“He is just not normal, Janice.”
Janice didn’t look up from her mug. She hated the way Chinese composed the term for “normal” out of two characters—one that meant square, or worse, box; the other common. 正常—zhèngcháng. As far as Janice was concerned, “zhèngcháng” didn’t deserve use. She would reply her mother in English. She would stick stubbornly to the language her mother resented because it made her children foreign, and disobedient, and inscrutable. Janice would do this because it was what she always subconsciously did whenever she and her mother were positioned at opposite end of the kitchen counter, with an argument in between, waiting to happen.
The small kitchen—yellow walls, pans and mugs in their respective huddles, corners gently cluttered—gleamed with late morning light. The light hadn’t taken offense when neither Janice nor her mother showed any signs of planning to venture outside, to enjoy more than the way rays that played on wood paneling. Inside was manageable gleam; but outside would be a different story.
“What makes you say that, Mom? He’s ten. There is no normal when you’re ten.” And this is probably the ninetieth time we’ve had this conversation.
Janice could see her mother frowning at this English—this “normal.” She knew her mother’s first recollection of the word still came from Taipei Normal University, the school where her friends had gone in order to become teachers. The curl of the “r” in the middle of that bizarre English word still gave her cause to avoid having to repeat it.
Janice could tell her mother would hold her ground, her normal. Neither of them loved the back-and-forth English-Chinese miscomprehension, but it was better than feeling like you had no chance of having the upper hand.
“妳是什麼樣的大姐啊, Janice?” Yeah, what kind of an older sister are you, Janice? “Benny is eleven, you careless girl. His birthday was February 8. Not even a month ago.”
“It’s because I still remember his age by counting down twelve from mine, and I don’t turn twenty-three till July.” Janice knew that reasoning with numbers did not trip her mother up, in any language.
“I know when your birthday is,” Her mother replied stiffly. “I know when all of your birthdays are. I am not careless.”
“Yeah, clearly, yes, Ma,” Janice spun her empty mug around in her hands. “But why are you griping about Benny again? He’s fine.”
“He is not fine!” Mom suddenly barked, causing Janice nearly to miss the mug coming out of its spin. “He is failing! Everything!”
“He’s not failing. You can’t fail when you’re in fifth grade, Mom. They don’t even give out letter grades.”
“He doesn’t do sports—I try to bring him to do sports—he doesn’t even like art class or piano class or anything—I try to bring him to do all of those things—”
“Mom! Give him a break! He’s ten!”
“Give him a break,” Mom mimicked those four whiny, unfamiliar syllables, before launching back into her evidence. “I try and I call my friends and I look online and I call the teachers and I sign him up and I do it over and over and over again—”
“He’s a healthy, kind-hearted kid,” Janice could hear herself getting close to bellowing now. “Why do you never see that in your kids—”
“And after your father went and got him a saw for his birthday, all he does is come from home from school and stay in the garage and cut up plywood and say that he’s building things! I don’t think he even has friends!”
Janice plunked her forehead down on the counter, on her hands. “I am sick and tired of this conversation, Ma. Why do you have to be so…” She stopped herself.
Mom peered in close, so her voice came almost directly from above Janice’s ear. “So what, Janice? I am so? So?”
So limited. So predictable. So stuck.
“You know nothing about him, Mom,” Janice gritted her teeth.
The silence hung.
In that finally-cleared-out space, the proverbial calm before the storm, Janice almost felt vindicated. In normal life, in English or Chinese, she didn’t like using absolutes in speaking—nothing, everything, always, never. But somehow, when talking to her mother, all of that flew out the window. Her mother’s understanding of the world operated only in absolutes, so these were necessary generalizations. They were means to ends. They did not betray her deep commitment to nuance, and ambiguity, and subjectivity—especially when shrouded in pages of what she’d been taught to recognize as literature. English literature.
