We're so excited to announce Family Trust as the first selection for the BuzzFeed Book Club! Join us as we dive into the book — posing questions, sharing opinions, and interacting directly with Kathy Wang. More info here!
The first time Linda saw Tigerlily, she’d been disgusted. She’d been at Shirley Chang’s house (show-off, who was always insisting that everyone “drop in” at her palatial estate in Atherton before setting off to their ultimate destination), and the women there were gathered around phones, comparing photos of grandchildren and favorite tai chi videos before they migrated to Golden Dynasty for lunch. It was Friday, which meant $20 lobster noodles, though even if it had been another day of the week Linda still would have come. Life alone in retirement meant filling up her calendar with events like these, outings that lasted more than an hour but no more than three or four, where she woke up the following morning and felt rested but thankful again to be alone. It’d been a particularly trying few weeks, filled with anxious calls from Kate and Fred following the additional revelations of Stanley’s cancer diagnosis; she was eager to reenter the orderly world of her female peers, where the gossip was vicious and the ailments kept mild.
Even though she’d been to Shirley’s house dozens of times— usually after she’d picked up a friend or two along the way, since half the women were terrified to drive on the freeway—Linda didn’t really like her. She was loud and too braggy. Someone in Shirley’s position shouldn’t need to describe in intricate detail how she was able to sustain her plush lifestyle entirely off dividends, especially since everyone knew that Cindy Yi, who was there that day, had recently lost half her retirement savings in an ill-advised franchise scheme in Shenzhen. But since Shirley and Linda had attended the same high school in Taipei, the #1 Girls’ School (so named as it was, without dispute, number one), and then the same college (Taiwan University, also number one), and now were both in the Bay Area, they were forever part of the same circle.
Shirley motioned to Linda and patted the marled champagne tweed on the love seat beside her. She’d undertaken a thorough redecoration of both herself and the house after her husband, Alfred, had passed, and each now reflected the Versailles-lite sensibilities of a provincial Chinese government official. The sofa featured long, oversize tassels of braided gold foil and silk, as did the matching pillow; next to them, carefully positioned on the floor, was a five-foot statue in mottled green porcelain of a rearing horse. Its sibling, an even more gargantuan monstrosity in bronze, towered over the pathway of sculpted bonsai in the garden.
“How are you?” Shirley asked. “Your health doing okay? Children good?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“How about Stanley? He’s sick, I hear?” Shirley wore an expectant look, like a fat cat about to be presented with an animal part.
Linda wasn’t surprised Shirley knew about Stanley. Ever since his diagnosis had been confirmed he’d been on a tear, dialing up all their mutual friends to tell them the news. He was almost celebratory about it, as he reveled in the intense interest and sympathy the words pancreatic cancer instantly elicited. Typical delusional behavior, and now he’d gone and infected the children with his madness! Roping Kate and Fred into weekly lunches and dinners, for what he called “powwow” sessions, to discuss his illness. Only positive thoughts allowed, naturally, which the children were happy to indulge: Kate with her printed internet articles promoting miracle recoveries and alkaline diets, Fred and his research into medical trials and some “super cancer center” in Utah. Stanley encouraging of all of it, more more more, me me me!
He’d been bothering Linda too, of course. Three times so far! Pestering her about doing a group meal with what he was irritatingly calling “the family,” each time making crude reference to his dwindling mortality. So far, Linda had resisted. What did Stanley’s illness have to do with her having to endure a lunch with his bovine second wife? Just because he was suffering, so should she? Though that was precisely the sort of sentiment someone like Shirley would agree with. Shirley, who had always favored Stanley. The two of them puffing each other up with their elementary chatter, hollow blowfish with nothing inside.
“Stanley is okay.” Linda noted with satisfaction Shirley’s look of disappointment that she hadn’t inquired into how she knew of Stanley’s diagnosis. “We do not speak much.”
“You like my earrings?” Shirley asked, pivoting. “You should buy a pair.” She tucked a strand of dyed brown hair behind her ear, revealing a diamond solitaire surrounded by two halos of accent diamonds. “I can refer you to my jeweler. We used a Harry Winston design!”
“My ears are not pierced.” Even if they were, Linda would never have considered the Vegas showgirl monstrosities currently on display, which covered nearly the entirety of the chubby lobe they adorned. Linda herself preferred simple jewelry that didn’t draw unwelcome attention, though lately as her portfolio had climbed to uncharted heights she had indulged in a few Seaman Schepps brooches for variety. Not that she’d ever reveal her favorite designers to Shirley; she’d immediately go out and purchase the most ostentatious pieces, rendering the entire brand untouchable.
