The drip of dozens of IV bags sounded like the patter of rain, a steady beat over the scratch of pencils at Little Genius. The teenagers at the tutoring center in Cupertino bent over their worksheets didn’t gossip, didn’t text, and didn’t fidget while hooked to the silvery lines with the ghostly look of jellyfish trailing their tentacles.
The motion detector chimed over the front door, and as Mama Fang rushed into the reception area, she found a woman impatiently tapping her credit card against the counter. Classes were full, Mama Fang announced. “But I can add you to the wait list.” She knew what the mother would ask next: how long? “One year.” One year in which her child would fall further behind, one year in which rivals would vault ahead with the miracle study aid that Mama Fang had introduced to Silicon Valley. One single year that would determine the entire fate of her child: which university, which profession, which spouse, and thus which grandchildren. One year without the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals supplied through the IV that enabled the students at Little Genius to study longer and harder, to ward off and recover from colds, to sharpen their eyes and to brighten their skin.
The mother drew herself up. “Xiao Jie”—Little Miss—“when will your boss be in?”
Xiao Jie, as if Mama Fang were pushing a cart at a dim sum restaurant, as if she weren’t at least twenty years older than this woman, as if she were still the household help sleeping in a room off the kitchen in Hong Kong. Mama Fang nodded, her expression proud and disdainful, to indicate that she was in fact the owner. The customer’s imperious reserve crumpled after realizing she’d treated the proprietor so dismissively.
“I can pay the full amount now,” she said, thrusting forward her credit card while extolling her son, his obedience and his brilliance.
Mama Fang did not move, did not say a word, and the mother offered twice, then three times the class fee to move her son higher on the wait list.
Leaning over the counter, Mama Fang lowered her voice. “There’s a special cash price.”
By the time the mother left—left and returned from a trip to the bank to withdraw funds—Mama Fang had pocketed four thousand dollars, and it wasn’t yet noon.
In China, patients demanded IV drips of antibiotics and fluids, not willing to wait to heal on their own from colds or the flu. If they felt run-down, they stopped by clinics for instant health and vitality, an idea that was spreading in the United States. First in Chinese neighborhoods, and now among Americans, Hollywood stars and the rich who wanted hangover cures.
Mama Fang’s inspired new idea had been to offer services to students worn out by the competitive grind they’d faced since their parents began comparing their first steps and their first words to those of their peers. Parents who spent without restraint so their proxies, their children, could get ahead.
After putting away the cashier’s check from the pleading mother, Mama Fang washed her hands under a cloud of antibacterial soap harsh enough to wear enamel off a pan. Her skin had chapped, cracked as if she were once again scrubbing household laundry.
In her pocket, her mobile phone buzzed. She dried off her hands and strode to her office, hoping her investor, Uncle Lo, was calling her back. For weeks, he’d been ignoring her calls. With the Spring Festival approaching, maybe he was giving her a chance to clear old debts. Three months ago, authorities had shut down Perfume Bay, their five-star accommodations that housed pregnant women from China giving their children American citizenship. Neighbors had complained to police about the frequent turnover of pregnant women—a brothel in reverse—and the stink from the industrial-sized trash cans overflowing with diapers.
During the pre-dawn raid, the sound of heavy pounding reverberated through the house, the front door shook, and then the men in black uniforms and helmets burst in. Babies cried without end. The guests had to submit to an hours-long interrogation. Within the week, Perfume Bay had been condemned as structurally unsound, the regrettable outcome of an unlicensed contractor and unpermitted renovations. Mama Fang had to refund her guests, in addition to covering their meals and hotel stays until they returned home to China and Hong Kong. Uncle Lo had lost his entire investment, but even worse, he’d lost face to all the clients he’d referred to Perfume Bay.
“Any news?” he asked.
News about Daisy and Scarlett, the guests who’d stolen the Perfume Bay van, setting off much misfortune. If his detectives couldn’t find them, how could she?
