Jane steeps in her claw-footed bathtub, one leg stretched out along the bottom, the other slightly bent. Her face towel drapes over the edge like the paper label of a tea bag resting over the lip of a white teacup. She holds her palms up and studies her fingertips. Raisin-like ridges on water-bloated pink. Peanut fingers, she thinks, that’s what I used to call them. Peanut fingers and almond eyes.
At about the time Jane discovered her peanut fingers, her Auntie Li-Ting said, “Janie, you have almond-shaped eyes.” Not really knowing what an ah-mund looked like, Jane never did get it right. “I have peanut eyes,” she told everyone at her cousin Paul’s wedding. But she didn’t like the way they laughed when she said that, didn’t like the way everyone kept asking her again and again, what kind of eyes do you have, and laughed when she gave the same answer, the flower girl with the nut-shaped eyes.
Jane dips the face cloth into the still hot bath and brings the towel to her face, rivulets run warm down her arms. How am I going to make it through the weekend? Jane blinks, lets the nubby warmth of the towel soothe the corners of her eyes. As soon as she got off the phone with Auntie Li-Ting, she called Mumma.
“But Jane, if she had anywhere else to go, she wouldn’t ask. It’s only one weekend.”
“So, why can’t I put her on the greyhound to visit you?”
“You offer her that?”
“Too late. It’s only one weekend. Just don’t go grocery shopping with Li-Ting. She’s a little light-fingered around the bulk hard candies, oh, and the plastic bags in the produce department.”
“And don’t take her to a restaurant where they put sugar packets on every table.”
“This is a nightmare.”
“Don’t be so sensitive. You’re the only family she has in Calgary. I don’t blame you but one weekend. Janie, this is costing you money. You shouldn’t call long distance for this.”
Auntie Li-Ting yelling at Jane when teaching her how to make lemon meringue pie for her Brownie badge.
“Is she really related to us?”
“Of course she is. We just like to pretend she isn’t.”
Turning the silvery steel fixtures, Jane tests the temperature with her finger and holds her face cloth in the hot water. She lays the towel just under the lip on the far edge of the tub, and moulds her shoulder blades slowly against the warm terry.
Drip. Drip. Who would tell a five-year-old that her great-grandmother was gored to death by a water buffalo?
Drip. Drip. “Water and oil,” Dad said, as kindergarten Jane lay between her parents, after dreams, those bad thinks, of an old woman, the Chinese-iest-looking old woman, being stabbed by the horns of the buffalo at Al Oeming’s Alberta Game Farm.
Drip. Drip. “Li-Ting is just too damn vivid for this sensitive soul,” Dad said, pulling the edge of the covers over Jane’s body, “She’s your sister. . . Well?”
“Half-sister,” Mumma said, switching off the lamp.
“No problem,” Leo said, “We didn’t have anything planned for the weekend anyway. In fact, I’ll just put all this junk in the basement and get the guest room ready for her.”
Jane holds on to both edges of the tub, trying to turn the tap shut with her big toe. Damn that Mrs. Lin and her bug-infested dried Chinese mushrooms, she thinks. Damn her for going to visit her sister in Vancouver and turning up the heat for her jade plants. Damn those dumb bugs, multiplying and crawling along the pipes at the Elders’ Mansion.
“Everyone’s apartment. They have to foomigate,” Li-Ting said excitedly, “Bug spray all over, to kill it. They say Mrs. Lin’s place is worse. Especially the kitchen cupboards. Little brown bugs everywhere.”
“Have you seen any in your apartment?” Jane asked.
“No. But my eyes not too good. They have to spray everywhere. It’s no good for my breathing. If there is anyone else, I would not ask.”
“No, no. Of course you can come stay with us.”
“I wouldn’t ask, but my breathing.”
Breathing is Auntie Li-Ting’s obsession. She gravitates to cheesy cotton dresses so her skin can breathe. Rolls her cotton tube socks down into big white ankle doughnuts so her leg muscles can breathe. She even cut the toes out of all her shoes and slippers. A while ago, she had offered to do Jane’s shoes, but Jane declined, as Li-Ting’s white foot puppets flexed upward, inhaling deeply.
