Stop and Smell the Orange Peels

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“But it’s your birthday, Daddy-ah.”

“Yes, I know, honey,” my dad replied in Chinese. He emptied the pockets of the jeans he wore yesterday, and shook his head.

“Why do you have to go to work on your birthday?” I cried in English, trotting after him as he rushed from room to room.

“That’s the way it is, Wing Wa. It doesn’t matter if it’s your birthday. People still have to eat. They love Chinese food everyday, even on Daddy-ah’s birthday.” He lifted the latest issue of my mom’s celebrity magazine with pretty Hong Kong starlets on the cover. She buys a new issue every Sunday morning during grocery runs into Chinatown. Daddy-ah flipped an old issue of TV Guide across the coffee table. Pillows and cushions flew in the air above the couch. He stopped, put his hands on hips and sighed long and loudly. “Where are they?” he grumbled.

I stared at him, a sour look on my face. It wasn’t fair. Mommy-ah promised we would make a special dinner for Daddy-ah’s birthday. I twirled the end of my shirt around my index and middle fingers. I didn’t want him to go to work. He was going to ruin everything.

He knelt beside me and held both my hands. “Listen, I’ll be home early, okay Wing Wa?”

“When?” I smiled. “When?”

“Early,” he replied as he rose, heading for the hall table covered with bills and my latest paintings from Ms. Jennings’ art class.

“When, Daddy-ah? When? What time?” I followed closely behind him.

“Uh…,” he mumbled absently, tossing onto the floor junk mail and my favorite drawing of our yellow house with our family waving beside it. “Aha!” he exclaimed. He jiggled his keys in the air.

I tugged hard on his trousers, annoyed that he was ignoring me. “When, Daddy-ah?”

“Uh,…nine. I’ll try to sneak out right after the dinner rush hour. I’ll be home by nine o’clock.”

I smiled. My teacher just finished showing my class at school how to read Mr. O’Clock. “Oh, I know, I know. That’s when the little hand is on nine,” my voice rose in excitement, “and the big hand is on…” I paused. What did that look like again on Mr. O’Clock? “No, wait. I mean…”

He started moving towards the front door.

“Wait! I remember now.”

“Tell me when I get home,” he shouted without turning around. “Daddy-ah’s really late for work.” He ran to his car. “I’ll bring you home an eggroll.”

I jumped up and down. “Okay, goodie!” Daddy-ah would often sneak home an eggroll from the restaurant kitchen. Sometimes if I was really lucky there would be a mix-up on a customer order and the kitchen would make an extra chicken lo mein or pork fried rice by mistake, and Daddy-ah would bring it home to me. “Bye Daddy-ah,” I screamed.

He waved as his car passed.

I waved back, but he had already turned the corner. “Bye Daddy-ah,” I said in a small voice. I closed the front door and ran into the kitchen. Pulling up a stool, I sat in front of our flower covered clock, unlike Mr. O’Clock at school who has big black eyes and a mustache, and waited for nine o’clock.

***
“Where’s Daddy-ah?” I whined. “Is it nine o’clock yet?” I’ve been waiting all day. I stared at the flower clock on the wall with its little black hand and its big black hand, but I couldn’t remember how my teacher showed us on Mr. O’Clock how to read it.

Mommy-ah glanced up at the clock, as she ran around the kitchen. She had three burners going, the oven on, and the sink running. “It’s past nine,” she finally answered.

“But Daddy-ah said he’ll be home at nine o’clock.”

“Daddy-ah’s going to be late.”

“Why? He promised.”

“A big party showed up and he has to stay until they finish,” my mother explained.

“What party? We’re supposed to have Daddy-ah’s party here. You promised,” I screamed.

“Shh, you’ll wake up your brother. Why don’t you go put your jacket on and sit on the porch and watch for Daddy-ah. It’s like Indian Summer out there today.” She wiped the sweat off her brow.

Mommy-ah never cooked. I didn’t even know she could. It was always Daddy-ah who made our meals on the weekends when he was home to eat. He usually ate at the restaurant, and Mommy-ah would buy me McDonald’s happy meals.

“What’s Indian Summer?” I asked. I didn’t want to go outside. I wanted to start Daddy-ah’s birthday party.

“It means it’s really warm for this time of the year. It will probably be snowing by Christmas in a few weeks. So this is the last you can go out and play. Now go.”

My tummy rumbled. “But I’m hungry.”

Mommy-ah didn’t answer me.

“Can I have an orange?”

Mommy-ah nodded absently.

I grabbed an orange from the bowl of fruit on the counter and handed it to her. “Start it for me.”

Mommy-ah wiped her hands quickly on her pants and dug her fingers into the peel, pulling it back just enough to give a peek of the orange underneath.

“Thanks,” I said. I pulled on my jacket and skipped out to the porch to watch for Daddy-ah. I sat down on the porch steps. Oranges were my favorite food. I loved peeling them as much as eating them. It was like unwrapping a present. Sometimes I could spend up to half an hour at it, like today. Maybe by the time I finished Daddy-ah would be home. I fumbled with the slippery orange, its juices squeezing out all over my hands and onto the front of my jacket. I heard Mommy banging around in the kitchen. I wondered if she knew what she was doing.

