The first time I’m at their house, the notes of the ice cream truck erase the quiet haze of the summer night. They immediately pour outside to chase it down, feet slapping on the hot pavement, shoes be damned.
They are gone before I realize what’s happening, a sweeping wave that has left me in the sand pit with his mother. Well, the crickets are playing a jazz ensemble tonight. I get up for some water, watching her from the corner of my eye as I crack open the wheezing fridge. Don’t worry this doesn’t happen a lot, she says, taking a long pull. I taught them this truck is ours. Green peeling paint. Crooked bumper. The speakers leak, doo-da dee doo-da. It takes me a moment for my decade of piano lessons to place the hopscotch of tones: Scott Joplin’s Entertainer.
How did you convince them? I ask. It is hard to believe that children could be fooled on matters as important as ice cream.
Well, the other ones might kidnap you, she says. Or, worse, only have cherry popsicles. I dip my head, only if not to look in awe at her, this woman who taught her three children their ice cream could only come from one vehicle. This woman who sewed banana yellow blankets for each of her children, embroidering “The Pride of Pilsen” into the center. This woman who came to Chicago alone, with her first child already folded into her womb.
In the cul de sac I lived on, ice cream trucks were so rare I couldn’t recall the song of one. To find ice cream, the only thing I ever had to chase down was my mother’s bags from the supermarket. She would always try to hide the packages, burying them under frozen vegetables and bags of bao. I never knew with whom she was playing hide and seek—we would always dive into the freezer together.
The air is too heavy for me to bear. Heat, silence, uncertainty. I get up to do the dishes from dinner. Flautas made with tortillas from the tortilleria down the street. There was also crema—the best one, according to his little sister, who showed me how to smother the chicken into pale oblivion. And beans, from a pot that has held the water of the Amazon, the tears of five generations, and now, the well water of Pilsen. Before heaving to fill it, she asked the oldest sister to check the lead levels on her phone.
After she had filled the table with heaps of steaming food, she told me to look at her. There was more than enough to sustain two bears, several humans, and perhaps a small racoon. With a backyard that met the woods, I would know.
I’m sorry I can’t give you more, she says. We just don’t have the kind of money right now to go out and eat.
This is fine, I say. The words flutter, and I try to catch them before they land the wrong way. More than fine, this was amazing. Really. I don’t know what else to say, so I get up to do the dishes, and she lets me take her plate.
She dries as I wash, undoing the water at an even pace, one for one. I notice there’s another apartment, visible through the window above the sink. When I try to see it more clearly, toes curling against the floorboards, buckled from a burst pipe, she clicks her tongue and sets down the pan she’s drying on a hook above the kitchen table. The hodgepodge of pots glint in the sweating sunset on a rack she built herself, the counter too small to fit the dishes of a hungry family.
Looks like jello, doesn’t it? she says, waving a rag at the other house. With all its silver edges and wobbling glass, it does look like jello. I can’t help but nod because I recognize it: the contours of banality being drawn. Soon, she says, we won’t be able to live here. Where will the ice cream trucks go?
They’re back, a fleet of drumsticks, announced by clattering screen doors. He hands me the Klondike bar I asked for. Peeling away its soft silver coat, the sandwich seems small, no longer the hefty offering I remembered. For my sixth birthday, rather than the usual fare of cupcakes nestled in wrappers, I begged for ice cream sandwiches, a glob of vanilla ice cream wedged between two chocolate cookies. No need for presents, unwrapping the foil of one of those was already a delight. At the mere suggestion of teeth, the sandwich would lose its shape; the best bite was the corner, where the cream would begin to ooze, the cookies coating the roof of your mouth like velvet.
I take a bite of the corner, one that is neither square nor crisp. As the remnants of the sandwich melt and bloom across my tongue, I try to remember what it is supposed to taste like. Were the corners round or sharp? The chocolate is dark, the vanilla light, but somehow I thought there was something else there. I want to taste the breeze, a welcome whisper as we slapped across the hot sidewalk. I want to taste the sun, let it shining spots into our eyes as we sprawl across the steps, waiting for someone to buy our lemonade. I want to taste the way it seeped under our skin, bursting and blistering the languor of a cul de sac on a summer day.
I have another bite, just to be sure. There is only sweetness.
The oldest sister takes me to the beach. I didn’t think to bring my swimsuit so I have to wear hers.
Tighter? she asks, as she ties the straps. I nod, pulling my hair out of the way. It’s not tight enough but I don’t want to sound picky. On the beach, I suck in air, puffing my chest out to hold the suit up. Breasts are an afterthought. After a while, I exhale. They are looking at her; all her edges tender, smooth, effortless.
The lake sounds discontent, but maybe because I’m listening this time. I watch as she wades in, the water swallowing her shivering form. She calls for me to come and I smile, refusing.
