Palo Alto Weekly 20th Annual Short Story
by Christina Hueschen
The girl's doll was bald on the right side of her head, and dust had plugged the rows of holes where hair had once sprouted. She bent the doll into a sitting position and placed it on the seat beside her, in between the left side of her body and the arm rest. After buckling the seat belt over both of them, the girl glanced around the empty airplane cabin. She sat in the middle seat of the middle section, barely able to see over the backs of the false leather seats that surrounded her.
The girl heard voices somewhere in front of her, at the head of the plane. She slipped the doll out from under the seatbelt, placed it in the duffel bag at her feet, and zipped the bag shut except for an air hole. The passengers filed towards her in two lines, mostly Chinese, mostly businessmen, briefcases held in front of them like battering rams. One of the briefcases landed on the seat to her right. She read "Chicago, USA" in thick black marker on the white rubber luggage tag attached to its handle. The man who lowered himself into the seat had light brown hair and she guessed that he was about forty years old. He wore glasses with thick black rims, like her uncle's.
"Hello," he said in accented Chinese, smiling at her. She could smell chrysanthemum tea on his breath. "May I ask your name?"
"Ling-Mei," she said. She looked at the rims of his glasses, not at his eyes. "Tzu Ling-Mei."
The woman sitting down on the girl's left lifted up the armrest to fit into her seat, but the girl did not mind because she had extra room without the doll beside her. The woman had a hair extension, a thick coiled bun held in place by a red plastic comb. It stuck out of her head, slightly off-center - a lump of black on gray.
If she leaned forward far enough, the girl could see, past the businessmen to her right and through the window, three men carrying boxes out of a truck with "Taiwan Catering" written on its side in bright red characters. With one arm around the box and one hand on the rungs, they climbed up a ladder leaning against the plane at the next gate. They slid the boxes into a door in the plane's side, one after another.
The woman on the girl's left was reading the airline's magazine from the sagging pocket in front of her. She had opened it to an article about a physics professor at National Tsing Hua who made life-size sculptures of pear trees on the weekends. The opposite page, which the girl could see better without leaning over the woman's lap, talked about endangered Taiwanese crabs. "On moonlit nights, horseshoe crabs emerge from the ocean to mate on the sands of Taiwan's western beaches," it began. The woman turned the page, and the girl looked up as one of the stewardesses staggered past on her right, carrying an oversized suitcase.
The girl had met all six stewardesses during boarding - they were Americans, and two of them had blond hair, blonder than any hair that the girl had ever seen on anyone, except for the left half of her doll's head.
One of the blond stewardesses stopped in the aisle next to the businessman. She pointed to the basket she was carrying and said something in English. The girl decided that the stewardess's hair was even blonder than her doll's.
The American businessman reached into the stewardess's basket and pulled out two flat sticks, shiny and silver, with pieces of pink paper wrapped around their middles. He peeled off the pink and the silver, exposed the pale, naked gum, and dropped it into his mouth. "Here," he said to the girl in Chinese, handing her the other stick. "Try it."
She ripped off the pink paper, stared at the English writing crammed all over it, and folded the paper in half twice. As she looked down to slip the tiny pink rectangle into her breast pocket, she saw that sweat had turned her dress a darker red beneath her armpits. She lowered the gum into her mouth, slowly. When she chewed and smiled, the stewardess handed her a fistful of sticks and left.
They landed on a white runway in Tokyo. The oval windows of the plane reminded the girl of the snow globe that Uncle had bought for her on his trip to Kaohsiung three years ago. A woman's voice announced, first in English and then in Chinese, that the plane would not be able to continue on to Chicago until the next day because of the weather. The girl could not tell, at first, when the woman switched to speaking in Chinese because of the static.
The airline paid for the passengers to stay in a hotel next to the airport. They gave the girl her own room, and the American businessman said that he would help her check in and try to get a room on the same floor, to keep an eye on her. On the bus ride to the ANA Hotel Narita, the girl watched the snow falling under the street lights.
While the businessman spoke to the people at the front desk, the girl walked through the lobby and looked at the ashtrays on the coffee tables, trying to find still-smoldering cigarettes to watch. She had just discovered one with a few embers left, pulsating in the air current from the floor heater vent, when the businessman approached. "They gave us a room together," he said. She looked up, but he was staring past her to the square clock mounted on the wall. 9:43. "A nine-year-old girl shouldn't stay in a hotel by herself," he said. He walked over to the lobby window that faced the street, and the girl followed his gaze through its fogged glass to a brightly lit building across the street. She could not read the words on the neon sign, with its Japanese characters flashing green and its English letters in blue.
"What is it?" she asked, watching his face.
He turned to her and smiled. "Fast-food noodles. Let's go get some."
They left their luggage at the front desk and ran through the cold. By the time they pushed through the glass double doors into the heat of the restaurant, the snow and the mud of the street had soaked the girl's canvas shoes. A young couple, the only customers, glanced up from their table near the entrance. Parts of the woman's white shirt shone green from the neon restaurant sign outside the window. At the counter, the businessman ordered two bowls of noodles with extra chicken and two ice creams without asking the girl. She stood behind him, waiting, until the food was ready and then helped him carry it to the table he chose in the far corner.
