For the first six years of my life, I was a rather normal kid, aside from the fact I still slept with my mom (back then, the Chinese frowned upon niceties like extra beds), and before every hot meal, I fetched from downstairs the bricks of coal needed to heat the stove. Then, on my sixth birthday, mom said the Americans would finally let us come live with dad, who was studying at Texas Tech in Lubbock. Our nosy neighbors were ecstatic. “You make sure to meet a cute blonde girl,” the elderly woman next door said as she wobbled away in her bound feet. “And don’t move back here.”
I didn’t quite understand the buzz of excitement. I already had my little kingdom all figured out, and in it, I was emperor. The Mattel cars, model locomotive, and collection of weirdly shaped rocks answered to no one but me. Yet there was one thing I did understand, and that was these toys weren’t going to make it across the ocean with me.
Not until the first night after landing in Lubbock did I start to develop my fetish. You see, that was the very first night I slept in my very own bed, with my own covers and pillow. To most kids, having their own bed would have been the most thrilling part of the deal. But it was love at first sight between the pillow and me. It was so stuffed with down feathers I was afraid to put the full weight of my head on it in fear the seams would burst.
Though once I plopped my head down, with a muffled thud, I felt like I was sleeping on puff of cloud. The feathers were so soft they surely must have been plucked from hatchlings. But I also loved the pillow for what it was not: sand-filled and thin enough that I needed three to make a decent-sized headrest. For the first six years of my life, that was all I ever knew in a pillow.
My dad had sorely underestimated my attachment to the pillow. It didn’t help that he bought a Tweety Bird pillowcase to put over it, which made it one giant, extremely huggable, stuffed animal. Needless to say, I took it everywhere. Looking back, I’m not sure if the ladies at the grocery store were staring at me because of my sailor shirt and short shorts (“trust me, all the boys here wear them,” my mom had said) or the giant pillow I was clutching.
Suddenly thrown into a world where people talked in gibberish and my closest relatives lived in Baltimore, which sounded as far away as Beijing, my pillow was someone I could count on to be there for me. I even named it Tom, a bit of irony considering I picked out the name Jerry, after his clever nemesis, for myself a short time later when first grade began. Of course I couldn’t let the pillow be the dashing one in the relationship.
During the month in Lubbock, I had no toys since we were about to move again and my parents had to pay off dad’s tuition. That was fine with me, because I was too busy rolling around in the grass outside, with Tom usually propped up against a streetlamp pole (his posture is just awful). In China, you would have never been allowed to sit, walk across, or in any way come close to a patch of the rare green stuff. So when no one was looking, I even let Tom roll around on it for a bit – of course, usually with my head on top of him.
For the thousand-mile trip between Lubbock, Texas and Ames, Iowa, our next home, we didn’t have the money to fly, nor did we have a car to drive. So we took Greyhound. I was the only kid on the bus, if you didn’t count the single mother with the crying baby in the back. I guess you could’ve counted me as baby #2 for clutching Tom the whole eighteen hours.
My time in Ames was that of a typical boy. I soon learned English and the rules of the playground, the first being that a pillow wasn’t going to make me any new friends. So Tom, like sharing a bed with my mom or having to get coal for the stove, became something I kept to myself, because, well, you just can’t expect another 10-year-old to understand that.
In fifth grade, we moved again, this time to Omaha, Nebraska, which was only two hundred miles west, and easily covered in our 1984 Mazda 626. Back then, I could still lay stretched out in the backseat, though starting the year before, I had to slightly bend my knees. My head would also hit the door handle whenever we went over a bump, but for the most part, Tom kept me pretty cushioned.
By now, he had lost the Tweety Bird outfit, replaced by a more sensible, Robin egg blue pillowcase. The tag with the washing instructions had been worn away to a blur, with only recognizable words: “100% cotton.” Apparently Tom wasn’t a feathery Tweety Bird after all. And everywhere he went, he left behind fuzzy pieces of lint here and tiny snippets of string there, much like a tomcat I suppose.
Tom was still clinging on to life when we moved again a year later. This time, we had accumulated too much stuff to jam into the Mazda – and plus, we could afford an U-haul truck now. As we were hurtling through the ominous hills of Appalachia, on our way to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, I woke up from my nap in the backseat, and happened to notice Tom’s scent. Despite the countless wash cycles that my mom forced on Tom (“It’ll kill him,” I had pleaded once), he smelled of home. Not any particular place mind you, but the smell of a home’s security and refuge, not unlike what my grandmother’s lavender scent would invoke in me.
After middle school ended, we moved to Ohio and this time, we could fly. Tom was no longer himself, having lost much weight from a thousand nights supporting my head. That meant he was compact enough for me to bring on the plane (as a headrest of course). That was the last time he was seen in public. A year later, we moved to South Carolina, and a week after that, I came home to find another pillow on the bed.
“This one’s actually made from goose feathers,” my mom said. “I threw that ratty old one out. You needed something new.”