On Saturdays, Meimei came into the shop to pick up items her grandmother requested especially for her evening meal. Mr. Wong would have already been up hours earlier preparing the rice and noodle dishes, the eggrolls, wontons and dumplings. He knew the way Meimei and her grandmother liked their eggrolls, and in the quietness of his kitchen he tucked the wrappers around the tiny pieces of shrimp, the bits of vegetables, the seasonings. He allowed himself to think of Meimei enjoying the food he prepared. He wondered what she would think if she knew how much extra time he put into making her rice dishes with some of the finer sauces and vinegars, the fresher ingredients. She knew to come to him for a package he would have waiting for her, but she would not know how her package was different from others he prepared for regular customers.
Mr. Wong married young. His wife was calm and efficient, but they were both in their sixties and their faces and bodies had begun to be crossed and recrosssed by fine lines, like tributaries of a river. This was always a wonder to him: the smoothness of Meimei’s hand, the little moons in her nails. When she grasped the package he made for her, he held it as long as he could. Sometimes their hands touched. On the night she had cried over Mr. Butler, her tears dampened his shirt and he wanted to pull the oval of her face up to his, to wipe the tears, to kiss the petals of her mouth. She was young enough to be his granddaughter.
At night Mr. Wong lay on his bed as the sad moon glowed through his window. He remembered his family, his parents’ disapproval of his marriage to a peasant’s daughter. She had a face that was round, but not unbecoming. He had met her when he was a student at university and traveling in the country with Meimei’s father, Tai-shan, who was then a student too. He saw her before the door of a peasant house. The door was painted red. She wore a bluish grey cheongsam. He begged Tai-shan to stay in the village with him so he could speak to her. One day he watched her draw water from the village well. She moved like a willow and he longed to loosen her hair from its stay at her neck. He spoke to her often there when no one was watching. He persuaded her to come away with him, to be his wife, to bear his sons. He was Party, then, he and Tai-shan. They did not show feelings, even those of love, for this would be breaking one’s highest loyalty to Mao. But in the privacy of his heart, Li Wong imagined the tendrils of her dark hair brushing his face, the dark of her eyes reflecting what he saw of her. She would know without his saying how he felt. He watched her carry the water for her family and he knew she was able to bear his sons. She would help him bear all that would be their life.
On Saturdays, Mr. Wong made Meimei’s hot and sour soup. Mr. Wong used his finest Chinese black rice vinegar, remembering with guilt that he used something less expensive when he cooked meals for his wife. No matter, Meimei would taste this soon, he thought. He felt it warm her and he added a drop of chili sauce. “For you my friend,” he said to his friend Tai-shan, whom he did not know was alive or dead.
On one of these Saturdays, he saw a young man walking beside Meimei and felt the spirit of his friend rise up in him. I must protect her, thought Mr. Wong. I must say something to this young man, for surely he is an imbecile. Surely he has impure intentions and would handle pure flowers with roughness, would bruise their petals and run away. He had the look about him, the lankiness, the long hair, the tight jeans. He wore a respectable American dress shirt, but a gold chain too, a sign of bad judgment.
Mr. Wong approached them from behind as they were looking at the packages of dried noodles.
“You are new to the store,” he said, speaking in English and extending his hand, in the American fashion.
“Yes, I’m here with Meimei,” said the young man in Chinese. He did not shake Mr. Wong’s hand.
“Maybe I can be of help to you. I am the owner.”
“Meimei is a great help.” The brute put his arm around her slender waist.
She was wearing a loose black sweater Mr. Wong had never seen before. “Meimei has to get her food and go. Her grandmother is expecting her. Her grandmother just called me and says she is needed at home.”
“I just spoke to her,” said Meimei. “She gave me a list of things to buy.”
“She called me, just now. She said, ‘Tell Meimei to come home.’”
When she had gone, Mr. Wong took the basket from the young man’s hands. “I do not know you. I do not want you to see Meimei. I do not trust you.”
