— For Wesley
Dean Francisco parked behind the back of a condominium complex, thirty minutes east of where he grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The city of Rosemead seemed as harmless and gentle as its name, an appropriate setting for Dean’s new line of work. He’d been trying his best to fit in, which seemed as impossible and unlikely as his homecoming after the Navy. His parents never understood why he was sent back with his canvas duffle bag hefted over his shoulder and a slip of paper folded and tucked in the little sleeve pocket of his Dickies jacket meant for lighters and matchboxes. After weeks of interrogation, his mom and pops eventually kept their lips pursed in strict Filipino stoicism and made excuses to the family, trying to pretend it was better to have Dean home safe.
He walked the gravel path to the three townhouses with their wood paneling and white trim. They looked out of place, cheap imitations of houses in the Hamptons. Dean had never been to the Hamptons, and if asked couldn’t say where on the map it was, but he’d go in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.
The complex was unassuming, resembling any other cheap housing sprung up overnight in a suburb like this. Fumbling for his key to open the gate, he was surprised by a freckled, gray-haired man in fishing hat and pale yellow trousers, who stood just a few feet away. His dog was one of those sausage breeds that yipped. The old man stared like he was waiting to see what would happen or who might appear when Dean crossed the other side of the gate. Dean tried to pay him no mind but was troubled that he’d never seen this man before and that the stranger was so obviously curious about the buildings where Dean worked.
He mentioned nothing to the receptionist at the front when he clicked the door shut at the lobby. She barely nodded in his direction but kept to her typing as Dean went straight to the back room. Empty of decorations, the staff area felt cold and barren compared to the cheery setting of the lobby. Dean preferred the starkness though. Everything else about the place had been so foreign, so rosy, so sunny, and cloying—everything that had nothing to do with his life.
His Uncle Reynoldo, or Tiyo Rinky, got him the gig by pulling in a couple of favors, said he knew JianJun Fong, the partner of this husband and wife operation. Tiyo Rinky swore he was actually related to JianJun, or Mr. Fong as Dean called him, by some odd link, his cousin’s cousin’s husband or something like that. According to Dean’s uncle, JianJun meant “building the army.” There was no coincidence to that, Tiyo Rinky had insisted, nudging his nephew with an elbow and giving a ridiculous wink when he relayed news that Dean had gotten the job.
“It’s okay. There was already more of them here than us to begin with. So long as we help one another out. Just don’t shame your family, sigue? One step out the border.” He made a slitting motion against his neck.
Happy to land a job more in sync with what he’d been training for as a hospital corpsman, Dean’s past gigs at the super-mart and his post watching security cameras in a downtown parking lot had less secrecy and restriction, but they were the kind of jobs that made leaving his brain at home mandatory. What most people didn’t understand and what had frustrated Catie his ex-girlfriend so much was that Dean needed to be challenged. Only he couldn’t be bothered to motivate himself. Someone else had to constantly prod and push. Here the stress was persistent and spiked without warning. He wasn’t supposed to talk about where he worked, what he did, and certainly never mention who was here. Made to sign a confidentiality agreement before starting, Dean wondered how legally binding it really was, considering the circumstances.
Doused with a heavy dose of pink wallpaper and paint, if cheap prints of Impressionist paintings weren’t decorating the walls, then it was photos of babies, silhouettes of expectant moms swathed in tulle, or grinning infants and toddlers plopped down in a mess of building blocks or spinning on a carousel. Instructional posters were tacked here and there, which Dean only guessed at by the pictures and diagrams: what to eat, which stretches were good for baby and mommy, and how dads can help before and after baby is born. Dean made his rounds, reading the charts Meifen left. She’d be back from her break soon.
During his time in the service, he’d seen things, most of them training exercises turned horrible: hypothermia, near drownings, gashed legs with exposed bone, and lacerations across body parts that sometimes made death seem the better option. Then there were the burns. Dean would never forget the fourth degree burn that incinerated not just the flesh but a part of the soul. He remembered the smell, and the look on the officer’s face. Teeth clenched. Eyes watering. The man couldn’t stop tearing, as if the few drops of liquid could cool down the body.
While the guest-patients ate lunch together, Dean checked their rooms and reviewed their charts. Any complications, any change in blood pressure, heart rate, a stabbing pain in the lower back, or bleeding, and the families if local were to be called immediately. Sometimes, though rarely, Mr. or Mrs. Fong would drop off guest-patients at Saint Mercy’s Hospital, less than twenty minutes away, but never, never on any occasion was anyone allowed to call for an ambulance.
