“It’s a little hole in the wall,” Luce says, humble-bragging, “but they make the best dan dan noodles in Beijing.”
I just nod. Luce is trying to be sweet. She is trying to impress me. It’s been nine years, but I can tell she still has a crush on me. I find that I’m flattered.
But what really catches my eye is the familiar sign for ice cream cakes on a new building facade. “Carvel!” I cry. “I haven’t been to one since I was a kid.”
I can’t believe it. A full store. Fancy too. Awning, plate glass windows, neon sign.
I haven’t tasted a Carvel cake since my brother’s eighth birthday.
Luce’s voice is too loud inside the Jeep. “Do you want to stop? It’s the first Carvel in Beijing.”
We stop. Luce pulls into an alley lined with cars haphazardly parked alongside the bricks of the hutong walls. She finds a spot and eases her Jeep into place as a few bicyclists whiz past angrily ringing their tinny bells.
“I’m impressed,” I say and I am. I can’t imagine driving and parking in Beijing. I’ve been coming to China for nearly a decade, first as a language student and now for research for my dissertation, but taking public transportation is the extent of my courage. Maybe there’s truth to the cliché about historians studying the past because we’re not comfortable in the present.
The air is moist and thick at the height of summer, but at least there are trees on this particular street, charming somehow French-looking plantanes that are strung with colored lights.
The Carvel is a fancy place here, belying its strip mall associations.
There are freezers of frozen cakes, a bright counter, tables to sit at. There are some smart-looking young intellectuals with fancy eyeglasses and cool t-shirts, two young women with expensive purses. Six years after Tiananmen, I have to admit the city has certainly embraced the concept of moving on.
“So what would you like?” Luce asks brightly. She is being an exceptionally good sport.
I’m doing something cliché and touristy and I know that Luce avoids these things in general. She wants to be the cool American in China, the almost-a-local-if-only-he-weren’t-so-Caucasian-looking, not the tourist who goes to every Western franchise in Beijing, but she’s doing it for me. The last time we’d been together had not ended well. She cheated on me with a student, and I on her with a man, but she’s the one who feels guilty, and I’m the one who still feels aggrieved, and that’s why she’s willing to accompany me to this obscenely tacky place and politely ask me what I want to order.
The young woman behind the counter smiles prettily. Luce speaks to her in Mandarin and the girl giggles and tells Luce how wonderful her Chinese is. For all Luce’s efforts to become a local, she can’t undo the privilege that comes from every imported American movie and TV show and their white stars. She’s treated like a celebrity, like an exotic high-end consumer good here. This, too, used to a sore point between us. I was jealous of the attention she received, and Luce resented my ability to pass as a local.
“I would like a slice of ice cream cake,” I say deliberately in English.
“Very good,” the girl says. “What flavor?”
And I know immediately, chocolate with mint chip. Jeremy’s favorite.
I take the plate to the counter by the window, choose the corner seat. I don’t want any distractions. It’s been so long, and this is the last place I expected to find a remnant from the ashes of my childhood. I cut a corner with the edge of my fork.
The salty and the sweet.
Thick, heavy chocolate layer of crunch. Smooth layer of ice cream. Half-inch slab of icing over the whole thing.
I’m ten and half again, it’s summer, and I’m plotting secrets with my mother. We always got a Carvel cake for my brother’s birthday, personalized. The last one had a blue whale on top and “Happy Birthday, Jeremy!” in a bubble emerging from the whale’s blowhole.
It was diabetes on a plate, but Jeremy had to have a Carvel cake or it wasn’t special. It wasn’t like a real birthday, he said.
We got him one every year, but we always pretended it was a surprise. Mom wouldn’t mention it, so Jeremy would think she forgot.
This time Mom took me along while Jeremy was playing at his best friend Seymour’s house. “It’s our secret,” Mom said, and she winked at me.
I nodded, seriously, and winked with first the left eye, then the right, to show I had understood.
Mom told Mrs. Beck we were going grocery shopping or normally I would’ve stayed to play, too. The better for kickball teams. Seymour and Jeremy and one of the twins and me and the other twin. The little boys couldn’t play so well yet, they would mostly run around and scream, and the teams were three against two, but it all evened out because I was an excellent kicker while Seymour had a lame leg. But today Mom said I couldn’t stay. “Girls’ shopping expedition,” she said, to throw off my brother.
So we were heading down the Turnpike and I was talking about the exact cake we should get. Mint chocolate chip on top, chocolate on bottom, and the blue whale on top, because Jeremy was going through a phase and loved whales. Killers and beluga and baleen and even the underappreciated Norwegian sei whale. I knew exactly what the whale should look like, with one round eye and a slight smile on its blue face, like the one in the Richard Scarry book that first set Jeremy on the whale path.
