As I approached Sue-Ling’s Bakery, I had the curious feeling I was returning home.
The storefront was nothing special, just a brown door crammed between a grocery and bookstore in a sleepy Irvine plaza, the bakery’s name stenciled in peeling English letters and Chinese characters on the window. But when I opened the door, sweet smells pulled me in like gravity. This early in the morning, I was the only customer.
Behind the cramped counter, a short middle-aged woman kneaded dough quickly and gently. Her black hair was up in a messy bun, and flour dusted her apron like a constellation in the night sky. A beauty mark dotted her left cheek. I knew instinctively that she was Sue-Ling. When our eyes met, a strange familiarity sparked in my brain. Suddenly shy, I looked away.
Her eyes lingered on me, igniting something hot and undecipherable in my chest as I tried to choose from the dazzling array of taro buns, garlic bread, and Danishes. After she rang me up, I sat down to eat my breakfast. The first bite brought childhood memories rushing back from travels with my parents.
I watched Sue-Ling at the counter as I ate. She bustled around in a precise choreography, simultaneously working on multiple pastries.
“Sue-Ling,” I said in wonder. “Do you make all these by yourself?”
She cocked her head at me. “Yes and no.” Her accent was lilting and comforting, her smile warm as fresh bread, but I was suddenly nervous. After weeks of searching for a bakery, I’d finally found the one. Even the air reminded me of my apartment kitchen or my parents’ house growing up. The feeling of unavoidable rightness was overwhelming.
Now I had to ask the question.
“I—bake by myself at home,” I said. My voice squeaked on the last word. “Lately, I’ve wanted to learn from a professional. If it’s not much trouble, could I help you in the kitchen?”
I anticipated rejection, but she chuckled and said, “What’s the secret ingredient in your dou-sha-bao?”
I hadn’t expected this test. “Um…”
“No thinking. What’s on your mind?”
I turned the red-bean bun I’d bought over in my hands. “I don’t know. It’s something intangible. You know how people say love is a secret ingredient? It’s like that, an undefined essence, a knowledge of the universe.” I sounded so corny that my cheeks reddened.
Sue-Ling only grinned at me. The front door opened with a whoosh, and three chatting women entered.
“Come back after store hours,” she said with a wink.
At 8:50 p.m. I parked under a palm tree in front of Sue-Ling’s Bakery. The shop was dimly lit, but I saw Sue-Ling working through the window. I wondered if she’d been behind the counter all day.
I’d spent my own day at work sitting blankly in front of Excel spreadsheets, heart racing, daydreaming about the bakery. It was so cozy compared to the trendy Asian bakery chains in Southern California. Maybe the intimacy was what prompted me to give Sue-Ling such a cringeworthy reply to her secret-ingredient question. I should’ve answered cardamom or ginger like a normal person.
As I waited for the last customers to leave the bakery, I reflected on how I’d ended up here. Neither of my parents had much interest in baking. But on the rare occasions they made cookies, I crouched in front of the oven to watch the dough turn golden-brown. No matter how hard I tried to love other hobbies like badminton or piano, I returned to baking like a tide pulling ¬¬¬waves to shore.
So here I was, embracing my fate.
When I walked into the bakery, Sue-Ling said, “Kitty, you’re back.”
“Yes,” I said, scratching my head. I hadn’t told her my name.
She beckoned me to join her behind the counter. I stood a head taller than her, but she grasped my shoulders and looked me up and down. Confused, I let her inspect me, feeling a tickle of foreboding. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone tried to peer into my soul.
“Before we start, I must warn you…” She furrowed her brows, then shook her head.
“What?” I said, imagining the horrors that awaited me in the kitchen. Maybe it was a complete mess. Maybe it was so tiny that only two people could fit inside.
“Never mind. Much easier to show you.” She took my arm and steered me through the kitchen door.
I clasped my hands over my mouth.
Seven copies of Sue-Ling stood among the appliances and stations, mixing ingredients and flattening dough. Some were taller or rounder or older, but they were unmistakably her. Their heads swiveled toward me in unison, faces lighting up in recognition.
“Who are they?” I asked incredulously.
“Me,” Sue-Ling said.
“My selves from other universes.”