“The newspaper,” Mama Fang said. “Advertise in the classifieds of your newspaper, in all the Chinese newspapers. Offer a reward.”
Uncle Lo couldn’t hide his scorn. “You think they’re telling people their names? Why not hire a skywriter?”
“Offer her a reward,” Mama Fang said. “So much she can’t refuse.”
Silence, not the click of a hang-up. Her heart lurched. “Money makes the mare go,” she added. A proverb, of the kind he used to teach her, long ago in Hong Kong. “Even a nag like Scarlett.”
“Call me if you hear something,” he barked and hung up.
Forty years ago, before he became Uncle Lo, he’d been Young Master and she was the amah, the cook-maid. The Lo family hadn’t been rich, but rich enough to keep an amah, and rich compared to the Fangs, refugees from China. In the early 1970s, cheap maids from Indonesia and the Philippines were starting to arrive in Hong Kong, like a great twittering flock swept off-course in a typhoon. Mrs. Lo, who believed Chinese were more hardworking, devoted, and virtuous, continued to hire local amahs like Mama Fang.
Mama Fang had a heavy hand with the soy sauce, was sloppy with the wash, and left streaks on the window glass, but Mrs. Lo marveled at the market bill—half of what she used to pay! Mama Fang had known that saving her mistress money would redeem her failings in the household arts.
The Los’ amahs in the past must have been cozy with certain meat and vegetable stalls, getting a kickback, but Mama Fang passed the savings on to her employer. After Mrs. Lo bragged about her thrifty maid to her friends, Mama Fang told her about bargains offered by other vendors—those in partnership with the stalls where she shopped. By driving additional sales, Mama Fang negotiated deeper discounts.
She gathered information through gossip and observation, and made connections others did not. By providing favors, she put everyone in debt to her—the market vendors, the shop owners, Mrs. Lo and her friends—and she enjoyed that, too. Mama Fang became greater than the toil of her hands alone.
No one had expected much from a girl like her. Her mother had died in childbirth, and from early on, Mama Fang had taken care of herself and her father. Even then, she’d been known as Mama Fang because of the children she minded while their parents toiled. She hitched them onto her back, knotted rags into dolls, and braided strings around their wrists. Each time, they grew up and left her.
Soon after she started working for the Lo family, Young Master set off firecrackers underneath the stools of a noodle shop because he’d spied the owner using cooking oil skimmed out of the gutter. He had fancied himself a bandit-hero, defending the people. The downtrodden remained exotic to Young Master, who hadn’t yet learned to ignore the lives of servants outside of their duties. To probe too deeply meant uncovering circumstances that might disrupt smooth household operations.
At fourteen, he was two years younger than Mama Fang, and like her, he was an only child. Although Mrs. Lo might have wanted more children, giving birth must have hollowed her out. In the laundry, which revealed the household’s every bodily secret, Mama Fang found no evidence Mrs. Lo bled each month. At least she had survived delivery, unlike Mama Fang’s mother. The yearning for her mother never left Mama Fang, though the shape of that want changed over the years. As a child, she longed for hands to plait her hair and for arms to wrap around her in the dark. As a teenager, she wished for her mother’s advice on her new curves and the attentions they drew from men. Her body felt like a stranger’s—was it becoming like her mother’s?
Mama Fang couldn’t imagine her mother at sixteen, one year from meeting the man she would marry and three years from dying in childbirth. Even if she could have traveled back in time, for a chance to pass her mother in the street, she wouldn’t have warned her. She wouldn’t have stopped her death, because it led to Mama Fang’s life. It might seem heartless, but she valued her own existence more, and she would never lose herself to any person, to any man or child. She had to watch out for herself. No one else had, or ever would. She did not know then that this vow would harden her. If you only looked out for cheats and con artists, you only found cheats and con artists. You became one yourself.
That afternoon, the mother who’d struck a deal with Mama Fang returned with her eight-year-old son. He twitched in his mother’s lap, ignoring the educational cartoon playing on a computer tablet. He couldn’t take his eyes off the IV needle.
