“Should we get the waiter’s attention?” Lin asked.
“Not yet. We’re waiting for someone,” Yuli said.
“Oh…someone else is coming? I thought it was going to be just me and you.”
“I texted you the other day. I invited my roommate.”
The waiters seemed to be avoiding their little table by the window. Despite it being a sunny day, they gave the impression of two people, cloaked in tense mystery, sitting in a dark corner of a crowded room. They were increasingly put off by the obvious tension building up around them.
Yuli drummed her fingers on her knees, waiting for her friend to show up. She’d finally gotten up the nerve to call her mom and invite her out to lunch, something that was out of their ordinary routine. While she waited, she caught a glimpse of herself in the window she was sitting next to at their little table. It looked out onto a busy sidewalk full of people on lunch break or sightseeing. Occasionally, someone would meet eyes with her and smile awkwardly. She grimaced when she noticed her reflection in the window and saw that her eyes were starting to look exactly like her mom’s. Despite how hard she tried to differentiate herself, to be her own person, she always ended up catching glimpses of her mother in herself. Yuli hated how much she hated that.
Yuli’s mom knew something was going on, but she tried her best to act normally. She watched her daughter restlessly looking out of the window, and wondered why she was so nervous. Yes, it was unusual for them to meet in the middle of the week for lunch, but it had been a while since they’d seen each other, so she was not as mad as she normally would’ve been when she realized someone else was intruding on their mother-daughter time. Plus, if Yuli was making this kind of effort to see her, she must have something big to share, and that worried Lin just as much as it excited her. The last time they met like this, Yuli was contemplating going to college on the West coast. Thank God she convinced her out of that one. Maybe this news won’t be so bad, Lin thought to herself. They kept making eye contact as they sized each other up through the silence between them. All of the initial chit chat had been done and over with for a few minutes now, and there was nothing left to say. So they just kept watching each other, waiting for the right moment to speak.
“Mom, I…” Yuli trailed off.
She stopped herself from finishing her thought once she saw the muscles in her mom’s jaw tense in anticipation. Instead, Yuli grabbed for her glass of tepid water on the table, and took a slow drink, focusing on the condensation rolling off the outside of the glass onto her trembling fingers.
Just then someone began approaching the table, breaking through the dark tension now fully engulfing them like a dense fog. She met eyes with Yuli’s mother. The young woman was slender and short with bright, cheerful eyes. Her skin was a deep and silky ebony, shining with youth and vivacity. She wore high waisted blue jeans with a long-sleeved billowy shirt tucked in at the front. Her head and neck was wrapped in a brightly colored hijab with greens and reds and blues that looked like a vibrant watercolor painting. She had the look of someone who was acutely discerning but also open, genuine and kind. She had the kind of confidence that made Lin feel unsettled, like the rug was about to be pulled from under her. Though she approached the table with confidence, a wary smile began to spread across her face as she got closer to the table and caught a certain look in Lin’s eyes.
“Hello, it’s nice to meet—” the young woman began.
“Yes, thank you, but we’re waiting for the rest of our party to arrive,” Lin cut in.
Yuli noticed her mother’s hand resting on a nearby butter knife, her fingers tensed and ready while looking at the woman, Yuli’s friend, squarely in the eyes. Yuli’s eyes slightly narrowed at the thought, and she huffed quickly to herself before introducing her friend to her mother.
“Mom, this is Jan. She’s my friend we’ve been waiting for.”
“Oh, sorry,” Yuli’s mother said as she colored slightly and quickly drew her hands under the table.
“That’s okay, Mrs. Yuen. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Call me Lin,” she said with noticeable effort, taking a quick sip of water from her glass.
Jan took the chair next to Yuli and sat across from Lin, interrogation style. She noted how Lin sat more upright, tensed and nervous. Lin was readying herself for what she could only make terrified assumptions about in her head. Jan could almost see the walls beginning to form across the center of the table. The dividing line.
“So your name’s Jean, like the French name? I didn’t know there were many people like you there,” Lin began.
“It’s actually Jan, sorry. It’s short for Jannat…the J is soft, like zhush. It means heaven.”
“Well that’s certainly…cultural.”
