Mama says her hip is cracking of old age. That’s why every year on the second Sunday of April, she insists I venture upstairs into our rickety old attic and brush away a year’s worth of mangled cobwebs, paint over the hideous year-old varnish cracked and peeling off the walls, dust between each crevice and crack and slit of the decaying wooden floorboards. Mama berates me for being slow—lazy child, she says, and I tell her it’s because of the memories. (That, and my tendency for procrastination.)
But it’s true. I never know what I’ll find up there.
Today, a second Sunday, I discover, underneath the dim overhead lights and among the scattered and boxed recollections—
You, a souvenir: a doll with fair porcelain skin.
I stare, blow on the coating of settled dust; I brush back your silky braids the color of obsidian, smooth out the wrinkles on your gold-patterned qípáo.
It has been six years since I last visited China. I wonder if porcelain doesn’t rust.
(You see, I am not one to dwell on the past, but these kinds of memories—I hide them in the shallow indents of my mind, express my denial as an inclination to living solely in the present—do tend to find their way to the surface somehow.)
And I remember—
Walking hand-in-hand with my grandmother along the narrow streets of Chéngdū, feigning surprise every time I stepped in a puddle of rainwater that had collected on the sloped sides of the pavement;
Sticky golden syrup dripping onto the insides of my wrist, the remains of a sugar-spun dragon that had melted in the sweltering afternoon heat;
The sounds of the city clashing, an untuned harmony—sounds of kids playing, parents calling, street vendors hollering their lowest bids to unsuspecting customers;
Splotches of color dancing behind my eyelids, and watching the scene unravel before me as if through a blurred lens, like a canvas painted in the Impressionist style.
I spotted you on display at a flimsy toy stand by the side of the street. The man at the cart had a head of wispy white hair and a sullen expression; he seemed lonely—but that couldn’t be, I figured, for he had the toys to keep him company.
He smiled a crooked smile as we approached. That one, I said and pointed, and it’s clear to me now that Grandmother spoiled me rotten. Then, I was eager at the prospect of a new piece of material joy.
Little girl, you chose a special one. You must take very good care of her, whispered the man, as if this were a secret between the two of us. She will only cost you 200 yuan.
But my grandmother was an expert bargainer. She sighed tragically, told the man we had come across no such fortune, and pulled me away. I didn’t question her methods.
Wait, come back, said the man, and you can have it for 180 yuan.
Five minutes later, we walked away with our pockets 140 yuan lighter. When I asked her how she did it, Grandmother said a sorcerer never reveals her secrets. Ancient magic, she told me, and I was content to believe there were some aspects of magic I would never be able to fathom.
Since then, we’ve had our fun: we’ve dirtied our hands frolicking in Grandmother’s apple orchard, ascended winding trails to towering snow-capped peaks, and fearlessly fought imaginary crime (we emerged triumphant in most case scenarios).
I remember how things were easier back then.
Now, I am too old to play with dolls.
Now I understand more of the world, and I have come to the realization we are not the same. One day I will be old and gray and wrinkly like Grandmother; yet your porcelain skin will not crack or wither, for you were blessed with the gift—or curse, I did not ask for your perspective—of immortality.
You are special, I say—
Special even within your own little world, because they don’t have dolls like this here. The dolls here are different; they have skin tinted bronze, strands of sun-kissed hair, wide eyes like blue asters; and I am yet to find one that looks like me.
You are different, I say, and thank you for the memories.
That day, the old man bid us farewell and we never saw him again. I wonder if he is still selling his fragile dolls by the side of the street, and if he managed to find his genuine smile. I wonder what side of the world he is on now.
I whisper an apology for not taking care of you like promised, set you back in the cardboard box and fold down the flaps, because right now you stand for everything good and untainted and I will not be the one to tarnish your purity.
And it is a sad thing because who knows when the next time you see the light again will be—in that respect, we’re a lot the same. In the end, I come to the conclusion that I am doing a good thing, for I am shielding you from all the abominations and pitiful things our world has given birth to.
Mama has me pack up the boxes to give away to charity. I secure the cardboard flaps with bright floral-patterned tape I bought at Target once as an incentive for artistic creativity; needless to say, I never found that creativity. I tell her I want to keep you—for the memories, I explain. She gives me a funny look and calls me spoiled.
I wonder if you think me spoiled; I wonder if you think me selfish for keeping you here. I wonder if you miss it—the tantalizing aroma of bāo zi wafting lazily in the evening breeze, the dim street lights 50 ft apart thrumming with relentless energy, the hustle and bustle and excitement of it all.
It must be different here.
Mama is right: I am selfish, for I have no real use for you anymore.
I place you back in your cage—whether it be made of cardboard or fine porcelain, I cannot tell—and try to imagine our heartbeats (you don’t have one, but still) impeccably in sync.