“You want to see it?” When Mama Fang showed him the coiled tubing, the boy stared as if it were a cobra about to strike. Inserting the IV properly was akin to making an entrance onstage, demonstrating that Mama Fang was a skilled professional. As he stroked the plastic with his finger, his shoulders relaxed, and in his eyes, the tubing turned harmless and silly. “See how it’s hooked to Big Brother and Big Sister?” she asked, pointing out the other students. He nodded with hesitation, and then pride, to be counted among them.
She took the boy’s arm, gently massaging the flesh to make the veins stand out. A little darling, with the vitality of a tadpole.
Her hands felt weaker than usual. She hooked the IV fluid onto the rack, careful not to puncture the bag hanging above the boy; flushed the line, driving the bubbles out; and tied on the tourniquet. She told the boy to flex, pumping her own arm to demonstrate. She grunted with a bodybuilder’s might, which often made first-time students laugh. Not this one. The boy shivered under the swipe of alcohol, the chill raising goose pimples, and whined from the swipe of numbing cream.
“This will hurt, just a little. A tiny pinch.” Mama Fang tugged at the thin skin on the boy’s forearm, taut with tendons and blue veins. Children wanted honesty, in appearance, if not actuality. Her heart was racing. When she tried to take a deep breath, she realized she was panting. She’d had too many cups of tea this morning. Her hands trembled so much she almost dropped the needle. Steady—steady. Here—no there—twice she stuck the boy with the needle. His mother protested.
“Keep him still,” Mama Fang ordered sharply. She poked through a vein, blood pooling under the skin into a thundercloud of a bruise.
“The toxins are getting flushed out.” Mama Fang removed the needle. The boy thrashed and his mother whispered into his ear—a threat or an endearment, or both, Mama Fang couldn’t tell, but he was in danger of hurling himself to the floor. Maybe she shouldn’t accept students his age.
“Count backward from one hundred,” Mama Fang said, kind but firm, and the boy went still long enough for her to insert the needle. She applied light pressure to the incision and screwed the tubing into place. She reached for the transparent dressing on the tray. As she pulled it out of the wrapper, it folded in on itself, sticking together. Aiya! In the supply closet, she found an unopened dressing that had dropped to the floor. She squatted, wincing. Her joints had gone stiff during the latest cold snap. After securing the line, she popped off the tourniquet. “Good boy.”
Now that she’d figured out how to deal with kids this young, she’d recalculate her financial projections, shaving off the months and years it would take to earn back the trust of Uncle Lo. Mama Fang set a sesame candy and a worksheet before him. The boy tugged on his ear with his free hand. He smelled like chewing gum and rubber erasers, and she had to stop herself from stroking his soft ears, which stuck out like a fox’s.
She’d read somewhere that amputees feel pain in their lost limbs, how their brains retain a memory of it, how nerve endings send signals that trick them. She understood how their pain never left them, like the ache she carried for her son she’d given up, whose weight remained heavy in her empty arms.
At Perfume Bay, she’d been surrounded by newborns who mewled and slept, abstract and unformed, and had never felt much for them or their pampered mothers who didn’t appreciate their good fortune. However, among these children at Little Genius, who’d developed into people, with their own desires and habits, she yearned for her lost son—for a family—as she hadn’t yearned in years.
When Young Master had asked questions about her life, Mama Fang exaggerated and invented. She wanted to impress and entertain him, and telling lies was easier than recounting the lonely squalor of their flat, of her father slumped in a chair. She claimed she was the eldest of five children, with a blind sister who memorized hundreds of songs, another talented at sewing and the youngest at making dumplings, and a clever brother who strummed a pipa he’d made from tin cans.
Young Master was a head shorter, with cheeks smooth of stubble, and at least ten kilos lighter, a sapling to her sturdy trunk of a body. He had yet to grow into his hawk’s nose, into his oversized hands and feet and caterpillar eyebrows, the imposing features he would possess as Uncle Lo.
