Angie Kang is an illustrator and writer living in Providence, Rhode Island. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Narrative, Porter House Review, Lunch Ticket, Hobart, and others. In 2020, she won first place in the Casey Shearer Memorial Award for Excellence in Creative Nonfiction, the Kim Arstak Memorial Award for poetry, and the Beth Lisa Feldman Prize in Children’s Literature.
Mama says the growth on her jaw sprouted after she gave birth to me — I popped out first and then a pain, hot and slippery, wailed under her teeth. She suspected infection, but doctors told her it was just bone, nothing to worry about. Even so, it kept growing.
She says that sometime in the week after we came back from the hospital is when she gave me my wire shoes. She put them on for me, of course, copper things that almost looked gold when it was bright out, wrapped around my soft heels. When I stepped, they clinked and tapped against the linoleum so I couldn’t wander too far.
When I was small, Mama still let me slip off my wire shoes to stretch my toes. Unravelling the coils and tending to the rawness, she would kiss them and I would wiggle and she would laugh. That laugh was ghost-gold, burnished. Sometimes she rubbed her jaw against my weak arches, rolling my flesh around, and I’d feel that shiny sound prickle against my skin. Sometimes she’d sing.
I remember dozing off in the living room to her voice, and the words I didn’t understand fell like dry rain against my ankles. When I’d shaken off the sleep the next morning, my feet would be the last things to wake.
My right ear clogs the exact moment my plane lands. The sounds of passengers rising from their seats translate as muffled static, and when the pilot’s farewell filters through, it’s fuzzy around the edges. As I follow the crowd and descend into the airport, the silence is humming.
After the luggage carousel spits out my orange-turned-brown suitcase, I step into the day and the rain that comes with it. It takes me a second to recognize the van scuttling towards me as the shuttle sent to pick me up — it’s white and battered and has a faded eagle on the side that looks as though it survived a vigorous scrubbing. Over that is painted, shakily, HALVERSON’S ACCOUNTING FIRM.
Engine still roaring, the driver leans over and calls out something.
“Sorry, what?” I tug at my right earlobe in apology.
“Marla Jiang, yeah? That how you pronounce it?”
“Oh yeah. That’s me, thanks.” I lift my suitcase into the back and climb up next to him.
He says something else, but again, I miss it.
“I said, you been up here before?”
I shake my head. My newfound partial deafness feels inconsequential in the vastness of my new home, a desolate town sandwiched between a mountain and the ocean. Here, it’s summer and colder than I expected. I curl my toes, which are always the first to freeze, and think about how I nearly didn’t take this job, never mind the health care package that included dental, never mind the low rent in Alaska, never mind that I had still been living with Mama. Really, it had been Mama’s dissent which made me buy the ticket west.
“You like it so far?”
“It’s pretty.” Pretty gloomy, I fill in silently. Grand and lush, sure, but also grey, which colors everything dismal. I turn to the window, hoping he won’t try to make more conversation.
Post-card perfect trees fill up the entire glass frame, not a slice of visible sky. The car tumbles along, the green flits by dark and looming, and as I lean back in the stiff vinyl seat, I try to imagine myself living here. In my ear, the quiet crescendos to a silence.
I’m usually good at nesting in new spaces. The key is unbottling music — preferably something acoustic from the last place to color the air with something familiar. Here, the ceiling takes some getting used to; but it’s always been that way. As Mama began landing better jobs, we began living under nicer ceilings. The first two apartments in Massachusetts had popcorn ceilings, next four had smooth ones, and then there was a pattern of wooden panels, slats, and high beams. When I’m lying in a new bed and my eyes are closed, I can mentally reorient and convince myself I’m somewhere else.
I’m having a bit of trouble today. My playlist isn’t soaking in my right ear, there’s a two-inch gap between the bed and the wall, and the ceiling of this room is my least favorite: popcorn. This type can hide faces, and sometimes I see Mama’s in their uneven terrain: the tiny one in the pleat of her chin that appears every time she frowns. That face is everywhere, but especially in these kinds of places, so I keep reminding myself to not look up.
