The rigid plastic of the chair dug into Jay's spine, and he fidgeted against the hard seat pressing into his thighs. Around him, people with blurry faces walked in and out of the waiting room, their figures stark contrasts against the muted blue walls of the dental office. Jay pushed his light-up sneakers against each other and they flashed green and blue against the tile floor. The tooth-shaped clock mounted above him murmured in the background tick…tick…tick.
How long had he been here? He gaped anxiously at the receptionist, an overweight woman whose dyed blonde hair didn't quite reach the dark brown roots. Her curved nails tapped at the keyboard as her jaw worked furiously on a piece of gum.
Vivian had told him this wouldn't take long. He broke his gaze from the receptionist, whose lips were now smacking on the gum, and leaned to the left in an attempt to peer into the treatment rooms. Only a week ago he had been in there with Vivian – after a year, he still couldn't call her mom, not yet – for her dental check-up appointment.
"Ain't nothing, kiddo," she had smiled as she leaned back in the dental chair, and Jay tried to disappear into the angle where the walls met. He didn't like that it smelled like bleach in here, or that the neatly arranged dental instruments on the tray table looked so sharp they could cut flesh. He especially didn't like the man in the creased white coat with unnaturally large teeth that didn't match his unnaturally thin lips.
"Root canal," the man had declared unceremoniously.
"Root canal?" Vivian drew out the syllables so that the words were unrecognizable.
The man mumbled something, and Jay could only make out the words nerve and infection, though he didn't quite know what they meant.
And now he was here again, praying for Vivian to come out, hopefully alive. Vivian wouldn't leave him, would she? Leave him here in this waiting room, waiting forever, breathing in the smell of sterilization and antiseptic and medication?
She wasn't his mother. She could leave him – no, she would leave him. After all, his birth mother had left him, without even a goodbye, as he stood waiting in Aisle 5 of an Albertsons, staring at rows of cans of garbanzo beans until the police came. Why would Vivian be any different?
But Vivian isn't like her, a voice inside him insisted. He didn't remember his birth mother well, only that she had paper skin draped over a bony frame, an unfocused gaze that never seemed to be able to make eye contact, and a constant stench of fear rolling off her in the same way that the smell of bleach permeated this dental office.
The day Vivian had picked him up from the orphanage, she startled him with her laugh, a guffaw so loud that the birds perched in the brush surrounding the building flew off in alarm. In the three-hour car ride to his new home he had watched her out of the corner of his eye as she dragged on a cigarette, her red lipstick smeared on its end.
"Want a puff?" she asked, and he jumped again when she laughed, so loud it could set off car alarms.
When they had arrived at her home in Palm Springs, it was over a hundred degrees. The cicadas screeched in the desert trees as Jay squinted against the sun at the rows of houses spaced far apart, so unlike the cramped apartments pressed together in Chinatown that he was used to. The interior of Vivian's house was exactly what he imagined a sixty-year-old white lady's house would look like: trinkets lining dusty shelves, mismatched tables with clawed feet, overstuffed chairs with frayed fringes and frilly drapes on mounting brackets. She introduced him to Bill, her boyfriend.
"Do you talk?" Bill asked. Jay mumbled an introduction in Mandarin, the first time he had spoken since leaving the orphanage. Bill looked at him like he was something stuck in the kitchen drain.
"You're in America, speak English."
That night, Jay lay in his twin bed, unsure of what to do with the space. He didn't know what it was like to have a room, or even an entire bed, for himself. In his apartment in Chinatown, he had shared a mattress on the floor with his mother and the room with three other immigrants from the Hebei province. In the orphanage, he shared the bed with another boy who was so lanky his feet hung off the end and he often elbowed Jay in his sleep.
"Why'd you adopt a Chinese?" Bill's gruff voice vibrated through the thin walls from somewhere in the living room.
"There's nothing wrong with him." Vivian's normally resounding voice was hushed.
"You don't know anything about those people. You can't trust 'em."
"You can't say that. He's fine. He'll be fine."
"You're going to send him to school? Here? Don't you know how that'll look?"
Vivian was quiet.
"When this goes bad, and it will, just know that you did this to yourself."
Jay lay that night under the blanket stitched with the moon and stars in a repeating pattern, his eyes open in the darkness, and did not sleep.
The next day Vivian took Jay in her dark grey Buick to go shopping across town, blasting the air conditioning the entire way.
"Let's get you some new clothes," Vivian said when the sliding doors opened at the entrance to the mall, and turned to Jay's stunned expression. He had never seen anything like this; stores with glass fronts displaying ironed clothes and shoes organized meticulously by size, color, or style, and so unlike the jumbled boxes of second-hand shirts imported from China sold at the street vendor where his mother could afford to buy his clothes. They walked into a Gap, passing the cardboard cutouts of a model family: a father with blonde hair holding up a laughing son as his wife smiled in the background, with equally blonde hair, all wearing tight-fitting American blue jeans. Within minutes, Vivian held up a pile of striped polo shirts, khaki pants, and cargo shorts, and Jay found himself in the fitting room, his reflection staring earnestly back at him.