In the slow silence, Janice took a closer look at her mother’s face. Her posture, her narrow shoulders, her hands with nails that had never grown long in her life. Mom was understandably offended. With those never-manicured, always-moving hands, Mom braced herself against the countertop tiles she despised so much, ever since a guest had commented that they made the kitchen look “quaint.” She looked down.
“I-I—know nothing about m-my own son?” Mom finally sputtered so noisily that Janice knew it was genuine. She started quickly mapping out a way to backpedal. “I—who gave birth to him and raised him—and made sure he was always learning—where were you all those years he was learning to read and write in cursive at school? You were off at college; that’s where you were.” Mom spat out the word “college.” As if the privilege and achievement of being at college could quickly unravel in other directions as soon as Janice shifted to just plain old having-been there.
“Oh, no, no, I meant it differently-la, Ma,” Janice could hear her own voice lightening, stretching, encompassing more space and air as she switched into Chinese, and let her vocabulary collapse into itself. “ ‘You know nothing’— that means something different in English.”
The mention of things lost in translation always managed to distract Mom. They lived in those losses, but rarely discussed them directly. Janice knew that she and her mother did, at least, share this curiosity for language.
Mom suddenly looked relieved, her face settling back from its once-in-a-while bewilderment into its usual, nervous unsettledness.
“What does it mean in English?” She asked.
“Oh, you know,” Janice began randomly tidying up the counter around her, just to have some reason to keep her hands moving. Always moving. “It means more like, ‘沒事— méishì—you have nothing to worry about.’ Nothing is a good thing. In English.”
Mom knew when to back down when sufficiently confused, or impressed. “Crazy,” she said in Chinese. 神經病. Shénjīng bing. When directly translated, Janice always thought the term for “crazy” sounded like “nerve disease.”
“Well, I want you to work with Benny on his spelling today, when he gets back from school,” Mom said, taking a reconciliatory step away from the counter. “He doesn’t want me in the room when he does spelling homework anymore. So I’m going to go meet the remodeling agent.”
Never mind that she was in grad school, and free afternoons were so hard to come by that sometimes she didn’t know what to do with one when it did come along. On this miracle of a Tuesday afternoon, Janice drove to Juniper Creek Elementary and waited at the curb while avoiding meaningful rearview mirror eye contact with the well-groomed woman in the car behind her. The last thing she needed today was to be sucked into a conversation with a quintessential soccer mom—actually, more of a ballet mom. Maybe a Math Olympiad mom, the kind who made her kids take French in preschool and eat quinoa and pomegranates as an after-school snack.
Janice tapped the steering wheel and traced its sloping outlines, just to look rushed, for nobody in particular to see. She picked up her phone to scroll meaninglessly for a few minutes before Benny emerged into view, even though she didn’t want to be on her phone these days, anyway. The accumulation of emails was starting to drive her insane.
Janice, this is Professor Kane – your dissertation advisor just informed me that you haven’t been showing up to meetings or replying her emails. I must say, I’ve always known you to be a most reliable communicator and responsible student…
Hey Miss Janice, this is Kim in the Lit Theory 134 class you’re TA-ing? I was wondering if you could ask the Professor for me if I can get an extension?
Janice, look at this article on literary onomastics I just read for my Faulkner class!! It reminds me of that class with Schroeder we took as sophomores. UGH I LOVE CAMBRIDGE SO MUCH. ENGLAND IS MAGICAL. YOU WOULD’VE LOVED IT TOO. SOMETIMES I STILL GET SO MAD THINKING ABOUT HOW YOU CHOSE BERKELEY OVER CAMBRIDGE but okay okay I promised I’d get off your back about this; I’m sure you’re doing fabulous things back home. Miss you xoxo – Wendy
Dear Valued Customer, Thank you for choosing Horizon Publishing for all your educational curriculum needs! Would you take the time to review your recent order of “FUN WITH PHONICS, GRADE 5”…
Janice dropped her phone onto the emergency brake with a clatter. “Benny! Why do you always do that! You scared me!”