The Sue-Lings surrounded me, close enough for me to feel the warmth of their bodies. My own version of Sue-Ling grasped my arm to keep me upright.
“Hi Kitty,” said the nearest Sue-Ling. She was so tall and lean that she towered over me. “I was wondering when you’d show up in this universe. We’ve been running the bakery together in my universe for years.”
A plump Sue-Ling reached out and tugged my ear. “In my universe, you have four legs and a tail. And you meow for head scratches.” She chuckled at her own joke.
“Give her some space,” my Sue-Ling said, gesturing for the others to return to their stations. They retreated, but not without grumbling.
My mouth still hung open. “You’re…octuplets. You’re clones.”
Sue-Ling smiled. “No, I’m an only child. And none of us are clones. We’re the same person from alternate universes.”
I glanced around the kitchen. I couldn’t see how or why Sue-Ling would set up such an elaborate prank just for me. It occurred to me that they could be part of some shared delusion. But when I looked at my Sue-Ling, she seemed so calm and rational. So I humored her.
“All of you…” I said, “Run the bakery together?”
“Yes. While we’re in each other’s universes, time doesn’t pass in our own. If a pastry sells badly here, an alternate me will test it in their home market.”
“When you asked me about the secret ingredient this morning…”
“It’s like you said. An intangible essence. Once an ingredient like sugar or Adzuki bean has been handled by a traveler from an alternate universe, it has a special flavor like you recognized.”
I felt a headache incoming from information overload. “And you all know me already? Do I travel to see alternate versions of myself?”
“You’ve tried, but unsuccessfully,” Sue-Ling said. “So far, only I’ve been able to.”
“I see,” I said. I felt disappointed, like hope had been wrenched away from me prematurely. Before I could ask more questions, Tall Sue-Ling marched over and pulled me to the main work bench.
“Ai-ya,” she said, handing me an apron and hair net. “Less talking, more working. You’ll get used to this soon.”
I peered at my Sue-Ling over my shoulder, and she nodded encouragingly.
“Can you make dou-sha-bao?” said Tall Sue-Ling, gesturing towards a bowl of dough. “This version has taro filling instead of red bean.”
“I’ll make the paste,” I said. Still in a daze, I washed my hands in the sink and grabbed a knife from the wall strip.
I was grateful that Sue-Ling was letting me work right away. Baking was something I understood, so baking was how I would move forward. As I lost myself in the motions of peeling and dicing taro, I listened to the Sue-Lings chatting in Mandarin and English. I could almost distinguish between their voices. Tall Sue-Ling’s was low and full. My Sue-Ling had a calm, lyrical cadence. It was like the same voice passed through different filters. And somehow, things clicked into place for me.
I was listening to the sound of multiple universes harmonizing through one woman.
The next month passed in a blur. Before and after my accounting job, I spent hours in the bakery kitchen. I also took on marketing since I was more internet savvy than the Sue-Lings. Soon I’d upgraded the bare-bones website and started a social media account.
At home, strange things started happening. In my peripheral vision, I’d catch changes in photographs of myself—me with grey hair or extra weight—but everything was normal when I looked at them directly. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to a rumbling sound in my closet but find nothing there.
Even so, the weirdness at home was nothing compared to working with multiple versions of Sue-Ling. The alternates arrived during the evenings, disguised in hats and scarves so outsiders wouldn’t see that they all looked the same. Monday shifts belonged to plump Sue-Ling, Tuesdays to freckled Sue-Ling, and so on. Their mannerisms and turns of phrases were eerily similar. They all treated me like a daughter or niece, which made me feel guilty because I wasn’t as comfortable with them as they felt with me.
The only constants were my original Sue-Ling, who was there daily, and Tall Sue-Ling, who showed up several times a week. I longed to ask them more about the alternate universes, but there was no time amidst the kitchen chaos. Plus I was too shy to broach the topic in front of the revolving doors of Sue-Lings.
One Friday evening, I arrived bone-tired at my apartment. When I opened the door, it took me a moment to realize why my heart started pounding. The lights in the kitchen were on. I had definitely turned them off this morning.
I tiptoed inside, key between my knuckles, ready to claw at an intruder. My breath caught when I saw someone sitting at my dining table, their back facing me.
