My name is Charlie Wong and I’m the daughter of a dancer and a noodle-maker. My mother was once a star ballerina at the famed Beijing Dance Academy before she ran off to marry my father, the handsomest noodle-maker in Beijing—or at least that’s what she always called him before she died. Hand in hand, they escaped to America to start their family. Unfortunately, my mother’s genes seemed to miss me altogether. I took after Pa, minus the good-looking part. And minus the manual dexterity as well: he never managed to pass his considerable noodle-making skills on to me, much as he tried. So at twenty-two years old I was instead working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. Pa was their noodle master. Customers lined up at the back door to purchase packages of his uncooked noodles to take home.
Peering now through the window that connected the tiny dishwashing room to the kitchen, I could see Mrs. Lee standing by the back door. She’d put on extra lipstick for Pa, and she fixed her eyes on his brown hands wrapped around the bamboo pole.
“Can you make them extra long for me?” she asked in Mandarin. She stood a bit stiffly, careful not to brush against the grease-covered doorframe.
Pa nodded as he hoisted the bamboo pole and lowered it once again onto the dough on the table. The end of the pole f it into a hole punched in the wall, just above the table surface. As he rolled the pole, the dough became thinner on every pass. It was hard work. I knew his hands were ridged with calluses. Then he sliced the dough into perfectly regular strands with his cleaver, and began pulling them by hand. He twirled them into a rope, then stretched them again and again. It was like magic.
He looked up to f lash Mrs. Lee a smile. “Must be your birthday.”
She actually giggled, a woman of her age. “You are an intelligent man.”
I would have snorted, only the waiters pushed another plastic bus tub filled with stacks of bowls through the other window at that moment, the one connecting the dish room to the restaurant. Everybody knew it was good luck to have long noodles on your birthday since they symbolized long life, just as most of us in Chinatown remembered Mrs. Lee’s husband had passed on a number of years ago. I dumped the food off the dishes, then piled everything in another tub. I was used to women complimenting Pa—but if you’re trying to catch him for your own, good luck, lady. Pa hadn’t dated since Ma died and probably never would; he was still in love with her. I hefted the heavy tub with ease, then hauled it over to the washing sink. I’d been working this job for years, ever since leaving high school, and I had the biceps to prove it. I ducked my head to look through the window again and see what Mrs. Lee was up to. I caught a whiff of ginger and garlic that one of the cooks had just dropped into a wok.
Pa had given the ends of the dough to his assistant and they’d stretched the noodles across the room while the other cook dodged them. Mrs. Lee beamed as Pa rolled up the finished noodles for her.
“You should join us. I promise the noodles will be tender,” she said.
Pa gave her an old-fashioned bow from the waist as he handed her package to her. “You are very kind but I am so busy taking care of my two daughters. You know how it is.”
“Of course,” she said. Her bright lips drooped at the corners. “Next time, then.”
“Yes, I wish you long life and happiness,” said Pa, turning back to his assistant. “Get me a sack of flour from the basement, will you?”
I should have been the one helping him. Pa had brought me to the restaurant to watch and train ever since I was a child. Hard as I tried, I still dropped everything. “You have to coax the dough,” Pa said, but I pummeled it instead. A noodle master has magic in his fingers. Mine were as clumsy as if I were always wearing gloves. Pa was tall and lean. His defined nose and cheekbones made for a strong face on a man, but those features were too sharp for a woman, according to my Aunt Monica and Uncle Henry. I was tanned like the rest of Pa’s family, and for a Chinese girl, I was homely. I had learned early on not to attract any attention. Most of the time, I succeeded.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead. It was the afternoon lull but my legs were already starting to ache from the hours I’d spent on my feet since the early morning. I poured in some detergent, then turned on only the hot faucet and let it f ill the sink. At the beginning, I couldn’t bear to put my hands in the scalding water, even when I’d diluted it with some cold. I’d tried to use gloves until I realized the steaming water poured in over the tops of the gloves anyway when I submerged my arms. But if I was good for nothing but washing dishes, I’d resolved to be the best dishwasher I could. I’d increased the heat day by day until my body adjusted. I didn’t mind the way my hands and arms became reddened and chapped. It was the cost of my labor.
The rising steam combined with the August heat was stifling. I dropped a stack of bowls into the water, then plunged in my hands and forearms to soap them. My skin had become so rough now I barely winced anymore. The hotter the water, the faster I could work. Although the restaurant had a dishwashing machine, it was so ancient I had to make the dishes as clean as possible before loading it anyway, rather than waste time cleaning out the debris from the machine traps. Otherwise, I would have to check the dishes when they came out of the machine to know they were clean. Especially during the mealtime rush, every second was precious or we’d run out of clean dishes and silverware.
I pulled out another stack of dirty bowls from the bus tub and found a large roach hanging from one of them. I froze. I didn’t want to drop everything into the soapy water and have to fish out the now-boiled roach. The bug took advantage of my confusion, racing up my hand and onto my arm.
I screeched. The dishes I’d been holding clattered onto the floor while I batted at the roach, trying to get it off my shirt before it reached my face. Suddenly, a white cooking cloth whipped the roach off of me. It landed upside down on the floor, thick legs waving, and a man’s foot smashed it.
“You are the clumsiest dishwasher we’ve ever had!” said Mr. Hu, the owner of the restaurant. His round cheeks seemed covered with a perpetual layer of grease. “Clean it up right away!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was—”
“I don’t want to hear it!”
