Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ghost Mirror

            Dorothy and I had known each other for ten years. We met at the Peninsula Humane Society in the 1990’s when I was working in customer service and she was working as a dispatcher. When I left to start my pet sitting business, we stayed in touch, and two years later I hired her as a part-time sitter. Being petite and not very strong, she was not comfortable walking dogs, but she was great with the cats. She helped me out on weekends and on her days off, and we often talked on the phone and met for lunch.
            Dorothy was one of those amazing people who, by the age of 25, had saved enough money to buy her own condo. During the booming economy of the mid-90’s, she was able to sell it for more than twice what she bought it for and move up to a cute house in San Mateo. She wanted to rent out her extra bedroom, and invited me to move in with her. At the time, I was still living with Bill, so I declined, but when we broke up a year later, she was the first one I called.
            “Still got that room for rent?”
            “Yeah, you want it?”
            “How soon can I come down?”
            She laughed. “How about next week?”

            A few days later, we were sitting in Sushi Sam’s, a very popular place in downtown San Mateo, enjoying dinner and discussing my moving in. Laughing, I popped another California roll into my mouth. “How is it,” I asked as I chewed, “That you’re Chinese, but I’m the one eating with chopsticks?”
            Making a mess of her roll while attempting to spear it onto the end of a fork, Dorothy replied, “I don’t know, we just never used them.”
            Finally getting the roll into her mouth and eaten, Dorothy continued, “My parents wanted us to be totally American. They thought we wouldn’t get ahead if we acted Chinese. They only allowed us to speak English.”
            What a shame, I thought. This phenomenon is not uncommon in immigrant populations. Fearing that their children will experience the same prejudice and lack of opportunity that they did in the U.S., parents suppress their ethnicity in an attempt to make their families “totally American.” Culture and history become something to be ashamed of and are lost, sometimes never to be regained. As Dorothy could attest to, learning Cantonese as an adult – as she attempted to do at the community college – is damn near impossible.
            Finishing our dinner, we agreed on how much I would pay for the room and when I would move in. I left feeling a great sense of relief.

            “Okay, so we’ll meet tomorrow at 3 o’clock? Great, see you then!” I hung up the phone and jotted some notes on a piece of paper. I was sitting at Dorothy’s kitchen table clearing out my business voicemail while she sat in the living room watching TV. She was so petite that when she sat on the huge pink couch she disappeared into it. Her eyes were glued to the screen as they had been for several hours. She was hooked on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, and since she worked when the program was aired, and taped it during the week and watched them all, like a marathon, on the weekend.
            Looking up at her, I said, “How do you feel about a Cockatiel?” There was a delay as she peeled her eyes from the screen and swallowed the potato chip she’d just put in her mouth. “Do I have to let it out of the cage?”
            “No, just clean and feed through the cage. Once a day.”
            She considered for a moment, ate another chip. “Yeah, I can do that. Initial meeting is tomorrow?”
            “Mm-hm,” I nodded, looking again at my notes and smiling, “But there’s just one thing.”
            “What’s that?”
            “Don’t wear stripes.”