On her afternoon off, she answered the door and discovered he’d followed her home. He glanced around the stuffy flat in search of her stories: her hunched granny who told fortunes and her father who raised fierce fighting crickets. The crowded, colorful life Mama Fang had longed for, which Young Master had wanted, too. She wasn’t family to him—she’d known at every moment that he could get her fired—but she’d wanted him to trust her. To look up to her as the children she’d cared for once did.
He turned and ran. The next week, he crumbled biscuits in his bed, swished his shoes through the gutter and tracked prints across the living room. He hid a spring roll under the cabinet, which stank like the dead and attracted swarms of ants. She shouldn’t have deceived him. She wanted to tell him she’d never known someone like him to be so interested in someone like her. She was sorry, she needed his mercy, and she needed this job.
When his parents went out to dinner, she heard a crash and discovered a stinking mess of soy sauce, ink, fermented black beans, and shards of glass on the floor of his room. He sat on the bed, his expression defiant. She suspected his revenge would turn elaborate, blame heaped upon her, unless she stopped him now. She pinned him to his bed. His mouth parted, his breath held, and hers caught in her throat. Oh—his eyes. She’d never seen the flecks of black. His body, not scrawny but sinewy. His scent carried traces of his day: the sun on his skin, smoky mischief with his friends, and milk custard on his breath. She slid off him, their crotches grinding against each other.
Over the next few weeks, they occupied themselves with straining and stroking, above and then under their clothes. Their bodies fit together as if designed for no other purpose, his hands cupping her breasts, her nose nestled in the curve of his neck. His eyelids fluttered, pale as moth’s wings. Their shirts came off, revealing a spilled chili sauce of a birthmark high on his chest. She’d never seen it. She touched it, thick and rough as a scab, and he flinched. He guided her fingers under his waistband. It was smoother and hotter there than she expected, like a feverish forehead.
He slid into her, and his helpless gasp embarrassed them both. She shuddered against her will, releasing all that had been tightly held within her. A moan slipped out that she couldn’t swallow back and everything scattered like newspapers in the wind.
Their time alone disappeared after Mrs. Lo broke her leg, slipping on the slick marble floor of the bank. For months, she never left the flat, asking Mama Fang to fetch this, fix that, to massage her bony shoulders and rub her calloused feet. Every time Young Master tried to touch her again, she found a task that brought her to Mrs. Lo. She’d come to her senses and wouldn’t risk her job again.
Mama Fang missed the signs, when she heaved into the sink, nauseated by the tang of fermented tofu. When her midsection thickened, she blamed the rich meals she cooked for the Lo family. She let out the waistband of her pants and the seams on the tunic of her uniform. Smells turned intense, as if she’d developed a bloodhound’s tracking skills, and the metallic scent of shrimp made her gag. Sometimes she suffered indigestion, and felt bubbles of gas gurgling through her guts. She wasn’t keeping track of her periods, which had always been light and spotty.
If only her mother had been alive. Her mother would have known the cause, and could have told her. Young Master didn’t notice, either. Just when she thought he had forgotten, forgiven her, her panties went missing. She had to wash her only pair every night, and it never dried completely, damp and clinging like a popped blister.
When the cramps arrived, her back aching as if squeezed by iron pinchers, she denied the pain until it drove her to her knees. Mrs. Lo rushed her to the hospital, where—to everyone’s great shock—Mama Fang gave birth to a son. The nurse had pressed him to her breast, and she pushed him away, this creature her body had violently expelled, the waxy tadpole splotched with a red birthmark. Like the one on Young Master’s chest.
Upon waking, she discovered Mrs. Lo intent on the newborn in the bassinet, her face lit with wonder. Mrs. Lo wanted to touch him, hold him, with a surging need that Mama Fang lacked. If she hadn’t been delirious, if her disgust toward the baby weren’t so overwhelming, she might have held back the confession that would end her employment. She had no maternal instinct, but was dimly aware of how much Mrs. Lo hungered for this child.
