A Taste for Love: Chapter 7

Mom’s been trying to “fix” me since day one. According to her, it’s Dad’s fault I’m stubborn and strong-willed. If he weren’t so permissive, I wouldn’t be so wild. Meanwhile, I hate the fact she’s nice to everyone but me. In public, she’s the perfect mother—kind, patient, and encouraging. At home, she’s strict to a fault and more opinionated than a top food critic.

Her words roll off my back now, but it was harder when I was little. I still remember the loud conversation she had with our neighbor when we went to buy my first bra. I begged her to stop, cheeks aflame, but she just tipped her head in my direction with a smirk.

“See? So moody and she’s barely twelve. She’s such a handful.”

The news of my plain white underwear traveled like wildfire though Chinatown, and by the following weekend, people I’d never met were congratulating me. I tried complaining to Jeannie, but she only chided me.

“You know Mom didn’t mean anything by it. She’s just proud of how mature you’re becoming.”

At fourteen, I hated everything about myself. I dreamed of being petite and delicate like the rest of my friends, but I was a raccoon in a panda cub world. Mom was no help then either, peering at me over her glasses as she complained about my weight.

“You need to stop eating all that rice, Liza. You don’t have Jeannie’s metabolism.”

Other kids played sports and went to the beach. She wanted me to do none of that.

“Your skin should be as pale as the moon,” she would remind me, “and your hair black as night. This is how husbands want their wives.”

So I curled up in my favorite chair and read book after book. Sometimes, I was swept away to the fantastical worlds of Marie Lu and Sabaa Tahir. Other times, I squealed over the sweet ships from Sandhya Menon and Jenny Han. Anything to forget my real life for a little while.

By the time I was sixteen, I did everything to avoid going straight home after school—clubs, volunteering, even a sport or two (indoor, of course). Jeannie had moved to New York to attend college and model for one of the major agencies there. She was so excited about walking in Fashion Week. Dad and I still got along great, but he was rarely home. He didn’t trust anyone else to do the cooking and was always at the restaurant.

That meant Mom and I spent a lot of time at home alone. I hated her daily ritual of finding something wrong with how I looked, how I acted, or what I said. I tried to prove I was a good daughter. I even got a part-time job for a while to buy my own clothes and pay for stuff with friends. I’d come home before curfew and never got anything less than an A in school. None of this mattered, though, as long as I refused to date the guys she picked for me.

That’s why I’m not surprised to overhear Mom on the phone with Mrs. Lim when I walk in the door on Monday. Despite my hope of the contrary, she’s determined to have Reuben over for dinner. There’s a hint of desperation in her voice as she speaks.

“Yes, yes, of course. I’ll make sure to avoid cooking anything with garlic that day,” she says, bobbing her head up and down. “I wouldn’t want him to end up in the hospital because of an allergic reaction.”

Note to self: Buy a garlic necklace. A big one. Maybe two.

Mrs. Lim says something in return, and Mom cackles before they hang up. Part of me wants to “forget” we have dinner plans, but there’s no way I’d get away with it without paying a heavier price. I try to back out of the kitchen quietly, but she catches sight of me.

“Liza! Come here for a minute.”

Damn it.

I slap a blank look on my face. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, yes, everything’s fine,” Mom says, moving over to the stove to start dinner. “I just wanted you to know Reuben will be coming over on Friday, so make sure you’re home right after school so you can get ready.”

“Get ready?”

“He’s going to be our guest. I don’t want you to look like you normally do.”

I glance down at my Star Wars T-shirt and skinny jeans.

“What’s wrong with the way I dress?”

She eyes me up and down. “I want you to wear a dress like a proper lady. And put on some makeup.”

“I am wearing makeup!”

Mom steps uncomfortably close to examine my skin with squinted eyes.

She sighs. “I guess you are. Well, then, wear more.”

I roll my eyes. “Or he can like me the way I am. Isn’t that what he’s supposed to do?”

“Don’t tell me you’re still reading those ridiculous romance novels.” She opens one of the kitchen cabinets and pulls out a pot. “That’s not how love works in real life.”

First she calls me picky. Now she’s dragging my taste in reading. Good thing she hasn’t found the pile of historical romances on the top shelf of my closet. I’m pretty sure she’d have an aneurysm at the number of Julia Quinn and Eloisa James books I’ve hoarded. Fed up, I twirl around to make a dramatic exit. I hear her call my name again.

“There’s one more thing. I need you to start helping me out at the bakery more regularly. Milly is going on maternity leave,” she informs me, one hand on the refrigerator door.

I suppress a groan. I wouldn’t mind being at the bakery if she’d stop nagging me while I’m there.

“Why can’t you just hire someone else?”

She pulls out some Chinese spinach and shuts the door.

“We put out an ad, but it’s going to take time for us to find someone good.”

I start to protest, but she puts up a hand.

“Liza Yang, the money Dad and I make pays for the roof over your head, the car, your food, and those clothes you like so much.”

