Today's Reading

On television, the Hollywood sign appeared, iconic letters that stood a few kilometers away yet seemed distant as the moon. After Scarlett turned up the volume, Lady Yu grabbed the remote and switched the channel.

Because Scarlett never bragged about Boss Yeung's position, because she never mentioned him at all, the other guests found her suspect. She was a threat, not because she'd go after their husbands, but because she represented any woman, every woman who could. It didn't matter that her lover was a stranger to them. Mistresses weren't supposed to have children who competed with theirs.

Lady Yu had made clear that she considered Scarlett and the baby she carried lowly as turtle's eggs. Nothing was more despicable than a turtle—dragging itself through the muck—except its spawn. A nurse arrived to drop prenatal vitamins into their mouths, their faces upturned to her like chicks getting fed. The pill tasted of iron and rotting leaves. Scarlett swallowed and gagged, felt the pill coming back up but chased it down with a few sips of lukewarm water. Her insides would roil all morning.

She had arrived a few weeks ago, and at any given time at Perfume Bay—three white stucco townhomes converted into a compound by ripping out the adjoining walls—about a dozen guests from China and Hong Kong were pregnant, and another half-dozen or so were recovering. The babies slept in a former dining room where a crystal chandelier hung over the bassinets. Cartons of diapers, crates of formula, and sacks of wipes jammed the garages, and closets had been remodeled into bathrooms.

Lady Yu led the Shanghai clique of spoiled wives, who were perhaps only a generation or two removed from the countryside. In Scarlett, they despised who they might have been.

Scarlett changed the channel back.

"Mei you wenhua," Lady Yu shouted. "Nong min." Low-class! A peasant! She hurled a magazine at Scarlett, missing wildly and hitting the television.

"Tuhao," Scarlett said. An insult for the newly rich, with more money than manners.

Stung by the insult, Lady Yu heaved herself up and slapped Scarlett.

Scarlett rocked back in disbelief, putting up her hands to protect her belly. Her mother used to slap her, but no one else, not in decades. Lady Yu smiled smugly, the sort who beat her servants. Scarlett grabbed a pillow and smacked it against Lady Yu's head. When Lady Yu clawed at her, Scarlett grabbed her wrists and forced her arms down, twisting almost hard enough to sprain. Their screams set off one baby, then all ten babies in the nursery next door, howls that picked up with the speed and power of a tsunami.

The owner, Mama Fang, rushed in, trailed by nurses, to separate the mothers-to-be, clucking that they shouldn't exert themselves, they should consider their babies, and sent them to their rooms. At Perfume Bay, the mothers were treated like children, so that their children would obtain the most precious gift of all: American citizenship.

***

After Scarlett left China, she and Boss Yeung had grown apart, talking only every few days on video calls. Without proximity, without work in common, they discussed nothing but her pregnancy, and how irresponsible she was. Tonight, his bullfrog voice rumbled over the crackly Internet connection. "Have you eaten?" he asked. He sat in his office, his own lunch, a chipped plastic bowl of rice and soup from the factory cafeteria, untouched on his desk.

She hesitated. If she told him she fell asleep and missed dinner, he would chide her for denying their son nutrition. Sequestered at Perfume Bay, she'd become a modern-day concubine, her existence reduced to a single purpose: to produce the heir.

If she couldn't please him while pregnant, she never would as a mother. She'd lose any chance of a future together. Mama Fang had promised not to tell him about the catfight in her daily report, but would expect a favor in return. Boss Yeung adjusted the webcam. Scarlett turned her head to hide the bruise blooming on her cheek. She had been drawn to his intensity, that seriousness of purpose. He could be decisive to the point of brusqueness, a trait she had recognized in herself and had admired in him until he started turning on her.

On the video call, his handsome face pixelated, breaking up, as though in a time-lapse film of decay. He was insisting on the name Yaoxi for their son, which meant "to shine on the West."

"I'll call him what I want," Scarlett said. The baby's birthplace shouldn't define him. She wanted him free to go anywhere, to be anyone, and hadn't yet picked a name. Settling on one would define a life that still felt limitless.

He thumped the desk, and the chopsticks clattered off the bowl. The screen locked up, freezing his expression into a snarl. Scarlett steeled herself. During her pregnancy, he had grown accustomed to giving her orders, and he wouldn't stop after she delivered, not unless she stood up to him now.
...

What our readers think...