She had only tasted ice cream once before, during the New Year celebrations the previous spring. It had been a different color, white instead of pink, but the girl did not ask the difference because she did not want the businessman to know of her ignorance. She finished her ice cream first, and he asked her if she wanted another. "No," she said, in a stronger voice than she intended, and suddenly she felt frightened and ashamed and she did not know why. When they left the restaurant, the man who had taken their order locked the doors behind them and turned off the neon sign.
Their hotel room had two twin-sized beds with white sheets and pink cotton blankets. It smelled so badly of smoke that the businessman opened the window and left it open, even though feathers of white snow drifted in and made the carpet damp. The girl closed the bathroom door but didn't know how to use its lock, so she changed her clothes behind the shower curtain.
Their flight wasn't until the next night. The businessman explained that he was going to be downstairs in a conference room, talking with his office in Taipei and his office in Chicago. He told the girl to stay in the hotel and gave her some money for lunch at the restaurant downstairs. "What's your favorite food?" he asked in his accented Chinese, his hand on the door handle.
She had just finished making the bed and she sat, cross-legged, on the floor so that she would not wrinkle the sheets. "Apples," she said. "Apples and fried jellyfish."
"And boiled pork," she said, lowering her eyes to the shrinking wet patches on the carpet.
"I bet they make that downstairs," he said and closed the door behind him.
She unzipped her duffel bag, took out the doll, and put the money he had given her for lunch at the very bottom.
She stayed in the room the whole day, mostly on the floor between the two beds. "We're still in Taipei," she said to the doll. "We're still in Uncle's house." She put the doll on the floor beside her, facing the closet and the bathroom door, so that it couldn't see Tokyo through the window.
Around noon, when her stomach was full from swallowing bubble gum but would not stop grumbling, she started playing with the lock on the bathroom door and figured it out. She had never seen anything like it; just pushing in a button in the door handle could protect her. The locks in her uncle's house were all latches that lifted up and dropped into place.
She closed the bathroom door and pushed in the lock button for the thirtieth time. After flushing the toilet, she gave her doll a bath in its bowl and scrubbed the dirt out of its scalp.
That evening, the American businessman helped the girl carry her duffel bag through the airport, and she was afraid that he would open it and find his money at its bottom. She felt relieved when they filed onto the plane with the other passengers and reclaimed their seats.
The businessman pulled reading glasses and a stack of paper out of his briefcase. The fat woman pulled another magazine out of her purse. The girl slid a Polaroid picture out of her duffel. In it, a fat-cheeked 4-year-old boy with floppy black hair stood in front of a plump, smiling woman and a man with a checkered tie. The Chinese characters on the back of the photograph read "Baba, Mama, Wei Ying."
The girl stared at the Polaroid for several minutes and then slipped it under her thigh, face down. She bent over, pulled her doll out of the duffel bag, and clenched its plastic body in her goosebump-covered arms. Then she slid the photograph out from under her thigh - it was warm in her fingers - and stared at it again.
The businessman looked up from his papers. "Is that your family?"
"No," she said, keeping her eyes on the Polaroid. "My family is my uncle and my aunt and my cousin. This is my father and my mother and my brother."
"Oh, I see," said the businessman, frowning. He capped his pen and slid it into his breast pocket.
The girl rubbed the goosebumps on her arm. "I have to study the picture so that I'll recognize them at the airport."
When the plane rolled to a stop at the gate in Chicago, the passengers jumped up from their seats like the girl's classmates in Taipei at the end of the school day. She followed them, clutching her duffel bag and walking behind the American businessman. Inside the airport, she followed the crowd towards the baggage claim, shivering in the air conditioning. Her shoes made an unfamiliar sound against the black, glassy floor and it startled her with every step. She could not read the massive signs suspended above her, but she stared at every one of them, trying to use the symbols to make sense of them. Outside the thick, wall-sized windows, trains of baggage carts zipped around and under the parked planes like nimble caterpillars. She saw the American businessman ahead of her in the crowd, but she lost sight of him when the hallway curved to the left. People's shoes slapped and slapped the floor and the sound swelled up and she felt that it was all from her, all from her new red slip-on shoes, and she slapped to the edge of the hallway and sat down behind a trash can, out of sight, with her back against its gray plastic. She closed her eyes and her mind filled up to the brim with the floppy black hair from the Polaroid and squeezed tears out from under her eyelids.
Hours later, when the crowds were gone and the slapping had stopped, she found her way to an area filled with dark, fenced off shops, overlooking the baggage claim. She stood at the railing and peered down at the four figures she could make out in the semi-darkness. One of them was a policeman, and he shouted and pointed upwards when he saw her.
She could make out the other three figures better now - the plump woman yelling "Ling-Mei!" over and over, the man with his hands in his pants pockets, looking up at her, and the little boy asleep on the cold, glassy floor.