A temporary Hong Kong I.D. card, an Octopus card for the public transportation system, and an EPS bankcard from Hang Seng are stashed in my wallet. Markers of my new married life.
And there are the receipts.
I’m supposed to go to the post office in Mui Wo today. I have to leave in ten minutes so that I have enough time to drive there, fill out and sign the double-registered international mail posting form, and make the 11:30 a.m. ferry to work. I’m supposed to mail this envelope before the fifteenth. Every month, the fifteenth. Today is already the thirteenth, yet I’m not moving. It’s sunny outside, so I wish I could just walk down to the beach and lie on the sand all day and close my eyes. But I must mail the envelope. And I can’t miss the ferry.
I hurriedly fold the bank-drafted check so I can’t see that it’s written for $913 Canadian dollars. That’s nearly six thousand Hong Kong dollars: a third of my monthly salary; half of our house’s rent; three times the cost of a trip to Thailand. I shove the check into the envelope and lick the glue. Particularly nasty today.
At Mui Wo General Post Office, the clerk doesn’t smile. He’s the same one who’s here every month. “Mr. Cheung” is typed neatly in bold black lettering on his nametag. The office is dimly lit, and Mr. Cheung squints at me from behind his thick glasses waiting for me to request a service. His hand is already on the receipt book for double-registered mail, but I must speak before our ritual can begin. “I’d like this post—“
“Okay, okay.” Mr. Cheung grabs the envelope that I have laid under the service window and tosses it onto the scale. He passes me the pink mailing form to complete while he counts out HKD$27.00 worth of stamps. In the addressee box, I write, “Ministry of Community and Social Services, Family Responsibility Department, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.” When I’m finished, Mr. Cheung affixes the pink form and the stamps to the envelope and dumps it into the posting bin. In his stilted English script, he writes a receipt on the thin, filmy paper in the book. He tears it off carefully at the perforations and hands the slip to me. I open my wallet and stuff it into the section in front of the billfold. There I’ve got a receipt for every month for the past two years.
In ten days, my husband’s ex-wife Irene will receive her child-support check for their daughter Sara. I have to catch my ferry to work.
I haven’t spoken to Irene in three years. One chilly November night, I sit cross-legged at my desk plotting the monthly budget. In the bright light of the desk lamp, I scrawl figures in my notebook and set aside a generous chunk of Sean’s and my monthly salaries to pay for the upcoming Christmas trip back to North America. Plane tickets, food, entertainment, presents.
I look out the window into the night and think of last Christmas. Sean and I made mad romps through Toys R’ Us, Treasure Island, Coconuts, and Best Buy picking out gifts for Sara. Four hours later, we walked away with Swan Lake and Irish Heritage Barbie dolls, “How to Make Your Own Jewelry” kits, Disney “Princess Collection” CDs, and Leap Frog electronic games. Back at my in-laws’ house, I parked myself on the guest bed amid rolls of holiday-decorated wrapping paper and bags of red and silver bows.
It took me over an hour to wrap everything.
The next morning, Sean drove across town to pick up Sara. Together, the three of us opened the presents in front of the twinkling Christmas tree. She squealed in seven-year-old delight over the beauty of the Barbie dolls’ clothes and the shiny glass jewelry beads and the melodies of the princesses’ voices and the fanciful electronic graphics. While running her hand over the silken hair of one of her new Barbies, Sara looked up at me and says, “Christine, did you pick her out?”
I nodded. “Of course, I did.”
“I know, because you’re a girl too.” She continued to stroke the doll’s hair.
I smiled and then bit the inside of my lip. I still believed in Santa Claus when I was seven.
A wadded up ball of wrapping paper bounced off my head. I looked over and saw Sean’s wild eyes scoping out his next target. Sara was already on the floor giggling. We three immediately commenced a wrapping-paper-dodgeball game over the couch.
Now, I tap the eraser end of my pencil on the budget notebook. What about this year? Something different. I decide that Mattel is rich enough and that a girl can only have so many Barbies. Sean can do what he wants, but I want to give Sara my own gift, an investment account. I think it might be fun for her to begin learning about saving money and watching her account grow. Then I can add some money every so often and on special occasions. Something we can share and build together.
Just the two of us.
Needing Sara’s identification information to set up the account, I write an e-mail message to Irene to tell her about the gift and to request the necessary information. She replies: “I don’t need you to raise my daughter.” Stay out of it. Just send the check.
So that’s what I do.
Sean and I go to Canada to see Sara twice a year, once in summer and once at Christmas. He drags me with him to Irene’s house on Pearson Street. He maneuvers over piles of snow into the unshoveled driveway even though we could just park on the street. I sit in the car when he goes up to the door. I turn off the heat hoping my breath will fog up the window. It doesn’t. When she delivers Sara, Irene turns toward the car. She waves lamely and purses her lips. I raise my hand. Then I let it fall into my lap like dead weight. Sara walks over to the car. She doesn’t hold her father’s hand. My husband opens the back car door. His daughter gets in.
“Say ‘Hi’ to Christine,” Sean says.
In the car on the way to his father’s house, Sean tries to cram six months into twenty minutes: “How is school?”; “Do you have any new friends?”; “Are you reading your chapter books?” I stare out the window at the dirty snow lining the streets and think of the dim light reflecting off Mr. Cheung’s thick glasses. I’ve swallowed a brick.
I don’t have a picture of Sara in my wallet.
Just the receipts.
Christine Taylor, a multiracial English teacher and librarian, resides in her hometown Plainfield, New Jersey. She serves as a reader and contributing editor at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. Her work appears in Modern Haiku, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Menacing Hedge, and The Paterson Literary Review, among others. She can be found at www.christinetayloronline.com