“OK. What bus goes to your house?” Li-Ting asked.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“I need to know what bus to take. I will have to transfer, I think. Maybe even go on the train,” she said, hesitating.
“No, I’ll come get you. Leo and I will come and get you.”
“I don’t wanna be a bother.”
“It’s no trouble.”
“OK. I see you tonight then. After dinner. I have leftover to finish.”
“How long are they, uh, spraying?”
“Oh. They spray tomorrow. I go home Monday. Sunday night if you like.”
“No. Monday’s fine. Or however long.”
Jane licks tiny beads of moisture forming on her upper lip. Fumigating for bugs. Five years of renting shared halls and walls, Jane shudders. This was supposed to be the do-nothing weekend, the first in months. Maybe the baking cookies in the nude weekend. Maybe the checking into the Westin Saturday night weekend. Maybe the sex on the breakfast nook weekend. Under the breakfast nook?
Enough, Jane thinks, grabbing the chain between her toes and pulling. It’s a lost weekend. Why didn’t I think fast enough to suggest treating her to the greyhound for a visit with Mumma and Dad? Why am I acting like a monster child? Why am I so hopelessly suburban — the breakfast nook?
“Pulease,” Jane says to the walls. Standing up, she listens to the vortex, the part soap-part Jane scum whirls out of the bottom of the tub.
Lying on top of the quilt, Jane soaks in the pinky skin, boneless body feeling from being too long in the tub. She wraps herself in Leo’s blue terry bathrobe that gathers around her feet, feet slippered in his sheepskin moccasins. The robe smells of him, his apple soap, his bergamot, cardamom and autumn leaves cologne. Jane holds the lapels up to her nose, savouring the forest floor assurance of his smell.
“It’s seven o’clock. We better get rolling, Jane.”
“Just a few minutes.”
“C’mon, it’ll be fine. Don’t worry. And hang up my robe when you’re finished with it?”
“I always do.”
The neon signs roll by as Leo drives north on Macleod Trail. Jane reads the names silently, The Co-Operators, Un Poco Picante, The Flamingo, 7 Seas. Suddenly, she bats at Leo’s arm, and points out the window.
“Hey, did you see that?”
“What?” Leo gives her a full profile of the Barclay face. The Barclays of Bragg Creek, of hostelling in Canada, as set into the land as the Rockies, the 100-year lease in the national park, the cottage at the lake. Jane catches his hazel-grey eye and the line drawn from his nose, over his lips and across the jawline. “He’s so good-looking,” she told her friend Sandi when she first met Leo, “it makes my teeth hurt.”
“The China Garden Restaurant, featuring the Lucky Dragon Room,” she says, jabbing at the passenger door window with her thumb.
“Remember, in Spokane? ‘The Ling-nan Restaurant and the Purple Lantern Room,’ ‘The Jade Palace and the newly renovated Lotus Blossom Room,’ ‘The Bamboo Garden Restaurant featuring the Sin-Loc Room.’ Remember? And I said to you, ‘Well, what do they think people are going to imagine goes on in those rooms?’ I said, ‘when probably those are just the names for the lounges.’”
“Oh yeah,” half of Leo’s face smiles at her, “I remember, but you didn’t want to stop and find out for sure.”
“Well. You know I hate that kind of stuff. Panders to a stereotype. For God’s sake, the Sin-Loc room?”
“Hmm. I think you’re being a bit sensitive. What difference does that make, just someone marketing their business, right?” Leo turns to face Jane, but finds the back of her head, her hair flickering inky blue under the passing neon lights.
Sensitive, people always say I’m sensitive, Jane muses. Mumma called Jane “little Miss Foon Kee Bean Cake” when bathing her, Jane bowing back and forth under the weight of her mother’s hand, the soapy towel rubbing her back pink. “You’re so sensitive, Jane,” Mumma, Dad, her siblings, her husband, everyone tells her, as if they are more comfortable, more adept at being Jane than she is. [Note: Jane doesn’t appreciate that it takes some sensitivity to tell someone they’re being sensitive, more sensitivity, say, than telling someone they’re being a pita (pain in the ass).]
