Beginning of Wooing Wu
of Forthcoming Books
LATE SUMMER, 2009
In hours of bliss we oft have met;
They could not always last:
And though the present I regret,
I’m grateful for the past.”
“I wasn’t crying for any reason. Deep down I wasn’t even crying; I was remembering; and in the eyes of others, my remembering looked like crying.”
From Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini
The phone ringing wakes him. He almost doesn’t answer it, he is still so groggy, not having, as usual, slept well, but for some reason he does. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to be sleeping, he seems to be sleeping a lot lately, often in the middle of the day, or after dinner, if you can call two hot dogs with salsa wrapped in a tortilla dinner, and he doesn’t want to doze off again. So he picks up the phone and instantly is awake when he hears sobbing on the other end.
“She’s dead,” Julia cries, her voice breaking. “Li Ch’ing-chao is dead.”
And it’s then he knows he won’t be sleeping for a long time now. The crying continues and he says, “I’ll be right over.”
“All right,” she moans. “Please hurry.”
And after he hangs up, he washes his face, pulls on a t-shirt, a light sweater, and is out the door.
Julia meanwhile wipes her eyes and stares at the dead cat curled up on the kitchen floor on the mat in front of the sink. This cat, she thinks, has been with me almost as long as I have been in this country, has been my one constant companion, the relationship I have measured my time here by, and she begins crying again, remembering her as a tiny white kitten she could hold in the palm of her hand, remembering her at play, eating the shrimp Julia would cook especially for her, attacking her feet when she came from the shower, the way she would curl up in Hui Lang’s lap when she would sing to her, and then Julia remembers it all: A.J. and Hui Lang, Xi Jie and Jonathan, Eric, yes, Eric, and Rebecca, and then finally Anthony, yes, finally Anthony who is on his way here now. It is all so fresh in her mind, so clear, this life in America, and the time that she had, the people who shared it with her, the joy, the sorrow, the laughter amid tears, for America has been both, and it has become her home, and now she will continue on in this country without her beloved cat. Twenty years, she thinks. I am here twenty years.
And her eyes cloud again as she remembers her cat, her friends, her love.
ME MYSELF I
Julia Wu begins each day with stretching exercises. Or at least she tries to begin each day with the exercises and sometimes, like today, she succeeds and feels so much better for it. There are those mornings, though, when her cat watches as she allows herself to get sidetracked long enough to make the possibility of exercising not feasible. She always feels guilty when that happens but not guilty enough to always exercise, just guilty enough to sometimes exercise. So today she assuages her guilt by doing leg stretches on the floor in front of her bed while the cat Li Ch’ing-chao watches her bobbing legs with some degree of interest.
Once finished, Julia stands in the middle of her studio apartment and looks at her computer. It sits on her desk with a blank screen and a complacent air. Julia thinks this machine is the bane of her existence, and yet also the path toward a future in this country. Unlike the Americans, it does not judge her by her race or her native tongue, only her skill on its keyboard. For it, she did not have to change her name from Chao Ru to Julia because of the difficulty of pronunciation. This machine has programs that allow it to speak her language. It is willing to compromise. It is more American in practice than the people she has met on these shores. And though it saddens her, that only machines seem capable of not being discriminating, it at least presents her with an ally in this city.
The phone rings and ends her musings. It always seems to ring in the morning. If it’s early, like before seven, she knows it’s China, but if it’s after eight, like now, she knows it’s just a friend trying to catch her before she leaves for the day. “Hello.”
“Hi, it’s me,” says Hui Lang.
“Ah,” Julia says. “You’re up early.”
“I have a job interview,” she says. “And I’m very nervous.”
“Oh, you know, all those questions, and in English, and my skill is not as good as yours. I always think I sound like such a dullard to these Americans. They just see this pleasant smile and this nodding head and hear monosyllabic answers to complex questions. They probably think I have no personality.”
Julia laughs. “If only they knew.”
“Yes,” Hui Lang sighs. “Perhaps it’s an advantage for them not to know. After all, our colleagues back in Shanghai thought I had too much personality. Maybe here it’s better to have too little.”
“Perhaps not so much too little as less.”
“Yes. Less is best, right?” They both laugh. “So tell me, have you heard from Daniel’s friend yet? The dancer?”
“Yes,” Julia says. “She called last night. She is coming here tonight for dinner.”
“Oh, that should be interesting. Just what kind of friends were Daniel and she?”
“Not what you’re implying,” Julia says, and for reasons she doesn’t want to explore, she feels distaste for this subject. “Daniel is still married, after all.”
“Everyone doesn’t have your ethical standards, Chao Ru. And Daniel is certainly attractive to women.”
“I don’t think he would ask that of me. Besides, being perceptive, he is most sensitive to others.”
“Yes, you are probably right in that regard,” and there is a slight pause. “I would be curious to see this dancer, though.”
“To judge for yourself?” Julia asks and is unable to conceal a trace of sarcasm.
“More to hear tales of our homeland,” Hui Lang says wistfully. “It is always good to hear our dialect spoken in this country, is it not?”
“Yes.” Julia wonders if maybe she is not being fair to her old classmate. “Would you like to come to dinner, too?”
“Yes, but not this time. If you like her and see her again, invite me.”
“Now I must go to this interview.” She sighs. “I don’t know why I do this when I already suffer from a much deflated sense of worth in this country. There must be a masochistic side to my personality that I never knew existed. Unless, of course, you consider some of the men in my life.”
“I would never have considered them.”
“No,” and Hui Lang laughs. “You always had better taste than me and so were more selective. But like going on job interviews, I always thought that you couldn’t really know if a man was worthy until you at least let him take you out on a date.”
“I guess we will always be opposites when it comes to these two areas.”
“You don’t have to agree with me to wish me luck, though.”
“You know I always wish that for you.”
“Yes,” and Julia can see Hui Lang’s smile as she says, “I know where my friend’s heart lies.”
Julia stares pensively at the phone afterwards. Things are so different here, she thinks, that they change the people who come. Perhaps change is inevitable but she can’t help wondering if these changes would have occurred if they had stayed in China. It is only four years now but she sees both erosion and growth in her friends, in herself. This country is hard on the Chinese. Change is so rapid here while the Chinese by nature are resistant to change. Two opposing forces and, as usual, she is not on the winning side.
Work is hard on the eyes. Staring at that same computer screen all day while trying to run educational programs strains them. She has lately reverted to her glasses again instead of her contact lenses and she feels this eases the strain though she does not truly understand why. Perhaps it is all psychological and if so, Julia prefers not to dwell on it. The main point is she has less strain with her glasses and so during the work week, she wears them.
The phone rings and she feels some relief to turn from the screen to answer it. It is Jonathan on the other end to tell her about some new computer games he’s bought.
“Oh?’ she asks. “Which ones are they?”
“Well, the games themselves are not that interesting,” he says, “but the graphics are quite good. One has to do with map making. I think you’ll like that one.”
“Do you make your own maps?”
“Yes, something like that. When you come for your lesson, you can try it.”
“And how is work there?” he asks. “I myself am preparing a paper on Ezra Pound’s translations of Confucius for a conference at Harvard.”
“When is that?’
“In a month. I am scheduled to speak at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.” He sighs. “Only academics would rise that early on a weekend for something other than golf or tennis in this country.”
Julia laughs and the conversation continues to hover between school and work. It is just like Jonathan to not immediately say why he is calling, but Julia guesses it’s not about their weekly lesson when he tutors her in ancient Chinese writing. She finds it interesting that even though he has been here longer than she, almost seven years, he still acts as if he were back in China, especially when it comes to personal relationships. So conservative, and yet that is the very quality she finds the most endearing. She knows that he depends on her ability to coax him out of that old-fashioned behavior but at times that requires more skill than she seems to possess. Finally he says, “There’s a poetry reading next Saturday. Or actually, to be more accurate, it’s really a benefit reading for East/West Magazine. They’re having a reception/party afterwards and I thought you might be interested in going. There will be many well-known Chinese from the arts attending.”