Pa was standing in the doorway. “Mr. Hu, she works very hard.”
Mr. Hu softened when he saw my father. Without Pa, his restaurant would lose most of its business. “I know. And she is strong too. Just get rid of this mess, okay? Dishes are expensive.”
I started sweeping up the broken crockery right away. When Mr. Hu was gone, I said, “Thanks, Pa.” Although I could understand Chinese, I couldn’t speak it very well. Pa and I usually communicated in English. Sometimes he spoke Chinese and I answered him in English.
“Anyone can drop a soapy dish. That man needs a vacation.” He gave me an affectionate pat on the shoulder, then went back to the noodle station.
If it weren’t for Pa, I didn’t know if the restaurant would have kept me on since there was no shortage of cheap labor. However, I did work hard and I knew the restaurant had gone through a number of dishwashers before I was hired. It was dirty work, even for Chinatown.
An hour later, I was sleeping across a row of chairs by the wall at the back of the restaurant. All of the staff took naps there during our breaks because our shifts could extend from early morning until late in the night, depending on business. If more customers showed up, the restaurant stayed open. Everyone ignored us as long as we kept our backs to the other tables, and if we didn’t snore too loudly.
Someone tapped me on the side of my head. I jerked awake and peeled my cheek off the vinyl of the chair, annoyed and disoriented. “What?” I saw the yellowing wallpaper, then turned to focus on my little sister Lisa’s heart-shaped face. “Don’t touch my hair.”
“Sorry,” she said but I could tell she’d done it on purpose. “You wouldn’t wake up otherwise.”
I pushed myself up on one elbow and frowned at her. “Did you try?”
“No. I know from experience.” When I rolled my eyes, she leaned in and whispered, “I found an ad for a new job for you.”
I didn’t find out what Lisa’s job possibility was until after my shift. I’d shooed her out of the restaurant after her announcement, before she got me into trouble with Mr. Hu again for dawdling on my break. I knew she’d be waiting for me at home. Even though it was late by the time Pa and I arrived at our apartment, Lisa always tried to stay up. If she fell asleep, she’d wake up again when she heard us come in because she wanted to make sure we got home safely.
“What could happen in Chinatown?” I asked her once.
“Petty theft, knife fights, muggings, gang wars,” she answered. She had a point. She was only eleven but Lisa had always been precocious. Sometimes I watched her sleeping and wished I could keep her safe from the life I led. At the very least, I would have liked to keep her ignorant of how tired I was much of the time, but it was impossible to fool her. No matter how often I told her I was satisfied being a dishwasher, Lisa kept trying to find new opportunities for me.
To be honest, I didn’t mind. I wished not for a new job or place but for a different life altogether, to change not the where but the how of things. Some people dreamed of going someplace else; I dreamed of being someone else. Someone who hadn’t always been in the bottom half of her class at school. Someone poised, elegant and beautiful—like Ma had been, like Lisa would be when she grew up. It was Lisa who took after Ma, from the slight f lush beneath her skin to that gliding grace when she ran. Sometimes I would look at Lisa and Pa and silently ask the gods, “Could I please not be born into such a good-looking family in my next life?” It wasn’t easy being a cow among gazelles.
Every night, after saying goodnight to Pa as he retired to his tiny closet of a room, Lisa and I folded up the plastic table in the living room and put it in the corner. My mattress, with the sheets hanging off it, always leaned by the wall. We squeezed that in between the sofa and the pile of three little televisions stacked against the other wall. Only the top one worked, but Pa could never bear to throw away any of the others since they’d cost so much. “They will be maybe handy someday,” he said. Then we pulled off the worn patchwork cloth covering the sofa, exposing the scorch mark I’d made when I left the iron on it once. We covered the sofa with a sheet, then piled on Lisa’s pillow and blanket, which I had painstakingly sewn together from scraps. She was growing almost too tall to f it on the short sofa and I wasn’t sure what we would do then.
Although I nagged Lisa to go to sleep before Pa and I got home, I secretly looked forward to those moments of peace at night: Lisa lying on the sofa and me on my mattress on the floor below her, when we chatted and read before going to sleep.
“How were Uncle Henry and Aunt Monica today?” I asked.
She made a face, then said, “Fine.”
“You shouldn’t be ungrateful,” I said, “we’re—”
She completed my sentence, “—lucky that they use me for free slave labor in Uncle Henry’s office under the guise of taking care of me. I know.” Uncle Henry was a well-known doctor in traditional Chinese medicine in Chinatown. Lisa helped out at his office with tasks like filing and cleaning after school until closing time, then she came home. Now that it was summer vacation, she was there full time.
I grinned before I could stop myself. “How did you become so obnoxious?”
“The same way you got so moralistic.”
We stuck our tongues out at each other, even though I knew I was much too mature for such a thing.
“And I thought you wanted to be a doctor,” I said.
“I know.” She sighed. “It’s good experience for me, even if he’s not a western doctor.”
“Come on, start reading,” I said, passing her the paperback book.
Every night, Lisa had been reading Pilgrim’s Progress aloud to me before we went to sleep. I’d actually started by trying to read to her but I had so much difficulty with it that she took over. In school the words “lack of motivation” had appeared repeatedly on my report cards, but my teachers never knew about the hours I struggled over my textbooks in the evenings. It was my tenth grade English teacher who’d given us the list of Top 100 Classic Books and I was still determined to get through that list. I barely passed that teacher’s class and she didn’t notice me much, except to ask me a few times to try harder, but I worshipped her from afar, with her sharp wit and wild hair and gesturing hands. I never dared tell her how I fought at home to read her books, how after many hours I would only be halfway through the assignment. I could see the difference between Lisa and me from the moment she started to read, fluently and easily. Even though I was an “ABC,” American-born Chinese, reading was like a foreign language to me.
