May 2, 2008

A Clean, Well Heated Room

At the Crown Plaza down the peninsula, a local Montessori elementary school celebrates its 10th anniversary. The theme tonight is "Vienna" and during the silent auction you are encouraged to waltz. The school director has put up tall gaudy mirrors around the room to suggest elegance in the midst of 'hotelance'. What would you call it? The room holds 350 people, all Chinese tonight, all parents and their children from Burlingame and Hillsborough promenading around the dance floor, girls in white dresses; boys in white shirts and bow ties. The children are all cute in the way children are who seem more like miniature adults. Everyone is smiling. Every parent has a camera. The director is trying to speak but the sound system is poor. The dinner is buffet. People waltz but no one knows the steps. The dancers are stiff. They work from a box step; there’s no whirling, no dervishing. No mistakes. Everything is under control.

The biggest student in the room is in the 9th grade. He's a burly child with a furrowed brow. I’m sitting across from his mother who has come with her estranged husband. They are not Chinese. Her hair is down. She is not wearing a long dress but more a cocktail dress. Which is to say, I suppose, that she has a certain sexuality and she wants you to see it. Going out at night is a chance for sexual expression, no matter the occasion. Her husband is burly like his son. He wears one of those tuxedos with a collar reminiscent of a pastor. No bow tie, just a white collar, shaped like a trapazoid. He’s a landscape contractor, his Ford 150 is outside. The son has learning disabilities, but you might not guess that if you were not his teacher. He always seems serious,always looking down, trying to figure something out, get things organized. You very rarely see him laugh. Yet he likes acting. If you get him out of from under himself, he comes to life. Tonight, he looks composed in his white shirt and bow tie. He seems confident.

Some years ago, when the boy was much younger, his mother went into a rage one night and set fire to the house where they all lived. The house burned right to the ground. Nothing left. Her husband and son barely escaped. Later, the mother went away, but whether to jail or to an institution or to stay with relatives, no one knows. Or no one will say. The Chinese are above all, discreet. The mother now lives by herself. She refers to ‘my son’ whenever she talks about him. The word 'son' is in bold as it were, as though to say, 'he's mine, I don't care what I did or what you think'. She seems pleasant enough, but she watches everyone at the table closely. No doubt she wonders what people know of her life and whether they are judging her. Our eyes catch and they don’t unhook easily.

1 comment:

Anjuli said...

this is riveting- I reread it a couple times. I knew it 'caught' me, but I just didn't know why. Maybe because it is a mini- take on life in general: the various idiosyncrasies, the ironies, and the curiosities.