“I can do whatever I want,” the boy said in English.
“It proves you cannot see her since you do not listen. I’m telling you I forbid it. I am her protector. I promised her father.”
“I want to buy these things,” said the young man, taking the basket.
Mr. Wong looked at his young face and his unruly hair. His hair, like that of a rock star, toppled over his forehead. “You are not to come back here.” He rang up the purchases.
“It’s a free country,” the boy said, putting his wallet away and picking up his bag.
The bells that hung from the door signaled his exit. The bright sun from the street glinted off the counter and blinded Mr. Wong.
Chen was in an aisle, stopping to sweep something into her dustpan with a small, handheld broom. In a moment she would go to the roof to tend to her container garden.
When Chen and Li Wong married, they and their friends had sung songs in praise of Chairman Mao. They had bowed to his portrait and danced a dance to his impassive face. Li and his friend Tai-shan had excitedly talked about their futures. Both were married and hoped to have sons. Li had found a job with the provincial government and Tai-shan would go to graduate school in preparation for becoming a history professor. They were living in a new time, a new era. They were innocents.
After the young man had left their store, Chen put the brush and dustpan in their plastic bag and hung the bag on its nail behind the counter. “You’re not Party anymore,” she said to Li. “That boy and that girl, they want each other, and they won’t be dancing to your pictures at their wedding, Chairman Mao.”
Mr. Wong slammed his fist on the glass of the counter. Chen made to straighten the bags of dried noodles on the back wall. He could not help it if honoring the Chairman had been a required part of their wedding ceremony. They had performed a dance expressing their loyalty to Mao and spoke about what they had learned from Mao’s works. Li helped Chen with this, preparing something for her to say. A party secretary witnessed the ceremony. Chen wore her cadre suit, as instructed, and she mourned privately, to Li, that she would not be riding in a sedan chair or wearing a quipao like the brides in her village.
Now he wondered what she thinking. Since moving to America more than eighteen years ago, they had bought a television and watched movies and she had certainly seen pictures of other weddings, of things men and women said to each other on these occasions. Maybe she wanted an American wedding now. Maybe she wanted what was called a “renewing of the vows.” Ridiculous. Both of them almost at American retirement age, telling each other things that rock stars crooned from cars that stopped in front of the store when the light was red. He observed her outfit, her thin white socks she meticulously washed out every night, her flat black sandals, her cropped linen pants and loose linen shirt. She probably thought the clothes she had were not good enough either, too much like their old life.
She watched a program at night in which a woman gets into a clear glass box and the people around her guess her age. The women are told what has been said about them and then they get a makeover with expensive skin treatments. She also watched a program in which a homosexual man helped fat women get comfortable with their bodies. By the end of the show they lay naked across satin sheets, looking beautiful in their makeup and shining hair, their plump skin glowing and ample, as sensual as a ripe pear.
The bags of noodles crinkled under her thin hands as she ordered them into neat stacks. “And Meimei, she’s too young for you,” said Chen, without turning around to meet his face.
His heart took a dip. She had figured it out, his feelings for Meimei. She had observed him, read his thoughts. He dug a nail into the space between the glass and wood of the countertop.
“You do not love me,” she said, coming close, leaning into his face, the yellow smell of old garlic lingering between them.
“We’re not young anymore,” he said.
“We didn’t marry in the old way,” she said. “The hair combing with the good fortune woman. First comb: From beginning to end. Second: Harmony from now ‘til old age. Third comb: sons and grandsons all over the place. Fourth: good wealth and a long-lasting marriage. How much did we miss in the not combing? Instead we danced and sang to a picture of a man. Did our children die in my hair? Did your eyes get caught by this girl because of its tangles?”
Chen was crying.