My teachers had always wanted to talk to Pa, but he never dared show up to meet them. He thought his English was too bad and I think he was intimidated by them. He felt his lack of education as a noodle-maker. His brother, our Uncle Henry, was the oldest son and had been rigorously trained in traditional Chinese medicine, although he didn’t have a medical degree. There’d been no money left for Pa. I’d once seen the father of another student at school, arguing with a teacher for his child. For a moment I’d allowed myself to think it was Pa and my heart had leapt. Once, Aunt Monica had come to the school in Pa’s stead. She spent her time telling my teachers that I needed to help out more at home, that it was shameful my father did most of the cooking. When I told Pa, he’d politely refused her help from then on. This was why I made sure I myself went to all of Lisa’s teacher meetings now.
As Lisa f lipped open Pilgrim’s Progress and started to read, I did my best to pay attention. My legs and arms felt heavy, my back ached from bending over the sinks. I was so glad to be off my feet. Before I knew it, Lisa was tapping me on the head again.
“Why are you doing that?” I protested, trying to pretend I’d been awake the whole time.
“I thought we were reading this to improve our minds,” Lisa said. “How can we do that when you’re asleep?”
“I’m not sleeping.” I paused. “Anymore. And we’re improving your mind at least.”
“Before you conk out again, can I tell you about your new job possibility?”
I groaned. “Will you stop being such an optimistic little beaver? You know I almost never get hired. And when I do, I just get fired again.”
“That’s only because you haven’t found the right job yet. Take a look at this.” Lisa passed me a scrap she’d torn out of an English newspaper, probably from her school library. Pa only bought Chinese newspapers, which neither Lisa nor I could read.
I glanced at the clipping, then sat up. I read the ad out loud, “Wanted: Receptionist for Ballroom Dance Studio.”
Lisa said softly, “A dance studio.”
“They’ll never take me,” I said. “I’m a terrible receptionist, remember?” I had tried to work outside of Chinatown a few times but all the phones I was supposed to answer had so many buttons. The computer was a mystery to me since we didn’t have one at home and I’d only had a few hours of practice at school. But the worst was when I had to write down appointments. That was when things most often went wrong.
The last time, I’d only been a receptionist at the accounting firm for a few days. The company was small and cheap, and when they needed an important package delivered to Midtown, they’d sent me instead of hiring a courier. Big mistake. As always, I got lost looking for the right bus. When I finally found it, I realized I’d left my wallet back at the office. Determined not to fail, I walked all the way to my destination. But when I finally arrived, I looked down at the thick manila envelope I was supposed to deliver and it was a stained and crumpled mess. I’d been kneading it as I worried my way there. And I was fired again.
“You may have changed by now. It’s been a while.” Lisa bobbed her head up and down, to show how sure she was of this possibility.
“I doubt it.” But despite myself, I glanced up at Ma’s photos. A dance studio was a magical place; it represented Ma’s passion and talents. She’d died when Lisa was only three, but we both grew up poring over her photos. Ma, incredibly young at seventeen, in a dress of embroidered silk, poised on one leg with her body turned to the camera, a white fan f licked open above her head. An old Chinese newspaper clipping of a line of star dancers from the Beijing Dance Academy at a diplomatic event. Ma in the foreground, dressed in a dramatic costume from the Beijing Opera, curtseying to the white man in a suit.
Lisa didn’t remember Ma at all, but I did. Ma had never danced again in public after coming to the U.S. with Pa. She couldn’t speak English, didn’t know anyone in the dance world, hadn’t understood how the system here worked, and soon, her life had been swallowed by hard labor. But she’d trained me. There was only a few feet of space available to us, but Ma was determined. During the week, she worked long hours as a waitress at the noodle restaurant with Pa. As soon as she had a day off, she would push all of the apartment’s furniture aside and teach me while Pa stood in the doorway.
I suppose it wasn’t so much dancing as exercises she taught me. Stretches, handstands, push-ups, pirouettes, anything we could do in the limited space. I’m sure I wasn’t very good but I felt strong and limber with Ma’s hands correcting me, gentle but firm, pushing my hips, my arms, my neck into place. It was one of the few times I didn’t feel like a failure at everything. Ma became someone else when we trained, someone fierce and merciless.
“We must do this now, while you’re still young,” she said. “This flexibility, this strength, will always belong to you.”
I remember wondering why Pa always stayed to watch us while his face was so sad.
Underneath Ma’s photos stood a large jar labeled “Broadway Money” in Lisa’s rounded handwriting. We’d pasted ads for different shows all around the sides. It was partially filled with bills and loose change. Lisa and I had been saving for years to go to a Broadway show with Pa. Seeing the dancers would bring Ma back to Pa, if only for an hour or two, we thought. Since we weren’t sure when we’d have enough for tickets for all three of us, we hadn’t decided on the show yet. I’d counted it recently and we had just enough for a ticket for one person.
I again looked at the employment ad. Imagine working in a dance studio. I’d be able to watch the dancers every day.
Lisa’s voice broke into my thoughts. “They’re interviewing on Monday. What do you have to lose?”
