The woman next door had a grandson I watched grow from kinder-person to tween through my bedroom window. We formed a relationship I didn’t know how to define, and one I’ll never forget.
When we first moved in at the end of 1995, she was outside with him much of the day. I could hear them playing or quietly gardening, the only sounds an occasional exclamation, a burst of boy, explosive joy and pops of awe; a metal garden tool against concrete or clattered on a wooden bench. She’d show him how to plant greens and root vegetables in pots and makeshift raised beds. They’d go inside for lunch just about the time I’d be getting up for the day, and the most amazing smells would float in through my bedroom window cracked open enough to get the pacific ocean’s breeze but not let the cats out. Our tortie and gray tabby would perch themselves under the sill, nostrils flaring, mouths slightly open, trying to taste the air.
One morning (for me, late afternoon for the rest of the west coast), I went out to the backyard with my coffee and cigarettes, a book, my discman, and a half-empty container of last night’s delivery of chicken chow mein. While the previous evening’s club make-up had mostly worn off on my pillowcase, the remnants of a good time were still darkly smudged, circling my eyes in a less glamorous but more fashionable way. Deliberate “heroin chic” liner had nothing on genuine morning-after goth. My smeared liner was mostly covered by dark, gas station B-movie starlet shades that eased my hangover and reflected light from their rhinestone embellished corners. My once perfect curls now up in a messy bun of black fluff and ratted with full volume 90’s gothiness. I’d put a silk robe over the black, lacey slip I’d fallen asleep in and figured I was covered-up enough for the backyard because everyone would be at work. My neighborhood was very quiet on weekday afternoons, save for the rumbles of the four Muni lines that coasted through the Outer Richmond every 20 minutes, the occasional seagull cry, and on densely foggy days the E flat of the foghorn warning cargo ships away from the Golden Gate. At two in the afternoon, even though a block’s worth of flats and apartments had a bird’s-eye view into our little, sandy, postage stamp backyard, I didn’t feel overly exposed…until I was two cigarettes and a chapter of my book in and I looked up and saw a small dark eyed boy whose hair shone like spun silk. It took in the light and gleamed it back to the sun it was so black.
He was staring at me with his head cocked to the side and no discernible expression.
The fence that separated our yards was oddly short. Only about four feet high. We had a full view of each other’s space. Their concrete square patios, and symmetrical, well-manicured beds, always sprouting, growing, harvesting something, to our square sandbox that only grew clover and had a makeshift patio pieced together from mismatched pavers.
I had my Walgreens lawn chair facing the sun to try and help wake myself up, and even with my darkest sunglasses on I had to shield my eyes against the light to make him out as more than silhouette.
I took off my earphones, “Hey there! What’s up?”
No answer. He didn’t move.
He didn’t even blink.
“Is the smoke bothering you?” I stumped out my cigarette.
Nothing…but he blinked.
“Is that one blink for yes, or one blink for no?” and I leaned forward and raised my sunglasses and perched them on top of the violent argument that was my post-club, morning-is-afternoon, goth-as-fuck hair. I was a sight.
At that, he smiled. Sort of, it was about as non-committal a smile I imagined a presumed five year old could have, but that’s what I got, so I happily took it.
As I was prepping for my next attempt at amusing myself and this tiny yard gnome of unassuming judgement, I heard his grandmother call to him and he was gone so fast he somehow left a floating cartoon dust trail in the cleanest yard in San Francisco.
I smiled to myself, put my earphones back on, took a bite of food, a sip of coffee, lit another cigarette and went back to my book. A few pages in I felt like I was being watched. I looked up and this time there were two silhouettes. The same boy and an only slightly taller, rounder and short haired woman stood next to him. They were both smiling.
I took off my earphones and turned off my Discman, but left my glasses on. “Hi!” I smiled and waved. She waved back. He just stared. Smile gone. He was trying to figure me out.
She pointed to her grandson “Leonard,” she said proudly, her ancient accent turning the r into a soft h.
“Hi, Leonard,” and I waved again because I didn’t know what else to do and my hand was trying to help me out.
Still nothing. Leonard wasn’t budging. I was really starting to like Leonard.
“I’m Natahne. What’s your name?”
“Nataaaa…? I sorry, my English…no…good.”
“Hey, your English is better than my Chinese, or, ummm…Cantonese?” at that she smiled again and nodded. “And don’t worry, my name isn’t English so white people have a hard time with it too.”
She looked like she mostly understood what I’d said but I felt bad for bombarding her with words. She looked at Leonard who whispered something to her even though I wouldn’t have understood it if he’d shouted it. She smiled at him and at me and tried again “Nataaaa…?”