She blurted, “He’s yours. Your grandson.”
What Mama Fang had done to Young Master—what he’d done to her—now seemed impossible, strange and faraway as a half-remembered dream. Anger roiled across Mrs. Lo’s face. The threat every amah brought into a home: she might seduce, might steal, might stab you in the night. Liar, Mrs. Lo said, and left.
The ceiling pressed in like the lid of a coffin, and from far away, a baby wailed. Whose? Sometime later, Mrs. Lo returned with her husband. Though they couldn’t be sure this baby was Young Master’s, they would raise him as their own and in return, they’d give Mama Fang a year’s salary.
Months after giving birth, Mama Fang understood that some new mothers felt nothing at first, that fierce adoration developed over days and weeks. She might have come to love her son. At that moment, she had only wanted him gone. She took the money and dragged her ruined body back home. Her father must have known she’d suffered, but he didn’t question her or the money.
Sometimes she would forget about her son, for a few minutes or a few hours, and then all at once she would remember. She’d spot a newborn, or she’d meet someone else with the surname Lo. She avoided the neighborhood where they lived, but as his first birthday approached, she could resist no longer. She stood across the street, searching the balcony for a glimpse of her son, when the doorman called out to her. “You’re too late.”
Too late? Her son? She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. She might shatter at the slightest vibration.
The Lo family had left Hong Kong, he told her. For where, he didn’t know.
Probably, they wanted to conceal the baby’s origins, she understood. Around the corner, out of sight from the doorman, she wept. The pain and regret of losing her son would never leave her.
Over the years, she’d opened a series of businesses that expanded in scope and ambition, but with the handover to China looming in 1997, she joined the many who left Hong Kong. The wealthiest immigrated to Canada, the United States, and Australia, while Mama Fang arrived in Panama after sinking her savings into a residency permit she could afford. She’d heard the little curve of a country was a back door to the United States, and she married a retired American serviceman who wanted a nurse on the cheap. She divorced him soon after her green card arrived.
With the money from her settlement, she’d bought a plane ticket and rented a cheap room fifteen minutes down the freeway from the Tuscan-style mansions with three-car garages popular with Chinese who were settling in the hills east of Los Angeles. After embarking upon several ventures, she’d written Uncle Lo with her business proposal for Perfume Bay.
She had discovered him on a list of richest men in Asia. In their decades apart, Young Master had been building his empire as Uncle Lo, a public honorific befitting his age and stature. His title’s sense of familiarity and authority were also menacing, as if he ruled over your affairs without your consent or knowledge.
It turned out his family hadn’t moved abroad, only elsewhere in Hong Kong, and that he’d embroidered his biography with details drawn from the stories she used to tell him long ago. He wanted to be known as a self-made man, not one who grew up with a servant and meat at meals every other day. Anyone who suspected the truth stayed silent. He had a fearsome reputation, a man you didn’t cross if you wanted your business, your family, and your name to survive. His retaliation was calculating and caustic: an enemy’s socialite wife was cropped out of photos of all the charity events published in his magazines. An investigative report exposed the toxic practices of a dishonest supplier, landing him in jail.
Uncle Lo had twelve acknowledged children among his mistresses and wives, each son and daughter reflecting his enduring strength and virility. Mama Fang had been his first lover, the first among the beautiful, the rich, the powerful women, the first to bear him a child, and the one he would never forget. She wrote to him about Perfume Bay, a plan she couldn’t pull off without additional capital, without introductions to wealthy Chinese.
He rang her a month later, his voice deeper than she remembered, probably scorched by cigarettes. “What’s your plan to grow? When will I get a return on my investment?”
She had groped for the light on her nightstand, stumbling in her answers until he asked, “What makes your business different from your competitors’? Not only the ones today, but the ones you’ve never heard of, the ones that don’t yet exist?”