I woke to the slight sounds of Pa moving around in our kitchenette. It was Sunday and Pa and I had the day off. There was no door, only an archway in between the living room, where we slept, and the tiny kitchen, which contained the altars to Ma and our ancestors. Pa always made breakfast for Ma’s spirit, even though it’d been eight years since she’d passed away. In fact, we never ate anything at home before putting it in front of Ma’s altar and offering it to her first. On the altar was a close-up framed photo of her young face. Pa was lighting incense now and murmuring, “Here’s your tea, dear one.”
By the time Lisa and I had put away my mattress and all of the bedding, Pa had finished making egg drop soup and put our bowls on a small table in front of Ma’s altar. Lisa and I went into the kitchen to bow to Ma and light incense for the gods. After Ma’s spirit had eaten, we took the bowls into the living room and sat down at the plastic table to have our own breakfast.
As the oldest female in the house, I should have been doing most of the housework, but from the time I was a small girl I’d shown myself to be incapable of learning any domestic task Ma had tried to teach me. I burned myself whenever I tried to cook, and even after I’d swept the floor as well as I could, Ma had to do it again. Luckily, Pa was a great cook and we sometimes brought home leftovers from the restaurant. He didn’t seem to mind the way I was, although Uncle Henry and Aunt Monica often reprimanded him for spoiling me.
As the three of us sat around the fold-up table, I stirred my soup to cool it, first clockwise, then counter.
Pa shook his head. “Some say for good luck, you need to stir clockwise. Some say counterclockwise. But doing both at random is definitely wrong.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I just had something on my mind. Pa, do you think someone could fill in for me tomorrow afternoon?”
He looked up, concerned. “Why? Are you sick?”
“Job interview.” I knew we needed every cent the two of us could bring in together. A wave of guilt washed over me at the thought of losing good money for this interview, when I wouldn’t be hired anyway. I started shaking my head. “I don’t need to—”
“No, no,” Pa said. “That’s good, very good. You deserve a better life. What is the company?”
Lisa and I exchanged glances. “Computers,” she said.
“They’re very well known,” I added. We both knew that Pa would worry if he knew it was a dance studio. Were they doing indecent forms of dance? Would men there want to corrupt his daughter? And so on.
“Ah, good,” Pa said. “I will go to restaurant and tell Mr. Hu today.”
An hour later, Pa left to do the shopping and chat with his friends in Gossip Park, our nickname for the large park in Chinatown. Lisa and I used the time to try to find something I could wear to the interview. We searched through all of the closets, and I thought it was a good thing Pa never threw anything away. In the end, buried in a garbage bag filled with clothing that had been given to us, we found a red dress. It was so long on me that I had to belt it around my hips to make it reach midcalf instead of my ankles.
My hair was not in the best shape. I’d recently allowed Mrs. Tam, who owned the beauty salon on our street, to have her way with it.
“I give you a big discount because we are neighbors,” she said. “I know how to make girls beautiful. Trust me.”
So despite the expense, I’d let Mrs. Tam do my hair instead of having Lisa chop it off the way she usually did. Mrs. Tam layered my hair in hopes of “bringing out its natural curl.” With my thick, coarse hair, I wound up with a big ball of frizz on my head, chunks sticking up all over the place. At that point, Mrs. Tam wanted to perm my hair to make it look better, but thankfully, I didn’t have the money for that.
“I found it!” Lisa pulled a long piece of red cloth out of an old suitcase. She came over to me and wound it all the way around my head, hiding most of the haircut.
Together, we looked at me in the mirror. “Does the scarf match the dress?” I asked.
Lisa squinted. “Almost.”
“I guess it’s close enough.” The big, sacklike red dress covered my entire body and it seemed as if I was wearing a red turban on my head, with the ends of the scarf trailing down behind me like a tail. “Do you think it’s too much red?”
“No,” said Lisa loyally, “you look like a gypsy, Charlie.”
I gave her a quick hug. Then we stared down at my shoes. I was wearing my sturdy dishwasher shoes.
“They’ll be fine,” I said.
“I think you have to wear high heels,” she said. “Isn’t that what they dance in? It might make a better impression. And you have such pretty feet.”
“Smarty-pants,” I muttered as I got down on my hands and knees to search in the back of the closet again. Lisa knew my weaknesses. My feet, narrow and arched, were the one thing I’d inherited from Ma. Lisa used to call them “Cinderella feet” before I started wearing the sturdy shoes I needed at the restaurant.
I finally dug out the only pair of pumps I owned. The heels were scuffed and the black vinyl surface was peeling off at the toes to reveal light gray patches underneath.
“Wait.” Lisa rummaged through the kitchen drawer until she pulled out a black permanent marker.
I used a pair of scissors to cut off the bits that were sticking out. Then I started drawing on the shoes with the black marker, coloring in all of the gray and scuffed parts. When I was done, the shoes still looked awful if you looked closely. The colored-in areas had a completely different texture from the rest of the material, but from a distance I thought they looked all right.
“They’re great now,” Lisa said.
“You’re just worried I’m going to chicken out,” I said.
I glanced at the photo of Ma, posed in her one-legged stance, then I looked at the redness that was me in the mirror. “I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
I could already tell in the elevator that I was out of my league. The building was on the Upper East Side, a world away from downtown Chinatown. I squeezed myself into the corner, trying to avoid my blurred reflection on the metal walls. The man standing across from me had streaks of gray in his hair and the shiniest black shoes I’d ever seen. His pants had been perfectly pressed. I was dripping with sweat, but he seemed collected and fresh in his crisp shirt. I took a deep breath as the doors slid open. We stepped out of the elevator together and he allowed me to precede him down the carpeted hallway to the gilded double doors. Another blast of air-conditioning hit me as he held one open for me. Some sort of fast classical music was playing.