Mom says, “Mmm-hmm, mm-hmm,” like she wasn’t really listening, and when I stopped talking, she didn’t notice, but continued squinting out the windshield, her lips pursed, like she was scanning the horizon for faraway things, not just the trucks and cars. I was just happy to be included. Dad didn’t plan secrets like this. He was busy with work, he was always busy. It was fun to go with Mom.
I didn’t plan on being the kind of person who likes secrets. What’s charming in a child becomes something else in an adult. If I could find the words to explain this to Luce, I would apologize.
What I do instead, the moment we are back in the Jeep, is kiss her.
She’s surprised, but she kisses me back. “I didn’t expect this,” she says.
I wish she would stop trying to talk. I hold onto her face with both hands and place my tongue in her mouth, and I can still taste the Carvel icing, FD&C Blue No. 1.
When we pulled up to the Carvel’s that time with Mom, there was a man pacing in front. He was Caucasian and wearing a suit jacket but no tie. Standing on the sidewalk, looking at his watch, looking the wrong way, waiting.
Mom saw him and popped off her seat belt. “Wait here,” she said, in her serious voice, and slammed the door behind her. I was trapped because our Buick was still running, the keys in the ignition, and I couldn’t just leave the car like that. Anything could happen.
I thought she was going to rush in to get Jeremy’s cake and rush out again to me because of the man waiting there like that. I thought he was kind of creepy and I thought she wanted me to wait in the car to protect me.
That’s how I used to think in those days.
Mom went straight up to the man on the sidewalk and started talking to him, and he turned and smiled. Mom tucked her hair behind her ear, fiddled with her purse strap over her shoulder. The man touched her elbow, and she did not flinch. He kept his hand there, and then Mom nodded at the car with her chin, and the man looked at the car and saw me watching him through the windshield.
He smiled at me, but stopped touching Mom’s elbow.
I scowled at him.
He turned back to Mom, and they continued talking, I couldn’t hear the words, just the texture. Mom’s voice tumbling out, word after word, and then the man, a lower rumble, and suddenly a peal of Mom’s laughter, the high notes puncturing the air.
I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach then, hard, like something was in there that wouldn’t go down, and I could taste salt on the back of my tongue and something sweet, like I’d just eaten thick gooey icing, although I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and that a was a baloney sandwich with iceberg lettuce and yellow mustard on white bread, like normal, and then an apple, and a chocolate chip cookie. And suddenly I thought, It’s the cookie.
Flour and sugar and something oily were coating the top of my throat, the tops of my teeth. I tried to breathe through my mouth, but that only made it worse.
There were no bags in the car except my book bag, and I couldn’t be sick on that.
I opened my door and flung myself toward the curb and threw up right there on the asphalt.
Both Mom and that man turned and saw me vomiting. Mom pursed her lips together sour plum style and hissed, “Jun-li, how could you?”
Back at home, Mom didn’t speak to me again, she just put Jeremy’s cake in the back of the freezer behind the Eggo waffles and the old half gallon container of Neapolitan ice cream from the A&P and the boxes of Green Giant frozen vegetables. My brother wouldn’t think to hunt around in the freezer. He wasn’t like me. The month before Christmas I started hunting through the house to see where my mother might have hidden my presents. I volunteered to fold the laundry and put everything away just so I could check the linen closet, rummage through my father’s sock drawer and my mother’s underwear in her dresser. I checked under the bed and in the closets. But Mom always found a new place, one I hadn’t thought of yet.
Jeremy, on the other hand, never thought to look for things. He was happy to play with his friends or his toy soldiers, lying on the floor of the family room on his belly, shooting Pew! Pew! Pew!, content to assume our parents would take care of his needs.
But my suspicious nature had a downside. I knew our parents argued in their bedroom. I was standing outside the door, quiet, the time Mom threw the clay statue we got on vacation at Wildwood against the wall and Dad smashed the red glass ashtray that held his cufflinks and tie tacks on the floor. After that, when I put away the laundry, I checked to make sure nothing was missing or broken: the empty Joy perfume bottle on Mom’s dresser, the old cloisonné box from China that Ye-ye and Nai-nai had given them for their wedding, the knickknacks from the Circle Line Cruise we all took around the Statue of Liberty.
Now I knew about the man, too, but what about him I wasn’t sure how to put into words.