As they reach the crest of cemetery hill on Macleod Trail, Jane spies the shadowy profile of the pagoda in the Chinese graveyard. Her great-aunt and great-uncle are buried here, and the only memory Jane has of visiting their grave is a black-and-white photo of herself, six years old, holding flowers beside the gravestone. She has never told Leo. She’s seen his family photo albums. Everything is outdoors. Hiking, canoeing, diving off a floating dock. A photo of everyone standing around a firepit in winter, holding wooden snowshoes. Rows of white teeth and Kool-Aid smiles. Everyone wears red plaid, even the dog.
Turning on to Fourth Avenue, Jane’s shoulders clench. The streets in Chinatown are so narrow. Leo moves around a delivery van, double-parked, and brakes suddenly. A man runs out in front of the car with his hand held up to command the car to stop. It’s always like this, Jane thinks, one-way, one-way, flashing four-way flashers, people running out onto the streets. On the occasional family visits to Calgary’s Chinatown when Jane was small, she perched at the car window holding her glasses in her hand to see the blurring swirl of lights from the traffic and the shop signs. Now, she looks straight ahead, hands clasped one on top of the other, arms pressed close to her body.
“Would you relax?” Leo wraps his right hand around her two as he steers toward the Elders’ Mansion. “Look. There she is. I wonder how long she’s been standing there.”
Li-Ting carries two brown paper shopping bags, with twine loop handles. Under the wispy frizz of her salt-and-pepper perm, her eyes keenly peel the street. Five feet tall, and shrinking, the grey chenille cloche with a crocheted flower adorning the left side appears to be keeping Li-Ting’s sparse hair from scattering in all directions. Sandwiched between the glass of the apartment’s entrance way, Li-Ting looks preserved. Her burgundy ski jacket is unzipped, revealing a white Minnie Mouse Disneyworld tee shirt, under a short grey cardigan. The tee shirt, a souvenir from Jane’s parents, signals the importance of the visit. The hem of the shirt peeks out under her jacket, skirts black polyester pants. On her feet, Auntie Li-Ting wears thirty-year-old semi-opaque olive plastic overboots with an elastic frog closing. From the car, Jane sees the white ovals of her aunt’s socks peeking out from under the toe caps.
While Jane pivots her legs out of the car, Leo’s already bounding up the stairs, two at a time. Li-Ting props the glass door open with her buttocks, swinging the bags outside in front of her. Jane waves and Auntie Li-Ting holds up her two bags.
Leo approaches, and Li-Ting’s head recoils. He bends slightly and wraps his arms around Li-Ting, who stiffens as if lassoed. Li-Ting turns her head up at Leo, stunned, still holding her bags. Leo bends down and says something as he loops his hands into the bags’ handles with her hands. They struggle. The curve of Leo’s smile falters, as they both hang on, tugging gently on the bags. Finally, he relents, and shrugs his shoulders at Jane, his face and palms-up hands ask, What’d-I-do? Li-Ting takes off down the stairs in front of him, a firm grasp on her bags, her eyebrows knotted. Jane feels a sour stroke curl through her stomach.
“Hi Auntie, I’m sorry we’re late.”
“Not so late. Only forty minutes. Is not so cold outside.”
“Li-Ting, we would have rung up for you,” Leo offers, opening the back door.
“Auntie, come sit in the front,” Jane says, quickly positioning herself by the back door.
“No. I sit in the back with my bags.”
Jane closes the back door, conscious of the ache in her cheeks from smiling. Leo rounds the driver’s side of the car. He rubs his fingers under his nose and grimaces.
“Euuwww,” he mouths over the car roof, then whispers, “I think there’s food and stuff in one of those bags.”
Jane smiles at him and lets an airy “shhh” escape between her teeth.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Lauralyn Chow is the author of Paper Teeth, a book of interconnected short stories, following the lives of the Lees, a Canadian-Chinese family and their friends who reside in Edmonton. While playing with time, from the 1960s and 70s up to the present, Paper Teeth creates a world of walking dolls, family car trips, fashion and frosty makeup, home renovations inspired by pop culture, and moving up to big, new houses. Paper Teeth is Lauralyn Chow’s first book, published by NeWest Press.