The Beauty

AROUND MIDAFTERNOON, the snow thinned into sleet, and some umbrellas appeared on Kissena Boulevard. When the green lights came on, pedestrians skirted or jumped across the puddles gathering at the curbs. Dan Feng stood at the window of his office gazing down at the street lined with fruit and vegetable stands under awnings. The sight reminded him of a closing market fair when people were leaving. Just now his customer had called saying she couldn’t come because of the bad weather, and Dan had phoned the seller of the condo on Forty-fifth Avenue to cancel the appointment. The rest of his afternoon was free.

He looked at his watch—3:10. What should he do? Should he pick up his baby at the day-care center? No, it was too early to call it a day. He decided to drop in on his wife, Gina, at her jewelry store in Flushing Central Mall.

Main Street was bustling, the sidewalks swarming with people pouring out of the subway station, most of them bundled in coats and a few talking on cell phones. Two blond teenage girls, probably twins and each carrying a book bag, walked along hand in hand, wearing skirts that showed their lace-up boots and bare legs. A stink of rotten fruit pinched Dan’s nose, and he hastened his steps and veered onto Roosevelt Avenue. At Chung Hwa Bookstore he picked up World Journal, and with the newspaper under his arm, he entered the mall.

“Where’s Gina?” he asked Sally, the young sales assistant at the jewelry store.

“She’s having her midafternoon break,” she answered, her ponytail wrapped into a bun on top of her head.

“In the back?”

“No, perhaps downstairs.”

Several jade tea sets and pen pots were standing on the counter, and pink-cheeked Sally had been wiping them. Besides jewelry, the store dealt in some knickknacks. Behind her, the shelves displayed crystal horses, boats, swans, lotus flowers, goldfish, various kinds of parrots, cars, airplanes. Downstairs, on the first floor, was the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel, whose bar Gina frequented. With a seething heart Dan hustled toward the escalator, knowing his wife must be with Fooming Yu, the supervisor of the daytime staff at the hotel’s front desk. The lobby was quiet, and in its middle a huge vase of mixed flowers sat on a round, two-level table. The bar was in the back, its glass walls shaded by bamboo curtains. Dan stopped at the door to scan the poorly lit interior. About a dozen tables were each surrounded by chairs, and a petite young woman hunched over the counter, leafing through a magazine, probably Vogue. There they were—Gina was sitting with Fooming in a corner, a tiny table between them. They were the only customers, and they went on chatting without noticing Dan. Gina tittered and said, “That’s really something.”

Dan couldn’t make out what they were talking about. As he was deciding whether to enter, Fooming said to Gina, “Another nut, please, before I go.” He sounded loud and happy.

Gina tossed a cashew, which he caught in his mouth, munching noisily. They both laughed.

“Another,” he begged.

“Good dog.” She chucked a Brazil nut and he snapped up that one too.

Dan turned away, dragging his feet toward the front entrance. He was sure that before he and Gina married Fooming had courted her, but Dan hadn’t taken that flat-faced man as a serious rival at the time. Gina was a noted beauty in Flushing, and even now some men—Asians, whites, Latinos, blacks—would stop by the jewelry store just to look at her. Once in a while someone would offer to take her out, but according to what she had told Dan, she always declined, saying her husband would get jealous like crazy if he knew. Still, why wouldn’t she quit seeing Fooming Yu? “The damned beauty,” Dan muttered to himself as he stepped out of the building. “She cannot change her fickle nature. Well, serves you right. You shouldn’t have chased her that hard in the first place.”

Instead of returning to his office, Dan went to Sunshine Bathhouse on Union Street. The sleet was over, but the weather had become windy and colder, ice crusting on the edges of thawing snowbanks. A Boeing roared overhead, descending toward LaGuardia. The sky was darkening to indigo, and more cars appeared on the street, along which neon lights started flickering. The bathhouse, set in the basement of a two-story building, had recently opened, and it offered a sauna, a steam bath, hot-towel rubdowns, massages, pedicures. Dan paid twenty dollars at the desk, took a key, and went into the locker room. He picked up a towel and held it around his neck for a while. It had just come out of the dryer and was still warm.

