Literary Journal – Spring 2017

Plum Flower

By Jennifer Yuan

The earth was snow white. Amy looked into the distance where her three school children were playing in the snow, running freely in the park playground. As Sochi Winter Olympics was coming up soon, the children were big fan of snow. She could hear their laughter, though far away. She knew they were happy. Andrew, the oldest, was in the ninth grade, big and tall. He was beginning to set out on his own way. Eric, the middle one, was in the seventh grade, skinny, and constantly asking “Why?” Lisa, the youngest, the sweetheart, was in the fifth grade, eager to catch up with her brothers.

It was a cloudy Saturday morning in Central Park. The monumental and silent trees stood like dancers frozen in their poses waiting for the music. Even the bare rocks were bold and unprejudiced, standing against the invincible Manhattan high-rises. The skating rink was empty, too early to open, but she could hear a familiar tune coming from the rink’s audio system.  Amy sighed, snapping a photo or two here and there.

Twenty years ago, Amy and her husband Bill had been right here in Central Park, running and whirling in the snow. They just moved from San Francisco to New York City, enjoying every minute of romance that love cast.

Amy and Bill had met when they watched movie Love Story in Shanghai when they happened to sit next to each other in the Plum Flower movie theater. The year was 1987 when Amy was a junior in college and Bill had just started his graduate study in Shanghai. Now Bill was in Hong Kong, half a globe away. It had been three years since Bill had gone to work in Hong Kong, three long years of separation from each other, three long years with a broken family life. During these years, Amy and Bill had been able to meet only a few times a year in person. But those times seemed more like vacations than their real family life together.

Now the impersonal Facetime was the only routine communication between them.

Amy was thinking of him, but not really thinking about anything specific, such as what his day was like. She liked snow-covered Central Park because it reminded her of the scene from Love Story that she and Bill watched together when they first met. On a quiet morning like this, she could almost hear their hearts beating together. She could almost feel the red plum flowers of Shanghai blooming again.

Suddenly, her iPhone rang, bringing her back to the world. Not a surprise, it was Facetime, again.

*                        *                      *

“Hey, I got a new deal. I’m going back to Shanghai next week to work on a new project.” Bill’s voice was loud and clear and excited. As usual, Amy instantly congratulated him. She was truly happy for Bill. This might be the break he had been looking for after all these years.

“Ok, that sounds good. When are you coming back?” She had waited for his answer.

“Maybe in six months. But it could turn out to be something bigger.” Bill’s reply was the same as it had been all those other times.

“Well, the Hong Kong project started out to be six months, and then turned out to be three years.” Amy simply stated the facts, even though she had hoped that after the Hong Kong project completed, Bill could find something near New York City so that their family could be together again.

“You know, it’s a good opportunity,” Bill started explaining, listing reasons: one, two, three, four, and five.

Amy listened. She was about to say something, but she knew that he would always find more reasons to convince her why his decision was the best. In the end, even after a long and heated argument, she always accepted his decision and adjusted her and the children’s lives around it.

*                        *                      *

During the 2009 depression, Bill could not find work for an extended period of time and he felt frustrated. He sat hours and hours in front of the computer, watching stock market reports. Even the children dared not interrupt him. Amy was luckier. Her clinical lab technician job in a hospital did not get impacted by the depression. After a couple of years’ search, Bill had an opportunity to go to Hong Kong to work on a company restructuring project. It was a tough decision to make whether to go abroad or not. It was evident that the family would have to separate during the period, which could incur all sorts of repercussions. The whole family and both extended families had a month of discussions and arguments trying to find satisfactory solutions.

“It’s only six months. Why not try?  He’ll come back in just six months,” Bill’s mother advocated. Bill grew up in Suzhou, a historic town one hour away from Shanghai where his parents and younger brother were still living in their old house there.

Amy vividly remembered the day when Bill walked out of their home in New York City to fly to Hong Kong. But, she did not want to recall it. To her, it was the same day when Bill walked out of their home in Shanghai to fly to San Francisco.

*                        *                      *

This time the conversation was smooth and short. After closing Facetime, Amy turned around, looking at their children. She had to explain to them again that daddy was not going to be back in six months. Well, the sixth time. This time, she was not worried so much that the children would be disappointed. Their lives were busy and normal. She wondered if they would secretly be relieved. They did not know what daddy would do after he was back home. Would he have a space among them? Would he still be part of their lives? She was not sure. She could sense an awkwardness if he were indeed back home.

“Has daddy called yet?” The little sweetheart Lisa came to ask.

