Authors: Frances Hwang
The drawing was crude and nonsensical, done with colored pencils. It depicted a man standing behind an electric pole. What
the man was doing behind that pole was a mystery, but I suspected it was fairly obscene. The electric pole rose in front of
him in a grand phallic statement.
The one-armed man returned, eyeing me as he sat down. He was wearing a beret and sandals, with one gold stud in his ear. He
examined his drawing and began coloring with itty-bitty strokes, sometimes dabbing at them with an eraser, turning the clipboard
this way and that to judge what he had done. Now and then he grunted or made small exclamations over his work, then turned
to look at me slyly as if to include me in his private conversation. l tried to ignore him, but I couldn’t focus on what I
was doing. Finally, I crossed my arms and glared at the television mounted in the corner. There was a baseball game on.
“Do you know what the score is?” he asked me.
“No idea,” I said. I picked up my crumpled napkin and brushed at my computer screen, and the one-armed man got up out of his
seat and returned with a few napkins in his hand.
“You’ll want some clean ones for that,” he said, presenting them to me. “I saw you typing and thought to myself, Wow, she
can really type.” He smiled, peering at my screen. “So what is it you were typing?”
“I’m trying to do some work.”
“Too busy to talk to me, huh? Hey, what’s that doing there?” He leaned over, his finger touching a bruise on my arm.
I got up and stuffed my papers into my bag, picked up my laptop, and headed toward a table at the opposite end of the café.
“So you want to play musical chairs?” he called out behind me.
I settled into my new space but was too distracted to do any work now. Even from across the cafe, I could feel his presence
demanding my attention, and when I glanced over in his direction, he was staring right at me, his mouth moving, though I couldn’t
hear a word he was saying.
In my studio, I stared at the lilies from Clay. A few had darkened to a moribund purple, the glossy petals curling back, starting
to fall in clumps on my desk.
On Sunday afternoon I was startled by an imperious rapping at my door. It was Clay, looking as though he’d just stepped off
the golf course. He handed me a box of chocolates. “Sorry to disturb you,” he said, smiling. “But I’ve been forced to take
action. You haven’t been returning my calls.”
“No,” I said. “I’ve been busy.”
“Doing what exactly?”
I shrugged but didn’t answer.
He stepped closer, pretending to peer around me. “So are you going to invite me in? I want to see your digs.”
I hesitated. “Well, I’m working now.”
“I won’t take up too much time.”
I opened the door wider for him. “There’s really not much to see.” Besides the tiny kitchen, there was only one room with
a chair in the corner, my desk facing the window, and my unmade bed with its heap of blankets. “It’s cozy,” he said, sitting
in the chair.
I sat down on a corner of my bed. “Thanks for these,” I said, opening the box of chocolates. “Do you want one?”
He shook his head, gazing at me. “You should wear your hair down.”
“I do,” I said. “Today, though, I’m wearing it up.”
“I don’t like reserved women,” he said. “Shy is okay, but not reserved. Now, my question is are you being shy or reserved?”
I looked at him, feeling a fascination but also a repulsion, as with the lilies he had given me. “I’m being reserved.”
“Well, maybe we can change that.” He got up and sat down beside me. “Does this make you feel uncomfortable?” He smiled, staring
me down, and I couldn’t help it and looked away. I wondered what it would be like to be so confident, to never show doubt,
to insist, to bombard, to never hesitate or relent. I was sick and afraid of such people.
“Why aren’t you looking at me?” he asked. “Are you being shy now?” He reached out to turn my face toward him, but I shoved
his hand away. His brow furrowed as he leaned in closer, and I jabbed him with my elbow, getting quickly off the bed. “You
need to back off,” I said.
He stood up quickly as well. “I was just about to do that,” he said. There was a red spot on his cheek, and I could hear him
breathing through his mouth.
“I mean, what were you doing just now? You can’t force me to like you. I don’t like you and never will.”
He nodded curtly. “Message taken loud and clear.”
“If a person doesn’t return your calls, it means they’re not interested.”