As I get up to shower and rinse off the travel, I realize I’m running low on shampoo. I usually only carry travel-sized bottles. In the past, Mama made me throw away several half-full containers because they wouldn’t pass through security, and besides, There’ll be a place to buy shampoo wherever we end up. But she’s not here. Here, I can stay indefinitely so I can and should stock up.
I slip into a sundress, stomp on some boots, head into the night. On the way out, I rub the fabric of my short skirt and envision Mama’s chin-face emerging and disapproving. Growing up, I never had a say in what I wore. Alongside the wire shoes, she spent the first eleven years of my life trussing me in knee-length dresses and the next ten making me wear a sports bra every day. She was afraid I would mature too fast, but she shouldn’t have been. Even now people still mistake me for a child. Just five years ago, a TSA official shooed me past the metal detector because it’s fine if you’re under twelve, sweetie. I went through before turning around and telling him: I’m twenty.
Ahead, the sidewalk curves enough for me to see each building with ease. I walk by several apartments with plants hanging in the doorways, excess water lazily dripping from the pots. It’s always raining here. Both the flowers and I soak in Alaska’s embrace. I glance at the windows as I pass by. My reflection lurches with each step, and maybe I’m going too fast, because I can’t tell what I look like at all.
When I got to seventh grade, Mama’s lump grew to the size of an unripe grape and she stopped letting me take off those wire shoes. The last time I did was when I snuck out after school to get my ears pierced at the mall. I’d always thought of earrings as a romantic wound, a sacrifice that had to be kept in place before nestling into skin. I thought copper hoops might match my shoes and make the antiseptic wire into something beautiful.
I got my ears pierced in a stand between the food court and escalators where a girl with big teeth leisurely wiped my lobes down and painted two purple dots on them — for reference, she told me. The dots looked like bruises when I swung my head in the mirror. I thought she was going to use a needle, but instead, she pulled out an ear-piercing gun and raised it to my head with startling quickness.
For an instant as that ear-piercing gun hovered around my ear, I thought of flying. Right before a plane lands, when it’s still hovering above ground, a roar engulfs the wings in protest as the machine tries to bargain with gravity. I heard that same roar that day, a rush of blood to my ears in a plea for the earrings to land softly. And then ringing.
After collecting my money, the girl with big teeth said that ringing is normal and to please have a nice day.
When I got home, Mama was rubbing her swollen jaw. She whipped around the moment the door shut. My earrings must have caught the light because as soon as she stood up, I felt her fingers trying to pry the copper from my ears. Mama was yelling. Crying, too. Something was festering in the gears of her mouth, and the sound born of tongue came out black. I had never heard Mandarin sound so much like poison. After her hands had made a few rounds around my head, I heard ringing again.
When I opened my eyes, Mama was very still. Her hand cupped the copper earrings and she let them roll around the creases of her palm, leaving rivulets of red in their wake.
We don’t want these living in us, she told me.
I do, I said.
She ignored me. And do not, she said, ever take your shoes off again. I couldn’t hear you. I was so worried. She closed her fingers around the two bloodied studs and, with her other hand, smoothed back my hair.
The convenience store is only two blocks away, and I swing inside. The cashier says hello, and startled, I echo a greeting a beat too late. In the hygiene aisle, a tall man with grey hair smiles at me as I’m squinting at the labels. I contort my face into a sort-of smile back. Mama taught me a trick with strangers, a necessity when meeting them every year. She told me to form a weak smile with my lips while keeping my eyes open. Cold, but polite enough to satiate.
But maybe I overdid it this time or maybe her advice doesn’t work here because this man begins to walk towards me, a carton of shampoo in each hand. I pretend to study a label on something much too floral for my taste.
