Westwind

The Eighteenth Minute

Kristine Miller

I locked up the shop and felt the cold, damp air hit me as I walked outside. It was another one of those nights after it rained when everything was a little soggy and miserable, the over-crowded sidewalks misted with a thick steam that rose from the gutters. Jagged buildings arranged haphazardly along North Spring Street poured out an artificial yellow light, hitting the mist just right so that it looked like it was made up of tiny specks of gold. Sweat and wet pavement permeated the sugary scent of the hot zongzi from the bakery stand next door, and the man on the corner was yelling outside of his store as he always did: “Nuomici! Best nuomici!” The women weaseled their way through the people on the street, the men’s long strides only broken by a hollow grunt and a narrow glance from the corner of their eyes when they bumped into me. It was always at this time of night that I felt like I was watching the world go by, only everything was sped up and I was the only one that was standing still.

Adjacent to the shop was an old lopsided metal cart with a handwritten sign on the front of it that read “Lotus Seed Buns.” The man had been there every day for as long as I—and even my father before me—had been running the shop. He had always seemed out of place: an old white man in the middle of Chinatown. He had aged significantly over the years, and the thin, white tufts of hair over his ears highlighted the dark purple sun spots on his head. He had pink, dewy skin, and the folds around his eyes were so red that I always thought he looked a little bit like a mouse. His beard of stiff, stubbly white hairs surrounded his mouth that housed an array of misshapen, misshapen teeth. For as many times as I had walked to or from the shop and had passed the man, I had never—not once—ever heard him speak. He wasn’t like the other vendors who thrust their pointing fingers into the crowd and shouted forcefully, “You! You try! It’s good!” He simply set up the same chair—the one with the middle wooden panel falling from the underbelly of it—and sat in it. He waited for the customers to come to him.

My father had taken me a few times to the kiosk when I was a boy. He would point to the lotus seed buns that he wanted, the two exchanged money, and my father and I walked off, happily letting the hot sugar from the pastry stick to our mouths and cheeks. Every day after I closed the shop now, a part of me wanted to stop and get one. Just to try it. But I never did. Instead, I would always make my way to the bus stop which was two blocks down from the shop, lighting a cigarette to keep warm.

I walked past the kiosk and the man glanced at me, our eyes momentarily meeting. He looked more worn down and paler than I had ever seen him, and I noticed he was only wearing a thin sweater in spite of the freezing weather. His body was crumpled over, his back hunched so far that it was almost in the shape of a half circle. I looked down, suddenly self-conscious. I had the strange feeling that we shared something (recognition perhaps?), and were both too afraid to acknowledge it. Or perhaps only I was.

I took the same route that I always did: two blocks down, seventeen minutes. I was dropped off on a pinched, derelict little street that was nearly invisible unless someone was purposefully looking for it.  My apartment was one of the shorter buildings, a film of graffiti coating the sides of the complex—just like every other building on the street. Thick brown weeds sprouted out of the sidewalk.  As I walked into the lobby, that same pungent, mildewey-smoke smell hit me. I told myself—as I always did—that I wouldn’t be here for too much longer.

It was funny to think now that this place had once made me smile, that I had almost enjoyed the smells. How I had looked forward to coming home to the neglected, cracked, and stained building. I had begun to not even mind the next-door neighbors’ explosive fights that would pour through the living room wall every few nights. It became our norm. This had been our home.

But that was before everything happened. Now, the smells were nothing but sour, pungent odors. The building was just another shanty-like dump that I told myself I would get myself and Julian out of some day. The fights next door simply became more heated and frequent, and consequently, more irritating.

I put out my cigarette before I opened the door to the apartment. Julian was sitting at the dining room table coloring, Mei inspecting his work over his shoulder. I could hear the TV droning dully in the background, the crackling static a testament to its age and use. Julian and Mei both turned as they heard the door shut.

“Hi Baba.” Julian gave me that smile he’d had ever since she left three weeks ago. It was a look like I was made of glass, as if I could break any minute. I paid Mei without saying a word.

“See you tomorrow Mr. Lee,” she lisped through a thick gate of braces as she grabbed her coat and closed the door.

“Baba I’m hungry,” Julian bounced up and down in his chair, flinging the red and orange crayons onto the carpet. I looked in the cupboard. There were stacks of Hot and Sour soup boxes. I grabbed one and stuck it in the microwave.

“Baba,” he said as he looked up from his drawing. He had the same wild, unrestrained hair as his mother. Blonde ringlets shot out at every angle, and little curly-cues bounced up and down as he whipped his head around. It was nothing like my straight, black hair which I kept trimmed short around my face. He had my facial features though—my narrow, lidless eyes, my flat nose, my high cheekbones. Even our skin was similarly yellowy-olive—nothing like Duyi’s pale, almost translucent, skin.

“Baba,” he said without looking at me, “When’s Duyi coming?” He had caught onto the name ever since he was old enough to speak. “Cary” hadn’t quite seemed to do her justice so I had nicknamed her Duyi, Chinese for “independent wholeness.” Somehow it seemed to fit her better. Julian didn’t even know what it meant; he just liked how it sounded.

