A fortune-teller told me I had drowned myself in a previous life in Ancient China. Apparently my parents had arranged for me to marry a rich but old government official and, in absolute protest, my past self found a fast-moving river and jumped in, defiantly thinking Don’t you tell me what to do as I succumbed to the cold torrents. This final act in that life, the fortune-teller said, etched itself into my soul for me to carry the trauma for all reincarnations.
My friend Jessica was sitting next to me at the time, translating. She nudged me after explaining that part and said, eyebrows raised, “No wonder you have such a problem with authority.”
I regarded the fortune-teller from across the small glass table. I could see through the crocheted tablecloth, down to her shoes. She was wearing gym socks with Adidas slides, a surprise considering her elegant floral cheongsam and neat bun of white hair held by a jade pin. Then again, she could wear whatever she wanted – this apartment, which sat above an herbal apothecary here in Chinatown, was her home.
When the fortune-teller looked me in the eye, she at least did it without the pity that many other Chinese offered when they were told I could only speak English. She spoke in even tones to Jessica who then relayed the information to me with a lot more inflection, so entertained was she by my fate.
“Oh, this is great! She says your cousin has been following you for eons.” She clapped her hands together, giggling.
“He doesn’t even like me,” I replied, struggling to suppress my irritation. So much of my life had been spent waiting for him to warm up to me. His indifference still stung, even though he was now a freshman at Yale. In fact, the distance made it worse. Made his frostiness seem permanent.
Jessica laughed. “Doesn’t like you? That’s not what she says. Maybe this explains why he can speak Chinese so well.”
I rolled my eyes. “He only learned because he went to some fancy prep school where that’s encouraged for careers in international trade and finance.”
Despite her limited grasp of English, it seemed the fortune-teller knew that Jessica had not told me the full story, because she waved her hand as if to urge her to tell me more.
“You’re destined for love in this lifetime, but you are stubborn and will feel like the choice has been made for you. So you’ll run. Try not to run.”
“Run?” I attempted to rearrange my expression into one of impassiveness. I couldn’t hold it. “From where? The Bay Area?”
“No, from him. From Jack.”
I turned from Jessica to the fortune-teller. “No offense, but that’s beyond crazy. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
By the time we left, it was after three. The rain had stopped but the sky was still marbled gray. A cable car trundled past, managing the incline. On the sidewalk, I glanced at the apothecary window, unable to read the signs presumably hawking herbal cures. I then caught sight of my reflection.
For a second, before the fear took over, my reflection looked pleased.
When Jack called during my lunch break at work, I let it go to voicemail. I’d already heard about his broken engagement from my parents at dinner last night.
Mom had chosen a well-reviewed “raw” restaurant in Haight-Ashbury. Dad and I took bets on how much we were going to regret our selections from the menu: kale “chips,” cashew “cheese” on seeded flatbread, lupin tempeh curry, zucchini “pasta” with walnut “bolognese,” and beetroot “ravioli” with mock “refried beans” and nut “sour cream.” There were so many quotation marks that Dad and I began punctuating our conversation with air quotes, marking random details as hypotheticals.
“So, it’s a ‘Chapter 11 bankruptcy’ and the list for ‘discovery’ is twenty-three pages long,” he explained, deadpan. “It’s going to be a ‘fun’ trial and we’re still in the pre-trial stages.”
Mom intervened. “Roger, quit with the quotation marks. And don’t make fun of the menu. The food is going to be amazing. Rita tried this place last week and swears by it.”
“Does she?” I asked, playing along. “Would she ‘swear’ her life on it?”
Dad burst out laughing. Mom cracked a smile and shook her head. I grinned at them both and basked in the amazingness of having a family, something I’ve always taken care to do – even now that I’m thirty-five – because had it not been for these two, I would’ve grown up in an orphanage in the small Chinese city of Jiaozuo.
“Aimee, I’m guessing you haven’t heard about Jack?” Mom asked.
I shook my head. “What about him?”
Dad leaned back in his chair. “I got a call from your Uncle Kurt. It’s happened again.”
Mom leaned forward in her chair. “Jack ended it with Ashley. That’s four fiancées he’s had in fifteen years – and he’s dumped every one of them.”
I sat up straighter. “Four is an unlucky number in Chinese culture. Or so I’m told.”
“By that logic, he’ll have to find four more to get lucky again,” Dad said. “That’s the lucky number, right? Eight?”