“Oh my dear, Nina,” he said to the young woman sitting behind the reception desk. He had a hint of a Southern drawl. “Are they still torturing you like this?”
She looked up, one hand clutching her long brown hair, and blew out a sigh. “Hi, Keith, I can’t take this anymore. I just disconnected someone by accident again. Go on in, Simone’s already in the ballroom.”
The man named Keith laughed, then glanced at me. “Maybe she’ll rescue you.”
Nina looked at me as Keith stepped through another set of doors. Her features flowed into each other so smoothly that she seemed to have been carved from marble. “Are you here for the position?”
“Yes. I’m Charlie Wong.” How did they both know I wasn’t a dance student? I shifted my weight from foot to foot, trying not to look as nervous as I felt.
“I thought you’d be a guy.” She looked down to check her list. I couldn’t help staring at her a little when she couldn’t see. She was probably one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen and she was doing the job I wanted. Nina found my name, then gave me a quick genuine grin. “Glad you’re a girl, though. Just go through those doors into the ballroom, hang a left and the manager’s office is tucked in the corner,” she said, pointing. “And watch out, they’re doing quickstep.”
I had no idea what she was talking about but as soon as I stepped through the next set of glass doors, I shrank back as a dancing couple ran toward me at full speed. They pivoted gracefully out of the way, staying in place while they did a series of little synchronized kicks in time to the music, and then raced off again.
I realized I was standing on the edge of the main ballroom. It was the sort of room that felt as if chandeliers were hanging from the high ceilings, although there weren’t any. Perhaps it was the wood paneling, or the tasteful lighting. A few small tables were placed against the right wall and several couples sped across the room counterclockwise. Some were posing in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, which covered every wall except for the one by the tables. In the distance, I could glimpse my ref lection. I resembled a ball of red yarn.
I couldn’t seem to start breathing again. To the left of me, set in the corner of the ballroom, was a closed door. I started to walk to- ward it, feeling the dancers notice me with just a tiny angling of their heads, a swivel of their hips to position their bodies so they could keep me in sight. I clenched my jaw and knocked on the door.
It cracked open and a tall African-American woman with pronounced cheekbones peered out. “And you are . . . ?”
She pulled the door the rest of the way open. She had short tight curls that accentuated her oval face and a body rounded with pregnancy. As she stepped aside to let me pass, I saw her eyes flicker to the cloth wrapped around my head.
The office was small but luxurious. Framed photographs and posters of dance couples in different poses covered the walls. I stood in front of the massive desk until the woman seated herself behind it.
“I’m Adrienne,” she said. “Sit down.”
I took a seat, then we studied each other for a moment. In her tight sleeveless white top, her stomach bulged but her arms and shoulders were muscled and sinewy. She didn’t blink as she gazed at me. Her eyes were tilted, a light hazel, striking against the dark creaminess of her skin. She was clearly someone who did not suffer fools gladly. I fumbled in my bag for my résumé. It was a bit crinkled when I pulled it out and I braced myself for what she would say when she read about my old jobs that had ended too quickly. To my relief, she hardly glanced at it before tossing it onto the pile on her desk.
She steepled her fingers together. “Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself?”
Images of Lisa, Pa, the noodle restaurant, my high school, rushed into my head and strangled my voice. What could I say that would be relevant to this beautiful place, these gorgeous people? “I’m not sure where to begin.”
“Why don’t you start by telling me why we should hire you?” The door behind me opened and a man stepped in. “Ah, there’s Dominic.”
Dominic had pale skin in contrast to his dark hair and eyes. He was wearing a light suit that appeared simple but must have been expensive from the way it fit him, as if it’d been poured over his body. He arched one spidery eyebrow at me in what seemed to be both a question and a challenge. He then leaned silently on the wall behind Adrienne next to an enormous poster: a stunning dark dancer poised in the arms of her partner as if she were about to take flight. I realized the poster was of the two of them.
She saw the understanding in my eyes. For the first time she smiled. “I haven’t always been five months pregnant, you know. That was taken after the first time we won the American Ten Dance title.”
Although I had no idea what that was, I nodded. I hadn’t even known there were ten dances. I swallowed, then tried to answer her question. “I don’t really know why you should hire me over all of the other people who are probably dying to work here.”
Adrienne gave a snort caught between surprise and laughter. “Well, you’re honest, I’ll give you that.” She leaned back in her chair and stared at me, then said, “So what’s Charlie short for? Charlotte? Charmaine?”
I cleared my throat. “Umm, nothing. It’s just Charlie.”
Neither of them said anything for a moment, then Adrienne continued, “What’s your deal, Charlie-short-for-nothing?”
When I gazed at her blankly, she linked her fingers across the top of her belly and said, “What do you really do? Tap dancer, writer, musician, fire-eater?”
Her full lips quirked. There was a pause, then from behind Adrienne, Dominic said, “Interesting.” He had a slight foreign accent. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
Adrienne asked, “And after your day job?”
“It’s actually a day and night job,” I said.
Now they both choked back a laugh.
While I was trying to figure out if I should say something else or not, Dominic asked, “Do you have any administrative experience?”
“I’ve worked in three different offices as a receptionist,” I said with perfect honesty. I hoped they wouldn’t check my résumé, which would reveal I’d only lasted a few weeks at each job before being fired.
