Eggs hissed angrily on an iron skillet. A laptop sat a few inches away, the video of a wizened preacher playing on the screen. His voice was loud and booming, as if he could hear the nearby sizzling he was up against. A fan hummed from a vent above, gently adding to the cacophony.
Ruth gripped a tomato firmly and cut down the middle. Smooth black hair barely reached her shoulders, outlining a soft, round face that had resigned to age. The wrinkles around her eyes, with their oriental fold, enhanced her motherly warmth.
Ruth’s hands laid the pieces of tomato flat and the knife descended rapidly, until they were small cubes. She tossed the tomato into the pan, giving the contents a light flip. She thought of her mother showing her how to make egg and tomato stir fry. It was a common dish in Taiwan, and quick enough to give her time for more important things—back then, studying. It had become a staple in her kitchen here too in the United States.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead, feeling a new smear of oil in its place. She heard a series of knocks hit the front door.
“Coming!”, she said as she turned off the stove. At the door, she hastily dried her hands against her pants and pulled it open.
Her son Matthew stood there with a wide grin. Although Ruth would always see his once boyish face — the shy child who would hide behind her legs, peeking up at her from below — Matthew’s face was now narrow and sharp. He had inherited the thick eyebrows of his Taiwanese father, and they made him look more serious than she preferred. He wore a white t-shirt and dark jeans, cuffed at the ankles.
His hair was slicked up and to his right. Until Matthew had left for college, he had always worn his hair down and without product. She couldn’t tousle his hair now. Her fingers tingled with the urge.
“Hey, Mom,” he said. They didn’t move. Each one knew the other had things they wanted to share. They both felt timid, as if a trickle of words could unleash a torrent.
“Hi, Matthew.” Ruth broke into a smile and embraced him. Although Matthew was not tall, he towered over her.
It had been a few months since his last visit. The university was only half an hour away by car, but Matthew had to take the bus. He traveled on several vehicles of strange smell before his exhaust-spewing carriage shuddered to a stop, among the trees and houses he had known for all his life.
The bus let him off at the foot of the hill and their home was perched precariously on the top. Ruth could feel the dampness of his back as she squeezed him.
“Let’s eat,” she said.
Matthew took a seat at the dinner table while Ruth went back to the kitchen. On the table, two empty bowls sat across from each other, each guarded by a pair of chopsticks. He thought about how he had sat at this table for dinner almost every night until he left for college. Then, there had been three bowls, one for his father.
“How was your day?”, Ruth called out from the kitchen. The smell of fragrant garlic, tomatoes, and eggs enveloped Matthew. He could hear them frying and was painfully aware of his empty stomach.
“It was a busy one,” Matthew said, making his voice heard above the din. In the kitchen, Ruth noticed a hair had fallen into her pan and carefully pinched it between two fingers.
Matthew pursed his lips. “I was at the protests.”
Ruth’s hand lingered over the pan. She felt the heat of oil as it pulsed, small droplets of fire landing across her fingers. Earlier, the news had shown the downtown protests. Masked men were shattering store windows with baseball bats and garbage cans from the street. Several restaurants were ablaze. At one point, the camera focused on an injured policeman supported by a couple others. His mouth was agape and bloody. He was missing his front teeth.
Ruth walked into the dining room with two decorative bowls, one full of steaming stir fry and the other with rice.
“I don’t like you being at the protests. They’re dangerous.” She began dolling out rice into their bowls. “There are better ways to help.”
“Mom, I’m fine. Don’t worry so much. Everyone was peaceful. It’s the fucking cops tha-“
Ruth stopped filling his bowl and shot him a look.
“Okay, sorry, but it’s the cops that are out there causing things,” Matthew said.
“I don’t care. You shouldn’t be out there,” Ruth said as she took a seat. She inhaled deeply. “Why don’t you say grace?”
“Alright.” Matthew made a painful smile and closed his eyes. He began repeating words that had long become empty to him. He read off a script, cobbled together across the mornings of countless Sundays spent sitting back against a church pew. Before he finished the prayer, he opened one eye slowly—just in case she was watching—and looked upon his mother’s face. She was at peace.
After opening her eyes, Ruth motioned for Matthew to begin taking stir fry. He took a few scoops but didn’t immediately begin eating. Ruth decided she wouldn’t bring up the protests again. He didn’t come back often and she wanted him to be in a good mood when she presented his gift.
Ruth looked back up at him and said, “How is your Uncle Alvin?” Alvin was her older brother, who was a pastor at a church close to Matthew’s university. He had come to the United States much earlier. Sometimes she envied him for that.