The stranger turned, and I stumbled backwards.
She was decades older than me. Her grey braid extended to the middle of her back. Her relaxed pose suggested serenity and wisdom.
Also, she had my face.
“Hello, Kitty,” she said brightly.
I had many questions for her, but the one that came out was “Why are you old?”
“Time moves differently in our universes. In most of them, we’re younger than Sue-Ling. I’m an exception.”
An orange tabby lay in her lap. “You brought a cat?” I asked.
“Not just any cat,” she said. “She’s us from an alternate universe. Didn’t plump Sue-Ling tell you?”
“I thought she was joking.”
“I’ll have her back before her Sue-Ling notices she’s gone,” she said, stroking the cat’s head.
“How did you get here?” I said. “Sue-Ling said that you—we—couldn’t travel between universes.”
“I figured it out but haven’t told Sue-Ling yet. I’m not good with confrontation.”
“Me neither,” I said. “But why would she be mad?”
“I’d long given up on inter-universe travel. She might ask what motivated me to try again. Then I’d have to explain why I’m so eager to see you.”
I felt uneasy as she bit her lip, clearly struggling to collect her thoughts. Her eyes darted around my kitchen, lingering on my electric mixer and baking sheets.
She swallowed hard and said, “I want to move to Singapore and pursue a different life. Become an artist or teacher. I enjoy baking, and I’ll always love Sue-Ling, but I’ve worked with her for decades. I want to find out who I am without her.”
I sat across from Old Kitty. “Which Sue-Ling is yours?”
“The tall one. Yours has the birthmark, right?” She pointed at her cheek.
I nodded. “Why can’t you tell Tall Sue-Ling what you want?”
“The network of Sue-Lings is so entangled that if one Kitty-Sue-Ling relationship is fractured, the effect could reverberate between universes and erode the trust between all the other Kitty-Sue-Ling pairs. And some of them are more than friends, if you know what I mean.”
I nodded again slowly. “To me, Sue-Ling is just a woman I met a month ago.” Though this was factually true, I felt a prick in my throat, like I’d uttered something traitorous.
Kitty clasped her veiny hands together. “When your Sue-Ling visited our universe and told us she’d just met her Kitty, I tried harder than ever to meet you right away. You have the most objective perspective and the least amount of stake in the relationship. Even less of a stake than Kitty here, who’s been with her Sue-Ling for years.”
The cat yawned, showing her teeth. I thought I recognized a fragment of myself in those yellow eyes, but maybe Kitty was bullshitting me about the cat being a version of us.
“So you want my advice?” I ventured. “But you’re so much older.”
“Look,” Kitty said. She took my hand, and her skin rasped against mine. “Have you felt like life kept pulling you to baking, no matter how hard you wanted to break free? At first you give in, but then you find yourself weighed down by all the things you never tried.”
Although I had been pulled to baking, I didn’t feel like I’d “given in.” I actually felt excited to follow my passion. But I didn’t want to tell Kitty that her attitude sounded miserable.
“Are you warning me not to get attached to Sue-Ling?” I said instead.
Kitty drew back. “That’s not what I meant. I—” She touched her forehead uncertainly. “I only wanted to bounce ideas off you.”
The responsibility felt staggering. Suddenly, I wanted to shower and go to bed. Kitty read my mood perfectly, because she stood and said, “I’ll leave you for now. Just sleep on it.”
She walked to my bedroom with the cat tailing her. I followed, about to protest the invasion of my privacy. But before I could say anything, she stepped inside my closet with the cat and faced me with a tentative smile.
“Once I move to Singapore,” she said, “come visit me.”
Then she reached forward and pulled the door shut.
I stood for a few moments with my mouth fully open, brain malfunctioning. Then I came to and ran to open the door. There was nothing there but piles of dirty laundry.
A few days later, I was preparing tai-yang-bing suncakes in the bakery kitchen with my Sue-Ling. I finally had her to myself. I struggled to focus on the complex baking process as I studied Sue-Ling’s round face. The birthmark on her cheek lifted whenever she smiled. Her beauty spoke of quiet, motherly elegance. I could believe we were lovers in a universe where I was closer to her age.