“Hey,” he says when he’s two paces away. So close I can hear him through my clogged right ear. “Could you help me decide which one to get? It’s for my daughter. She’s about your age, I think.”
I don’t want to know what age he thinks I am. He holds out both his arms like an offering, too close to refuse, so I nod.
“I’d be happy to.”
The man opens the dark blue container and holds it under my nose. I sniff it, lips still plastered into a smile. As the man tries to open the other lid, this one red, he tilts the blue container too far back, spilling white goop on the floor. I don’t think he notices, so concentrated is he on the red lid. I catch a whiff of the other shampoo and pretend to think. They smell the same to me.
“I like the blue one better,” I lie, but he doesn’t quite hear me right.
“The right one, you said?”
“Yeah.” Sure. Whatever.
He drops the red bottle in his plastic basket and smiles.
“That’s what I thought too. Thank you.” He walks away, forgetting about the spilled shampoo and forgetting about me. And I stare after him, wondering why he asked for my opinion if he already had the right answer in mind. But he, I note, looking at the wrinkly chin-face which suddenly appears in the shampoo-stained floor, at least indulged me in a pretense of choice.
I turn back to the shelf, to my too-floral shampoo, suddenly noticing this bottle reads for kids which means it’s cheaper. Smaller, too. I crack open the bottle cap and sniff it gingerly. Mama would hate it. I place it into my own basket, leave the aisle, and step around the spilled shampoo, wondering if anyone will notice, or if someone will have to slip first.
The next morning, I enter my new office for the first time through the backdoor because it has no bell. It’s smaller than I expected, with books stacked in neat towers and a row of computers on cramped desks. I shift my weight from leg to leg as everyone is bustling around doing Monday things. It takes five minutes before anyone notices me.
“Marla?” A stocky blonde woman with oversized glasses and a loose printed skirt extends her fingers. “I’m Sally Saben, your desk partner. Been staring at your nameplate for the past week, so I feel like I know you already!”
I catch most of her introduction despite my stubbornly mute ear.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Your information packet is on your desk. I’ll get the federal information returns today,” Sally says. “You can handle the non-profit organizations. Low stress for a first day.”
As she turns away, her cheery expression dissolves immediately. I can’t help but wonder if she somehow hates me already. Maybe Sally resents sharing her desk. Maybe she’s already associated her frustration with my name and that’s that. Either way, it’s clear that the smile was fake. Like Mama always said, real ones don’t disappear as quickly. It wouldn’t do to get attached to someone like Sally Saben.
By lunchtime, the day clears up, and most everyone I’ve briefly met is outside on the spruce benches bathing in the weak sun. I stay in the breakroom. Out of habit, I eat alone, keep my eyes trained on my sandwich, and listen to music through headphones to ward off any well-meant small talk if anyone happens to wander inside. The music doesn’t quite reach my right ear, but I put in both earbuds anyways, for symmetry. A distant pounding bounces around my head, probably my chewing.
I always listen to music through earbuds. It makes it a private affair, allowing me to pick whatever song I want depending on my mood. There’s no need to curate for an audience. Of course, Mama hates it when I ignore her in favor of my iPod.
You’re going to go deaf, you know, Mama said once.
Once, I misplaced my only winter coat in the mall. Black with silver buttons and too bulky to tie around my waist, I left it in the coat rack only to discover it missing when I returned. When my friends heard, they were sympathetic, but for all the wrong reasons. In the pockets of that black coat with the silver buttons, I had not one, but three pairs of earbuds tangled together, and the loss of coat meant the casualty of music.
For days, I resisted the urge to purchase a new pair, clinging to the unlikely recovery of my coat and in tandem, my three pairs of earbuds.
I bought a new pair by the end of the week.
The thrumming in my ear doesn’t falter even after I finish my sandwich. I shake my head to coax sound back inside when something dislodges, and I realize that my problem is probably just earwax.
