Every Wednesday afternoon, the gentleman who repairs jewelry meets his mother Isabella for lunch. The narrow noodle house is tucked on a side street near the metro stop. The tables are small, the owner friendly. The cooks, swirled in steam, work behind a glass wall. Vapors leak from the hot kitchen, creating a fog of light and dark that only the jeweler can see.
Every Wednesday, the man and his mother order a large soup. Their chopsticks poke slippery threads and wood ear mushrooms. The man, an admirer of sapphire and silver, loves custard-like bean curd and his mother adores warm ginger and garlic vapors. "I am the Steam Queen," she likes to tease him. Among these smells, the jeweler feels at home.
In years past, Isabella used to pluck a fish's eye or a creature's pickled foot and chomp it down. "Try it," she urged him. And sometimes he did. "How brave you are," she smiled. Pride filled his chest. Her chopsticks clicked against his with glee. How he misses his mother's grand appetite and ripe laugh. From an early age, she urged her only child to welcome the heat from chili peppers. Her hands flew into the air. "Sniff first and then taste. Aroma is the soul mate of flavor, Hugh."
Hugh, that nickname she calls him. As if he were a hue, a tube of paint she used in her outdoor landscapes, a pastime long abandoned. Hubert is worse. How much better to be known as "the jeweler."
When Isabella starts coming late, the jeweler dismisses her tardiness to old age. She settles into her seat and asks him, "How do you love me?"
How? Not why. What a confounding woman.
"Do you like how I dance, how I dress, Hugh?" She smooths the sleeves of her maroon coat.
"Of course, I do." Such silliness, such vanity, he decides, but he smiles anyway. Isabella's appearance—her powdered nose, red lips, and crooked eyebrows beneath wispy hair—touch his heart. Her cheeks have lost their fullness; her eyes have small cataracts that diminish her peripheral vision. When rain threatens, she brings her black umbrella and hooks it on her chair.
By late April, the magnolias shed white petals onto the sidewalks. His mother's delays become longer—ten, twenty, thirty minutes. He begins to fret. Is she completely well?
"Mom, why are you so late?" His voice rises with annoyance.
Her lips purse together into that forgive me pout-kiss. "I just am."
Not a word of apology. The jeweler feels batted about, dismissed like a fly. How can she be so irresponsible? He promised his dying father that he would keep her safe. He knows his mother's games. When he was a child, they played hide and seek. She hid first. Ten minutes later, he, jittery with fear, found her sitting against the wall of the bedroom closet, holding a flashlight. "Don't worry." She drew him on her lap. Her scent of Jean Naté filled his nostrils. She read a chapter of her book out loud, letting him into a secret world he barely understood. At dinner, she asked. "Do you think Daisy B would like this bok choy?" His father raised an eyebrow as mother and son giggled. Isabella sailed her chopsticks toward Hugh like birds' wings.
When the jeweler suggests he order take-out and bring it to Isabella's apartment instead, she declines. Mondi, her aide, needs some time alone. And Mondi—she has coined the name from Raymond—often neglects his own needs. Besides, this Boston noodle house, with cooks busy behind clear glass separating them from diners, intrigues his mother. "Such steam." Her eyes widen and wisps from her mouth twist upward into a monkey's tail that only he can see.
One Wednesday, his mother does not come to lunch at all. The jeweler feels afraid. Has she been hurt? He calls Isabella's home but neither she nor Mondi answer. How much easier his life would be if she carried a mobile phone to keep him abreast of her whereabouts. Perhaps she had a medical or beauty appointment and forgot to tell him. He is rattled by her lack of respect and chomps his sautéed pea tendrils in a rage. How can he possibly protect her?
"Protect me?" Isabella had scoffed months ago. "Yes, check in on me, Hugh. I love it. But don't run my life."
In the corner of the noodle house, a Chinese woman curls her forefinger at Hugh. A white kerchief frames her wizened face and vapor floats about her wide nose. He blushes. What does she want from him? Hugh can't help but be intrigued.
The jeweler speaks to Isabella that evening. He is cross. He bends the flexible band of his wristwatch until it bites his skin. "Why no show?"
"Mondi offered to walk me to lunch," she says. "But, I wouldn't allow it. A mother does not need to be escorted to see her boy. The hair salon is another matter. The girls think I have a boyfriend."