“Have you ever had any dance training?” Adrienne asked.
I wished I could claim something that would impress her, anything, but I had to be truthful. “No.”
“Really? No ballet lessons as a child, no secret dreams to become a dancer?”
Surprised and appalled, I said, “I’m the clumsiest person you ever saw. I could never dance.”
“Everyone can dance,” she said automatically, as if she were quoting something she’d learned by heart. “That’s the Avery Studios principle. But we are indeed not hiring any dancers. Is that clear?”
“My mother was a dancer,” I said. “But I didn’t inherit any of her talent. I’m more like my father.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a noodle-maker in Chinatown.”
Now Adrienne smiled. “Charlie, why in the world do you want this job?”
I didn’t allow myself to think. I didn’t know how to get this job, which I didn’t deserve in any way, so I told them the truth. “Because this place is so beautiful. If I worked here, I’d be able to be around the dancers. Because it reminds me of my mother, who died when I was fourteen.”
Adrienne’s face had grown serious. When she finally spoke, she addressed Dominic instead of me, and her voice was almost a whisper. “What innocence. Were we ever this young?”
I forced myself to continue. “I’m already twenty-two. But I promise that if you give me a chance, I’ll do everything I can to deserve to stay here. I’m probably not the best receptionist you’ve interviewed. But I think I want this job more than anyone else.”
They were silent, then she said, “Could you step outside for a moment?”
Since they hadn’t told me where to go, I went out into the ballroom and stood beside the door of the office. Keith and a tall blond woman were pivoting around the room in perfect little circles together, as if they’d stepped out of a black-and-white movie. In my haste to leave the office, I hadn’t closed the door properly and it swung open an inch. I leaned against the wall, realizing I could hear Dominic’s voice.
“I like the last one better,” he said.
“The brunette? She’s too dramatic. Trust me, she’s an actress or something in her spare time. I’m tired of hiring a new receptionist every six months. Everyone only wants to work here because it’s a dance studio. We attract every wannabe in New York City, and goodness knows there are enough of them. We’re like a rest stop.”
“Fine, but does it have to be her? I mean, look at her.”
I froze. I was sure they were both gazing through the window in the door where they’d be able to see my reflection on the mirrors of the opposing ballroom wall. I pretended to be fascinated by the dancers passing by.
There was a pause, then Adrienne said, “She’s okay.” Another long silence. She continued, “She has no dreams of being discovered. And she’s got experience.”
Dominic finally spoke. “Is that a towel on her head? Come on, the receptionist is the gateway to our studio. She’s got to look representative.”
“Dominic, we’ve already got enough sex appeal here to sink the freaking Titanic. She just needs to look decent, and she needs to not leave to go join the circus after two weeks, like everyone else.”
“I think you’re going too far.”
“I like her,” Adrienne said. I couldn’t help my sudden smile. “The dancers are constantly grumbling about needing to man the front desk. Clients are becoming unhappy and we’re losing money. We get that cloth off her head and if she doesn’t look insane, we hire her, okay?”
There was another silence, which I assumed was Dominic’s surrender, and then Adrienne pulled the door open and said, “Can you come back in here, Charlie?”
I felt my pulse pounding in my throat as I stepped back in. Dominic said, “Would you please take that—thing—off your head?”
I tried to keep my hands from trembling as I unwound the long red strip of cloth. In my mind’s eye I saw my hair as it burst free: bushy, unevenly cut, tufts sticking out at random.
Did Dominic flinch?
“Now I see why you’re wearing the scarf,” Adrienne said. She came over and studied me. “The face is nice, though, now that I can see it without being distracted by all that material.”
To my surprise, she took hold of my shoulders and gently moved me so that the light from the window in the door fell upon my face, an object for them to examine.
“Good bones,” Dominic said. “No makeup.”
“She doesn’t have bad taste,” Adrienne said kindly, “ just no taste. She’s a blank slate. The dancers can help her.”
Dominic sighed. He pulled Adrienne close and pressed a kiss to her temple.
I was hired.
It was late afternoon and I knew Lisa would be at Uncle Henry’s office in the heart of Chinatown, street number 88, which many people thought was lucky. It was one of the reasons he was so successful. After taking the elevator to the third floor, I stopped in front of the sign that read “Traditional Chinese Medicine, Henry Wong” and collected myself. Uncle and Aunt would frown upon anything less than serious behavior. I opened the door to find Lisa sitting behind the reception desk. The room was crowded with Chinese people who were waiting to see my uncle. Lisa ran to me as soon as I entered.
“I got the job!” I said, trying to keep my voice low while jumping up and down with excitement. Lisa leapt into my arms and gave me a hug. The top of her head came up to my nose now.
“I knew you would, Charlie!”
“Where’s Aunt and Uncle?” I asked, looking around.
“Uncle’s with a patient and Aunt went out with the Vision.”
“You’re taking care of the office alone?”
“Now that they’ve got Dennis, she goes out more often.”
Lisa had mentioned a new assistant. I lowered my voice so that none of the patients could hear us. “I hoped this job would mean you wouldn’t have to come here anymore, but the hours are from one thirty to ten thirty in the evening, so I still won’t be home after school. I’m sorry.”
She looked downcast for a moment, then whispered back, “Don’t be silly. Even if you were home, Pa would make me come here.” It was true that our family owed Uncle a great deal. He had paid numerous medical bills for Ma. “Besides,” Lisa added, “I need the experience anyway. It’ll help for college.”
