Prose by Iris Zhang
Art by Ivy Zhan
Momo tries. She really does. Wanting to make a good impression on her fiancée’s dad, they specifically took time off work so that she could visit Ying Yue’s dad and get to know him, then invite him to their wedding. They had previously told Mr. Jiang the news of their engagement and he had congratulated them over the phone, but this would be the first time they would meet in person.
So far, it’s going badly.
Momo doesn’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it.
All of the conversations they have are short and distant. His low and halting voice never speaks more than a few words to her, and he won’t look at her for longer than necessary. In the first few days of their arrival, it wasn’t obvious, but the longer she’s here, the more Momo realizes that her potential father-in-law is avoiding her.
Ying Yue had pulled her aside before their visit, telling Momo that because her dad had never fully recovered from her mother’s death seven years ago, Momo shouldn’t mind if he acts withdrawn. But Momo had also heard Ying Yue mention how caring and loving Mr. Jiang could be. She had seen for herself the care packages, Lunar New Year red envelopes, and handwritten birthday cards he had mailed to their doorstep, yet Momo herself has yet to experience those sides of her fiancée’s father.
Being the first to wake up, Momo had decided to make brunch for the three of them. As she was prepping their meal in the kitchen, Mr. Jiang suddenly appeared, freezing in the doorway. Bewildered, Momo made her way over to him, but before she could reach him, Mr. Jiang rushed out. He didn’t reappear, not for brunch, and not even four hours later, when she and Ying Yue left to go grocery shopping for dinner. The congee and bok choy side dish Momo had prepared for Mr. Jiang remained on the counter, cold and untouched.
Currently, Ying Yue and she are sitting at the beach shore, hands interlocked as they watch the sun go down. The waves lap steadily onto the shoreline and, above them, are seagulls swooping overhead, letting out shrill cries every now and then. The sky is a brilliant coral hue as the sun lowers itself towards the horizon, and the muggy summer heat is blown away by the ocean’s salty breeze.
Today is a beautiful day, but Momo just isn’t feeling it. She has her legs curled up into her chest and buries her face into her knees. The incident from this morning leaves her feeling drained and nauseous. How can she make things better, when she’s clearly disliked by her potential father-in-law?
“Ying Yue, what do I do?” Momo whispers. “I don’t think your dad likes me.”
Ying Yue grimaces. She picks up a pebble with her free hand and flings it across the water. It manages to skip thrice before sinking. “That geezer is so–,” she breaks off with a frustrated sigh. “I’m sorry, Momo. I don’t know why he’s like this.”
“You don’t think it has anything to do with our sexuality, do you? I mean, isn’t Mr. Jiang super conservative?”
“No!” Ying Yue turns to look at Momo, aghast. “It’s not because of that. You know, he even told me when we got engaged that he didn’t care who I married or if I married – he just wants me to be happy.” She plants a kiss on Momo’s cheek. “I swear. Lao Ba has changed.”
“Oh.” Momo drops her gaze to her feet. She wiggles her toes into the sand. “What if, by the time we leave, he still doesn’t like me? I wanted to hand our wedding invitation to him at the end of our stay, but . . .”
“That’s easy! We elope!”
A startled laugh bursts out from Momo. “What? Are you serious?”
Ying Yue sniffs faux haughtily. “Honey, I’ll have you know, if we elope, we could skip straight to the honeymoon after our wedding. With no guests to feed, no venue to book . . . it would be so much cheaper!”
Momo shoves her fiancée playfully. “Cheapskate.”
“Excuse you, it’s called being pragmatic.” Ying Yue brushes Momo’s bangs away from her eyes. “But seriously. Don’t overthink it. Lao Ba hasn’t really been himself since Mom’s death. Sometimes even I’m at a loss as to how to communicate with him. It’s not your fault, okay? We’ll give him the invitation, but with or without him, we’ll still have our wedding, yeah?”
Momo hums in agreement. “But it would be nice if I could get along with my future father-in-law, though.”
Ying Yue knocks their shoulders together. “Yeah, I know. If possible, I’d like him at our wedding, too.” She rises, dusting off her shorts, then extends her hand to Momo. “Well, the best way to my dad’s heart is his stomach, and since your food is absolutely scrumptious, how about we win him over by cooking dinner together?”
At Ying Yue’s reassurance, Momo feels her shoulders loosen. She smiles up at her fiancée, before accepting the extended hand to haul herself up. “All right. I’ll try again.”
They quickly unload the groceries when they arrive home, then crowd together in the kitchen. Momo insists on doing the majority of the cooking herself and only allows Ying Yue to soak the meat, put the washed rice in the rice cooker, and cut the vegetables.
On the left side of the stove, Ying Yue blanches the beef, prodding at the cubed meat with a spoon. On her right, Momo tosses in a handful of spices into the wok: peppercorn, star anise, cinnamon, and bay leaves. She scoops out a dollop of Sichuan bean paste into the hot oil then slides the ginger slices, garlic, and chili off the cutting board and into the mixture.
“Mm,” Ying Yue inhales deeply. “That has got to be the best smell in the entire world.”
Momo hums in agreement. The sharp, fragrant aroma permeating throughout the room is one of her favourites, too.