He was silent, reflecting. “I’m not usually this aggressive,” he said.
“I find that hard to believe.”
“No, really. I’m usually a more diffident kind of guy, but I’ve been trying to change that.”
There was something slightly pitiful about this, which dismayed me. It opened up the whole possibility that the businessman
was someone I would have to feel sorry for. “Diffidence is a good thing,” I said.
He smiled. “Well, I’ll go now.”
I nodded. “So long, Clay.”
In December, Richard Goode gave a concert in San Francisco. More than a year had passed since the concert in the chapel, and
I sat by myself on the second tier, barely able to make out the tiny faraway figure that was Richard Goode on the stage. Between
each piece, people coughed violently, an unrestrained hacking that spread through the auditorium as they relieved the itches
in their throats. A ripple of laughter arose at these desperate sounds while Richard Goode sat on the bench and mopped his
brow with a handkerchief, which he stuffed back into his pocket. We wanted so much from him, to be transported, to go deeper
into our memories, to lose ourselves in the feeling that the music evoked in us, to wander around for a while in our dreams,
but we could not escape the minor irritations of reality, our own bodily complaints, and the distraction of other bodies surrounding
us — people in the audience sneezing or whispering or looking at their cell phones or clandestinely untwisting a candy wrapper.
I had been so close to Richard Goode in the chapel! I had heard his humming, his feet pressing down on the pedals as he hopped
lightly on the bench. The Beethoven sonata he played had seemed a calm musing at first, until the mind took a turn and encountered
an object it had desired and lost. A high delicate note was struck, and this was what the heart wanted and kept returning
to, the memories hitting as light and quick as rain. Even then, I knew it wouldn’t last with Vincent, this is what the music
was telling me, yet it made the moment sweeter as we sat close, our shoulders touching, breathing silently together.
After the performance, I walked with a stream of other concertgoers to the
station and thought about what Sylvia had said to me over the phone. Whenever I saw or read the news about New Orleans now,
I thought about her and all that she was going through. “It’s like someone shuffled the deck and I’ve been given a completely
different hand,” she told me. “I’m constantly sad, but it isn’t a lonely sadness. Everyone here has lost something.”
I had heard from Clay again. He wrote to tell me he wanted to be friends. He had always liked me for my mind, and that hadn’t
changed. If I thought he was going to sulk and play the role of rejected suitor, then I was wrong. He invited me to see a
movie with him, but I’d seen the trailer already — the hero and heroine contemplating each other scornfully as rain and lust
dripped down their faces. I thought this movie was the last one I wanted to see with him and didn’t write back.
Vincent also wrote me. He was still swimming laps in the pool every day for his health. I imagined his thin, asymmetrical
body and faintly blue feet stretching across the water in melancholy languor. I liked to think of him suspended like this
and wondered if his life would turn out light or heavy. But I didn’t really want to know. Details only fixed him more clearly
in my mind, and I had stopped writing him. Every day, he recedes a little more. In my mind he has become a Sisyphus, fated
to move slowly back and forth through the water.
Kate told me I should send out good wishes to people who have hurt or angered me most. “It’s a way of letting go of them,”
she said. “Who knows if your prayers will do them any good? It’s a way of finding peace with them in your own mind.” Did I
wish Vincent and Clay well? I wanted to.
As I rode the subway going home, I noticed another train moving along beside mine. It was like watching a lit theater. I could
see the people on the other train so clearly through the windows, and they were doing what people do on trains— sleeping,
conversing, reading a newspaper, listening to music, staring into space—but there was an element of unreality to it all as
everything unfolded in silence. It was like a pantomime, the actors partially hidden and set apart behind glass, the characters
changing as the train slowly advanced beside mine. I saw a woman scratching her neck as she fanned herself, a man putting
something away in a bag, a girl gazing out the window with her hand close to her mouth, and I wanted to know their secrets,
all the things that are felt and never said. Their train floated parallel to mine, swaying luxuriously from side to side,
sometimes falling a little behind or inching slightly ahead, and it seemed like a dance the way the trains moved sideways
farther apart and then came close together again. Only when my train slowed down for the next stop could I see how fast the
other train was moving as it turned into a silver blur rushing by.
ast week my friend Milly invited me to a latke party to celebrate Hanukkah. All of us sat around her table eating latkes with
applesauce or sour cream, and Milly was telling me how to make them. “You grate the potato as finely as possible,” she said.