“You are talking crazy,” said Li, alarmed. He felt for a moment that perhaps she was right. They had not been blessed with sons, or any children at all, because in his zeal for Mao, he had scoffed at tradition. “People do not do this anymore” he said, despite his self-doubt. “People do not look up at the moon and get their hair combed by a good fortune woman.”
“We did nothing that was mine.”
“You were a good girl. You did what was required.”
“I am a woman.” She knelt and took off her canvas shoes. She peeled off her socks. “And I step on your Chairman, forever, I spit in his face.” Several years after they married, Li was tried for crimes against the Party. He and Chen were subject to hard labor in the country. The bitterness of the years had crushed the willow in the cheongsam. Had her husband demonstrated grief for her, understanding, she might have felt that all they encountered could be endured. But he only had grief for himself.
“I have been here like a dead woman, like a ghost, in your little democracy,” said Chen, indicating the store to Li with a sweep of her arm. “I have been here all the time, and you have never seen me. Now I will go away and you will see me all the time.” She opened the door, the bells tinkling and clanking against the glass, and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Surely she had not gone, thought Li. She was just outside the door, waiting for him to go out and bring her in, to put his arms around her and console her. Something hit the door, and spread out in waves of color. He started with fright. But it was only the kite he had tied up that morning under the store awning. He had allowed it too much string and now it was flapping uncontrollably in the night wind, its tail of colors pressed against the glass like something pinned and desperate. He went to the door. He would free it and Chen would be there. He opened the door gently, but the wind took it and slammed it open, breaking the kite string. The kite toppled down the street, end over end, its long tail looping and fanning out, its vinyl frame bumping clumsily against the asphalt. It crossed traffic lanes and ran over a corner of the sidewalk. It stuck to a concrete telephone pole, then, freeing itself, went through an intersection.
The metal chairs they kept outside the grocery were barren, as if no one had ever sat in them, as if those customers who draped themselves over the tables, eating noodles and rice, enjoying eggrolls in the Florida sunshine, were dreams Li had at night while during the day he lived the life of an insect. He walked down the sidewalk. He called for her. “Chen!” The light turned green and it swayed and winked. The street lights bent to watch the little grocery man in the street, the grocery man without a wife. The tops of the palm trees whipped in a frenzy. The windows of the sidewalk shops kept their unseeing vigil. A police car rolled up beside him and he bent to catch his breath. “Please!” he said to the officers inside. “My wife. She is missing.” He went to the police station, an unrelenting bright place, and filled out a report which would not be filed until the following evening, twenty four hours after her disappearance.
A woman stood behind a counter where he had filled out a report about his missing wife. She had hair that was unnaturally dark for her pale, rouged face. When he handed her the pile of papers she patted his hand. “Sometimes, Mr. Wong, a wife will leave. And sometimes you don’t know why. You can’t always take it personal.”
Chen had never dyed her hair. Li felt as if he had reached some sort of border with this high counter where papers were stamped by an unnatural woman.
“I had a husband once. We split, but then I found another. Something’ll work out, Mr. Wong. Don’t you worry honey.” She put the stack of forms into the mouth of a huge black stapler and banged her fist hard on the metal arm.
In the car, the policemen had assured him that sometimes wives just get away for a while and then come back, that they saw it all the time. All the while, the driving policeman watched Mr. Wong in the rearview mirror. He was a suspect, like on those cop shows. Why had he involved them? And yet, what if something had happened? How would he find her without them? They drove him back to the store. They asked him questions about the store, about Chen, the squeaking leather of their holsters and belts reminding Li of the weapons they carried next to their bodies, the ways they could subdue him to brokenness, death, the way the police marching on Tiananmen Square had subdued innocent protestors. When Tai-shan related the details of the demonstration in his apartment, Li had not believed this was his China, even though he himself had suffered the whims of this Party. Still, Tai-shan had been naïve to believe that the government would treat them as equals with whom to reason. Li had stayed out of the political maelstrom and concentrated on securing a safe passage for himself, Chen, Meimei and her grandmother through an old connection he had made in prison.