Having locked up his clothes and newspaper, slipped the key on his wrist, and wrapped the towel around his waist, he made for the pool. Absentmindedly he got into the warm water. He sat on the submerged step for a moment to get used to the temperature, throwing water on his neck and armpits. He was alone and sank farther—his head rested on the rounded edge of the pool, which could hold seven or eight people and was made entirely of white tiles. He disliked saunas and worried that the dry heat could shrink his facial skin, so he took only a hot bath whenever he was here. It was so relaxing to lounge in the steaming water that he felt lazy, reluctant to scrub himself. His mind was clouded with questions and doubts. How he resented the intimacy between Gina and Fooming. Ever since the birth of their daughter, Jasmine, a year ago, he had harbored misgivings about his wife’s fidelity. Their baby was homely, with thin eyes and a wide mouth, and took after neither Gina nor himself. Gina was tall and lissome, having a straight nose, double-lidded eyes, a delicate mouth, and silken skin. Dan was also handsome. People often complimented him on his good looks, which boasted shiny eyes, a high nose, and a head of bushy hair. There were always envious glances at him and his wife when they were together at a public place. So how could their daughter be so plain? In his mind a voice would murmur, “She’s not mine, she’s not mine.” Sometimes he imagined that Fooming was Jasmine’s blood father; at least their small eyes and round chins resembled each other. That could also explain why Gina wouldn’t stop seeing the man.

Several times Dan had urged her to steer clear of Fooming, but she always assured him that there was nothing unusual between them and that she kept up her acquaintance with Fooming only because they were both from Jinhua, a medium-size city in Zhejiang Province. “You should have a larger heart,” she told Dan.

Whenever he ran into Fooming, the man would grin and narrow his eyes at him. His knowing smile unsettled Dan, as if Fooming meant to say, “I know more about your wife than you do, from head to toe. I’ve made you wear horns, but what can you do about me, dumb ass?”

Before Jasmine was born, Dan had never given much thought to Fooming. Dan used to view him as a no-account loser who, though four or five years his junior and just promoted to foreman in charge of three staffers, perhaps made no more than twelve dollars an hour. By contrast, Dan owned a real estate company and had a team of agents working for him. Almost thirty-seven, he was mature and steady. Experience and maturity, if not as magical as a sense of humor, could work to an older man’s advantage. From the very beginning, Dan believed there’d be no chance for Fooming, and several others, to win Gina’s heart as long as he himself was a competitor. Yet the scene at the bar an hour earlier had unnerved and enraged him. If only he hadn’t rushed to marry Gina after she told him she was pregnant with his child. She may have lied to him.

A tubby man came into the pool room with a hand towel over his shoulder. He boomed, “Would you like to have your feet scraped and massaged, sir?”

Startled, Dan sat up. “What time is it?”

“A quarter to five.”

“I need to go. Sorry, no pedicure today.”

“That’s all right.” The man puttered to the next room to ask others.

Dan climbed out of the pool and went to take a rinsing shower. On his way back to the locker room, passing by the massage area, he heard a male voice moaning in one of the small rooms whose doors were all shut. “Oh yes, oh yes!” the man kept saying.

Then came a sugary female voice. “Feel good, right? Hmmm … nice …”

Dan wondered if the woman was giving more than a massage in there. Probably she’d also given the guy a hand job for a bigger tip. Dan glanced at the sign standing before the entrance, which said, “For massage, please make an appointment beforehand!”

He threw on his clothes and parka and left the bathhouse. He had to pick up his daughter at five.

That evening, after their baby fell asleep, Dan and Gina sat down in the living room and talked. He put his tea mug on the glass coffee table and said, “I saw you playing a doggy game with Fooming Yu in the Sheraton bar this afternoon. ‘Another nut, please, before I go.’ I heard him say that and saw you feed nuts to him.”

Gina blushed, pursing her lips. “It wasn’t even a game. There’s nothing between him and me. You shouldn’t make too much of it.”

“How many times have I told you to avoid that man?”

“I can’t just snub him. We’ve known each other for many years.”

“Listen, I understand you had a number of boyfriends before we married. I don’t mind that as long as you remain a faithful wife.”

“Are you implying I’m cheating on you?”

“Why do you still carry on with Fooming Yu? Tell me, does he have something to do with Jasmine?”

“He doesn’t know her. What are you getting at?”

“That doesn’t mean he couldn’t father her.”