“Next Saturday?” she asks. “November second?”
“Yes. The reading is at seven; the party is afterwards.” There is a slight pause. “Are you interested?”
“What about my lesson?”
He laughs. “We could have that before we go, if you want. I could even make some dinner for us.”
“Well,” Julia says, “you are an excellent cook.”
“Is that an acceptance?”
“How could I refuse such a diverse evening?”
“Yes,” he says. “Education, dinner, entertainment, and merriment. A week’s worth of activity and all in one evening.”
“Well on that note, I’ll leave you. After all, you are supposed to be working.”
And they hang up.
The dancer arrives about twenty minutes late but appropriately apologetic. “I just can’t get adjusted to the subway system,” she says. “And the maps confuse me even when I can read them.” She tilts her head slightly and asks, “Why do they paint them? Is it acceptable behavior here to deface public property?”
“No,” Julia says, “but they do it anyway. Americans seem to be indifferent toward acceptable rules of conduct.”
“Anyway,” the dancer says, “I think I understand Uptown and Downtown now. Higher street numbers are Uptown and lower street numbers are Downtown. But East and West is troublesome. What are they East and West of? It’s not Broadway, is it?”
“No. Fifth Avenue.”
“That’s strange,” the dancer says. “Broadway is more famous, isn’t it?”
“But Fifth Avenue is richer,” Julia says, “and Americans value money more than fame.”
Julia studies her as she looks over the apartment. Tall and lithe, her long hair pulled back, no sign of make-up but strikingly attractive nevertheless. Julia thinks that Daniel would have enjoyed watching her move, so fluid, as if her bones were liquid. She has a straightforward manner which Julia likes: her eyes gaze intently into yours as she listens, her head tilts slightly on her long, swanlike neck. She seems to regard everything with a mixture of curiosity and wonder, a characteristic that Julia relates to strongly. Daniel had told her in his letter that this dancer Xi Jie was her spiritual twin and Julia can’t help but come to the same conclusion. Even her cat responds to her warmly as opposed to its usual apathy. Xi Jie strokes her fur and says, “So you’re the famous Li Ch’ing-chao. Have you written anything beautifully sad lately?”
“She is in a hiatus,” Julia says.
“From her work,” Xi Jie asks, “or from life?”
“With her, they are interconnected. I adopted her two years ago when I moved out of the graduate dormitory to this apartment and she has not written one word yet."
“Yes,” Xi Jie nods her head thoughtfully. “She is waiting for her muse like all artists.”
Julia watches her intently. There is a melancholy there that newly arrived Chinese often display and that Julia understands all too well. Even after four years here, she cannot seem to lose that longing for home even though she knows she will not return, at least not to live. For the Shanghai she has left will never be nearer than her memory and thus will always both comfort and elude her.
“She needs a male in her life,” Xi Jie says. “Women like her always lived the fullest when engaged emotionally with their surroundings.”
“And can you only find emotional engagement through men?”
Xi Jie smiles ruefully. “Perhaps not, but it certainly is more interesting when you are at least under the illusion of love.”
Both women conjure up their own memories and, as usual, for Julia there are faces without bodies, floating in a sea heavy with unfulfilled promises. She wants her spirit to float on the wind but it is held down by these weights. Why is love so desirable, she wonders, when it only seems oppressive in retrospect? And yet she knows she is being unfair. Perhaps she, too, is taking a hiatus. Only the cat seems to be less concerned with hers. She feels there is much to envy about the animal kingdom.
Xi Jie helps her slice the vegetables and is very impressed with her rice cooker. “Such marvels in this country,” she says, her eyes twinkling.
“I have to admit that I have become shamelessly addicted to these creature comfort devices,” Julia says. “I guess this is what our government tried to protect us from: blenders and toasters and microwave ovens.”
“Do you have a microwave?”
“Not yet. But I do look at the advertisements.” She sighs. “I guess I am becoming decadent.”
“That’s wonderful,” Xi Jie says. “I would like to become decadent, too.”
They both laugh and then begin to stir-fry the bean curd and mushrooms. “What is truly amazing, though,” Julia says, “is the variety of food you can buy here. I myself have discovered fruit juices, especially orange and most recently apple juice. I don’t know how I’ve lived this long without them.”
Over dinner, Xi Jie talks about her family back home. “My daughter is with my husband’s mother now. I know they care for her well but I still miss dressing her for school every day.”
“Will they join you here?”
“I hope my daughter will one day, but…” and her eyes seem to glaze over, lost in some long lost place, “…there is too much distance between my husband and me. I don’t think we will ever live in the same country much less under the same roof.”
There is a pause. Julia doesn’t know what to say, thinking anything she could say would be ineffectual, so she says nothing. She just watches Xi Jie absently play with her napkin.
“There is no love left,” the dancer says finally. “Just some affection. After all,” and she smiles sadly, “it is hard to live with someone and not feel some affection, especially when you produce a child together. Besides, we never really quarreled. We just found ourselves on opposite sides of the same city. We had different friends, different lives, only the child and our home in common, but we brought back less and less to share.”
They are both silent then while Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” plays in the background and the cat sleeps peacefully under the chair. The air smells of sautéed vegetables and soup and the oolong tea is still warm in their cups.
After Xi Jie leaves, Julia gets a call from A.J. “Ah,” he goes, “you’re home.”
“Where else shall I be?”
“Who knows?” he says. “So often I call and you are not there. You are such a busy person. I often wonder how you find time to sleep.”
“And you?” she asks. “You are not busy also? Always on the street selling your pictures, or else at school painting them.”
“It’s a cycle, I admit,” A.J. sighs. “Work to eat, eat to work. Sometimes, once a month or so, even communism looks good to me.”
“The security of employment, huh?”
“Yes. But, of course, I quickly come to my senses and kiss the democratic ground I stand on.”
“Such an ungrateful son of China.”
“Yes. As hard as it is for an artist to survive in this country, I would much rather be here than there.”
“What a country we come from,” Julia says. “We all want to leave so badly and are happy to come to poverty here to escape it.”
“Like a prison,” A.J. says. “And as they say in the gangster movies, how long are you in for?”
They laugh and conversation moves to school and study. “I am in a show,” A.J. says, “at a gallery in Soho. I have two pictures: one a charcoal and ink and one an oil.”
“That’s wonderful. I must go see them.”
“You’ve seen the charcoal and ink already. It’s the one of the little boy in the fur hat held in his grandfather’s hands.”
“Oh yes. I remember.”
“The oil, though, you haven’t seen. It’s one in a series I’m doing of subway scenes.”
“I will go and see it. When is the show?”
“It starts in a week. I’ll send you an invitation.”
“So you are busy then?”
“Yes, but still I only really sell the decorative art: flowers, owls, birds in flight. I would rather sell my serious work but I can’t complain. I can still count on five or six hundred on a good weekend.”
“Such long days, though, and not the safest work.”
“Yes, but it beats restaurant work or doing deliveries.” Then, after a short pause, “Which reminds me, have you seen Eric lately?”
“No,” Julia says, and finds herself shaking her head as if warding off evil spirits. “Why do you ask?”
“I just had a strange message from him the other day. And in it, he asked about you.”
“It’s only natural. You are a mutual friend.” And she thinks, by asking you, he doesn’t have to see me, but she doesn’t say it. Just thinking it hurts enough.
