Over the phone, my mother’s voice sounds the same as mine. Same cadence, same pitch, same laugh that bubbles from nowhere. We walk through the mall, and she criss-cross links our arms. A hat vendor asks us if we are sisters.
My mother cooks, and I do the dishes. We alternate telling stories. After dinner, we stay at the table with dirty dishes strewn around us. My mother and I rest our elbows on the grease-covered surface, and we talk until the neighbors in our townhouse complex turn off their lights. One by one, the windows of each sturdy brick unit go dark for the night. Still, the plates have not been cleared, and still, we have more to say.
Sometimes in the evening, the two of us stroll to the neighboring strip mall and try on clothes at
Ann Taylor. We buy the same silk shirt, hers in blue and mine in white, and wear them with the same chiffon flared skirt. To this day, I cannot make a serious clothing purchase without seeing my mother clasp her hands together against the mirrors of the dressing room, one million mothers reflected on the walls. “Yes,” she proclaims. “Buy it.”
When we step outside with our shopping bags, the sky has darkened to navy. We walk on the road illuminated by streetlights and fireflies, flashing in and out of the darkness. As a child, I loved fireflies, and would sandwich them gingerly between my cupped hands, waiting to see their Christmas lights flash under the weight of my palms. Wings would flutter like eyelashes against my callused palm. And my mother, standing on the side disapprovingly, would always tell me to let them go. You’ll crush its wings, she would say. If you love it, let it fly free.
When I left for college, those summer days of recounting stories over dirty dishes drifted sparser on the calendar. Yet this wasn’t for lack of effort. Well into my sophomore fall, every month on the dot (break or no break), I would board a dirty Megabus, and hold my nose against the formaldehyde stench of the moving restroom for sixhours, just to see that big old townhouse appear in the distance. Just to greet the chrysanthemums my mom planted every autumn in front of the wooden gate. Just to once again, take a stroll to the big fountain by the strip mall and watch the fireflies blink to their own symphony.
In the spring of my sophomore year, my mother’s messages on Wechat take on a new urgency. Green bubbles spring up on my phone, 2,4,8 messages in a row, asking why I am not responding. Asking why I am not home. In the summer, my mother’s recruiter finds her “an exciting new opportunity” just six hours north of Paoli. Another tenant moves into the big brick townhouse, and we pack a houseful of valuables into a navy Honda CRV. Westborough is only 40 minutes from Harvard, she tells me. “Now you can come home as often as you would like.”
There is no place to plant chrysanthemums in our new one-bedroom apartment, and nowhere to greet the fall. But nonetheless, September arrives, unbeckoned. I sit in my dorm room at dusk, watching for the last of summer’s fireflies through the window, and my mother texts me asking how I am. I want to travel to Pakistan, with my roommate this winter, I tell her. She types back in consternation, God forbid, you most certainly may not. Come home and have a rest.
The day that I finally relent, she picks me up in front of Eliot and drives me home. The sun is setting on the I-90. For a moment I think we’re going to our house in Paoli, and that the gold of the fading rays will echo the gold of her chrysanthemums, potted above the wooden gate. Instead, we pull up to a strange apartment complex, each gray building identical to the next, and she is so, so happy. She is going to make me shrimp, she says, and we will find an Ann Taylor in this new, foreign city.
After dinner, I start the dishwasher and scrape the remains of the rice into the bin. Our windows face onto the street. I am too big for this one-bedroom apartment, and she is too old to feel the flutter of wings against her lifelines. My mother still does not know that this winter break, I plan to travel to Southeast Asia. But we are thick as thieves, and I suspect she does know that sooner or later, even fireflies must fly free.