said you’d meet him at seven thirty, and Mr. Cho is always early. Not that he minds waiting." Xiao Wei tugs her hands away from her hair. "Stop that, it looks fine. Did you use all of those bobby pins? You’re going to give yourself a headache."

"When did you get so good at this?" Hwei-Lan asks, watching her nimble fingers in the mirror. "You were a disaster that time I let you help out at the hair salon."

"I was ten, Ma, and that was a curling iron." Xiao Wei pauses, her face hidden from sight. "Anyway, V- my friends aren’t all like me, you know. I can’t spend years hanging around with people who can do hair without at least figuring out how to use bobby pins."

Hwei-Lan laughs, ignoring the slip. "You’ve been hanging around me since you were a baby! Surely you should have learned a long time ago."

"That’s different! You’re my mom."

"I must be a terrible mother, then."

"Ma, slow down, I can't keep up with you. I thought we were back to you thinking you're too old to date again, how did we get to single parenting?"

"I might not have had your dad, but I still had help," says Hwei-Lan. "Your wai po taught me everything I know."

Xiao Wei steps back and shrugs. "You’ll have help this time too."

***

Wil peers into the maternity ward. "Ma?"

"Xiao Wei!" says Ma, still sweaty and radiant. "Come take a look at your little sister."

"Yeah, just a minute." Wil untangles herself from her backpack and drops her jacket on top of it. "Where's Xiao Yu?"

"He's getting some tea, he'll be back soon. Say hi to Mei."

Wil accepts the tiny bundle from Ma's arms, smiling a little goofily at the tiny waving fists. "She's beautiful."

"It's funny, isn't it? Starting over at my age with a whole new baby. I haven't even succeeded at being a good daughter after forty-nine years, forget about good mothering."

How many midlife crises is one person allowed to have? Wil thinks, but she sighs and reaches over to squeeze Ma's hand. "Well, if your practice run is free to express an opinion, I'm sure you're going to do just fine," she says wryly.

Ma looks at her for such a long time that she starts to squirm.

"What? Is there something on my face? Did Mei drool on me already?"

"No," says Ma, "it's just- anyone can get lucky the first time."