I’m instantly wracked with guilt. Mom and Dad are often gone before I wake up and get home long after it gets dark.

My eyes drop to the floor. “Okay, fine. But this is temporary, okay? You know I’ve got finals coming up.”

“Your exams are weeks away,” she remarks. “That’ll be plenty of time for me to hire someone new.”

I lean a hip against the kitchen counter. “When do you need me?”

“Starting this Saturday.”

I clench my fists. Why doesn’t she ever give me any advance notice?

“I could’ve had plans, you know. What if I’d already promised to hang out with Grace or Sarah?”

“First of all, you know you have to run that by me,” Mom reminds me as she turns the burner on. “Second, is helping your parents really less important to you than spending time with your friends?”

She sounds genuinely hurt. I quickly backtrack.

“Sorry, Mom. Of course not.”


I start to walk away but pause to look at her. “Anything else?”

“Nope. That was it.”

As I walk away, I swear I hear her whisper:

“For now.”

On Friday, the dreaded dinner with Reuben arrives. I drag Grace to Boba Life and hide there until Mom starts blowing up my phone. As I walk through the front door, I’m surrounded by a hurricane of activity. Water meets oil in a sizzling dance as Dad juggles multiple dishes on the stove. Mom buzzes around the room, never stopping as she cleans this counter and rearranges that shelf. Faint lines mark where carpet powder was removed by a vacuum, and the smell of fake flowers surrounds me.

In the formal dining room, our normally barren dining table has been covered with a fancy plastic cloth, and four settings await their guests. The laundry rack Mom hangs her delicates on has disappeared, tucked away in a closet for now. Though we’re eating in there, the kitchen cabinets are shinier than I’ve ever seen them. The mess of bills and newspapers normally strewn across our breakfast table has been cleared away, and a small vase of fresh wildflowers adorns the center. The calendar on the wall has also finally made it to May after months of declaring it’s still January.

I step fully into the kitchen, and Mom scrunches her nose at me.

“Why are you home so late? I told you Reuben was coming over tonight.”

“Sorry. I had to meet Grace to grab some stuff for school.”

“You shouldn’t rely on Grace so much,” she scolds, wiping the counter one last time. “You need to be more organized. Learn to take better notes. Put reminders in your phone.”

I say nothing. I’ve learned the hard way that interrupting Mom only earns me a longer lecture. Thankfully, she runs out of steam quickly and shoos me out of the room.

“Go get ready, and do it fast! He’ll be here any minute. I put an outfit for you on your bed.”

I shudder at the memories of the horrid outfits she used to put me in for picture day. Thankfully, there’s no photographic evidence, because my parents were too cheap to order the prints.

“Mom—” I start to protest, but she cuts me off.

“What are you waiting for? And put on some makeup, for crying out loud!”

I grit my teeth and stomp off to my room. I’m assaulted by the sight of the over-the-top dress the moment I walk in. It reminds me of a wedding cake, with flowers protruding from every inch of the blinding white fabric. With a high neck and hemmed below my knee, it sends a very clear message.

I’m a delicate, innocent flower. Look, but don’t touch.

I want to take it into the backyard and set it on fire. Instead, I shrug out of my jeans and step into the monstrosity with the utmost reluctance. Maybe the dress will look better on. As I start to zip it, the flowers gather around my chest like puffy homing beacons, while the areas around my hips bunch and crease. I give the zipper a yank when it snags on my lower back. It doesn’t go anywhere.

It’s too small. It’s too small!

I quickly abandon the dress and return to my old outfit. Mom’s face turns scarlet when I walk back into the kitchen.

“Why aren’t you changed? I told you—”

The phone rings, interrupting her. Dad picks it up and glances at Mom.

“It’s Mrs. Lim.”

She takes it from him with a frown. I can’t make out what’s being said, but she’s definitely not happy. A few seconds later, Mom hangs up.

“I’m afraid Reuben can’t make it tonight,” she informs us, dejected. “He’s sick.”

I’d bet money it’s a serious case of I-don’t-want-to-itis. Dad clears his throat.

“Well, since we’re not waiting for anyone, let’s sit down and eat.”

Mom shakes her head. “I’m not really hungry. You two go ahead.”

She walks out. He spares me a wink and leaves to go after her. The corridor between the rooms carries their conversation to me with perfect clarity as I sit down to eat.

“It’s just a dinner, laˇo pó. It’s not anyone’s fault the boy got sick.”

“We can’t lose this opportunity,” she tells him. “I’ll have to set something up with Mrs. Lim when he’s feeling better.”

“Why are you so insistent on matching Liza up? She’s not even done with high school.”

Mom tuts. “Liza doesn’t have as many options as Jeannie. She’s got too big a mouth and doesn’t listen. If we don’t start now, she’ll end up alone for the rest of her life. Don’t you want her to be taken care of when we’re gone?”