When I didn’t say anything he asked again, his voice picking up an octave. “When’s she coming, Baba?”

I didn’t answer. The timer went off, and I poured the soup into a bowl, setting it in front of him. He grabbed the spoon and I could hear him smacking away at the pork and mushrooms as I made myself some tea.

We both heard a knock. Julian bounced off of his chair, his ringlets swinging side to side. He jerked the door open and Dillon, Duyi’s younger brother, stood awkwardly in the doorway with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his toe scratching the back of his opposite calf. I recalled he had always had a bad habit of looking down at the ground when he talked, his eyes occasionally glancing up but never looking anyone straight in the eye. His eyebrows sloped downwards at the ends making him look constantly tired, and his flat nose brimmed out over his wide lips that I had always thought seemed too big for a man that said as little as he did. I opened the door to let him in.

“Uncle Dillon!” Julian shrieked, hugging Dillon’s knees.

“Hey bud,” He said, messing up the top of his hair.

“Julian, why don’t you finish your coloring, okay?” Julian made a face at me and ran back to the table, wiggling himself into the chair.

There had always been something odd between Dillon and me. He had the same blonde ringlets as Duyi, but something about him was more subdued. He was quieter, his mannerisms more relaxed, and he had an air about him which I could never quite decide whether it was quiet, meditative perceptiveness or simple dim-wittedness. We had always been cordial to each other, but I had noticed that he was hesitant to delve too deep into any conversation with me or to talk for too long. I had always had the strange feeling that he viewed Duyi’s and my relationship as temporary. Looking back, I suppose I should have too.

She had never really belonged here and I had always known that, but after a while I had convinced myself otherwise. So many times in the three weeks since she had left I had pictured her coming back. I imagined her walking back into the apartment, the sudden shock of how out-of-place she looked here hitting me hard in the chest, the sharp realization that she never did—never should have—belonged to me. I had imagined the scene in my heads a hundred times: her standing there, halfway covered by that brown and gray stained wall, her clothes a bit disheveled, her hair frazzled. Her body would be rigid, tentative, as if she was afraid she would get sucked back into the room if she stepped any further. As if the whole room had the capability of soaking her right up, consuming her right then and there into its decaying gray walls. I imagined her wandering through the streets, the same ones that I had taken after I closed the shop. In my mind she always walked past the man selling sugary lotus seed buns and she would smell them, inhaling the aroma deep into her nostrils. She would buy two bags. One to eat then and another one for later.

***

That was how we had met, after all. Over food. She had come to the shop saying that she had gone out in search of adventure that day. She had taken the bus, thirty miles from where she lived. Something, she didn’t really know what, had led her to the store. “So here I am. Give me something adventurous,” she had said with a deviant smile. And every once in a while she would come in looking for some new kind of “adventure” as she described it. She could never pronounce any of the dishes, but she liked it that way. I tried to correct her one time, trying to slowly pronounce Jin Deui for her, letting it roll off my tongue so that she could catch it and repeat it for me. But she just hushed me, closed her eyes, popped it into her mouth, and smiled, chewing slowly.

In hindsight, I think that’s what kept her here for so long. Not the food at the shop, but the lotus seed bun stand on the corner. She had always been especially intrigued by the pink, mouse-looking man who ran it; he was exotic, new, mysterious to her. I remember her telling me the man’s name once but I had long forgotten it. I remember her buying the sugary pastries every now and then when she saw them freshly baked and steaming hot. She got them so frequently at one point that the man began to give her them for free, packing the hot dough into a bag until he couldn’t fit in any more.

After only four months, Duyi and I had decided that we wanted to make our “adventures” permanent, although looking back it was more me than her. I only recognized it later, but I realized she had just been going along for the ride; it was just another adventure to her. She was too wild, too free for something that permanent. And I knew that. But I wanted to capture that wildness because I had never seen anything like it. I had taken the same two-block walk and seventeen-minute bus ride for the last twenty two years of my life, ever since I was old enough to help my father in his shop. I liked that she had no plan, no direction. She had never strained to plan out her life and that she had always just sort of floated through it so easily. So we had gotten married, settled down, and had Julian. During his first couple of years, she would often bring the lotus seed buns home—whenever she wasn’t off finding new adventures around the streets where we lived; but Julian and I never ate them. I would always give Julian Hot and Sour soup, and we would sit across from each other slurping away and listen to Duyi chatter away about her day. And for a brief span of four years I had managed to contain her wildness for myself.

But after a while it was a bit like watching a butterfly that has been caught and caged. She flitted about the apartment, confused and dazed. The derelict gray walls got to be too much for her. She started to see the run-down building less of an adventure and more for what it really was—a run-down, neglected apartment complex in bad need of some repair.

