Mitchell and Tiffany started drinking milk at their elementary school cafeteria. I hadn’t known about it right away. I found out when they began collecting quarters. They lifted the sofa cushions and went through pockets in the laundry. They did chores around the house in exchange for coins. They sucked up to their father who gave them that much and more.
Tai-Wei suggested we put something in the kitchen for all their earnings. I cleaned out a near empty mustard jar and taped a piece of paper to it. It simply read, Milk Money. I had Tai-Wei check my spelling.
When I picked them up from school, Tiffany, my eldest, was clutching a half-slip of paper.
What’s that? I said.
You need to sign it, she answered in English. She started doing this recently.
Read it to me?
Tiffany read it out loud, generously adding just enough words in Mandarin so I wouldn’t have to let on that I couldn’t understand. She pointed to a space at the bottom of the page. I printed Fen Ngai in script that looked like my daughter’s. I wrote it faster and uglier on the line that asked for my signature.
She was putting the slip into her folder when I presented the Milk Money jar to them, and a minute later, both kids were digging through the pleats of their backpacks to fill it. The coins accumulated.
Why didn’t you tell me this was all for milk? I asked her. But she said something I couldn’t understand and ran to her room.
Mitchell shrugged and said, We thought you would be mad.
I laughed at this. Mad! Why would I be mad?
But by then he was off with his sister, and I didn’t have the courage to bring it up again.
After putting them to bed, Tai-Wei and I holed up in the living room to watch Iron Chef. This was our time together.
Those kids were doing all this work to drink milk every day, I said. And we didn’t even know. When he didn’t answer, I said, Isn’t that funny?
Tai-Wei wanted to know what was so funny about it, but I couldn’t explain.
The secret ingredient in today’s episode was dried jinhua ham. The camera zoomed in on it, stiff and hanging from a line like laundry. Jinhua ham, when it was being cured, always looked like it was hanging on for dear life.
I never cleaned the house so well to think there might be coins hiding in the very sofa we were sitting on. It also never occurred to me that my children could be so clever. It took me several visits to the States to remember that a nickel was worth less than a dime, and I made enough mistakes with cash that I stopped spending my husband’s money on myself.
You don’t think they’re missing something here, I said. That they’re still hungry at lunch.
Tai-Wei told me kids just want to have what their friends have. And if their friends at school were drinking milk, then they wanted to drink milk. He pulled me against him, looking satisfied at his parental competence. At having figured it all out. Of course he had it figured out. He’d been here two years getting us green cards. He was two years ahead of the game.
Maybe that’s why it’s funny, I said.
In the morning, I handed Mitchell and Tiffany their lunches and watched them fish out change from the jar. They tried to be unassuming. While I washed dishes from the night before, Tiffany took fifty cents out of the jar and handed a quarter to Mitchell. They pocketed it like a secret.
I threw the towel into the dish rack and told them it really didn’t make sense for them to be paying so much for a little bit of milk.
I said, If you want, I can buy some at the store.
They looked at each other as though I had intruded on something, and finally Tiffany told me not to bother.
Nonsense, I said.
At the grocery store, I browsed along aisles wide and empty enough to drive a truck down, until I found the refrigerated section, where there were rows and rows of the stuff. Milk in greater and lesser amounts, milk in different viscosities, percentages, pink milk, milk made out of nuts. Where to even start. I held a cold half-gallon in each hand, staring at the labels, as though I could read them, and then into the plastic, as though I could see something through the opacity. The longer I held them, the heavier they got.
A woman in an apron came up to me and said something. The first time this ever happened was in a Target. Tai-Wei told me she just wanted to help. Why did they always want to help? This woman smiled with all her teeth showing, and I did the thing where I smiled back, waved my hand, and said Thank you in that singing way that shows that you don’t need them. In the end I picked the one with the blue cap.