It was just like her to find the bright side. I wasn’t so sure I would have been comfortable working here. All around us were large glass jars containing wolf berry fruit, dried antlers and jugs of dehydrated lizards.
“What’s that?” I pointed at a new jar, prominently displayed behind the desk. It was filled with what looked like pale, fleshy roots soaking in a lightly colored liquid. We walked over to it, still keeping our voices down.
“Snake penises in wine,” Lisa answered.
“Are you serious?”
“Extremely. The whole thing had to be specially ordered and the snake penises cost fifteen hundred dollars a pound. I could sneak you a glass if you want.”
I gagged. “Very nice of you. I never knew snakes had such large . . .”
“Probably from very big snakes. We don’t tell the patients this but they often cut it off when the animal is still alive.”
“Is that legal?” I looked away from the jar.
“There are many things that are not legal but commonly accessible if you know the right people.” Lisa imitated a commercial. “Snake penis wine is sure to warm your kidneys and enrich your qi, not to mention what it’ll do for your sexual prowess.”
I tried to stifle my laughter. “You shouldn’t be talking about such things.”
“What? I have to listen to it all the time. Half the stuff here is for helping those old guys in bed. Look here.” Lisa pointed to a jar of dried seahorses. “Also a popular choice to improve your virility. Only four hundred dollars a pound. Ironic that it’s actually the male seahorse that gets pregnant, isn’t it? Doesn’t seem too manly to me. But who am I? I just keep my mouth shut around here. If I were to speak, I’d tell them to just go get some Viagra.”
I snorted and covered my smile. “Well, I still believe in this stuff when it’s used right. If Uncle sells it, I’m sure it helps. Don’t you remember, that milk-vetch root soup cleared up my skin?”
Lisa didn’t answer. I started walking around the jars, reading their labels now. It’d been a long time since I’d been here, since my hours at the restaurant usually didn’t allow me to visit. I passed a jar filled with dried, dark red centipedes, and one that appeared to hold a large baked cobra. “But I don’t know why they have so many poisonous animals in here.”
“Because ‘poison fights poison.’ That’s what they believe.” Lisa shrugged. “I personally think it’ll just give you a stomachache and some really weird dreams.”
“Lisa.” It was Uncle Henry, standing in the doorway. There was a young man next to him.
Her smile vanished immediately. “Yes, Uncle.”
“Uncle Henry,” I said, greeting him with the honor due an elder. “Charlie, so glad you stopped by. Have you met Dennis? He has an undergraduate degree in pharmacology and has been opening my old eyes to modern science.” Uncle smiled at me and his face changed from stern to handsome. As always, he wore a dark green Mao suit, buttoned up to the neck.
Dennis shook my hands. He had a shock of black hair, full lips and bushy eyebrows. “I’m really learning a great deal here. It’s fascinating.”
I decided not to mention my new job. If it didn’t work out, I didn’t want Uncle’s pity and it wasn’t much anyway, not compared with what someone like Dennis could do. I’d always wished I could be better than I was for Uncle. In high school, the only respect I ever got from the other kids was for being Uncle’s niece.
Uncle Henry had a softer version of Pa’s features. I’d heard matrons whispering, “What a fine figure of a man Doctor Wong is,” even though most of his hair was gray by now. He was a traditionalist and refused to consume any sort of non-Chinese food. If he hadn’t had rice, then he hadn’t eaten. He and Aunt Monica had never been on a vacation away from their house. He didn’t see the point of wasting money, he said, although he would like to return to his home, China, some day. I remembered that when I was a child, he’d often paid special attention to me. He was the one who would sit at our plastic table in our tiny apartment and try to explain fractions to me. When Aunt Monica got impatient with me for not catching on faster, he would soothe her by saying, “Charlie is trying.” But that had changed as I’d grown older.
“We need an extra pair of hands for a moment, Lisa,” Uncle said. When Lisa followed them down the hallway, I trailed after her.
He opened the door of the examination room to allow Lisa to enter and I saw a woman lying on her stomach, acupuncture needles protruding from the smooth curve of her naked spine. The smell of mugwort drifted out to me. Uncle stepped in behind Lisa and Dennis, then turned to me with a smile. “Would you please watch the front office for me for a moment, Charlie?” With a little nod, he closed the door in my face.
It was clear he remembered as well as I did the day I’d been fired from his office. When I was around twelve, before Ma had died, they had tried to have me help in his office just as Lisa was doing now. “I would be happy to teach Charlie,” Uncle Henry had told my parents.
I remembered Aunt Monica standing over me with her hands on her thick hips. “How could you have dropped the vat of rat fetuses all over the waiting area? Do you know how much that’s worth? And we’ll never get the oil stains out of the carpet.”
After that, I’d been banned from working in the office. I felt guilty that Lisa had been stuck with the job simply because I’d been no good at it. But at least she wasn’t a dishwasher. I would do anything to keep her out of the restaurant life.
I’d been sitting behind the desk in the office a few moments when Aunt Monica and the Vision walked in, trailed by Todd, the Vision’s assistant.
I stood and greeted them. “Aunt Monica, Mrs. Purity, Todd,” I said. Behind her back, everyone called Mrs. Purity by her true title, the Vision of the Left Eye, but none of us dared do it to her face. Like most children in Chinatown, I’d been taught to be afraid of her. She was considered the most powerful witch in the area, and people believed witches bound the souls of young children to themselves to serve them. Every witch needed souls who would do their bidding to travel in between ours and the spirit world. They were even suspected of murdering children to gain their souls. As kids, we’d been forbidden to be alone with her.