              Driving to the new client’s house, I wondered at the idiosyncrasies of people, and of their animals. According to Tweety the Cockatiel’s owner, he was a friendly bird as long as you weren’t wearing stripes. Evidently the wearing of such a pattern would cause him to respond very aggressively. Since I’d never worn stripes in my life, there was no danger of that occurring. Glancing at my notes, I made a left turn, then a right onto the cul-de-sac where Tweety resided. June was the name of the lady I was supposed to meet. Lucia, the owner, would be at work so her partner/roommate June would give me all the info and the key.
              “Hi! It’s the pet sitter!” I could hear someone walking around inside, and a bird chirping, but no one was answering the door. I heard a loud voice talking inside, to whom I wasn’t sure. “Hello?” I called out again, and finally the footsteps approached the door and it was opened. Before me stood a rather large woman with short-cropped dark hair, wearing what was either a large T-shirt or a small nightgown and yellow underpants. Her big white legs stuck out from under the shirt, and since she had no bra on her large breasts hung down to her waist. I was trying to be polite but it was impossible not to stare. Fortunately she didn’t notice; in fact, she just turned around, walked back into the house, and resumed talking to the bird.
            “Tweety, here’s your friend! This is your friend, Tweety! Here she is!” Her voice was loud and kind of strange, as if she was hearing-impaired. Tweety, a mostly-white bird with orange cheeks and a yellow head, raised the feathers on his crown and eyed me suspiciously. Birds, I had learned from my time pet sitting, tend to like the familiar and to distrust strangers. I had a few over the years who warmed up to me, even some of the big guys like Cockatoos and Amazons, but overall I left them alone unless they clearly wanted to be touched.
              Without looking at me, June launched into the care instructions. Bird seed, water, newspapers to line the cage... “Please take in the mail,” she said, pulling a small key out of a silver-plated decorative tea pot and heading for the door. I watched in amazement – and followed her, somewhat embarrassed – as she marched right out the door in her underpants and bare feet across the parking area to the group mail box for the town home community. She showed me their box and how to open it, then walked back in and returned the key to the tea pot. Glancing over my shoulder, I wondered if anyone saw her walking around like that. Oh well, I thought, she probably does it all the time.
            “Put the mail here.” She placed today’s mail on top of a rather large stack on the dining table. “And remember, don’t wear stripes!”

              “Underpants, and a T-shirt?” Dorothy couldn’t stop giggling. “For real?”

            “Yes, for real, in living color!” We laughed again.
            “Oh, um, would you mind…” Dorothy started, looking at the floor. It was her way of speaking when she needed a favor.
            “What?” I asked.
            “Could you fix the mirror? It’s turned around again.”
            “Sure.” I got up and went out the front door to where the ghost mirror was hanging. It was a windy Spring and a few good gusts would flip the thing around so that the mirror part was facing the wall instead of the street. For trying to make her a white-bread American, Dorothy’s parents had passed along a whole lot of Chinese superstitions; among other things, she believed in ghosts, signs, and the zodiac. The ghost mirror, an octagonal piece of wood with symbols painted in each of the eight sections and a round convex mirror in the middle, is an important tool for repelling bad spirits. Good spirits, who may want to help you, can enter the home freely, but those with bad intentions will look in the mirror and be bounced back by their own reflection. At the time I thought it was silly, but later, when my life got more difficult, I found myself embracing the wisdom and buying one for myself.

            The visits with Tweety went smoothly. Dorothy reported that she found everything okay and that the little bird seemed well. I did the visit on the last day, as Dorothy had to work at her other job. I walked in the front door and chuckled at the mental image of June in her unusual outfit. I approached Tweety’s cage and was surprised to see him wide-eyed and agitated. His cage was reasonably clean, and his food and water dishes were full, so I had no reason to believe that Dorothy hadn’t properly cared for him, or that anything else was wrong. Maybe he was just reacting to me as a stranger, since he hadn’t seen me since the initial visit. He eyed me suspiciously as I change the newspaper at the bottom of his cage, then removed his food and water dishes, refilled and replaced them. Shaking my head, I retrieved the mail box key from the silver tea pot and walked outside to get the mail. When I walked back in, I was startled by the sight of a person standing in the living room! Almost dropping the mail, I looked up and saw a small Hispanic woman holding a broom and dust pan. Oh yeah, Cecilia, the house keeper, I remembered. She comes on Fridays. Seeing me, she smiled and raised her hand. Tweety, already big-eyed, launched himself at her side of the cage and screeched like a banshee.
            “Hola!” said the Cecilia. “Pajaro loco, eh?” Crazy bird!
            Getting a closer look at the petite lady, I suddenly noticed what she was wearing. Old Navy was having a sale that week – I’d seen their Spring collection just the previous day, when I was shopping for pants. Evidently Cecilia had been to the same sale, and had purchased the v-neck t-shirt completely covered in dark pink and white stripes. 

1 comment:

Michelle Wing said...

What a great story! We had an African Grey for years, so I can attest to the behavior quirks. He hated new things, and eyed them very suspiciously. It could take us months to bring a new toy into his cage! Love the underpants. :)