I’d barely slept, mulling over my visit from Kitty. Perhaps we could convince her Sue-Ling that just because one version of me wanted to claim independence, that didn’t mean the rest of us would. Maybe Tall Sue-Ling also wanted to part ways but was keeping quiet to spare Old Kitty’s heart. I’d tossed and turned until my sheets were damp with sweat. Damn that Kitty, dumping her problem on me.
Sue-Ling brought me back to attention with a touch on my hand. She wrapped oil dough into the water dough pieces while I massaged sticky maltose into the cake flour mixture for the filling.
“How do you travel between alternate universes?” I asked casually, as if I hadn’t been dying to ask for weeks.
She stopped wrapping the dough. Her smile made my heart stutter. “Ah, the question every Kitty asks.”
“None of us has figured out how to do it?”
Sue-Ling shook her head. “You’ve heard of Schrödinger’s cat?”
“Yes.” I vaguely remembered the thought experiment where a cat could be alive or dead at the same time.
Sue-Ling’s movements seemed melancholy as she flattened each ball of dough into a log. “I was betrayed by many people. Lovers. Family. I opened a bakery with a partner, but they created their own chain with my recipes. One day I was desperate to hide from the world and find a stronger version of myself. So I went into my closet, where I could try on new outfits and emerge as a different person. While I’m in there, many possible versions of myself can exist at the same time. Two less grams a piece, please.”
I reduced the size of my filling portion before re-weighing it on the scale. “So what happened?”
“Nothing at first. I bought a military costume to imagine myself as a soldier. I wore a ballerina tutu. But all that was nonsense. No matter what I wore, I was only comfortable in my apron.
“One day, I passed a roadside carnival on the way home, and an idea hit me. I bought funhouse mirrors that make you look taller or wider and put them in my closet. I stared at those mirrors for so long that I truly believed that the warped version of me in the mirror was real and separate from me.”
She folded her portions into layers of water and oil dough. I kneaded my playdough-like filling absentmindedly, transfixed by her story and the smoothness of her motions.
“I had the instinct to step closer to the mirror. And then, I went through. Behind the mirror was Tall Sue-Ling’s apartment. I nearly gave her a heart attack when I came out of her closet. But then we chatted about the differences between our universes. Her Kitty was much older than us, and they’d been working together for years.
“I bought more funhouse mirrors to find other universes. I taught other versions of myself so they could visit me and each other. Many of them owned their own bakeries, which inspired me to start my own.”
“Where do these other versions of you come from?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I’ve heard theories that every time someone makes a choice, new universes form from alternate choices. Like Tall Sue-Ling probably grew so tall because her parents chose to feed her more protein.”
I was so mesmerized that Sue-Ling had to take my filling and start cutting it. I remembered all those years of falling in love with baking and then clicking through pages of internet search results until I found Sue-Ling’s simple website. I shivered at the idea that I was part of some tangled web of fate.
“With my history of betrayals,” Sue-Ling said, breaking my silence, “I didn’t trust this older Kitty who was working with Tall Sue-Ling. But I saw their loving bond over time. I became jealous of all of the versions of myself who had their own Kitty. I wondered when mine was going to show up so we could finally be together.”
We exchanged smiles, but my heart wrenched. I watched as she wrapped my filling with her water-oil dough portions. I wanted to know more about this woman’s life, her strengths and secrets and foibles. But I was teetering on the edge of a giant cosmic scale. Any move I made now could upset the delicate Kitty-Sue-Ling balance.
Old Kitty was sitting at my dining table when I returned home that night. The cat sauntered over, intent on rubbing against my legs. I shied away.
“Not a cat person?” Kitty asked.
“Allergic,” I said.
“How ironic,” Kitty said, laughing. She scooped up the cat and sat back down. “How are things at the bakery?”
“Great,” I said. “I’m learning a lot and enjoying myself.” I paused awkwardly and added, “How are you?”
She nodded. “Better, now that I’ve been looking up apartments and jobs in Singapore. Have you thought about how to break the news to Sue-Ling?”
I walked to the kitchen. “I don’t have any advice,” I said. “I’ve gotten to know my Sue-Ling better, and she’s not a stranger anymore.”
“Still, you’ve only known her for a month.”