I wasn’t sure if it was the fermented beetroot or the activated nuts or the uncooked zucchini, but something was churning in my stomach. For the rest of the night I kept thinking about discovery and what should be disclosed to the other side, like in a trial. Although I love working with Mom at her luxury travel agency, there are times when I wonder how I would have done if I’d followed my dad and Uncle Kurt into law, and last night was one of those times. Was it fair that I hadn’t told Jack what that fortune-teller said to me eighteen years ago?
We circled back to the subject of Jack over raw cheesecake. Dad had suggested it would be nice if I texted or called to check he was okay. I always had to be prompted.
“It’s late on the east coast,” I’d said, tapping my watch. “I’ll call him tomorrow.”
Now it is tomorrow and I don’t want to return the call. Instead, I return to my desk and check my emails, the second one being a request to plan a honeymoon to China.
A river cruise on the Yangtze.
Before Uncle Kurt was appointed to the Supreme Court and the family moved to D.C., he lived in Sacramento with Aunt Gabrielle and my three cousins: Jack, a year older; Samuel two years younger; and Lisa, five years younger. The ninety-minute drive between us meant we were able to see each other often, usually every other weekend. We’d vacation together too, twice heading down as far as San Diego but preferring Anaheim for its packaged family fun. By the time of our final trip together, I was twelve and could navigate both Disneyland and California Adventure Park without a map.
Jack had always treated me differently than Samuel and Lisa had. Whereas they would cling onto me when we played together, climbing all over me and laughing, Jack always hung back from me, aloof. He was polite by children’s standards, never teasing nor excluding, but it was like he knew from the beginning that something was off between us. A strangeness. I was adopted when I was nine months old. Perhaps he’d been able to detect, even as a toddler, that I was different, and so it became ingrained in him that caution was required. I desperately yearned for his approval – to be embraced, to be played with – until at some point I learned that I would have to live with the ache. If I pushed my luck, he pulled back farther; there was push and pull but no coming together.
I knew even as a child that this was a source of quiet embarrassment for his parents. Every smile I had from them carried a hint of sheepishness. Each visit, they went out of their way to make sure I was treated equally to – if not more favorably than – Jack. I received treats first and was given more piggyback rides and high fives. It was only on that final trip to Disneyland that I heard Uncle Kurt and my dad directly discussing the guilt.
“I no longer think it’s dislike,” Uncle Kurt said. “I watch him watch her. He’s always watching her.”
The brothers were standing in the middle of a thoroughfare. It was evening and the fireworks were due soon. I’d gone up to a dessert cart with everyone else to get ice cream and, with Aunt Gabrielle insisting I go first, I already had my order. On the way back, I stopped when I was in earshot of the conversation, letting streams of people make their way around me.
“They get along just fine,” Dad said gently. “Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
The thing with Jack was that whenever I caught him staring, he would not look away. He didn’t seem to think he was doing anything wrong.
So I would be the one to avert my gaze, dejected again.
Jack’s voice. He was next to me now.
Sure enough, vanilla was dripping onto my fingers, sticky and runny.
“Oh.” I wiped my hand with a napkin.
“Are you glad I’m moving away?”
I looked at him dubiously. “Why would I be glad? You’re my cousin.”
He frowned before chomping down on the top of his ice cream, cracking the chocolate shell. “We’re not blood-related, though,” he said, licking his lips.
“I don’t think you and I are supposed to be family.”
My response was slow and sad. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”
“No, it’s not.”
“You’re saying I shouldn’t have been adopted.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Then what’s your problem?”
A conga line of little girls each dressed as Tinker Bell interrupted our conversation, fluttering through the crowd, giggling and waving their magic wands. Their movements drew our parents’ attention our way. Uncle Kurt’s brow furrowed. I tried not to look at the adults. I didn’t want to know what they were thinking. I wanted the sky to explode.
There’s a story about two souls with bad timing.
In some lifetimes, they never meet at all. In others, they are “near misses,” their hosts passing by each other but never colliding. Things get particularly interesting, however, when one is reincarnated late.
In the Zhou dynasty, one of the souls returned to Earth fifty years later than the other. The soul’s host was a female child in a noble household, who enjoyed the spoils of her father’s rank in the feudal structure. She was a beauty, receiving marriage proposals from men all over the land when she came of age. One day, a man in his sixties who had amassed tremendous wealth and power as a feudal overlord made a bid that the girl’s father accepted. Incensed that her father had chosen such an old suitor, one rumored to be cruel, the girl drowned herself in a river, the irrepressible current pulling her out of this life in less than a minute.