Seagulls nurture their grievances above. A helicopter hurtles across the sky. Attempts are made to coax the beach to become a fortress; waves roar with half-hearted destruction. Wind rifles through unguarded towels. Clothes unpeel from soft bodies. I loosen and let the sun dig orange into me.
The water sings. Or shouts. I can’t tell the difference.
It’s not too cold, she calls, floating on her back. Her hands are folded on her stomach, as if she’s taking a nap on a smooth blue bed. I pretend to read my book and consider walking into the waves, but decide against it. The waves are clean, but not merciful. My swimsuit might fall off. The last time I learned the water didn’t do apologies, I spent weeks with my head tilted to one side, waiting for the ocean to come out. At least I had a conch shell, an echo of my will to dive beyond the shoreline. To be fair, I never lived close enough to any body of water to know its edges, to be able to point someone down a street. Follow the road until it meets the waves. Turn against the tides. Smell the sea and you will be there.
When she drips onto the beach, humming with a voice husky with salt, I have fallen asleep. Honey you so sweet. As I wake, I find that trickles of sand have crept into the crevices of my body. Ears, armpits, belly button. A sheen of salt has formed on my feet, from when I dipped my toes in and promptly fled back to my roost in the sand. I want to touch her, drink her gold. Sugar got a long way to catch you. But all I can manage with a voice gone parched is, Hi.
Want to get some ice cream? she asks, drying off her hair. The drops fly onto the pages of my book, melting the words. They meet my skin with a sizzle, and I realize how relentless the sun has been. I lick my lips, yes please. She calls over one of the old men pushing the ice cream carts. Una paleta des fresas por favor. Coconut, I say when she looks at me. Coco, she echoes.
When she finds out this is my first paleta, she isn't surprised. You’re from the suburbs, she shrugs.
Well, it could be a small city, I draw my knees to my chest. I mouth the word, suburb, let it roll over my tongue. Somehow, I can’t swallow it. Maybe, it’s a little shorter, I say, squinting at the Chicago skyline across the lake. At least where I live, the shade comes from trees.
My tongue sticks to the popsicle and I let the cold burn into me. I want to tell her that I didn’t get to choose where I grew up. The juxtaposition of chunky fruit and glistening cream reminds of hong dou bing qi ling, the red bean popsicles my mother drove two hours to the nearest Asian grocer for. Though she always complained they were too sweet, our freezer never had less than two boxes. As a child, I preferred these over the confections that tasted like the color they stained your tongue. Eating one was a science: each bite must contain an optimal ratio of crunchy bean to condensed milk. With warmth, it would melt into a luscious paste.
And though she located these bing qi ling, she had moved too far away. When writing this piece, I learned that they’re actually called chi dou bang bing. The Japanese store sold them under a different name.
It doesn’t matter, no one will know the difference, she says on the phone, with a laugh that sighs. She tells me how she never found guang ming, a brick of frozen floral milk. During the hot Shanghai summers, she would beg her nai nai to go to the corner store, to carry home a block, wrapped in a towel to keep it cold. Together, they would lap at the silk edges, before the heat could breathe it away. Freezers were a luxury they couldn’t afford, but at four cents a block, ice cream was a sweet bargain. The way in which coolness blooms across the body is full of richness: air conditioning, umbrella-studded beaches, frozen treats. The control of temperature articulates wealth.
When my mother went back to Shanghai, eight years after she first left on a student visa, the ice cream she dreamed of peeling open had vanished. Even the corner stores that had held them in loads in the freezers had fallen away to highrises. She ran block to block, but no one knew what she was asking for. We don’t get to choose, I want to say, but the words are lost in the shifting sands. I stay silent, let the drops of milky, sticky water dress my hands.
A lump of cream cheese dusted with salt. A lick of cornstarch and milk. A saucepan, with six yolks bobbing gently. After my mother told me about guang ming, I realized the nature of her recollection. It always started with eggy custard, simmering in until it thickened, but not before it cooked. When I became tall enough to haul the Kitchenaid from the basement, she gave me the duty of churning, of testing for the consistency of snow-laden clouds. When it finished, I always wanted to fold in novelty. Tuck in plums from our neighbors’ tree. Crumble in the sweet corn from the farmer’s market. Toss the mulberries from the backyard bush. But my mother always refused. Vanilla was not an absence of flavor, but rather the remembrance of one.
I pad down the stairs barefoot, nurturing the silence of sunrise, light reaching hungrily across the horizon. I don’t want my family to know what I’m making yet. I am reluctant to even understand it as making. Pans are dusted in cocoa, chocolate batter is spooned and spread, cookies are burned into existence. For the first time, I haul the mixer and stir the slurry, alone. I pray each component can bear the weight of the other. Dark, light, dark. Let the richness take the center. I turn the sandwich from the pan, cutting a slice. Corner piece, of course.
The saliva pools on my tongue. I try to remember.
STAR SU B’21 distrusts anyone who eats ice cream with utensils.