“Nuh-TAW-nee” I said slowly and as sweetly as I could. I didn’t want her to feel embarrassed after she’d already felt like she needed to apologize when one wasn’t necessary. I’ve always hated it when Americans make English learners feel bad for any kind of struggle with our poorly reasoned and structured language. A collection of stolen, modified, jumbled sounds and meanings from myriad ancient languages. English doesn’t even make sense to half of the American south. There’s no cause for judgement when someone is trying to learn a language that makes little sense and doesn’t even follow its own rules.
I was also used to this, people stumbling over my name, and while having to do this with white Americans usually annoyed me (the sounds of my name are not that unusual for an English speaker, just try harder), I wasn’t at all annoyed with her.
She tried again “Nuh,” she said slow and ended sharp, so I nodded and she kept going. “Tahhh…nee.”
“Yes! That’s it!” nodding my head and smiling. “And what’s your name?”
She laid her hand on her heart, still smiling “Mei.”
“Nice to meet you, Mei.”
She pointed to the table next to me, but with her whole hand. More like a gesture, than a finger point.
“My cigarettes? Is the smoke…?”
“No…no…” and she waved her hand at the table again.
She nodded. “What…?”
“Oh, what is it? It’s chicken chow mein from up the street,” and immediately I question myself about how close to mall food the restaurant up the street is to her.
She frowned and turned to Leonard and said something stern.
“It’s not good,” his voice surprised me. Firm, but so tiny and even.
“It’s not?” I said, grabbing it off the table and stabbing it with my fork, as though my inspection could possibly detect why it wasn’t good.
“No, she said go down the street to the corner. That’s the good food,” he was no more than five but spoke like a 30-year-old business man. He obviously took his job as translator very seriously.
Mei whispered to him.
“She wants to know if you’re hungry.”
I smiled rubbing my soft belly, “I’m always hungry.”
Smiling big, Mei disappeared for a five minutes that felt like twenty because Leonard resumed his Secret Service level silence and stare while he awaited further instructions. I was starting to feel like an exotic animal at the zoo, but not in the same aggressive way that mundanes on the street made me feel. Like I was in danger. A group of goths floating through foggy San Francisco streets was a romantic sight to some, a target to others. I’d get the same glaring stares from white men when out with my mother, sister and Aunties. The stare that was both want and warning, possession and fear, disgust and superiority. But Leonard’s stare was curious stoic wonder. Not judgement, just…absorbing.
The smell of their lunch that had lulled me out of sleep hours ago began wafting under my nose, and Mei came out of the back door with a steaming bowl of yum.
She handed it to me over our fence and I noticed she’d sweetly included a clean fork because it was probably obvious I wouldn’t know how to use chopsticks and I figured she didn’t want her food contaminated with whatever greasy wrongdoing was left lingering on my own.
I inhaled the bowl and twirled the fork around. I saw myriad greens and white crunchy things that burst with flavor when you bit into them, mostly vegetables I couldn’t identify, and the sweetest rice I’d ever eaten. I asked what something was when I’d stab it with the fork and she’d answer in Cantonese and Leonard would translate in English. Almost none of it was what I’d find in the Americanized “Chinese food” I’d grown up with. Muted for the colonized pleasure of a spiceless tongue.
She watched me eat all of it, beaming with pride and checking every once in awhile to ask if it was still good. I would nod, smiling with a mouthful of flavors I didn’t understand but wanted to.
I offered to wash the bowl and fork when I was done and she responded as I had suspected she would. Absolutely not. No, and hand it over now so she can go clean it.
I liked Mei and her grandmother energy.
She didn’t come back outside that day, but Leonard actually waved to me before he went in himself.
Progress. I knew that kid secretly liked me.
A few weeks passed and I’d see them in the yard through my window but it was getting colder so I wasn’t in the yard much. We went through Thanksgiving, and when Christmas came we had my husband’s whole family over for dinner and football. It was my first time hosting dinner as a newly married woman, and at 21, I hadn’t cooked much more than eggs by myself, so I had a lot on my mind and my plate.
With his parents, siblings and their spouses and kids I had 15 people to cook for. My husband was eight years older than me and most of his siblings were much older than him. He had been the “let’s have one more” baby when his brother (the fifth of seven was nine years old). I was cooking for actual adults, not throwing together pasta and salad for my peer aged friends on a movie night. I wanted to do something special. And since he’d requested I celebrate Thanksgiving his family’s way (American with very American food) when it was not a day my Cherokee self even liked acknowledging, I told him we were having a very Native Christmas. Buffalo stew and frybread were on the menu. Fortunately, his family was thrilled at this prospect. I was relieved to know they were welcoming and I knew I could feed and satiate a large crowd with that meal.