“Sit closer,” Shirley urged. “Check out my game.” She tilted her tablet so that its screen could be seen only by the two of them. “What do you think?”
Linda looked down. The blurred image of a man in his seventies wearing an argyle sweater was nestled in Shirley’s lap.
Milton Y, 72 years, Sunnyvale, California.
“What is this?”
Shirley flashed a secretive smile. “It’s my dating game,” she whispered. “I use this to meet men.”
“A game? What kind of game is it where you can meet men?”
It’s not actually a game! Linda, you really are so naive sometimes. It’s a dating program called Tigerlily. It’s like those personal ads newspapers used to have, but it’s all on the internet now. Look.” Shirley swiped, and another Asian septuagenarian appeared. “There are millions of single men on here. And a lot of Chinese! Of course there are other races —I’ve even seen a few blacks — but you can adjust for all that in your settings. Although you can’t select for Taiwan as a separate group from China. I guess they don’t want to be political.”
She expertly maneuvered the program to display various levers for ethnicity, age, and location and then brought up another screen. “This is my profile. Sometimes my dates are surprised when they meet me after seeing my photo, but never as surprised as I am to see them, believe me. It’s something you’ll find out; everyone uses old pictures.”
The one Shirley had selected was actually fairly recent, from their last reunion in Taiwan, though something was different about her face. It looked as if a child had scribbled a fat peach-colored crayon all around her forehead and eyes, giving her skin the puddled, waxy look of a melted candle. Below her avatar was written Shirley C, 65 years, Hillsborough, California. She had chosen a different town ostensibly to protect her privacy, though Linda noted Shirley had made sure to select for her fake address an equally prestigious location as her actual city.
“You can’t blame me for reducing my age a little bit, ha. I can pretend I don’t even get Social Security yet! Want a referral? We’ll each get $20 in free credit. I need it. Who knew love and dating could be so expensive?”
Linda felt a shudder of revulsion. The word dating incited a puritanical embarrassment in her, the same feeling she got when someone her age referred to their boyfriend or girlfriend. These were descriptors she believed she and her cohorts should have long aged out of, on their way to more dignified pastures. Of course none of them had ever really dated, as Taiwan in the ’50s and ’60s had been an exponentially more conservative setting than the United States. Almost all the women she knew had married the first boyfriend they ever had, with a wide margin of results. Practically no one got a divorce —she was the only example in their group — which was why the suicide rates were so high, and Shirley was now showing her this disgusting program.
Ever since Alfred passed, Linda had noticed Shirley cropping up in her periphery with increasing frequency. For a while, each time her phone rang, there had been a decent chance it was Shirley, calling to invite her to some opera outing, mah jong night, or private shopping event. As if all of a sudden they had something in common, as if being alone were enough to link them together! Linda felt strongly that her choosing to be single set her apart from Shirley, who would have never opted to live alone had her husband not just up and expired, probably to rid himself of her incessant chatter. As a general rule Chinese women of their generation didn’t believe in separation; they would suffer bankruptcy, shadow families, abuse (mental and even sometimes physical) and still consider a dissolution of their marital union outside the realm of possibility. So who but Linda knew the true difficulty of divorce after three decades of marriage, the endless suffering and self-humiliations endured to cross the finish line? There was a reason why no one else had done it; they hadn’t the determination to push through the fear. And now Shirley felt she had the right to show her this… trash!
Next to her the offender sat unaware, grunting as her fingers flew past an array of the bald and graying. “Here’s someone I went on a date with last week,” she said. “But he was only interested in, you know, a nurse with a purse.”
“I do not know how to use these sorts of things,” Linda said, cutting her off cold. “I am too worried about scams and my reputation.” To her these were fighting words, meant to wound, but Shirley simply shrugged and waddled to another seat.
Linda instantly regretted having spoken so quickly. It wouldn’t have hurt to hear Shirley out. It’d been harder than she thought, to be on her own. The house was frightening at night — there had been three break-ins on her street that year alone, and each week she spent the evening before trash pickup day in a state of paranoid agitation as the sounds of cans rolling to the curb jolted her awake. Linda had detested Stanley so much by the end of their marriage that she’d dedicated nearly every modicum of available energy toward the singular goal of his vacating the house—she hadn’t given nearly as much thought to what it would be like after, the yawning of weekends and weeks glommed together, how early the days turned black once winter began.