What she hadn’t known was that the man had been watching from the other side of the riverbank. He had dismounted his horse and run to the water’s edge, but hesitated at the strength of the current. An attempt to save her would surely kill him too. When she disappeared from sight, the man’s heart began to burn from the inside. He coughed up black blood into his hands. His horse brayed and bolted, his master having changed somehow, enough for a tamed animal to flee for the wilderness in fear.
Once, in my junior year at UCLA, Jack showed up outside my dorm unannounced. It was a Friday night and I had just gotten back from parking in the hills with Eddie. Eddie was the first guy of Chinese descent I ever dated. He was tall and bronzed – a water polo player. Since it was past midnight, he was walking me back to my dorm building, and I was hoping my roommate Carla would still be out at a party so I could bring him inside. I couldn’t get enough of Eddie. I liked his lopsided smirk, the way he pinned me down in the back seat or bent me over the hood. Somehow he made me feel like I was calling the shots, even from that position.
I thought I was seeing things when Jack came into view. I wasn’t high – I didn’t like anything that reduced my sense of control – but I questioned my sanity nonetheless. I checked my phone. No missed calls or texts. I hadn’t missed any warnings. Yet now that I knew he was here I felt pulled towards him again, and it took all my energy to suppress how badly I wanted him to acknowledge me.
He didn’t look at me as we approached, his gaze was fixed on Eddie. Protective, Eddie put an arm around my waist, prompting Jack to finally say something.
“Aimee. We need to talk.”
“What are you doing here?”
Eddie bristled. “Who is this guy?”
“He’s my cousin Jack.”
“Oh, Justice Reardon’s son. Cool.” Eddie extended his free hand. “I’m Eddie.”
Jack was late to reciprocate the gesture, likely taking the time to calculate the cost of any rudeness. “Nice to meet you.”
“Something must be wrong if you’re here,” Eddie replied.
I didn’t like that he was speaking for me. But maybe he wasn’t speaking for me. Maybe he was simply stating the obvious.
“Eddie, I’ll catch you tomorrow?” I said, trying to sound sorry.
“Yeah, babe. Text me.”
He gave me a quick kiss on the lips and jogged back to his car. I thought it was odd that he was half-running. Did he sense bad news? If so, shouldn’t he be on standby just in case?
“He seems nice,” Jack ground out.
I folded my arms across my chest. I was only wearing a slinky tank top with shorts. After all, it was Los Angeles in spring. I wondered if he could smell the sex on me.
“Did something bad happen? Why didn’t you call?”
“Nothing happened.” He looked me up and down. “You’re really tanned. It’s weird.”
“Why? Because I look like a villager?” That was what Jessica had said when we reunited over summer. In Asia, women went out of their way to bleach their skin lighter; brown skin meant you were of lower class, working in the fields.
Jack narrowed his eyes. “No, because you’re from San Fran. But thanks for thinking I’m racist.”
I had considered in the past that he might be racist, because that would explain him treating me differently. That was before the fortune-teller, though.
I sighed. “You came all the way from New Haven just to see me?”
"Why would I do that?" he asked.
For a moment, I thought he might cry in frustration. His fists clenched and unclenched. The intensity behind his eyes wasn’t right, and I wanted him to know that. Instead I said, “Oh, I don’t know. To convince me to take the LSATs in June?”
“I want to go to Disneyland,” he said. “I have a rental car. You drive.” He dug into his pocket and tossed me a set of keys.
“You can’t be serious?” He was serious.
Zooming down the I-5 at that time of night was intermittently cathartic. I sped in bursts, as if testing Jack’s patience. Maybe I wanted him to feel sick. The car was a shift stick – perfect for someone raised in a hilly city – and I weaved like a NASCAR driver whenever there was traffic. It was like being in a video game. I realized at some point that I wasn’t angry at Jack – I was angry at myself for being pleased to see him. Thrilled at the idea of our twisted fate.
What was wrong with me? How could I even entertain the fortune-teller’s stories? I had the power to make my own decisions. After all, I was gifted a second chance after China’s one-child policy led to my abandonment. I had no time for fakers, sycophants, scammers, stress, or mediocrity. I didn’t want to take the LSATs because I didn’t want a life in an adversarial system. I just wanted to work with my mom, who let me answer to myself, and make people’s vacation dreams reality. Making dreams come true was in fact our motto.
“Which hotel are we going to?” I asked on the approach into Anaheim.