Meifen was pretty good at catching early symptoms and heading off most emergencies on their watch before anything got too serious. Dean had been convinced she was the best nurse he’d ever work with since she was harder and faster than any of the officers he’d seen in service.
He checked that the bassinets had fresh linen, that every room was fully stocked with diapers, formula, and sterile baby bottles, and that all the equipment was in working order. He tried to ignore the guests’ personal items left carelessly on their beds or strung over chairs and dresser drawers: panties ballooning in size, bras that seemed more like gag gifts, assortments of massage lotions and oils, and corn starch spilled across nightstands. Dean could easily see Robbie and Lamont razzing him as he tread through rooms cluttered with frilly nightgowns and pink terry cloth robes with fuzzy pink slippers. He could only imagine what his buddies who were still in the Navy would say if they saw him as he was last week, slipping a plastic, water-proof I.D. band over the crinkled, softest of the soft skin onto a tiny newborn’s wrist. The only person who might be proud of Dean now would have been Catie. She would have kept his secret without the snide jokes.
The other day, he had stepped in for Meifen on an admissions assessment. Dean evaluated the patient-guest recently arrived from Guangdong. She spoke broken English but seemed to understand what he needed from her. Quiet with long hair to match her tall body, her face was splotched with red marks and her pretty eyes puffy underneath. When Dean listened to her heart rate, he noticed an erratic beat that didn’t show on the original chart she’d brought. After taking her blood pressure and checking her reflexes, he knew he had to call the Fongs.
What followed was an ugly scene. Though there had been no blood, no exposed bone, or horrific burn wounds, the woman started crying, clutching her belly like it might drop to the floor. She couldn’t afford to stay at the hospital before delivery. Everything had been arranged by her family in China to be here, and there was no chance of getting her money back. Still, Mrs. Fong didn’t budge. The policies were clear. Dean’s boss pointed to the poster pinned next to the examination room’s window. She didn’t need to read it word for word but repeated by memory the conditions denying admission printed in Chinese. Thyroid disease was at the top of the list. Dean was made to wait at the door so he could escort the woman out the building. He wanted to quit after that and wondered how he’d gotten so soft. He’d learned to load and fire assault weapons for combat as easy as cauterizing a wound and found fear to be an unstoppable force. It kept the blood pumping, the body moving, and the mind ready. Here, he saw how fear could immobilize, too. He didn’t recognize it in this form, so closely twinned and fully dependent on hope.
In the recreation room, the television played another Chinese soap opera, but the volume was turned to mute. The women were talking loud, most likely gossiping. One of them told a story, and Dean could only guess what she might be saying. The rest listened, nodding their heads as they dropped li hing mui, salty dried plums, over ice cream then scooped up the treat, indulging in their afternoon sweets. They had seven guest-patients total this week, five of them waiting their turn to hold their bundle of fuss and joy, yet only three sat in the rec room, eyes bright, earrings tinkling as they shook with laughter at the end of the joke.
He wondered how much they missed home and what they thought of the country where they would be sending their children soon as they were old enough to get the best education their money could buy. The only glimpse of the U.S. most of these mothers-to-be had to enjoy was of the colorless streets outside the windows and the endless supply of orange juice and cable TV that kept them busy as they waited in secrecy, expecting their babies to be born as U.S. citizens in a county hospital. For now they were Chinese nationals hiding out in an anonymous corner of Los Angeles, bellies big with life and hearts full of hope to give their children what they could only imagine.
Dean finished his rounds and checked in on two guest-patients recently promoted to full-fledged moms. They kept to their rooms, waiting to return home or until their visas ran out. He knocked on each of their doors and asked if they needed anything. Sometimes the husband stuck around staying at a hotel nearby, and other times they remained in China, anxious to meet their American-born daughter or son. Dean always felt intrusive when he saw the new mothers. They looked so exhausted no matter how much their child beamed pink and puckered, wriggling tiny fists in the air.
He had forgotten about the seventh expectant until he caught her in her bathroom. She rarely joined the others in the recreation room and barely spoke at mealtimes. She had dropped something on the floor and with her bulging belly was having an impossible time trying to retrieve it. Dean scooped it up for her, returning the cell phone. She started to trudge back to bed, waddling in discomfort. Dean made a quick survey of her supplies, seeing what needed restocking, but aside from the tangled bedsheets, the crumpled pillows, and a few of her personal items scattered on the chest of drawers, the place looked as if she’d barely arrived. With a miserable expression, she stopped in the middle of the room and spoke with surprising energy.