A harsh sound claps inside his head. Her excuses. She's not even sorry. "And what does that have to do with not coming?"
Isabella clicks off.
A wave of panic rises in the jeweler's lungs. Mondi is making love to her. Mondi is planning to take her away. No, he is indulging her quirky ways so he may stay longer in her lovely home. Moocher Mondi. The jeweler examines the hardy clear-cut crystals in his wristwatch. His mother is far from perfect. Yet she is all he has. His father, his every aunt and uncle are gone. Hugh's step into life, into the day itself, is so much surer knowing that she is here.
The first Wednesday in May, his mother is absent again. The jeweler calls her home and gets her insipid voice mail. "We are not available," his mother croons. Mondi rejoins with "Leave your name and ..." Then, they titter like sprightly lovers.
Just like her—making fun. Last spring, she twirled before him in a lightweight black raincoat that fanned out.
"Excellent taste, Mother."
"Perfect for travel," she said. "Maybe Mondi and I will go to Paris for a month."
"If a woman can't have fun at seventy-five, when can she?"
He hunts the small streets of the neighborhood. Where is she? The post office is empty. A shadow falls on the long blocks by the metro. She is not reading at her favorite shaded bench or snacking at the nearby café. How he'd like to grasp his mother between his hands and ask what the devil is up. Why these childish acts of disappearance? He has been a good son; he wants her to be happy in the world as she pleases, but he is responsible for her safety.
He leaves his mother a message. "Please let me know where you are. My time is valuable too."
His stomach roaring with hunger, the jeweler returns to the noodle house. He cannot find her; he will not get the courtesy he deserves. How small he feels. At work, he wears binoculars affixed to his glasses. He peers into magnified facets of gems. The world is large and bright. The sapphire's blue-lavender hues clear his head and fill the sky on a summer's day.
He has treated his mother well. On her seventieth birthday, he gave her a sapphire ring set in gold.
"My birthstone," his mother said, staring past the dark stone on her finger into the burning bushes outside. "You chose well."
"It's a regal stone worn by queens." The jeweler smiled. "It will keep you from harm."
"Ah," his mother Isabella replied soberly. "But don't you do that?"
Hugh felt hurt and took a swallow of air. His hand hit his collarbone, and he bent his head down to exhale.
He felt the strength of her staring eyes. Her voice lightened. "A queen, yes. Why don't I buy a gown with a silver fringe? I'll spin away into the mist. Try and catch me then." She winked and patted his upper arm.
The waiter lifts a dish of drunken noodles high into the air. In the fragrant mist, the jeweler sees the Chinese woman. She hops onto a planter and assumes a fierce Tai Chi stance, nodding at him with respect. He bows slightly in return, thankful for her attention. Pale tendrils blow about her body and she vanishes in a haze.
How the jeweler misses his mother. Once, Isabella had lifted him with her supple arms over a Szechwan chef's stove. He, a mere boy, watched the mustard leaves deepen in color. How special he felt. When Hubert began tenth grade, Isabella decided she would at last cook. She drove to Chinatown for fresh eggplant, cabbage, and pork. She bought a wok and a cleaver. Bottles of oil and spices lined her counter. Her dishes never worked. The meat was dry and burnt, the cabbage limp. She couldn't master timing. She clutched her blasted chopsticks and cried at her failures. "You take it too seriously," her husband said. "Silly me," she said flatly, then poured herself glasses of wine until she laughed wildly. One day, she abandoned cooking and started working at Lord & Taylor's part-time, selling fine hats and dresses with fringes.
A month of Wednesdays passes. By early June, the trees are leafy; the sticky peonies are opening and covered with tiny ants. Despite Isabella's repeated promises, she never joins him for lunch. What nerve. The jeweler never sees Isabella as a breathing person. He scolds Mondi. "I won't tolerate this. I'm coming over this Saturday at three p.m."
"Fine." Mondi responds in a deferential, well-modulated voice.
"I expect her to be ready."
"Yes, of course," Mondi replies. A dark-haired man with a sturdy body, Mondi could be a host at a fancy restaurant. He recognizes taste yet cannot afford its costly habits. How thrilled he is to share a third-floor unit in a Boston brownstone with Queen Isabella. How they love gazing at the oval garden below, at the round fountain, ringed by a wrought-iron fence.