I shrugged and kept my back to her under the guise of washing dishes. My head already hurt, and Kitty’s presence made me feel worse. What if I told her to suck up her feelings?
“Maybe I’m too old for new dreams,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll just spend what time I have left with Sue-Ling before I die.”
“You’re not that old,” I said, trying not to roll my eyes. Would I be that dramatic when I got older?
“Who knows, maybe I’ll have a terrible accident in the next year.”
For some reason, that comment irritated me. I threw up a hand and turned to face her. “This is all too much for me. I never asked to be in this situation. All I wanted when I met Sue-Ling was to improve my baking, and now you’re dumping your mid-life crisis on me.”
Kitty frowned. “Watch how you talk to your elders.”
“You’re not an elder, you’re me. And because you’re me, I’ll say this—you’re being a coward. You say you love Sue-Ling, but you’re not being honest to her. You didn’t tell her that you’ve figured out how to jump between universes, and you’re making me figure out your problem.” My arms trembled, and I set down a fragile dish. “You’re in the middle of your journey, but you’re sabotaging the beginning of mine!”
Kitty’s face was red. Even the cat in her arms lay still. “How dare you,” she said. “I asked your opinion because my choice will affect you.”
She stood up. Anger rolled from her in waves and pinned me to the counter. The cat ran toward my bedroom.
“I love her,” Kitty said, and I realized with horror that her eyes were wet and glinting. “You’re young. You can’t understand building a life with someone for decades and then telling them you want something else.”
I said nothing. She shoved her phone at me, her thumb scrolling through an endless reel of photos. Young Kitty and Tall Sue-Ling standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for their bakery. Resting during a bike ride, grinning at the camera. Sharing an umbrella as they walked down a street lined with cherry blossoms. As the pictures scrolled past, Kitty’s hair went from black to grey. I was watching a future where I lived a life of cozy and unspoken companionship with Sue-Ling. My eyes grew hot with longing.
Kitty leaned in so close I smelled her floral shampoo. “Never call me a coward again,” she said. Then in a flash, she’d stalked toward the bedroom and disappeared, leaving me rooted in the kitchen with a tightness in my chest.
I studied the Sue-Lings’ comings and goings over the next week. A few times, I nearly messed up the mixtures as I observed Tall Sue-Ling in particular. She seemed jovial as ever as she poured out flour and sugar, even whistling folk tunes.
“How am I doing?” I asked her one day, when I couldn’t hold back my curiosity.
“You’re doing fine,” Tall Sue-Ling said. “But be careful with the measurements. The moon cakes yesterday were too salty in the egg yolks.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I meant, how am I doing in your universe? Your version of Kitty?”
“She’s good,” Tall Sue-Ling said. Then she glanced at the other Sue-Lings and lowered her voice. “Actually, she’s a bit down lately. Not sure why, but she says everything’s okay.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said.
I looked across the room to my own Sue-Ling, who was kneading dough at her station. She looked every bit the idyllic baker with flour dusting her nose. Somehow she sensed my gaze and looked up. I smiled at her, but her returned smile was tentative, probing. I wondered if she could see my inner turmoil. I started an animated conversation with Tall Sue-Ling, hoping to give my Sue-Ling the impression that everything was fine.
That night, I sat on my bed and wracked my brains. I felt awful for my argument with Old Kitty. We pushed each other’s buttons so well because we were the same person. But because she was me, I had to support her. She deserved to follow her true desires.
But how could I reach her?
I opened my closet door. The first thing Kitty had encountered in my universe was my dirty laundry. How embarrassing.
I pulled out my phone and searched for funhouse mirrors. Something felt wrong as I scrolled through the results. Sue-Ling had presumably taught other Kittys how to use the mirrors, but this method hadn’t worked for them. I cursed myself for scaring off Old Kitty before I could ask how she’d reached my universe.
I paced the length of my bedroom, desperately looking around for inspiration. My gaze landed on my laptop on the desk, open to the website I’d been working on for Sue-Ling. Maybe in other universes, the Kittys were also more tech-savvy than the Sue-Lings.
I searched monitor sizes on my phone.