“Yessss!” Benny crowed, pausing on the sidewalk to put both fists up in a victory stance before clambering into the passenger seat. “It’s so easy to scare you, I just have to plan it right; you’re like more of a scaredy-cat than the girls in my class.”
Janice couldn’t help smiling as she clipped Benny’s nose between her knuckles and gave it a quick, light shake. He let out an exaggerated wail without trying to pull away.
They both laughed, and Benny buckled himself in. They pulled away from the tightly packed Juniper Creek Elementary sidewalk, to join the traffic.
“So? Your three things?”
Instead of asking “how was school,” Janice and Benny had a system. Benny loved listening to the radio, which no one except Janice was ever willing to turn on in the car. (Dad liked silence or classical music, and Mom oscillated unpredictably between parenting sermons, Chinese opera, dramatized “history for kids” tapes, and her favorite angst-filled CDs from college.)
But Janice didn’t want to drown out all chance of conversation by listening to the radio, so they made a rule: before they could turn on the radio, Benny had to tell three things about his day that day. Janice sometimes only had three clues to try and decode the life of her little brother. Usually Benny had already been thinking of his three things as he made the trek from his classroom to the curb, so he could rattle them off practically in one breath. Today was not one of those days.
“I had such a boring day,” Benny whined. “There’s nothing to tell you. Well, except that Tiffany found this gross old slice of salami that was inside her desk for like ten million weeks, so it’s all green and fuzzy now.”
“Ugh—that is disgusting.” Janice shuddered. “But definitely not boring. What else?”
“I had noodles for lunch.”
“That sounds yummy. Where did you eat?”
Benny tended to give vague answers whenever this came up. “Oh, tables.” He quickly looked out the window.
“Did you eat with anyone?”
“I couldn’t find Patrick.”
“I think Patrick doesn’t really eat lunch at the tables.”
“Where does he eat lunch, then?”
“Maybe the tetherball court. I went once, but I don’t like tetherball. Someone knocked over my lunch, but I think it was just an accident.” Benny took his lunchbox out of his backpack and held it with both hands.
Janice didn’t quite know how to look at her little brother right then, so she took her time turning on the left-turn signal.
“Did you eat with anyone?” Benny asked, suddenly mischievous.
Janice laughed in response, a little too sharply. “No, no.”
“Mom said that in college, boys and girls eat together all the time. At school, I can’t even put my napkin on the girl’s table without having someone chase me.” Benny chuckled a little, until he saw Janice wasn’t laughing.
Janice slid the car to a halt, just a few inches past the stop sign. The crossing guard glared, a little brighter than her neon green vest. “Yeah, boys and girls eat at the same table outside of college too, Benny-boy. I’m a girl and you’re a boy, and we eat at the same table every night.”
“Not every night. More like once every 14 nights.”
Janice’s head turned so quickly at this that she felt the base of it crack a little. “I eat at home way more often than that! What are you talking about, Benny!”
Benny shrugged. “Mom said you have to eat with a boy, so you only eat at home once in like a fortnight or something.”
“Fortnight!” Janice laughed. “Where did you learn a big-kid word like that? We don’t use the word ‘fortnight’ anymore, Benny. Not in this century, I don’t think.”
“I saw it in one of your grad school books, so I looked it up.” Benny explained solemnly. “Fortnight means two weeks. Fourteen nights.”
“Why were you looking through my grad school books—wait, really? Two weeks? Not two months?” Some ex-English major I am.
“Yep. I keep track of my fortnights now.” Benny sat up straighter, flattened by the seatbelt. “A fortnight ago, I finished reading Eragon.”
Before Janice could ask if that had been a good book, Benny continued, “Do you remember what happened to you a fortnight ago?”
“Ah.” Two weeks.
The light turned from green back to red, and they were stuck on this side of the intersection.
Has it been two weeks? Already? Get a grip, Janice.
“Yeah? Anything?” Benny hadn’t lost his serious expression.
Oh, just this idiot who used to take up way too much of my mind, schedule, and heart for a few too many months; he bowed out without so much as a goodbye. Nothing much, Benny.
