Copyright © 2006 Helen Liu. All Rights Reserved.
There were five levels in the parking structure half a block away from her office. When she exited from the front gate, it would take her five minutes to walk the distance to work. Sometimes, when she was in a hurry, she would go out from the back of the parking structure and cross a small alley on the south side. This way, she could sneak into the office in less than two minutes. When she was living with Jeff, he was often concerned that something unfortunate might happen to her in that back alley. He cautioned her many times to use only the front gate. “It’s better to be late,” Jeff said.
She nonetheless continued to use the back exit, not just to save the walk. There was a tree at the exit, as tall as the second level of the parking structure. The tree stood in a tiny square between a cement staircase and a steel gate, inconveniently sharing the space with a half-grown banyan. Its leaves were dark green and extremely dense, blocking the sun and the sky and appearing to obstruct her way out. Every time she walked down the stairs, each step brought a sense of green that permeated her skin, alerting and soothing and also confronting her will to rush to work. She breathed deeply. A mysterious cooling scent lingered among the leaves, but she couldn’t quite name it.
Whenever she walked by that tree, she wanted to take a vacation, to depart temporarily from the monotony. The scorching summers of her childhood and the hubbubs of her childhood friends often converged into her thoughts unexpectedly at the same time, and so did the green mountains of the South and the clear creeks, gurgling through her heart. It was a tree that always tempted her into reverie.
That night when she met him at her friend’s party, she thought for a moment of the tree next to the back exit of the parking structure.
He was from her hometown, a place she had left long before. As their conversation continued, they realized that they might even have been neighbors. They tried hard to recall some common acquaintances, but weren’t successful. “I’m probably twenty years older than you. You immigrated to America when you were so young. What could you still remember?” he said.
She smiled inside. She had clear and smooth skin, and she exercised everyday. People usually couldn’t tell that she was already in her mid-thirties. That night she only patted a thin layer of powder on her face. Her sheer lip color was as moist as water drops, which brought out her bright eyes in just the right way. The even bangs almost touching her eyebrows lent additional youth and purity to her face. Whether he was deliberately flattering or not, it was always nice to be younger, even if only in words.
His mother had passed away when he was still young. He left home to make a living before he had finished high school. Later, he went to Beijing, and with nothing but his own wit and luck, he made himself into a very successful entrepreneur. He obviously took good care of himself, unlike many other businessmen she had met from her motherland, who usually looked older than their real ages, burnt out by grueling and irregular schedules and too much indulgence. Many of those businessmen were just over forty, with receding hairlines and already losing control of their waistlines. He was different. He looked tall, strong, and as upright as the stem of that tree, his dark hair unyieldingly thick like the dense foliage. There was not even the slightest hint of a protruding belly.
A breeze floated over those dark green leaves, bringing flashes of her hometown. There was a mountain, on whose top many trees bloomed with pastel color flowers in the spring. Butterflies danced graciously among the flowers. She and her classmates used to run up and down the mountain chasing butterflies during spring outings. There was also a spa resort where her parents took her to swim every summer. One time, a storm descended suddenly. The sky and the ground merged into a gigantic swimming pool. Other visitors all ran away from the rain, leaving her family alone splashing cheerfully in the pool.
“Would you like some cabernet or chardonnay?” he asked.
She caught herself wandering and smiled apologetically. The man in front of her was like that tree, making her long for her far-away hometown. Unfortunately, the memory blurred just when it arrived, like the watercolor blots dribbled on a Chinese painting.
They talked congenially. The topics started with Deng Lijun, a Taiwanese singer who had been extremely popular in Mainland China during the 1980’s. His generation had grown up listening to tape players. When he was in his twenties, he and his friends proudly ambled around town with their shoulder-length hairstyles and bell-bottom pants, carrying a Sanyo boom box set to maximum volume, announcing through Deng’s songs their rebellious natures that had been suppressed for too long. He had indulged in Deng Lijun’s tender, romantic music, which softened him into dating and, later, marriage. After his divorce, listening to those songs again reminded him of the advantages of a home, making him want more. As he spoke of that, he gave her a meaningful look.
In her mind, she traded the business suit he was wearing for a hippie one. She couldn’t help bursting into a hearty laughter. A man who listened to Deng Lijun should be gentle and understanding, she thought.
“You grew up listening to CDs, didn’t you?” he asked. “You should be into Hong Kong singers such as Wang Fei and Mei Yanfang. Why do you like Deng Lijun? Isn’t she old fashioned?”