“For heaven’s sake, she’s yours! If you don’t believe me, you can give her a DNA test.”

“That I won’t do. It wouldn’t be fair to the baby. I can accept her as my child, all right, but you mustn’t humiliate me further.”

“When did I ever humiliate you?”

“You keep seeing Fooming Yu.”

“To be honest, I’m not interested in him, but he often drops into my store. I can’t just shoo him away.”

“Why not?”

“I told you over and over again, he’s my townsman. This is getting nowhere.” She stood up. “I have to go to bed. I’m so tired. Jasmine will wake up soon, and I’d better catch a bit of sleep when I can. Good night.” She moved toward the bedroom in which their baby was sleeping.

“Night,” he said blandly.

He sighed and refilled his mug with tea from a clay pot. Seated on his rattan chair, he resumed skimming some articles on a Web site where people had been arguing about whether it was appropriate for a seventy-five-year-old celebrity, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, to marry a woman of twenty-eight. Dan’s mind couldn’t focus on the writings. Deep down he felt unable to trust his wife, who still seemed interested in other men. She must be one of those women who couldn’t enjoy life without having a few men dangling around. If only he’d kept her home. He regretted having helped her set up the jewelry store, which had cost him more than forty thousand dollars.

Most of the articles on the Web site condemned the scientist as an irresponsible old man who set a bad example for the younger generations, but some praised him for being romantic and having a youthful spirit. The two sides, somehow knowing most of the authors’ real names despite the pseudonyms they used, argued furiously and dished out muck that should have remained undisturbed in the cellars of their opponents’ past. Dan was not interested in their wrangling. He couldn’t stop thinking about his wife. He reasoned with himself, You asked for trouble. You were too foolish, running after her like a rutting animal. Sure, you won the beauty like a trophy, but it came with a price, with endless headaches and other men’s envy. Now you’ve lost peace of mind, just like the Nobel laureate whose fame has robbed him of his privacy.

Dan yawned and rubbed his eyes. He shut off the computer, went to brush his teeth in the bathroom, and then turned into the other bedroom. He and his wife slept separately because he often worked deep into the night and because she wanted to sleep with their baby.

The next day Dan made an appointment with Sherlock Holmes, Inc., on Fortieth Road. On the phone the agent sounded eager, saying they handled all kinds of investigations, like private property, spousal infidelity, personal histories, family backgrounds. Dan agreed to go to the office after showing a town house to an old Taiwanese couple who planned to move to Flushing from Switzerland because they could find genuine Chinese food here.

The detective agency’s office was above a hair salon and photo studio. A slight, bespectacled man received him, saying, “Well, my friend, what can I do for you?”

Dan explained the purpose of his visit. Though dubious about the scantily bearded man and his one-horse firm, he didn’t know another place in Queens offering this sort of service. “How many hands do you have here, Mr. Kwan?”

“We have people all over the world. We do investigations in America, Asia, Europe, Australia, and parts of Africa, basically on every continent except for the Arctic and the Antarctic.”

“Really?” Dan pulled an index card out of his hip pocket and handed it to the agent. “I want to know these two people’s personal histories. They were both from Jinhua City.”

Mr. Kwan looked at the card while his small hand twisted a felt-tip pen. “This shouldn’t be difficult. We have connections all over China, and I can get them to look into this. Let’s see, we have their names, ages, and education, but do you know their families’ current addresses in Jinhua?”

“No. Gina said all her folks were dead. I doubt it, though.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll look it up. Anything else you want to know besides their personal histories?”

“I suspect the two might be having an affair. Can you keep an eye on them? Also, get some concrete evidence if they cross the line.”

“We can do that.”

Mr. Kwan put the index card on his huge table, the kind advertised as “a CEO’s desk,” which had recently come into fashion. This one reminded Dan of a glossy coffin. The agent itemized the cost of the investigation. On top of a three-hundred-dollar retainer and a fee of fifty dollars an hour, the client was obliged to pay for transportation, hotel, drinks, meals, and any other expenditure incurred by the detective when working on the case. This was standard, he assured Dan. Dan signed the agreement and wrote him a check.