“Any. You pick.”
I chose a family-friendly motel opposite the main theme park. The night manager didn’t ask why Jack and I requested two beds even though we had the same last name and were checking in at a ridiculous hour with only one duffel bag – Jack’s – between us.
The first thing I did when we got to the room was take a shower so I could feel clean, but I forgot that guilt doesn’t wash off with soap. Jack was sitting on his bed, mindlessly watching infomercials when I came out of the bathroom in the same clothes and a towel wrapped around my head. The infomercials all involved white people needing special tools because they couldn’t handle simple tasks like cutting up a banana, putting on a shoe, or pouring milk from a full bottle without spilling it everywhere. The solution was always “easy” and paid in “four easy installments.”
I kept to my side of the room and dimmed the lights. “How’s Stacey?” His girlfriend he never mentioned when we spoke.
“Her family wants me to propose. Gave me the family ring to give back to her.”
“So when are you going to do it?”
There was a long silence. On the television, a woman tried to cut a loaf of bread with a doorstop.
Jack flung me an accusatory look. “You know what, Ames? I couldn’t describe it when I was a kid, but I can now. It’s like I’ve always known you had already broken my heart.”
Tears pricked my eyes. “What are you talking about?” I knew exactly what he was talking about. “You’ve always kept me at arm’s length.”
“Because getting close to you makes me feel like I’m dying.” He pounded his chest. “Right fucking here.”
I saw his pain and I felt my own, but it was too dangerous – laying claim to the affection I’d wanted my whole life. I would not be able to control what happened to us.
“It’s late, Jack. Let’s not say anything stupid.” I got into bed and turned away from him.
He laughed bitterly.
I shut my eyes tightly. The ache flared in my chest. A separate ache flared between my legs. “I’m sure Stacey will make you very happy.”
He didn’t say anything after that.
As soon as I was sure he was asleep, I fled downstairs and caught a bus back to LA. Running away, in tears, from the Happiest Place on Earth.
There’s a story about two souls meeting too early. From the beginning, it was already too late.
I go straight home after work, hoping to forget all about the Yangtze River, only to find Jack waiting outside my apartment building. He looks handsome but tired in his suit and overcoat. The standard visual of a successful East Coast attorney. I forget to breathe, and he watches as I inhale sharply, like he knows I’m taking in more than air.
“I want a hot chocolate,” he says, as if he’s merely walked from around the corner. “Ghirardelli Square?”
“Sure.” I’m not sure.
“Let’s take a cable car.”
As the cable car rattles down Hyde Street towards Fisherman’s Wharf, Jack keeps his attention on the road, scanning. He has one arm wrapped around a pole and he’s leaning slightly forward, foot on the edge of the carriage. My heart begins to race, thinking he’s crazy enough to jump, but then I regain my senses and remember we’re traveling at less than ten miles per hour.
Fisherman’s Wharf is touristy. I only ever come when entertaining visitors. It’s all souvenirs and trinkets, taffy and candy.
When we were kids, though, our parents used to take us to the Ghirardelli factory and treat us to chocolate sundaes. For Chinese New Year one time, the café put fortune cookies into the sundaes, which was delicious except I accidentally ate part of my fortune because it had fallen out the cookie. I had the lucky numbers: 12, 17, 21, 35, but the ending was swallowed.
“Actually, I need something stronger,” Jack says. “Let’s get an Irish coffee.”
So we alight at the last stop on the line for the Buena Vista Café instead. My panic accelerates as soon we walk in. Jack chooses two stools at the end of the bar and orders for us. He taps his fingers on the bar and I know what’s coming. I ask myself whether I could’ve prevented this moment or whether it was always a fixed point, like a stop on the Powell/Hyde cable car route, and all I’d done was slow the pace of the journey, so slow I couldn’t feel it, like the Earth’s rotation.
The Irish coffees arrive. Jack takes a long swig and then pivots to face me. I avert my gaze when I hear the dull thud of a velvet box being placed on the bar between us.
“I bought it in LA for you, a long time ago.”
I feel a pinch in the pit of my stomach and imagine the imprint of the unseen fortune, except you can’t imagine something you’ve never seen. Which means I control what happens next.
Belinda Hermawan is a HR professional/lawyer from Perth, Western Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in Westerly, Going Down Swinging, and Typishly. This summer she was selected for Winter Tangerine's “Sing That Like Dovesong” workshop for people of color. She also sits on the committee for the Australian Short Story Festival 2018.