Luce and I don’t go to the hole in the wall place for noodles. We go back to Luce’s apartment. She tells me first that she has a girlfriend, she’s visiting her parents this weekend, but it’s an “open relationship.” Luce wants everything to be clear, so there will be no misunderstandings this time. I fight the urge to roll my eyes, but I get the impression that Luce is not calling the shots in this relationship. Maybe the girlfriend hasn’t come out to her parents, I think, maybe they’re still hoping to set her up with a nice young man, maybe that’s what this visit is all about and why Luce is the one who’s acting vulnerable. She’s blinking a lot, those long lashes fluttering over her troubled green eyes.
I nod like I’m listening, but what I’m doing is trying to forget. I want Luce to make me feel wanted, I want her body to distract me. I don’t know what Luce wants. Maybe Luce wants to prove that she can still make me cry out, that I didn’t really mean to leave her like that, that I should have forgiven her. I’ve been too distracted by my own wounds to think what kind I’ve left on Luce.
Afterwards, all I can taste is the Carvel icing on the back of my tongue. Maybe it’s the salt from her skin that throws the flavor into such sharp relief. I’d forgotten the blue icing tastes like Play-Doh. Why had I ever liked it? But then I remember how I used to scrape the icing off. I only liked the chocolate parts. I was fussy like that as a child whereas Jeremy ate everything.
Mom hated Carvel cakes.
The night of Jeremy’s birthday, she refused to eat it. This was our private, just-family celebration before the real party that weekend when kids from school would come.
But that night Mom wasn’t hungry. She pushed her plate away. “I just don’t know how you can eat this,” she said.
My father and brother looked up startled, but she wasn’t talking to them.
“My daughter, ha,” she said. “My daughter likes this kind of thing.” She picked up her fork between two fingers and let it dangle over the plate before dropping it in disgust. Clank.
I felt my nose burn. I forced my eyes to stare at the table, at the eight blue candles lying on the paper plate, the icing clinging to the ends, the blackened wicks, staring as though they were the most interesting candles in the world, so that I wouldn’t blink and start to cry.
“I have to go to class,” Mom stood up, her chair scraping against the linoleum, scrape scrape against my ear.
I should have blurted it out then. I should have said her secret. But I didn’t. Mom knew me too well.
Staring at the table top, I bit my tongue and felt a knot burning in my stomach, the acid rising. I’d barely make it to the tiny half bath off the kitchen before I threw up again.
I have to go the bathroom. Luce waits in bed, and I slip out from under the sheets.
Luce has a Western style toilet but the room is as small as a broom closet.
There is a retro-looking thermos for hot water but it is empty and I am not going to risk rinsing my mouth with water from the tap. I grab a tube of toothpaste and rub it across my teeth then spit and spit again, but now my mouth only tastes like Play-Doh and Aquafresh. I open the medicine cabinet, hoping to find some semblance of mouthwash but there are only the usual assortment of prescriptions and ointments. Plus Playtex tampons placed strategically on the top shelf. Luce is very particular about what she puts into her body. Only those weird organic cotton ones that have no plastic applicator will do. I imagine the Playtex belong to the girlfriend, the one Luce thinks she’s in an open relationship with. No matter what Luce may believe, the moment I see the tampons I know the woman is staking a claim.
The room is so small, my knees nearly touch the wall in front of me when I sit on the toilet. I put my forehead in my hands, and all at once I am crying, hot thick tears pouring through my fingers, snot running down my face, a child’s tears. I can’t stop them.
It’s the Play-Doh taste on my tongue.
After Jeremy’s birthday that year, Mom announced that she was separating from our father. “I want you to know this situation has nothing to do with the two of you,” she told us, as we sat on the couch in the TV room, Jeremy’s eyes wide and scared looking. “Your father and I love you very much, “ Mom said.
“I don’t want you to go,” he managed to blurt out, his eyes filling with liquid.
“It’s because of Vincent, isn’t it?” I sneered. I knew the man’s name by then. I’d kept my ears open when my parents argued. I’d known to listen.
“Jun-li, don’t make your brother upset,” Mom said. She sat beside him on the sofa now, put her arms around him, and he hung his head into her lap and howled. She patted his back. “Look what you’ve done.”
“Hush, hush,” she rocked with Jeremy in her arms, like he was a baby and not an eight year old boy in a bowl cut and blue striped tee-shirt.
I was jealous then. Jeremy was always the baby and I had to stand here watching my mother comfort him when I wanted to cry too. What I said was, “I hate you. You can go. You can go forever.”
Mom looked up over Jeremy’s back, her eyes narrowed at me, annoyed. “Jun-li, I need you to be reasonable. You’re too old to act this way.”
And I wanted to slap my brother then until his nose bled.
