It is a perfect autumn 6 a.m. Morning dew drips from the edge of the roof onto the terrace, leaving darkened patches on the already mismatched wooden planks. The once lush plants that line the garden now wither, petals of flowers ripped off by strong wind, dried leaves tumbling to the earth. In this sixth hour of September 25th, the sky is ruled by neither the moon nor sun. It simply is—colorless sky that begins to tinge blue and see through clouds that drift, dispersed and reformed by the cold autumn breeze.
A pile of scarlets sits at the roots of the lone maple tree in the corner of our front yard, tucked away between two broken fence boards. The crows’ chirping rings through the open back door of the dining room. If I’m quick, I can still catch a glimpse of the flock as they migrate south. I grab a carton of whipping cream from the fridge and turn the stand mixer to high. I scoop 60g of powdered sugar into the mixer before stepping outside. A light mist coats my face, accompanied by the nostalgic scent of earth after rain. My breath leaves my body in a plume of smoke. With every ginger step I take comes a crinkle, crack, a crunch. The grandfather clock in the dining room strikes, six times.
To my mother, the number six is perfect. It is a perfect fourth of the 24-hour day, a perfect half of the 12-hour clock. In Chinese, the number six symbolizes 顺. It’s one of those words that doesn’t have a direct Chinese to English translation. Google translates it as “smooth,” which could work, if it means smooth not in terms of touch but in terms of action—as in a meeting that went smoothly or a smooth flight without hassle or obstacle. Either way, it’s a mark of an auspicious and promising future. It’s lucky.
A car grinds gravel into the ground, generating a brisk gust of wind that sprinkles droplets of water on my face. Another leaf falls from our sugar maple, trapping itself between the rusted bars of the storm drain. I stroll back inside, closing the door with a gentle nudge from my knee. A bouquet of plastic flowers sits in a vase on the faux-granite kitchen counter, and when I move them to the dining table, the thin, wispy fibers that detach from the petals make me sneeze. I bring the chiffon cake I made last night out of the fridge and let it rest. The golden brown crust crumbles off and leaves crispy flakes on the cake stand.
Not only is the number six lucky, it is perfect in every other way. It’s constructed by multiplying the first two prime numbers, two and three. It is also the sum of one, two, and three, which is perfect because those are the number six’s positive proper divisors. Three multiplied by six then gives the good fortune symbolized by the eighteen pleats of soup dumplings. The epitome of perfection.
I pinch the teardrop-shaped bottle of food coloring—one of the kinds you would find at the Dollar Tree, tucked away in some aisle with the other baking supplies—and let a few drops of red fall into the container of whipped cream, which lightens to a baby pink after a few quick stirs. I dot the icing in uneven blobs on the side of the cake and swirl crooked roses on the top. The cake doesn’t look as perfect as those sold in Sam’s Club’s display cases, but it looks natural. Handmade. Authentic, with hints of human imperfection. I lick the excess icing off my fingers—something my mother wouldn’t have liked—before dropping all of my utensils in the sink to be hand washed later. “Never the dishwasher,” my mother would cry. “Waste too much water and electricity.”
Despite my best efforts, I can never seem to be the “perfect Asian son” that I feel is expected of me. Kevin. Son of her professor friend at the University. Cornell. Now at Amazon, making a salary in the hundreds of thousands. Eric. Multi-award-winning violinist, straight A’s. Harvard bound. Xu. MIT. Chemical engineer. Successful career, beautiful wife, three kids. Things that are repeated over and over until they all sound the same, until names disappear and the individual people blend into a collective image of the “perfect Asian son.”
My mother yelps with pleasant surprise when she enters the kitchen. She pulls out her phone, a chain of six beads dangling from her case, and rushes to her birthday cake. Her thumb freezes just before it can take the picture, and she tilts her head to the side.
She frowns and asks, “Doesn’t it look a bit crooked?” “What do you mean? I think it looks fine, no?” I reply.
She thrusts her phone into my hands. “Aiya, it’s just a little bit crooked. Come look. See?
The cake is off center from the stand. It won’t look pretty in the picture.” I groan. “It’ll look fine.”
She looks at me. “The picture won’t be perfect if the cake is crooked. It just won’t look as nice.”
Her red lipstick is uniform, and I already know she spent an hour picking out the exact dress she is wearing and another hour doing her hair and makeup. The picture has to be perfect. It’ll be the memory she holds after her own memories have vanished, just as she fears one day they will. These photographs—always to be taken in sets of six—are what will link her to her past.
“Here, we can fix it using this.” I offer a solution, fishing a spatula from the sink and blasting the spatula with some water before handing it to my mom. She alternates between observing the cake from the top and from the side, like a child playing with the claw machine at my family’s restaurant as they dart back and forth to line up the claw. When the cake is centered, she hands me the spatula.
“Do you want a picture by yourself first?” I ask. She bites her lip, then nods, turning around to grab her sunglasses—to hide her wrinkles—and the cake. She holds it out in front of her and smiles. A smudge of lipstick stains her front teeth. I snap the picture, then at her reminder, take five more, so that later she can go through them all and find the one that was the most perfect.
I’m not like the number six—far from it, actually. Maybe I don’t remind my mother of Kevin, or Eric, or Xu. Maybe I’m not like her photographs, perfect snapshots frozen in time. For me, what matters is that perfect 6 a.m. on an autumn morning. The life that persists even as everything else fades for the winter. The moments and memories that are forever rendered in my mind. What matters is that even though I’m not a “perfect Asian son,” I’m still my mother’s son.
David Chen is a Chinese-American writer from Minnesota. His work has been recognized by Novelly, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and YoungArts, and is in or forthcoming at Ripple Lit, Kissing Dynamite, and elsewhere. He is also a co-EiC of Aster Lit (@LitAster on Twitter and @aster.lit on Instagram), and you can find him at @davidsongchen on both Twitter and Instagram.