Meanwhileby Caila Rossi
Once, in a thoughtful moment, he told her why he had married her: “Because I knew you’d make a good mother.” There was no mention of love, but it didn’t matter anymore. After nine years, she wondered only how much more she could take.
He was Eurasian. A tall, thin Chinese boy, she’d thought when she first saw him, once of the new, green bankers brought around to meet the company librarian. “We’ll be seeing a lot of each other,” she assured them. At twenty-four, she was smarter and more experienced than they’d ever be.
The Chinese boy returned the next day with his first request. “I hate to reveal my ignorance,” he said in a voice that belied his humility. It was a worldly, wry, all-knowing, English voice, a profound, not only intellectually, but deep, rumbling, Oxford-educated voice. His nose was aquiline, his eyes round. He had full, soft lips, a cupid’s bow. She saw him more distinctly and she didn’t see him at all. She saw a flood of joyous light, a blinding explosion, a cliché was what she saw, she was struck by lightening, dumbstruck. She fell off her high horse. When she got to her feet she could see again, but her vision had changed.
Some people know the person they’re going to marry when they meet them, but that wasn’t true in her case. She recognized only the tip of her desire, motivation enough. Recently, she’d been thinking of her bad luck with men, that she would never fall for the right one, but whether or not he was right never occurred to her, she only wanted to sleep with him.
“You’re so talented,” she said the first time.
He was resting on an elbow above her. “What do you mean?”
“You can make love to me and smoke a cigarette at the same time.”
Never sure of anyone’s irony but his own, he was flattered. So she kept her mouth shut about how romantic it was for him to have kept his underwear on. It was alcohol that made the sex bad, not his arrogance, which she liked. For weeks she’d followed him to bars after work with a group from the office, until he finally understood that she was coming for him, not the drinks. He’d had several more, then they went back to his place. He didn’t stop drinking for years.
Just as well that her desire for him was not only physical, was so multi-faceted that there were, inevitably, enough successes to keep her going. He had a great delicacy; he trod gently on the earth, not like the marauders most men were. He had ways of wreaking devastation, but he always started with himself. Mostly, he was subtle, a gentleman like her father, who had died when she was fourteen of a brain hemorrhage. This gentleman she wanted to save, did save, would probably save again is she had to. Even now, hearing his footsteps crossing the bedroom, opening drawers, closets, his key when he entered the house, not just the smell, but the sounds of him were a rousing prelude. Even is what followed was often disappointing.
In the beginning she thought about him all the time, about what would please him. Maybe she couldn’t be beautiful herself, and she was not, despite what her so-called lover said. Her dead so-called lover, who had hovered on the horizon as a portal to joy that she might never know now. Though joy was not what she’d wanted. She’d wanted to own beauty: beautiful clothes, a beautiful vase, and this one, beautiful man.
Her husband hadn’t married her because he thought she’d make a good mother, did he forget? He’d married her because he was transferred to London and the firm would pay for her to go with him only if she was his wife. They’d been living together for almost a year by then. Later, he would say, “I knew what I was doing.” Maybe he did, but to her their marriage was an experiment. As easily as she had moved in with him, then quit her job to avoid gossip and jealousy at work, and because a better one had come along, she could get divorced, return to the States, get another degree, in business, maybe. She might get married again, though not to her so-called lover; she never thought about marrying him. But there would be changes; she counted on them. Her husband would have to stop drinking, this time permanently. She couldn’t stand what he was doing to himself or how, when he drank, he forgot everything. How she might as well not have been there.
Meanwhile she had London. Her children were born there, two years apart. She had a circle of friends who were also mothers and wives. They lived off Sloane Street. Down the King’s Road to Fulham Road, to South Ken. To the museums, Harrod’s, up the gardens, to Hyde Park, to Oxford Street. She knew all the squares and mewses, museums, specialty shops, department stores, and parks in the area; she wheeled her children everywhere in Lewis of London, the Rolls Royce of prams. She never thought about other men, then; she was a one-man woman.
It was while they were in London that her husband decided he had to choose to be either English or Chinese. She wanted him to choose English; it was so much more convenient. Really, she didn’t see why he had to choose at all. She told him they should go back to the States, that an identity crisis like his would be much less severe there, but he leaned toward Hong Kong. He had sudden great nostalgia for the place. He felt he’d betrayed a nation by leaving.
And what was this nation but a whopping big cash register, a suffocating people jam? Its charms were mostly topographical: the view of green islands in a turquoise sea from the air, the panorama from the Peak, the monolithic rocks off the southern coast. Their family stayed for a month with her mother in Pokfulam, a middle-class residential area with some breathing space near the university. His mother taught chemistry there. She was short and thin, smiled often and tried to be gracious, but couldn’t help being blunt. “I don’t like babies,” she said the day they arrived.
This was what he missed? His mother’s family had done well in Hong Kong. They were from northern China originally, from Fushon. He spoke angrily in dialect to her. It seemed she resented not seeing him for six years and she didn’t want to keep her in the dark about why.