I stole all Jeremy’s toy soldiers, the green plastic kind that came in a bag of twenty-five, and I threw them in the neighbor’s trash. I grabbed his Fantastic Four comic collection and ripped them into shreds. I put salt in his guppy tank and glue on his Legos but he didn’t cry anymore and Mom still left that summer.
I used to wish Dad had left and Mom had stayed. Even though I argued more with Mom, and she was always angry at me. But Dad was always busy with work, he was always distracted, and he didn’t worry about Jeremy the way Mom did, because Jeremy was her favorite.
At the very the end of summer, Jeremy’s best friend Seymour had the birthday party at the lake. He invited too many kids, his whole class, and because it was the last party before school started again. It had been an especially hot and sticky week in late August, everyone had shown up, with their little sisters and brothers in tow, parents figuring this was a good place to dump everyone for an afternoon, get them out of the sticky houses, let them blow off steam one last time.
The lake was artificial, not very large, and not very clean. Normally Mom didn’t let us swim there. Jeremy and I had both gotten ear infections the first summer we’d gone there for our swim lessons with the Red Cross when I was in second grade. After putting drops in our ears for a week, Mom was sick of it. She only ever took us to the pool at the Y after that, and then we stayed in the shallow end since we’d never finished the swim lessons.
Dad didn’t know this, however. Or at least he didn’t think about it. He let Mrs. Beck take us. Mrs. Beck was happy to have me along because she knew I was dependable, I’d heard her call me this to Mom once, which meant she could leave the twins with me and go do other things and I’d have to take care of them.
No one was looking after Jeremy after he and Seymour had a fight about who was cheating as they sat on the bank with their action figures, the Hulk versus the Thing, and Seymour threw sand into Jeremy’s eyes. I could hear the argument from where I stood. Seymour was used to getting his way, on account of his bum leg, Jeremy was kind in that way, but this time Jeremy got up and left.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw his chunky self run across the sand, but I didn’t follow. I didn’t intervene. I told myself I was too busy looking after the twins, who were tossing a beach ball on the edge of the water. In truth, I was angry at Jeremy for being our mother’s favorite and I let him go.
Mr. Tralucci was the one who noticed Jeremy had been gone for a while. He had some kind of father’s sixth sense.
Then everyone had to get out of the water. Everyone stood in clumps on the artificial beach, on the dirt mixed with the imported sand, shivering, while the adults counted heads, and the lifeguards blew their whistles, and then some of the men shouted, and one of the lifeguards jumped into the water and swam to the wood dock on the other side of the lake, where they used to make us dive off during the Red Cross swim lessons.
They wouldn’t let us kids see Jeremy’s body.
A hole opened up in my guts then, and I crouched by the side of the lake, heaving.
After that, my parents did not get the divorce I’d been bracing for. Whatever differences might have driven them apart, Jeremy’s drowning now brought them back together, locked in a kind of pain that was much, much worse.
As a child, I blamed myself. I understood that I was a vengeful kind of person. I had wanted to hurt my mother. I had been angry at my brother. Who was to say I hadn’t subconsciously willed this disaster?
There’s a proverb in classical Chinese about digging two graves when you prepare to take revenge: for your enemy and yourself. In my case there was only one grave, reserved for the one truly innocent person in my life.
I might never have seen Luce again if mutual acquaintances had not put us in touch, letting me know that Luce had moved to Beijing.
Luce had apologized long ago. She said she was not good with endings. It was her fault, she said, taking up with her student while still sleeping with me. She had not meant to hurt me, she said.
And I thought I’d gotten over her, the rejection, the feeling that I was not good enough, the need to prove that I was someone she should never have let me get away, but no. I was apparently the Freudian cliché, intent upon repeating my history in an attempt at mastery, only to fail and fail again.
Thinking about my own pathetic behavior helped me to get a grip.
So I will myself to stop crying and I’m sitting on the toilet, realizing there is no paper, not to wipe my ass or blow my nose, when I hear the front door swing open.
Click clack. Someone’s heels on the floor. Then thud thud. Someone kicking off her shoes. It has to be the girlfriend returning. I pull up my pants and look for a place to hide, but there is only me and the toilet. There is not enough room to squeeze behind the commode. I hold my breath as I hear the girlfriend padding across the apartment. She lets out a little squeal like a mouse in a trap as she finds Luce in bed. There is a creak of springs. She’s apparently launched herself onto the bed.
“Hui lai le!” Luce exclaims theatrically, loud enough to wake the dead. You’re back! She obviously is hoping I’ll hear. I guess there’s open and then there’s not-this-open.
And I find myself thinking of all that I could do in this moment to royally screw Luce’s life.
Revenge fantasy #1:
I could march dramatically into their bedroom and shout, “You lied to me! Shuo huang! Shuo huang!” I’d been crying so much, I might even be able to conjure up new tears.