It wasn’t until a week later, on a Sunday, that Linda recalled Tigerlily. Kate was supposed to have shuttled Ethan and Ella over in the morning — an event Linda had looked forward to all week — but then huffily declined after Linda caveated that she could take them for only two hours instead of the entire day.
With her morning now free, Linda weighed her options. She decided to speed walk at the school track several blocks away. Neither Fred nor Kate had attended Oak Elementary —instead they’d gone to Auburn, a considerably lower-ranked institution where the classrooms had teemed with children and the teachers bore a uniform expression of grim determination. It had been due to their address at the time, a location for which Stanley was completely to blame (as if she’d ever choose to live in Campbell!). Linda recalled how busy the field at Auburn always was, continually crammed in the off-hours with young mothers pushing cheap strollers. The lower bleachers dotted with exhausted grandparents who prodded their charges to run ragged, while they sat stonily on the metal benches, dreaming of their home countries.
In contrast, the grounds at Oak were nearly empty. The denizens of Palo Alto had better things to do on their weekends, such as paid activities or partaking in brunch, a meal Linda had completed three times in her life and still failed to comprehend the merits of. The lone other soul present was a heavyset blonde in a tracksuit, someone she recognized from the neighborhood. The woman was circling the track at a lumbering pace while noisily talking on her headset, one of those rude Americans who unapologetically occupied shared space as if it was birthright. She was near Linda’s age (the hair was really more a stringy taupe) and appeared retired, but Linda knew there was practically no chance of interaction. The woman likely didn’t even think she spoke English, regarding her as just another sexless Asian dotting her periphery — someone who could be ignored at will, like a houseplant. She had a surprisingly deep voice, a booming alto, and Linda’s own efficient gait meant that she circled twice for every oval the blonde completed. Each time they overlapped, her peace was jarringly disturbed:
“Wish you were here, babe. I’d be making us dinner. Yep, my famous Costco roasted chicken. I unpack it myself and everything.”
Cackle cackle. Cackle cackle.
“These days the kids are complaining that I’m the one who’s loud. Can you believe this shit... I’m out on the back deck, having fun with my friends, and they’re texting me to be quiet. Texting! And it’s barely eleven p.m. What ever happened to good old face-to-face—”
“You don’t even know how old I am. Guess, just guess. Oh baby, stop!” Followed by an ear-splitting squeal.
In the evening, after she tired of playing Four Winds Supreme, her online mah jong game, and was perilously close to exhausting the $20 budget she allowed herself per day, it suddenly occurred to Linda that the blonde had been speaking to a man, a person she was romantically involved with. How stupid and unimaginative men were! A bottle of cheap hair dye, and from its results they were seemingly able to conjure up all sorts of romantic desires, even given a particularly base specimen like her neighbor. Each time Linda had overtaken her, she’d been hit with a rancid stench far worse than the Chinese herbs Fred and Kate used to complain about, and her pants had been saggy and stained. The woman’s dishevelment extended to her home, which appeared to have never been altered from its original tract origins, and her front yard was nearly entirely populated with discarded furniture and a decaying camper and motorboat. She was the sort of resident whose continuing presence in the area was the result of pure stubbornness, fiercely holding on to her dilapidated lodgings while contemporaries cashed out and moved away, to havens like Colorado or Nevada, where they would no longer be besieged by minorities recklessly driving expensive foreign sedans.
For the longest time Linda had herself avoided driving a luxury automobile for this very reason, the desire not to be seen as a stereotype. Now, such self-consciousness struck her as foolish. Why shouldn’t she have a nice car? She should go out and buy one soon, she thought. Life was short. And surely if this snaggletooth possessed the bravery to seek companionship, she might do the same? And she stared at the tablet in her hands and recalled the words of Shirley Chang.
Tigerlily was easy to install. Her information was instantly populated with the Facebook profile she never used, and the program immediately prompted whether she’d prefer the Mandarin keyboard as the default. When the list of available men in her area popped up, she quickly shut off the screen.
Throughout dinner she forced herself to ponder other topics — taxes and whether she was unhappy with either of her children. She ate methodically, watched a one-hour national news program, and wrote a polite email to her lawyer. It wasn’t until she had washed the dishes, taken out a small bag of trash, and settled into bed with her teeth brushed that she allowed herself to reopen the application. ●
Illustrations by Mark Wang for BuzzFeed News.
From FAMILY TRUST by Kathy Wang Copyright © 2018 by Kathy Wang. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Kathy Wang grew up in Northern California and holds degrees from UC Berkeley and Harvard Business School. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two children.