In preparation for his visit, the jeweler walks by his mother's home every night. The lights in her apartment click on at seven p.m. Sometimes he sees Mondi's profile against the bay window and hears her laugh. What does she tell him that brings such delight? She'd better not be discussing his childhood allergies to nuts and milk. Or sharing how, as a boy, he got lost in the museum of bones. He was found crying by the hanging dinosaur. "A nasty dark place," he said. And she hugged him, chuckling lightly, sheltering him beneath her cape.
His mother never shows her face at her living room window. So far, the jeweler's quest to see her in the flesh is noodled.
The jeweler leaves a message for his mother on Friday. "I am visiting you tomorrow. Please let me know how you are doing." If you value me, he wants to say, but he stops himself. He can't come across as a boy full of need or as her guardian. He knows what he will provoke. She will cross him out of her life.
The jeweler wishes he had a sister or brother with whom to share love.
On Saturday at three p.m. sharp, Mondi lets the jeweler inside. A fleshy brunette with orange lipstick rises immediately from the sofa. "Hello," she says politely, then leaves promptly.
"Who is that?" the jeweler asks.
"My sister," Mondi says but the jeweler is suspicious. Her body betrays odors (lilac perfume, a feminine hygiene product, and bergamot tea.) Mondi must entertain her in the brownstone when his mother is sleeping or out walking.
"Where is my mother?" the jeweler asks.
Mondi points to a closed door. "Bathing."
The jeweler reddens. "Why now?"
"We walked for hours this morning and then she napped. She requested a warm soak."
The jeweler knocks twice on the door and then twists the knob. It won't budge. He hears a splash, a sigh. He turns to Mondi, "It can't be good for her to be shut in there alone. What if she slips?"
Mondi nods sympathetically. "A woman needs her privacy."
The son hears humming. "Mother?"
Is it her? He can only know her now by sound and scent. Maybe Mondi taped these noises to confound him while his mother wanders the streets. The jeweler's stomach churns. What if she needs help finding her way back?
The jeweler paces in the hallway, wary of the door that shuts him out. In the corner of the hall, he sees a small package, wrapped in burgundy tissue. How odd. He bends over it, spying a card with her handwriting. "For you, Hugh." For him? He lifts the light packet and slides it into his pocket.
Hugh checks his watch. He can't wait any longer. He is meeting co-workers tonight for supper.
With a fury in his fists, he bangs on the bathroom door. "Still in there, are you? Open up."
Steam leaks through from the gap below. Tinkling piano music plays on her radio.
Mondi steps forward. "You can't rush her. Soon she will wrap herself in a thick towel and shave her legs. She will rub her entire body with avocado lotion. It will be hours."
The jeweler spins on his heels. How does Mondi know all this? Oh, how he'd love to be needed, to be a safe harbor in Isabella's life. He notices Mondi's new silver ring. Fiery carnelian, the birthstone of July, guards its secret compartment. Is that from her? Perhaps a note is tucked inside—Love you, my man who babies me. What nimble ones, Hugh taps his temples hard. They will fly off one day and leave him.
The jeweler slams the front door and passes the naked stone ladies by the fountain outside. At least, they show themselves to the world. At the next corner, he opens his gift from Isabella. A pair of cherry chopsticks tied with a thin rope. The jeweler lets out a sharp cry. This is a cruel gift, a tribute to the meals they no longer share. He carries the chopsticks in his pocket and an ache in his heart.
In July, spider mites attack the park's red roses. In the restaurant, the waiters and cooks treat the jeweler like a brother. They seat him near the glass wall and wave. They cup his shoulder and spoil him with extra tastes of new dishes. He begins to eat more slowly, to savor taste again.
He orders thick rice noodles with a firm bite. Isabella's voice from boyhood haunts him. Don't cut your noodles, Hugh. They'll bring you long life. Eat the wild Reishi mushrooms from mountain forests. Every cell in your body will smile. And you will become strong.
The waiters adjust the shades so sunlight will not burn Hubert's eyes. They refill his tea. Sometimes, they yank their cheeks out sideways so he'll smile. A dish of sweet-scented lotus slices lands before him. "On us," they say. "We know what it is like to miss a mother." He hears the unspoken sadness among them.