After I swallowed the last juicy morsel, I looked at the pile of orange peels that sat neatly on the stoop beside me. Small pieces of orange still clung to the skin, peeking out at me throughout the stack. With fingers still sticky and grimy, I arranged and rearranged the small orange peel pieces. An image of a flower slowly emerged. I smiled at my work. If Ms. Jennings could see this, she would be sure to say, “How lovely. Great job,” as she always said about my artwork. Art was my favorite class. Occasionally Mommy popped her head out the door to check up on me, but I barely noticed.

Finally Mommy stepped out of the door and said, “Time to wash up for dinner. Hurry up. Daddy-ah’ll be home soon.”

“Wait, I’m almost done. It’s a present for Daddy-ah’s birthday. It’s a flower. Will Daddy like it?”

“Oh yes. He’ll love it. Now let’s go inside and wash up.”

“Will he be able to see it down here? He won’t miss it, will he?”
“He’ll see it. We’ll leave on the porch light and it’ll be the first thing he sees when he gets home. Now hurry up and get ready before he arrives.”

***
“You’re back,” Lea announced, as she breezed into my office. “How was the presentation, Wing Wa? Were the slides okay?”

I looked up from behind my desk, a fortress of papers, books, and reports. “They were fine. I just jotted some minor changes that I need made before I have to present it to Carl’s group next week,” I said. I handed her my notes.
Lea scanned the paper quickly, and said, “Okay, no problem.” She gave me a handful of small pink slips. “Your messages,” she said. “Also a bunch of calls went directly into your voicemail. Coleman stopped by. He needs your analysis of the “Shamrock” project by this afternoon. And your father called again.”

“Oh that’s right!” I said. “I need to call him back. He’s left several messages.” Lately, my routine has been home to catch five hours of sleep, shower, and return to work. Exhaustion filled my sigh as I tossed papers and rearranged several stacks, trying to locate my phone.

“Did your father get the watch?” Lea asked. “I made sure I sent it off last Tuesday so it would arrive right on his birthday.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet. It’s probably why he’s calling now. That and trying to figure out my plans for Christmas.”
“Are you going home for Christmas this year?”

“I should. I haven’t been for a couple years.” But it didn’t matter. Christmas and Thanksgiving weren’t my family’s holidays anyway. They were from China. Chinese New Year’s was their holiday, but I haven’t found time to go home for that either.

I pulled out the receiver, its cord squeezing through the pages of the “Shamrock” report, and dialed my father’s number. While the phone rang on the other end, I motioned for Lea not to leave. “See if you can get Pamela on the phone for me and fax this to Coleman…where did I put that now?” I exclaimed, lifting and reshuffling the piles once again. “Hello?” a quiet voice said in the phone.

“Oh,…yes, hi Daddy-ah.”

“Wing Wa!” The delight in my father’s voice was unmistakable. “How are you?” he asked in Chinese.

“Fine, Daddy-ah. Happy birthday…belated birthday, that is. Sorry I haven’t had a chance to call,” I replied in English.

“That’s okay. I know you’re busy. Thank you for the watch. I got it right on my birthday, as usual,” he said, switching over to English so I could understand. My rudimentary Chinese had gotten much worse over the years.

“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “So what did you do on your birthday? Did Pete come home?”

“What…for my birthday? Oh no, not for my birthday. Your brother hasn’t been home for a visit in months. I think he’s busy with a new girlfriend or something. Peter is always—” “Oh, here it is. Fax this.”

“What’s that Wing Wa?”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t talking to you, Daddy-ah.”

“Oh.”

There was a short pause as I gave more instructions to Lea. “Listen Daddy-ah. I’ve got to go. I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday.”

“Well thank you. Will you be coming home for Christmas this year? Your mother was hoping you could make it for a visit. We missed you at Thanksgiving.”

“I don’t know. I have so much work to do. I have a bunch of end-of-the-year deadlines.”

“Well, try,” he said. “Take care of yourself. Don’t work too hard.”

“Bye, Daddy-ah.” I hung up and quickly returned to my papers.

***
I scanned the long to-do list for next week’s strategy meeting with the business group leaders in Tokyo. There were only two items checked off. Looking at my overflowing desk, the messy open file cabinets, and the overheads scattered throughout the office, I sighed loudly in exasperation.
Lea walked in with her hands full. “This just came in for you.” She held out a FedEx package from her left hand.

I motioned for her to put it on my desk. “Did you get the summaries from Gary?”

“Yep, here they are,” Lea said handing me what was in her right hand.
I let the summaries drop hard on her desk. The fortress shook, papers and piles threatened to crumble. I reached out just in time to catch the FedEx package as it slid off my desk.

A few other items did fall, but I didn’t notice. I recognized the return address on the package. It was from Daddy-ah.

“An early Christmas present?” Lea asked.

I opened it and pulled out a frame. “Oh,” I gasped. It was a design of a flower, with its petals made of orange peels, pressed neatly behind the glass. The attached card read: Stop and smell the…orange peels!
I smiled, warm tears blurred my vision. Holding the picture close to my chest, I walked over to my window and opened the shades, letting the late afternoon sunshine fill the room for the first time in weeks. As I stared at the peach hues peeping through the glass skyline, I said, “Lea, book me a flight home for Christmas please.”

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