The first time I started walking dogs for Mrs. Lin she insisted on accompanying me. I tried to assure her that I was completely capable of handling her dog. Mui Mui was only a tiny breed, and although she was certainly fluffy and endearing, she was basically harmless. But Mrs. Lin was not convinced, and to keep myself from being thoroughly insulted I attributed her antics to what seemed like apparent senility. Unlike my former employers, Mrs. Lin did not ask me about myself. Most others were confused. Why was I twenty-six years old and walking dogs when many young adults of my economic status were busy plowing through the corporate world? Instead of deciding to slum it at my mother's home (which was probably the furthest thing from a slum), I chose to live by myself in a San Francisco apartment and pave my way in the animal business—scooping poop, that is.
I already had everything I needed. I went to art school, got a degree in graphic design, and then abandoned that aspiration altogether. Although I could just as easily live off of the hundreds of thousands my mother made every year as a hair and makeup artist, she always tried to instill a desire to get me to do something bigger than myself. But the thing is that I was never that big in the first place. I was comfortable being comfortable. Dog walking was simply my chance to entertain some adorable pup for an hour or two without actually having to feed and play with it. Sometimes if I got bored I wouldn’t walk the dog at all. Instead I would let get cozy in my car and drive around Sacramento Street with the top down. But Mrs. Lin chose to do things differently. First of all, she seemed to notice, as I had, that the two of us already had nothing in common, and it seemed as if she just wanted to make sure that I got the job done. I walked down the sidewalk with little Mui Mui’s leash in one hand and a fistful of pink Chinatown grocery bags in the other. Mrs. Lin strayed a few feet behind me, not unlike a lost dog herself, for she would occasionally sniff and then unfold a tissue from her pocket to blow her nose. I usually sung to myself or talked to the dog at this time, but doing so in such company now seemed awkward and out of place. Mrs. Lin, meanwhile, said nothing.
"So," I said, trying to break the silence. "What does ‘Mui Mui’ mean?"
"Shh!" Mrs. Lin hissed. "Mui Mui likes quiet!"
I shut up.
I did not believe her, of course. Nearly three years of dog walking experience had me convinced that every dog needed someone to talk to, just as every human being did from time to time. But neither Mrs. Lin nor her dog said another thing during the whole walk. Mui Mui simply ambled along the sidewalk, pausing intermittently to examine an old piece of gum that had been trampled into the cement. This lasted for about an hour, and without my Ipod to soothe me I found the activity rather mind-numbing. By the time we arrived back at the house Mrs. Lin did not readily part with her money. Instead she invited me inside.
"Oh, no thank you, Mrs. Lin," I said, and was about to fabricate some excuse about having to be somewhere, at the same time checking my cell phone for the time.
"For tea?" She asked.
Despite my polite refusal to her invitation, she managed to somehow usher me through the door. The house smelled of incense and camphor, and I tried not to sneeze.
"I really should—"
She flapped her hands as if to say, "It’s no trouble at all," and pulled out a seat for me at the kitchen table. I sat down as she put the kettle to boil, and I smoothed my shirt, half in frustration and half in uneasiness. As she prepared our tea I let the dog scuttle around my feet, and then chanced a look around the room. The myth of Oriental elegance in my mind was immediately shattered as I examined the kitchen I was sitting in now. Mrs. Lin proved to be a poor interior decorator. The wallpaper, which was obviously meant for a nursery, was a baby blue tessellation of dancing fish. Years of making tea had made the wallpaper bubble unhappily around the stove, giving one of the poor fish a malformed fin. The appliances in the kitchen were all old, and the black and white linoleum on the floor that peeled around the dishwasher (the dishwasher did not seem to be used), didn’t do much for the room either. But despite its pitiful décor, the kitchen was impeccably neat. It was as if she sponged the counters over and over again until they shined almost unnaturally. I stared them at for almost a full minute, troubled by her cleanliness.
Mrs. Lin then sat down in front of me and stared. I started to feel anxious again, but learning my lesson from last time, said nothing.