She said that Deng’s songs were like the most ancient Chinese poetry, the least adorned yet the most splendid. They could touch her heart, unlike the latest pop songs that floated in the air, sometimes close and sometimes far, always intangible.
He marveled at the fact that she could understand ancient Chinese poems even though she had grown up in America. “My father used to teach Chinese when we were in China, and my minor in college was Chinese literature,” she said. “Um,” he wanted to say something, but stopped, obviously taken over by a momentary thought.
Then they talked about the transformation their hometown was undergoing. Not long before he had planned and directed the construction of a complex in the center of the city, with three towering office buildings surrounded by more than a thousand luxury apartment units equipped with gyms, swimming pools, and shopping centers. She imagined the music fountain in the middle of the complex casting dreamy neon lights every evening under the starry sky.
“It was an investment of several hundred million US dollars. You should go back more often when you have time. It’s now very different in China. Plenty of opportunities,” he said. His company owned a number of travel agencies. He guaranteed that they would receive her well. He glowed radiantly with pride, but his voice had no trace of bragging, remaining even and easy
The projects she managed at work were usually worth millions of dollars too, but she had lost her sense of accomplishment quite a while before—it was purely business, a way to make a living, and no more. She thought it might have felt different if she had worked in her hometown. She admired that he could renovate the center of their hometown as if it had been his own backyard. She was at once happy he had contributed so much to the city’s development yet somehow felt left out that she had not.
She said she had gone back once not long before. She was not able to find her way around any more. She had become a foreigner in her own hometown. But the hometown in her memory was not a place clouded with flying dust. The place she remembered was the green mountains and clear waters in Deng Lijun’s songs, as timeless and boundless as was inscribed in those age-old Chinese poems.
He said he didn’t expect her to be so nostalgic at such a young age. He laughed and said that she was holding on to an Americanized Chinese heart.
“It’s a Chinese heart nevertheless,” she replied.
He didn’t drink wine, only watched her drink. She let the alcohol take over and became flirtatious. “All right, next time I go back, I’ll look for you. You must remember me then.”
He said that was no problem at all. “The moment you step off the airplane, just mention my name to the taxi driver. I guarantee he’ll bring you to my house right away.”
“What a big ego you have!” she said, but actually liked watching him boast; a little audacity brought out the youthful spirit from within his very confident and balanced self.
She had never been interested in older men. She had considered it impossible to bridge the gap of time, both in spirit and in flesh. One of the reasons she broke up with Jeff was his excessive prudence, unbefitting his age. When she was with Jeff, she used to feel confined; she had compromised many aspects of her personality subconsciously until she eventually became incomplete and unhappy.
To her surprise, he used the generation gap as a way of breaking the ice, and, as she relaxed, she became almost brazen with him. She extended her right hand and with her index finger lifted a piece of loose hair draping over his forehead, as if gliding over a dangling leaf. She found her own directness unbelievable. Her cheeks heated up slightly.
She stood up, saying “I’m going to get us some dinner from the buffet table.” He wanted to help, but she told him to stay and keep their couch seats, otherwise they would have to eat standing. “Yes, Honey,” he said, awaiting her reaction. She said nothing and simply turned and walked away.
He’s taking advantage of me already. She felt annoyed while finding excuses for him: You yourself started it. Why was he not allowed to flirt back?
As she walked towards the buffet, she sensed his eyes following her, tracing the curves of her body. A strange shiver rippled inside her. She couldn’t tell whether it was pleasant or not. He must have lots of women. Unable to sort out her feelings, she dismissed them for the time being.
Besides the hostess of the party, she hardly knew anyone else. The hostess was so occupied entertaining the other guests that she only had a brief moment to wink at her from afar. That wink seemed to tell her, “You’ve found a very nice companion for yourself. Just go on and enjoy yourself.”
She carried a tray back with some sushi, two smoked turkey sandwiches and a plate of pasta sautéed with shrimp, which she laid down on the coffee table in front of the couch. She apologized that party food was always simple in America. He said he didn’t fancy too much cold food, so she pushed the plate of pasta towards him.
She noticed that he wasn’t comfortable with his knife and fork. He didn’t use the fork he was holding in his left hand at all. Instead, he shoveled up a piece of pasta using the knife in his right hand, and then awkwardly stretched his neck to meet the pasta, which was slippery with tomato sauce. As his mouth approached the pasta, the knife tilted slightly and the pasta dropped back into the plate. In that moment, he looked as helpless as a child.
