Orange Beauty

Inside DaYung’s Tea, polaroid photos of Asian pop stars coat the shop walls. High schoolers fan themselves with receipts, occupying the too-small plastic stools set up around the shop. I sit at one of the three remaining chairs, all of which are near the doorway. The front half of my body freezes in the air-conditioned atmosphere while the back half sweats in the fifty-degree heat outside. I rehearse the number on my receipt—529, 529. If I miss my call, it’ll be another million hours before my Orange Beauty comes.

A woman wearing a hot pink visor croaks in Cantonese as she wheels her pram into DaYung. Her baby has a tuft of black hair which sticks straight up. Visor gazes at the neon-lit menu above the counter. Even though I’ve already made my order, I can’t help staring at the menu, too.

A fluoro orange flash appears on the edge of my visual field. The baby is chewing on an orange balloon. You can’t eat that! I think. Baby shoves the balloon’s tail in its mouth. I can’t let Baby choke and die but also don’t want to inadvertently diss its mum’s childcare skills. Just before lunch at the food court, I tried taming a toddler who was banging on the Children’s Section computer keyboard in Campsie Library. Her mum returned with three shopping bags in each hand and rasped, "you think you can look after my kids better than I can?!"

I stare at Baby while thinking, no eat, no eat—Baby smiles. Obviously, telepathy doesn’t work but at least the baby can see me. I recall principles from the second-year Psychology subject, Human Learning: "animals increase behaviour that has been reinforced and decrease behaviour which has been punished." I slowly shake my head at Baby and force down the corners of my mouth. Baby might not understand social cues like “head shake” equals “social disapproval” equals “bad” but anything’s worth a try.

Baby pauses before opening its mouth. The balloon slides out, its orange rubber shiny with saliva—it worked! I nod and smile, trying to reinforce "balloon out" behaviour. The balloon falls onto Baby’s lap—success!

I look away to watch a slow-motion advertisement of a Chinese pop star boiling tapioca pearls. The orange flash appears in my peripheral vision again. Baby has started stuffing the balloon back into its mouth but as soon as I look straight at Baby, it starts pulling the balloon back out.

"Caught you," I murmur. Just then, Visor returns to the pram. She forces a smile at me but her thinned eyes say, "get away from my baby, you creep."

Visor pushes the pram out of DaYung only to stop outside the doorway. "Moumoumoumou!" Visor yells, yanking out a salivary orange balloon from the baby.

"That’s what I was trying to say," I mutter, glancing at the two Orange Beauties sitting in her pram’s cup holders. Wait—didn’t she order after me?

Frances An is a Vietnamese-Cantonese-Australian writer from Sydney, Australia. Her short stories have been published in Rigorous, EastLit, ZineWest2017, Romanian-Australian bilingual anthology, Seizure and Lost In Books. She is a member of Finishing School, a Parramatta-based feminist writers’ collective. In 2018, she completed the Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) at Western Sydney University. Her research project investigated moral self-perception.