By Cindy Lam
I met Elva Bao for the first time six months ago. She almost brought me a marital crisis that day. I was hiding behind a pillar outside Ben’s office building, where Mason’s knees were adamantly rooted to the sidewalk. Mason knew we were there to pick up his father from work, but he was fake-crying, tearless, making feeble growls like our neighbor’s bored big dog.
My son. Kneeling. On the street. I don’t know what it means in your culture. But we’re Chinese: it means disgrace.I had once asked Mason, “What did I do wrong to deserve your fits?” Helplessly looking down at the cowlick on the crown of his head—he was only as tall as our dining room table then—I felt like a crazy woman.
When Ben walked outside, he looked into my tired eyes and pecked me on my cheek to show sympathy. Next, he teased Mason by pretending to yank yellow leaves from the grip of each of his little hands. He often tries to distract our son in the middle of his temper tantrums, but this time, as it usually did, his clumsy attempt only fueled Mason’s fits.
“NO! Papa, you are not allowed!” Mason’s screams pierced the air, shooting straight up to shake the white moon in the calm violet sky. It was 7:00 pm already, and I was hungry.
I thought it would save us trouble to simply haul Mason’s thirty pounds to our usual Ramen place nearby, but Ben had read in a research paper that caregivers should provide safe outlets for two-year-olds to express their unfathomable frustrations. “Shall we give him ten minutes to resolve his meltdown?” Ben asked. In my mind, that was not the best idea out there; after all, I had already been in the stand-off twenty minutes longer than Ben had, and I was already feeling like a pressed, dried tea leaf. And I seriously didn’t think being rooted to the sidewalk and attracting attention would be something nice to add to our son’s repertoire of early childhood memories. But that was perhaps the first request my husband had made all week, so I agreed.
I looked through the spotless glass pane into the brightly lit marble-floored lobby. There I saw a strangely familiar sweet face. She was smiling like a cute little yellow and white flower that tempts you to pick it off a wild shrub. The soft, lightweight tiers of her silk skirt fluttered way above her lean, perfect knees as she sauntered across the lobby in honey-colored high heels. Two cheerful children, a boy and a girl, both wearing primary school uniforms, immediately skipped from the big tree beside the reception desk and flew like bees to join her. She bent over to embrace them fully, revealing so much of her Barbie legs that I wanted to switch off the scene so that it wouldn’t taint anyone’s memory, just as I wished I had done with the Walt Disney animation that Mason watched at a friend’s house – the one where a robot chops another robot to pieces.
Mason was using the mucus dripping from his nose to draw on the ground in front of his knees. I looked away, more interested in watching them through the glass as they chattered merrily. I peeked at Ben to see if he was also watching (he was). Well, I thought, that sweet face can’t possibly be very senior in her company.
I was a bit annoyed by the way her bountiful brown curls bounced against her shoulders and chest. She must have created them with a one-inch curling wand. I knew because I actually had that same magic wand, buried somewhere deep in my bottom drawer. Of course, that was her advantage as a working mother: a sexier presentation. But I get to witness every milestone of my son’s growth. Of course I know better than to compare myself with them: the working mothers.
“Haven’t you noticed anything different about me today?” Vanity spurted from my mouth.
Ignoring my son, whose growls had diminished but who was still kneeling, Ben dutifully scanned my face as if examining an ultrasound. “I know,” he said, “the ends of your eyebrows are drawn thicker than usual. You look more confident now.” He smiled, satisfied with himself.
Apparently, I had forgotten my tweezers lately. I could hear my angry stomach beating drums, but the certainty I heard in his tone agitated me more than anything else. I had my hair trimmed four inches before coming here.
“You don’t remember what my hair looked like before, do you?”
“Because it’s not a dramatic change,” he shrugged. Putting a hand softly on my elbow, he tilted his head to study my straight, shoulder-length bob. Then he offered helpful advice: “Long curly hair looks pretty, too. You can totally try that!”
Mason finally tired of kneeling on the street. He steadied himself to stand by holding onto my fat thigh, each of his hands still clasping a leaf stalk. It was at that same moment the sweet and familiar face and her happy children exited the building and walked toward us. Unmistakably chamomile. I could smell her artificial fragrance when she smiled and nodded at Ben—and, after a full ninety seconds, at me. (I swear it took her that long.) Her tame children smiled and nodded at us, too, before moving along down the street with her.
I was squinting, watching her bountiful curls retreat when Mason suddenly started running in their direction. He was calling Elva Bao (not her children, but her), “Yi-yi, you look! Look at my apple leaves!” The Pied Piper at least played a magic pipe to lure children away; she didn’t even lift a wicked green manicured finger! Before he caught their attention, I grabbed his skinny arm and put a hand over his mouth. In this moment of crisis, I resorted to whispering an offer of bribery in his ear: “Mason, I’ve brought your Pinocchio train.”