“Yes, I guess so,” A.J. says. “I was just wondering if you heard from him, though.” He waits a second, but there is no response so he tries again. “I don’t think things are going well between him and his wife.”
“No?” Julia says and tries hard to concentrate on the space between her shoulder blades.
“They are such a strange pair anyway. I will never understand that marriage.”
“I guess there are things we will never know in life,” Julia says. “Especially about people.”
“Yes,” A.J. says, then gently, after a pause, “Though I would guess you might understand him better.”
“One would think so,” and suddenly fatigue starts to settle in. “But do we ever really understand anyone?”
A.J. senses that perhaps he has gone too far and so he retreats to talk about school and other mutual friends and then finally goodbye.
Julia stares at the cat who sleeps rather contentedly under her favorite chair. She tries to stay focused on her serene shape but memories of Wuhan and her undergraduate days and boating on the lake and Eric, always Eric, come drifting back. His tall frame, his dark good looks, his serious, furrowed brow. The way he draped his jacket over his shoulders and talked of the future, their future, together. His voice singing songs, reciting poetry, whispering endearments as the water lapped at the shore. If she closes her eyes, she could smell the grass, the flowers, feel the breeze on her cheek, his lips in her ear. But her eyes are too moist to close. And there isn’t any breeze in the apartment. The only sound she hears is the beating of her heart, and her sobs.
The dream. It is in an apartment in Shanghai and there is a party, or perhaps just an informal gathering of literary people all talking about contemporary poets. There was a reading before and everyone is now milling about drinking beer and Coca Cola while dropping metaphors like so many crumbs upon the floor. Julia doesn’t know why she’s there; there does not appear to be anyone she knows. She listens to a man whose back is turned toward her explain the significance of a familiar Bei Dao poem. He seems to have totally misunderstood it. For some reason he begins to lecture on the use of bamboo imagery in ancient poetry and the crowd, which seems to be comprised of only women, hang on every word, smiling, nodding, giving knowing looks and winks. Julia doesn’t understand why no one seems to notice that he has confused bamboo with lotus. His explanation is so absurd that she cannot hold her tongue. She begins to speak.
Then the scene shifts and Daniel is standing on the balcony staring out at the city below. “So many people,” he says. “They toil and sweat and yet their hunger does not diminish. They know no name for it, yet it eats their souls.”
“Why do you stay here?” Julia asks. “Why don’t you come to America like me?”
“Ahhh, Chao Ru,” and he sighs, giving her a look that penetrates deeply to a place she didn’t know she possessed. “I have my duties, my obligations. I am not as unburdened as you.”
“But you are unhappy here, in this country of limited freedom.”
“China has no heart,” he says, “and it kills or drives off its only hope. Our best leave here and so you, too, must go.” His smile rips her very heart open. “I must stay and do what I can for those who follow.”
“Someone must,” he says.
And then the question she asks herself so often, had asked him, had asked the dark in countless dreams like this. “Is it your wife?” Her eyes scan his face looking for clues. “You don’t love her, and yet you don’t divorce.”
“Nothing is as simple as it seems, and reasons, even reasons are difficult to gauge.” He laughs. “Even for those of us who have them.”
Julia looks away, as she’s done before, and as she’s felt before, she feels a need to touch him, to hold him against her, even if it is only for a moment, let whatever follows come. But when she turns, as she always does, he is not there. Instead a man stands atop the balcony railing, his shirt and trouser legs flapping in the wind that suddenly pushes her backward, her hair flailing out, her hands grasping the railing for support. She looks up as he turns his head to stare down at her and those dark eyes, that sad, mocking smile on those full lips, those cheeks so high, so proud, all belong to Eric. He raises his arms and like a bird sails off the balcony, out across the city, over the sea. And she watches, tears blurring her vision, and the sky.
The phone ringing wakes her. She feels so drowsy, though, that she elects not to answer it. Her head feels heavy, weighted, as if she had been drugged to prepare for surgery. She wonders what they could possibly take from her that she is willing to lose but decides madness lies in silly suppositional games like that. She idly strokes the cat who stretches out next to her. Eventually its purring puts her to sleep.
She is eating rice porridge while sitting in front of her computer screen rereading her memoir on coming to this country which is due for class tonight when the phone interrupts her concentration. She stares at it, wishing it away. Finally it stops and she returns to organizing her thoughts. The memoir seems elusive, somewhat remote from her actual experience. She thinks of the problem of translation and how the music is lost from the words once they leave the mother tongue. Translations are like ghosts, shadows of once living things. And she feels ineffectual as she reads her words in English. They don’t seem to work for her as Chinese characters do. It is the same with her voice. She doesn’t sound like herself when she speaks in English but like some distant relative relaying events both strange and familiar to her from across the room. And here she sits in a room in a city that is her new home and yet not hers and these words, though they pretend to speak for her, are vague utterings. She wants to say that and yet even here, the words never quite say what she intends. But she tries anyway. For that is the point of her narrative. That is the story of her life in between two worlds, two languages, two cultures. It is as if she were caught between the notes of a song. She cannot make it her own but she must sing anyway. She must sing.
Julia is eating an apple which she understands is good for digestion since it is roughage when the phone rings again. She picks it up on the second ring. It is Yao Hua and he is bursting with news. “Mongyuan is coming,” he almost shouts. “Mongyuan is coming next month.”
“That’s wonderful,” Julia says.
“I am so excited. I can’t believe my wife will finally be here.”
“You miss her, huh?”
“Oh yes.” He laughs. “Of course I don’t know if she misses me as much. You Shanghai girls are always so difficult.”
“Yes, and she is most difficult.” He sighs. “But now that she is coming, I can finally say that I have done something for her. Before it was always she went to a better school than me; she is better looking than me; she has a better job than me. But now, at last, I have done something first. I came here before her and I am bringing her here.” He laughs again. “Now she will have to admit that I have done something right.”
“Maybe,” Julia teases, “but you know Mongyuan. She will find a way to minimize it.”
“Oh, you’re probably right. You are best friends and know each other well, but I don’t know how she cannot admit that it is me bringing her to America and not the other way around.”
Julia smiles. “Perhaps you are right.”
“Perhaps,” Yao Hua says, but without much conviction. “Anyway, we will see in a month.”
“And she is flying directly to Cleveland?”
“No, that’s the good news for you. She is stopping in New York. She will be there a few days, and then she will come here. She wants to see you.”
“Oh, that is good news. Does she want to stay with me?”
“If it isn’t too much trouble.”
“No, no, I would want that.”
“Then the two Shanghai girls will be together again.”
“Wait till I tell Hui Lang.”
“Yes, she will be excited, too, I suppose,” he says. “You know, Mongyuan wants to go to graduate school there instead of here. She says no one in China has heard of Cleveland and so why live here with me.”
Julia laughs. “There is some truth to that.”
“Yes,” Yao Hua admits. “If it wasn’t for this scholarship, I wouldn’t be here, either. But when you have no money, you go wherever they are willing to pay you.”
“And is it easier there for you now?”
He sighs. “Only because I am getting used to it. But my boss makes me so miserable. I work so many hours but only get paid for thirty a week. He says they can’t afford to pay me overtime but I must work it anyway. And, of course, he expects me to come in on weekends and do more lab work.”
“That isn’t right. People don’t do that in this country.”
“I know, but what can I do? He knows I can’t refuse or else he will find some excuse to fire me and then I will lose my visa status and will have to return to China. It is like a sword over my head and there is no escape.” He sighs again. “The worst part about all this is that he is Chinese, too, and only treats me, his fellow countryman, like this. He is very pleasant to the Americans. But he knows I won’t complain, especially now that my wife is coming. He thinks he has me trapped.”