As Mr. Kwan got up to see him to the door, Dan was amazed to find him so short, barely five foot one. Isn’t his small physique too eye-catching? he wondered. At most Mr. Kwan could be a featherweight sleuth. He should have been an accountant or a software specialist—a sedentary job would suit him better.

For days Jasmine had a fever. She would cry at night, which disturbed Dan and kept him awake even in his separate room. Gina had taken her to the doctor, who prescribed some drugs, but she wouldn’t give them to the baby. Instead, she fed her warm water frequently, saying this was Jasmine’s grandmother’s remedy. Since birth, the child had run a temperature every month or two, but every time Gina had managed to make her well without using any medicine.

Jasmine had begun to walk. According to folklore, a baby’s tongue follows its legs, meaning when it can walk it will start to talk. But Jasmine, already able to toddle from one end of the room to the other, could speak only one word: “Baba” (Daddy), which thrilled Dan whenever he heard her say it. He would coax her into saying it again and again. He loved her, especially when she was happy and lively, wanting to sit on his belly or ride on his back. Even so, at times he couldn’t help but wonder about her paternity. In addition to her frequent fevers, Jasmine seldom slept at night and always cried or played until the small hours. Dan had once accompanied his wife to Dr. Cohen, the pediatrician, a middle-aged woman with a gaunt face. The doctor advised that they leave their daughter alone whenever she hollered and just let her bawl. Once exhausted, she would learn it was no use crying for attention and would mend her ways. This would also train her to be independent. But Gina wouldn’t follow Dr. Cohen’s instructions, and the moment Jasmine started crying, she’d croon, “Mummy’s coming, just a second.” She’d pick her up and cradle her, walking up and down the room. Sometimes she’d pace the floor for three or four hours. Her maternal patience amazed Dan, who would replace her on some nights so that she could sleep a little before daybreak. Whenever he urged her to leave the bawling baby alone, she would say, “It’s too early to build her sense of independence.” She was afraid their child might feel neglected and unloved.

Tonight Jasmine simply wouldn’t quit crying. Neither would she let her mother sit down or stop singing nursery rhymes. In a sleepy voice Gina was humming a song Dan vaguely remembered—“Come on, Little Bunny, / Open the door to your mummy …” He pulled the comforter over his face, but still heard the baby bawling. Try as he might, he couldn’t go to sleep.

He got up, went to the other bedroom, and said to his wife, “Can’t you give her a sleeping pill or something? Just to make her stop.”

“No. That might damage her brain.”

“The little bitch. She wants to torture us. I have a meeting tomorrow morning, actually in a couple hours.”

“I’m sorry, I have to work too.”

“Damn her! She does nothing but sleep at the day care, Mrs. Espada told me. She’s like a model baby there.”

“She has just reversed her sense of day and night.”

“Put her down! Let her cry as much as she wants.”

“Honey, don’t be so nasty. She’ll quiet down soon.”

Her gentle voice checked his temper. He closed the door and returned to his room. He used to dream of having an angelic child whose beauty would spread over everything in their home. It wouldn’t matter whether the baby was a boy or girl as long as it took after Gina or himself. Now slitty-eyed Jasmine had marred his picture of the ideal family.

He kept yawning at the meeting the next morning. One of his colleagues teased him, “You must’ve exerted yourself too hard last night.”

“Be careful, Dan,” another chimed in. “You shouldn’t act like a newlywed.”

People at the conference table cracked up while Dan shook his head. “My daughter’s ill and cried most of the night,” he muttered.

Everybody turned silent at the mention of the baby. They had all seen Jasmine and some had raised the question of whom she looked like. Their silence sent a wave of resentment over Dan, but he restrained himself because they were discussing how to acquire an old warehouse in Forest Hills and convert it into condominiums. He was eager to move out of Flushing. It’s public school system wasn’t too bad, but the whole area was isolated culturally—it didn’t even have an English bookstore. Galleries appeared and then disappeared, and there was only one small theater, managed by his friend Elbert Chang. Most immigrants here didn’t bother to use English in everyday life. Anywhere you turned, you saw restaurants, beauty parlors, retail stores, travel agencies, law offices—nothing but businesses. New arrivals had made little effort to protect the environment, or perhaps they were too desperate for survival to worry about that. Dan feared that his neighborhood would deteriorate into a slum, so he was determined to see the plan for converting the warehouse succeed. He was sure that some of his colleagues also hoped to buy the condos the company wanted to build in Forest Hills.

