She looks exactly the same in every way but I know it isn’t her. The woman who is not my mother dips her knife into the neon yellow plastic bucket inside which the cantaloupe sits. Standing in the middle of the upstairs hall bathroom (the one where I always forget to turn the lights off), she looks up at me and speaks as I enter, the tip of her knife poised on top of the melon, ready for incision. I can see the shape and shadow of the thing through the bucket’s plastic which has “Soft Tofu” and also something in Korean printed on the side in bright red: it is round (the cantaloupe) (no more or less so than any other cantaloupe I’ve ever seen) with the silhouette of the knife joining into it at an angle (its curved edge exactly as gentle as every other knife’s edge I’ve ever glanced). And so I say to her,
“Who are you? You’re not my mother, although you look just like her.”
To which she says, “What do you mean? It’s me!” and cuts downward through the melon, putting her back into it.
“I know you have the same hair as her,” I say, “and also the same build, and face, and hands, and apron, and bright pink knitted cardigan, and slippers, and knuckles jutting out the sides of your feet, and voice, and socks patched at the big toes, and earring holes that haven’t closed up even though it’s been years and years, and spot on your cheek midway between your left pupil and your jaw, I know I know, but”—the woman raises a well-tweezed eyebrow—“I know you’re not her, just like how I know when I want more white pepper in my soup simply by sniffing it.”
“Are you telling me I smell?”
“No. I’m saying…” My mother and I talk funny with each other. We could be talking about anything and sometimes one of us will start yelling out of nowhere like gosh the weather is perfect for a walk today DON’T YOU AGREE?!?!?!?! and then the other person has to yell back like YES but I’m FEELING QUITE LAZY to which the first person replies GOD WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE A DAUGHTER (in this example the first person would have to be my mother) WITH AS LAZY A BUTT AS YOU?? We like to say English words as if they are Chinese (like our vowels have somewhere to be) and our Chinese words as if they are English (like they’re fine right where they are and that’s that on that). When we talk on the phone we greet each other by clearing our throats and whoever can do it the rudest and with the most syllables of spit or mucus or whatever it is that gets cleared when you clear your throat, wins. Before hanging up we always say goodbye in different ways, sometimes bye-BYE like we just told each other off, sometimes buh-byeeeee like we’re giggling over some whispered secret, or b-b-b-byeeEEE like maybe we’ll start a band our rhythm is just that good, or bye-BYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYE when there’s no one else around to judge us for testing how tall our voices can grow before we run out of breath and even then sometimes we just gasp and keep going. By the time this is all over bye-bye doesn’t really even mean bye-bye in any strict English sense anymore so we just end the call (or hold the phone in silence until the other person ends it) and go back to whatever we were doing beforehand.
But I can’t tell any of this to the woman who looks just like my mother yet I know with absolute certainty isn’t her. She’s staring at me, waiting for an explanation. Finally, she shakes her head and turns her attention back to the tofu bucket and the cantaloupe inside with a long slice down its side.
“God,” she says, “what did I do to deserve a daughter who doesn’t even recognize her own mother?” She makes another cut and I watch the shadow of the cantaloupe fall into halves.
I don’t have an answer for her. The woman wipes the juice and pulp off the blade with her thumb. “Would you like some?” she asks, gesturing vaguely towards me with the knife. She observes the pieces of fruit sliding slowly down her finger for a second before licking them up.
“I would never take fruit or candy or any other food for that matter from a stranger,” I reply, my words level and my gaze firm even though I am shaking inside, trembling at the sight and smell and sound of this woman who is in literally every way exactly like my mother but I would swear on my life and everything else I have worth swearing on (including my real mother) that she isn’t. I want to leave but the bathroom door has closed behind me. I want to hide but what hidden place is in here that she can’t already see? She is looking at me now the way my mother used to look at me before telling me to go face the wall and don’t speak or cry, just think about what you’ve done. I try to close my eyes but I can’t take them off her, this woman who is NOT MY MOTHER, can’t look away without feeling like bad things will happen to my REAL MOTHER (wherever she is in this moment) if I do—and if EVEN NOW you still don’t believe me when I tell you THIS WOMAN ISN’T HER, when I say I had guessed it even upon first glimpsing her shape under the hard bathroom lighting as I came up the stairs, then the only proof I have left to offer is to tell you that what really gave it all away—right from the very beginning—was when I stepped into the bathroom and she said, “Hello.”