“Yes, but if Mongyuan gets offered money at Columbia, and they told her that there was a possibility of that in January, then I will apply there, too, and leave this place.”
“Let us hope so.”
“We must hope, Chao Ru, or else life would be unbearable. Even in China, there was always hope. So there must be even more here in America.”
“You are an optimist, Yao Hua.”
“By default. One must always make the best of whatever options you have.”
And though that is a positive statement, Julia begins to feel despondent. It seems her people are always trying to make the best of bad situations. Realizations like that, regardless of how often she comes to them, tire her. She thinks, this is only Tuesday. How will she make it to the end of the week? But before she has an answer to that, she finds herself at the end of the phone call.
She straightens the apartment and washes the dishes in the sink. She chops up the broccoli and garlic for dinner that evening and washes and marinates the chicken. Then as she prepares her book bag for the walk to campus, her doorbell rings. When she presses the intercom, Eric answers. She buzzes him in.
Though she tells herself she isn’t interested in seeing him, she still brushes her hair quickly and gazes momentarily in the mirror to see if she’s presentable. Her reflection stops her. So pale, she thinks. Why am I so pale? Don’t I eat right? But then there is a knock at the door and Eric enters when she opens it. He hardly nods as he passes and then stops abruptly in the center of her studio apartment holding a large brown bag in his hands. “Dumplings,” he says. “I thought you might like some.”
“Thank you.” Julia takes the bag and puts it in the refrigerator, but not before noticing how his hands shake slightly. She turns to look at him carefully and hates it when his eyes avert hers. He was once so proud, she thinks, and now he looks beaten. She sees a scratch on his cheek that runs to his hairline. Before she can stop herself, she asks, “How did you get that scratch?”
“Oh,” and he shrugs, “I woke up with it this morning. I must have scratched myself on a button in my sleep.”
“But it’s too deep,” she says. He says nothing in reply, just puts his hands in his pockets and looks at the floor. She knows he doesn’t want to talk about it but she feels such anger inside. Why does he take this from that woman? Why does he allow himself to be abused and humiliated? She wants to shake him to his senses but then her heart melts as he looks up at her with such tired, injured eyes. Eric, she thinks. Oh Eric. And though she says nothing, he hears her anyway.
“I was in the neighborhood, making a delivery,” he says.
“And I thought maybe we could have lunch together.”
“I have to go to work now,” and hates herself for not holding him, for not making the time. She realizes that she is still angry with him for his marriage and even though her heart breaks to see him like this, it is still not ready to forgive.
“Well, I wasn’t very hungry anyway,” he says. There is a slight pause as his shoulders sag a little. He looks absently toward the door.
Julia says, “You look tired.”
“Then why don’t you rest?”
Their eyes meet; then he looks away.
“You can sleep as long as you want,” she says. “I have a class after work and won’t be back till after seven.”
“Maybe I can rest for a few minutes,” he says. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Just lock up when you leave.” She looks at him as she slings her book bag over her shoulder. “You remember how.”
And she leaves before she is tempted to touch him.
They share memoirs within their groups. Rebecca is in her group, too, and as she exchanges copies of memoirs with Julia, she winks and says in Mandarin, “You think they put the only two Chinese in this class together on purpose?” Then in English, “I look forward to reading about the mainland. I hope my Taiwanese stories don’t bore you.”
“On the contrary,” Julia replies, “I hold my breath in anticipation.”
Rebecca’s eyes twinkle and Julia finds herself liking her sense of mockery more and more. Later, during a break, Rebecca takes her aside and says, “These American memoirs are so interesting. I am learning so much new vocabulary. Remember ‘blow job’ from last week?” Julia nods. “Well, this week I found out what 69 means.”
“What?” Julia asks. Rebecca tells her and Julia’s eyes widen. “Really?” she asks. Rebecca nods knowingly. “It’s very similar to a pictograph.”
“Do you think it’s Chinese in origin?” Julia asks, mockery flickering in her eye.
“Possibly,” Rebecca says. “Or maybe Egyptian.”
“Interesting,” Julia says. “This language has been influenced by so many sources.”
“That’s why it’s so rich.”
“I guess that helps explain the diversity of the American character.”
“Yes, they’re rich in so many ways.” Rebecca smiles and pats her hand. “Perhaps that’s why they smile a lot, even when they aren’t necessarily happy.”
“So do idiots.”
“Yes, and there are those who qualify for that title here, too. But I have met one or two who are really worth knowing. And if you are open, so will you.”
“Yes,” Julia says. “I have to make more friends among the Americans. You cannot, after all, recreate China here.”
“No. But you can still eat the food, because the food Americans like is really terrible.”
“They fry everything. And it’s so fattening.” Rebecca points to a fairly rotund classmate. “I don’t think I want to envision pictographs now,” she says and they both bite their lips to keep from laughing.
Another classmate, an American named Martha, looks over and asks, “What are you two talking about in Chinese that’s so funny?”
“Oh nothing,” Rebecca says. “We are just exchanging recipes.”
“And that’s funny?” Martha asks.
“Only if you like eating.” And they both exchange a look and giggle again.
Hui Lang arrives with a bottle of red wine. “I know you don’t drink,” she says, “but this is a vice I’ve acquired here in America.”
“Your mother would be ashamed,” Julia says.
“Yes, but there are worse vices I could acquire. Besides,” and she smiles, “like my ability with English, I am not very good at this, either.”
“Well, practice if you must,” and Julia hands her a glass. “Unfortunately, I don’t know how you’ll open it since I don’t have a corkscrew.”
“I do,” and she brandishes one in the air. “I also brought this,” and she pulls a quart of Tropicana Apple Juice out of her bag.
“You know me well,” Julia says.
“Since middle school.”
Hui Lang pours drinks while Julia relays the news about Mongyuan’s upcoming arrival. “She will do well here because her field is medicine and there always seems to be work for people in medicine, even if their English skills are not very good.”
“Yes,” and Hui Lang sighs. “We never should have picked the humanities. It is difficult in that field even for the Americans.” She watches as Julia begins to sauté the broccoli and cooks the chicken. “No shrimp?” she asks. “I was looking forward to your shrimp.”
“I haven’t been to Chinatown in two weeks and you just can’t find them with their heads anywhere else.”
“Doesn’t Jonathan take you there to shop?”
“Not every week. And besides, I cannot ask him. I have to wait to be invited.”
“I would think invitations from him would not be difficult for you to solicit.”
“Yes, but not always to go shopping.”
Both women laugh. “Well, chicken is very nutritious.”
“Oh, keep quiet and eat.”
They begin picking from the various dishes while Hui Lang inquires about the dancer.
“She is very nice,” Julia says. “I think you two will like each other. I was thinking the three of us could do something next weekend.”
“The Chinese Students’ Society is sponsoring movies and a social afterwards on that Friday and Saturday. They do that every first weekend of the month. Maybe she would like to go to that.”
“Always Chinese,” Julia says. “I would like to do something else for a change.”
“Is her English any good?”
“Worse than yours.”
“Then I suggest the Chinese Students’ Society. At least we’ll understand the movies and will be able to converse with people afterwards.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“We are not all in The Teaching of English Department. Some of us are still students in The Learning of English.”
“A very big department, isn’t it?”
“There is a party next Friday night at the International Students’ House. We could go there. Everyone will be appropriately inarticulate in English.”
“And there will be lots of men, too,” Hui Lang says and brightens. “Is she single?”
“She is married but I don’t think it is without problems.”
“What is without problems?” She sighs and picks at her chicken with her chopsticks. “Doesn’t this chicken also have bones?”
“You’re a philosopher, huh?”
