I do not like casinos with the dimness and incessant noise of slot machines. I do not like the prospect of losing my hard earned money. However, if I could be anywhere on Saturday night, I would go to a place I have not been to in over two years. I would be at Foxwoods Casinos in Connecticut. It was the place my mother loved to take me. It was her place.
My mother discovered the joys of blackjack after she was forced to retire from her backbreaking twelve hour work days as a seamstress. Ma was proud of the fact that she was an immigrant who did not speak English but was able to function and have fun in a place where mainly English was spoken.
Ma and I went to Foxwoods together three, maybe four, times a year. She would convince me to play hooky from work, and we would ride the bus for two and a half hours to her favorite destination outside her Chinese community. Ma usually dozed off during the ride, but, upon arrival, she would snap to and be the first out of her seat, raring to go. We would hurry up the escalator and rush to the International Buffet restaurant because we would have had a small breakfast and be famished by that time, about 1:00 p.m. While on line, Ma would recite from memory for me what was on the menu depending on the day of the week it was.
After we stuffed ourselves on shrimp, ribs, pasta, and desserts. Ma would lead me to the non-smoking section of the casino where the blackjack tables were located. How she was able to find this section always mystified me because she could not read the signs and it was maze-like, each section looking like the one before.
Once in the proper section, Ma would walk up and down the aisles until she found a table with good karma. I liked watching Ma gamble and admired her cool demeanor. She would tap her index finger on the green felt-covered table to indicate she wanted another card. One horizontal wave of the hand meant another card was not necessary. Ma even mastered saying “ OJ” in order to request a glass of juice from the pretty barmaids who wandered the casino floors. I do not know how she learned all this. Ma did not even seem like my mother when she was at the blackjack table. She had a different persona, one of a woman who knew the ways of a gambler. She appeared very comfortable. Ma was not the nervous and fretful woman who had to rush to work and come home tired to cook and care for her kids.
I was glad to see this woman, who worked hard all her life because she was born into poverty, finally enjoy herself. On that casino floor, she was not my mother, a wife, or a nervous immigrant unable to communicate. She was the sophisticated gambler who, when she won, would leave the dealer a nice tip, push back from the table and summon me because it was time to take the return bus home. Ma would tip me, too, as we walked to the waiting bus. Ma had become the cool customer and she liked this role.
It has been over two years since my last trip with Ma to Foxwoods. Unbeknownst to me, it was my final time. Although the casino holds many happy memories for me, seeing my mother enjoying life, I cannot really return. It was her place. I can’t return without her.
I am standing beside my first grade teacher’s desk. Mrs. Eng is sitting and she has summoned me while the whole class is quietly working on some assignment at their desks. I feel small as I wait for her to tell me why she has called on me. She smiles down on me, but it is not a benevolent grin. It is the smile of a cat about to swallow its smaller prey.
“Do you know what you were doing when you did your addition last night?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“It shows.” she answers haughtily, raising her voice a bit so now the whole class can hear.
She smiles at me once again, that unkindly smile, pauses dramatically, and takes her red pencil and draws a huge, scarlet X on my homework sheet.
“Now take this home and have your mother sign it. I want her to know how stupid you are.”
I slink back to my seat with my head down. The whole class knows how dumb I am.
The next day Mrs. Eng catches me talking to a classmate while she is lecturing in front of the class. She walks over to me.
“What will it be, the scotch tape or the ruler?” she asks calmly.
“The ruler,” I say quietly.
I hold out my hand and she raps me hard on my palm three times, each successive hit harder than the one before. She smiles slightly as she turns on her high heels and walks jauntily back to the chalkboard. Hitting me gave her a bit of a rush because she stands a little straighter and seems more animated as she continues with the lesson.
“Why didn’t you just get the scotch tape?” David asked me during lunch. David was the boy I talked to during class time.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
David always opted for the scotch tape when he was caught for some minor infraction in class. Mrs. Eng would tape his mouth shut with two pieces of tape forming an X. He would sit like that for about a half hour or until Mrs. Eng remembered to remove the tape. I always chose the ruler because I wanted the humiliation to be over with quickly, besides the sting of the ruler never lasted as long as the sting of her comments, comments meant to shame and embarrass.
I don’t know why she took a dislike to David, but I suspected years later she hated me because she hated my sister, whom she had three years earlier. Mrs. Eng did not like my mother either. My child’s mind could not fathom a reason for her distaste for me or my family. I can only deduce now that perhaps her dislike stemmed from our being poor, poorer than the rest of the class. My sister wore my brother’s hand me downs and my mom cut our hair herself. We went to school with our hair sliced asymmetrically. This was way before asymmetrical hairstyles were popular.
I dreaded seeing Mrs. Eng everyday. I prayed for her to be absent, so that I could have a sweet substitute instead, a substitute who didn’t label me as stupid and homely because I wore second hand clothes. Unfortunately Mrs. Eng wasn’t absent very often. And every passing day with her convinced me more and more that I was stupid and would not make it to the second grade. Luckily, I did get promoted to the next grade.
Years later I ran into Mrs. Eng in the subway. She was shorter than I remembered, only about five feet two with her heels on. I looked at her and shuddered. It crossed my mind to tell her what she did to me and how I felt about her, but I couldn’t.
When I got close enough to her on that subway platform, I became six years old again - the stupid six-year-old that she told me I was more than thirty years ago. I turned and walked away from her.
Copyright © 2009, 2010 by Marcy Wong