•    •    •

Jasmine got well within a week, but Gina was still unhappy about Dan’s suspicion. She wouldn’t reproach him but avoided speaking to him. Her reticence angered him more. He thought to himself, You think you’re a good woman? I know what you’ve been doing on the sly. Wait and see—I’m going to find out about you.

One evening Gina came home with a flushed face. At the sight of Dan with their daughter sitting on his lap, she stopped at the door for a moment, then stepped in. She hung up her navy blue coat in the closet and sat down on the sofa opposite him. “You’re ridiculous,” she said.

“What’s that about?” he asked.

“You hired a midget to follow Fooming and me.”

Abashed, Dan didn’t know how to respond, but instantly he recovered his presence of mind. “If there’s no monkey business between you two, why should you mind?”

“Let me tell you, your detective botched his mission. Fooming roughed him up and gave him a bloody nose.”

“Damn it, it’s against the law to beat a professional agent!”

“Give me a break. The man was eavesdropping on us. He violated our privacy first.”

“Your privacy? What is it that’s so private between Fooming Yu and you?”

“You’re insane. You hired that man to make a scene in public.”

“You just said it was Fooming Yu who made a display of himself. Where did this happen?”

“In Red Chopstick.”

“You’re a married woman, but you dined with a bachelor in a restaurant on a busy street. Who’s insane?”

“How many times have I told you he and I are just friends?”

“Then neither of you should’ve been upset by Mr. Kwan’s inquiry.”

“It was foolish of you to use that man. He’s too attractive—I mean he attracts too much attention.”

Dan cackled. “But as your husband, I cannot hold back my curiosity.”

“All right, your detective is out. Fooming threatened to strangle him if Kwan came near him again.” She got up and went into the kitchen despite Jasmine’s reaching out for her and crying “Mama.” In no time pots, pans, and bowls began clattering in there, mixed with Gina’s sobs. “I’m cursed, cursed!” she kept saying.

The baby had started to call her “Mama” two days before. When she said that for the first time, Gina couldn’t help her joyous tears, but now in the kitchen, her weeping was punctuated with sniffles.

A sharp tingle ran over Dan’s scalp. If only he hadn’t moved in with her before he’d had to propose to her, thanks to the child she claimed was his. Marriage seemed to have trapped both of them.

Two days later Dan went to see Mr. Kwan. A pair of Band-Aids crossed each other on the agent’s cheek, but he was all smiles and very effusive. Dan apologized for the trouble Mr. Kwan had run into at Red Chopstick, but the man assured him, “It’s not unusual to encounter violence in my profession. No big deal.”

Outside, a vehicle honked, and a policeman barked through a megaphone, “Stop! Stop right there!” Then a fire engine surged by. A toilet flushed upstairs, a pipe hissed.

Mr. Kwan resumed speaking as if thinking aloud to himself. “I’m puzzled in a way. I’m pretty sure I knew your wife—she used to be my client.”

“You mean she knew you too?”

“Correct. She recognized me in the restaurant. That’s how Fooming Yu figured out I was working for you. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I thought you might want to know—before you two married, your bride asked me to do a background check on you.”

“Did you find any dirt in my past?”

“Not really. You’re a clean man. You joined the Communist Party in the mid-eighties, but when the Tiananmen Massacre happened, you renounced your Party membership publicly, in World Journal. That wiped your slate clean.”

Dan was impressed by the accuracy of the information. He was amazed too that his renouncement fifteen years ago was still shaping his life. He felt lucky that he had washed his hands of the Communist Party, even though he still couldn’t fully grasp the significance of his act. He had renounced the Party membership mainly out of indignation at the carnage of civilians. Then everything seemed to work out to his advantage—he encountered no difficulty in getting a green card, and the FBI didn’t have him under surveillance. “I see,” he said to the agent. “Are you still going to keep your eye on Gina and Fooming Yu for me?”

“I can’t do that anymore, but someone will step into my shoes. This new guy is an ex-cop and has a black belt in karate. Even if Fooming Yu loses his head again, he won’t dare to touch our man.”

“Excellent. Have you found anything unusual between him and Gina?”

