THE FLYER SAID, “The applicant must be able to teach various subjects, including the preparation for the SAT. Payment is most generous.” I answered the ad in the morning and was told to come for an interview that evening. The woman on the phone, Eileen Min, said her daughter needed a tutor right away. At the same time, she admitted she had seen seven or eight applicants, but none of them was suitable. She would pay forty dollars an hour, which was very attractive given my other prospects.
I was being paid to do research for the professor directing my master’s thesis, but I needed another job for the summer to make enough for my tuition and living expenses in the fall. Without my parents’ support, I had managed to complete one year’s graduate study. There was still another year to go. I had started working on my thesis, about Jacob Riis and his effort to eradicate urban slums. My mother had called a week before and said it was not too late for me to go to a professional school, for which my parents would happily pay. I had again rejected the offer, saying I intended to apply to a PhD program in American history. My father, a successful plastic surgeon in Seattle, had always opposed my plan. He urged me to go into medicine or law or even politics—clerking for a congressman—because to him history wasn’t a real profession. “Anyone can be a historian if he has read enough books,” he’d say. “What do you want to be, a professor? Anyone can make more than a professor.” I would remain silent while he spoke, understanding that as long as I was in the humanities I would be on my own. In my heart I despised my father as a typical philistine. He was ashamed of me, and his friends talked about me as a loser. I knew he might cut me out of his will. That didn’t bother me; I wouldn’t mind becoming a poor scholar.
I set out at around six thirty p.m. Eileen Min lived at 48 Folk Avenue, not far from my place, about fifteen minutes’ walk. There were more pedestrians in downtown Flushing since the summer started, many of them foreign tourists or visitors from the suburban towns who came to shop or to dine in the small restaurants offering the foods of their left-behind homes. The store signs, most bearing Chinese characters, reminded me of a bustling shopping district in Shenyang. So many immigrants live and work here that you needn’t speak English to get around. I stopped at the newsstand manned by a Pakistani, picked up the day’s World Journal, and then turned onto Forty-first Avenue. A scrawny teenage girl strode toward me, dragged by a Doberman. The dog stopped at a maple sapling and urinated fitfully on the box encasing the base of the tree. The girl stood by, waiting for her dog to finish. Along the sidewalk every young tree was protected by the same tall red box.
Folk Avenue was easy to find, just a few blocks from College Point Boulevard. Number 48 was a two-story brick bungalow with a glassed-in porch. Beside a two-car garage grew a large oak tree, and behind a small tool shed in the backyard stretched a high fence of wooden boards. Despite the close proximity of the downtown and the houses crowded together in the neighborhood, this property stood out idyllically. I rang the doorbell, and a slender woman of medium height in a shirtwaist dress answered. I was amazed when she introduced herself as Eileen Min and said we had spoken that morning. To my mind, it was unlikely that such a young-looking woman could have a daughter attending high school.
She led me into her house. I was impressed by the furniture in the spacious living room, all redwood, elegant and delicate in design, like antiques. A vase of stargazer lilies sat on a credenza on the far side. On the wall above it hung a photo of a lean-faced man, middle-aged with mild eyes and a jutting forehead, his hairline receded to his crown. I sat on a leather sofa, and Eileen Min told me, “That’s my late husband. He died three months ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sami, pour some tea for Mr. Hong.” She said this to a teenage girl who was in a corner using a computer.
“No need to trouble yourself,” I said to Sami, who rose without looking our way.
The girl headed for the kitchen. She was wearing orange slippers, and her calf-length skirt showed her thin ankles. Like her mother, she was slim, but one or two inches shorter, and she too had a fine figure. She quickly returned with a cup of tea and put it beside me. “Thanks a lot,” I said.
She didn’t say a word but looked me in the face, her eyebrows tilting a little toward her temples as if she were being naughty. Then she turned and entered a bedroom off the hall, her slippers squeaking on the glossy wood floor. She left her door ajar, apparently to listen in on our conversation. I produced my student ID card and my GRE scores. “These are my credentials,” I told Eileen.
She examined the card. “So you’re a graduate student at Queens College. What’s this?”
