Not Now


In the darkness of the back of the cab, Fiona’s phone buzzed and blinked on.

Stefan: moved my last box out

Stefan: so thats that


Stefan: take a break and call me? pls?

Fiona thumbed the screen off without replying. She turned away and looked out of the window at the shining yellow, white, and red lights from the shop signs and street lamps, haloed by the streaks of rain. Pedestrians, holding their coats closed or clutching umbrellas, wove past each other on the sidewalk like blurry shadows. Her driver changed lanes and lurched forward, then stopped again, honking his horn.

Fiona closed her eyes and took a slow breath. The taxi smelled like spikey old smoke. It would be at least fifteen more minutes to her mother’s restaurant. She opened her phone again and with a mental shudder swept her personal thoughts aside, and turned her focus back to the half-composed email that she’d started writing earlier to opposing counsel.

Fiona dodged the pools of wet leaves on the sidewalk from the curb to the door. It was past closing time, but the outside light was still on. Inside, the small dining area was quiet, dim, and empty except for one customer waiting for his takeout order at one of the formica tables near the front window. The register desk was overpopulated with pens, bottles, stacks of tri-folded menus, red paper with gold lettering, a plastic neko cat figurine next to a porcelain crucifix, and a bowl of hard lychee candy in green wrappers. A curled photograph was thumbtacked to the wall; herself as a two-year-old girl in pigtails holding her mother’s hand at the airport. It was a familiar still life of clutter which was simultaneously comforting and a little exasperating. A stick of incense smouldered on a narrow stone dish.

Under the harsh fluorescent lights in the kitchen, her mother was scooping fish-belly soup briskly into a plastic container. She was wearing crocs and a floral silk blouse. Old Larry Lau was on the other side of the pass, washing dishes. He lifted his lined face as she came in and bobbed his head warmly at her, then turned back to his work.

“I’m here. Are you ready?” Fiona said. She looked around the room. “Where’s Jian?”

“She’ll be back in an hour,” her mother gave her a cursory, dutiful hug. “Did you turn off the outside light when you came in?”


“Why not?”

“No one told me to do that.”

Her mother sniffed in frustration. “It’s after nine Feifei;, it’s just common sense.” She turned back to the counter.

“Mom, an hour? I can’t wait an hour; I need to go back to the office after this. You said you could finish early tonight.”

“I’m coming. Larry is staying. Stop worrying. I’ll be done in five minutes,” her mother waved a hand dismissively and continued sealing containers of food. She pushed some towards Fiona. “Pack this order and take it out, I need to get more boxes. And turn off the outside light.” She turned away, then abruptly turned back. “And remember, no plans on Christmas Eve. You are helping me here.”

“Mom, I told you I don’t know if I can yet. I have a full-time job.”

“Did you take the streetcar to get here?”


“Such a waste of money,” said her mother. “Why? It’s not necessary.”

“Okay!” Fiona said sharply and turned away, snuffing the burn of a day of frustrations. She didn’t bother getting into it with her mother anymore, it just made her dig in.

She put her purse down on the stainless-steel counter and packed the food into a brown paper bag, then took the ticket down and stapled it to the bag. Then she pulled another white plastic bag around it and tied the handles in a bow. Fiona shouldered open the red kitchen door with its little square window and went back out to the dining area.

Things were always hard between them at this time of year. Once in eighth grade on a wet autumn Friday, she’d come directly from school to the restaurant with her midterm report card in hand. All A’s. Upstairs her grandmother had smiled and taken both her cheeks in two hands. Fiona had shed her knapsack and scrambled down to the restaurant to show her mother. There had been many curt words, but “not now, Feifei” was what she remembered. Her mother bustled around, issuing orders and finding faults, which she often did, but in the wet months of autumn it was always worse. The staff kept their heads down and muttered to each other about why Ms. Zhang had never found a husband to criticize.

Fiona had crumpled the report card into a ball and thrown it dramatically into the trash bin in the corner of the kitchen, imagining one of the cooks spotting it there and pulling it back out, and imagining the chagrined look on her mother’s face. But no one noticed it. She’d fished it out herself that evening and stored it in her nightstand.

In the restaurant dining area, the air was heavy and still. The smoke from the incense on the front desk snaked upwards in a thin white line. The room was an acrid mix of smoke, soy, and scallions. It smelled like a fortune teller’s hut, and made her head swim a little.

The man in the front of the room didn’t get up, so she brought the food up to him. He sat very quietly, both hands in front of him, looking out the window, listening to the soft hiss of cars going by on the wet street outside. He was as young as she was. She hadn’t noticed coming in, because he was dressed like the older partners at her firm, with black, slicked-down hair, and an old-fashioned grey suit with a slim fit. His table looked like it was in a pool of moonlight; but it couldn’t have been moonlight because it was raining outside. It must have been from the streetlamps.

He turned as she came up beside him and looked at her, then looked at the bag she held. He smiled impassively and said, “that’s not for me.” He spoke quietly but clearly, with a mild accent.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, frowning. She walked over and lifted the bag up onto the front desk. Perhaps this was for a different pickup, and her mother was still preparing his? They didn’t usually accept Uber Eats orders after hours.

She went to the front door and turned the outside light off, and then took out her phone and perched on the edge of a padded booth seat.

“Excuse me, would you mind putting out that incense?” the man asked, looking at her steadily.

“Oh? Um. No worries.” Fiona went to the desk, took the stick of incense and tapped it into the stone dish.

“Thank you. I think it was meant to keep me away? But really I just find it a bit too strong.”

“Oh, I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it,” Fiona protested.

But she could see that he was not offended. He just nodded slowly in understanding. He had a soft, unhurried way of moving that drew her attention.