The Vision was small, her back more crooked than I remembered, dressed in too-short cotton pants and a f lowered shirt, looking just like the hundreds of old ladies in Chinatown. She carried a red plastic handbag. Her face was shaped like an iron with a small pointed forehead and blunted at the chin, the brown skin unwrinkled and unflinching, and set deep in one socket was that wandering eye, roaming loose in the blankness of her face, staring where it would.
Aunt Monica gave me a controlled nod. Her lips were screwed tight, her eyes cold under reddened, hooded lids. Her hair was white and had been for years because Uncle Henry didn’t want her to color it. He said the dyes caused cancer. It was well known that they’d been desperate to have children, especially a son, but they had not been successful. I remembered from my childhood that their house had been filled with fertility Buddhas and ancient drawings of plump, healthy boys. They believed that this would help bring a male child into their life. Aunt Monica had followed a diet of coconut and eggs, so the baby would have smooth white skin, and had stopped watching animal shows on television for fear that the baby would emerge looking like an ape. But no child came at all.
I’d always suspected that Uncle’s own desire for a boy was the reason my own Chinese name, Cha Lan, meaning “beautiful orchid,” had been turned into Charlie in English. Everyone knew it was easier to be accepted with an American name, so after choosing a Chinese name for a child, many parents would ask English-speaking friends and family for suggestions for an American equivalent. I’d been the one who had suggested “Lisa” when my little sister had been named Lian Hua, lotus flower.
After I’d figured out from Uncle’s behavior that boys were more desirable than girls, I’d asked Pa, “Did you want a boy too?”
Pa beamed and said, “When I could have two girls who remind me of their Ma? Of course not!”
Ma had hit him playfully, saying, “You are a charmer.”
“I got you to come with me, didn’t I?” said Pa. But then their laughter had died. Ma’s face had grown tight, as if with grief for something she had lost.
Todd, the Vision’s assistant, gave me a friendly smile. He was tall, with hair that was shaved high up behind his ears in a partial mohawk. Despite his hairstyle, there was a sweet light in his eyes. I remembered him as a solitary kid from high school, where he’d been a few grades ahead of me. He’d been working for the witch for a while now. He was wearing neon green sneakers, and kept tossing the top of his mohawk out of his eyes as he cracked his gum. He was the least mystical person I could imagine. I didn’t know why the witch put up with him, except that possibly he was useful for carrying heavy things. “What’s up?” he said.
“I’m all right. You?”
“Yeah, I get by,” he said.
The Vision had her functional eye aimed directly at me. “This is the older daughter.”
“Yes,” said Aunt Monica in the half whisper she always seemed to use with the witch.
The Vision reached out and took my hand in hers. Her skin felt cool and slightly damp. The waiting room was full and I realized the Vision was going to impress us with her psychic abilities. I tried to pull my hand away but she held on and closed her eyes. She spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, “No boyfriend, husband or mate.”
My chest tightened with fear. It had been a while since I’d dated anyone. How did she know? And what was she going to say about me?
“You are without equal,” Aunt Monica said to the witch.
The Vision continued. “You must take your own blood, your menstrual blood. You take the papers you catch the blood with and wait until the night the moon disappears altogether. That night, you lay the papers on the roof tiles of the man’s house. Anchor them with a stone. Let them dry for seven days and seven nights under the sun and the growing moon. Then crumble them into ash and put them in his coffee.”
I choked and yanked my hand out of hers. Everyone around us looked impressed. The witch paused. Her eyes were open again. I managed to nod.
“When he drinks it, he will know no one but you.”
My cheeks were on f ire. Obviously the witch had looked into my future and seen that the only way for me to ever get a boyfriend was for me to bespell him with a used tampon, and now half of Chinatown knew that as well. Todd chewed vigorously on the gum in his mouth, trying not to laugh.
Aunt Monica stared at the Vision. She clasped both of her hands around hers and said, “Thank you for this wisdom.”
“I could do no less for your niece,” the witch answered. “If she should need a beauty potion—”
“I have a new job,” I blurted, desperate to change the subject. I also knew how powerful the Vision was. While I’d already given up on my love life, I still had some hope for the studio now.
“I know,” said the Vision. “It will amount to nothing.”
Her words fell upon me like stones. She blinked and turned her normal eye to me. Her face cracked into a smile. “Do not take it so hard, girl. A husband is a fine thing to have. Use the spell.”
Lisa, Dennis and Uncle Henry came out of the examination room at that point, followed by their patient. She seemed to be in her late thirties and was dressed plainly, with a dirty air filter mask sticking out of her bag. I guessed she was a garment factory worker, possibly a seamstress. She bowed low to Uncle Henry. “I couldn’t move my arm without pain before I came to you. Now I’ll be able to work again. However much I owe you, it cannot repay my debt.”
Uncle Henry spoke in a voice so soft that I could only hear him because I was standing right next to them. “I know your husband just lost his job. There is no charge.”
She pressed her lips together and I was afraid she’d burst into tears. Wordlessly, she pressed his arm, then left. A few of the patients were already crowding around the Vision as I waved goodbye to Lisa and exited the office. My uncle’s patients and her clients often overlapped. While I was walking back to our apartment, I was filled with pride for my uncle. Turning over in my head the Vision’s bleak words about my future, I wished I had inherited some of his gifts.