By Ann Yuan
“It’s hot today,” she says, as though talking to herself. The embroidery hoop in her left hand frames an image of leaves, all outlined by exquisite, golden fishbone stitching.
“Yeah, it is,” a man’s voice says from a corner of the living room. His upper body tilts in his armchair, looking almost ready to slide down and out the base; his long legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles.
Outside, cicadas buzz fiercely on the top of parched oak trees. Two small pots of succulents stand on the windowsill, dark-green all year round; nobody can tell whether they are thriving, or just clinging to life—either way, they look equally fine.
She lifts her eyes without moving her head and looks down again. “Corduroy pants, hmm…” She mutters. It is the pants the man wears, baggy yellow corduroys, color fading, knees worn out, crumpled and scruffy like an old, lazy cat.
She bought him the pants ten years ago, as a Christmas present, using the wages she’d earned through waitressing and dishwashing. She didn’t mind; it would be nothing once his contractor business took off, anyway. She registered for interior design courses in the community college; he was always glued to the seat in front of his computer—but they both loved to cuddle up on the sofa, with a bottle of Guinness each, watching their favorite film, The Pursuit of Happyness. She’d thought to herself that, one day, those corduroy pants, the cheap IKEA furniture, their red Dodge Neon with the busted air conditioner, and all the crap they owned, would soon be gone and be nothing more than precious memories of old times. She thought she might pull the pants from the bottom of a drawer to show her children a reminder of the bumpy road Mom and Dad endured. Never did she imagine all that crap would still be strewn about the house, and those pants would still be wearable, a decade later.
Hearing no reply, she adds, “People are wearing shorts now.”
“I’m fine.” He turns his body to the other side, adjusting himself to a comfortable position for a midday nap.
She shakes her head, presses her lips into a line, then the line cracks open, “Nobody wears corduroy these days, you know, it’s outdated.”
“Who cares?” he mumbles. Within a minute, he would be drifting away, and this conversation, like innumerable others, would disappear into the air as many of their days and nights had before.
She feels a flame seizing her lungs, a knot of tightness in her throat. She wants to say something but is afraid it might be too late to have his attention. Haven’t the cicadas chanted enough? The noise, alongside the scorching sun, does nothing but rock everybody into languor and drowsiness.
It’s unfair to say he hasn’t tried. The places he’d worked, the small company by the Jersey Turnpike, a warehouse next to the mall, were all like bubbles coming out of a wand full of holes, colorful, attractive, even floating high in the air for a moment; but soon they burst, and so did her dreams.
Many friends moved to other places, for different jobs. He landed in a technician’s position eventually, working under one of his former employees. She quit school and convinced herself the tuition fees were not the reason. She bought him other pants, jeans, chinos, but those corduroy pants were still shamelessly buckled around his waist. Once she rolled them up and buried them under a mound of bed linen. Mysteriously, they showed up two weeks later inside the laundry basket. She didn’t understand the glorious bond between the man and his pants, but she was going to honor it by turning her head away whenever she saw them, until this hot summer afternoon.
She feels a trickle of sweat go down her chest. She glares at the window unit, props her elbow on a cushion, and settles down again. The man seems fine, snoring lightly in his armchair. She swallows hard to ease the ache in her throat and resumes her cross-stitching.
She can never believe how many hours and hours she spends stitching on a piece of fabric. What a tedious job! But after she finishes one design, there is a feeling of relief and accomplishment that lingers for days. With the needle weaving in and out, she can almost see her life moving forward in little steps. There is no uncertainty, no failure, no starting up something, then getting unmotivated or discouraged. One thread runs out, she just puts another one through the needle’s eye. She is in control again, with confidence and determination. She masters the art of embroidery, as well as her time and life.
One week without Advil, her fingers are still holding up, no pain, no stiffness—eighty-two-degree room temperature may not be a bad thing, after all. She sinks deep into the couch, stitching faster, unaware of time and place. In her trance, she stitches and stitches, until a bead of sweat splashes, quietly, onto the cloth from her brow. Even this small thing wakes her to consciousness; she stops and notices what she has created—inside a circle of pink petals, where there is supposed to be a pollen-rich stamen, stands a mini pair of yellow trousers.