When I was nursing Tiffany, she needed to be fed every two hours. I barely had the time or energy to meet my own needs—sleeping, showering, cooking myself an egg. I would spend the whole day becoming one with the sofa, sitting there, hour after hour, day and night, with this baby at my breast. Tai-Wei got me a pump, which I was grateful for at first. But soon I was in tears, exhausted, hooked up to this thing between feedings, and filling a bottle with an ounce of milk, if I was lucky. I was afraid of starving her. I couldn’t quantify how much she was getting. She never seemed satisfied. I worried that I didn’t have enough to keep her alive.
When Mitchell was born, it was the same. Feeding him in the beginning made my uterus squeeze like a fist. He was a biter. He could not be trained to nurse, only to eat. He would whip his head around, arms flailing, eyes closed, searching for anything that resembled food, while I held his body and tried to guide his angry face toward my nipple. It hurt every time. The first suck would always make my body go rigid. I would blink tears away, drive my feet into the carpet, and tell myself to give him ten minutes.
Tai-Wei was at my beck and call. He took care of me, brought me whatever I needed. But he also said this was the most important and demanding job of a new mother, and that my milk would help keep my babies healthy for the rest of their lives. I should have been proud. Instead, I was sleepless with feelings of inadequacy and guilt, dreading the moment they woke in hunger.
At home, I put the groceries away and poured a bit of the milk into a teacup. It formed sickly bubbles where it met the ceramic. When I tasted it, it laid thick on my tongue and flowed into the corners of my mouth. When swallowed, it coated everything on the way down. It wasn’t thick or thin. It was its own texture. It didn’t taste like something you drank, but something you might vomit back up. After a minute, my mouth felt the way it did when you woke up in the morning and didn’t want to kiss your spouse.
When Tai-Wei came home with the kids, I escorted him to the refrigerator and opened it a crack. He kissed my forehead. They’ll love it, he said. It’s a nice treat.
Mitchell and Tiffany did love it. I had never seen them look so hungry. They brought out the tall glasses and had me pour the milk three-fourths of the way to the top, and before even touching the pai gwut and green onion pancake, they drank the full glass, their gulps indulgent and satisfied. There are some things a mother can’t help picturing. I saw my children with white mustaches on their upper lip. I saw them dipping their fingers in a tub of yogurt. Curdled bits stuck under their nails. Talking to me with the old milk smell coming off their tongues. They set their empty glasses on the table, the insides gloved in white where the milk had flowed into their mouths.
I wish I could have said I was pleased for them, but it was horrible to look at. I turned away.
What do you say to your mother? Tai-Wei said. I glanced at him as the children thanked me, and noticed the color had gone from his face.
The secret ingredient in tonight’s episode was sturgeon. The Iron Chef Chairman removed the cloth from the table, fog rose from where it rested, and a tank emerged from the floor where the sturgeon lay, plain and gray with their flat mouths and their whiskers.
I pointed to the TV. What does that look like to you?
It looks like a fish, Tai-Wei said.
Together we watched the two chefs rush to the tank. One climbed onto the table to pull the great fish from the water. It was as long as one of his legs, and thrashed around. He heaved it by the tail like a sack of rice and slammed its body onto the tray to stun it. Next, he cut the tail off. He cut the head. He cut the fish into thick steaks and pulled the egg sac from its belly for caviar.
I want to throw out that milk, I said, unable to hide the disgust from my voice.
What were you thinking? Tai-Wei said.
You put me up to it. You acted like it was a good idea.
I could take it to work, he said. Some of the guys take it in their coffee. His voice had an absence to it. It was an empty offer. At work, people called him Tyler.
Tiffany could maybe remember her first few years in Jiangmen, but those would be fading fast, and sometimes when I asked her about them, she pretended not to hear me. Every weekend my children ran faster and farther away. I learned to locate them from their screams. It was the milk. The vitamins and minerals of a simple animal. They were eight and six years old, but they had baby skin. They shot up half a foot since we moved here. Their hair began to bleach in the droughted California sun, and according to their proud father, they had no trace of an accent. Tai-Wei told me there would be changes raising our children here. He told me none of the changes would be inhospitable to them. He liked to stand outside on our porch and breathe what he called the good air. I made it a habit to save loose change and put it into the Milk Money jar, even when doing so broke my heart.
Maybe it was all in my own head. Maybe they would have been just as happy and just as healthy back home. Maybe I would have hurt anywhere.