“The results of the test for graduate studies; every applicant must take it. See, I got 720 in English and 780 in math.”
“What’s the perfect score?”
“Eight hundred in each subject.”
“That’s impressive. Forgive me for asking, but if you’re so strong in math, why didn’t you study science?”
“Actually I was torn between history and biology during my freshman year at NYU.” I told her the truth. “Then I decided on history because I wouldn’t want to depend on a lab for my work. If you do history, all you need is time and a good library.”
“Also brains. Is history what you’re studying now?”
“Yes, American urban history.” I lifted the tea and took a sip. Then I caught Sami observing us from her room, through the gap at the door. She saw me noticing her and withdrew immediately.
Eileen beamed, her face shiny with a pinkish sheen and her almond-shaped eyes glowing. She said, “I promised Sami’s father that I’d help her get into a good college. Tell me, can you help my daughter score high on the SAT?”
“Sure. I tutored my cousin two years ago, and he’s a freshman at Caltech now.”
She decided to hire me. I would start the next day. Since I was still taking summer courses, I could come only in the evenings. Before I left, Eileen called Sami out to greet me as her teacher. The girl came over and said with a nod of her head, “Thank you for helping me, Mr. Hong.”
“Just call me Dave,” I told her.
“Okay, see you tomorrow, Dave,” she said pleasantly, and grinned. Her button nose crinkled.
Coming out of the Mins’ house, I felt relieved. I would teach Sami five times a week, including Saturday evenings. I no longer needed to worry about my summer income.
Sami was seventeen, and not as slow as I had expected. She was bright, but her grasp of math was shaky owing to some missed classes during her sophomore year, which had left holes in her knowledge. Those holes had expanded. She had been depressed in recent months about her father’s death and unable to pay attention in class. To help her better understand basic algebra and trigonometry, we reviewed the first two years of high school math. As for English, I focused on enlarging her vocabulary and teaching her how to write clearly and expressively. This was easy, since I had taught grammar and composition before. In addition, I assigned her a list of books to read, mainly novels and plays.
Sometimes Sami was quite mischievous. She’d sniff at my arm or hair, then joke, “You smell so strange, like an animal, but that’s what I like about you.” At first her words embarrassed me, but gradually I got used to her playfulness. She’d wink at me, her eyes rolling and her lashes fluttering, and she talked a lot about recent movies and TV shows. I treated her strictly as a pupil; to me she was a child.
When we worked, the door of her room was always open, and I occasionally noticed Eileen eavesdropping on us. I tried to act professionally. Whenever Sami was occupied with an assignment, I would go into the living room to chat a little with her mother, who was always pleased when I did. Eileen would treat me to tea, cookies, nuts, candied fruits. Sometimes I felt she was waiting for me.
I enjoyed spending time with the Mins in their warm and comforting home. My own small studio apartment was lonely. I’d sit by myself, reading or working on my thesis, wondering what sort of life this was. If I fell ill tomorrow, what would happen to me? If I died, where would I be buried? Unless my parents came to claim my body, I might be cremated and my ashes discarded God-knows-where. I had once known a young Filipino who was killed in a traffic accident. He had signed the back of his driver’s license, agreeing to be an organ donor, so his body was shipped to a hospital to have the organs and tissues harvested and then it was burned and his ashes mailed to his parents in Mindanao. At least that’s what I heard. I still don’t know with certainty what happened.
It was difficult to date someone in Flushing, especially if you wanted a long-term, serious relationship, because most people would work here in the daytime and then return home. Those living here didn’t plan to stay for long. It was as if their current residences were merely a transitory step to someplace else. I’d had two girlfriends before, but each had left me. The memories of those breakups stung me whenever I attempted to get close to another woman.
One evening I arrived at the Mins’ a little early. They were just sitting down to dinner. Eileen asked me if I’d eaten. I said, “I’m fine.”
My tone must have been hesitant, for she sensed my stomach was empty and beckoned to me: “Come and eat with us.”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
“Listen to my mom, Dave,” Sami urged. “She’s your boss.”
Eileen went on, “Please. If you don’t mind.”