“Here we are, Mr. Wong,” said the officer who watched him from the mirror. The car pulled up to the curb before the grocery.
The policemen waited until Li had unlocked the door and was inside. The store would be closed tomorrow, Sunday. He would stay in bed and wait for Chen to come back. He would hear her open the front door of the apartment. She would enter his room and stand beside him while he lay there, pretending to nap, and as she left to prepare his tea, he would smell the outdoors on her clothes.
The next day, he awoke to knocking on his apartment door. It was Meimei. He thought of Chen’s knowledge about his desire for her and it pained him. What had he wanted from this girl who stood on his doorstep, happy in the knowledge of a free day with her rock star? She was so young. She was almost his daughter. She could have been his granddaughter. He felt ashamed and hollowed out, like a dried seed pod.
“My house is very sad, today, Meimei,” he said. “Chen has left.”
She watched his face with her deep onyx eyes. “What do you mean Mr. Wong, what happened?”
“I don’t know. We fought. She left. I went to the police.”
“Have you checked with anyone?”
“You know Chen. She never left the store or the apartment, never went out with anyone, or visited, as far as I know.”
“I should come in.”
“It’s your free day.”
“I should look around. Maybe there are clues.”
“You watch too many cop shows.”
Meimei stepped inside and took off her shoes. She looked around at all the rooms. She got down on her knees and put her face close to floors, checking under beds, the corners of closets, the cabinets under sinks. She rubbed her hand along furniture and windowsills, the fireplace. She smelled the showers and kitchen and dining room, opened the refrigerator. What she saw was that things still appeared separate, mismatched, inoperative. Large pieces of the laminate flooring had pulled away from the baseboards. A light bulb blew out when she turned it on. Curtains would not draw together. The refrigerator contained only sauces and vinegars. It was as she always suspected. Whether Chen was here or far away, there was no together. She returned to Mr. Wong who was sitting on the cracked vinyl recliner in the living room.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wong. I cannot say. I do not know.”
Mr. Wong sat before the black eye of the television.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He stared into the eye, the eye that had projected pictures of buses on fire before his country’s government buildings, the eye that had shown guns firing on students. It had also shown his wife harmful pictures of women standing in boxes and laid out naked on sheets. Was it a sign of good or ill fortune? Did it inform or obscure, prophesy or lie? In its black reflection, he watched Meimei leave to join her American who could also speak Chinese, who would know her in a thousand ways without being obligated to her future.
“I have failed you,” said Li to the box when Meimei closed the door. He wished it would relay this message to Tai-shan, who was by now, he was sure, in the spirit world.
The apartment was thick with silence. He stepped outside. The boxes from Friday’s inventory were squashed and lying beside the dumpster in the back parking lot. He descended the steps and walked through the parking lots behind the adjoining stores – the dressmaker’s, the rattan furniture store, the noodle shop, the import store. These merchants among others along this shopping strip in Orlando, Mr. Wong had come to know through their mutual patronage and customer referrals and he had felt they had built a community of sorts, but one that was always on display, one teetering between full-fledged American entrepreneurship and a tourism sideshow, the nation’s gaudy Chinese collection with interchangeable people and shops and cheap art. Bits and pieces were a part of the American scene – tai chi in the park, feng shui books and consultants, all-you-can-eat Chinese food restaurants, the Chinese pavilion at EPCOT. How was one to be, exactly, what was one supposed to own? What was one to be proud of, what was one to reject? How could one make it clear that one did not accept all this reinterpretation, regurgitation, commercialization of what was once simply beautiful, of what was simply a mystery? And there was almost never any Mr. Wong, Chen, Meimei. It was “Chinese” first and foremost. That “Chinese man.” That “Chinese woman.” That “Chinese grocery couple.” That “Chinese woman who can help houses.”
* First appeared in Best New Writing 2011