Neither she nor Scarlett were moneyed married wives, not like the other guests. Surprisingly nimble late in her third trimester, Daisy had the build of a gymnast but for her basketball belly. From behind, she didn't look pregnant, not like Scarlett whose hips, buttocks, and thighs had swelled like a bear fattening for hibernation. After Daisy had been caught sneaking out, Mama Fang had installed bars on the windows of her room.
Everyone ignored Daisy, and the theoretical daughter-in-law continued to vex Countess Tien. "What if she turns my son against me?"
"Disown him," Lady Yu declared.
Mama Fang peered over her bifocals at Countess Tien. "To please your son, she'll have to please you."
On the muted television, children danced, the girls in sequined crop tops and miniskirts over shorts, and the boys in tracksuits. Lady Yu pointed to the center of the stage. "That girl has glasses!" Chinese parents were blunt when it came to calling out physical imperfections in children. Their weight, their eyesight, their teeth, assessed like any other possession.
Countess Tien's baby farted, loud as a bicycle horn, creating the snickering commotion that Scarlett needed to excuse herself. When the other guests engaged in mind-numbing talk of colic remedies, potty training, and educational toys, she wanted to flee. Motherhood and its self-sacrifice still seemed remote.
She began edging off the couch, but Mama Fang stopped her, depositing the baby into her arms. "You need practice." Relentless, she reminded Scarlett of those cunning grannies in the ancient tales, who enabled liaisons between maidens and masters, traded gossip for taels of silver, the go-betweens who weren't the villains or the heroes but upon whom the plot hinged.
Mama Fang carried three passports—U.S., Panama, and Hong Kong —and like a movie action hero or container ship, freely chose which flag to fly. On that premise, she'd founded Perfume Bay, because what parents wouldn't give a child every advantage within their reach?
She instructed Scarlett to support the head of the baby, who had the unfocused stare of a coma patient. He was exceptionally unattractive, with pin-thin limbs and a face mottled with autumn leaves of eczema. Scarlett clasped him against her chest. If she proved herself adept as a mother, Boss Yeung might turn reasonable. If he gave her a chance, she would offer him one, too.
The baby wore a 24-karat gold pendant stamped with his Chinese zodiac sign, the year of the snake. For their child, Boss Yeung had sent one fashioned out of a U.S. gold coin and embossed with bald eagles, one clutching branches in its talons and another roosting in a nest. Ugly and gaudy, it belonged around the neck of a chain-smoking Macau gambler, not their son.
The pacifier fell out of the baby's mouth, and when she tried to catch it one-handed, the baby slipped from her grasp. Thump. Facedown, spread-eagle on the carpet. Silence, utter silence, until he shrieked and everyone shouted at once: Aiya! Gan shenma
Countess Tien wept, asking if he'd been hurt, if he'd have a flat nose. The other women leaned away, as if Scarlett were diseased. She bit her lip, dismayed. Mama Fang scooped him up and checked him over. He wasn't bleeding. He'd suffered a fright, nothing more. "Babies are sturdier than you think," she said lightly. "He has iron bones. An iron head."
Knotting her hands, Scarlett squeezed until the bones ground together. Her hands had been busy and useful until she became pregnant, and the pain now cut through the numbness that had settled over her at Perfume Bay. Countess Tien kissed the top of her baby's head and insisted on going to the emergency room. Mama Fang summoned the van to take them there, arranged for an herbal potion to calm the countess, wrapped the baby in a red quilted blanket, and as she followed them out the door, distracted him with a rattle drum, the tiny beads pattering like rain.
Inside the examination room, the tech squirted warm jelly onto Scarlett's belly, tattooed with the dark line of pregnancy. Scarlett had requested an ultrasound a week ahead of schedule because she yearned to see her baby. The local clinic had Chinese doctors and staff, and the tech, Gigi, was originally from Chengdu. Within minutes, she'd shared her life story, how she'd come to Los Angeles on a special nursing visa, how her wages kept her family's hotpot restaurant afloat and her brother in school.
Scarlett soon stopped listening. She had to leave Perfume Bay before she went crazy, before she hurt anyone else. She had a temper, but she'd never been one to catfight. Always restless, she was now skidding out of control, a scooter on gravel. She'd dropped a baby! She wanted to fly to Hong Kong and decide what to do next, but if she stayed here beyond her thirty-sixth week, which began in a few days, no airline would let her board.
Mama Fang held everyone's wallets, passports, and their cash in the safe in her office, part of her pledge to take care of every detail. That meant Scarlett couldn't pay for the fare and couldn't leave the country. And if she asked Boss Yeung for a ticket, he'd refuse.
The waxy tissue paper on the exam table crinkled beneath her. She would have to think of another way to find help, to play the part of a pregnant woman in distress. She could hitch a ride to the airport, but still, what of the ticket and the passport? Her mother would have to go into debt to assist her, if she could get in touch with Ma at all. She'd given her mother a mobile phone, but Ma always kept it turned off; she didn't know how to check her voicemail although Scarlett had shown her dozens of times. Ma didn't know she was in America. Except for Boss Yeung, no one else in China did, either, not her co-workers, not her neighbors.
This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.