When Ying Yue is done skimming the fat off the meat, she wordlessly helps plop the blanched chunks into the wok. She then bumps her hip against Momo’s, gently pushing her aside to slosh in some cooking wine into the mixture.
They work together in a comfortable silence, and after stewing the beef for an hour, Momo plates the beef and adds the finishing touch by sprinkling chopped green onions on top of the ruddy, red-brown dish. While Momo scoops the rice into bowls and sets the table, Ying Yue goes upstairs to call her dad down.
As Mr. Jiang comes down the stairs, Momo’s hands tremble, but she merely tugs her sleeves down to conceal her nerves. “Mr. Jiang.” Momo greets him with a meek smile. “I recall you didn’t eat brunch earlier, so I made a lot for dinner. Please help yourself!” She presents a bowl of steaming rice to him, then gestures to the table where the main dish was.
“A-ah.” Mr. Jiang reaches for the bowl, but his eyes don’t leave her face. He’s staring at her strangely, wearing the same look he had this morning in the kitchen. Momo does her best to remain undeterred and carefully places the bowl into his hand. “Here. Eat while it’s warm.”
As she lets go, she accidentally brushes against his fingers. Mr. Jiang’s hand spasms, and he drops the bowl. Momo, ears ringing, stares at the shards of porcelain and clumps of rice on the ground.
The screech of a chair being shoved back startles Momo back into the present. “Lao Ba!” Ying Yue roars. “Momo spent two hours in the kitchen cooking for you, and you smash it in front of her?” Her voice rises in anger. “I know you’ve never fully recovered, and I’ve tried to be understanding, but this is unacceptable!” Ying Yue moves to stand in front of Momo, shielding Momo from her father. “What gives you the right to treat my fiancée like this? You ignore Momo, won’t talk to her, won’t look at her, and now you refuse to eat her cooking by smashing it in front of her? Fuck off!”
Mr. Jiang opens his mouth, but no words escape his breath. Momo inhales shakily, trying to ignore the burning building up behind her eyes. Mr. Jiang looks at Momo, but when she doesn’t look back, he stares, defeated, at the ground.
Impatient, Ying Yue exhales sharply. “Fine. You know what? We’re leaving.”
Mr. Jiang jerks his head up. She glares back at him.
“I’m not staying somewhere where my fiancée isn’t respected.” She turns away and tugs Momo along with her. “Come on, Momo. We’re leaving this damn house.”
“W-Wait. Ying Yue.” Momo can’t help but look back at Mr. Jiang. His head hangs low and his back is hunched over. He looks so small and lonely. “Can’t we wait to hear his reply?”
Ying Yue picks up her pace and storms up the stairs. “No. I know my dad; he never bothers saying shit and bottles it all up. I gave him more than enough time.We’re leaving. Besides, I don’t want him at our wedding anyways if he’s going to be like this.”
Momo bites her lips, feeling torn, but packs everything into her suitcase anyway. She’s zipping everything up when she sees their wedding invitation on the desk.
The envelope is a pale pink, the exact shade of the cherry blossoms that bloomed on the streets of her hometown in Nagasaki, and is adorned with a pastel-yellow ribbon – a combination of her and Ying Yue’s favourite colours.
Momo shoves the invitation into her pocket before turning to face Ying Yue, who has all of her luggage ready by their doorway. “Oh. Yeah.”
“Okay. Let’s go before it gets too dark.”
They head out the door. When they leave, Momo finds Mr. Jiang standing in the same place they had left him when they went upstairs. Ying Yue doesn’t even spare her father a single glance as she storms past him. Momo does glance at Mr. Jiang, but he’s still staring down at the shards on the floor and won’t meet her gaze. Momo dips her head at him and mumbles a quiet farewell before heading outside.
Ying Yue quickly places their luggage in the trunk, then ducks into the driver’s seat. Clearly, Ying Yue’s eager to leave, but Momo finds herself hesitating. She stands outside the opened passenger door and looks back at the entrance.
She grips the envelope in her pocket. “Wait, I forgot something.”
“Oh? Okay. I’ll be here.”
Momo closes the door and rushes towards the house. At the sound of the door being opened, Mr. Jiang raises his head and, upon seeing her, emits a surprised noise.
“Mr. Jiang.” Momo takes out the bent envelope and hands it to him. His hands shake, but he holds the envelope carefully in his grasps. “Ying Yue and I are getting married next spring, and we wanted you to be there.”
She pauses, but when he doesn’t say anything, she continues: “I don’t know what you think of me, but it would mean a lot to the both of us if you could attend our wedding. I hope we will see you there?”
Mr. Jiang stares at her then at the envelope. He smooths out the bent corners and, eventually, gives her a small nod. “It would be my pleasure,” he replies hoarsely.
Momo’s eyes widen with delight and she smiles at him. “Thank you so much, Mr. Jiang. Have a good night.”
When the front door closes, Mr. Jiang carefully opens the invitation. A photo of his daughter and Momo comes attached with the invitation; he stares back at the two faces beaming at the camera. Mr. Jiang fumbles with the invitation, transferring it to his left hand as he takes out his wallet with the right. He flips it open to reveal an old photograph of him and his wife on their wedding day. With trembling hands, he holds the two pictures close together.
“It’s because you remind me too much of her.”