Mei stood in the back of Ba's herbalist store, a tattered building with faded lettering along the exterior and older ladies behind the counter displaying dimly lit Ginseng and Donqua roots. She clutched a once crisply folded letter, an elegant letterhead on the corner above flourished print, Congratulations! On behalf of Boston University, I am pleased to announce your admission for Fall; the rest obscured by Mei's fist. Her shoulders were hunched, and her face cast in shadow under the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling by its electric cord. The last five minutes played over and over in her mind.
"Ba, I was accepted into college."
Her father's steely gaze had fixated on her, a look that sent shivers down her spine since she was a child and never ceased to do so. This had not been easy. This acceptance letter was the only acknowledgment of the hours she spent buried in textbooks after long shifts in the herbalist store, nights studying by the moonlight seeping through the single window of her bedroom, and the taunts she endured from her classmates, freak nerd, as they exited the bus a few stops early so they could avoid walking through Chinatown to reach the neighborhood in the suburbs. Mei held her breath as she searched her father's eyes, wanting very badly him to say, for the first time, that he was proud of her. For once, she was good enough to be his daughter. Instead: quiet. Then a slight nod, before he turned back to the pile of papers on the countertop.
Anger and embarrassment churned inside her, rising, threatening to overflow. The anger was directed mostly at herself, she realized, for expecting anything different. Her chest felt heavy; the muscles surrounding her ribcage turned to stone. She could not stand here anymore. Crumpling the letter in her hand, she turned and ran out the store, ignoring the confused and startled looks of the store workers, and Ba, who didn't pause to look up from his business expense sheets.
Rays of the setting sun leaked over the western city line as Mei climbed the bustling maze of San Francisco streets. Around this time, business owners were pulling down metal grates to close shop for the day, and children spilled out of eclectic buildings pressed neatly together to play with remote-controlled cars and string yoyos. The aroma of dim sum and leftover cigarette smoke lingered in the warm summer air.
Mei walked briskly, barely glancing at the red oversized pinwheel rotating slowly outside a souvenir shop. As she passed Stockton street, Mrs. Chen and Mrs. Lee, who sat outside their miniature café ruffling hand-held bamboo fans, broke the topic of their gossip as one whispered to the other, "She's good looking, I'd set her up with my son." The other replied, somewhat politely, "I heard her mother died from cancer," and they eyed her passing figure with pity.
When Mei reached Huntington Park, she was uncomfortably warm, the back of her neck sticky with sweat. She slumped heavily against the knobby trunk of a eucalyptus tree in a secluded corner of the manicured grass lawn. Bees floated idly from flower to flower, their quiet buzzing joining the gurgling of the elaborate fountain in the center of the park to create background noise. Nearby, a dog barked at a Frisbee tossed in the air and a couple lounged on picnic blanket with their dinner and squirming children. Mei unfolded the letter still crumpled in her hand, smoothing the creases as best she could, and read again, Congratulations! On behalf of Boston University, I am pleased to announce... before she grimaced and dropped it as if it had burned her.
She wanted more than anything to be the daughter Ba could be proud of. She pushed herself in athletics until she could run faster than any of the boys in her class. She woke before the sun to open the herbalist store, and went to bed long after the moon rose to finish homework. None of it was enough. He didn't love her.
But he does love you, a gentle voice hummed from her right. Alarmed, Mei turned to face a dragonfly balanced on her shoulder. Was this insect speaking? Almost human-like, its compound eyes focused steadily on her. The dragonfly slowly folded its wings, reflecting triangles of light. Something about it felt strangely familiar.
Close your eyes. Remember.
Immediately, vivid imagery flashed through her mind's eye like a projection from a videotape. She was transported, reeling, and found herself in her old home in Shanghai. Ma was there, and looked just as Mei had always remembered; her delicate features framed by black hair tied into loose braids that cascaded down her shoulders. She missed Ma so much, her soft caress, warm presence and gentle smile, and the way she always smelled of freshly prepared tea leaves. Ma sat still against the wall of the concrete room, surrounded by used plastic bags and crumpled empty soda cans collected off the streets and scavenged from garbage dumps to exchange for pennies. Mei remembered this time, defined by the constant hunger gnawing in their bellies, a monster that sent spasms up her abdomen. Ba entered the memory; had always looked this old? The lines carved into the creases under his eyes belonged to that of an older man's. From his shirt pocket, he pulled out a pouch of white rice, so small it fit neatly in the palm of his hand.
"For Mei," he said, "I already ate."
He had not.
The imagery flickered, she heard the scratching of a record switching, and a new scene played. This time she was in the herbalist store, as an eleven-year-old Mei belting a song about Puff, a magic dragon, practicing for the sixth-grade school play. She propelled her arms enthusiastically and her cheeks flushed from the effort. She did not notice her father's face darken as he read the expectations and fees associated with her costume. He could not afford it. The income from the store was barely enough to keep them afloat; enough only to put food on the table. But watching her sing off-key, her face glowing, he could not bear to break her heart. His wife had passed years ago, and he was alone in raising his only daughter.
So Ba bought a used sewing machine from Mr. Sun's craft store. He swallowed his pride and asked the nursemaid next door to teach him to sew, and sat he hunched over the clunky machine until his fingers blistered and peeled. On the night of the play, her father stood in the back of the audience as Mei propelled her arms on stage wearing the pink dress he had fashioned for her, singing about Puff at the top of her lungs.
Remember? the dragonfly whispered as it adjusted its segmented abdomen. Mei remembered now. She remembered that Ba wore the same pair of dirty tennis shoes with ripped soles to save enough money so that she could attend her school field trips. He did not speak words of praise or offer affection; instead, he helped her study until the warblers welcomed the sunrise the morning of an exam, attended every one of her graduation ceremonies and sat quietly in the stands of her tennis tournaments, and ensured that the saran-wrapped glass bowl in the fridge was never empty of her favorite fruit, lychee.
Ba loves you very much. Everything he does, is for you.
The last hint of sunlight was lingering in the sky, a slight tinge of deep orange over the horizon's edge to be eventually conquered by the night sky. Crickets were chirping as the surrounding streets quieted, and the family nearby packed their picnic basket into a red blanket.
Mei ran a finger along the dampness clinging to her lower lashes. The dragonfly tapped its antennae in a flickering motion, perhaps an insect's way of expressing reassurance, before it fluttered its wings propelling upward. A gentle breeze swept through Mei's hair and she caught the scent of fresh tea leaves.
"Ma?" she whispered, but the dragonfly had disappeared among the blinking city lights that lit up the night sky.
That night, Mei sat across from Ba on the hardwood floor of the herbalist store, finishing their dinner of white rice and stir-fried tofu. Like every meal, they ate in silence, Ba sitting so upright it seemed as though his spine was a rigid pole. When she finished, she rinsed her bowl and chopsticks in the sink and knelt slowly next to him.
"Ba", Mei said, mustering all her courage, too afraid to make eye contact, "wo ai ni." I love you. She paused. He stayed quiet, and she turned and ascended the stairs to the bedroom. His silence did not hurt her. She knew that he loved her. She had simply wanted to say it to him, to let him know that she loved him too, before she left for the high-rises of metropolitan Boston. But if she had stayed a moment longer, she would have seen a faint smile on his thin lips and a single tear trail down his face, finally settling into the lines etched deep along the creases of his cheek.