“Growing up has made me a realist. Isn’t that true of you, too?”
“Yes,” Julia nods. “Yes.”
And later, tossing in her sleep, Julia Wu thinks she hears a noise. She sits and calls out but no one answers. She turns on the night light but nothing is there that wasn’t there before. She shakes her head at her own insecurity and lies back down to sleep. But she leaves the light on anyway. And sleep, once it comes, is no more restful because of it. But it also isn’t less so.
Anthony wakes feeling the dog’s weight on the bed. It’s his paw, really, resting heavily on the mattress indicating that he has to go out. I’ve overslept, Anthony thinks, and his eyes open only to find himself on the couch, not the bed, never having made it that far last night. The dog is, of course, not there since he’s been dead for a little over eight years now, and Anthony has not overslept since it is Friday and he does not teach on Fridays and so does not have to get up at any special time. He can, if he wants, sleep late, only he never seems to do that anymore. But even if he can’t, he still doesn’t have to rise to walk a dog that’s dead.
That would probably warm someone’s heart, but not his, not this morning or any morning. He would rather get up but there is a pain in his side and he somehow can’t seem to remember how it got there. He thinks his life is more of a mystery than he’d like it to be. Life, he sighs. There’s just no getting around it. And pain, well life is pain, pain is life, synonyms this early in his day. He closes his eyes, then opens them again, but nothing changes. The pain is still there.
He sits up with some difficulty and reaches for the glass of whiskey on the coffee table. There is always a glass of whiskey within arm’s reach and that thought could depress him if he entertained it in his conscious mind. Anthony’s strength, though, is that he never entertains such thoughts. He just sips the whiskey and lets his mind go blank. It’s easier that way.
After making coffee, he stumbles through the apartment looking for his wallet. It’s not that he plans to use it, it’s just that he can’t remember if he has any money. He finally finds it on a bookcase in the dining room and is relieved to have twenty-three dollars. That’s enough, he thinks, to get through the day without going to an ATM. He sips his coffee and stares out at the street below. The sun is rising and people are leaving for work. It’s moments like these that he’s glad he only teaches four days. Life might be pain, but at least it’s bearable with three day weekends. He closes his eyes and soon dozes off.
The phone ringing wakes him. He considers letting the machine handle the call but, before the fourth ring, picks it up instead. “Yeah,” he says.
“Oh. I didn’t think it’d be you.”
“Who do you think lives here?”
“No,” Lisa says, “I know you live there. I just didn’t think you’d be home.”
“Then why did you call?”
“To leave a message on your machine.”
“Well,” Anthony sighs, “I can hang up and you can call back and I promise not to pick it up.”
“No,” Lisa says. “I might as well talk to you now that I have you.”
“Ahhhh,” Anthony goes and closes his eyes, trying vainly to remember what sleep felt like. “So now that you have me, what do you want to say?”
“I can’t just come right out and say it,” Lisa says. “I need some time to work up to it.”
“It’s a favor?” Anthony asks.
“How do you know?”
“We were married once, remember?” he says. “I think during that time I began to recognize certain patterns that developed and one was, you always needed time in a conversation to work your way up to asking me for something.”
“What a memory you have,” Lisa says. “You must be an elephant.”
“I’ve been called many things by many people but never, never has anyone called me an elephant.”
“Even on account of your memory?”
“My memory,” and he sighs again, “is usually considered poor. I just happen to remember certain things, little details like the way my dog looked whenever he did something he knew he wasn’t supposed to or the way my heart stops whenever my car goes into a skid or the way you would beat around the bush whenever you wanted to ask for something, like money, say.” And he sighs for the third time this phone call. “You want to borrow money?”
“Just a little,” Lisa says, relieved she doesn’t have to ask him since he has already guessed.
“What’s a little?”
“It’s for a down payment on a new car,” she says hurriedly, in case he wants to know. “There was an accident with mine.”
“You had an accident?” he asks and sits up so suddenly his side throbs. He winces but keeps going anyway. “Are you okay?”
“Oh yeah,” she says. “I wasn’t even in the car. But it’s totaled.”
“Wait a second,” and he squints from trying to absorb a little too much info before he is fully conscious. “Your car was totaled but you weren’t in the car at the time.”
He waits a second but nothing more is forthcoming so he asks, “Was it parked in the middle of the street or was it driving itself?”
“Oh no,” and she clears her throat the way she always did just before she said something she knew he probably didn’t want to hear. “A friend of mine was driving it.”
“Ahhhh,” and he rubs his eyes and wonders where he left the whiskey bottle. His eyes scan the living room, the dining room, the den, until he spies it standing rather forlornly near ungraded papers on the dining room table. He rises, feeling grateful for long cords on telephones, and makes his way toward it. “And was your friend hurt?”
“No,” she says. “He was wearing a seat belt. But the car’s been totaled.”
“And,” he says while pouring a healthy glassful of whiskey, “you need some money for the down payment.”
“Just two thousand,” she says. “I promise I’ll pay you back faster than the last time.”
“I don’t think you ever paid me back the last time.”
“Well I promise I’ll be faster about it this time.” And there’s a slight pause while she holds her breath and he takes a deep swallow. “I don’t have anyone else to ask, Anthony.”
“Didn’t you get money from the insurance?”
“Just enough to cover the outstanding loan.”
“Oh.” He nods to no one in particular and then he looks out the window but the drapes are closed. “When do you need it?”
“As soon as you can give it to me.”
“You can have it whenever you want.”
“Oh thanks, Anthony,” and then the relief pours out as she babbles on about the kind of car she wants to buy, the color, the features, and so on. He really doesn’t hear most of what she says until he realizes she’s wishing him a happy birthday. “I know I’m late,” she says, “but only by a day. I was kind of distracted with the accident.”
“You’re not late,” he says. “In fact, you’re early. It’s tomorrow.”
“It’s not the twenty-fourth?”
“No,” and he rubs his eyes again. “It was never the twenty-fourth.”
“I thought it was the twenty-fourth.”
“I think,” Anthony says, “that even though I sometimes get confused as to just how old I am, I never get confused as to which day the age in question falls on.”
“And so it’s tomorrow?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well, happy birthday then,” she says and giggles. Then she asks if he’s celebrating it this year.
“Nothing special,” he says. “Frank and Sam tonight because we usually have dinner together on Fridays and Robert’s taking me out tomorrow night.”
And that segues them into a conversation about family, friends, people they both used to know. He tries to imagine her speaking as she talks, the length of her hair, the way she holds a phone, the expressions her mouth makes, but it is all just a blur. He can’t even remember the last time he saw her, though she does call periodically during a lull in her workday. He’s never really understood the calls, but he accepts them. He accepts so many things he doesn’t understand. He has come to the rather dubious conclusion that that’s what being middle-aged means. He takes another sip of whiskey and tries not to think.
“God, I had so much to tell you before I called but now that I have called, I can’t remember any of it.”
Anthony sighs once more. “Sounds just like our life together.”
Lisa laughs. “Yes, doesn’t it?”
She babbles on then about work, the price of leather goods, the upcoming holidays, and life in general. She asks about his and he says “same old same old”, and that, too, passes. Finally they agree he will mail her a check today. “Have a happy,” she says before hanging up. “And try not to exert yourself too much. You’re getting older now, you know. You’re almost fifty.”
Forty-seven, he thinks, does not quite qualify as almost fifty but he lets it pass. There's no sense dwelling on it. He looks down at the ungraded papers on the table but can’t bring himself to do anything constructive. He finishes his drink, puts on his sneakers, and goes out to get the paper instead.