Every day Lisa reminded everybody in the family to Facetime with daddy. Amy did not answer her as she usually did or let her push open the app. She did not want the back-home topic to get brought up again. Instead, she took up Lisa’s hand and smiled, “Let’s go home.”

“OK, Mommy, I’ll go get my brothers.” Lisa delightedly ran towards Andrew and Eric who were busy sledding. They were competing vigorously among other kids about who could go the longest distance.

Having heard his sister calling, Andrew did not stop playing. Recently, he had been increasingly ignoring and arguing in the family about everything – a mommy’s baby turned into a rebelling teenager.

Eric, on the other hand, was eager to win everyone’s heart. He stopped playing, picked up his sled, and ran to mommy as quickly as he could, “Mommy, can we have pizza today?”

That pizza eatery had become their family gathering place ever since Bill went to work in Hong Kong. It was close to their apartment.

“Sure,” Amy answered without thinking for a minute. “Can you please go get your brother?”

Eric was a bit hesitant standing there for a minute.

“Can you please go get your brother?” Amy repeated, “Please tell him we are leaving for the pizza place.” She started walking out of the park. Lisa, holding her mother’s hand, was following. The two brothers finally caught up with them.

Lunch at Dean’s Pizzeria was cheerful. The children rushed to the grandma-style yummy pizza. Amy looked at them feeling content. After all, she did not have to worry about how to feed them. Bill sent her money to run the house. She appreciated that Bill worked hard to earn all of them a decent living.

Looking outside the window, the ground was covered with snow, pure and soft. Amy could hear, in the air, the Love Story melody – their favorite song when she and Bill were young and in love.

*                        *                      *

In the next several weeks, life continued as usual with Facetime till one Saturday 2 AM. Amy got a phone call from her mother in Shanghai. “Your father fell. Doctor said that he had a stroke, very bad. ”

The serious news came so suddenly that Amy was stunned. Her impulse was to fly to Shanghai right away to take care of her father and to help her mother. However, with three school children and a job, she hesitated. She calmed herself down and tried to evaluate the situation.

She answered her mother, “Can Sarah help you for a few days? Kids are in school now. I can bring them with me during their spring break.” Amy felt a bit of relief, since spring break was only a week away.

“Sarah has to take care of her in-laws. She will come to help for a few weeks. But she will have to go back.” Amy’s mother sounded helpless.

Amy’s sister Sarah was five years older than her. She was living in a small town four hours away from their parents. It would be hard for her to commute every day to visit their parents. Amy’s parents relied more on her for suggestions, as she was the only one in their family who graduated from college and later immigrated to U.S.

I’ll ask Bill to visit you today.” Amy comforted her mother. “I’m going to get airplane tickets for next Saturday.” Amy quickly paged Bill.

The next week was quite frenetic – contacting schools to get special permission for absences, calling her mother and sister frequently to make suggestions and decisions, working overtime to finish up and transition some work. By the time they arrived at the departure gate in the airport, Amy dropped, dead-tired, into her airplane seat.

The flight was long, fifteen hours in the air. It was not the first time they had to fly long hours across the globe. Amy had been taking the children to Shanghai to see their grandparents in the summer every other year. But this flight was different.

Just before she left for airport, Amy called her mother. Her mother said that her father was still in the hospital bed and that he was not able to move around. Even though the stroke was stabilized, doctor said that he needed a lot of rehab to restore lost motor functions. Amy realized that the two-week stay would not be enough to sort all these things out.

“How can I stay longer?” Amy felt hopeless and angry, yet she could only keep the emotions to herself. She turned her head to look out of the window. The sky was deep blue and cloudless, as if inviting her to fly to the heavenly peace. She needed a new life.

Eventually, the airplane landed at Shanghai PuDong International airport safely.

As soon as they walked out of custom area, Amy spotted Bill, the first one standing behind the railing where friends and relatives formed a natural reception line. Bill was wearing a dark blue sweater and blue jeans. Amy ran to him and burst into tears.

“Honey, give me the luggage. Let’s go home.” Bill patted her, speaking softly.

“All the meetings on earth are reunions of people waiting years in separation”. Falling-Plum White’s poem floated into Amy’s memory.

“I’m thinking,” Bill looked at Amy tentatively, “you and our children move to Shanghai to live for a year.” He paused for a while and resumed before Amy had a chance to doubt. “We can make it work.”

Amy could not believe what she heard, “But, what about?”

Bill did not answer the question immediately, “I’m sorry it took so long for me to realize.” He was holding Amy’s hand while talking.

“After all, Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Amy replied quoting their favorite line from Love Story.

Jennifer Yuan is a volunteer at Pearl S. Buck International and enjoys photography and painting.