Three days later, a three-by-six-foot custom-built monitor and webcam arrived outside my front door. I propped the monitor upright with the attached webcam on top of my dirty laundry. Then I opened a video filter program on the laptop and connected it to the monitor.
My hands trembled as I closed the closet door and turned on my phone flashlight, then stepped back and looked at the image of myself on the monitor. The filter application had added wrinkles to my face and a slight droop to the corner of my eyes. I looked older but no wiser. I looked like a cat lady. If this didn’t work, I had no other ideas.
Now I had to believe that the person in the monitor was the alternate version of myself, with a whole other life. Believe that I was Old Kitty. I took a deep breath and exhaled.
I stared at the monitor until I knew that the person staring back was separate from me. I stepped forward. When I was nearly kissing the monitor screen, I lifted a foot and brought it forward unflinchingly. Where my foot should have touched a hard object, there was only air.
Calmly, I stepped through the screen and let darkness engulf me.
I counted five seconds of pitch black before I dared move. I reached out an arm and felt the brush of musty fabric, heard hangars swinging on the rack. Now I let myself celebrate, and my heart raced with excitement.
My feet got tangled up in clothing. So Old Kitty had a messy closet too.
I stumbled through the creaky doors. From the single nightstand next to the bed, I guessed that Kitty lived alone like me. I followed the light filtering in through the bedroom doorway.
The delicious smell of red beans wafted through the air as I crept down the dim hallway. The décor choices of bamboo planters and calligraphy paintings were eerily similar to mine. My stomach dropped, seeing pictures on the wall of Old Kitty and Tall Sue-Ling together in their bakery. Sue-Ling’s arm was around Kitty, and they laughed in sync.
I was about to change everything.
I emerged in the kitchen, where Kitty was shaping balls of dough at the counter. She jumped at the sight of me. Her face looked pale and defeated. I felt another wave of guilt.
“Oh,” she said. “You figured out how to find me.”
“Yes,” I said. Silence hung in the air. “I’m sorry for what I said. About dumping your troubles on me. We Kittys should help each other.”
She squeezed the dough in her hands, sending white powder drifting to the floor. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have made you solve my problems.”
I leaned against the dining table, a near copy of mine. “I gave it more thought. You have to follow your dreams.”
“I know,” she said, not looking at me.
“Oh,” I said, swallowing hard. I’d expected her to fight back more. “Good.”
“You’re not worried? That I’ll ruin what you have with your Sue-Ling?”
“I am,” I admitted. By encouraging Kitty, I was gambling with a job I loved, at a bakery that felt like home, with a woman I didn’t want to lose. It made no sense that I felt this way after a month, but if anyone could understand, it would be Kitty.
“I see,” she said to the dough in her hands. I was desperate for her to look at me.
“Besides, if you tell Sue-Ling the truth, each of her possible reactions could create an alternate universe. When that happens, you can travel to a universe where Sue-Ling reacts well.”
“No,” she said sharply. “That’s the coward’s way out. I don’t want an alternate version of my Sue-Ling.”
“Why can’t all versions be true? Look, I’m sorry I called you a coward.”
“I was, though. Being a coward.” She finally looked up, and the fierceness in her eyes shocked me. My presence had shaken something loose in her mind. I stared back, trying to be the solid stone to her cutting gaze. Something clicked into place deep in my gut. I saw my soul in her, with the same yearning and desires. All the years between us melted away.
A sound of jingling keys at the front door made us both startle.
“You have a roommate?” I said.
“No, Sue-Ling’s here for dinner.” Kitty blinked, and her eyes softened.
“Tall Sue-Ling’s here?” In a panic, I looked for a hiding place. I wasn’t ready to see her yet.
The sound of footsteps drew closer. Before I could run to the bedroom, Sue-Ling walked into the kitchen. She was a commanding presence in the room. Her mouth fell open when she saw me standing near Kitty.
“You—” Sue-Ling started to say.
“Sue-Ling,” Kitty said. Her gaze had turned to steel again, filling me with both excitement and dread.
Sue-Ling stood rigid. Somehow she knew too. She stared past Kitty at the kitchen counter, stone-faced.
“I’m sorry,” Kitty said, then stopped. She was faltering, fidgeting with the dough. Her mouth opened and closed. It hurt to see the anguish in my own weathered face.