After much fanfare, Anthony, Frank, and Sam sit down. First, though, they have to say hello to everyone. Then they have to say hello to themselves. They play musical chairs for a minute until they settle on who sits where and then Sam orders the wine. There is some debate on the appetizers--mainly involving the clams--and both Frank and Sam feel free to discuss Anthony’s drinking.
“A fish,” Sam says.
“A whale,” Frank counters.
“Moby Dick,” Sam says.
Anthony sighs into his whiskey and talks with the busboy. “You have the fastest refill water pitcher in the east.”
“It’s my job.”
“Yeah, but you always get here before I’m empty.”
“I missed once.”
“Not this year.”
“You should only drink water here,” Sam says. “Of course, Ireland’s economy would probably suffer if you did.”
“Well, in that case,” Anthony sighs dramatically, “I guess I’ll have to have another whiskey and keep the little island afloat.”
“What a guy,” Frank says. “A real humanitarian.”
“A champion of the people,” Sam says.
Anthony bows to mild applause. “Really,” he says modestly, “someone has to do it.”
“And you, I take it, are the someone.”
The clams and mussels arrive and talk drifts in and around work and women. “I think,” Sam says, “I am entering a dry spell.”
“Entering?” Frank says. “I’ve taken up residence.”
“I mean, I remember what women look like, have even seen a few during the past few weeks in other places than say the subway, but I have no sense of them in my life. It’s as if I was suddenly declared out of bounds by the National Organization of Women.”
“I was never inbounds,” Frank says.
“Sure you were,” Sam says. “We all were. Remember our ex-wives? We were inbounds with them.” Sam indicates Anthony who seems to be engaged in a staring contest with his glass of wine. “He was even inbounds twice.”
“I’ve always been unlucky with women,” Anthony says. “I can pick them, but I can’t seem to hold onto them.”
“At least you’ve had two times up at bat. Frank and I haven’t been so lucky.”
“Lucky or not,” Frank says, “I just love it when you use sports metaphors. It sounds so masculine.”
“I like sports,” Sam says. “I’ve always liked sports.”
“I remember.” Frank looks at Anthony. “He used to watch golf tips in college.”
“College,” Anthony sighs. “I seem to have spent too much time in college. Either as a student or a teacher, I’m always in rooms where I get chalk on my pants.”
“Don’t they have erasers for wiping the boards?”
“Can’t you assign someone?” Sam asks. “Didn’t they used to do that when we were in school?”
“They used to do a lot of things back then that no one seems to do anymore. Like say, teach them to read and write.”
“And don’t forget the ‘rithmetic. It sure comes in handy when balancing your checkbook and counting your change.”
“Who gets change?” Frank refills their wine glasses and pouts when the bottle runs empty. “I think we need change here.”
“Dead soldier, is it?” Sam asks.
“A minor tragedy,” Anthony says. “They do have a wine cellar here.”
Sam makes motions to the waiter who nods and soon returns with another bottle. “We are,” Sam explains, “running ahead of schedule.”
The waiter shrugs. “There really isn’t a schedule where drinking wine is concerned.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Anthony says.
“Drinking is probably the only thing your sentiments are exact about.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Anthony says.
“You will,” and Frank emphasizes the last words, “drink to anything.”
Dinner arrives toward the end of the second bottle of wine and they watch it being cleared away toward the end of the third. They settle into brandy right around the time the waiters appear with a birthday cake doing their rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Anthony who blushes and paws the tablecloth and “gee whiz”zes into his drink.
“You weren’t really surprised, were you?” Frank asks.
“Well, I would have been, but we’ve been doing this for three years now on each of our birthdays and even I catch on after that long.”
“I told you,” Frank says to Sam. “He still has some brain cells left.”
Sam looks skeptical. “But how many will be left after tonight?”
“Enough, I hope, to get me home.”
They drift off to women talk again and Sam explains his theory “on why some people have all the luck.”
“This isn’t the same theory you had last week, is it?’ Frank asks. “Because if it is, I’m going to tape this so we don’t have to hear it again next week.”
“We are friends,” Sam says. “We have been friends since college. That’s almost thirty years, Frank. The three of us have listened to theories replayed, relayed, and marmaladed for almost three decades now. I, for one, have listened to you moan over your ex-wife, your bankruptcy, your romances with minors, your midlife crisis, and your endless rehashing of the Battle of Zama. I’ve also had to watch Anthony total several cars in his twenties, several living rooms in his thirties, and his liver in his forties. I’m sure there’s a theory lurking somewhere there, though I don’t remember his vocalizing it. I do, however, remember both his wives summing up their respective lives with him by shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘it wasn’t dull’. Yours said something about normalcy and children. Mine, of course, just wanted her ‘own space’. So I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that during these twenty-odd years, there has been much ground covered and quite possibly some of the same ground has been covered on more than one occasion, but that is the price of old friendships. A shared history that one continually shares because life is only worth living when one is living it in conjunction with others. Do you follow this, or need I repeat any of it?”
Frank looks at Anthony who just whistles into his drink before finishing it. Frank sighs. “No, Sam. I think we got every word.”
“Good,” Sam says. “Because I don’t think I could repeat it. As a matter of fact, I forgot what I was going to say in the first place.”
“And they say there’s no God.”
Sam looks at Anthony for a long second. “I don’t think I was talking religion, but I suppose I could.”
“But will you talk with conviction?”
“Of course not,” Sam says. “I’m in advertising. We never mean anything we say.”
“That’s reassuring,” Anthony says. “And here I thought only poets did that.”
“You don’t mean anything you say?” Frank asks.
“Only as I utter it,” Anthony says. “But never in retrospect.”
“If you ever decide to give up poetry and teaching,” Sam says, “you can have a great career ahead of you in advertising.”
“I couldn’t. I took a vow of poverty when I was very young, and poetry and teaching allow me to be true to it.”
“Open up a bookstore,” Frank says. “You’ll certainly stay poor that way.”
“I’d rather write poetry,” Anthony says. “That way I can feel morally superior when no one reads it.”
“I’d rather write advertising copy,” Sam says. “That way I can feel morally superior when they pay me.”
“Well,” Frank sighs, “nothing much has changed with any of us since college.”
And with that, they have more brandy and drift off into the night.
Once home, Anthony wanders around his apartment with a drink in his hand looking for his slippers. He is, of course, wearing them, but it takes several minutes of roaming through the rooms before he discovers that. Or, to be more accurate, until he forgets what he’s looking for and settles down on the couch with the earphones on and falls asleep listening to Frank Sinatra singing “Hello Young Lovers”.
He wakes with the phone ringing. He thinks about answering it for a second but then the machine turns on and he sinks back down on the couch relieved. Chuck’s voice, though, changes that.
“C’mon, Anthony, I know you’re there. It’s eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, your time, so I know you’re not anywhere else. Pick up, Anthony. This is the coast calling. C’mon and pick up, birthday boy.”
Anthony lumbers over to the phone and picks it up. “Jesus,” he sighs, “can’t a guy sleep around here?”
“Happy birthday!!” Chuck says and blows some horn in his ear. “I wanted to be the first. Am I the first?”
“No, Chuck,” Anthony says. “I lost my virginity quite some time ago.”
“To wish you a happy birthday. I do set reasonable goals now. That’s one thing middle age teaches you.”
“Is that the one thing? I always wondered what it was.” Anthony settles back on the couch and picks up the glass of whiskey from the night before. He sips.
“Well, not much else. You can’t, after all, teach an old dog new tricks. You, for instance, are probably drinking right now.”
Anthony looks at the phone in his hand and wonders how he could have ended up so predictable. “No criticism on my birthday,” he says.
“I never criticize. I just make observations. It’s my old newspaper training.”