“Not yet. Except for the lunch date when they squabbled over something I couldn’t figure out, they haven’t done anything. Here’s a copy of the information on your man, but for some reason our connections in China could find nothing about your wife and her family. Her personal history is a blank. This really boggles the mind. Gina is a beautiful woman. Usually such a beauty cannot live in a place without being noticed. I wonder if she’s really from Jinhua. Anyhow, we’ve made little headway in her case, but we’re still at it. I’d guess her original name was not Gina Liu.”

“Why would she change her name?”

“Usually it’s a way to get rid of something infamous in one’s past. But your wife’s case doesn’t look like that. Although she must hate me, I won’t say she’s a bad woman. By the way, here’s my report on the expenses. Believe me, I don’t feel good about the lunch and the beer, but I had to hang around in Red Chopstick. Also, I bought a copy of Forbes while following them at a newsstand.”

“Don’t worry about that.” Dan glanced through the figures and wrote a check for $429.58.

He picked up the brown envelope containing the report on Fooming and took his leave. Back in his office, he went through the sheets of information and was pleased by the thoroughness of the investigation. Fooming’s parents were still living in a suburban village outside Jinhua, growing vegetables and raising crabs. No wonder Fooming had such a bumpkin name. The man had two sisters and a brother, who all had their own families and lived in Jinhua. Before coming to the United States seven years ago, he had worked as a mechanic at a railroad company and also headed his workshop’s branch of the Communist League. Apparently he had overstayed his tourist visa but managed to become a legal resident; his status must have been established through purchasing some fake papers, though that was too complicated to prove. At the moment he was in the process of applying for a green card. This was a natural step, since the police station in Jinhua had revoked his urban residency and he couldn’t go back anymore. Nothing was extraordinary in the report, yet Dan grew more curious about Fooming’s political record back in China. He called Mr. Kwan, praised the quality of the information, saying it was “a CIA job,” and asked him if Fooming had been a Party member. The agent said that couldn’t be verified and would depend on the size of his former workshop. If the work unit was large, Fooming, as the head of its branch of the Communist League, must have been a Party member; if it was small, he didn’t have to be. But his workshop had been merged with other units long ago, so it would be hard to find out its original size.

Dan leaned back in his chair and lapsed into thought. Why did Gina’s past remain blank? Where was she really from? What was her true name? She might indeed have been from Jinhua if Fooming Yu was her townsman, as she had told Dan he was. She spoke Mandarin with a susurrant accent, which meant she was a southerner originally. Dan had asked her about her family before they married, but she said they had all been killed in a derailed train accident and she was left alone in this world. “Don’t you feel lucky to have a wife without any family baggage?” she countered, smiling sadly. “You don’t need to buy any gifts for your parents-in-law.”

The more Dan brooded about Gina, the more baffled he became. He could not believe she didn’t have even one relative in China or America.

Dan’s business had picked up after the Spring Festival. He was busy, and every week he clinched at least one sale. The immigrants loved buying real estate, and many would pay cash since they were unable to get a mortgage from the bank; at times several people, usually family members and relatives, would pool their money to buy a place so that they could all have shelter. The spring’s good start at Dan’s agency might signify another banner year. Some days he couldn’t leave his office until eight or nine p.m. As the head of the company, he ought to make more sales than most of the agents to justify his leadership, so he always worked hard.

One evening, at the beginning of April, he finished a little early. As he was heading toward his Buick parked under a flowering laurel magnolia behind the office building, he saw four young men, three Asians and one Latino, standing by his car. They all wore flattops, black T-shirts, olive-drab pants, and work boots. At the sight of Dan, one of them kicked the driver’s-side door.

“Hey, don’t damage my property!” Dan yelled.

“Is this your car?” the tallest of them asked, a half-smoked cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

“Yes. Guys, don’t do this to me.”

The shortest of them, whose crown showed a “landing strip” cut, booted the Buick again. Dan got furious and shouted, “Hey, hey, stop it!”

Suddenly the fierce-eyed Latino pulled a steel bar out of his pant leg and started smashing the windshield. Dan was transfixed, speechless, while the other three thugs all produced short rebars and began hitting the car. In a minute all its windows were shattered, and so were the front lights.

At last Dan regained his speech. “Guys, why do this to me? Give me a reason at least.”