When I was little, Mama would clean my ears periodically, making me stand in brightly lit bathrooms and tilt my head at an angle until she could see into the dark hallway of ear. The whole process took anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, and I often tired of the painstakingly slow scraping. Sometimes I tried to hide before the sessions but, of course, my soft wire tap tap taps always gave me away. She found me every time.
“The wax is right on the edge,” she would say, delicately scraping the inner surface with a plastic tool that had always lived in our cupboard. I would twist my face in discomfort when the motions vibrated through my body, but always remained still until Mama extracted the ceraceous flakes.
When I was seven, I complained that my friend Amanda cleaned her ears herself, with a Q-tip.
Then Amanda’s parents are idiots, Mama responded. Never use a Q-tip.
Then how do I do it myself?
You don’t. You can’t see your own ear — you could go deaf if you do it wrong.
So you’ll just do it for me forever?
That never satisfied me. What about when I’m old and move away?
You can fly home and I’ll do it for you.
What if your eyesight goes bad? Or you die?
Don’t talk like that.
Rubbing my ear, I think about Mama. I’ve missed the last few calls from her, some deliberately, some by chance. She might know what to do, but telling her would be a kind of defeat. I stick my pinky in my ear but brush nothing.
At five, everyone else packs up and heads out, but I stay in the office for a few more hours until the sun goes down. Alone among a pile of papers, I watch the light fade in its glass reflection.
On my walk home under the blooming sky, I remember another vivid sunset. It was very orange and hung crooked in its frame. While it’s often difficult to distinguish between sunrises and sunsets when rays are frozen in paint, this one, I had decided almost immediately, was a sunset. Generic as far as sunsets go, but definitely a sunset.
It was probably just flash of color for the doctors as they glanced up between gurneys and tubes and patient folders, maybe a longer exposure for the families huddled in the waiting room, clasped together tense and tight. It was certainly not for the patient, whose pain already painted waves of crimson.
That day, the sunset was for me. I was the one waiting.
Mama had finally decided to remove the lump of bone that unbalanced her jaw. It was the size of a peach pit by then, misshapen and bulbous off the side of her face. It had taken her years to work up the nerve, but as we were consistently reminded, it was actually a minor procedure.
Really minor, said the doctor, a man in his forties with a firm handshake and too-perfect teeth. Only a thirty percent chance of nerve damage.
That was only a seventy percent chance of absolute success, a C minus. I didn’t like the idea of Mama’s nerves being tied to the odds of a barely passing grade. A small part of me, though, wondered what might happen if something went wrong and her entire mouth went numb. Maybe her words would come out softer. It would certainly give her something else to be preoccupied with than where I was and what I did. I waved away the thought and knocked my wire feet together, staring at the sunset until the colors blurred.
As it turns out, the C minus chance was good enough. Mama emerged tired and grey, but fully intact. On the drive back, I reached for her hand and gave it a guilty peck.
When we got home she sighed loudly, not because she was in pain, but because she wanted me to know she might be in pain, which in the end amounted to the same thing: discomfort. After I left the room, she was silent. Briefly, I wondered if she had stopped sighing or if I had stopped listening.
Over the past week, Sally has tried making small talk with me a few times, but I’m always a beat late to responses, which is especially apparent in offhanded quips that demand an instant laugh. She still smiles at me when I come in the mornings, but I duck my head so I never have to watch her expression dissolve. I wonder if she thinks this is just who I am, a girl who looks too-young and has no sense of humor and can’t maintain eye contact.
I still haven’t figured out what’s wrong with my ear, and now the deafness is starting to morph into rhythmic pounding. I thought maybe an infection but while the skin around my ear is slightly purple, bruised from prodding, my actual ear doesn’t hurt. It just can’t hear. It’s not a big enough deal to see a doctor, and besides, if I use insurance, Mama would find out and then she might fly up to check on me. So during lunch, I slip out and walk downtown to buy ear drops.
