They move like machines, well-oiled and practiced. They are doing their dinner routine, both cooking together as they’ve done for the past fifty-seven years. Stir the soup, spin the salad, put the kettle on.
The machines whir to a stop as they sit down at their table. Careful sighs as they adjust their time-worn bodies. The room around them is small. It just nearly fits their round table and the four cushioned chairs that breezed through four different homes with them. Monthly leg-tightening and yearly mending means that the chairs will be a permanent installment until the end.
The couple looks out onto the robust Appalachians, sipping their green tea and taking small bites of their meal. There’s little discussion between the two, but it isn’t needed. They’re both happy just sitting in each other’s company, gazing at the view that will coax them through the last stages of their lives.
“Jason is engaged,” Luli says. “His mother told me this afternoon.”
Bohai takes another sip of his tea. “I didn’t think he was old enough yet.”
“He’s twenty-eight,” Luli responds, and they both look at each other, realizing. They hadn’t seen Jason since he was thirteen, just a nervous little high schooler. Now he’s engaged, and they didn’t even hear it from him.
“We’ll send him some money, no?” Bohai says. Luli is surprised by this. Bohai used to be so family-oriented. He used to want to be so involved in his children’s lives. But now, he seems content with watching from afar.
“Okay,” she says easily, settling back into her chair. They’re sitting on the same side of the table, so Luli is able to reach over and grab his hand. He smiles at the touch and closes his eyes, tipping his head back happily.
As they clean up from the meal together, they listen to romantic songs from Lo Ta-yu, a singer that cemented himself as an important role in their lives from Luli and Bohai’s youths.
Both of their families relocated to New York in the fifties, when they were in their teens. They attended the same school and were tormented about the same amount by their classmates. Only each other to turn to for hope, a romance blossomed, out of mutual affection and deep caring. On their first date, neither party was quite sure what to do with each other. They finally settled on having dinner at Bohai’s house, whose parents were much more progressive than Luli’s and wouldn’t be upset at their son bringing a girl home.
After a simple dinner of steamed spinach and chicken, everyone was sitting in the living room when Bohai’s father stood and put a record on the player. It was a melodic, happy song, and Bohai shyly stood up as well and held out his hand to Luli. She still remembers the small smile he produced when she grabbed his hand and they began to dance, slowly at first but then with more vigor, sticking their clasped hands out and waltzing around the teeny-tiny living room, laughing as they went.
His parents laughed and cheered them on, but when they got up to dance, too, the waltzing had to stop. There wasn’t enough room, but that was fine, because it allowed the couple to simply drift in each other’s arms. Holding each other like that was, in Luli’s opinion, the beginning of their lives. She recalls the memory as the moment that she decided, with absolute certainty, that they would always be apart of each other. That they would always hold each other like that, with that much love and euphoria and trust.
That was the first time they heard Lo Ta-yu, but it wasn’t the last. “The Age of Farewell” was the last song that they danced to during their wedding celebration. Luli and Bohai held each other as tight as ever as they danced to it, knowing that once the festivities were over, they didn’t have a luxurious honeymoon to go on. They opted instead for their parents to help them buy their first home in Brooklyn, which they attempted to make into their forever house together.
It wasn’t the livelong sanctuary that they quite hoped for; New York provided too big of a challenge for the pair. They wanted to raise a family, to go on nice trips and to afford well-constructed clothes. So they flocked to Detroit, where they were met with less-than-welcoming neighbors. Another move in a year led them to Pennsylvania, which was overall similar, but they found a small community of Chinese families that they were happy to settle next to.
Luli and Bohai now, with each dish dried and put back into the cupboards, retire to their back patio. They have two large wicker rockers next to rocking bench. They used to only have the bench, but they each had different styles of rocking. Luli liked to rock faster, mindless as she crocheted or nowadays listened to audiobooks. Bohai liked it slower so that he could read without being jostled, often times getting jabbed by Luli’s elbows as she worked on her knitting projects.
Now they have separate chairs. At this time of the night, the sun is dropping into the valley between the mountains adjacent to them. Each one of the pair has a content smile on their faces, though they aren’t paying attention to each other’s bliss. They are permanent fixtures in each other’s lives and don’t need to look over to know that the other is there. Some days, like today, they are able to live in silence, operating on autopilot. Other days, they talk. They talk about everything from past memories to theological discussions to political commentary to narrower conversation about certain articles or thoughts on Euthanasia or historical events.
