I find mom sleepwalking again. She swings open the front door, leaving only the screen between her and the wind which cuts like obsidian. Her eyes are open, but she isn’t looking at anything. At least, that’s what the doctors say. Mom always tells me she’s dreaming about butterflies—living ones, dead ones, ones pinned to boards, ones printed on silicone sheets with clear polymer ink studded so the microscopic imperfections scatter light into iridescent sheens. I wonder how she remembers her dreams in so much detail, but she tells me they aren’t dreams. She sees them out the window beyond the small circle of trees I planted when grandpa was still here to take care of me while mom worked. I follow her gaze, and even on nights when she doesn’t sleepwalk, I sit at the dining table and glance up every few minutes from my computer, hoping to get lucky enough to see the butterflies. It’s like waiting for the tooth fairy on nights mom stayed at the office overnight, sleeping bag in tow.
I have to leave mom on her own tomorrow night because I’m attending group therapy for suicides-gone-wrong. We get along well and are more of a friend group than a therapy group. Something about brushing death and coming back makes you more agreeable, your humor more witty and flexible. We reserved a spot at this Chinese noodle restaurant with purportedly stellar hand-pulled noodles. Mom has always loved noodles more than rice. She claims dad made the best hand-pulled noodles with the perfect QQ texture, cooked in the most delicious beef soup with bits of tendon and tripe—and she’s so certain I’d love it if only I could remember being fed noodles cut in shorter lengths for dinner as a toddler. All I remember about dad is how he disappeared one Friday—just never returned home from work and mom sat at the dinner table the whole night and morning, waiting in front of a fully assembled spread of food-gone-cold, telling me how the butterflies filled the evening with light so dad could follow them back home.
Mom can handle a night without me, but more than that is risking it. I had once forgotten to check on her for two nights because of a work deadline and the following evening, I found her walking into the middle of the road where the township is too cheap to install lampposts despite the exorbitant property taxes—they claim the money goes to the schools but the teachers are still paid nothing so I’m not sure where the money is pulling its weight. I found her just as she stepped off the sidewalk onto the main road and pulled her back. Aren’t the butterflies in the backyard? I asked her. Mom looked like an abandoned princess in her shapeless sleeping gown purchased in China years ago, cut from single sheets of silk. Don’t you think they go to die on the pavement rather than the woods? You come in a car, leave in a car, she said. Well don’t go dying on me, that Volvo speeding past the other day would turn you into mosquito splatter, I told her, knowing she wouldn’t remember by morning. Mom only remembers the good things now: when we dropped rock sugar into cups of Ban Lan Gen and betted on how long it’d take to dissolve, when dad brought home a pint of chocolate Häagen-Dazs on his way home from work, when mom declared Saturdays flour days and dad kneaded dough the whole day to make bao, Xian bing, dumplings, wontons and noodles while mom and I did the wrapping and folding. The only trace of the bag of flour was dust trailing through the kitchen. The bag had disappeared along with dad. Mom said it was an omen even though I later discovered the flour in the trash bag when I was loading the bin. She didn’t need to know I tracked down dad’s new Facebook account and scoured the news for his name or photo, found him leading a fintech startup ready to branch out of Beijing to Guangzhou, married to another woman who looked like one of those chic models, wearing plaid skirts and collared shirts and oversized jackets that dwarfed her like she was a middle schooler.