“He keeps kicking and kicking. Like he knows something is up,” she said. Her nose was small, her bangs framed her pale face, and she had a natural flush of red to her lips.
Dean answered though he knew he shouldn’t, “Course he knows something’s up.”
She waved to him, impatiently, “Come feel.”
Dean didn’t want to, but she grabbed his hand and placed it firmly on her belly. The kicking was a drumbeat. He could almost hear music to it. He smiled and looked to her, but she had no smile to return. She might be in pain or something terrible could be happening. Dean felt a rise of panic and asked if she was all right, ready to page Meifen or even call the Fongs.
“Can I get you anything?”
She shook her head and stood there.
He looked around the room. A faded bouquet of carnations drooped on a dresser drawer. Her suitcase sat on a chair, unpacked, clothes hanging out of it. Most of the women liked to make the suite their own. They brought framed pictures of their family and had potted plants delivered from the florists. Their husbands would drop off bags from Tiffany’s and Bloomingdale’s filled with gold bracelets, diamond pendants, maternity lingerie, perfume, and their favorite sweets. Everyone compared the gifts, both staff and patients. Who brought the biggest bouquet? Who got the most balloons? Anytime a delivery was made the patients eyeballed the deliverer, tensing with hope that someone was thinking of them. Sometimes Dean found pink cardboard boxes tied with ribbons or string sitting on the staff kitchen counter. A women’s husband or family would drop off chashu bao or shrimp dumplings, but sometimes the smell could turn against the expectants, so boxes of chocolate, bags of cookies, and packages of egg tarts were left for the staff.
The seventh expectant started talking, and Dean couldn’t stop her.
Roulan was from Shanxi. Always sunny and dry, the valleys and hills that bordered her hometown stayed green year round. She went to a good school, an expensive school, where they taught her American English and culture. Her husband had to stay and keep their small business running. Their families were eager, messaging and texting almost every hour, anxious for good news. Just as she said this, Roulan’s phone buzzed in her hand, but she set it on the nightstand, eyeing it warily.
Dean tried to remember when she’d been admitted and if he’d seen anyone visit her. Nothing and no one came to mind. She was one of those who slipped in and out wordlessly, smoothly, as if getting routine dental work, but it wasn’t just routine dental work here.
All the women came from money or made enough of it to fly out and stay long enough to make a claim for a better life and a better education for their children. Roulan was no exception. Her parents wanted grandkids. That’s why she was here. She went on faltering now and again in her second language, hungry for company.
For the first time since he started here, Dean had a conversation, a real conversation that wasn’t about initial screenings or fees for discharge. He knew he should cut her off, but how could he after all she had confided. Roulan didn’t want children and yet was days away from delivery. There wasn’t much for him to say about that, but she wasn’t looking for any specific response either.
Catie was a couple weeks late once, and Dean thought he was ready for it. He even surprised himself, how giddy he was, which scared Catie even more. She had plans. She was years away from becoming selfless, she had said. He remembered how she talked about self-preservation being vital and that it was okay to be selfish every now and again. She told him this when he got off the drugs and stopped drinking and reminded him after he’d gone clean that it was then her turn to get her life together. Dean was supposed to work while she went to school full time and finished her degree, but he’d always had difficulty holding onto jobs and couldn’t imagine needing one bad enough to support another person.
Dean told Roulan about the importance of self-preservation. He wanted to say something about Catie and the life they had planned together, but Roulan just nodded like she wasn’t listening. She told him what she had wanted to see in L.A. and all the places she had hoped to visit while she was here like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Grand Canyon, but soon as she arrived she put was on bedrest. She was lucky enough to make it to the recreation room some afternoons to visit the other expectants. Truth was she didn’t want to see them or hear them go on about how excited they were to hold the wriggling, crying, itty-bitty things in their arms.
Her hands fell to her sides as she looked away from herself like she was refusing her body and her current swollen state. Only her labored breathing filled the room, and Dean tried to imagine the pressure she must feel every second of every hour for the last nine months. Each part of her body strained to support a life she wasn’t sure she wanted. She breathed so loud and so heavy, Dean wondered if there was any oxygen left for him in the stale room. He thought to open a window but didn’t want to risk her getting chilled, so he stood there, unsure how to help.
“They said none of you could come to hospital with us.”
She kept her gaze on the wall, but Dean knew she was looking elsewhere. Roulan was some place that only existed as a feeling, an image in the mind. She probably couldn’t describe it if Dean asked her because soon as anyone tried to put words to it, the place got too big or too small or had too much muchness to leave room for freedom and possibility. Dean had tried all his life to get there but wasn’t even sure where there was. This woman was trying to get there, too, he realized.
