Boiling Point by Christine H. Chen
We’re stuck inside Po-po’s one bedroom apartment in Guangzhou. The windows have metal bars to deter the robbers even on the 9th floor. Po-po peers at me, takes my hand, evaluates shapes of my mouth and eyes to see traits of hers in mine, maybe skipping Ah Ma’s generation and taking hers instead. The heat stifles our conversations. The kettle whistles. Ma’s eyes slant towards me and the tilt of her mouth tells me I should get up and serve tea. My linen dress clings to my back and my thighs, sweat beads on my nose. The heat sucks me down on the wooden chair. Po-po’s mouth moves with a slurping sound. She mumbles Ma should get up and serve tea, not me, her only grandchild, especially after such a long flight. The stand-up electric fan stirs the air and sends hot puffs of breaths in regular intervals. Ma bites her lips. Then she says, don’t spoil her, she’s spoiled enough. Po-po says, just go get us some tea. Ma sits back down. She says, when she was my age, she was cooking, sweeping, wiping shit from her little brother’s ass, when she was my age, she was barred from going to school because the family was blacklisted, when she was my age, the Red Guards came and ransacked this apartment searching for evidence of capitalist material, when she was my age, she saw her father taken for questioning, when she was my age, she saw cadavers floating on Pearl River, when she was my age she went to see the matchmaker Po-po hired, when she was my age she had no choice but to obey, when she was my age she was marrying a man twice her age, when she was my age, she had to flee with the stranger she had married in the night, leaving her little brother and the father she never saw again, when she was my age, she worked two jobs washing other people clothes and feeding old men to send money to Po-po, when she was my age she had no rest, no peace, no joy, when she was my age, she had nothing of hers but her mother’s commands. The kettle is screaming. My legs eject me off the chair and I turn off the stovetop. Po-po smacks her tongue. I rummage the cupboards for teacups, tins of tea clanking in leaden air. Pu’er leaves falls from my shaky hands like incense ash. I burn my fingers and chip a cup. Ma fans her reddened face with a newspaper. Her labored breathing is all I can hear.
Christine H. Chen was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Madagascar before settling in Boston where she worked as a research chemist. Her fiction work has appeared or forthcoming in The Pinch, CRAFT Literary, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, Atticus Review, trampset, and other journals. She is a grateful recipient of the 2022 Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship and the co-translator from French of the hybrid novel, My Lemon Tree, forthcoming in 2023 by Spuyten Duyvil. Her publications can be found at www.christinehchen.com.