He raised his head, and their eyes met. She blushed and quickly looked away, as if she had peeked at a secret of his that shouldn’t have been revealed. “You aren’t quite used to western meals, are you?” She regretted asking the question immediately. She should have pretended that she didn’t see anything.
He was a little embarrassed, yet didn’t appear to mind what had just happened. He poured her another glass of wine and said, “Of course not as comfortable as with Chinese meals.”
They continued to chat, but their conversation was not as natural and easy as before. The topics became general, and they became polite and modest, as though they each had known that the other person’s words were mostly out of courtesy.
It was often like this: when two strangers first met, they might not expect anything at the beginning. As they talked more and went a bit deeper, they would conjure up pictures of each other in their minds and subconsciously hope that reality would correspond to those imagined pictures. He was matching up to her mental image line by line and corner by corner, but without prior notice, something had interrupted the alignment.
From a tree that had made her homesick, he suddenly returned to be a smooth middle-aged businessman. She saw fatigue all over his face, even though he tried hard to conceal it.
She eventually rose and said good night. It was late and she had to work the next day.
He didn’t persuade her to stay. “You have my business card,” he said, “if you have a chance to go back, I’ll treat you for authentic hometown meals.”
A call from her hostess friend caught up with her the moment she stepped into her apartment. “How did it go?” her friend asked.
“How did what go? You ignored me the whole night. I was just about to question our friendship.”
“Oh, be nice. We are such close friends. You should feel perfectly at home at my party. Hey, I wanted to introduce Old Zheng to you, but you two shacked up tonight yourselves and saved me the trouble.”
“Old Zheng?” She didn’t recall asking for his last name. People addressed one another by English names at such parties.
“Right, James, don’t you know his last name is Zheng? He was quite impressed with you.”
“How do you know? What did you tell him?” She fished out his business card from her purse. She saw that his Chinese name was “Shan Zheng.”
“Only good things, of course,” her friend giggled on the other end of the cell phone. “You hurry up and marry this billionaire, become a ‘seagull’ overnight—you know, an enviable role among overseas Chinese, freely flying back and forth over the Pacific Ocean.”
“But I don’t need money.” She was a little annoyed with her friend’s enthusiasm. Back then, in that town, there seemed to be neighbors with the last name “Zheng” and “Shan” was quite a common first name…Her mind drifted.
Her friend interrupted and continued to persuade her, “I know you are independent, unlike petty women like me who have to be provided for by men. But just think about it, how many brain cells do you have to damage in exchange for that high salary of yours? Women who rack their brains grow old fast! Wouldn’t it be nice to at least have someone who can spoil you?”
“He doesn’t know Western table manners,” she interjected abruptly.
“Oh, my dear, you are not that young any more. How can you be so picky? Who doesn’t have a little imperfection? He’s not American. So what if he doesn’t know Western table manners? Has Jeff turned you into a freak as well?” Her friend was a little offended.
Jeff’s table manners were indeed impeccable. Their first date had been in a French restaurant, where the napkins and table clothes were embroidered and the ceiling painted with voluptuous women and chubby angels in the Renaissance style. A gentle and attentive waiter lighted the candle on their table, and Jeff ordered for her in fluent French.
They were served course by course. First, there was the complimentary appetizer from the chef—Jeff had been a frequent customer. Then followed the scallop served cold on pear slices recommended by the waiter. Because it was her first French dinner, Jeff also insisted on ordering her escargot. Then came the soup, salad and the main course. Right after the first couple of dishes, she was already confused and no longer sure which fork or spoon to place into which plate. Jeff’s utensils were always neatly in the right place.
Jeff was sitting across from her with an exemplary posture: his waist held straight, chin tucked, with a spotless napkin spread over his chest, a sparkling fork in his left hand, and an equally shining knife in his right. His fork assisted the knife in slicing bite-sized pieces of the filet mignon before his left hand raised the fork to deliver the steak to his mouth while his right remained holding the knife, ready for more cutting—all these, as well as the almost undetectable movement of his mouth, were smooth and effortless.
At the end of each course, Jeff aligned his used utensils together in a forty-five-degree angle on the right side of the plate, cuing the perceptive waiter, who walked over to remove them. Observing her bafflement, Jeff smiled and adjusted the placement of her forks and knives while maintaining his perfect posture.