Saturday, we drove down to the marina. There was a dry wind coming from over the water. I wore a long floral skirt, summer sandals, and a sun hat, and I took measured steps, feeling like a beautiful column. I gathered the fabric in my hands, and my husband touched my hair and told me the names in English of things around us. He used to do this more, almost as a game, and I would willfully forget the words for these things to prove that I was unteachable. These days, I tried harder to remember. We walked until Tai-Wei pointed to a spot close to the water, where the children could throw bread at the seagulls. Tiffany and Mitchell began getting rowdy—running along the dock, climbing all over the railings. It was all I could do to keep track of them.
Get down, Tai-Wei said, waving.
No, Mitchell said. Mitchell’s hands were so small, he couldn’t close them completely around the metal bar.
I repeated my husband’s words: Get down! But the wind had picked up, blowing back toward us, and the sound seemed to get lost in my own throat. My skirt pressed against my legs, revealing their shape like two stems. I held the top of my sun hat and ran down the path. When I reached my son, I pulled him off the rail before he could slip into the water.
I reached for Tiffany, too, and dragged her next to her brother. Mitchell was quick to give up, but Tiffany squealed and fought me.
What’s wrong with you? I said.
Nothing! I’m fine! She shouted the words down the dock and continued to jerk her body away, her pigtails coming loose.
Gripping both their arms, I said, This is no way to behave. There are other families here, and you are embarrassing us!
This used to shut them up. It was something my mother used on me when I was a child, to make me feel naked, make me suddenly aware that I was in public. But now, as Tai-Wei was coming down the path, Tiffany turned to me with an arrogance that I had not seen in her, and said in Chinese, No, you are embarrassing us.
I let go of her as my husband met us. I was sure he had not heard his daughter. I picked up my son and held him in my arms. Small stones had trapped themselves in my sandals. They cut into my feet as I turned to my husband. I smiled at him pointing further down the path.
There’s a shadier spot over there, I said, marching forward. My son rested his clammy hands onto my neck to steady himself. I listened to father and daughter fall in step behind me. In a few years, Mitchell would be just like her.
That evening, I poured the rest of the milk down the drain. It choked out of the mouth of the bottle and coated the stainless steel in a thin, incandescent blue-white. The sink smelled sweet, but I turned on the water and washed the stuff down before it soured.
In tonight’s episode, the secret ingredient was winter melon. The melons sat on the table in front of the Chairman, ranging from light pastel to deep crocodile green. The hosts were explaining that the challenge of the winter melon was to make an ingredient with no distinct taste or flavor of its own become the star of the dish. A chef held one in his arms, gliding from the front of the kitchen stadium to his work station, as though afraid of dropping it.
Did Tiffany remember getting chicken feet at the Lotus Superstore? Did she remember the Jade Lake where I took her and her brother to watch the tourists race go-karts? Or would I show these pictures to an older girl, only to find those years erased? You could find the same picture anywhere, but what good was that. My children would covet things I was not even aware of. They would reject my gifts to them. They would eventually cease to see their own richness; it was only a matter of time. Then, they would cease to see me.
The second chef carried the winter melon the same way, his eyes communicating tenderness and intimidation. As the chefs always did, he took it to the table where he brought the cleaver to its waxy skin.
I began to cry at this. Tai-Wei turned to me, and without saying anything, he drew me close to him. I grew ashamed, but every time I tried to stop, it got worse. I couldn’t catch my breath or make words. There was no language. At last, he turned off the TV and led me to the bathroom. He started the water and stripped me down. He checked the temperature with his hand. He cupped my chin. He laid out a towel, and when I was under the stream, he left to put a kettle to boil for me.
After turning off the water, I closed my eyes, and stood, for several minutes, in the humidity of that small space. My inhales and exhales became frictionless. I listened for the kettle whistling. I pretended I could hear the motorcycles. That I could feel the claustrophobia of the house next to mine. I tried to remember the length of a summer and extended my arm, as I had done on many occasions, to search for its beginnings. And as always, I was surprised to find only cold, white tile.