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Three Hours

Two days later I asked her if she would love me no matter what before I told her the truth.

By Lu Han
Fiction | Flash Fiction
April 21, 2023

Mom always says that the pile of papers, magazines, and the occasional paperback will topple over. She also says that I’ve grown up, and she’s right although she doesn’t believe it. She tells me that my hair is getting too long, and although she’s right, I don’t believe her. Don’t go out tonight, we live in a world with bomb threats and subway-pushers. I’m skeptical, but I stay home. 

Dad’s coming back tomorrow night for a week. For five months he’s been flying back and forth from China. He’ll stop when his brother gets better, or doesn’t. Mom fell in love with his handwriting twenty years ago. His calligraphy hangs in the living room, and when people come, they marvel at its beauty. I bring my face close to the rice paper, looking for the elegance in the chaos, but all I see is scribbles. She cried when he first left, sniffling while she straightened cushions that were never crooked and muttering that she must be getting old. I tell her she’s wrong, but I believe her. 

The Swan is playing in our leased SUV when mom comes to pick me up from the train station. It’s 10 p.m., three full hours later than when I promised to be home. She says nothing when I climb into the car, and I offer nothing. An apology would only highlight how far my words fall short of my actions. Mournful cello notes unfurl around me. The quality of the CD recording isn’t the best, the notes splotched with static, but it fills the space in the car. 

Years ago Mom came across the cellist on the shuttle train platform, his splayed cello case housing a scant handful of bills. She stopped dead in the midst of the morning commuter rush to watch him play. He reminded her of someone from back home, over ten thousand miles and decades away. He was not someone she knew, but it was enough that he could have been. She dropped a five-dollar bill into the cello case and walked away with a CD in her pocketbook. 

I study the CD case as we pull out of the nearly empty train station. It migrated with us from apartment to apartment until we finally moved into a house an hour outside of the city, in a place that was too quiet at night. A lesson I learned as we accumulated years in this country: the more successful you are, the quieter your surroundings. 

We pass darkened boutiques and silent houses on familiar streets. I sit in the passenger seat and look out the passenger window. I listen for a strained note, for a recording blotch, for a sigh, the sound of a mother’s patience nearing its own edge. 

Sometimes she lets me drive home, even if it means sitting nervously next to me, her shoulders almost touching her earlobes and the soles of her feet pressing against invisible brakes. Tonight she won’t let me drive. I’ve come home late and broken another promise, and why should she allow a promise-breaking child to drive the car? Why should she rush home from work to light the stove right away, heat up the pan, and mince the garlic so finely it looks like paste, for a girl who doesn’t call when she won’t be home for dinner, who somehow flounders in her calculus class when both her parents topped their grades in math scores, who is an unbelievable pain in the ass to wake up in the morning? 

A month ago, we stopped by a row of slimfit tampons where she told me I couldn’t use them because I had not yet had sex. I wished she was right so I wouldn’t ruin her parenting, because that’s what she was doing at Stop & Shop—parenting me. Two days later I asked her if she would love me no matter what before I told her the truth. When she cried, I had no choice but to believe in her tears. 

My mom sits in the driver’s seat, staring straight through the windshield. Her hands grip the steering wheel firmly. She never lets her hands rest in her lap, not even at red lights. 

“Are you hungry?” Even her voice is graying. 

I tell her I already ate, and she turns the car into the driveway, slowly, to avoid the mailbox. 

“You can drive with your dad when he comes home.” 

I nod but she doesn’t see me in the dark. My dad is a different sort of driver. He can cruise on local streets while I slouch back and gaze out the window, the seat belt a mere formality—a decorative sash awarded for being his child. I can speed to a daring thirty-five miles per hour on an empty street and, without looking at him, know that he is resting against the seat, watching the trees blur by. In the car with my hands on the wheel, I can begin to see the beauty in the scribbles, offer a small but true smile when others pause to admire it, their gazes lingering. I can pass the next calculus test with ease, claiming an inheritance that was simply dormant all along. 

Mom goes into the house and leaves the door open. I close the door behind me, remember to double lock, but forget to hang my coat in the closet. I’ll have some of the dinner she made—noodles long congealed to clumps—and wash the dishes. 

Tomorrow morning, I will promise to come home early.