The soft candlelight in front of her flickered and flowed. The classic tunes on the piano sounded far and airy, conscientiously avoiding any conflict with the conversation of the customers. The waiter came over every now and then to attend to them silently. She then reckoned that the essences of Western culture all concentrated in that dinner: romance, consideration, grace, efficiency and order.
She had immigrated to America with her parents when she was in high school. They had assumed the hard-working lifestyle of new immigrants, worked menial jobs during the day and studied English at an adult school at night. She spent her weekends working as a hostess in a restaurant to earn additional money for the family.
When she met Jeff, she was about to graduate from college. But before that dinner, she’d never had a chance to sit down serenely to experience authentic Western culinary culture. The Western meals she had known before, besides the various burgers from McDonald’s, were confined to the overcooked chewy steaks from an American chain restaurant near her home. Her parents had accompanied her to that restaurant once. After they had finished eating, they complained that it was pricy and not tasty, not as worthwhile as the combination dinners from the Li Xin restaurant in Chinatown.
Li Xin was the restaurant where she had worked as a hostess during the weekends. It had a polished façade, and its combination dinners were undeniably delicious and cheap. But the carpet there had never been changed. Stained with grease, it smelled like smoke, deep-fry, seafood, and other indistinct odors from the kitchen—all mixed together. The carpet would have been long past its useful life in other restaurants, and resembled an old mop that could never be cleaned again. Each time she led a group of customers into their seats, she felt suffocated and wished to run out of the restaurant immediately to gulp in as much fresh air as possible.
That first night, when Jeff sat in his familiar French restaurant, he appeared flawless. In her eyes then, Jeff was a reliable guide who could lead her into a fresh world. She couldn’t wait to escape the grease, staleness, and noise of the Li Xin restaurant in Chinatown. She was really young back then, and the world was very simple; love was simple too—she was able to fall in love with Jeff simply because he had such impeccable table manners.
But now, am I really too picky? She hung up the call with her friend and asked herself, did it really matter whether he knew Western table manners?
She recalled their encounter. They had a very spontaneous and smooth beginning; their mutual attraction and understanding had come through as effortless as a breeze. But how had it ended in a disappointment? A man’s vulnerability, she thought, when exposed at a certain time, might invoke a kind of compassion similar to what women felt for infants. Many times though, it was more likely to trigger despise and even repugnance. Women universally wished that men were omnipotent and invincible. Even an independent professional woman like her, who didn’t need to rely on anyone else, was no exception.
In the minor detail of his crude table manners, there might be something else. She thought about his gaze that had meandered behind her and the somewhat familiar name “Shan Zheng.” An instinct perturbed her, like the surreptitious shadows shuffling about the street lamp in the darkness outside her window. What concerned her was the instinct itself. She was a perfectionist who had always believed in her intuitions.
The next day she woke up early, with an impulse to have a good look at that tree behind the parking structure. She quickly completed her morning routines and drove to the office.
The tree was silent in the cool morning air, observing her calmly. She couldn’t recall a time when she had ever paused and examined it closely, even though she had always wanted to slow down whenever she passed by. For the first time, she noticed that the contours of those dark green leaves were like outstretched palms, with the five delicately curved fingers extending symmetrically. If those five “fingers” had closed together, the “palm” would have resembled the cattail leaf fan waved by her grandma during the hottest summer days of her childhood. Her grandma used to put her to sleep while waving such a fan.
She breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of the leaves and savoring it, but she couldn’t tell whether it was sweet or bitter. She lowered her head, and, in the loose soil next to her feet, discovered a small green fruit that looked like a round cluster of garlic cloves. The fruit might have fallen to the ground quite a while before and appeared desiccated. But its shape immediately reminded her of figs, though the figs in her memory seemed to be all purple-red.
Could this tree that always reminded her of her hometown be a fig tree? She looked up and searched among the leaves but could not see any other fruits there.
Back then in her hometown, Old Lady Wang who lived in the front street had a fig tree in her yard. Her grandma used to take her to visit Old Lady Wang sometimes, and they would sit and chat under the fig tree. Its shade cooled her skin, and her grandma flapped her cattail leaf fan. Old Lady Wang’s figs weren’t meant for anyone to eat as fruits; they were collected, dried up, and sold to the Chinese herb stores. Sometimes though, when Old Lady Wang was happy, she would pick a few figs to treat her grandma and her. The figs once had been her favorite delicacy until that one unbearably humid and hot dusk.