Revenge fantasy #2:
I could march dramatically into their bedroom and shout, “What the fuck? Ni gan ma?”
Revenge Fantasy #3:
I could slam the bathroom door, scaring everyone, and stomp dramatically to the front door and slam that, too, leaving Luce to explain the mystery to her girlfriend.
Revenge Fantasy ∞:
I could imagine a million dramatic scenarios all to prove that I was not the patsy or a pushover. On and on and on. Each one more ridiculous than the last.
Perhaps if I had a therapist, I might discover my desire to be a historian was tied to some deep misunderstanding of my own past, some traumatic need to revisit what was long gone, to dredge it back into the present for examination, for endless flagellation of those actors long dead, second-guessing their motivations, trying to explain and make right decisions that were long past.
Perhaps what I really needed was to embrace the Buddhism of my grandparents and to live in the present. To breathe in, breathe out, live in the moment. (Actually I have no idea if this is the Buddhism of my ancestors or simply the lite version that has filtered down to my generation through Allen Ginsberg and the Beats and the Counterculture, but never mind. That is a debate for another time.)
For example, if I am honest, I must admit that Luce’s apartment is not, in fact, all that nice. It was only nice in my mind because Luce made it seem cool and trendy and desirable to live in an old renovated hutong instead of a new building.
In fact my hotel is far more comfortable, and when I leave Beijing in a couple days, I’ll be staying on the campus of Nanjing University, this time in the so-called foreign experts’ dormitories, which are modern and well-appointed. I scoffed at such luxuries when I was an undergrad, it had seemed inauthentic, but really, I am tired of roughing it while doing research. It will be nice to have a shower with hot water and air conditioning and a kitchen of my own with electric appliances.
I know deep down that Jeremy’s death was an accident.
Blaming myself is like blaming my mother. A way to keep the pain alive, to re-live it, and in some way keep Jeremy alive, never moving on.
In the present, I think about my options, revenge and otherwise. I think of all the awkward things that would have to be said. I think of the potential for anger and blame. I think of the people I have hurt in my own life.
I realize I do not need to see what Luce’s new girlfriend looks like. I already know. Someone who glows brighter in Luce’s gaze than she ever has on her own.
I find I can accept this.
I slip out of the bathroom, tiptoeing down the hall, crouching my way past the bedroom door as though that will make me less visible.
My shoes are still by the front door, but behind Luce’s backpack, where she’d dropped it in a moment of passion. I find my purse under the coat rack.
Then I slip out the door.
I’m not trying to make trouble for Luce and the new girlfriend.
There is a break in the smog today and the sunshine is bright enough to make me squint.
Fashionable young couples stroll by arm in arm. A taxi beeps its way through pedestrians trying to cross the street. A billboard flashes a Russian model’s face advertising shampoo. I can see the golden arches just ahead, a KFC at the corner, a Starbucks, a Pizza Hut. A shop window is plastered with posters for Motorola. A colorful umbrella over a pushcart advertises Coca-Cola.
In the shade of some plane trees, an old man has set up a make-shift fruitstand, with piles of orange persimmons spread across a striped tarpaulin. I can imagine a time when there will no longer be old men selling persimmons on the street, when such old fashioned treats will be a memory, and everyone will buy fruit waxed and displayed in identical mounds in an air-conditioned store.
I buy a jin of persimmons from the old man. He measures them on an old-style hand weight, putting the fruit in a metal tray on a pulley attached by wire to a metal bar with the weights marked on it. I hand him my crumpled bills and he grabs a sheet of newspaper from the pile at his feet, rolls it into a cone and dumps my persimmons inside.
Walking down the sidewalk, I pluck out a largish persimmon, pull at the skin and bite inside. The pulp and juice explode over my tongue, the sweetness coating every inch of my mouth, erasing that cloying blue icing taste, as well as the salt of Luce’s flesh and the briny flavor leftover from my snot and tears. I hunch over the persimmon melting in my hands, devouring its flesh until there’s nothing left but the pit, and then I toss it in the gutter and start on another. I slip off the skin, and eat and eat, suck and chew and swallow, and bite again, again, again, savoring each drop of flesh, as though I’ll never be sated, as though I can make this moment last forever.
May-lee Chai is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction and one book-length translation from Chinese to English of the 1934 Autobiography of Ba Jin. She also volunteers as a Chinese to English translator for PEN American Center. Her short prose has appeared in numerous publications, including in Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, Gulf Coast, SALT Magazine, Missouri Review, San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, and Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine. She is the past recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Prose. Currently she teaches in the MFA program at San Francisco State University