Three outfits lay on my bed. I’m thinking of going with a sophisticated business, modern casual, or schoolgirl cute look and have been alternating between the three for over two hours now. None of us really care about aesthetic impressions but it’s a rare occasion to dress up, and we like to make a fuss over color combinations and subtle changes in hair parts. Kate, who has the most money among all of us, always flaunts her newest Louis Vuitton bag, eliciting ooohs and ahhhs as we examine the seams (although I don’t know why she bothers—at her core, she’s a bleeding heart who opens her wallet whenever someone asks—so we never ask). Even Darren, who doesn’t wear a single brand name and dressed in a loose t-shirt and sweatpants to his own sister’s wedding, inspects Kate’s bags, interested more in the fabric engineering than the status symbol. Materialism amuses us, including Kate, and we gossip over an object’s price-to-value like we’re gossiping about old high school classmates who’ve made it big or fallen off the bandwagon. I suppose we belong to the latter group even though we earn stable incomes and live by standards that the bureau of statistics deems middle class and healthy. If anyone, Carol is the one who fell furthest—more like catapulted herself out of the bandwagon and across an ocean. We heard rumors that Carol tried to strangle her sister and was sent away, but Carol insists her sister is a conniving bitch who’d stolen all of what should belong to her—the red envelopes stuffed with cash from their grandparents, the violin lessons Carol never got because her sister wanted to play piano, the almond rocas their mom would buy each Christmas as their only sweet of the year because her sister would call Carol fat, prompting their mother to forbid Carol from touching the candies. The others don’t seem afraid, but Carol terrifies me. It’s not the idea of her strangling her sister with a silk scarf but the way Carol stares at me when I speak, never breaking eye contact, never blinking, like I’m an amusing amoeba under a microscope. The whole point of these get-togethers is so the food distracts from direct interpersonal interaction: more munch than talk. But Carol stares more than she eats and seems to peer into my soul or whatever depths go beyond my pupils and retinas. She’s always the last to finish her meal even though she doesn’t speak often, although she’s not as shy as Venkatesh who rarely says anything during our meals. I’m not even certain why Venkat participates but I guess we have a calming vibe that does damage control for his anal parents threatening to disown him if he doesn’t marry this pretty girl with huge gold spangles decorating her wrists whom his parents discovered through a friend of a friend of a friend. The perfect wife, mother, woman, they said. Venkat is hopelessly in love with Seth who’s not part of our group, but someone we’ve heard about frequently—the perfect male specimen with beautiful abs and the perfect chin line. I think Venkat obsesses too much about abs—we all have layers of fat hiding muscle because age sinks its claws into metabolism. Even the thinnest of us, the twins Sue and Casey, struggle to get any distinct muscle lines to show. Sue and Casey compete against one another for every tiny thing which is why we only invite one or the other for meetups, alternating evenly because we want to avoid favoring one and sending the other spiraling. It’s tough being a twin, I think. Sue and Casey are easier to distinguish today than a year ago, when they matched their outfits down to the underwear and split their PB&Js into fours even when there were only three slices of Everyday Value white bread left. The fact that Sue scalded half her face with oil last year might’ve helped.
Mom thinks I look best dressed “properly” which means no lack of fabric in unconventional locations and no odd “trinkets” which is how she describes zippers and ribbons and frills. Not a huge deal now that I’m over the phase of life when I wore off-the-shoulder blouses with sheer lace backs or skater skirts that cinched my waist until I felt like I was suction-forced down the old kitchen sink’s drain perpetually clogged by hair. I trust her fashion judgment more than mine even if she fixates on how chitin scales interact with light (by wavelength selective reflection or coherent scattering to produce structural coloration—she explains in her nightgown, her bare feet snug in the grass) instead of form. In the good days, she’d toss sweaters and dresses that looked horrible on the coat hanger but great in person on my bed and had me walk around the house modeling as dad sat silently in front of the TV watching some Wu Xia drama, and I’d strut in front of the screen to startle him. Now she spends her money exclusively on Chanel products because it’s apparently one of the most sought-after brands in China. I get the feeling she’s trying to make up for her youth with luxury, trying to buy back enough status to bait dad into returning. He won’t come. He has a baby boy with a shiny new wife—a boy with a head round and soft and slightly dented like a fried sesame ball sitting on one side for too long, cheeks bright red like a bingtanghulu, face scrunched up and energetic, like he’d eaten all the qi from his mother and dug his way out of her stomach to grasp what more the world could offer. He’s a hungry boy. I can tell from the young mother’s Instagram feed. Mom and I don’t remember how to be hungry: she’s too busy chasing butterflies; I’m too busy chasing her.
Yo, carpool? Muki texts me. We often carpool to these dinners because we live on the same street. I consider Muki the normal one because he’s a model citizen, going from high school valedictorian to Ivy League Ph.D. to environmental policymaker at the White House. His only problem is taking his previous engagement-gone-breakup too seriously. He never fails to mention how his romantic life is unsalvageable like there’s nothing left to live for even though there’s plenty: all the small things like waking up and finding out it’s Sunday instead of Monday or inhaling the yeasty scent of proofing bread or sneaking bites at the Pick-Your-Own apple orchard or developing energy and sensor applications inspired by butterfly wing architectures. Just because your love life seems bleak doesn’t mean reality has nothing else for you, I tell Muki every time on the way to dinner after listening to him wallow. I wish mom could hear him complain. She thinks he’s a “Chinkiang Vinegar child”—agreeable with everything.
I decide on the sophisticated business outfit. I show mom, gesturing to the cashmere top and the form-hugging skirt from the window. She’s watering her overgrown garden populated with heavy loofah gourds dangling toward the ground and glances at me, nodding her approval before bending over the soft netting to pick a fallen tomato. It’s dangerously close to the eggshell compost she doesn’t bother to properly bury. A monarch butterfly lands on one of the tomato flowers as she reaches her stiff arm and hand forward. It flies away as she stands to inspect the tomato in her weak, arthritis-plagued grip. I ask the group if mom can join lest I leave her at home alone.