I head down the winding path past the row of dripping flowerpots and warped windows back into the convenience store, mistaking it for the pharmacy, and am pointed in the right direction by a bored, broad woman with tattoos stretched up to her neck. While there, I buy a pair of $8 socks as an apology for being ignorant.
The ear drops are a mix of different oils that only offer temporary relief. I can feel the clogging expand in my ear canal, and the oil that isn’t soaked up just dribbles down the side of my face clear and runny. I keep using them anyway. I like feeling like I’m doing something to help.
I buy another dropper for the office. When I place it on my desk, in front of my monitor, it covers up part of Sally’s nameplate so that she becomes ALLY SABEN and, suddenly, in that office I am ten again and Mama is telling me a story about moving to Utah and leaving my father’s memory behind in China and finding solace instead in a girl named Ally.
She’d met Ally in grad school, when she approached Mama and said: Pregnant, huh?
Wasn’t that rude? I asked.
Mama said that somehow, it wasn’t when Ally said it, and anyway, Ally had been one of the first people to talk to her in this entire country so it was welcome. But don’t you dare say that to anyone, understand? she added.
Ally and Mama met every week for lunch in a dinky, run down bakery tucked behind a tree on the side of the main road. It had a single, stained glass window of Mary. Typical Mormons, Ally always said disapprovingly, but Mama thought it was beautiful, and Catholic, besides. There they had tea and ate lopsided muffins and chatted, less about their lives and more about the years before they’d met.
She was born in Arizona, Mama told me. She used to say it was almost enough to make her religious.
Mama laughed, a golden ting I hadn’t heard for a long time since she’d stopped letting me take off my wire shoes. Yeah. She said it’s so hot it must be the closest thing to hell on this Earth. And she’d be willing to pray a few times a week if it meant never going back there.
She didn’t, though, from what I could glean. Ally was proudly, hugely atheist in the home of the Mormons. I guess she had moved away from Arizona too early to be converted by the heat.
Being the only tie Mama had to shore in this foreign land, Ally correctly assumed she was to be my godmother and immediately set out grand plans for me. She said I was going to be big and funny and brave, just like Mama. Mama thought that was an odd thing to say. At the time, and even now, Mama wasn’t big, nor particularly funny, as it goes, but brave, maybe. Brave, she hoped.
Looking back on it, she mused, pulling her fingers through my hair, she was probably talking about herself. Maybe Ally was really that atheist, enough to sever the god from godmother and claim the title of mother for herself.
I remember trying on the idea of Ally as my mom. I wondered what she would be like, this loud, quick woman who wasn’t afraid to walk up to a pregnant woman and state the obvious. Then, feeling disloyal, I gave Mama a hug.
The steady pounding continues to echo on the right side of my head as I lie down for bed. It sounds like a pulse. It takes me another second to realize that it is.
I used to believe that there needed to be a heart to have a pulse. I imagined hearts everywhere, on the side of my wrist, under my jaw, sometimes in my ears if I had been running too fast. It accounted for all those sayings that Mama could never explain — having your heart caught in your throat, having your heart set on something, or wearing your heart on your sleeve. I knew my main heart was guarded under a cage of bone, so it was only realistic that there were more to dole out to other parts of my body.
The pulse in my ear is steady but quick. For me to be so still, it seems too quick, so I press two fingers to my wrist. When I get it, I’m triumphant, but only for a few seconds. Then, I feel the heart in my chest swoop and crash.
I count twice. I get up, turn on the light, and watch my clock as I count for a third time. It can’t be true, but my hearts bloom and contract steadily.
The pulse in my neck is a beat behind the one in my right ear.
I can feel the heart in my chest now, thumping loudly, only accentuating the discrepancy. I turn on music, testing different genres, turning the volume up all the way, pressing the earbuds tighter into my conch shell ear canal. By the end, my left ear begins to ache and ring, but there’s no difference on my right side.