The tall, thin-waisted man stepped over, wagging his forefinger, and said with a lopsided smile, “You wanna know why? ’Cause you’re too nosy.”

“What are you talking about? This is a new car. Hey, please, no more!”

“You really didn’t get it? Let me tell you, quit using a private dick. No cop’s gonna save your ass.”

“You got the wrong man. You can’t destroy my property like this.”

“Oh yeah? Damn you, this will give you a better idea.” The Latino rushed up and hit Dan on the forehead with his steel bar.

Dan fell to the ground and blacked out. They each gave him a few kicks before bolting away.

When Dan came to, he found himself lying on a gurney moving down a hallway in Flushing Hospital. Two paramedics, a man and a woman, were pushing him to the ER. They walked unhurriedly, as if strolling. Dan touched his forehead, which was bandaged; he twisted his head; his neck was stiff, but his mind was clear. He realized that someone must have dialed 911, which dispatched the ambulance. Gina was walking beside him with her narrow hand on the side of the gurney. Her eyes were puffy, still tearful. “How do you feel, sweetie?” she asked.

“I’m okay.” Dan sat up and huffed out a breath.

“No, lie down.”

“I’m really okay.”

In the ER a young woman doctor examined him briefly and found no serious injury—he didn’t need stitches—so she discharged him after giving him a CAT scan and telling Gina to keep applying ice to his bruise. If he felt dizzy, she said, he must come back without delay. He promised to do that. Gina supported him as they walked out of the hospital building and flagged down a cab. Amazingly, despite the injury, he was fully alert, as wired as if he had just downed a few espressos. How odd. He hoped he could sleep well that night.

After a wonton dinner, the couple remained sitting at the table. Gina, shamefaced, held Jasmine to her breast while she listened to Dan. Now and again she sucked in her breath, her nipple bitten by the baby. Having recalled as much as he could of the incident in the parking lot behind his office building, Dan concluded, “It was Fooming Yu who sent the thugs to smash our car and attack me. Thank God my bones are strong, or they could’ve kicked me to pieces.”

“Believe me, I had nothing to do with this. I knew he was mean, but I never thought he’d go that far. What are you going to do?”

“What do you think I should do?”

“Will you press charges?”

“With all the thugs at large, how can I prove that Fooming Yu was behind the attack? Actually, what troubles me most is not him but you.”

“Me? How do you mean?”

“What’s your true relationship with him?”

“He’s just a fellow townsman, no more than that.”

“Stop lying to me. I feel I don’t know you anymore. Tell me who you are. I can no longer live with a wife who’s like a stranger to me. This home is becoming a torture chamber, too much!”

A prolonged silence filled the room. Gina got up, handed him the baby, then went into her bedroom. Dan sighed and put his elbow on the table to rest his head on his hand, but the instant his forehead touched his palm, a jolt of pain forced him to sit up. Gina came back and put a small white envelope before him. She said, “Look at what’s inside; you’ll see the truth.”

Is it a passport or a love letter? Dan wondered. To his surprise, he took out a bunch of photos of an ugly woman with beady eyes, a bulbous nose, and a broad, thick-lipped mouth. Her face was roundish, though her eyebrows curved like a pair of crescents. “Who’s this?” he asked, a bit revolted.

“It was me. After I came to America I went through a series of plastic surgeries over the years. They changed me completely, into this woman.” She pointed her thumb at her chest. “They cost me every penny I made. I used to live in Chicago, and Fooming was there too and saw my gradual transformation.”

For a moment Dan was too flummoxed to speak. He handed her the baby, then asked, “Are you really from Jinhua?”

“Yes. I went to the same middle school as Fooming’s sister. That’s how he got to know me.”

“Is your family all dead?”

“Yes, except a half brother, but he lives in the countryside and we have no contact.”

“You gave me a raw deal, a raw deal! No wonder Jasmine is so homely. Tell me the truth—is she my child?”

“Yes. I’ve always been faithful to you.”

“Still, you tricked me into this marriage.”

“I don’t feel good about it. That’s why I won’t keep you in the dark anymore. Now you can do to me what you will, but please don’t tell anyone my secret. This is the only favor I ask of you.”

“You can’t go on deceiving others. In fact, you’ve deceived yourself.”

“No, I love my beauty. It’s the best thing America gave me. Finally I have a face that matches my figure and skin.”