Yuli and Jan ignored this. The waiter arrived without a minute to spare. So they spent the next few minutes ordering their meals and drinks before settling back into the uncomfortable silence between them. Jan’s initial gust of newness and bright light had now been taken hostage by the formidable fog of uncertainty that always seemed to surround Yuli and Lin. Thankfully, the waiter had also brought a basket of bread to the table, so the women sat quietly without saying a word for the next few minutes as they buttered rolls, took small bites and chewed. All while exchanging short, furtive glances and words left unsaid. Yuli met her mother’s eyes and pleaded with her not to push too far. To which Lin rolled her own and kept on chewing.
“So. Mom. I’m glad we met for lunch today.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?” Lin ruffled at the statement.
“Well…I have something important to tell you,” Yuli hedged.
Lin swallowed her bread slowly, deliberating. The last thing she wanted her daughter to do was tell her yet another thing that would separate them and make them alien to one another. She’d already cursed herself so many times for staying in the city after the divorce. Because of what it did to her relationship with Yuli. From the time Lin and Charles split, when Yuli was about eleven years old, it had felt like nothing but an uphill battle while she watched her daughter go from rebellious phase to rebellious phase from middle school all the way through her first year of college. There was the year she shaved her head, wore a nose ring and listened to nothing but death metal. There was the year that she smoked so much pot with her friends at school she barely made it to her classes and almost didn’t graduate. That was also the year she dated that one boy who looked like a walking erection. Lin hated that boy. He had a cheery yet smug attitude just like Jan. You thought people like that were nice, Lin thought, but really they’re trying to make you look bad.
Things had finally calmed down after Yuli moved out of the house for college. They were actually getting closer and spending more time with each other without fighting. Please God, don’t let it get terrible again, Lin begged any god who happened to be listening. She looked over at Yuli and Jan exchanging glances, and noticed how warmly Jan encouraged her daughter in their silent exchanges. Like she knew something deep and true about her only daughter that she didn’t, no matter how hard she tried to make those connections. Lin could feel the heat rising in her cheeks, and she could feel the sharp, irritating ringing in her ears getting louder and louder. She couldn’t stand someone she just met knowing her daughter better than she did. She didn’t need another walking erection in her life, getting in between her and Yuli. Then she saw Jan rest her hand gently on Yuli’s shoulder and give it a soft squeeze. And the look in their eyes…Lin didn’t want to believe it. So she diverted her anger elsewhere.
“You’re not a Muslim now, are you?” Lin blurted out.
“Mom!” Yuli yelled in shock before looking consolingly at Jan, who had folded into a mortified silence, unable to look either of them in the face. Lin didn’t break away from the veracity of her question and instead demanded that her daughter answer her with a glaring, unblinking stare.
“Perhaps I should go,” Jan intervened.
“No, you sit and stay right there,” Lin commanded, “There’s a reason why Yuli had you come here as…back up.”
“Pardon me, but I’m not back up. I’m just here as a friend.”
Lin looked at her daughter, incredulous. “So now you need friends present to be able to eat with your own mother?”
“It’s not like that, mom. I was just…scared.”
“Scared of what? To spend half an hour eating with me without fighting? Jesus, Yuli what have I done now?”
Their anger had spread to the rest of the crowd in the restaurant. Voices hushed, utensils stopped clinking against ceramic plates. Even though very few people were actually looking at their little table, it seemed as if all eyes were now on them.
Yuli hadn’t wanted a scene. She didn’t want yelling or screaming, and she thought that the public setting would help her avoid all of that. She squeezed the fingers on her left hand, feeling anxious and realizing that this was not going to go the way she wanted it to. She looked up at her mom who looked back at her with a mixture of anger and fear and sadness. She looked over at Jan who also looked scared and uncertain but for different reasons. And Yuli didn’t know what to do. Should she say what she meant to say, right here and now?
In her mind, things were supposed to be different. This conversation was supposed to happen sometime between finishing the meal and getting the check. Perhaps Jan and her mom would’ve hit it off so much that lunch would’ve turned into a walk in the park. And in some beautiful, peaceful setting, she would tell her mom the truth about who she really was. She thought having Jan there would make it easier. Everyone liked Jan; she was such a kind and gentle presence. She was the best friend Yuli ever had.
What Yuli forgot in all her hoping was that her mom was who she was. And no amount of dreaming and wishing would ever change her mother. She would always be a little too guarded, a little jealous and subtly hostile towards strangers. Towards people like Jan. And that realization hurt even more as it burst the happy little bubble she had formed around this idealization when she called her mom two days ago and asked her out to lunch at their favorite place in the city.