Authors: Jean Kwok
I swallowed hard. The words fell out like stones. “The thing is, Jim, you didn’t just rob her of her innocence, you took mine as well. I loved you more than anyone. I let you into my heart and I trusted you.” A dry sob escaped me.
“I was so wrong, sweetheart. I know you feel angry and betrayed. I was just lonely. She meant nothing to me. I’ll spend the rest of my life making this up to you.” His voice rang with sincerity.
He was such a manipulative jerk, even if I could hear a glimmer of truth in his words. That only made it hurt more. Our failure was my fault too. He took a step toward me. I held up a hand. Enough was enough. “Stop. Don’t try those counselor tricks on me. They don’t work anymore. Even if I could forgive you, I can never be sure that you won’t do it again, to some other innocent student.”
He scrutinized me until the resolution in my face seemed to convince him, and, like a mask, the pleading lover fell away—and the hurt too. How many times would I allow this man to put a blade through my heart? How had I never seen the chameleon before?
Now he was calm and businesslike, a negotiator in a contract arbitration. “Look, if you have to divorce me, leave this whole thing out of it and we’ll get rid of the prenup, okay? All your bills, Amy’s student loans, your parents. You’d never have to worry about money again. But don’t destroy my life for no reason.”
And just like that, he accepted the end of our marriage. I scoffed at this, irrationally hurt. “Great, you’re trying to buy me. No reason? You still don’t believe that what you did was wrong. And that’s exactly why the truth has to come out, Jim. I’m sorry.”
He took a step toward me, and then another, his muscles and veins straining against his skin. His breath was quick, the whites of his eyes prominent, his fists raised. I backed away, truly afraid for the first time. His control had snapped. The last time he struck me, my head had whipped back from the force of the blow. He towered over me now, his face mottled with rage. I cowered. Footsteps. A blur of black. A loud crack, then Jim thudded against the floor.
Lukas stood over Jim’s sprawled form, heaving, his huge hands clenching. “Get the hell away from her.”
Jim stared at Lukas, then at me. He slowly raised a hand to the blood flowing from a cut on his cheek. He shook his head in disbelief. “So this is him.” He gave me a long, pained look, filled with hurt, betrayal, and fury. Jim staggered to his feet and glared at me. “This conversation isn’t over, Sylvie.” He shoved past Lukas and stalked out of the house.
I sank down on the floor, suddenly weak. “How much did you hear?”
Lukas came over and knelt beside me, his voice gentle. “Very little. Something about bills and money. I came upstairs to find him threatening you. Are you all right?”
I held out my arms to him like a small child. “No.” Then I was crying big heaving sobs as he held me. I felt safer in his arms. I had made such a mess of everything. My marriage was truly over. What would I do now?
Oh Jim, how did we come to this?
Lukas smoothed my hair and patted my back, murmuring indistinct sounds of comfort.
As I calmed, he handed me a box of tissues but kept one arm around me. He stayed on the floor next to me, leaning back against the kitchen counter. I blew my nose and took a deep breath. I rested my cheek against his shoulder.
“Husband?” he said.
I tried to speak, had to clear my throat. My voice was hoarse. “Soon to be ex-husband.”
He nodded. “Do you want to talk about it?”
I shook my head and then chuckled, giddy after all the emotion of the evening. “Do you know when my happiest moment was?”
“Changing the subject?” There was a smile in his voice.
“I had had the worst day. It was soon after I had moved to the U.S. and I hardly spoke any English. I missed you and Estelle and Grandma. All of the kids there teased or ignored me and that day, one of the girls had pinched me so hard it left a purple bruise on my hand. The worst was, the teacher yelled at me for fighting, not her. I went home, trying so hard not to cry, and Amy jumped into my arms and everything was all right. She felt so warm and happy and alive. I knew she would always love me, no matter what. She saved me then. Like you just did.”
He rested his cheek against my temple. “Are you not going to tell me what happened?”
I sighed and closed my eyes. “Not now. All I want to do these days is forget.”
lay in the dark, comforted by the knowledge that Lukas was in his apartment next door. I wanted to stay with him, but my heart was a desert landscape filled with mirages and quicksand, nothing in it trustworthy, and I loved him too much to lure him into a hallucination with me. As was my habit when I was stressed, I rubbed at the birthmark behind my ear. It was barely visible—a distinctive spiraled circle with a bit of a tail. Amy said it reminded her of a snail. Ma had always draped my hair over it when I was a child to hide it, and so I had developed a slight awkwardness about it. The sleeping pills were not working tonight. The life I had so carefully knitted together with Jim was falling apart. I was not truly surprised. In a way, I had been waiting for this unraveling my whole life. Deep down, I had known true love was not for me.
I had loved Jim with all of me that was innocent, the part that still believed in a fairy-tale ending for the immigrant Chinese girl. I was starved for affection and he, my chance at redemption, had been generous with it. I loved the way he was so unabashedly himself. It was not until much later that I realized what I thought was confidence was actually a form of selfishness, a refusal to believe that not everything in the world revolved around him.
I was an impoverished, awkward girl who got into Princeton on good grades, unlike another girl I knew whose father had enclosed a check for half a million dollars with her application fee. She could fish with a golden hook. We were so poor, they had even waived my fee—always the scholarship student, the brain of the class, the girl in the ill-fitting clothes. But those who wish to eat honey must suffer the sting of the bees. Methodically, I had fixed every flaw I could find in myself. In high school, I skipped lunch so I could save for a few good pieces of clothing. In college, I worked several jobs at a time so I could have my crooked tooth pulled and replaced with a fake one, too vain and impatient to wait for braces.
