Ling Tang sat on the back porch, waiting for the right time to come. It wouldn’t be long now; the late-afternoon sunshine had already crested the fence between her house and the next-door neighbors’, stretching across the lawn like strands of honey. Since her husband, Han, had died last year, Ling had not gone out into her own backyard. With no one to cut the grass, it had grown lush and thick, full of bugs that rose in a haze over the greenness. During the time her husband was alive, he’d cut the lawn every two weeks in the summer, pushing a mower through the grass with a firm hand. Dandelions, evening primrose, and clover would fall evenly in his wake.
Once, Ling had looked out the kitchen window to see Han standing still in the middle of the lawn, the spring air ruffling the hair around his ears. He bent so swiftly to the ground that she’d run outside, alarmed that he had hurt himself. When she reached him, he motioned for her to crouch down. He parted the grass around a nest of what appeared to be mice that had frozen in the cold. They were larger than mice, though, with soft brown fur and tiny, pointed ears. As if suddenly recognizing a face, Ling realized they were baby rabbits. An inexplicable sadness came over her, and she looked at her husband for some response, some guidance for what to do. But Han covered the nest as quickly as he had discovered it with the cut grass, where it lay like a secret.
Underneath that luxuriant wave of grass lay other memories. Ling recalled how her daughter, Emily, then fourteen years old and newly impressed by a home-economics class, had tried to plant a vegetable garden next to the fence one year. For weeks Ling fixed salads with lettuce leaves that looked like pieces of lace, tomatoes riddled with holes, cucumbers that tasted like water. Ling tried to tell her daughter that it was okay, nobody was perfect at everything, but Emily had yanked out the plants. All that remained of that horticultural experiment was a slight depression in the earth.
Ling remembered another time when Han had shouted at their son, Michael, when he had been twelve, for something he had done in the backyard. Michael had been balanced on the weathered gray fence that separated them from their neighbors on the right, the Bradleys, trying to see—what, Ling wondered, the Bradley girl hanging out by the pool?—and Han, arriving home from work, had caught him. He’d yelled something that she couldn’t hear through the kitchen window, something she imagined to be worse than a reprimand, because Michael had jumped down onto the lawn so quickly that he’d twisted his ankle. As Ling had wrapped a bandage around his foot, she’d noticed how Michael bit his lower lip, trying not to make a sound.
The Bradleys had lived in their house almost as long as Ling and Han had lived in theirs, and they were about the same age, in their late fifties. Their children, also a son and daughter, had known Emily and Michael in school, but aside from one time when Ling had asked Mrs. Bradley to babysit, the parents had not interacted much. There were none of the neighborly activities that she had seen on television or read in books, no borrowing of eggs to make a cake, requests to take in the newspaper during vacation, or the necessity of jumper cables to start a car. Neither she nor Han had ever been invited over to the Bradleys’ house or to so much as dip a toe in their pool. At Han’s funeral, Mrs. Bradley had brought over a pot of chili that was so spicy that it made Ling’s eyes water. Which was odd, because she hadn’t even cried over her husband yet.
Since the funeral, though, Ling had watched the Bradleys with renewed interest. She wanted to see their lives unfurl before her eyes, as hers with Han should have. She wanted to see the bare bones of what it meant to take care of and comfort someone; the way a husband might reach down to pick up something his wife had dropped, or how a wife might place a sweater around her husband’s shoulders. But the Bradleys were private folk and kept their blinds drawn; the trees on the other side of the fence remained untrimmed, hiding their daily existence behind a scrim of leaves. Ling couldn’t help but feel cheated, deprived of not only an experience that should have been hers, but even of being able to witness it secondhand.
If the Bradleys were an alternate future of the Tangs, Ling’s neighbors on the left were a version from more than thirty years ago: a young couple named Jerry and Marta Katz, and their baby son whose thin, wailing cry could often be heard from next door. When the Katzes first moved in nine months ago, Ling had watched Marta walk around in the backyard, raking leaves until she could barely bend over the swell of her stomach. She reminded Ling of herself when she and Han had first moved to New Jersey from New York City, Emily just a bump beneath Ling’s knitted poncho. Ling wondered if Marta had felt the same queasy blend of anticipation and fear that she’d had years ago, the sense that her life was finally starting.
Today, Jerry Katz must have come home early from work, for he was out inspecting his own lawn. He took a few steps, plucked a blade of Kentucky bluegrass, and held it up to the light. He seemed displeased, although compared to the veritable jungle next door, his lawn looked like it had been ordered from a nursery catalog, each blade straight as a solider in a battle against overgrowth and disorder. He mowed once a month with a huge power mower that would have both impressed and mortified Han Tang.
“Hello, Jerry,” Ling called out. She was careful to pronounce his name clearly. Her command of English was excellent, but she sometimes found herself stumbling over certain vowels or forgetting common phrases at the most inconvenient times. The other day she had forgotten how to say stamp at the post office and instead the word in Mandarin Chinese, youpiao, radiated in her mind.
“Hey there, Mrs. Tang,” Jerry said, pronouncing her last name like the drink favored by astronauts. “Hot enough for you?” He lifted his baseball cap, leaving a fringe of hair dark with sweat over his forehead.
“Yes, very hot,” Ling agreed, and fanned herself for emphasis, although she did not find it particularly warm. In fact, she wasn’t even perspiring. But sometimes she found it easier to go along with other people in these matters, to be agreeable for the sake of being agreeable. If she wasn’t careful, these little moments of acquiescence would build up, but she figured talking about the weather was harmless. “How is the baby?” she asked.
“He’s doing fine,” Jerry said. “Hope he isn’t keeping you up at night.”