“I think he’s doing well. I haven’t seen him in a while,” Matthew said as he took a bite.
“You haven’t seen him in a while?” Ruth asked.
“Yeah, I haven’t seen him,” Matthew said, after a pause.
Ruth slightly cocked her head sideways. “Are you going to a different church?”
“I’ve been going to a couple places, just looking around,” Matthew said.
Ruth placed her hand firmly over his.
“You’re going to go see Uncle Alvin tomorrow. I’m going to ask him if you’re there,” she said.
Matthew pulled his hand away and stared at her.
“Look, Mom,” he began.
“No, we’re not arguing about this,” Ruth said. She was still.
“So going to church where nobody is doing anything is okay, but not protesting?” Matthew’s voice rose. “I can’t do something actually worthwhile?”
“It’s different,” Ruth hissed. “You think you’re going to change something by shouting?”
Matthew’s eyes widened. “More than you’re going to change,” he said. “You live in your Asian bubble. All you have are Asian friends.”
Ruth remembered a moment from when she had first moved to the states. She had been waiting alone at a bus stop before class. A car full of teenagers slowed down as it passed. One of them grinned at her and stretched his eyes with his hands.
“Hey,” Ruth said.
Matthew went on. “All you care about are Christian things.”
“Hey,” she said.
“All these years and you don’t know what it’s like to live here.” Matthew’s mouth went dry.
Ruth sat back in her chair. The stir fry lay between them, the last folds of steam unfurling.
Matthew pushed his bowl away and looked at his watch.
“I’m full,” he said. He seemed to be calculating when the next bus would arrive.
“Okay,” Ruth whispered. Her gaze was off to the side. Matthew stood up and gathered his bowl and chopsticks, and moved to take hers as well.
“No,” Ruth said forcefully. “I’m still eating.” Then she softened, and her voice became shy. “I have something for you.”
When Matthew came back from the kitchen, there was a large gray box sitting on the table. He looked at it curiously. Their family had rarely exchanged gifts. He didn’t have cash besides what Ruth gave him for school and meals; it seemed like a waste to spend her money on her.
Matthew tenderly opened the box and brought out a black peacoat. The black looked deep—deep enough to swallow him. He was surprised at its weight.
Earlier that day, Ruth had pinched its sleeve, feeling the thick wool resist her fingers. The peacoat felt larger than life, something a Hollywood star would wear. She pulled it off the rack and was delighted at its weight, shifting her feet to keep balance.
Ruth was the only Asian woman in this part of the department store. However, her loose fitting jeans, white cashmere sweater, and pink purse cast her as yet another meandering middle-aged mother. A lilting mixture of saxophone and keyboard twinkled overhead.
She picked up the catalog laying on the table beside the jacket. A tall, upright man wore the jacket proudly on its cover. His gaze was focused on something out of frame, searching. He looked distinctly European, with a salt-and-pepper beard worn around his face. Ruth thought there was no doubt this man would find what he was looking for.
She imagined the peacoat on Matthew. His shoulders were a bit narrow for now, but they’d fill out in time. He was off at university and would appreciate something more mature. At her Bible study last week, a friend had mentioned her son had seen Matthew holding hands with a girl on campus.
Ruth raised the price tag and her eyebrows furrowed. She began to shift toward a different rack and then stopped. She was back home at the dinner table, and there were three bowls. A young, spiky-haired boy sat on the ground a few feet away. He was playing with wooden blocks. Sensing his mother’s gaze, the boy looks up at her. He smiles, his two front teeth slanted slightly to the left.
Using both hands to hoist the jacket off its rack, she walked to the sales counter.
“Try it on,” Ruth urged.
Mathew inserted one arm into a sleeve, and then the other. Ruth’s eyes glowed like a warm candle. He straightened the jacket with his hands. It was a little big.
Matthew took off the jacket and laid it on top of the box.
“It’s really nice, Mom. Thank you,” he said. Ruth beamed.
“The only thing is my closet at the dorm is pretty full.” Matthew looked at his watch again. “Can you keep it in my room?”
“Your room?” Ruth said. She looked at her son and saw someone else.
“Yeah, I’ll take it back when I’m here again.”
“Oh, okay,” Ruth said. She had barely touched Matthew’s room since he moved out. He had stayed in the room since he was a child. Its walls had stayed baby blue throughout the years, even as furniture and posters came and went.
“I’m going to go to the bathroom and then I’ll head out,” Matthew said.
Ruth heard his footsteps go down the hallway. She walked to the kitchen and then went back to sit at the table. She pulled her stir fry close. She took a bite of cold tomato.