“The difference is me,” she’d said. “No one knows what people want like I do.”
He came to rely on her for advice other people couldn’t offer him: crude, centered between the legs, and aimed at the knees. During a newspaper war in Hong Kong, Mama Fang had told him that girls in tight shirts should hawk his tabloids to commuters. “No one will pass up a smile from a pretty girl.”
He never mentioned their son, who was in charge of his satellite television operations and was identified in the press as his younger brother. The closest Uncle Lo got to the subject was complaining about the equestrian expenses for his niece—in reality, the granddaughter descended from him and Mama Fang.
His niece and her brother were both too soft, Uncle Lo said. Hadn’t learned to struggle and fight back from an early age. “Not like you,” he said. In all his years, he might never have found another woman he respected as much. In all her years, she’d never found another man who listened to her as closely.
Rarely sick, with the iron constitution of a child who’s survived every communicable disease, she had decades ahead of her—even if lately, she’d been feeling run-down. She’d become obsessed with her final days, like the women from the ancient tales who spent their savings to build their coffins. She’d die old and alone, no one to bury her, to remember her, to honor her. Alone again at the upcoming Spring Festival, when even the humblest visited their families and honored their elders.
Had her grandchildren inherited any of her features or her habits? As long as she was alive, she might have a chance to see for herself. In about a month, he was headed to Stanford to make a major donation, a bid for posterity that would also guarantee admissions for his grandchildren. She’d read an announcement about the gift in his newspaper. Uncle Lo could allow her to watch them from afar.
A girl in pigtails raised her hand. Done! Mama Fang brought her another worksheet. When she noticed a boy dozing, she clapped her hands by his ear. “Lan dan!” she spat. Lazy. Coddling American parents would call Little Genius a form of child abuse, and then clamor to learn the techniques. Her own education had been sporadic, but many Chinese schooled their children as if for the imperial examination. For more than a millennium, a young man in China might turn the fortunes of his family by passing the exam and becoming a bureaucrat, ensuring his parents, his wife, his children, dogs, cats, and even his chickens flew to heaven. The exam system had been abolished, but the pressure to perform in China was no less great. Greater, in fact, since most families had only one child.
The parents who migrated to America struggled in a language and culture not their own, and even the most prosperous had to endure snubs, slurs, and worse. Yet they persisted for their children, who would have every opportunity denied their struggling parents. For the poor, children doubled as their only retirement fund. For the well-off, their children were still a kind of currency, in the rivalry among one’s friends and colleagues, and in the lifetime tally of success.
What pressure on these narrow shoulders! The most miserable students must wish the solution in the IV bags could send them off to sleep forever. Though their schools were closed for winter break, these children still had to report here. Some would be holding out for the reprieve of the Spring Festival, when Little Genius would be shuttered for the day, though they’d remain trapped with their extended families and their questions about grades, college applications, majors, and internships. There were as many daughters as sons enrolled at Little Genius, which seemed more a measure of pragmatism than progress. In this new era, girls would also have to support themselves and their parents one day.
She locked the front door to keep people from coming in while she finished the day’s paperwork. She logged into her bank account to take another look at the monthly deduction she’d noticed last night, a charge that had slipped her attention. Fifteen dollars, for the emergency mobile phone stored in the glove box of the van Scarlett had stolen from Perfume Bay. She had to find it, along with the two guests who’d fled with it. Only then might Uncle Lo begin to forgive Mama Fang. Too late for her to know her son, but she might her grandchildren.
She wanted to check the phone statement, but she couldn’t remember the provider. The logo was blue, or had it been orange? GoNo—GoKnow—GoNow. Online, she noticed a single repeated area code in the long list of charges: 415. San Francisco, about an hour north. She dialed the number that appeared the most, and when the call picked up, she heard a whoosh of motion and a rattling engine she’d know anywhere. Her van.
From the Book:
A RIVER OF STARS by Vanessa Hua
Copyright © 2018 by Vanessa Hua.
Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.