The other kids respected me because they had no choice. I made sure I was at the top in every class, but no one liked me. Unlike Amy, who had brought her little girlfriends home regularly. I allowed myself no vulnerabilities. I told myself I did not need friendships. When you were different, who knew if it was because of a lack of social graces or the language barrier or your skin color? I read etiquette books and studied designer brands as intently as my statistics textbooks. But I never mastered the art of the graceful shrug, the careless indifference of those who summered on private islands and tied clove hitches on sailboats. I was the recipient of critical stares, the kind that were the defining characteristic of those born into certain classes. I learned that there were people who knew of no other existence than their own, a path cushioned by wealth and breeding from birth onward.
Intellectually, some of the kids in college were far beyond me—as far as the stars were from the frog at the bottom of a well, as Ma would say. My freshman-year roommate, Valerie, had debated the importance of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill with her Yale professor parents. I had never heard of either. That was partly why I chose the solid fields of mathematics and the sciences. I did not have to overcome a mountain of books or a vast cultural past that I had neither read nor heard of. With some talent and a lot of hard work, I felt I had a chance. Although Valerie and I never fought, we did not become friends either, and after freshman year, she chose to room with a group of other girls who smoked and wore heavy black eyeliner.
Guys only liked me for the outside. I understood that I ticked the
boxes, but so did many other girls. I did not want to be replaceable and, truth was, I was too much of a nerd inside to differentiate when a man had an abstract or personal interest in me. In the dining hall, I once had a long, interesting conversation with a guy about our mutual class on the Cultural Revolution in China, and then was caught unprepared when he asked me out. I lied and said I already had a boyfriend. He never spoke to me again. Clearly, I had not been that fascinating after all.
But then I met warm, affectionate Jim. I had thought he was like me, a poor kid who made his way on his own. How thirsty I was for his attention and touch. Other boys had liked me but I never felt as if we spoke the same language. We were always, as Grandma would say, a chicken talking to a duck. But with Jim, everything was different.
Then he brought me home for Christmas and I was stunned by the mansion his parents called home. Much later, I recognized that our relationship had been defined by duplicity and silence from the start.
“You never told me,” I had said, feeling awed and betrayed. My boyfriend was a member of the groups that disdained me.
“I’ve always felt guilty and stupid about it,” he said, “being so privileged.”
His parents, both products of centuries of breeding and expectations, were wannabe hippies yet still spoke only French in front of Jim whenever they discussed “vulgar” subjects like money. They were unfailingly polite and refined, too intelligent to be overtly racist, too well-bred to show any sort of derision for the poor relation that I was. But there was never to be any shouting, no inappropriate feelings. The worst crime was to be unrefined or to serve the wrong person first at a dinner party. They had bred into Jim’s bones all the rules I had studied so theoretically in my etiquette books. I understood they were disappointed that Jim had not gone to Harvard like his father, but found Princeton acceptable. I wondered how an exuberant little boy had felt growing up in such a controlled environment.
We had sex for the first time in their indoor swimming pool while his parents were at a dinner party. We reclined in the shallow, warm water, surrounded by hothouse ferns and blooming plants like a jungle. The glass walls overlooked the windswept lake where the waves crashed against their boathouse. Jim’s hands pulled down my bikini bottom, then his hands fisted in my hair, his lips tender against the hollow between my breasts. I gasped, my legs wrapped around his waist, his groan soft as he buried himself inside me.
Their wedding gift was the one time Jim’s parents had relaxed their discipline of austerity with their only son. They had thrown us a lavish wedding and crowned it with the gift of the apartment in Brooklyn Heights.
Those days, we were both so busy. I came home exhausted and bleary-eyed. We hardly made love anymore. But we still loved each other, or so I thought. Despite the men who came on to me at the management consultancy firm, I had always looked forward to going home to Jim and our life together.
It was almost like playing with dolls, pretending to own a life I had dreamed of. I did not have a child-wish like the other women I knew, but soon, I thought, we would have kids and we would never have to send them away to be raised by someone else. I would be a fresh Sylvie, a beloved Sylvie. I brought Amy into our lives as much as I could. She never wanted to stay overnight when Jim was home for fear we were having sex or some such. I wanted to give her an oasis of peace, for her to lay down that burden of guilt she always carried. It was not fair that she had that stutter when she was little, or that she was so often in my shadow.
I was ruthless enough to climb to the top no matter what. In my work, I was sometimes responsible for the firing of hundreds of people. If it was better for my client, I did it without a pang. The older man who had come to plead with me once, “Please, I’m almost eligible for retirement”—I had asked security to escort him out.
When Amy was younger, she went through a phase of asking me questions:
If you could have a mountain of doughnuts or a mountain of gold, which would you choose?
If you had to bathe in blood or poop, which would you choose?
Gross, Amy, I’m not answering that.
If you had the answers to a test, would you share them with your best friend?
No. Amy stared at me.
Not even your very best friend?
No. But I’d share them with you.
One weekend, after I was married, Jim was away for a conference and I invited her over. Amy was an excellent cook, her dumplings tender and soft, her soy sauce chicken fragrant, her red bean ice drinks creamy and sweet, but since Ma had never used our oven, Amy had never learned to bake. I decided we would make brownies from a mix.
“No, it can’t be that hard to make them from scratch,” Amy protested, ever the cooking princess. “What could go wrong?”
I gave her a hard stare. “I’m involved.”
She sighed. “You’re right. We’d better not risk it.”
An hour later, we both had our elbows propped on my cook-island, a box of brownie mix and all-new baking tins and equipment spread around us that I had bought for this venture.
Amy expertly stirred in the water and eggs. “I shouldn’t do this. I’m going to get fat.”
I eyed her lustrous hair, the tanned glow of her skin, her bright eyes. “Ridiculous. You’re beautiful. You have to step into yourself, grow into the woman you are meant to be.”