I rush to the bathroom and pull open my cabinet. While unscrewing the top to my eardrop solution, I spill nearly half onto the counter. Douse my ear in the rest. Then I fumble through open drawers with my left hand while trying to keep my head balanced so that the solution stays inside the ear canal. My fingers graze a soft swab.
Lifting my head so that the remaining liquid oozes out of my ear into the sink, I carefully take out two Q-tips from the top drawer. I contort my face until I see spots, a return of Mama’s chin-face beneath my eyelids. The dullness of beats drowns out the echoes of her warnings, and halfway into sliding it into my ear, I jam the Q-tip in as far as it will go. And it hurts, and she was right, and I remove the Q-tip half-expecting to see blood.
I linger at the mirror. Now, the discrepancy between pulses has become two clocks chiming, seconds apart. The beating in my ear keeps a different time than the beating in my body. I throw the slightly bent Q-tip in the sink and strike the side of my head with my palm. Extinguishing the lights, I feel my head throbbing, listen to my left ear ring and my clogged right ear pound, a symphony of artificial silence.
That night, I spend an hour curled up under my covers before sleep catches up, my fingers wrapped tight around one wrist as if by doing so, the two pulses might eventually converge.
I don’t get much sleep that night. The next morning at work Sally seems to notice my lethargy as, throughout the day, my yawns become longer and more rapid in succession. When it hits five, after putting on her cardigan, she pauses at my desk.
“Would you like a ride back?” she asks.
“It’s getting dark out sooner,” she says, which is true, “so it’s dangerous to walk home alone,” which is not. But I don’t question whether her offer arises from politeness or something like pity, and I accept.
“Thank you so much.”
She drives a silver Honda civic with two backlights like crinkling eyes, smiling without a mouth. Small cars have always scared me — they’re closer to the ground and I feel the movement deeper in tire vibrations, but I ignore my fears and sink gratefully into the passenger seat as she starts up the engine.
Sally doesn’t listen to music on her commute home, and although she has long since stopped trying to make conversation, it would be too rude of me to put in my earbuds. I want to seem at least open to talking. For once, I embrace the quiet instead and try to reconcile myself with the motion under me and the humming of tires rolling along the road.
I think about Ally, whom I never met, and wonder where in the world she is right now. Maybe settled down somewhere she calls home, or maybe on the road like I am, also avoiding Mama. I always wondered why I never met her. Maybe that Arizona girl had been too unpredictable in the long run, something that Mama couldn’t handle. Maybe, somehow, it was my fault. For years I assumed that Ally was the one who left first. For years, Mama never told me what happened until once, while washing dishes together, I caught her off-guard by asking.
Instead of a story, Mama offered me scattered details. Ally, on the platform, alone; her, boarding a train, with me wrapped up and close to her chest. She said Ally had been the quietest she’d ever known her to be. She said she sat backwards so she could watch Ally recede and disappear. She said I held her finger the whole ride. She didn’t say if she cried but I imagine she did.
I always thought being left behind would be harder than leaving. There’s a gap to replace, a person-sized fill-in-the-blank to color in with new memories. But Mama always got nauseous sitting backwards on trains, and now I think it’s less from motion sickness and more from clinging to the past instead of looking ahead to the future.
I try to envision my own here as I look out the car window, rolling the pane of glass down to see the green better. Alaska has mountains whose tips are smothered in white. I can’t see where they end. They melt into the cloudy sky, like someone forgot to finish drawing the ridges.
I leave the window down for the rest of the way home, letting wind rush through my ear and out the other side.
The first time I left for college, Mama drove me to the airport. She insisted on parking, getting out of the car, and walking me to the security gate.
She hugged me. Be safe, she said. Call me every day.
You can go back now, I told her.
She didn’t, of course. She only retreated a few steps and watched me inch forward in the line. I turned around and pretended I didn’t see her.
Please remove your laptop from your bag if you have one, droned a woman with a round middle and thin legs. She looked as if she might topple over, but her eyes were focused and sharp. Don’t forget your coat, belt, and shoes.
