My mother was a champion bowler in Thailand. This was not what I knew of her. I knew only her expectations of me to be the perfect Thai boy. I knew her distaste for blond American women she feared would seduce her son. I knew her distrust of the world she found herself in, a world of white faces and mackerel in a can. There were many things I didn’t know about my mother when I was ten. She was what she was supposed to be. My mother.
At El-Mar Bowling Alley, I wanted to show her what I could do with the pins. I had bowled once before, at Dan Braun s birthday party. There, I had rolled the ball off the bumpers, knocking the pins over in a thunderous crash. I liked the sound of a bowling alley. I felt in control of the weather: the rumble of the ball on the wood floor was like the coming of a storm, and the hollow explosion of the pins like distant thunder. At the bowling alley, men swore and smoked and drank.
My mother wore a light-pink polo shirt, jeans and a golf visor. She put on a lot of powder to cover up the acne she got at 50. She poured Vapex, a strong-smelling vapor rub, into her handkerchief and covered her nose, complaining about the haze of smoke that floated over the lanes. My mother was the only woman in the place. We were the only non-white patrons.
I told her to watch me. I told her I was good. I set up, took sloppy and uneven steps, and lobbed my orange ball onto the lane with a loud thud. This time, there were no bumpers. My ball veered straight for the gutter.
My mother said to try again. I did, and for the next nine frames, not one ball hit one pin. Embarrassed, I sat next to her. I put my head on her shoulder. She patted it for a while and said bowling wasn’t an easy game.
My mother rose from her chair and said she wanted to try. She changed her shoes. She picked a ball, splattered with colors, from the rack.
When she was ready, she lined herself up to the pins, the ball at eye level. In five concise steps, she brought the ball back, dipped her knees and released it smoothly, as if her hand was an extension of the floor. The ball started on the right side of the lane and curled into the center. Strike.
She bowled again and knocked down more pins. She told me about her nearly perfect game, how in Thailand she was unbeatable.
I listened, amazed that my mother could bowl a 200, that she was good at something beyond what mothers were supposed to be good at, like cooking and punishing and sewing. I clapped. I said she should stop being a mother and become a bowler.
As she changed her shoes, a man with dark hair and a mustache approached our lane. In one hand, he had a cigarette and a beer. He kept looking back at his buddies, huddled and whispering a few lanes over. I stood beside my mother, wary of any stranger. My mothers smile disappeared. She rose off the chair.
“Hi,” said the man.
My mother nodded.
“My friends over there—” he pointed behind him, “—well, we would like to thank you.” His mustache twitched.
My mother pulled me closer to her leg, hugging her purse to her chest.
He began to talk slower, over-enunciating his words, repeating again. “We … would … like … to … thank …”
I tugged on my mother s arm, but she stood frozen.
“… you … for … making … a … good … chop … suey. You people make good food.”
The man looked back again and toasted his beer at his friends, laughing smoke from his lips.
My mother grabbed my hand and took one step toward the man. In that instant, I saw in her face the same resolve she had when she spanked, the same resolve when she scolded. In that instant, I thought my mother was going to hit the man. And for a moment, I thought the man saw the same thing in her eyes, and his smile disappeared from his face. Quickly, she smiled—too bright, too large—and said, “You’re welcome.”