“Don’t you think she’s adorable?” Conversation floods around you in full, un-subtitled glory. Your father, normally stiff-limbed and red-faced, holds court over a pot of tea and Abbie gurgles in his arms. “Two such lovely daughters, isn’t your wife so fortunate?” A waiter squints at a receipt as he bumps into your table. There is a certain skill to trolley pushing: coaxing stubborn wheels around currents of conversation, peering between towers of bamboo steamers for gesturing fingers, navigating through slipstreams between tables. It’s a skill this poor man lacks.
Ignoring the chopsticks, you lean over the table and pick up a cha siu bun with your fingers. You can feel your father’s eyes on your face as you shove it into your mouth whole. The waxy paper you forgot to peel off sticks to the back of your throat and it feels like you’re drowning but there is protection in being public. At home, your father steps over loose Lego and Barbie dolls to wave a stained teacup in your face; summons you out of your room to point out the laundry powder spilled on the floor. Here, he turns his eyes away and hopes no one notices.
“How was school?” Your father asks the side of your face.
“Fine.” You’ve started seeing a psychologist but you’re also going to be valedictorian so fine is a good compromise.
“How was your Chemistry test?”
“Considering that I dropped Chemistry how do you think it went?” You whip your head around. “Do you even know which classes I’m taking?” His eyes are fixed on the road, trying to navigate between lanes of rushing traffic. Off the side of the freeway, a registration plate which reads DIX 452 clings hopefully to a crumpled bonnet of a car. Under normal circumstances, you would point it out to your father, except his eyes are darting between the cars ahead and Abbie, pinioned to the backseat with a cushion after you refused to hold her.
“I know I’m not a priority, anymore.”
You have learned how to turn words into weapons, a talent learned from your parents and whetted by years in a girls school. You know why they divorced each other. You can imagine why someone would divorce you as well.
Some old friend or other swans up to you, ready to ask what grade you’re in and comment on how much you’ve grown. A belt strangles his belly which jiggles in time with the mango pudding he’s holding. All you can think about is the wrapper pushed into a corner of your mouth, how dry your mouth is, how funny it would be if you coughed and the ball of paper shot out like a tiny cannonball and into his big, gaping nostril.
“Hello, Uncle.” Is this his second glass of wine? Likely third, by the pulsating red of his face. You were almost about to call him Grandfather, but he’s got the comb-over hairstyle diagnostic of denial. Your father appears, baby-less, as if summoned by your thoughts.
“Another daughter? Your eldest couldn’t have been happy with that decision.”
“Oh, they never asked me.” Your smile is blinding. Uncle laughs.
“It must be so much easier looking after the little one with her sister helping.”
Your father scoffs. “This one doesn’t know how to do anything around the house.” You shrug and sidle away from him.
“I plan on being so rich that I’ll never have to clean anything.” Uncle guffaws approvingly and shifts to face you, and now your father is outside the circle.
It was breathtaking, the way that waterfalls are supposed to be but never are – the air sucked out of the room as your whole world narrowed, blurred, and throbbed. Your body carries you through the rest of the afternoon: schoolbag dropped on the floor, bra unclasped, cheese that’s barely cheese sandwiched between white bread. You don’t expect a conversation. You didn’t get one when your mother left, you didn’t get one when your father remarried, you’re not going to get one before your stepmother pops out a kid, screaming through the wall of your study.
You move the book from the kitchen island to the side table. The woman’s nipples stare up at you vacantly, captioned with descriptions of lactation and cerebral development. The sandwich press beeps.
The promise of just ten minutes and we leave stretches into placations of soon then into hissed warnings of you’re being impolite. You aren’t, of course. You’ve spun out enough pretty stories to Aunties and Uncles, dripped out so much flattery and charm that sly quips are clucked over and now you’re just sitting, just politely sitting, in the corner.
It could be worse. You have a perfect view of the buffet table where every so often orthopaedic-shoed women gather to pick the carcass clean like vultures. Their floral sleeveless blouses form a perfect, zebra-stripe distraction as Prada bags open. One lady even brought a Tupperware box.
You’re so distracted by the water-hole that you don’t even notice the waiter come around again. You feel it before you can comprehend what’s happening: the thermos toppling over, a tongue of boiling water reaching for your lap, a cascade that you block with your hands, stupidly.
No sounds escape as your arms spasm. You’ve become so good at this that no-one in the restaurant notices. No-one turns around from their conversations. The waiter picks the thermos up from the floor and stumbles off with stuttered apologies.
You look up at the blurry, emptied buffet table. From what you’ve learned, it’ll be about four minutes before anyone realises, at least twelve before the kitchen brings out more platters.
Your father digs around the nappy bag he carries around everywhere now and passes you his car keys. Without seeing your hands, the wetness on your crotch could suggest something else and the nappy bag seems strangely appropriate.
Even wrapped in your sleeve, the dull edge of the car keys hurt your hands and you almost cry out when you slam the door shut. Inside, the heat smothers you like a blanket. The sun burns the inside of your eyelids red. The seatbelt scalds an almost soothing brand across your chest. This, you think, must be how plants in a solarium feel, or tiny ants under the magnifying glass of an omnipotent, imperial child. You hear the restaurant door swing shut. The crunch of gravel. The car door opens.
You’ve worked it down to a fine dance. The trick was to not respond to provocation – silence, calm, a gentle deflection, a pathetic but empty gaze. Behind you, your father settles Abbie, drowsy with sun and attention, into her seat. The breeze that wafts in unsticks your thighs from the leather seat, but you hold yourself still and stare straight ahead. He sinks into the driver’s side and the cushion lets out a small sigh.
“Catherine,” Your father hands you a crumpled napkin. “I got you one from the buffet table.”
You look down and see an egg tart, its melty custard a bright yellow centre of the paper napkin flower. There’s a photo of you taken on Chinese New Year more than a decade ago: you’re asleep in your dad’s arms, open mouth ringed with gooey crumbs. You didn’t notice they had any today.
He turns on the air conditioner and you drive.
Milly Chen lives in Melbourne. She has paid hundreds of dollars in library fines over the course of her life. She writes about her feelings.