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Five Summer Stories : Rice Husband

July 02, 1989|AMY TAN

TO THIS DAY, I BELIEVE MY MOTHER HAS THE mysterious ability to see things before they happen. She has a Chinese saying for what she knows. Chunwang chihan : If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold. Which means, I suppose, one thing is always the result of another.

But she does not predict when earthquakes will come, or how the stock market will do. She sees only bad things that affect our family. And she knows what causes them. But now she laments that she never did anything to stop them.

One time, when I was growing up in San Francisco, she looked at the way our new apartment sat too steeply on the hill. She said the new baby in her womb would fall out dead, and it did.

When a plumbing and bathroom-fixtures store opened up across the street from our bank, my mother said the bank would soon have all its money drained away. And one month later, an officer of the bank was arrested for embezzlement.

And just after my father died last year, she said she knew this would happen. Because a philodendron plant my father had given her had withered and died, despite the fact that she had watered it faithfully. She said the plant had damaged its roots and no water could get to it. The autopsy report she later received showed that my father had 90% blockage of the arteries before he died of a heart attack at the age of 74. My father was not Chinese like my mother but English-Irish American who enjoyed his five slices of bacon and three eggs sunny side up every morning.

I remember this ability of my mother's, because now she is visiting my husband and me in the house we just bought in Woodside. And I wonder what she will see.

HAROLD AND I WERE LUCKY TO FIND THIS PLACE, WHICH is near the summit of Highway 9, then a left-right-left down three forks of unmarked dirt roads, unmarked because the residents always tear down the signs to keep out salesmen, developers and city inspectors. We are only a 40-minute drive to my mother's apartment in San Francisco. This became a 60-minute ordeal coming back from San Francisco, when my mother was with us in the car. After we got to the two-lane winding road to the summit, she touched her hand gently to Harold's shoulder and softly said, "Aii, tire squealing." And then a little later, "Too much tear and wear on car."

Harold had smiled and slowed down, but I could see his hands were clenched on the steering wheel of the Jaguar, as he glanced nervously in his rear-view mirror at the line of impatient cars that was growing by the minute. And I was secretly glad to watch his discomfort. He was always the one who tailgated old ladies in their Buicks, honking his horn and revving the engine as if he would run them over unless they pulled over.

And at the same time, I hated myself for being mean-spirited, for thinking Harold deserved this torment. Yet I couldn't help myself. I was mad at Harold and he was exasperated with me. That morning, before we picked my mother up, he had said, "You should pay for the exterminators, because Mirugai is your cat and so they're your fleas. It's only fair."

None of our friends could ever believe we fight over something as stupid as fleas, but they would also never believe that our problems are much, much deeper than that, so deep I don't even know where bottom is.

And now that my mother is here--she is staying for a week, or until the electricians are done rewiring her building in San Francisco--we have to pretend nothing is the matter.

Meanwhile, she asks over and over again why we had to pay so much for a renovated barn and a mildew-lined pool on four acres of land, two of which are covered with redwood trees and poison oak. Actually she doesn't really ask, she just says, "Aii, so much money, so much," as we show her different parts of the house and land. And her laments always compel Harold to explain to my mother in simple terms: "Well, you see, it's the details that cost so much. Like this wood floor. It's hand-bleached. And the walls here, this marbleized effect, it's hand-sponged. It's really worth it."

And my mother nods and agrees: "Bleach and sponge cost so much."

During our brief tour of the house, she's already found the flaws. She says the slant of the floor makes her feel as if she is "running down." She thinks the guest room where she will be staying--which is really a former hayloft shaped by a sloped roof--has "two lopsides." She sees spiders in high corners and even fleas jumping up in the air--pah! pah! pah!--like little spatters of hot oil. My mother knows, underneath all the fancy details that cost so much, this house is still a barn.

She can see all this. And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts. But then I look around and everything she's said is true. And this convinces me she can see what else is going on between Harold and me. She knows what's going to happen to us. Because I remember something else she saw when I was 8 years old.

My mother had looked in my rice bowl and told me I would marry a bad man.

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