"So pretty," she said, her voice like sandpaper. "But a little spoil."
I couldn’t decide whether I should have been annoyed or amazed by this immediate observation. Yes, I was spoiled. I had come to terms with this fact long ago, and I knew there were many other words that accompanied this description. Words like lazy, selfish, unmotivated, apathetic, spoonfed. My mother had used these terms multiple times to describe me, and I had become desensitized by them by now. But when Mrs. Lin said it I felt that itch of irritation once again. I had barely said anything to her all afternoon and she already had me figured out.
"Yes," I admitted. "I am a little spoiled I guess."
"Ai-yah! What’s this guess?" She cried. "No! Too easy to guess. I see it when you in your car and when you walk. I see it on your clothes, and hair, and makeup. I do not guess when I say, ‘a little spoil.’ I see it." She shifted her chair and leaned closer over the table to, I could only assume, get a better look at me. "My son—I bring us to America because more opportunities, he says! More jobs! But I have to learn English to get a job and I have to pay for school and rent. Now he fly all the way to study in France. Ungrateful!"
"Actually it’s pretty common for students to study abroad," I told her, forgetting to bite my tongue. Apparently she had been relying on me to agree with her and seemed slightly disappointed when I did not.
"Boy cannot make up his mind," she muttered. The kettle whistled. Mrs. Lin jumped up to turn off the stove and pour the two of us tea. I received mine with what I hoped was a grateful expression, although I did not especially favor the small porcelain teacups which seemed able to hold only one mouthful of tea at a time. But this time I found I actually was grateful their size, for it was a strong, biting jasmine tea, which was bitter to my unconditioned taste buds. I hurriedly gulped it down, trying to be polite. No sooner had I finished it, and it was there again. And there was Mrs. Lin smiling expectedly at me and holding the pot of tea. She put it down on a cloth. "You like?"
"Yes, it’s very good," I lied, now taking slow, small sips. I scraped my tongue against the roof of my mouth, trying any discreet way to rid it of the taste.
"I give you more to take home," she resolved. She took a tiny sip of her own and swallowed.
I clicked my heels together impatiently.
"Mui Mui means ‘little sister.’" She then said out of nowhere.
I raised my eyebrows, having just remembered my question from earlier. I pictured Mrs. Lin younger and fairer, dancing around on the beach with another girl a few years younger than herself. I recalled the various books I had read: Joy Luck Club, The Money Dragon, and wondered if this woman too had a hidden tragic tale like the people in those books—a younger sibling who died years ago to a rare illness, perhaps. Was this why her dog was named Mui Mui? Was this why she kept talking to me now?
"Okay!" She said suddenly again, nearly making me upset my tea. "I give you a box, okay? You take it home."
I started to get up and Mrs. Lin shoved quite a large box of tea into my arms. I opened it briefly to discover a large, wrapped package of loose tea leaves.
"Mrs. Lin, I can’t take this much," I protested, but she disregarded my words with another wave.
"I see you next week."
So that afternoon I drove home with a package of disgusting jasmine tea, and it wasn’t until I set it on the kitchen counter that I realized she had forgotten to pay me. I stared at the tea for a minute, wondering what I should do with it, and resolved to simply leave it there. I took a quick glance around my little flat, and put the rest of my things away.
Noticing the persistent flashing of my answering machine, I pressed the button and waited.
"Hi, Melrose, sweetie!" came my mother’s voice from the little speakers. "Just wanted to check in with you this week. I only have a minute to talk, honey, but just wondering: how is California? Is it sunny? We’re in complete darkness over here in London. It’s been so depressing. Anyway, I'm not expected to be back home until early Spring, so don't miss me too much. Still very proud of you. By the time you get this it probably won’t be an appropriate time to call back. Don’t forget, I’m eight hours ahead of you. Bye sweetie!"
The next two messages were my mother "checking in" again. Both of them said she didn’t have a long time to talk. Both of them complained about some French singer who made a fuss over her highlights. Both of them reminded me that I was eight hours behind. I deleted all three messages. I wasn’t planning to call back anyway.