“Aren’t we up pretty early to be making those. I mean, it’s like five in the morning over there, isn’t it? What could you possibly observe that early?”
“It’s never too early for observations or friends. Besides, I always wake up early. I’m a morning person.”
Anthony rubs his eyes and sips his whiskey. Says, “I hate the morning. I much prefer getting up after the sun has warmed the planet and melted all the snow.”
“You got snow there?”
“Well this is California and we have sunshine all the time.”
“Actually it’s been warm here, too. An unseasonable warm fall, as the Accu-Weather people say.”
“Not as warm as here.”
“What is this--my weather can beat up your weather? What are your cloud formations like? And your humidity?”
“We’ve got great clouds. We are internationally famous for our clouds.”
“We have clouds here, too. You just can’t see them because of all the big buildings.”
“I was going to call last night,” Chuck says, “but I figured you were out. You were out, weren’t you?”
“With Sam and Frank.”
“How are they?”
“The same. We never change, Chuck. We just get older.”
“That’s right, birthday boy. And what are you doing today?”
“You mean after I get off the phone with you?”
“Going back to sleep.”
“And after that?”
“Probably the usual bathroom chores.”
“Robert’s coming over.”
“No woman? You’re not going out with a woman?”
“Not unless Robert’s had a sex change operation.”
“But you have to go out with a woman on your birthday.”
“Well, I’m going to see Rebecca tomorrow.”
“Is that the Chinese one with the husband?”
“Then that doesn’t count. I mean a woman like as in a date. A romantic involvement.”
“I don’t have any of those anymore. I haven’t been on a date since Lisa and I split up.”
“You really should date, Anthony. You don’t use certain muscles, they turn to flab.”
“I’m thinking of buying one of those Nordic Track machines. You know, do a little cross-country skiing in my living room.”
“I’m talking about other muscles.”
“I’ve taken a vow, Chuck. I’m into celibacy now. I want enlightenment.”
“You should get laid instead.”
“I’ve been laid, Chuck, and the world looked the same the next day. I want enlightenment now. I want to see nirvana.”
“You sound like your ex-wife Linda. Wasn’t she into religions?”
“Only in the later years. I either drive them crazy or to God. Either way, though, I institutionalize any woman who lives with me.”
“Lisa is an institution unto herself.”
“In any case, you really need a woman in your life.”
“I’ll settle for a bottle of 12 year old Jameson’s any day.”
“You have strange priorities.”
“I’m a strange man.”
“Move back here and we’ll straighten you out.”
“California is not exactly one’s definition of normal.”
“It beats New York.”
“New York and California. They’re sort of the yin and yang of America.”
“Jesus, you’re starting on the Asian stuff again. Don’t start quoting the poetry. It’s too early in the morning.”
“Exactly. I’d much rather be asleep.”
“Well I’m letting you go now. My mission’s been accomplished. I’m going to read the paper now.”
“Don’t you need light for that? It can’t be light there yet.”
“That’s why Edison invented the light bulb, Anthony. So people like me could read the paper before sunrise.”
“Strange,” Anthony says. “Absolutely bizarre.”
And with that, they hang up. Anthony finishes his whiskey and walks back to the bedroom to fall asleep.
“This is your lucky day,” Robert says. “Not only am I paying for dinner tonight, but I’ll buy the first three rounds at Moriarty’s.”
“Jesus,” Anthony sighs. “Something tells me I might not make it to see another birthday.”
“Yeah, 47 is old enough. You don’t want to get any older than today.”
“Somehow I saw retirement, Robert. I saw myself on a beach in Hawaii.”
“And what were you doing there?”
“I was lying on a chaise lounge reading and young, nubile women were bringing me drinks in coconuts and pineapples with those little umbrellas sticking out of the tops.”
“Was that all they were bringing you?”
“They were wearing those grass skirts, Robert, and they were bare-chested. Their skin was smooth and soft and bronze. And looking like that, moving with the grace of nature, they were bringing me back my youth.”
“You sure do have a vivid imagination. I guess that’s what being a poet means.”
“Poetry has nothing to do with it. I just see my retirement clearer than I see tomorrow. I’m not even sure of an hour from now.”
“Dinner,” Robert says. “And then drinking. I hope you’ve been resting because we are going to see the sun rise in the morning.”
“Possibly Monday, if the money holds out.”
Anthony sighs resigned. He opens the bottle of Jameson’s and pours them both healthy glassfuls. They clink glasses.
“To the boys upstate,” they say. And they drink.
They enter Moriarty’s already halfway to numbness with Robert bound and determined not to leave until they reach it. Fiona, the bartender, is happy to see them. She approaches as they slump onto their stools with a smile on her lips and a bottle of Jameson’s in her hand. “The usual?” she asks.
“Of course,” Robert says. “What else could it be?”
It is fairly crowded, though, as usual, there are few women there, and those that are present are older and attached. The bar is dark mahogany and the lights stained glass. It has the look and feel of an old, Irish neighborhood bar, which is why Robert loves the place so much. Anthony, for his part, is oblivious to the surroundings once the drinking begins. But he does appreciate Fiona who has a sixth sense about refilling near-empty glasses of whiskey.
“So Eddie is doing the personals,” Robert says. “And he tells me he’s meeting ‘some nice babes.’”
“Yeah?” Anthony is incredulous. “He talks like that?”
“Would I make it up?”
“Well, no, but you have a tendency to embellish.”
Robert makes a face. “C’mon, Anthony. You know Eddie. Need I embellish?”
Anthony shrugs. “I guess not.”
“Anyway, the good news is I answered a few myself.”
“Sure. I’ve done it before.”
“A few years ago. I told you.”
“Anthony,” and Robert looks sympathetically at his older brother, “your memory is the stuff jeers are made of.”
“I remember things,” Anthony says. “Important things, like my students’ names.”
“Unfortunately, I usually forget them right after class, but while I’m in there teaching, I remember them.”
“Anyway, I told you all about this before.”
“You meet anyone last time?”
“Not really. But,” and he shrugs, “you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.”
“That’s too profound for me.”
“So I sent letters to a few,” Robert says, ignoring him. “We’ll see what happens.”
“The personals,” Anthony mutters. “Jesus.”
“Well, you have to be selective. You can’t send in to ‘Blond athlete looking to be a sex slave. Send pictures of muscles and complete inventory of restraining devices.’ Unless, of course, you’re into that.”
Anthony considers it a moment, then thinks he wouldn’t have the energy. “You have to have a big place for that,” he says. “What with all the pulleys and stuff.”
“You have a two bedroom apartment.”
“Yeah, but the noise. I’d probably disturb my landlords.”
They both sigh and finish their drinks. Fiona, as if on cue, appears to refill. They watch her pour entranced.
“You know,” Anthony says, “I really admire the way you do that.”
“Oh, you say that to all the bartenders.”
“No, only to you. As a matter of fact, if I didn’t have a rule about mixing business and pleasure, I’d let you support me.”
She laughs. “And what’s drinking then? Business for you? Or pleasure?”
“Unfortunately, strictly business.”
“He’s a scientist,” Robert says. “He’s researching the effects of grain products on various human functions, like say, talking.”
“Talking is under study,” Anthony agrees. “Also different bathroom chores which I must go investigate momentarily.”
“Just be careful,” Fiona says, “that you don’t break anything valuable.”
“To the establishment?” Anthony asks. “Or to me?”
She smiles seductively. “You guess.”
Anthony and Robert exchange a meaningful look which neither one of them truly understands, then Anthony ambles off to the bathroom. He vaguely wonders what he’s doing there, then remembers and sighs. Once back at the bar, he mounts his stool with much caution. Robert is unaware, being self-absorbed with his delight at being there.