The day of, I’d woken up late, hadn’t marinated the meat long enough and was flustered at having to host while elbow deep in buffalo grease and flour. We were well passed halftime when I got everyone served and I finally had a chance to sit down and enjoy my labor of tribal love when I heard kids in the neighbor’s backyard.
We were all crowded into our flat’s living room and were eating from our laps, watching the game, listening to one of my husband’s brothers make dirty jokes about the commercials that came on, and I stood abruptly and put my plate on our coffee table.
“Just a sec,” and I dashed off to the kitchen to make up one more bowl and plate. I slapped a ladle full into a bowl, grabbed a piece of warm frybread and headed towards our bedroom.
She was there, smiling in her yard, surrounded by a group of what I guessed were more grandchildren.
“Mei!” I waved excitedly as I opened our window all the way up and stuck my head outside.
She waved back and smiled. I put one finger up and said, “Stay there, I have something for you!”
I ran out the front door, down the stairs, through the garage, and up the outside stairs that led to the backyard.
We met at the fence line “This is my food. From my people. My mother, Etse, taught me to make this. Do you want to try it?”
She waved Leonard over who only let a sliver of his moderate annoyance at interrupted play show on his face.
“She says thank you. She wants to know what everything is.”
When I said “buffalo stew” he paused and I realized her buffalo was not my buffalo and I should probably clarify. I asked him if there was a word for bison. He shrugged. Then I said “tell her it’s like beef…but they’re like the ones in the park.” His eyes widened and he smiled bigger than I thought he knew how to and he spoke rapidly to his grandmother.
The other grandchildren were now gathered around her, all chattering excitedly.
She gestured to ask me if the frybread was to be dipped or eaten separately. I told her via Leonard either way. Little hands were now all tearing off a chunk of bread and dipping it into the stew.
“She thought you were the other kind of Indian, but now she knows. She likes those buffalo in Golden Gate Park. She talks to them. She also likes cowboy movies,” Leonard was a fountain of information when fueled by frybread. That is its magic.
“John Wayne!” Mei practically shouted.
“She likes John Wayne,” Leonard said dryly.
“I got that,” and I winked at him.
When the bowl was empty and sponged clean with frybread I reached out to take it back and Mei grabbed my wrist. She turned my arm over and smiled at the Chinese character I’d had tattooed on the inside of my wrist at three am in L.A. one night months beforehand. It matched my friend’s whom I’d been visiting. Neither of us was Chinese but it was the only tattoo we could agree on, so we’d gotten the character for “friend”.
“Yes,” Mei said sweetly. “This true, you friend. My friend.”
My momentary embarrassment at having her language inked so casually on my wrist disappeared. Melted by her smile.
Over the years we didn’t see each other much, glimpses through my back windows, a wave here and there. Leonard was busy with school and Mei was often the only one in the yard to garden. Leonard would appear only occasionally, each time a little bigger than the last. But we would wave when we saw each other, and she’d always try to feed me.
When my birth control pills caused horrible depression and agoraphobia and I had trouble leaving the house, I’d see her leave out her front gate and do some arm and leg waving exercises that resembled calisthenics. Lots of wide movements and low bends. And then she would walk. There was something comforting about her routine. She walked three times a day, every day, rain, shine, or in San Francisco fog. Eventually I started standing in my living room and watching her one story below. I would do the movements she would do, and I always felt better afterwards. My lymphatic system grateful for the cleansing. I still to this day think that the combination of getting off those manufactured hormones and moving my body just a little, as her unknown workout buddy, saved me from drowning in a pool I, along with a ton of therapy, couldn’t seem to pull myself out of.
When my husband and I divorced, all she said was “good” as he was moving out. She’d never looked at him like she trusted his presence. Never smiled when he’d silently call me from the yard with a look of warning. When my new husband moved in she said the same, but with a smile. When he and I started our foster parent journey and built a little vegetable fairy garden with the college girls from the flat upstairs, Mei and I exchanged seeds and harvests. We marveled one year that while none of us had planted potatoes, when we went to turn the soil for spring planting, it was filled with spuds. We both used a lot of potatoes in our cooking that year. The smells from our kitchens co-mingling with competing neighborhood restaurants. Our organized city blocks smelling like a world tour of food between four and ten PM.
When we wound up having to move nine years after moving in because our landlord sold the building, I hadn’t seen Mei in a few months. A now much taller and broad-shouldered teen Leonard told me in his newly deepened voice while watering his grandmother’s now neglected plants, that Mei was tired a lot. I told him to tell her I was thinking about her.
The day we moved I’d hoped to at least say goodbye but no one answered the door when I buzzed.
I’ve never forgotten Mei and sometimes I used to wish I’d made an effort to tell her she was special to me, but now I know I’d already done that when I fed her after she’d fed me.
She was right, I was her friend, and she was mine. It didn’t need defining, it just was.