“At least your father waited until lunch,” she said when he toasted her brandy at breakfast.
“Don’t pretend to remember who my father was,” he said. By evening, he was lurching around the apartment with a cigarette, making witty conversation that he never remembered.
She left the children with him and the amah one day, to wander the city by herself, to discover its narrow streets and alleys. There were many cheap, colorful trinkets to buy. Later, her mother-in-law would say she’d got taken. She took the Star Ferry, had tea in the Peninsula lobby, took the ferry back and, in a taxi on her way back to Pokfulam, she found herself taking stock. Look where desire had leas her, one blind step at a time: to a new job, to London, motherhood, Hong Kong, to new friends and family, all in the space of a few years. To a charming, gentle drunk whom she adored and found endlessly interesting, and found nothing surprising about her.
The sky is clearing to the south. She knows it’s south, because her garden is on the south side of the house. Not a backyard, a garden, her garden. Shortly after she left him in London, taking the kids and moving back to New York to live here with her mother, her mother got sick, went into the hospital and never came out. She felt like Candide turning, after many adventures, to the small plot of land at the back of the house. She pulled up all the bushes her grandparents had found so easy to care for, but kept her mother’s Japanese maple. Her life was bound to tragedy. Her parents were gone, her marriage over; she would have to accept that, but had no idea what to do with it. She plotted, dug, planted, dug up, replanted, and waited, but not being properly thought out, many of her plants failed in the shade of the tree and in the soil which may be alkaline or sandy, she didn’t know. Some plant best for the shade didn’t take, while others that needed sun did. She never had much patience for gardening, never took time to observe how the sun crossed the backyard. All her patience was spent elsewhere. Then, one morning years later, long after her husband had returned to them to begin sobriety, years after she had stopped thinking all the time about her so-called lover, it suddenly required no effort to note how the sun fell on the upper branches of the tree, on the purple asters and the yellow roses climbing the wood fence. Later it alighted on the hostas, the ivy covering the fence on the east side of the garden, and on the pink physo-somethings with the long green and white leaves. In the early evening, right before dusk, when color is most intense, her garden warmly applauds her. She returns the affection. All that money, time, and effort thrown so carelessly into dirt paid off, nature collaborated.
He comes out to help her with the shopping. A tall, slouched, again boy, he takes wide, unsure steps like a sailor on a pitching deck. An inner ear problem, but he was never good at walking. It’s generic he says: His feet are too small for someone his height; he’s never sure of his balance.
“Did you get stamps?” He sounds slightly less Shakespearean after all these years in the States.
“Oh!” She forgot, but she remembered everything else. “Your shirts, your rice.”
“My rice?” His heavy rounded eyebrows rise like accent marks.
“The rice you asked for.” She’s his consort, that’s what he used to call her, not his servant. “I got you medication, I went to the butcher.”
As he wheels the cart through the living room, the dry cleaning slips to the floor. She picks it up.
“What’s he say about the skirt?” he says, as she hangs the clothes from the kitchen door.
He doesn’t answer, but lowers himself into a seat at the oval table in front of the window.
“I ordered a case of spring water. You should drink at least a bottle a day.”
“The dry cleaner.”
“It wasn’t a skirt, it was my blue dress. And that was two weeks ago.”
He turns to look at the garden. “I should probably see a doctor.”
Has she missed something? Glancing at him, she sees only the back of his graying head, with its vulnerable spot at the crown.
“This memory lapse can’t be much fun for you, Jean.”
Jean is not her name. He disarms her, he yanks her back from wherever she was; he’s far less predictable than she. He thinks so, too.
“You’ve forgotten more important things,” she says.
“Like what?” And when she doesn’t reply, “Did you forget?”
His humor is inappropriate, but he doesn’t realize that yet. He’s spent his day reading the paper, following the stock market on his computer, eating breakfast, perhaps lunch, cleaning up, talking on the phone. He’s never bored, perfectly happy to do nothing, for which he dresses neatly, casually, much the same as her so-called lover did. Each so fragile in his own way. She doesn’t see herself as fragile. But then, she thought her so-called lover would outlast them all.
“Rob called,” her husband says.
“Is everything okay?” Their son had been in Venezuela working for a non-profit. He learned from his father’s uneven career to do what felt good.
“He wants me to go to China with them for two weeks.”
“Go,” she says dryly, knowing that though he said “me”, he meant “us”.
“It has been ten years.” Not since his mother’s funeral.
He looks at her evenly. His face has coarsened over time, but any wrinkles and worry lines were diluted in years of drinking. They discuss his looks as if they were a mutual investment. Do his eyelids droop too much? She likes them that way. Should he comb his hair to cover the spot? Touch up his jaw line? What does she think? What do her friends think? Her friends and family think he is elegant, sophisticated, well educated: they are fascinated by him. If they see what she sees, they don’t say so; that he is an anachronism, an Edwardian gentleman, rather hapless. He was a quick wit; takes nothing seriously but himself, though less now, perhaps. He used to wonder what he had done to deserve her good opinion of him; he was clueless as only a narcissist can be. He was afraid of losing her veneration, but lost it anyway, incrementally. That is, he is no longer mythic to her. Destiny has shown itself to be a mix of genes, self-fulfilling prophecy, unfilled wishes, luck, good and bad, and circumstance, and diminished, even reversed expectations, not only of him, but also of everyone, of life. Not a bad thing, a good, a Zen-like thing.