“You been to China?” she asked.
Dean shook his head. He’d been stationed in Japan but never stepped foot in China.
“You could go. You look like someone who need to be out in the world.” Her gaze fell on the tattoo that peeked from his scrub sleeve. A Navy insignia. He was proud of it.
Dean’s boss admired it, too, and had said, “The ladies might like to have something nice to look at before they deal with the worse pain of their life.” He gave a playful punch to Dean’s shoulder. “But—” he stopped himself all of a sudden. His eyebrows so black and bushy, Dean had a hard time thinking this man a doctor though he had owned a practice in Monterey Park for twenty years. Mr. Fong raised a finger in warning. “No talking to them. Remember that. We don’t want them to get comfortable here. If they’re comfortable, they’re not careful, and we draw too much attention. Next thing we know we have police come sniffing. Soon as we get a visit from authorities, this place is over. Be smart. Be straight. Got it?”
Dean’s life for the last four months had been all about trying to be smart and straight. He hadn’t dropped the ball yet.
Neither of them heard Meifen come in until the bedroom door swung open.
“Why are you out of bed?” she asked in English and started scolding Roulan in a flurry of Chinese.
Dean collected his things, trying to avoid Meifin’s look of rebuke. As if it had been his fault Roulan wasn’t following doctor’s orders. Roulan didn’t say another word and acquiesced to Meifin, letting the nurse prop up her legs, so the swelling in her feet would lessen. Meifin fussed with the pillows and switched on the TV while Roulan patiently waited in silence.
Back in the recreation room, the other expectants were knitting, flipping through magazines and TV channels, and eating avocado ice cream. They were tired, all that waiting, as uncomfortable and puffed up as they were. Their bodies turned against them, diverting energy and nutrients toward that little ball of life at their core. Soon they’d return to their rooms to prepare for a restless and uneasy night, trying to fall asleep while their backs ached, their hearts burned, and their organs were pushed and kicked in every direction as the babies shifted inside of them.
For now, they talked of the things they wanted for their unborn children, reminding one another why they were here: top schools, medical practices, a law firm, big houses in the hills where snow blanketed wide lawns and frosted the roofs. They wanted to make good with their money, so their children’s children could do the same.
Dean hadn’t thought of traveling in a long time. He was supposed to be getting his nursing degree, but when he stopped going to classes he was dropped from the program and was supposed to reapply. By that point, Catie had enough. For her, traveling out of the country seemed just another temptation, another means of falling back into old ways. She hadn’t realized that he joined the Navy so his restlessness had an aim. Any place outside the country beat wasting away in some sun-cracked suburb.
On his way home from work, Dean stopped at Walgreens to pick up some shaving cream and toilet paper. He stood in line at the register listening to mind-numbing music play overhead. A woman in front of him had set down a bottle of cheap sparkling wine and a pack of condoms on the check-stand. With a crooked grin, the clerk rang her up then glanced back to Dean with the same smug look. Dean turned away and caught a display ad for passport photos. Only $9.99, the sign read.
He thought about it for a second. There was still money in the bank for next year’s tuition, yet he hadn’t started the paperwork for reapplying. He considered all the places he had tried to convince Catie to go with him: Thailand, Rome, the Caribbean.
The photo technician looked like a bearded Albert Einstein. He had a thick set of gray hair pulled into a ponytail. Leading Dean down the beer and wine aisle, they stopped in front of the potato chip display, and the technician pulled down a white backdrop, placing a stool in front.
“Have a seat,” he said with a thick Eastern European accent.
Dean sat down while the old man rearranged stacks of twelve packs, so they wouldn’t be in the picture. Temptation was all around. Nothing was ever easy.
“Don’t smile. They don’t like that at the agency.”
Dean wasn’t smiling.
He heard the camera click a couple of times, and they were back at the lab counter, scrolling through the photos. The technician resized one and made small talk asking where Dean planned to go. He answered vaguely about China.
“Go for it. Go anywhere, somewhere while you’re still young. I had the best vacation of my life in Greece. It was supposed to be two weeks. Turned out to be five. I slept in a hammock every night. Ate fish from the sea. Drank ouzo. Got laid. Best time. Ever.”
Dean said nothing and tried not to remember the push of skin against skin in hot summer heat or the daze of alcohol-drenched afternoons. He was starting to feel hung over. He paid for his photos, accepted well wishes from the technician, and went home thinking about how he could swing a trip to China next month.