I stopped resisting, sat down beside Sami, and picked up the chopsticks Eileen had placed before me. Dinner was simple: chicken curry, tomato salad sprinkled with sugar, baked anchovies, and plain rice. I liked the food, though. It was the first time I’d eaten baked anchovies, which were crispy and quite salty. Eileen explained, “It’s healthier to eat small fish nowadays. Big fish have too much mercury in them.”
“This is really tasty,” I said.
“Wait until you have it every day,” Sami piped up. “It’ll make you sick just to look at it.”
As we ate, Eileen kept spooning chicken cubes into my bowl, which seemed to annoy Sami. “Mom,” she said, “Dave’s not a baby.”
“Sure. I’m just happy to have someone eating with us finally.” Eileen turned to me and added, “Actually, you’re the first person to sit with us at this table since March.”
We were quiet for a moment. Then she said, “Tell me, Dave, which one of you cooks, you or your girlfriend?”
“At the moment I don’t have a girlfriend, Aunt.” I called her that out of politeness, though she was just half a generation older. I felt my face burning and saw Sami’s eyes suddenly gleaming. Then she gave me a smile that displayed her tiny canines.
“Don’t call me ‘Aunt,’” her mother said. “Just ‘Eileen’ is fine.”
“Then why don’t you eat with us when you come to teach Sami in the evenings? That’ll save you some time.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Sami stepped in and said, “My mom’s a wonderful cook. Accept the offer, Dave.”
“Thank you,” I said to Eileen. “In that case, you can pay me less for teaching Sami.”
Before I could answer, Sami put in, “My mom’s rich, you know.”
“Sami, don’t start that again,” pleaded Eileen.
“Okay, okay.” The girl made a face and speared a wedge of tomato with her fork. She wouldn’t use chopsticks.
The next evening Eileen made taro soup with shredded pork and coriander. It was delicious; Sami said it was her mother’s specialty. She ate two bowls of the soup and asked Eileen whether we could have it more often. “You used to make this every week.”
Eileen soon learned I liked seafood, and she would pick up shrimp or scallops or squid. On occasion she bought fish—yellow croaker, flounder, red snapper, perch. During the day I found myself looking forward to going to the Mins’, even when I was busy with other things. To distract myself from these thoughts and keep myself from gaining much weight, I often played tennis with my friend Avtar Babu, a fellow graduate student, in art history.
Sometimes I arrived early at the Mins’ to give Eileen a hand in the kitchen—peeling a bulb of garlic, opening a can or bottle, crushing peppercorns in a stone mortar, replacing a trash bag. I just enjoyed hanging around. If something went wrong in the house, Eileen would tell me, and most times I could fix it. She’d be so grateful that she would insist on paying me for the work in addition to the parts, but I refused the money. The Mins treated me almost like a family member, and I was equally attached to them.
Sami made good progress in math, but her English improved slowly. She usually followed my instructions, and even tried memorizing all the words listed at the back of her English textbook, yet there were many gaps in her mastery of the subjects. Before her father died, he’d often said he hoped she could enter an Ivy League college. I never expressed my misgivings about that and always encouraged her.
As I was explaining a trigonometric function to Sami one evening, Eileen came in panting and said, “My car won’t start.”
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
“I’ve no clue. I drove it this morning and it ran fine.”
I told Sami to do a few problems in the textbook and went out with Eileen. Her blue Volvo was parked in the driveway, under the oak tree. A few caterpillars wiggled around on the pavement nearby, and Eileen avoided stepping on them as if in fear. I got into her car and turned the key in the ignition. The starter ground lazily, but the engine wouldn’t catch.
“The battery must be gone,” I told her. “When was the last time you had it replaced?”
“This is a new car, just three years old.”
“The battery must be lousy, then.”
“What should I do?” She kept rubbing her little hands together as if washing them. “I’m supposed to deliver the books to the reading.” She had inherited her husband’s small publishing business, and the company was holding an event that evening.
“Where’s the reading?” I asked.
“At the high school.”
“How many books do you have here?”
“Thirty-two copies, one full box.”