Janice gritted her teeth and leaned forward so her chin almost touched the steering wheel. How could she begin saying anything—nothing, everything—to this serious-eyed fifth-grader brother who went through her grad school books when she wasn’t looking?
“Nothing,” she replied aloud. “I mean, according to Mom, that might have been the last time I ate at home.” Janice gave Benny’s shoulder a halfway-playful shove. “Well, Benny the genius boy? Can you prove Mama’s theory that I eat at home only every fortnight?” She took on a bad British accent for the last three words, and Benny smiled, finally.
“No, I believe Mom’s theory is wrong.” He imitated the accent back at her, resting an index finger on his chin. “You ate at home last night.”
“And the night before that. And the night before that before that.”
“And you’re going to eat at home tonight, too?”
“You betcha,” Janice grabbed Benny’s hand, marveling at how big it had gotten. He didn’t squirm away from it as he did in public. “Mom is making salmon. In fact, we have to make a stop at grocery store on the way home, because she ran out of her special sauce.” She frowned, remembering. “Actually, Benny, can you hand me the yellow shopping list in my bag?”
Still strapped into his seatbelt, Benny wriggled just far out enough of his seat to grab Janice’s slouchy, slightly scuffed messenger bag from the backseat. He settled it on his lap and plucked out a handful of crinkled notepaper sheets, all yellow. “This one?”
“I can’t look right now, Benny, I have to switch lanes—what does it say at the top? ‘Barbecue sauce?’”
“No. It says ‘An ode to all this. I cannot seem to operate—”
“Benny, not that one!” Suddenly panicking in the slightest, most irrational way, Janice grabbed at random from the small stack in Benny’s hands, only catching a few, none of them containing what she most wanted to tear away. “I told you! The one that looks like a shopping list! Geez, is that so hard? Why do you never listen, and you always go through my stuff?!”
Benny’s face crumpled with no sign of defensiveness, even as he said, “You didn’t tell me that. You told me to read the top to see if it said ‘barbecue sauce.’”
Janice closed her eyes for a brisk, and sharply helpless moment. There wasn’t enough air in the car for all of the confused guilt to land safely. There wasn’t enough room in the world for anything of hers to land safely. There was just her carelessness, her intermittent memory, her tapping the steering wheel and then—soon—she’d snap.
Janice opened her eyes again. They hadn’t crashed, although Benny looked concerned. She guided the car to round a corner.
“You’re right, Benny. I’m the one who asked you to read it out loud to me.”
“Is it personal stuff? If it’s personal stuff, I won’t read it. I don’t read all of your stuff when you’re not looking. Just the stuff that looks boring.” Benny smiled with a scrunch, so it was like both of his eyes winking at the same time.
He was trying to cheer her up. Her fifth-grader little brother, whom she had just lost her temper at for simply doing as he was told, whom Mom tried to call “not normal” in all the languages of fight, and try, and worry—this little brother was trying to make things okay.
They pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store. Janice smiled back belatedly, uncertainly. “I’m sorry for screaming at you, Benny. That was stupid of me.”
“You didn’t scream,” Benny said as he unbuckled himself. “You just got a little yell-y.”
“Did I sound like Mom?”
Benny paused, his hand resting on the door handle. “A little.”
Janice’s next words came out small, tight. “I don’t…want to.”
Benny considered this. He sat back against the passenger seat again. “Why did you write ‘an ode to all this?’”
“Oh, Benny.” Janice let her head fall back. She closed her eyes again. “It’s a really bad ode. Do you know what an ode is?”
“It’s a lyric poem. You’re supposed to sing it.”
“Did you learn that from one of my grad school books, too?”
“Why can’t you ‘seem to operate’?”
“I think you take me more seriously than anyone else, Benny-boy.” Janice felt the familiar, sour tingling in her nose. She willed herself not to get weepy—not in the car, not in the grocery store parking lot, not in front of Benny like this.