“Oh—I know who she is! She lives in our building!” I told Ben excitedly as we walked to our usual Ramen place, me gripping Mason’s hand to thwart his attempts at escape.
“Choo-choo!” His imaginary train wanted to run laps in the mall.
Ben instantly knew whom I was talking about. He said matter-of-factly, “Yes. She lives on the fiftieth or fifty-third floor—I remember it’s one of the upper floors. I see her in the elevators all the time.”
“I see. How come you never told me one of our neighbors works in your office building?”
Today—of course nothing extraordinary could happen today. I’ve been tired since I rose from bed. All I looked forward to that day was watching a Korean soap with Ben this evening.
That afternoon, I felt obliged to bring Mason to the red, rubberized running tracks on the ground level of our building. The tracks are sandwiched between the promenade, which stretches along the eastern section of Victoria Harbour, and the Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground.
“Apple leaves! I want to find apple leaves!” he declared. Before Mason starts running, he has this ritual of scouting the tracks for yellow apple-shaped leaves. I watched him from behind as he hunched his back and patrolled the area. This time it was easy: he conveniently found a few clean ones; one big, and one very small just a few feet west of the entry gate. They must have been blown from the line of Cuban Bast trees.
It is November, fall in Hong Kong, but it still felt like summer during the day. I was sitting on a bench beside the running tracks. I once heard a Canadian comedian say that women are always thinking about something, but I swear my mind was utterly blank as I gazed at a small wooden sampan drifting ahead of an enormous container ship in the harbour.
“Mama! Get on my train!”
Are you kidding me? I’m not moving from this bench.
“No, thank you, my sweet Mason. Mama is too tired.”
The moderate winds blowing off the water beat against Mason’s round face and lifted tufts of his hair into standing position. I looked at his back as he raced along the flat rubbery terrain of the tracks like a caveman chasing a hare. “Choo-choo!” His flying hair exaggerated his speed and I realized whenever I let him run wildly against the wind, I felt proud of myself: I saw the strong man he would become when he grew up.
It was only a year and a half ago that Ben and I marvelled at Mason’s first steps. Now he has become a powerful engine on which we want to put remote-controlled brakes. Several months ago, I would’ve recorded him running on a video but now, his running has become so mundane and natural to him, that more often than not I can’t be bothered with fumbling for my cell phone or carrying my camera.
We haven’t always been this lazy. We used to be diligent journalists, documenting his babyhood, his every observable first moment with our cell phones and cameras. And I have tried to document our psychological journey in the journal Ben gave me when I was expecting Mason. I love that journal, mostly because of its earth-coloured cover ornamented with a pair of pastel figurines, like those you’d see on a china bowl: a barefoot boy running on green grass ahead of his mother. But I don’t write in the journal anymore. Things have become increasingly trivial: Mason’s transition from safe-to-swallow toothpaste to fluoride toothpaste did not strike me nearly as exciting as the opening of a new local farmer’s market two blocks away.
Suddenly, the unstoppable caveman ground to a full stop in the middle of the tracks and looked up, poking the sky with his index finger. “Mama, Mama! I see the moon!”
I looked up idly and saw a white crescent in the pale blue, cloudless sky.
“Oh, right! That’s the moon!” I said, trying to sound excited though my fat bottom was still glued to the bench.
He chewed on my confirmation for a while, then let his jaw drop. “Mama, is it night now?”
“No. It is only afternoon now. The moon has come early. You see the sky is blue? When it’s night, the sky is black.”
“When it’s night, the sky is black,” he echoed quietly. I anticipated some “why” questions, but my little caveman sprinted off.
We should really have started for home by then, but he was so happy running, and he was singing because of his souvenirs. Each of his hands clasped a leaf stalk with all his fingers. When he was running from the side with the traffic view to the side facing Victoria Harbour, I saw Elva Bao again.
Elva Bao isn’t her real name. I made it up while I was slurping Ramen that night with Ben. I still don’t know her real name, and I was glad Ben didn’t either.
I saw her one other time, shortly after the Ramen night. Mason and I were sitting on a bench under the canopy of trees outside the new farmer’s market. It was early afternoon, so I figured she was either taking a day off, or she had become a housewife, too.
Mason and I were sharing a freshly baked egg waffle from a flimsy brown bag when Elva Bao passed by with her quiet company. I can’t recall what she was wearing, but I was stunned to see her bouncy, brown curls gone. Her newly short hair exposed her long, flat earlobes which, I believed, significantly weighed down her overall charm. An older woman who might have been her mother was holding Elva Bao’s daughter’s hand. Elva Bao had an arm wrapped around her older son’s shoulders. He was wearing a white face mask that covered his nose and mouth, like those frequently spotted in the city after it was ravaged by the 2003 SARs epidemic. Since then it had become a required gesture for anyone who caught the flu to wear the mask in public.