The picture came out surprisingly nice. Dean looked clean and handsome. His hair kept the part he’d combed in earlier and his face seemed to shine. He held a steady gaze, didn’t blink or do anything out of place that he tended to do in photos. Dean looked confident, like he knew what he was doing and where he was going.
The next day he brought the photo with him to work. After he made his rounds, he planned to go to Roulan’s room and show her, but when he got there the place was empty. The bed was stripped of its linen, and the bathroom blocked by a mop bucket and ringer.
Dean hadn’t expected her to leave so soon and realized how foolish that was. He didn’t like to think of Roulan at the hospital all by herself just as she predicted with nurses rushing around her and the noise of other patients also in need. He could just imagine all the machines beeping, lights buzzing, visitors bumping into her bed while she tried to get some rest and not think of the trial her body would be put through or the stranger who would be with her for the rest of her life.
Dean wanted to check on her but knew this was off limits. None of the staff could follow the women. Nothing and nobody was supposed to lead authorities back here. This place didn’t exist once the children were born and the women went back to China. He wondered what these mothers told their kids when they were old enough to ask.
Hoping she’d come back, Dean had a feeling Roulan was one of the types who wouldn’t. What would be the point? She’d return to Shanxi and give her parents and in-laws the grandchild they’d asked for, and she and her husband would save and save for the American education they promised. Then soon enough their child would come back here just as alone and unsure as Roulan had been.
In the recreation room, the women were eating their lunch at the dining table. Dean hated going in the kitchen when they made their own meals. He thought he’d gotten used to the weird things pregnant women ate, but they seemed to be competing against each other in a never-ending contest. Every patient put a new spin on weirdness. It was pineapple and dried fish today or rice balls and barbeque-flavored chips.
They spoke in Chinese, and, once in a while, the ones who were strong in English would call out questions for Dean.
What city had the least crime?
Which was the nicest college town to visit?
Where were all the pretty autumn leaves they always saw in the pictures?
Why did everyone love American football so much?
They sat at the table, looking as if they were sharing a family meal—only they weren’t family. They came from different regions of China, and they’d return to their different regions and keep their children for a few years until they could send them back.
The front door creaked open. Dean hoped it was Roulan. The women gushed and hurried as fast as pregnant women could to the lounge area. Chatter filled the place again, interspersed with cooing and ahhing. Dean peeked out from the staff workroom and saw one of the patient’s returning with a pink bundle cradled in her arms. She had left here a day or two ago. He couldn’t remember her name but recalled the constant cups of rice tea she liked to sip. Her hair had been flattened, her cheeks puffy, but she smiled so wide Dean thought her face would never give up a grin like that.
The women gathered ’round her then cleared a space for her on the sofa. The baby cried a little, and they all laughed. Dean listened as he finished his shift and thought about what he’d do when he got home, which was the last thing he liked to think about, that empty dark place.
Laughter rang out again. One of the women called to Dean and came to the back room waving him on. He followed her to the recreation room to make sure everything was all right. They wanted him to see the baby, insisting he hold her. They must have thought he handled babies all the time since he worked here, but Dean wasn’t used to infants. He had his cousins, his nieces and nephews, who ran around Lolo’s house screaming, banging their heads against sliding doors and dog-piling one another in the backyard. Dean let their mothers take care of the kids and lingered at the BBQ grill or in front of the TV watching the fight or the basketball game. There was no fight or basketball game on here. There was nowhere to go, no other choice except to hold the baby.
The newborn wriggled in his arms. He felt her small limbs, the spine and elbows through the tender flesh. She seemed like she could squirm right out of his hands and didn’t look at him at first, gazing at anything else but Dean. She turned to the women around her then to the wallpaper on the side until finally she’d had enough and had to stare straight up. She blinked and blinked, and he automatically reached for her blanket to wipe the goop from each corner of her eyes. She licked her lips, kicked out and then seemed to study Dean with intent.
The women watched and turned to one another commenting and asking questions.
Did he have children?
Of course not, he’s too young. Look at him.
Someday he’ll be a father.
Would he learn to change diapers?
He’s a medic. Of course he can change a diaper.
Some of the other women weren’t so sure.
Dean ignored them and tried hard to keep the baby from crying. Her eyes were so light they looked almost blue. She was soft in skin and seemingly weightless as if she could float away if she wanted. Dean clutched her even tighter and started to gently rock her while she continued to study him.
Finally, one of the other women decided he’d had enough of a turn, and hers was next. She scooped the bundle right out from him. His hands and arms felt loose. All of a sudden he didn’t know the purpose of those limbs anymore.