I’m not Chinese, and this isn’t a racist thing. And if you’re one of
those people who make snap judgments, you can stop reading right now.
It was a financial arrangement. It was a spur of the moment decision.
It was a whim and it was serious at the same time.
I bought a mother. A caring, good mother. Just for a week.
People pay for sex, for food, even for the right to use self-cleaning
lavatories. What was wrong with buying a mother?
My bioligical mother was too verbal, too tight with my wife. They were
always making suggestions, coming up with bright ideas about what I should
be doing with my life. Maybe I was getting them back, making some kind of
point. As I said, it was Friday night and I was drunk, wandering up from
some bar in the West Village where a glass of wine costs you twelve dollars.
She was standing on Canal street, selling tiny American flags.
“How much for the plastic one?” I said.
“Four dollars,” she said.
She was a foot shorter than I was and her face remained expressionless.
She wore a powder blue parka and her black hair was sternly swept back from
“How much for you?” I said.
She raised her chin and presented the oval of her mouth, then she shooed
me away as if I were a waterbug who had briefly imagined he was human.
“I’m serious,” I said.
My friend Frank was with me, weaving slightly, scratching his whiskered
chin. He lived in Beijing for a year when he thought he wanted to be a
schoolteacher. He began to translate for me. My requests were simple. I
wanted her to be my mother for one week. For five hundred dollars, I only
expected to be able to sit in her living room and drink a cup of tea, maybe
have her scold me a little. It was a joke, honestly, at that point.
“Seven hundred,” she said.
I gave her half on Tuesday and told her that she’d get the rest the
I don’t know what kind of apartment I was expecting. To tell you the
truth, I didn’t think I’d follow through. But I’m a fairly cheap guy, and
she had three hundred and fifty dollars. She’d cashed the check instantly.
So it was more out of annoyance that I took a long lunch on Wednesday and
found myself down on Sullivan Street. Trying to get what I had paid for.
A piercing voice nattered something in Chinese through the intercom.
“It’s your son,” I said. “Let me up.”
I stood there for a moment and told myself it was hopeless. That’s when
the intercom buzzed. I pushed the door in and climbed up the dark stairs.
She looked different in the small living room. I didn’t know whether I
should shake her hand or bow. In the end, I did neither. She grabbed my hand
impatiently and led me into the kitchen. A baby was strapped into a high
seat. It had a shocking amount of hair. It had the hair of Frankie Valli. I
waved at the baby and it glared back.
“Sit,” she said.
I sat down at the kitchen table and wiped my hands on the rubbery
tablecloth. I watched her go back to the stove and come back with some
infant formula. The baby sucked at the bottle and looked at me at the same
time. A porcelain happy cat raised its paw in one of the windows.
That’s how our first afternoon went. Very little was said. My attempts
at conversation were almost entirely ignored. I asked her about her family.
I commented on the nice amount of light coming through the kitchen windows.
I told her I wasn’t very hungry and that she shouldn’t worry about feeding
me. After she was done with the baby, she handed me a rattle toy and
motioned for me to shake it. I shook it once for Frankie Valli and he looked
unimpressed. However, this seemed to make her happy, so I shook it again.
She patted me on the shoulder and then she sat down in a chair in the corner
and began to read her newspaper.
When I got back to work that day, Frank and the others were waiting for
me in the conference room. They were on a conference call with the people in
Arizona, so I just slipped in and took a seat.
“We’re not questioning your effort,” the team leader in Arizona said. He
was on the speakerphone. "But we’re still missing the number we
agreed on back in January.”
Now Frank, and Pearson, his croppy-haired intern, were making faces.
Frank started with his Retardo look and then tried on Sleepy Guy, Lusty
Eyelids, and Vacant Serial Killer. Pearson, who was far less intelligent,
could only come up with a dumber looking version of himself. It scared me
that the people in Arizona were probably doing the same thing, talking in
perfectly normal tones and then trying out their own menagerie. We weren’t
really businessmen, I suddenly realized. We were sad mimes.
After the conference call ended, I couldn’t blame Frank for looking
“How was your new mother?” he asked me.
“A little disappointing,” I said, reclining in a lizard green chair.
Someone had left a heap of plastic forks and napkins on the shiny oak table.
“Frank was telling me about it,” Pearson said, allowing a thoughtful
expression to cross his face. “I think that’s a great idea. I think we’d all
be happier people if we had some redundancy built into human relationships.”
The second time I saw my Chinese mother, her real son was there. He was
in his mid-thirties, about my age, and I had the impression she had told him
he had to be there. He spoke English and wore dark sunglasses and a Members
Only jacket. He chainsmoked as we sat at the kitchen table. I wondered if he
was in a gang or if he was just trying to look like he was in a gang because
he thought I might be dangerous.
“It was just a joke,” I said. “Crazy idea.”
“Very funny,” he said without the trace of a smile.
“I didn’t even think she’d let me up,” I said. “I was going to walk
Her son translated this for her. She shook her head and shouted
something back at him. Then she looked at me and waited for him to
“She thinks you have the problem of all Americans,” her son said. “You
don’t trust anyone.”
Having said that, he lit another cigarette, stared thoughtfully out
the window. I had the sense that he didn’t want to talk to me at all, that
he thought I was a sick jerk, or maybe one of those regrettable urban
tourists who impose themselves on different cultures.
“Tell her that she doesn’t trust me,” I said. “Why else would you be
around?” I was angry now. It was my money after all, I wanted something
He mumbled this for his mother. I waited for her to answer, but instead
she took her son’s ashtray to the sink and emptied it. I watched her wipe it
with a damp sponge as the ash on his cigarette lengthened. She brought it
back just in time.
“I don’t have to come back,” I said. “She can keep the three fifty.”
I listend to them discuss this. Again, she shook her head, explained
something to him with her hands.
“She wants to make you happy,” he said bitterly. “What do you want?”
I lay awake in a tiny bedroom in the back of the house. At first, I
thought I was doing it just because it sounded good. I planned on telling
this story to someone in the future. Someone I might love. Someone who would
understand that I needed to find myself in these situations. Why? I don’t
know for sure. In biblical times, a child was pushed down a river in a tiny
basket, surrounded by stiff reeds. Can you see him bobbing in that milky
blue water, the hum of insects building on either side of him? I was pushed
too, but no one will ever admit it, and I couldn’t even tell you who it was.
It goes way back, I would say. I bought a mother for a week, I would
say. I could see this future person in my life leaning closer. My future
lover would bite her lip, wondering if this was supposed to be funny. She
was Chinese, I’d say. I slept in her son’s old bed.
I lay in her son’s old bed. It sagged in the middle. My feet hung over
the end. I lay there not sleeping for hours, wondering why I’d asked for
this thing of all things. Did I think that laying here would make me feel
more like her son? I could hear her son and her talking in the hallway,
perhaps arguing. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but he sounded like
he was trying to talk her out of something. And then I heard them coming
closer and I closed my eyes as they opened the door. Someone must have
turned on a light because a paleness spread over my eyelids. I lay with my
hands at my sides, completely exposed. I was frightened but determined to
trust her. At the very least, I could stop being American, white, a
businessman. I didn’t know if they would plunge a knife through my lung or
just wanted to watch me pretend to sleep.
Her hand, I know it was hers, was a surprise. At first I thought she
was going to poke me in the side and tell me it was time to go. Instead, she
laid it on my forehead, right where my receding hairline begins. I thought
she might be taking my temperature, wondering if a fever had brought me
here, but then I understood it was something else.
“Thank you,” I said to her in my mind. “Can you hear me?”