But Elva Bao’s son had not caught the flu. His little head was bald.
When I asked Ben later that night, I actually felt disappointed to hear he hadn’t seen her around lately. “If you’re so curious, you should befriend her next time,” he said simply.
When I saw Elva Bao come out to the play area today, I couldn’t help stealing a few quick peeks at her. I had to be cautious or she would catch me looking. I didn’t realize I was openly staring at her festive red winter tights until she caught my eyes and put on a good-spirited smile that stayed on her face.
Mason was still running laps, still holding onto the Mama and Mason apple leaves. (He names everything he doesn’t know after himself or me.) I was still sitting on the bench watching him. He ran from the street side to the harbour side, back and forth, back and forth. I was fine with letting him run as long as he could. It was warm without the winds. His sweaty hair now stuck to his forehead.
We didn’t know Elva Bao, but every time my unstoppable caveman passed by her, he braked his train to show her his souvenirs. “Look! These are fallen leaves I didn’t pick!” I had taught him picking flowers or leaves from living plants might kill the plants, so he remembered.
“That’s a good boy! They are beautiful!” she patted his head. Then he sprinted to the side with the traffic view to watch double-decker buses.
I stole another look at Elva Bao. She had put on makeup. The weather had yet to turn cold, but she was already wearing red winter tights that concealed her toned legs. Like her younger daughter’s outfit, hers seemed to be a preview of Christmas, even though it was still early into the season and our condominium hadn’t begun installing the decorations. They each had a Christmas tree-shaped green felt brooch pinned to the fronts of their sweaters. Elva Bao’s white knitted sweater was covered with blue snowflakes. Her short hair had grown to a bob that now covered her earlobes, though her bountiful, bouncy curls were still missing. Her son, who looked about eight, was wearing a blue knitted cable hat (its white brim nearly touched his eyes), a white Columbia down jacket, and a pair of faded blue jeans that looked baggy on his slender limbs. And the white mask again.
She was taking pictures of her son kicking an aged mini football with her daughter. The ball should have been white, but it had so many grey marks and scratches I thought he had probably played with it since he was Mason’s age. Sometimes she would let go of her camera and let it hang from her neck. Those were times when the three of them passed the ball gently back and forth. Or when she widened her stance to get ready for the big kicks he made with exaggerated movements. Whenever the mini football gingerly rolled between her brown boots, she raised her arms in the air. Yay! Celebrations! Her celebrations made her children laugh. But when he dribbled his aged football a few floor tiles away on the terrace, she quickly held up her camera again.
Those couldn’t be her boy’s first kicks, but what could her lens afford to miss? As if she could not trust her maternal memory, she snapped a few moments.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
A few more.
When I was small, my neighbor, an older girl also named Elva, taught me how to look strong: look up at the ceiling so your tears spread over your eyeballs and drip down all sides and not spill from your eyes. Now, I looked up to heaven and called to Mason, “The white moon is still there!” I tried to sound uplifting, not wanting my two-and-a-half year old to sense anything that might perplex him. He looked up, but this time he didn’t pause his running. The white moon! Choo-choo! His train flew down the track in no time, the pair of yellow apple-shaped leaves waving like flags.
What is the white crescent doing in the light blue sky? Doesn’t it know it isn’t night yet?
Each time he passed by Elva Bao and her children, Mason slowed. His big, round, curious eyes were more attracted to Elva Bao than to her children. Of course, she was radiant.
Perhaps my heart wouldn’t have ached if she had shown the slightest bit of resentment toward the white moon for sneaking into the day. But she is Elva Bao, the young mother who welcomed Christmas in November. Christmas — a present for her son.
I don’t even know her real name, but now I feel as if I understand her. What I want you to remember are love and happiness.
When Mason passed by her the ninth time, he tapped the air with the pair of yellow leaves as if playing drums to pitch in with her celebrations. Then the Mason apple leaf came loose and dropped to the ground. She bent down to pick it up for him. “Cute boy, what do you say?” she asked smiling.
“Thank you, Yi-yi.”
She patted him on his head again.
“Yi-yi, did you see me running down the slope?” he asked.
“Yes, I did! You’re amazing! I saw you running UP the slope as well!” She praised him warmly, pointing to a small incline on the terrace. She must have watched him, too.
Then she turned to me, “He’s adorable. He runs very fast.” Her smile was so genuine and beautiful.
I had some words trembling on my lips: Your boy will get better. Kids amaze you all the time. But I was too cowardly to say anything. When my little caveman’s train approached again, I sprang from the bench and put my hands on his shoulders and trailed along behind him.
Cindy is a Hong Kong Islander. She lives with her incredibly supportive husband and their three-year-old son. She is currently working on a collection of short stories set in Hong Kong.
Photo: Dave Chan