The following is excerpted from XiXi Tian’s new novel, “This Place is Still Beautiful.” Tian was born in China and immigrated to the United States when she was a year old. She grew up in central Illinois. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in history and then attended Harvard Law School. She is a tech lawyer by day and a writer by night. She lives outside of New York City. You can visit her online at www.xixiwrites.com. Read Mochi’s review of “This Place is Still Beautiful” and get your copy today.
It’s clear that Thom has known forever where he would go.
I’m kind of jealous. Margaret was the same way. She knew, probably from when she was seven years old, that she was going to go to New York City, either Columbia or NYU. “I’m moving to New York, and I’m never coming back to this backwater,” she announced in high school to Mama. To her credit, she followed through on it. She won’t even come back this summer.
Me, on the other hand . . . I have always thought it would be great to see somewhere new. And yet. Some part of me finds it hard to say goodbye to this place. Margaret might not have been able to, but I see the beauty in where we live. I love the warm-weather sunsets, the golden stretches of corn in late summer that
go so far that they seem to touch the edge of the horizon. I don’t know how you could go out on a crisp winter night and not love the soft, deep silence that coats a small town after a heavy snow.
I would miss being somewhere I know every corner of. There’s magic in those things too.
“Where do you think you’ll want to go?” Thom asks.
“I don’t know.” For a second, the fear of the future completely overwhelms me, but then Thom pats my hand. My heart flutters, and I’m back in the present.
“You’ll figure it out,” he says, confident. This close to me, I can see his light brown freckles against his tan skin. I want to get even closer.
My phone rings. It’s Mama. A flash of annoyance. Why is she calling me now? I want to ignore it, but I have this thing where I can’t reject phone calls, because I’m convinced it’s an emergency and something terrible has happened.
Of course, it’s usually just that she wants to know what to make for dinner, or something equally unimportant.
“Sorry, it’s my mom,” I say to Thom, and I answer the phone. “Hello?”
“Jingling,” Mama says. Her voice is quiet and muffled.
I’m immediately alert.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” I say urgently.
“Can you come home?” she says softly in Chinese. My mother is normally upset in only one direction: angry. The only time I’ve ever heard her cry was when Margaret left for college. She didn’t even cry when Dad left. I’m alarmed to hear her voice wobbling on the other end of the line.
“What’s wrong?” I repeat again, louder.
“Bad men came to our house.”
My insides crawl with panic. “Call the police. I’m coming home.”
“Police won’t help. They’re already gone, Jingling. Come home now.” She hangs up.
My ears are ringing. I don’t know what’s happened, but I know that it’s bad.
I turn to Thom. “I have to go home right now.”
He looks really concerned, and we exchange phone numbers just in case I need anything. I’m so stressed that I don’t even have it in me to be excited that Thom now has my number. “Can you call me so I know you’re okay?” he says as I start walking to my car.
“Yeah, of course,” I say, but it comes out without thinking. He’s the farthest thing from my mind. All of a sudden, this day has completely changed.
* * *
The entire drive home feels like a never-ending dream. It’s a miracle I don’t run any traffic lights or get into an accident. But then again, I’m so used to the roads in this town that I could probably drive home with my eyes closed.
My mind is racing the whole time. Did someone break in? Is Mama hurt? Did anything get stolen? Even though my family isn’t rich, Mama likes to keep some valuables at home. I know she keeps a hidden lockbox of gold jewelry in her bedroom. Twenty-four- carat gold. Real gold, she used to say, all heirloom jewelry from her mother in China. She took it out once to show my sister and me. She said she was keeping it for when we get married. She doesn’t trust putting it at the bank. She wants it where she can see it. I can’t imagine how she’ll feel if somebody stole that.
We’ll be able to find it, I tell myself. We’ll file a police report, and surely, they’ll be able to catch the guys who did it. This town is small, and people talk. It’s not even sundown. Somebody must have come in broad daylight. Somebody will have seen.
I turn the corner on our street in slow motion. The house comes into view. It’s a small Craftsman, the same one that we’ve lived in since I was a baby. I know every inch of it.
I know the parts of the front railing that have white paint chipped off, leaving the wood exposed.
I know the panel of vinyl siding that has fallen off, which we’ve never bothered to replace.
I know how the drainage pipe on the side of the house is slightly askew.
I would be able to identify anything different about it in a heartbeat. But I don’t have to look very close to see what happened. Our house faces west, which was not Mama’s preferred direction, but my dad had talked her into it. This tidbit surfaces to me, because I’m starting to believe that west might not have been auspicious after all, just like Mama believed: the afternoon sun shines bright on the front, like a spotlight, revealing everything.
The white garage door is marred with an ugly spray of bright red paint. At first, it just looks like scribbles of random graffiti, but then I read what it says.
Initially, it doesn’t even register, like it’s a word in a foreign language, or one that I’ve never read before. I read it again and again. I think it must be a mistake. Or a misspelling. Or maybe they meant something else.
My second thought, stupidly, is that I forgot until just now that I am Chinese.
The inside of my throat grows hot. My fingers are numb as I pull up onto the driveway, trying to shield the garage with my car. If it was a burglary, I’d know what to do. But I sit there for a minute, frozen. I keep staring at it, as if I’ve misread or I can divine another meaning if I just reread it enough times.
The word rings through my head, drowning out all other thoughts. I can’t interpret it. I can only listen to it endlessly in the prison of my skull.
I should call the police, but I don’t know if I even can get the words out of my mouth. I have to go inside and find Mama. But I can’t get out of the car.
So I do the only thing that swims through my confusion and pain. Hands shaking, I call my sister. And when she picks up, I start to cry.
Last modified: June 16, 2022