“What is it like when you…” Benny checked the page Janice hadn’t managed to snatch away. “When you ‘cannot seem to operate?’”
No amount of will, or excuse, or dismissal could keep the tears manageably inside anymore. Janice wanted to grab her bag, rearrange things in it, jingle her keys, drum her fingertips on the steering wheel if only just to keep moving. But something about Benny and his question, asked while holding her crumpled yellow notepaper in both small hands, made her stay still.
“What is it like? Well, um.” Janice looked ahead through the windshield before swiveling around to look at Benny. His eyes didn’t dart away, like they did when she asked about where he ate lunch.
“It feels like a lot of things, Benny. That’s why I had to write a whole…ode.” Janice laughed at herself. “I don’t know how to tell you.”
“Then…can I read it?”
Janice’s thoughts whizzed over this possibility, scurrying around to check whether there was anything in there a fifth grader really shouldn’t read. There wasn’t. It was just lame, and sad. She gave him a nod.
As Benny read it silently—he spared her the embarrassment of hearing her words aloud—Janice recited the lines in her head.
An ode to all this.
I cannot seem to operate / the way I’ve grown accustomed to
I’m tired of getting to know people, before I even begin
If the weeks have been long and sore and careless, and I’m wrought all wrong
If I had no clue in the slightest why I was still holding out for you
If I could survive in new spirals of busyness and if I could stave off grief and misstep and feeling too close to too much
I would be reeling upon seven months of trying to make sense of one person
And being quietly torn apart, and never having my say
Did you know how much I tried to keep myself from changing? Yet it all did slip and shift soon enough, and the losing carried with it soft and comforting listlessness, and made my heart shut down in sections
I did wonder if we were right for each other.
I did wonder if I’d ever feel at home with you.
I did wonder if this has dragged on too long.
I just didn’t wonder if we were both letting it drag on because of that curious satisfaction in how it doesn’t satisfy.
“You don’t have to understand all of it, Benny. Or any of it. I know, it’s so weird. Your sister is so weird.”
“No, it’s not that weird.” Benny looked down at his hands. “I don’t get all of it, though. You use some big words weirdly.”
Janice’s laugh burst out, like it had been anxiously waiting for a while. “Oh my gosh, you’re not supposed to get it, Benny-boy. You’re in fifth grade. I would be kind of scared if you could get all of it.”
“But I kind of get a little part of it.” He smiled up at Janice. “The part about being ‘wrought all wrong.’ Like Mom says, 不正常—bù zhèngcháng.”
Janice realized a little belatedly that Benny had just said “not normal” in Chinese. In the same half-whisper, the same staccato intonations she had just pelted back with English disdain that morning.
Benny smoothed out a corner of the yellow notepaper, then handed it back. “I’m sorry he—this person hurt your feelings.” He squirmed a little in his seat, and before Janice could wonder aloud at how much Benny actually did or did not know, Benny blurted in a rush: “I think it’s okay if you don’t feel… ‘zhèngcháng.’”
As if suddenly embarrassed or restless or both, Benny bolted from the car. Janice had to scramble to jump out, lock the car, and catch up to him at the automatic sliding doors of the grocery store. When she did, and scooped up his hand in hers, even though they were in public, Benny didn’t squirm away, Janice asked the only thing she could think of just then, to mean a little of—everything.
What’s the third thing you’re supposed to tell me from today?
Libby Kao, a current junior at Mount Holyoke, is studying English Literature, Asian American Studies and describes herself as pre-law. She’s also unwittingly called herself a writer since her kindergarten days. In years since, she attended the Iowa Young Writer’s Workshop and has developed an interest in writing creatively to contribute to the Asian American/U.S. minority literary archive. After graduating, Libby plans to either attend law school or pursue a graduate degree in transnational or comparative literature with a focus in race studies or sociology. Libby loves to sing, work as a peer writing mentor, serve in her Christian faith community, and rotate among different delightful coffee shops in the Pioneer Valley.
Libby served as Biography Editor for the 2016 Blackstick Review.