The Foreigner - By Francie Lin

PART 1 Chapter 1
IT WAS MY BIRTHDAY, my fortieth year. I am not a sentimental man, and my birthdays have always passed quietly, with a minimum of anguish and fuss, but for some reason, this year, a sense of dejection hung in my chest like a fog as I drove eastbound across the Bay Bridge to meet my mother for dinner. Rain lashed the windshield. A truck had overturned just past the 880 exit, encircled by flares. Farther on, a dog had been run over, the mangled carcass pulled off to the side and left with its golden fur matted and damp. All these things - melancholy, rain, a little accident, a little blood - all of them are, in hindsight, nothing: souvenirs of a happier time. But back then they seemed to me portentous. Maybe they were.

The Jade Pavilion reservation was for 8:00, and the dashboard clock said 7:52. The traffic budged forward. "Come on. Come on." My mother hated to be kept waiting; tardiness was the unforgivable sin. I hadn't been late for dinner more than three or four times - respectable, considering that we had had dinner every Friday for fifteen years, with few exceptions. Dinner, usually followed by an overnight stay in my old childhood room, with a Hershey's bar and a nip of whiskey to settle my dreams. I am being unnecessarily poetic here, for my dreams don't need settling. When I was younger, I used to dream of palaces and kingships, and the sight of an enemy flotilla from the turret of a well-defended fort, but now, more often, I dream that I get up, have my breakfast, and take the Powell-Mason streetcar to my office downtown. My dreams and my reality are more or less the same, and I like the regularity and implied balance.

I was bothered, then, when I arrived at the restaurant late and breathless, and found the place nearly empty, my mother nowhere to be seen.

"You want to sit down?" asked the hostess, snapping her gum. Full-blown orange peonies bloomed in her dark hair.

"No, I'll wait outside." I tried not to stare at her. The flowers reminded me of the sweet, tangled sleep I used to have, full of a woman and damp sheets and sunset light spilling all over the floor. The starched white collar of her uniform framed a tender little hollow in her throat, where she fingered a string of milky glass beads.

"I'll . . . I'll wait outside."

The restaurant was tucked into an elbow of a huge strip mall. Out in the mall concourse, I called my mother several times, but only got the reservations service. She owned a motel, the Remada Inn, where she had raised both my brother, Little P, and me. The name "Remada" was an inspired bit of trickery on her part, as people tended to mistake ours for the Ramada Inn, yet the misspelling protected us from charges of fraud. Not that the motel had too much business in any case; it was not convenient to the airport, and the customers were mostly long-term tenants stuck in various states of financial or emotional decline.

My mother despised them all. She had arrived in the United States from Taiwan about forty-five years ago, but in that time she hadn't assimilated so much as grown a prickly, protective shell. Some immigrants were confused or frightened by their dislocation in America, but she tended to see her difference as a mark of the elect. "Americans!" she would say darkly when she heard reports of some social aberration like divorce or pedophilia. She prided herself on speaking very correct English without any slang, but her grasp of detailed grammar and connotations was slippery. In her private grammar, American was an epithet with dark, obscure associations, like bottom-feeders glimpsed in the depths of a dirty lake. "Those Americans." "That American." Those and that deployed like tiny bombs, her scorn and contempt decimating the weak, the dreamy, the lazy, the undecided and naive - everything she associated with America, with Americans. Divorce, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, unemployment: these, she thought, were the provenance of weak American standards, of a long compromise between comfort and immortality.

Eight-fifteen, eight-twenty. I dialed my mother again: no answer. She had been determined that Little P and I should not be absorbed into the general culture, and accordingly, our childhoods had been strictly regimented, full of paranoia and dour regulations that seemed arbitrary to me now, though at the time I believed that there was some