I stepped close and replaced the sticky dough with my hand. At my touch, Kitty shuddered and breathed deep. I interlaced my fingers with hers and avoided looking at Sue-Ling.
“Sue-Ling,” Kitty started again, stronger. “I want to move to Singapore. By myself.”
A long silence lingered. In the seconds that ticked by, I felt an explosion of emerging universes. There was one where Sue-Ling smiled and embraced Kitty. One where she shouted and broke down in tears. One where she swatted the dough from Kitty’s hands and threw it across the room.
In this universe, the one Kitty held so dear, Sue-Ling turned and walked out of the kitchen without another word.
When I returned to my own universe, I found Sue-Ling’s Bakery closed and empty. For the next week, I visited before and after work, but the doors remained resolutely locked. I developed a bellyache that worsened every day that Sue-Ling was absent from the counter. I absorbed nothing at my accounting job, losing my mind with every passing minute.
I had no more visits from Old Kitty. Every night, I stood in front of the monitor set up in my closet, wondering if I should visit her. But her last words as she ushered me into her closet were: “Don’t come back until I’ve smoothed things over.”
On Saturday morning, I drove to the bakery and sat in the parking lot. Still no sign of any Sue-Lings or Kittys, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I watched people filter in and out of the grocery next door. The car slowly filled with heat from the unrelenting sun, and I grew drowsy.
I awoke in the evening from hunger pains and the feeling that someone was watching me. It was my Sue-Ling, looking at me through the car windshield. Her long hair rested on her shoulders, and her plain blue dress rustled in the slight breeze. She was even more beautiful than I remembered.
Overwhelmed with relief, I scrambled to sit up. Before I could step outside the car, she had walked to the passenger door and opened it.
“Sorry I’ve been away. Can I get in?” she asked.
I nodded, unsure what to say. Was she angry? Was she about to fire me? Had the network of Kitty-Sue-Lings collapsed irreparably?
She slid into the seat and handed me a gift bag. Inside was a glass container filled with white mochi. I recognized the implication of the dish.
“Kitty was making this when she told Sue-Ling—” I broke off, then realized I didn’t need to keep secrets. If the Sue-Lings told each other everything, there was no hiding the fact that I had been there.
“It’s the dish you make for me whenever you’re about to leave,” Sue-Ling said simply.
I looked at her with my mouth open. She was smiling.
“Oh Katherine, no relationship is forever. You’ve given me red-bean mochi in every universe, before your sudden death, or when we get an amicable divorce, or—”
“When I tell you I want to move to Singapore alone.”
She nodded. “I always knew telling myself everything was unwise. All the Sue-Lings fear the day you present us with mochi. Even plump Sue-Ling fears her clever cat will find mochi somewhere. I was glad the Kittys never figured out how to travel, because one universe-jumper is enough headache. And see, once Old Kitty figured out how, she told you about her problem and messed up your head. I could tell.”
I bit my lip. “Will Tall Sue-Ling be okay?”
“She will. Just needed time to absorb the news. I’m glad Kitty told her the truth. What’s the point of you and me finding each other in every universe if we aren’t honest with each other?”
Her gentle voice put me more at ease. But one thing still bugged me. “Aren’t you afraid I’m going to betray you? That I’m going to make you red-bean mochi someday?”
Her smile grew wistful. “I once dreaded the day I would meet you. But I learned the difference between betrayal and simply…leaving. Even if I’m left hurting by your death, or changing goals, you never betray me. You always leave me with love. Once I accepted that it’s inevitable that our paths would split, I started to look forward to you arriving.”
My eyes prickled and my chest grew warm. She took the container out of the bag and handed it to me. “I helped Kitty finish this when I was there to comfort Tall Sue-Ling. I brought it back for you.”
The rows of plump white mochi nestled together in the container. They looked delicious, but I hesitated. Could we turn them from a harbinger of partings to a celebration of beginnings?
“Come, Kitty, you must be hungry.”
I was starving. I lifted a mochi out of the container and sank my teeth through its soft skin into the gooey red-bean core. It tasted of love, acceptance, and wisdom crafted through space and time.
© 2023 Karen Aria Lin