I slipped off my tennis shoes, but under my socks, the wire armature still poked through. The woman noticed. Shoes, please, she said, snapping at my feet.
I almost laughed. I’m sorry, I can’t do that.
You have to.
I could feel Mama’s eyes burning my hair. Her lashing words against my fingers anytime I tried to take the shoes off. No, I really can’t.
You can sit right there and take them off.
Miss, this is procedure.
She clicked her tongue, and almost as if in a daze, I sat down right next to my bag on the floor. It was carpeted. I stripped off my socks, peeling the cloth from my mangled feet and then dug out the wire, scraping through skin and through healed wounds, right in the middle of the airport. I dug and I dug until hours, or maybe days later, I extracted the wire from my feet. It looked silver, like it had eroded in my veins.
I put the wire shoes on the conveyor belt without a bucket underneath, and the security lady didn’t protest. She just turned away, wrinkling her nose. I watched as they disappeared down the conveyor belt into an inky haze.
After passing through the checkpoint, I grabbed the wire off the conveyor. But as I walked to my gate, the smooth roll of my suitcase drowning out the ache of my feet, I impulsively tossed the entire tangle into the trash. I pictured Mama’s eyes widening, but somehow it burned less from a distance.
On the plane, ignoring the sleeping couple next to me, I stripped off my shoes and socks to examine the damage. To my surprise, I found my feet perfectly intact, covered in a sheen of clear sweat. I sat there, bare feet in hand, silent. It was as if those years of confinement had dissolved and my flesh had forgiven its maker. I stretched my toes and spent the rest of the flight wondering where they would take me next.
By the time Sally drops me off, my stomach is twisting in hunger. I thank her and then head straight to the stovetop, woozy and nauseous and tired.
Mama never kept recipes and thought cookbooks were a waste of money, preferring instead to approximate how much to add — a dash of salt here, a few handfuls of leaves there. As she stirred up food for us, she would say how cooking was a means of showing love. How much you care for the other person will come through in the seasoning. If that was true, I clearly hadn’t been too fond of myself recently.
When the water comes to a boil, I’m unsure of how much salt to add, and while my hand hovers above the heat, I think of Mama pushing around a shopping cart and pulling dried packets off shelves and yelling at the cashier when her card is denied and sitting in the car to cry. I think of her and of how much she knows: of salting broth, of cleaning ears, of smiling at strangers and knowing when those smiles are true, and I put down the salt shaker and pick up my phone.
I go to MISSED CALLS and press RETURN CALL. It rings three times before Mama picks up.
Her voice is tinny but soft, and I twitch involuntarily. I press the phone tight against my right ear, feeling my hearts race.
“It’s cold here,” I say.
I stop. Mama waits until I start over.
“I’m cold,” I say. “My toes feel like they could fall off. Everyone always talks about the cold but I can’t keep making conversation about the weather because it’s the exact same every day, just rain and rain and rain, but no one uses umbrellas here so I don’t want to be that one person using an umbrella because then it’s clear I’m not from here and I don’t know how to clean my ears myself or cook chicken like you do and I’m hungry and tired and cold.”
Mama doesn’t speak.
I go silent, waiting for a response. I expect yelling, or gloating at least. But instead —
I understand, Marla.
Another quieter voice begins to tell me that it’s sorry, but the number I dialed has a voicemail box that has not been set up yet. I ignore it and focus on the sound of Mama’s voice.
You can do this, Mama says, You’re brave.
The other voice continues alongside Mama. “If you feel you have reached this recording in error,” it says in monotone. “Please check the number and try your call again.”
Marla, you’ll figure it all out, Mama says, I’m here for you.
The dial tone drones on.
After hanging up the phone, my hearts are thrumming and the oil is pooling in bubbles of broth. I pick out a piece gingerly with my chopsticks, and when I bite down, I think of how gently I must have ignored while suckling and how ravenous I am now. My ear pops when I swallow.