September 07, 2017
Mom comes to pick me up at the airport. She pulls up to the curb in a beat-up Camry, my old car when I was in high school. There’s a fresh dent on the front bumper and a long, black scratch on the passenger-seat door. She’s wearing her flannel work clothes, her unwashed hair flecked with white paint. She smells of plaster and sweat and that oily, non-ventilated odor of cheap Chinese restaurants. I give her a hug, but she stiffens, unused to Western expressions of affection. When she smiles, I see her left front tooth has turned brown. Everything is a stab in the heart.
I look out the window. The landscape along the freeway is a gradient of gray. I sit there in the passenger seat, my hands folded in my lap like the obedient child that I used to be. My nose itches from the sting of her smell. Then I realize the smell must be embedded in the very car seats and is slowly seeping into my clothes.
Why is it that despite being construction workers, Mom and Dad have never bothered to maintain their own home?
Here is the quick lesson, Mom says, stomping from station to station. The method for turning on faucet in kitchen is to use damp rag so you have strong grip to pry it open like stubborn jar! The showerhead is calcify but easy to fill a small bath and dump bucket over your head! Burn more calories, manual shower, ha ha.
Immediately after she tells me about the faucet, I forget and cut my finger. She leaps up to rummage for band-aids, banging open and shut the cabinet doors like a hurricane wind. Ai yah! Where is? It’s as though the house were a vacation rental and nothing was where it should be.
She decides I should keep the car for the afternoon and asks me to drive her to the property where Dad is working. For them it’s always another job, another home. I work. They labor.
On the way there, she apologizes that she didn’t have time to make up my room. I feel ashamed and say, Of course, you’re so busy, how could you? I’ll take care of it.
When I get back, I see she wasn’t being self-conscious: the bed and furniture are still covered in dusty sheets. How many years worth of dust? With each step, I can feel spider webs brushing against my thighs and face. The room resists a little. The spiders hang, livid, from their corners.
An afternoon spent cleaning. Scrubbed the floors and washed. After throwing a basketball at the hornet’s nest dangling over my bedroom window, I watched them swarm from inside. Well, that’s just the way it goes. For me to feel at home, they had to lose theirs. I stare down into the toilet at the rim of mineral build-up. It looks almost artistic, the green and blue of it. Now I’m unpacking all my books. The dingy smell of the grease ventilator is gone, momentarily overpowered by synthetic pine.
My parents come home too tired to notice the cleaning. And I’m too proud to say anything about it.
ANELISE CHEN is the author of So Many Olympic Exertions (Kaya Press 2017), an experimental novel that blends elements of sportswriting, memoir, and self help. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, NPR, BOMB Magazine, New Republic, VICE, Village Voice, and many other publications. She teaches writing at Columbia University, and writes a column about mollusks for The Paris Review.
Adapted from So Many Olympic Exertions, by Anelise Chen, Copyright © 2017 by Anelise Chen. With the permission of the publisher, Kaya Press.