It was right after sunset. Her grandma and she were sitting on small stools next to the door, trimming string beans in the rapidly disappearing daylight. Her grandma wore her reading glasses and held a small tin pot nearby for the trimmed beans. Her grandma hardly spoke. She merely picked out the string beans which her granddaughter hadn’t properly finished from the pot, and continued to work on them.
During the second year of the Cultural Revolution, her mother had been sent to the labor camp for intellectuals; her father was imprisoned in the “cattle shed” temporarily set up in the school for teachers who were not favored by the “Red Guards.” Nobody knew when her parents could come home. Only her grandma and she would be at their dinner table that evening.
Suddenly, Little Dong, a neighbor’s boy, ran frantically in yelling, “Something…went wrong…Uncle…was beaten…by the students. Uncle was beaten by the students!”
Her grandma rushed up. The small pot of string beans flipped over loudly onto the cement floor, and the string beans scattered all over the floor. She was so startled that she began to cry, but her grandma paid no attention. Instead, she kept asking Little Dong, “Where? Where?” The boy said it was in the “cattle shed,” where the families of the “cattle ghosts and snake spirits” were not even allowed to visit. Her grandma’s raised foot dropped, as if she had to do something but wasn’t sure what to do and where to go.
As the sky grew dark, the neighbors who heard the news gathered in her crowded home, all offering her grandma ideas at the same time. The neighbors suggested that her grandma should ask this or that person to make an exception so that they could go to the “cattle shed” to tend to her father. “We don’t even know how badly he was hurt,” her grandma sighed, wiping away her tears. The adults simply ignored her. Suddenly though, she pointed outside and screamed, “Dad! Dad!” Her shriek unsettled everyone in the room.
Under the streetlights in the dusk, a “Red Guard” with a red band on one of his sleeves escorted her father home. Her father stretched forward his neck, squinting and taking uneven steps, as though he might trip and fall at any time. His thick glasses were shattered, his face purple and blue, and his nose broken, the blood fresh on his face.
The other people returned to their homes. Her father asked her grandma to open the top drawer of the dresser and take out an old pair of glasses that he could still use. He put on the glasses and smiled an anguished smile at her. She blankly stared at her father, her face full of tears and her nose watery. Her grandma poured a cup of boiled water for the “Red Guard” and asked him to sit down and drink. Then her grandma hurried to clean her father’s wounds with salt water and gauze. The “Red Guard” kept rushing them impatiently from the side.
There was a knock on the door. Old Lady Wang entered with a plate full of purple-red figs. As soon as Old Lady Wang saw her father, she tried to kneel down, but was stopped by her grandma. “Teacher Li, I’m so sorry. That damned Little Shan of mine, that headless son of a turtle, how did he dare to hit his teacher? I’m here to ask for your forgiveness. You kind man, please don’t bear harsh memories.” Old Lady Wang began to weep while she continued, “His mother died so early and his father never disciplines him. I’m an old woman. How can I ever rein in a wild horse like him?”
Later the “Red Guard” escorted her father back to the “cattle shed,” and Old Lady Wang left too. Her grandma rinsed a fig for her. She sucked and chewed it voraciously, as if she could drive away, with the familiar sweetness in her mouth, all the misery she had experienced at that young age. What she tasted though was salty and pungent. Looking back, she realized that she might have simply tasted her own tears. But ever since that sweltering dusk long before, she had never eaten any figs.
Suddenly, it came back to her that Old Lady Wang had a grandson whose nickname was “Little Shan.”
A wind drifted by, rustling the leaves. A plump fruit dropped down with a muffled sound. She bent down, picked it up, and examined it in her palm. A hint of soft purple emerged from the raw green peel of the fruit. She cut open the peel with her fingernail and saw many tiny seeds tightly set in the flesh of the fruit, like many codes waiting to be deciphered.
It was indeed a fig! She was amazed beyond words. She wondered why this fig had followed her across the ocean, passing through the many years and the vast distance. Was it here and now to take her back to those vague memories of her childhood and lead her to an unpleasant connection between her present and past? In the unseen world, did every person really have a guardian angel? Perhaps her angel was a green and cooling fig tree. No matter where she went, it would always be waiting silently by the road.
Was Little Shan’s full name “Shan Zheng”? And, Old Lady Wang—what was her husband’s last name? She wondered.