A young girl of nine (nearly ten) stands at the metal gate of her school. Her hands are free, her feet sweating in plastic clog sandals punched throughout with holes shaped like Mickey Mouse heads. Her backpack is bubblegum pink and dotted with floating shiny red lips and black high heel shoes. It is heavy with books. She stands at the gate and watches her schoolmates as they’re retrieved by their parents and grandparents, one by one, skipping happily away.
She is alone, which is unusual. Grandmother wasn’t waiting for her at the school’s gate today as she usually does, and although she knows the way home, can trace each curb, drain and slab of the sidewalk leading to her building, the disturbance of the daily, the lifetime routine is puzzling. No one told her; Mama didn’t say mention anything when she dropped her off in front of the gate this morning on her way to the office.
She can feel that her left pigtail is sagging, so while she waits for the corner crosswalk light to show the white walking man, she tucks her sweater between her legs, grabs sections of the hair in her hands and pulls. The tightening of her scalp is oddly comforting. She stands up straight. The light changes.
She takes her sweater from between her knees and crosses the street quickly. The bun vendor looks at her lone figure oddly, and she squeaks at him as she passes, incapable of saying a word. Grandma always bought a custard bun for her after school. He is a nice man, she thinks as the steam from his cart leaves her nostrils. He could help me.
Ah, you don’t need any help, she says to herself, snorting. Home is this way, you’ve walked it a thousand times before.
The young girl is on the left side of the main road. Up ahead is the long alleyway leading east to her family’s apartment, three blocks north. The bun vendor is the first bright post in a series of small food stalls on this block, one stall sidled up alongside another in an archipelago of stainless steel, dark dirty wood, buckets of water, fallen bits of greenery, old rusty stools and makeshift tables. She navigates the scattered path as she has so many times before. The smell of niu rou mian (beef noodle soup), frying bread, vinegar and the smoke of roasted animal fat lean on her, beckon her, and she becomes aware of her hunger, normally mostly satiated by a steamed bun at this point in her journey. She slows down her pace, considers the variety of each stall’s snacks. Maybe I’ll get something, she dares, quickly calculating that she carries more than enough coins for a snack in a small zipper purse in her backpack. For the first time she can remember, she is without a chaperone, and the world offers her its bounty.
She stops to stare at a young man frying youtiao. He is sweating along his temples, and his oily hair is spotted with flour. She watches him dip the long, oversized chopsticks used for frying into a large wok of yellow oil, rotating the long sticks of sweet bread. The thin golden loaves resting on the rack looks crispy and delicious. She licks her lips and watches him grab two with a hand gloved in plastic clouded with grease, swing open a brown paper bag with another hand and shove the youtiao in, bending them in the middle as they’re placed inside.
He pushes the bag of bread towards her and she steps back to allow a customer standing beside her to take it. His hand shoves again, and shrinking, she realizes he’s looking directly into her eyes, that she’s the customer, and she should pay.
With a thrill, she takes the bag. His hand, with its long pointed thumbnail, crusted with dough and yellowed, becomes an open palm. She swings her backpack around and rests it on her knee to access her coinpurse. How much is it? The youtiao is hot in her other hand. She’s scared to ask. A steamed bun is always one; she awkwardly places one coin in his palm. He pulls it back, stares down at it and furrows his brow, sticks his palm out again.
“It’s two,” he says, bored. She is slow to react, bag of bread in one hand and coin purse in the other, backpack hanging from her elbow. She wonders if he is trying to take advantage of her. It doesn’t seem worth it now…
With sudden speed, the greasy fry cook extends his arm and puts his thick fingers in her coin purse and digs around. She watches, stunned, while he, sensing the right size and weight, clasps the correct coin and pulls it out. He shows her the coin – he only took one – and adds it to his palm, which tosses them into a small tin on his counter with a dull clank.
She stares at her purse, zips it up with the hand that holds the bread. Without another move, she runs, her backpack hanging heavy at her elbow, knocking into stools and other diners slurping noodles, oblivious. She runs until she feels her arm will fall off, finally sitting down to rest along a small retaining wall just outside the entrance of the small local park, where she’d visited with Grandmother and her parents all her life. How strange she feels now, sitting outside of this park, an extension of her home, alone. She zips up her bag, replacing the coin purse inside, and puts it back on her back. Staring at the youtiao in her hands, she takes an enormous bite and chews. It is crispy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, just as it should be. Renewed, she gets up and continues walking home.
Turning into her alley, she smiles at the guard, who’s really just Mr. Gu from upstairs with a red armband on. She runs down the alley at top speed, and when she’d normally have to wait for Grandmother to catch up, this time she can just go right in. On the stairs, she begins to worry…what happened to Grandmother? Why didn’t she pick me up today?
She opens the door to the little apartment. “Grandmother, here I am, I’m back. Grandmother?”
She hears a faint voice. “In here, dear,” she hears the voice of her Grandmother say.
She enters the bedroom, which faces south and is full of light in the afternoons. Grandmother is seated at the edge of the bed, looking out the window to the white haze of a sunny Shanghai sky. The girl goes to the old woman and sits next to her.
“Why didn’t you come pick me up today? I waited for you.”
“I couldn’t come because I wasn’t feeling well today.”
“What’s wrong? Where is it uncomfortable? Did you eat something bad?” the little girl puts her hand on her Grandmother’s back.
“Yes, maybe that’s it. Did you get home without any trouble? You must have done okay huh. You got a snack on your way!”
The youtiao is still in her hand. The girl feels embarrassed, but she isn’t sure why. Everything felt small next to the presence of her Grandmother.
“Yes, it was nothing, I knew the way.”
“I knew you’d be fine, little one,” Grandmother pats her knee. “I knew you could do it by yourself.”