“I love this place,” he says. “I always get this strong desire to return to the homeland after I come here.”
“Robert,” Anthony says, “that’s impossible.”
“You mean the Thomas Wolfe thing?”
“Well, that, too,” Anthony says. “But you’re returning to the homeland that this bar conjures up for you is impossible for two other reasons.”
“First, you’re American, so therefore this is your homeland, not Ireland.”
“But I am of Irish descent.”
“That may be, but you are most definitely grounded in American thought and character.”
“That’s a minor point,” Robert says. “In cases like these, one should always follow one’s heart.”
“Yeah, well we’ll skip the heart for now and turn to reason number two.” Robert folds his arms and looks on skeptically as Anthony continues. “You can’t return to someplace you’ve never been. It’s semantically impossible.”
“I’m not talking semantics here,” Robert says. “I’m talking physically. I’m willing to put my body where my mouth is.”
“I think, as usual, we are speaking on different planes here.”
“Yeah? And what airline are you talking?”
“United I stand, and United I fall,” Anthony wavers a bit on his stool and grasps the bar to steady himself. “As a matter of fact, I might be falling sooner than expected.”
“You can’t yet,” Robert says. “We haven’t had last call.”
Before they finish their drinks, Fiona comes by to top them off.
“Ah darling,” Anthony says. “Always there when we need you.”
“If it’s to fill your glass, you should need me less.”
“Nobody’s satisfied,” he says.
“Tell me about it,” she sighs. “I have a bar full of nobodies like that.”
And they make it to last call and beyond. Finally, around four in the morning, they weave up to Queens Boulevard and plop down at a table in a Korean restaurant to have barbecued beef and pork and various side dishes.
“What are these?” Robert asks, waving chopsticks at several bowls containing, among other things, what looks like miniature sardines.
“A gastronomic delight,” Anthony says.
“Oh,” Robert says. “Well as long as I know.”
Eventually they wander down the boulevard to the bagel place to get something for breakfast and sometime after five they find themselves trying to navigate the steps leading to Anthony’s apartment.
“You have a railing, don’t you?” Robert asks.
“You’re holding onto it,” Anthony says.
“Oh. Is that what this is?”
Robert collapses onto the couch and Anthony bumps his way down the hallway to the bedroom and all’s right with the world as both brothers tumble toward oblivion.
Robert is, of course, gone by the time Anthony wakes up. Anthony fumbles through making coffee with unsteady hands and wonders how he’ll ever make it through a matinee performance of King Lear with Rebecca. He would rather die and go to heaven, but considering the way he’s wasted his life, he thinks he’s better off trying to stay alive a few more years to do a little atoning. He watches the coffee brew and thinks there really should be more to life than this.
While drinking his second cup of coffee, he listens to his messages from the night before. Two are from his other foster brothers, John and George, wishing him a happy birthday and advising him to be careful with Robert. He sighs, wondering why he always seems to get warnings like that after the fact. The third is from someone named Mariah telling Ruthie the numbers for a combination safe. Anthony feels a slight disappointment when Mariah doesn’t leave an address. He debates whether he should copy down the combination but then decides it’s probably a test of his honesty and erases the tape. He doesn’t feel any better but at least his life is less complicated.
He shaves after his third cup of coffee. He listens to some early Miles Davis to relax and tries to grade a few papers but soon loses interest in comma splices and tense shifts. Before long it’s time to shower and go pick up Rebecca.
Rebecca is singing on the steps watching the world go by while waiting for Anthony. His car pulls up ten minutes late, as usual, and her smile lights up half the block.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says.
“That’s okay. I just thought maybe you forgot.”
“No, I was, uh, you know...”
“Yes,” she says. “I know.”
“Right,” Anthony says and drives on. “Right.”
Afterwards at dinner, Rebecca has fettuccine alfredo for the first time. “This is good,” she says. “I would have this again.”
Anthony says, “Well that’s what this is all about. Enriching your stay here in the good old U. S. of A.”
Rebecca laughs. “Yes, and good old Anthony is my tour guide.” He nods, resigned. “You’re not too happy about that?”
“What does happiness have to do with it? This is my assigned role in your life.”
“But I can’t do it by myself. And Andrew won’t do it.”
“He doesn’t like plays, huh?”
“He doesn’t like to go out period. He thinks New York is too dangerous.”
“Well, it can be.”
“But you’re not afraid. You’re a native.”
“Being a native has nothing to do with it. Neither does fear. You just have to be aware.”
“That’s my problem.” She sighs. “Andrew says I don’t watch what I’m doing. I’m too busy looking around with wide eyes.”
Anthony shakes his head amused. This is a relatively easy job, he thinks. To help his new friend see his city. And low pressure, too. Nothing is expected except knowledge. He thinks that perhaps this is the only role he’s capable of in terms of a relationship at this point in his life. That would probably depress him if he thought about it, but as usual he doesn’t think about it. He just has another drink while she complains about not seeing the Empire State Building.
“I haven’t even been to Times Square,” she says. “How can I go back to Taiwan and say I haven’t seen Times Square?”
Anthony blinks. “This is of near tragic proportion. Obviously we’ll have to do something about this soon.”
“You’ll take me?”
“Right after this drink. I don’t want to lose sight of my priorities as I deal with yours.”
“Oh no,” she says. “First things first, right?”
“Right.” He nods. “You can also say ‘damn straight.’”
“Damn straight?” She tries it on as if it were a new pair of shoes and she wasn’t sure of the color of the outfit she was supposed to wear them with. “Is that like ‘straight as an arrow?’”
“More like darn tootin’ actually.”
“Darn tootin’?” She looks confused. “I don’t know this.”
“It’s an old expression that means that’s right.”
“Darn tootin’?” He nods. “That’s the same as ‘damn straight?’” He nods again. “Which is better?”
“Damn straight,” he says. “At least in this day and age.”
“Well I want to be modern,” she says.
“You do, huh?”
“Damn straight,” she says and grins.
Anthony laughs. Finishes his drink and signals for the check. “Okay, let’s get this show on the road.”
“Show?” she asks.
“It means let’s get going.”
“Ahhhh,” she goes. “To Times Square.”
Rebecca walks wide-eyed, staring at the movement along Eighth Avenue and being grateful to Anthony for finding a storefront amid all the gentrification that allows her finally to understand what a peep show is. She is also curious to see a prostitute and Anthony points out some tourists and tells her those are some. “Really?’ she asks. They walk a little farther and then she looks back quizzically and asks, “You know what a blow job is, right?”
Heads turn and Anthony feels a momentary tinge of embarrassment, but smiles sweetly while taking her arm and says, “Oral sex.”
“Right,” she goes and nods agreement. “I learned that in class.” She walks on reading the advertisements for films. Anthony looks up at the sky and shakes his head wondering just what goes on in the classes in her department before following to make sure she doesn’t ask the wrong person whatever question is on her mind.
Anthony sits alone in his living room staring at the CD player while trying to decide what music he’d like to listen to. Nothing comes to mind and he eventually shifts his gaze to the bottle of Jameson’s that sits next to his glass. He watches as it pours itself into his glass, down his throat, throughout his system. His body takes a long time getting numb, and there are a few scary moments when he actually fears it won’t happen. But whiskey, his old, dear friend, finally comes to his rescue and his tired, aging body begins to falter, begins to sag. He almost makes it to his feet to get to his bed, but he never stands. The couch is once again his resting place.
In those final seconds before sleep and whiskey close his eyes, Anthony sees a shadow pass along the far wall. Home, he thinks. I am home. Let the demons come. Let them take me if they can.
And he drifts off to what passes for sleep. Another day older. Another day.
Night & Day
of Other Books