“Is it something I said?”
“What?” She has made herself busy rearranging containers in the refrigerator.
“You’ve been in a mood since yesterday.” He’s noticed. She forgets, sometimes, that he’s more aware now of sharing the arena. Having behaved badly at the beginning, he compensates, he pays attention.
It used to be so easy to hide things from him. “It has nothing to do with you,” she says. Nothing has anything to do with anything else, the other used to say.
“Who does it have to do with then?” He smiles, trying to coax it out of her, and he will, she wants him to. The secret is out, anyway: she’s not young anymore. He might as well know what a fool she’s been, how she clung to the illusion. Was she deceived? Only by herself. She’d used her imagination mightily to keep some fantasy alive. Though she might mention that it had always required imagination to sustain desire, she felt she had an equal partner.
Who will look at her now? Who will she think of when she buys clothes, when she gets her hair cut, her teeth polished? It was always her so-called lover. He was the silent one listening to her voice at the end of the line, his television always on, though he claimed to hardly watch it. She was sure he was observing her, too, from a distance. She felt him watching. It was the sort of scrutiny ascribed to angels and lovers, of which he was neither. Also to the newly dead. Though since this morning, she hasn’t felt him. His gaze, real and imagined, is gone, the spotlight is off.
Her husband watches her. He thinks her crises are nothing - holes in her blue silk dress, spoiled meat – because she’s always diminished her problems or not mentioned them. Maybe she did talk about herself in the beginning, she still thought he might be interested, but looking for her reflection in his dark eyes, she never found it. Sometimes she’d have to check in a mirror just to make sure she was still there. His attention became the lesser part of her desire for him, all she’d wanted from the other.
He’s gone silent. She’s going to have to say something, the least bit possible, just enough to keep him from thinking it has something to do with him. “Someone I know died.”
She tells him, thinking the name will mean nothing, but he remembers. “I thought that was finished a long time ago.”
She didn’t expect him to remember. “It never got started.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Too late now, she’s jumped. Who knows where she’ll land? “We were friends, that’s all.”
He turns away from her toward the window, draws the curtain aside, lets it go. Women had pursued him, too. They’d call the house and leave their names. She can’t remember any of them.
“Don’t expect me to attend the funeral.” He’s working himself up. It’s an effort; he’s constitutionally mild. He gets up, sits down. Is this shock? Neither of them seems to know what to do. Distance feels most appropriate. They can’t get too close, anyway, with this fault in the ground between them.
It had suited him to think her life was a neat package; then they would work on his. They couldn’t fix everything, though. He is still easily wounded. Over the years, things she said and did, even unintentionally, have accumulated in his nursery of hurt. He never forgets. He’s self-absorbed, absent-minded, helpless in many ways of the world, still a child, still needy, even more so. He’s very much himself, and for that she loves him.
“He died weeks ago,” she says, attempting a lack of affect. “I didn’t even know.” She tells him about the call from the former friend yesterday. “She thinks we had an affair.”
“And you convinced her you hadn’t.”
“I don’t care what she thinks.”
“Who else knows?”
“Knows what? There’s nothing to know.” This is an argument for young people, people who still have a passion for each other, who can still feel betrayed.
“It wasn’t an affair.” How small her voice is, so high in her throat; her poor leg, trembling.
“Then what was it?”
“Nothing. I don’t know. Friends.” Steer a steady course to the truth, or the closest port to it. The truth is damning enough; the truth isn’t the truth.
“A friend you had to hide from me.”
“We never made love, believe me.”
“I don’t believe anyone.” She’s anyone.
Look at her, so pitiful, a shaky bird on a thin limb. She feels young, or old. She remembers a poem about dying a young person’s death: reckless, sexual, ridiculous.
Between them: an expanse of green tablecloth crossed by thin yellow lines that enclose large pink and white flowers. It is shot with small, fraying holes, but in a past life, the life she feels she has just left behind, she liked the way it looked against the window, with the garden beyond it. Now it looks like a souvenir. Everything has stopped, come to the end of its decorative life: the brass napkin holder his mother brought them when she visited Hong Kong, such a cold, thoughtful gift; and the matte yellow teapot. She doesn’t know what time it is. Early afternoon, late morning. A gray and white cat poises atop the wood fence, then jumps on the lid of the compost container and down to the wet grass, delicately shaking its paws. The houses attached to either side of them are quiet. They contain families whose cheerful faces belie what she hears through the walls, though maybe they are happy enough. Real crises occur in silence. Then the bodies are carried out.
This preceding is an excerpt from Caila Rossiâs novella, Seeing A Specialist, a portion of which appeared in The Gettysburg Review. She lives in Crown Heights.