After only a short time of this kind of half-dazed drifting, I could see Julian losing his mother. She would forget to pick him up from school, and he would wait on the playground for hours until I would find her back at the apartment, in that same perplexed, glassy-eyed state she had had for months. Sometimes, on the days that she would crack, I would come home to an empty house and find out later that she had dropped Julian off at a friend’s house for the day only to run off to some nearby city for a new adventure. It was right around that time that I noticed she had stopped buying the pastries from the strange man on the corner. I figured that she had gotten used to them; there wasn’t a novelty in it anymore. The adventure had gotten old—had lost its flavor—and she had subsequently lost interest.

Then one day, three weeks ago, she told me she needed to leave. She couldn’t do it anymore. That’s what she kept saying. She just couldn’t do it. And yet I still hoped—expected—that she would come back, her wild self pulsing life back into the confines of this old, dilapidated room we once called a home.

***

“I’m sorry man.” Dillon scratched the back of his neck, his eyes briefly flicking up to meet mine.

I shook my head. “I didn’t expect her to come.”

Dillon shifted his weight uneasily. “So you have that box?”

I turned to where Duyi and I had shared a room. A small, lone cardboard box sat in the corner. I picked it up and noted how remarkably light it was. I looked inside, taking inventory of the items. There were some placemats she had bought in Peru that were woven with dark native laborers working in the sun, their backs arched downwards and their eyes looking up to the sky; a large ceramic pot painted with blue sparrows on it that she had purchased from a man on the streets of San Francisco; metal spice jars—not one with the correct label on it; some pictures; an old cell phone; some clothes; and a pot of rosemary she had planted after moving but that was quickly neglected. It had died soon after.

When I came back into the living room, Julian was sitting at the table, cupping his bowl around his face, trying to drain the last few drops of soup. Dillon was still standing in the doorway, his eyes darting up for a moment as he saw me.

I handed him the box and he smiled. Dry, cordial. We both knew it marked the last of Duyi’s and my extended adventure together. The end of our delusion. It was the mark that signified that in the end, he had been right—Duyi and I could only be temporary. Each of us needed to get out; her: back to flitting about, and me: back to my schedule. Back to that two-block walk and seventeen-minute bus ride. Maybe that was what we were each meant to do, who we were. Maybe that’s why we hadn’t been compatible.

“How is she?” I was surprised at how small my voice sounded. I thought I heard it echo off the walls.

“You know how she is. I saw her three days ago, but she took the bus out east. Last I heard she was in Colorado, doing whatever she does,” he smiled and I reciprocated, indicating that we shared that mutual knowledge about her—that surface-level, forced comradery.

“I don’t know, man. I’m sorry.” A silence lingered between us. “Hey, I almost forgot. She gave me this to give to you.” He pulled out of his jacket a thick paper bag and held it out to me. I silently took it from him.

“Well, I appreciate it,” I stuck out my hand for a handshake. “If you talk to her…” I trailed off. “She left behind everything. I have no way of contacting her.”

Dillon picked up the cardboard box and stood up, his shoulders tightening. Nodding as if to say, well this is it, he craned his neck to see Julian.

“Bye kiddo. I’ll being seeing you around or something.” He nodded a goodbye to me with a look of pity as he walked out.

As I closed the door, an extended crackle from the TV caught my attention. On the screen, a strong-jawed blonde woman spoke intensely into the microphone and looked somberly away. I walked closer so that I could hear.

“…lost a valuable member of our community today,” the TV cut out and crackled for a moment. “…who has been with us for over forty years, passed away this evening…cshhhhh…can see the original stand where he sold lotus seed…cshhhh…and they will be opening up a new bakery down the way. Whether it will be as good as…cshhh…have to wait and see. Reporting live from Chinatown…cshhh…to you, Kurt.”

I felt something hit me in the chest right then and I felt sick. Physically sick to my stomach.

I looked at Julian sitting here, licking the inside of his bowl. Here he was, his bouncy little self pulled into the same dull routine that I had drawn out for myself for over twenty years. I saw him in his mother’s figure, trapped inside these run-down walls. I pictured him sitting there at the living room table, twenty two years down the road, just after he had gotten home from his two-block walk, seventeen minute bus ride. He would sit there at the table eating the same Hot and Sour soup and never know what the lotus seed buns tasted like. I suddenly saw him as an image of myself, trapped in his mother’s body.

I had never done anything rash in my whole life. Even when Duyi and I were together. I had always stuck to my schedule—to what was best. I was practical. Purposeful. But something about him sitting there, with that image stuck in my head sparked something in me.

“Julian, grab your coat. And pack a suitcase. We’re leaving.”

He looked up at me, confused. “Where’re we going, Baba?”

“I’m not really sure.” I grabbed my coat and helped him with his. I began to relish the idea that tomorrow would be the first time I had ridden the bus beyond the seventeen minute mark. Before leaving the apartment, I grabbed the paper bag that Dillon had given me and looked inside.

Stuck to the sides of the bag and clumped into a messy cluster was a colorful assortment of sticky, sugar-coated lotus seed buns—soft and doughy, albeit a little stale. I tucked the bag under my arm, smiling to myself. With each of us lugging a small suitcase out of the apartment, I wrapped my hand over Julian’s small fist as we walked out into that vast night air.

 

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