"How are they fitting?" he heard Vivian's too-loud voice from outside. Jay studied himself in the mirror. The collared shirt crumpled at the waist, fit for a taller boy. The shorts fell far below the knees, too long to be pants, too short to be shorts. He attempted a faint smile in an attempt to mimic the cardboard cutout of the boy in the front of the store. His reflection jeered back at him in the mirror, brown eyes peeking out under unruly black hair, looking nothing like the model cardboard boy. Vivian clucked her tongue when he showed her the clothes.
"We'll get you a size smaller."
Next, they hauled his bags of new clothes to the Sketchers store next door, where Vivian told him to pick out shoes. Jay didn't move. Did she really mean he could choose whatever he wanted? After some coaxing, he walked to the pair of light-up sneakers on display, entranced by the flashing green and blue at the white soles.
"How much are those?" Vivian asked a passing by employee.
"One-hundred fifty," he answered, stunned that such a small woman could be so loud.
"We'll take a pair."
Jay wore the sneakers out of the store and couldn't help admiring the way the flashing lights of his shoes reflected off the laminate flooring. They stopped by Wetzel's Pretzels, and they ate sitting in the food court, Jay sucking the cheese stuffing out of his as she chewed on her salted one.
"Wetzel's Pretzel's," Vivian laughed, "What a funny name. There was a girl in my third-grade class whose last name was Wetzel, and I kept calling her Wetzel's Pretzel's. She hated me." Vivian punctuated the story with another throaty laugh, and the couple sitting a table over flinched at the sound. Jay like her laugh, he decided, as he licked the salt and oil off his fingers. It was friendly, welcoming.
Vivian studied Jay for a moment.
"You're going to do great in school," she said softly.
After finishing their pretzels, they piled the shopping bags in the car and drove home, this time the radio blaring old country music over the fan of the air conditioning. Jay tapped his sneakers against each other to set off the flashing lights as Vivian attempted a drawl to match the voice on the radio. Jay laughed, and it felt good to laugh, the first time in a while.
When they arrived at the house, Vivien hauled the shopping bags out of the backseat as Jay stepped out into the heat.
The smell of alcohol reached them before Vivian opened the front door. She stiffened for a moment and handed the bags to Jay.
"Go straight to your room," she whispered. He had never seen her look so serious.
She unlocked the door and Jay entered, the room dark, the stench of alcohol strong in the air and soaked into the carpet, and glanced a motionless figure on the couch before he shuffled into his room and closed the door behind him. From the living room, he heard an incoherent grumble.
"You're back? How much did you spend on the kid?"
"It's none of your business."
"How much, Vivian?" The volume of Bill's growl increased.
"Why are you drinking again? It's the middle of the day. You shouldn't drink anymore. It's not good for him to see that."
"How much did you spend on the kid?" Bill was yelling now, followed by a scuffle, and a bellow, "four hundred dollars? Are you crazy?"
Jay heard the pounding of his fist against something hard and wooden.
"Stop!" Vivian screamed, and Jay dropped the shopping bags to curl against the corner of his room, balling his fists against his ears, but it didn't muffle the crashing thud of a chair being smashed against the floor. The walls around him shuddered. He drew his knees in against his ribs, so tight it hurt to breathe.
Banging, now. Furniture breaking.
"Get out! Out!" Vivian shrieked, and from the sounds of it, was throwing things: the tinkling of the glass ballerina figurine that once danced on the coffee table as it fractured against the wall, the crumbling of the ceramic vase as it collided with the floor.
The front door slammed; the house reverberated one last time, and then silence.
Somewhere in the neighborhood, a dog was barking.
They never saw Bill again.
The receptionist at the front desk had stopped chewing her gum, and instead was rolling it around between her lips, blowing bubbles that weren't big enough to pop. Jay's stomach rumbled and he tried to ignore the gnawing hunger, hanging on to Vivian's promise of Rita's Shaved Ice after her appointment if he waited patiently. The tooth-shaped clock above him seemed to tick faster now, tickticktickticktick.
Somewhere from the treatment room echoed the high-pitched bleep of an X-ray machine, and Vivian appeared, looking a little swollen, but very much alive. Jay exhaled a large sigh of relief and slumped in his chair. She looked at him and tried to smile, her lower lip unresponsive from the anesthesia, a glimmer of drool at the corner of her mouth. She held out her and hand and Jay took it, relishing the warmth of her palm against his cold fingertips.
“Ready for shaved ice, kiddo?”