One of Bohai’s favorite memories from their life together was learning that Luli was pregnant for the first time. The couple hadn’t been trying for long, only a few weeks, but they had been married for a year. Both made the decision to put off kids until they were more financially secure. The night that she gave him the news, he was getting ready to go to work at the telephone company. As she walked out of the bathroom, toothpaste frothy at the corners of her mouth, she uttered, “I have something to tell you, Bo,”
His heart dropped away. He thought she had gotten fired, or that she was leaving him, or that he was fired—though how would she know that?—but she quickly followed her opener with, “I’m pregnant.”
He stood, frozen, as she retreated back into the bathroom to rinse out her mouth. His whole body felt like it was humming with electricity. When Luli came back into the bedroom, he sprung into action, collecting her into a big hug and lifting her off the ground, making her yelp and giggle and promptly say, “You’re squishing the baby!”
Bohai prepared the nursery almost single-handedly. He was always the more creative one in the relationship, and she was working more than he was at the time. He finally got her to take time off when her great big belly swelled to impossible sizes and she couldn’t even stand up without aid.
The biggest shock of their lives was when the baby came out, wrinkled and coated in goo, only for the doctor to yell, “Another!”
The couple went home that day with two perfect girls, named Xia and Qui. Two years later, their birth was followed by Zhen, who was dressed up like a doll by his sisters and garnered a love for theatre because of it.
Zhen is an actor now, albeit an out-of-work one, who lives in Brooklyn in the neighborhood that his parents ran away from, accompanied by his wife and two-year-old daughter. Xia and her husband had Jason when she was still living in Pennsylvania, but a year after his birth, she moved to California and never looked back. Qui lives with her wife in New York as well, claiming that Queens (where she attended college) is her home and that she’ll never leave it.
Every year, the family gathers in Luli and Bohai’s house for holidays. For a long time now, they’ve been missing Xia from the equation. She’d distanced herself long ago. Never once did she explain herself, give her parents or siblings any reason as to why she moved so suddenly across the country.
Bohai, though he never voiced his opinion on the topic, thought he knew why. She was never family-oriented and wanted to wiggle out from underneath her family’s thumb since she hit puberty. Back then, her grandparents were still alive and on Luli’s side, were as traditional as if they still lived in China. Bohai also didn’t like that side of the family; he had grown up with less rules and less constraints. But at least he didn’t run away from it like Xia did.
He still understood his daughter’s motivations. He even sent her a letter about it (unacknowledged and never answered), telling her the story of when her mother ran away from home for a few days after her father grounded her for getting bad grades. He thought that it might jog something in her, make her see that everybody struggled from imperfect families.
Luli was always a good student, but she struggled with English. She was fluent in the language, at least conversationally, but was never able to craft essays that appeased her teachers. Poetry was her worst enemy, though, and during that unit, Luli got a D on her poem assessment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her father found the paper, stuffed into the kitchen trash, and slapped Luli hard enough that his wedding ring made an indent into her cheek.
Luli, stunned and afraid, ran all the way to Bohai’s house, ignoring car honking and shouts from traffic cops and the pounding in her head or in her feet. She ignored everything, especially her tears—those were not allowed in Luli’s world—until she collapsed on the front steps of his apartment building. She managed to ring his doorbell and then collapsed again, faintly hearing him open the door and carry her in.
His family let her stay there until she was sure that she could face her dad again. When she walked back into her house, he had an expression on his face that she’d never seen before. Was it…regret? Remorse? A mix of the two? Whatever it was, instead of yelling at her for running away, he swept her into a hug and whispered in Mandarin, “I’ll never hit you again” and “I love you, Luli.”
As the sunset finally ends, coating the sky in thick black paint and smattering it with stars, Bohai takes his wife’s hand and draws it to his lips. She smiles at him, folding her half-finished sweater and placing it into her woven bag.
“Sleep?” she whispers, and he nods, her knuckles still pressed to his kiss.
Bohai places her hand back into her lap and heaves himself up, helping her up next. They shuffle inside, locking the glass door behind them, and walk to their small bedroom that fits only their queen-size bed, two small night tables, a bureau, and a small bookshelf where they keep all their favorite books, as well as Luli’s sewing machine.
They dress for bed slowly, pop out their dentures and exchange slippers for socks, sliding under their sheets with audible sighs and the creaking of their ancient bedframe.
When Luli filed for retirement at the age of sixty-four, they made the decision to leave the house that none of their children lived near anymore but where they’d spent most of their lives. They exchanged it for a small, angular, red-painted house teetering on a mountaintop overlooking the most delectable view that they’d ever seen. They look at that view every morning, every afternoon, every night. It’s what they’ve worked for. It’s peace and tranquility and a sign that they made it.
They have made themselves a home.