A voice shouted in his mind, That’s not beauty, that’s fraudulence!—but he didn’t let that out. He asked instead, “Why can’t you disentangle yourself from Fooming Yu? Because he knows your past?”

“Yes. He often hints at my secret. In fact, he keeps asking me to find him a girlfriend and saying he’s miserable and lonely. Sometimes I feel sorry for him. I guess he’ll let me be once he has a woman. I did introduce him to Sally, but she didn’t like him. For some reason no woman’s interested in him. That’s why he’s still stuck on me.”

“But you’re not his girlfriend!” He got up and started pacing the floor. Now and again he giggled and sighed, shaking his head. Outside the window the sky was scattered with ragged clouds, one of which was drifting across the rusty face of the moon. Below the clouds four or five bats were doing acrobatic stunts.

Dan’s walking and laughter unsettled Gina. She begged, “Stop, please! If you want a divorce, I won’t be opposed to it as long as you let me keep Jasmine.”

“No way. She’s mine and I love her no matter how ugly she is!” He lowered his chin, his eyes flashing. He breathed, “I want to keep these photos.”

“Please don’t show them to others!”

“I’m not that low.”

At those words Gina broke into sobs. “Dan, I love you. I know you’re a true gentleman. I promise not to speak to Fooming again. I will be a good wife and make you proud.”

“No pride of that sort can swell my head again. Tell me, what’s your real name?”

“Lai Hsu.”

“What’s that? It doesn’t even sound like a woman’s name.”

“I was born overdue, so my parents named me Lai. Together with Hsu my name means ‘arrived slowly.’”

“Why did you change your name?”

“I felt I became a new person and wanted to start afresh.”

“So only Fooming Yu knew your past, huh? Does he have something else on you?”

“No. He’s a vampire I can’t shake off of me.”

Gina buried her face in her arms, weeping, while their daughter cried, “Mama, Mama.” The child kept pulling her mother’s ear.

•    •    •

The meeting between Dan and Fooming took place the next afternoon, in the bar of the Sheraton Hotel. After tea was served, Dan said to him calmly, “I want you to leave my wife alone.”

“What if I don’t comply?” Fooming arched an eyebrow as if in surprise.

Unhurriedly Dan took a photo of Gina out of his inside jacket pocket and put it before Fooming, who glanced at it but didn’t say a word. Dan went on, “You have nothing on her now. I know how ugly she was, but I’ve accepted her as my wife.”

“I see. What a benevolent hubby.” Fooming grinned contemptuously. “I always do what I want to and nobody can push me around.”

“Listen,” Dan said, fighting down his temper, “I know everything about you. You worked for five years as a mechanic in Jinhua Railroad Company.”

“So? Why should I be ashamed of my humble origin?”

“More than that, you headed your workshop’s branch of the Communist League. That means you were a Party member.” The last sentence was just a guess, but Dan said it firmly. “You know, a communist is not supposed to set foot in the U.S. unless he’s a state dignitary.”

Fooming swallowed. His face paled and his eyes dropped. For a while he remained mute as if striving to recall something. Sweat beaded on his pointed nose. Then he rasped, “You can’t prove that.”

“But the FBI can. They can also deport you.”

“Don’t play the superior in front of me. You were a Party member too.”

“True, but I renounced my membership publicly in 1989. That made me a clean man in this country. Besides, I’m already naturalized—I’m no longer a deportable foreigner like you.”

Fooming lifted his teacup, but his hand was shaking so much that a few drops fell on his lap. He put the cup down without drinking the tea. He picked up a paper napkin and dabbed the wet spots on his pants. Dan got up and left the bar without another word, knowing the man would have to sit there for a while to let his pants dry.

That night Fooming called and promised he wouldn’t bother Gina anymore. He insisted that he wanted to renounce his Party membership too, but couldn’t do that publicly for fear of ruining his siblings' lives in China. He begged Dan not to inform on him, which Dan agreed to.

Fooming kept his word and never turned up at the jewelry store again. Life finally became normal for Dan and Gina. However, Dan took to frequenting the bathhouse, and whenever he went there he would make an appointment with one of the pretty masseuses beforehand. Sometimes he stayed late in his office on purpose, reluctant to go home.