The jeweler puts on a few pounds. Every week, he tries new soups—roast duck, stewed beef brisket wonton, and satay seafood noodle. (Satay? His mother would not approve. How authentic is that?) Shhhh, he whispers. Go relish your playful hours, your limited independence. Go fight for your life. That is why you reject me. I remind you of your husband, of death. Go. The jeweler eats even more slowly. He uses his new chopsticks. Some days, they cross his heart like spears.
One Wednesday in the August heat, this lover of silver and sapphire feels too full. His stomach bloats and a hard gas creeps through his intestines. He worries that Mondi and his mother have left for Europe, that she is wasting her money on their frivolous pursuits. The postman tells the jeweler that Isabella's mail is taken inside. The super confirms that her trash goes out every Monday. Some nights, returning outside his mother's windows, the jeweler hears music. No voices, only the sound of strings. Is she to be trusted?
Fog clouds the jeweler's brain. In the corner of the restaurant, the old Chinese woman sits on a ceramic pot. Her legs dangle off the edge, not able to reach the floor. She seems so small. Sword-like leaves surround her; her hands raise into a prayer shape and her voice sounds low and soothing.
You should have been my son, she says. You are kind and loyal. My boys are selfish. To them, I am a loud watch that won't stop ticking. It's true. I hounded them. Back in Chengdu, we lived poor on the city fringe. We had little and moved to your country into a tight space. All they know of cooking is from me. Now they have this noodle house, make money. I am lonely.
The jeweler wrinkles his mouth in sympathy and slurps a noodle. He feels sorry for her heartache.
In late August, the Japanese beetles pierce the hearts of magenta hollyhocks. The jeweler can barely remember his mother's face. How can a woman who used to be full-bodied be gone? The jeweler wanders lost in vapors. His business suffers. He forgets to order more pliers for his repairs. He needs a chain-nose pair, a ring-bender and a flat-nosed gripper so he will not damage precious gems. His clients have sent notes, complaining that their work is not ready on time. One day, the jeweler sees the imprint of his mother's ring on the chef's steamed glass wall. He stands up, feeling flushed. The pricks of her faceted sapphire, surrounded by small diamonds, streak the glass. Can it be her?
He pushes the gray swinging door into the kitchen. The chefs greet him and then look confused. Is there something he wants? A special dish? No. He stares at each cooking station, bends, takes in the chefs' feet, the walls, the ceiling. He follows the steady flames on the gas stoves, hears chicken broth bubble in their hot woks. Sweat prickles the jeweler's armpits. His thighs feel a warm rush of pain. Moisture trickles from his calves into his shoes. Is Isabella here?
The jeweler dashes through the kitchen and finds a back hallway, a set of steps, and a locked room. The doorknob won't budge. He spins around. White wisps spiral up the stairwell and expand into a thickening billow that sweeps him upward. Is Isabella upstairs dancing for the chefs? If so, he must find her.
In mid-September, on Isabella's birthday, the air shines with clarity. The jeweler tastes bean curd and feels light-headed. He senses the slip of tree ears through his chopsticks. He wipes his spectacles with his fingers and looks up. Marks appear again on the glass wall. They must be slashes from Isabella's ring. He rises from his seat and studies their precise facets before they fade. Sapphire, indeed.
She's inside, floating and laughing among the aromas of Szechwan peppercorns and hacked lobster. Her pores soak up garlic and minced pepper. Her airy fingers pulse with joy. The jeweler grips his mobile phone and returns to his table. He taps a message to Mondi. Be gone in two days and leave your keys with the super.
It is better that she is here, he decides, than out in the open. Go play, Mom. Go flourish. Be gone. Be entertained by the chefs' clings and clangs, delight them with your winged dances. At least, he knows where she is. Her lacy veils slap against the steamed window.
The Chinese woman pokes his elbow. May I? She climbs up on a cushion and sits beside him. Her lips purse together and puffiness crowds her eyes. Moist beads dot her brow. She nods to him, and her white kerchief floats off like a flag into the thickening vapor.
"Zhēngqì," she says. "Steam." She writes in the air. It joins you and me.
The Chinese woman takes Hubert's chopsticks and raises duck to his mouth. His throat expands. She smiles. Her skin darkens like the anise-flavored sauce the jeweler adores. Oh, how I have wanted this—to feed you like a son.
Title image "Steamed" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.