“I can go check for your order … ?” she gestured towards the kitchen.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I don’t mind waiting. I’ve been here before.”

Neither of them said anything for a moment. He sat placidly. There was a faint clank of a pot from the back kitchen.

“Do you live nearby?” she ventured, more to fill the silence than anything else.

He looked at her. “My fiancé lives here. I just arrived from China.”

“Oh! Congratulations for… I mean, about your fiancé. Well, and moving here too, I guess,” she smiled tentatively. “I was born there. But I don’t really remember any of it.”

He nodded. “Are you married?”

Fiona said she wasn’t. She suppressed an impulse to spill out her life. Stefan. Work. Family. Perhaps because this man was a stranger, and she knew she’d never see him again, the idea of saying it all out loud felt safer for a moment.

“I am sorry for prying,” he said. “That’s the kind of question I used to hear so much from my family before I proposed. It always made me embarrassed.”

“It’s all right,” Fiona said.

He turned to the window, looking into the middle distance. “I didn’t think I’d want to marry her when I first met her, you know. She was so tough. Not at all like the girls I usually dated. She was a waitress at a restaurant that my friends and I went to, and she was so rude to us. Well, not rude perhaps. Short. Too busy. I found out later it was because she had a two-year-old daughter and she was just tired and anxious. The husband wasn’t in the picture anymore,” he shrugged.

“I thought about her for a month before I went back to see her again. It happened to be on the day when she was having an argument with the boss. They were yelling at each other, right in the middle of everyone. I was a little terrified. I didn’t know what it was about, but she pulled off her apron, took her daughter’s hand and walked out. Just like that. So I followed them down the street and asked if they needed anything, and we went for a walk. At first she was upset, but then we just kept talking.” He sighed. “She had so many dreams of things she wanted to do. I remember she was wearing a navy-blue coat and a pale yellow shirt.

“The first time I proposed, I had a plan. I found a little shrine and bought flowers and we went together. When I presented them to her and told her what I was thinking, she got mad. She actually punched me! She said, ‘you think I have time to get married? I have things to do!’ But then she got quiet and a little sweet and said, ‘you really want to marry me?’ And I said yes.

“And then she got tough again and said, ‘well not now!’ I think she didn’t believe I was serious; or not serious enough. But I understand how it is when there is a kid involved. You can’t just think about yourself anymore. She wasn’t sure I was ready to have a family.”

He turned to Fiona, and she was startled by his solemn expression. The room had become silent. Even the street noise from outside seemed to have vanished.

“She wanted to have more children, you see. But this is China. You can’t. Her daughter was first, so her daughter was it.”

“Wait,” Fiona said quietly. “What do you mean? That’s not how things are there anymore.”

He looked down at his hands. “She told me she was planning on going to Canada. She was taking her daughter and her mother with her.”

Her daughter.

“How old did you say her … her daughter was?” Fiona asked slowly.

“Two years old,” he said.

Fiona’s throat felt suddenly tight. “That’s … that’s how old I was when we moved here,” she said.

“I told her I would emigrate too,” he continued without responding. “And I could tell she was glad. She wanted me to. She was happy,” he said. Then, almost as an afterthought, “we both were.”

“But the funny thing,” he said with a confused frown. “The funny thing is that I actually wound up coming here first. I bought a ticket. We were supposed to be on the same flight. But she visited a psychic who told her not to fly. So she postponed her flight. She tried to make me change mine also, but I’m not superstitious. Anyway, I made a joke and told her I needed time to plan my second proposal. She brought her daughter to the airport to see me off.”

He was quiet for a long time; so long, that Fiona thought he had forgotten about her. But then he spoke again.

“It’s strange,” he said softly. “I call her my fiancé but she never actually said ‘yes’. She said ‘not now’. She told me to ask her again when we were both in Canada and she’d say yes then. So I told her that’s what I’d do.”

“’Not now’,” he repeated. “That’s not a yes. But it’s sort of a yes.” He turned to her, uncertain. “Isn’t it?”

Neither of them spoke. Fiona didn’t know what to say. She realized she had been holding her breath.

The front door opened with a gust of cold, wet air. The sounds of rain and engines and horns were suddenly audible, like a bubble around them had broken. A delivery man with long hair and a black beard sprouting from behind a COVID mask came in. “Uber Eats order one three three?”

Fiona got up and handed him the bag. He went back out and she turned the lock behind him. She stood facing the door there for a moment longer, hearing her heartbeat in her ears.

When she turned back, the man at the table was sitting still in his slim grey suit and slicked black hair, looking out the window again. He didn’t acknowledge her. He didn’t seem to see the cars, nor the lights, nor the passersby. He just waited. Fiona suddenly wondered how long he had been waiting.

She walked quietly back towards the kitchen. She glanced over her shoulder once, but the man didn’t move again. She stopped at the red kitchen door and peered through the little square window. Old Larry Lau was still washing dishes. Her mother had her back turned, with her coat on now, and she was putting things in a bag and hanging up the phone.

Fiona entered the kitchen and walked up behind her mother. She wrapped her arms around her and held on. She leaned her cheek on her mother’s hair.

“Eh? Feifei? Silly girl.” Her mother gently patted her hands. Then held them, and they stood together.

They gathered her mother’s things and then left the kitchen. Her mother went first. Fiona felt a lurch in her stomach as they entered the dining room.

The man was gone. The chair he had been sitting in was pushed in. The room was empty.

Halfway to the door, Fiona stopped and said, “Mom?”

Her mother paused and turned around. Her face was open, and for the first time, it seemed to Fiona, tired.

“What is it? Are you alright?”

Fiona blinked back tears and felt her heart swell with regret and gratitude. But all she said was “it’s nothing,” and they went out into the evening, together.

Written Jan 27, 2024