“Don’t worry so much, lǎo pó. I’m not planning on keeling over anytime soon, and Liza’s a good girl. She’ll find someone when the time is right. Just let her be.”

“If I do that, she’ll bring home some American boy with divorced parents and tattoos everywhere.”

I choke on a sip of water. Why is Mom like this? I show her a picture of Ed Sheeran one time, and now she thinks I’m running off with someone like him. Meanwhile, she’s never said a word about my cousin Diana, who has roses tattooed on her rib cage.

Their footsteps are heading my way, so I grab my dirty dishes and put them in the sink. Mom insists the dishwasher doesn’t do a clean enough job, so we hand wash everything first. I rinse as Dad shovels a few bites in his mouth and packs the leftovers. He brings the other dishes over, and they get washed and carefully stacked in the racks too.

Mom immediately rearranges them. “If you put them like that, they won’t be completely clean. Next time, make sure to do it like this.”

I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from reminding her I’ve already washed them once. Instead, I finish up and have a seat on the living room couch while they head back to their room to watch their favorite Chinese soap opera. I promised Grace I’d call her after dinner, but since my bedroom shares a wall with theirs, I don’t want Mom eavesdropping. She picks up on the third ring.

“Spill the tea, girl.”

I recount the premature end to dinner. Grace bursts out laughing.

“I can’t believe he didn’t even bother showing up!”

“Believe it. This is exactly why I don’t date Asian guys,” I confide in a low voice. “They’re all like this.”

“That’s not true! I’ve dated plenty who are super nice.”

“That’s because you have options, Grace. All the guys want to date you,” I tell her, twirling the hoop on my ear. “So do all the girls. You’re perfect, unlike me.”

“Don’t say that, Liza. You’re gorgeous, smart, and super sweet,” she says firmly. “Guys are just dumb.”

“That’s not what my mom thinks.”

“I’m sorry,” she tells me. “I don’t know why your mom says those things to you. They’re totally not true.”

I shrug even though she can’t see me. “It’s just how she is. I’ve gotten used to it.”

“Do you think she’ll quit setting you up now?”

“I doubt it. She’s harder to shake than Lebron. It’s only a matter of time before she’s at it again.”

“What are you going to do when she does?” Grace asks.

“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. I have to.” I sigh, standing up and heading to the kitchen for a cup of tea. “Change the subject, will you?”

“Okay. Remember Ben from the Korean restaurant?”

“Yeah, why?”

“So, he asked for my number, and we’ve been texting every night this week. Sometimes during the day too.”

She pauses. I hear an intake of breath, but nothing follows.

My hand freezes on my favorite mug. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s just . . . I don’t know if he likes me as much as I like him.”

There’s a softness, a tinge of anxiety, in her voice I haven’t heard in a long time. Ever since Eric cheated on her, Grace hasn’t let anyone get close to her. She inevitably breaks things off with whomever she’s dating as soon as she starts to catch major feels.

“Why would you think that?” I finally ask. “You just told me he’s been texting you constantly.”

“I know, but he hasn’t technically asked me out yet. We just talk about random stuff and where our families are from.”

I pour water into the kettle and turn the burner on.

“It sounds like he’s trying to get to know you better.”

She sighs heavily. “But what if he just wants to be friends? I really, really like him, Liza.”

I think back to Tofu City. Ben was getting plenty of attention while we were at dinner, but he spent nearly all his time talking to her.

“Grace, I have yet to meet a living, breathing human who doesn’t have a crush on you.”

“You didn’t,” she teases. “And you’ve been living and breathing around me since sixth grade.”

“I didn’t want to risk our friendship.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re all talk. I’m too good for you anyway,” Grace drawls.

“I’m not going to argue that.”

We both giggle. The kettle starts to whistle, and I pull it off the burner before it wakes Mom and Dad. After pouring the hot water into my mug, I clear my throat.

“Maybe Ben’s just shy. Remember when you thought Christina didn’t like you? Three months later, you guys were dating. Give it some time. He’ll ask you out.”

“You really think so?”

“I’d bet you a summer’s worth of boba,” I assert, steeping the tea leaves. “That’s how sure I am.”

I hear something go off on her end of the phone. She squeals.

“He’s texting me now!”

“See?” I cut her off before she can offer an apology. “Go make him fall in love with you.”

After we hang up, I tiptoe back into my room and grab my laptop before plopping onto my bed. I forgo the overhead light and leave only the delicate fairy strands hanging above my head. They cast a soft, golden glow over the wall of books across from me. Their spines form a rainbow, arranged by genre and author.

I place my laptop on the lap desk and pull up Ashes of Love on Netflix. The Chinese actors talk too fast for me to keep up, so I turn on the English subtitles. It started out kind of slow, but between the gorgeous costumes and epic romance, I’m completely hooked on this C-drama. It doesn’t hurt that Deng Lun and Luo Yunxi are ridiculously hot in period clothes.

Who needs a date when I have them?


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