Mom and I wake up at 8 am. Her, naturally. Me, by alarm. There’s a chill in the air, a fresh and promising one. I put on a sweater. I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and practice my smile. I look older, it scares me, I keep looking. Mom lets me comb through her jewelry box. Shiny things from Dad, Grandma, exes. I pick out small silver hoops. She tells me they look nice on me. Dainty.
Downstairs, Dad is watching TV - the news. This just in, a murder, a burglary, five fantastic new Bay Area cookbooks. Skipper sleeps beside him, tuckered from his morning walk. We’re going shopping soon, I announce. Nordstrom’s. I ask Dad if he wants to come, even though I already know the answer. Not me, he says, scooping Skipper into his lap. He wags the dog’s paw up and down in a goodbye motion. Have fun. Use the VISA Card for points.
We take the Civic. Mom drives; I haven’t gotten used to driving on the right side of the road again. We listen to Top 40 on the radio. Mom sings off-key, the wrong lyrics, laughs at herself. I pretend to be annoyed. The corners of my lips betray me. We park on the second level of the parking garage. Don’t forget to beep the car, I call out. I mean lock, but my family says beep.
Downtown Walnut Creek is waking up. I pass other girls chaperoned by their mothers, younger than me, school-age, wearing leggings and tiny tops under sherpa jackets. I used to be embarrassed to hang out with my mom. Now, I’m grateful. It’s different when you’re both adults, it’s better. We walk by Crate & Barrel. Mom reminds me that she used to work there. I remember, I say plainly, then soften my tone. That’s why all our plates are from there.
In Nordstrom’s, everything smells clean and glows fluorescent white. I trace my finger over glossy cosmetic cases, careful to retreat before the sales attendants latch onto me. I slide squeaky hangers across the rack, check the tags for prices. It’s all expensive and I don’t need it. I go to the shoe rack, try on heels, attempt to walk. The shoes pinch and I wobble. I put my sneakers back on. I look for Mom, briefly mistake every black head of hair for her. When we reunite, she asks if I found anything I want. I shake my head. She assures me that I can get anything at all, her treat. I shake my head again. Really, there’s nothing. At the cash register, she buys a dress. Do you want to share it? We can both fit. I can’t imagine that we’ll ever live close enough to share closets again, but she sounds so enthusiastic that I say Maybe.
It’s lunchtime. I miss American bistro dining and want to go to the Nordstrom Cafe. Mom obliges. I order a grilled cheese with tomato soup and a sparkling lemonade. I expect Mom to comment on my sugar intake, but she doesn’t. She orders a salad - dressing on the side. She dips a fork into it and dabs it sparingly onto the lettuce. Conversation is light, safe. We start sentences with Did you know? and Have I told you about? I hear about her friends’ vacations, so-and-so at work. I tell her about Japan, my funniest students. Only pleasantries today. Our time is so short, we’re careful not to spoil it. Mom boxes the rest of her salad to take home. I mention her weight, which is too low. I’m gaining! she assures me, grips the flesh around her bicep as proof.
Mom asks if I want to get boba before heading back. She’s not ready for the day to end. I say yes. She gets plain milk tea, zero sugar, zero ice, pearls. She will take three sips, then stick it in the fridge to finish over the course of a week. She orders my dad the same drink, but with 30% sugar. I get earl grey milk tea, 50% sugar, 50% ice, pearls and egg pudding. It tastes like how I remember. On the drive back, I stay off my phone just in case Mom wants to talk. But she doesn’t, so I gaze at my hometown through the passenger window. There goes the Target, the gas station, the burger joint.
The car pulls into the driveway, bobs over bumps in a familiar pattern. Dad opens the front door and Skipper rushes out, tail wagging, nails scratching against the concrete in a frantic prance for attention. Dad accepts his drink and says I can feed Skipper a boba pearl, so I do. Skipper does this funny thing where he rubs his nose into the ground, then splays out on his side and thrashes all his limbs like he’s running. It makes us all laugh. Why does he do that? Dad shakes his head in amusement, smiles a wide grin. Mom imitates Skipper’s movements in a goofy dance. Boba and dogs, these are the peacemakers.
In the living room, the TV is still on. The evening news: drought, car crash, inflation. Dad switches the channel to K-drama: tears, forgiveness, sa-rang-hae. He asks cheekily, What’s for dinner? I can tell he wants to go out, but we are full from the boba and handfuls of mixed nuts fished from the Costco plastic tub. By the time we peel ourselves off the couch, the prime dining hours have passed. Leftovers, then. I microwave them, Vietnamese meatloaf and chayote squash. Dad makes rice. My sister will drive up from the South Bay tomorrow; we’ll eat out then. Dad tells me about all the restaurants that opened in my absence. A really good Taiwanese one and a new fried chicken place too. It’s spicy for real. Mommy couldn’t handle it but you probably can. I get to choose the restaurant since I’m the one visiting.
When I wake up the next day, detergent-scented steam is billowing out of the mesh slat next to the garage. Dad calls me upstairs to fold my laundry, but by the time I arrive, he has already finished folding it for me. I take Skipper for a walk down the same streets I did as a child, back when I still scolded every wayward sniff. Today I let him meander as he pleases. My sister arrives. We discuss grown-up talking points like climate change and the gig economy. We do not mention all the years we spent upsetting one another.
Dad drives the family to dinner in the BMW. On the way, Mom reminds us that in the case of a house fire, we should prioritize saving Dad over her. My sister pretends to be scandalized. Mommy, don’t say that! Dad chides, Tiffany, what’s the matter with you? I stay silent, I think Mom’s right, she knows that. She smiles cheekily, subdued but satisfied with her exclamation, and I understand exactly where I got my ill-timed, unprompted honesty from.
Dinner is family-style, delicious, and steaming hot. We order too much. Dad encourages me to Eat more, finish the plate! and Mom encourages me to Eat in moderation, you know Daddy’s family has high blood pressure. I listen to both of them, stuff myself past satiation, pay attention to the pitfalls of too much of a good thing.
At night, I wander into my parents’ room after brushing my teeth. Dad is in the bathroom. Mom is wearing her metal-rimmed eyeglasses and holding her phone too close to her face. She asks for a hug. I give her one. It’s bony and loose. She asks if I want to sleep with her tonight. I decline. I’m way too old, not old enough yet. I wish I was selfless enough to say yes, but I am not. Goodnight Brit, I love you. Goodnight Mom, love you too. Don’t do stupid things, yeah? Yeah. Remember you are a smart girl. Okay, goodnight. Goodnight.
I lie in my childhood bed and notice the ceiling feels low. I must be bigger now, or at least my world is. I pull the blanket around me tightly, wrap myself in the best parts of why I left in the first place. I feel swaddled by my parents’ consistency, by the perfect, eerie unchangedness of home. Elsewhere, I am a woman, an adult, a decision-maker. Here, I am a baby - clueless, fumbling, inchoate. Here, I am the baby daughter forever.