The Cashmere Sweater

As I pushed the door open, a concoction of burning candles, polished leather, and expensive cologne greeted my nose. I strutted down the narrow aisles between the clothing racks, flipping through the sea of clothes for another piece to add to my already bursting wardrobe. Enchanted by the various shades of blue, red, green, and pink, I found comfort in running my hand through the different textures of fabrics. People passed by the windows holding gleaming patent leather handbags, wearing red-soled stilettos that tapped elegantly on the pearlescent marble floor. My eyes shifted between the dresses and the extravagantly stylish outfits of the shoppers as if I were watching a fashion show unfold in the shopping mall of my own town.

The one person who could accompany me through hours of shopping without complaint was my aunt. After picking out my new clothes, I looked to the corner of the store to see my aunt on a wooden stool with my puffer jacket on her lap. Unlike the other women in the store, she was short and had visible wrinkles on her face and purple bags under her eyes. The rare times she stood up, her posture was slightly hunched. She spoke in the distinct dialect of HeNan, a remote district in northern China where my ancestry dated back for generations. There she sat, in the middle of a large urban shopping mall, drowning among a sea of upper-middle class women in heels, fur coats, and red lipstick… so ordinary that she stood out like a sore thumb.

At home, my aunt and I were so close that she could easily be my third parent. Three times a year she took the train to visit me from her hometown, bringing over jars of homemade peanut butter and sweet scallions grown in her backyard. She spends Saturday evenings in her rocking chair knitting socks and scarves for me and my cousins while humming a tune. When my parents would go on frequent business trips across the country, my aunt would stay in the guest room at my house. The calluses on her hands, frayed seams on the sleeves of her flannel shirt, and lines etched deeply onto her cheeks from 52 years of smiling were my definition of perfect. In private I would never hesitate to admit that I loved her dearly. But when we were out together, I couldn’t help but walk a few steps ahead of her, scared to be seen with someone who looked so — I hated to say it — plain.

I decided to go with the cashmere sweater with delicate embroidery around the neck. As we stood in line behind the counter, a lady behind us whispered to her husband, “Does the crazy old woman think that sweater is free or something?” My aunt’s hearing had been deteriorating for years, but I heard it all too well.

Suddenly, I was no longer watching the shoppers. They were watching us. The 20-something eyes on me and my aunt at the same time made me feel like I was standing on stage, forced to improvise lines for someone else’s character. I’d always known deep down that we didn’t belong here, but today was the first time the reality was shoved ruthlessly into my face — a part of me was stuck in HeNan, and always will be. My aunt pulled out her wallet, the brown leather peeling from the corners, barely holding a few old dollar bills creased too many times. When the cashier read the price tag out loud, my aunt shook her head and glanced apologetically in my direction. “Chop chop,” the woman behind us said, pointing at the stool in the corner. “Let us pay first while you fantasize over there.” One half of me wanted to march straight up to her face to prove that her diamond necklace and Prada handbag meant absolutely nothing. The other half wanted to hide in the bathroom because in all honesty, she was ashamed of her aunt. The words pouring through my mind got stuck in my throat, so I froze. I looked around frantically: sparkling under the chandelier was a crushed velvet sofa tufted with crystals. Thoughtlessly, I snatched the sweater out of the cashier’s hand and threw it against the sofa. I rushed out of the store, careful not to cause more conflict than we already had. Little did I know that just as I stepped out of this battlefield, I entered another one, but this time the war was happening in my head.

My aunt and I walked home in silence. As usual, I stayed a few steps ahead of her and kept my head down. If it wasn’t for the straight nose and the fine hair that everyone on my mom’s side of the family shared, no one could tell that we were related. When we got home, I helped my aunt make dinner, not once looking up into her eyes in fear that she would return an accusing gaze, reigniting my memory of the dreadful shopping mall scene that afternoon.

That night, I could hear drawers rustling through the paper-thin wall between my room and the guest room that my aunt was staying in. When I heard a knock on my bedroom door, I straightened up in bed, preparing myself for a long lecture about respect. To my surprise, my aunt was holding her old leather wallet in her hand as she pushed open the door. “That sweater looked really good on you,” she said, handing me the wallet, “Go back tomorrow without me.” I took the wallet without thinking, remembering how the beautifully embroidered neckline perfectly complemented my complexion. A burst of excitement quickly drowning any guilt I had felt earlier, I unzipped the wallet.

Tucked away in the back flap beside a rusted quarter was a stack of photos veiled with a thin layer of dust. Pictured in faded black and white ink were my aunt and my mom as children with sunburnt foreheads, plowing the cornfield under the midday sun. Folded away in one of the card holders was a letter, yellowed with age, from my grandma when she was a child in World War II, hidden behind one of many train tickets my aunt had taken over the years from HeNan to my house. Glued to the new pieces of secrets, my fingers skipped over the wad of dollar bills in the main compartment, which I now understood hadn’t come easy. So this is my aunt, I thought. Who did I think I was ashamed of?

I quietly slipped the wallet back into her room. “You sure you don’t want the sweater anymore?” my aunt repeated the next morning in her HeNan accent, not particularly beautiful or refined, but so authentically her.

“It’s okay.” I replied.