“Oh, no,” Ling assured him.
Another acquiescence. But she didn’t think it was appropriate to say that she actually enjoyed being woken up in the middle of the night by the baby’s cry. Sometimes when that happened, Ling thought it was one of her own children—Michael had had colic; Emily, bad dreams—and she would half-rise to go to the next room. It was probably even less appropriate to admit that she sometimes sat at Emily’s old bedroom window and watched Marta’s shadow as she paced with the baby slung over her shoulder like a little sack of rice, her hair backlit so that it formed a halo against the curtain.
“Hey, Mrs. Tang,” Jerry said, looking over the fence that separated their property, “why don’t you let me mow your lawn for you? It’ll take twenty, thirty minutes, tops—”
Jerry tugged confusedly at the bill of his cap.
“I mean,” Ling said, “it’s too hot right now. Maybe later, when it’s cooler.”
“Okay, when it’s cooler,” Jerry agreed. “Marta and I owe you for those baby clothes you brought over for Ephraim.”
Ling waved that away. “Old clothes, they go to waste if not for Ephraim.”
“Well, thank you, anyway,” Jerry said, and moved away as he continued his lawn inspection.
Ling had been saving the clothes for her own grandchildren, but when she had heard that Marta had had the baby, she had gone down into the basement and looked through her children’s infant clothes, most of which were spit-stained beyond possible reuse. Ever practical, Ling had dressed Michael in some of Emily’s more neutral onesies and jumpers, although occasionally a pastel or flowered garment slipped through. One of the items she had bought especially for him was a tiny blue sailor suit, and he had outgrown it at once. Since it was almost new, she decided to give it to Ephraim.
What an odd name the Katzes had chosen for their child, Ling thought. It was a Jewish name, Marta had told her, that of her maternal grandfather; she herself had been named after her grandmother, who was of German ancestry. Ling didn’t know how Marta’s grandparents had possibly gotten together. It was what an old aunt of hers had said of a second cousin who had married a Japanese man: impossible.
Although, Ling supposed, it was a more valid reason than those behind her own children’s names. She and Han had decided that their children would grow up with only English names, so as to better fit in the country that would be their home for the rest of their lives, but they did not know what the popular names were at the time. In the end Ling had named their daughter after Emily Brontë, her favorite English author when she was a student in Taiwan, and their son Michael because it was from the Bible.
Ephraim, she had an inkling, was a biblical name as well, so maybe that was okay. She hoped Emily and Michael would be similarly inspired when it came to naming their own children, although who knew when that would be.
Ling still had hope for Emily, who was thirty-two and had been married for seven years. The trouble was, Emily worked long hours as an immigration lawyer, and there was little sign that she intended to slow down. Ling couldn’t understand why her daughter chose to work in Chinatown, the very place from which Ling and Han had escaped, alongside the kind of people they had tried to distance themselves from. There was something about her selflessness that troubled Ling. It reminded her of when Emily was a child and she would bring home stray cats and dogs, whether they needed saving or not. But at least Emily was married, whereas Ling did not know whether Michael was dating anyone. She wasn’t even sure what his exact address in the city was anymore, since he moved around a lot; who his roommates were; or what he did at his job. She only knew he was a graphic designer at an ad agency, which meant, she suspected, that he drew pictures on the computer all day in the same way he had drawn pictures as a child.
Michael had always been secretive, especially as a teenager. He’d spend hours next door with the Bradley girl, hardly speaking to his parents, until one day Ling decided to go through his room. It was, she had a faint suspicion, something that was not considered acceptable in this culture; you were supposed to trust your children and give them privacy. Whereas, when she had been growing up in Taiwan, Ling would have never thought to hide anything about her life from her sisters, let alone her parents. She didn’t know what she expected to find—cigarettes or dirty magazines, she assumed—but instead discovered some drawings in the bottom of a desk drawer. Most were abstract, but some were sketches of people whom she assumed were classmates. Then, to her surprise, she discovered a picture of herself at the kitchen sink; Michael must have been sitting at the table, watching her, without her fully realizing it. And another, a more detailed portrait of his father, a disembodied head in charcoal. But, somehow, Michael had managed to capture exactly the droop of Han’s right eyebrow, the weary curve of his chin, so that Ling could imagine the way these features felt in real life as she traced the line on the paper with a fingertip. How was it that Michael had been able to observe his father so closely? How could he have known, if only instinctively, what his father had been feeling? Suddenly, as if she were an intruder, she put the drawings back into a folder and shut the desk drawer.
These days, whenever Ling asked Emily about Michael, Emily’s reply would be, Oh, cut him some slack. He’s only twenty-six. He lives in a city where women vastly outnumber men. It makes sense he’s not going to settle down. Besides, people his age don’t really date anymore, they just hook up. What did that mean, anyway—to hook up? Ling thought of two trains and the back of a dress. All she could think of was one of the first voices she had heard after she had moved into her house. She had been in the middle of unpacking boxes in the kitchen when she heard a tinny, disembodied voice, which for a second she thought was that of someone calling through the window. She followed the sound to a receiver that had been accidentally knocked off the wall, where the voice told her that the phone was off the hook. But you did not hook up a phone, you hung it up.
The truth, Ling realized, was that Emily knew as little about Michael’s personal life as she did. She had always wanted her children to grow up close, as she had with her own sisters, but was afraid that the six-year interval between her two children forever doomed them to older sibling–younger sibling rivalry or worse, indifference. She just wanted them to be happy, that was all. And for them to be happy, they had to have families, spouses, children. These things were what had made Ling happy, although as her own children were growing up she had never considered the question of whether she was happy or not.