“It’s from my mom’s belief that the more effort you put in, the better it will taste. My mom likes to make cooking a hardship.”
Milly’s friend Cornelius was fiddling with a knife that he had picked up from the table. The cunning shape of the blade bothered
me, as if it had been designed for something more sinister than paring potatoes. He kept turning it over on the tablecloth,
pressing the blade against his thumb. I had heard that as a child he had undergone heart surgery to correct an arrhythmia,
and now his languid body and swollen hands suggested a slow-pulsing heart. Milly couldn’t resist the morbid gleam of his mind.
I had seen them sitting on a bench together in Rittenhouse Square, Cornelius speaking with his nose to the sky and his arms
crossed over his chest as Milly toyed with the edge of her coat. My friend had the plain, delicate beauty of a moth — a pale,
uncanny face and faded brown hair with a silver streak in front, though she was only twenty-six years old. Her loft apartment
was whimsical and spare, a few glass objects lining the high windows.
Cornelius gave the knife a lazy spin. “Let’s go around the table and tell each other persecuted ancestor stories.” We looked
at him in surprise, and he said, “It should be easy. Everyone here is Chinese or Jewish.”
Now we looked at one another, as if for the first time, and laughed.
“I’ll go first,” Cornelius said, and he proceeded to tell us about his great-uncle Frederic who cut off his little toe to
escape being drafted.
“I have a story like that,” Milly said, “only my grandfather was smarter. He put special drops in his eyes and flunked the
eye test to avoid joining the Russian army.”
We went around the table, sharing stories we had heard from our families. Jennifer told us about her revolutionary grandmother,
a spy for the Guomindang who was captured by the Japanese. Rachel told us about a second cousin of her mother’s who was hidden
by a Polish farmer underneath the floor of his barn. David told us about his grandfather who walked all the way from Nanjing
to Shanghai to escape the Communists.
“In some versions, he takes a train, but the official version is that he walks barefoot across the whole of China.” David
grinned and straightened his glasses. “When he gets to Shanghai, he has no money left. The Communists are on their way, and
my grandfather is afraid he’ll be executed because he’s a member of the Guomindang. He spends the night under a tree and dreams
of a female ghost beneath the ground reaching up to grab him. He wakes up to take a piss, and his stream of urine is so strong
it uncovers something shiny from the soil. My grandfather bends down to find a woman’s gold ring. The next day he exchanges
it for a boat ride to Taiwan, and that’s how he escaped the Communists.” David smiled at us again, clearing his throat. He
was usually a quiet person, and that was the most any of us had heard him say in one evening.
I told them about my mother’s uncle, who was beaten and held for ransom by local bandits hiding in the mountains near his
village. He was released only when his family delivered a wood coffin filled with coins to his kidnappers.
Cornelius raised his eyebrows. “A coffin?”
I nodded. “His family went bankrupt in order to save him, even though they thought he was a useless person. He was addicted
to opium, but when he was released he couldn’t afford to smoke it anymore and he became something like a servant to his younger
brothers. Every morning he walked my mother to school, and the two of them would search the ground for cigarette stubs. Then
he would slit them open and collect the remaining tobacco to make a cigarette for himself.”
“What happened to him?” Milly asked.
“No one really knows. He refused to leave when the Communists took over, and my family fled their village and lost track of
“Well, all of this makes me think how insignificant my own problems are,” Milly said with a little smile. “Here I am complaining
about how I don’t have a boyfriend and hate my job, but I’ve never had to worry about anything really. Like I’ve never had
to think about cutting my toe off. It just seems so absurd. Yet all these people had to struggle through so much adversity.
And it had to do with when you were born and where you lived. I can’t imagine it.”