The school wasn’t far away, about twenty minutes’ walk, so I offered to carry the books there for her. She thought about it, saying as if to herself, “Maybe I should call a cab.” Then she changed her mind and asked, “Can you really carry the books for me, Dave?”
“It’s so kind of you.”
I went into her house and explained the situation to Sami. When I came back, Eileen was holding the handle of a maroon suitcase with wheels. “Guess what?” she said. “I found this and put all the books into it.”
“Great idea.” I wondered whether she still needed me since she could pull the wheeled suitcase herself, but I decided to go with her. Together we started out.
We hurried along Main Street, toward Northern Boulevard. The suitcase wasn’t heavy, but I had to lift it at the curbs whenever we crossed a street. Soon I began sweating, and the back of my T-shirt became damp. I noticed people throwing glances at the two of us, probably wondering whether we might be a couple. Eileen was thirteen years older than I but looked younger than her age, her waist small, her legs shapely, her steps full of bounce. She dabbed at her face with Kleenex as we walked. I grew excited, as if this were a date, despite the bulky thing I was dragging. When we had crossed Thirty-seventh Avenue, to my surprise she said, “Let me mop your face.”
I turned to let her wipe the sweat from my forehead and cheeks. It happened so naturally that it didn’t feel like the first time. She smiled, her eyes alight with feeling. Then I remembered we were in the middle of a thoroughfare, in the presence of many passersby. “We’d better hurry,” I said.
We hastened our steps but soon stopped again. Near Little Lamb, the Mongolian firepot place, we ran into a bent man whom Eileen called Old Feng. He had just come out of the restaurant, still chewing. Although she introduced us, the man kept glaring at me, his eyes pouchy and bloodshot, his mouth sunken. As he talked with Eileen, he went on watching me as if wary of my presence. I stood nearby, waiting. After a few moments Eileen said, “I have to run, Old Feng. Let’s discuss this later, okay?”
“Sure. I’ll stop by.” The old man didn’t look happy. He shambled away, cleaning his teeth with a toothpick.
We continued north. Eileen explained that Old Feng had been a professional writer back in China, an editor at the official magazine The People’s Arts, before coming to the States about ten years ago. His wife, almost twenty years his junior, worked at Gold City Supermarket so that Mr. Feng could stay home and write his books. Recently he had finished a trilogy, which Eileen would publish, though she expected to lose money on the novels. Before her husband died, he had made her promise to print the three books—because he had read parts of the manuscripts and loved the writing and because Mr. Feng had been his friend. Now Eileen had to keep her word.
Her company, Everyman Press, was tiny, with only three employees, all part-timers. It survived owing mainly to the print-on-demand equipment her late husband had installed, which allowed publication of a small run of a book at little cost. He had spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on the technology, almost half his life savings. He’d been in the pharmaceutical business originally, but—obsessed with books and with magazines and newspapers—he’d started his own press to publish obscure authors, including half a dozen poets. Eileen had worked there first as an editor. Now she was its owner and manager.
As we walked along, shop signs bearing Korean words appeared, and a small building with most of its windows boarded up. Eileen told me she had just finished editing the first novel of Mr. Feng’s trilogy, the one titled Of Pigs and People. “I don’t like it. It’s too tedious and repetitive,” she confessed. “I cannot see how to market this one.”
We reached the high school just in time. I dropped the suitcase at the entrance to the conference room and headed back to Sami. Twilight was falling; neon lights flared up one after another along the street. I indulged in thoughts of Eileen.
There were always fresh flowers in the Mins’ living room; Sami said they were gifts from men pursuing her mother. A number were courting her, most in their fifties or sixties, some still married, brazen enough to think that a recent widow would make a possible mistress. Sami said one man, who had made his fortune in the undertaking business, offered her mother a piano if she agreed to date him. Eileen turned him down, saying there was no room in her home, and besides, she was too old to learn how to play it. The man then proposed to give her one of his funeral parlors. “That sounds creepy,” I said. Sami giggled. “Yeah, it did give my mom goose bumps.”
Eileen always told these men that she had promised her late husband to take care of their daughter, to help her do well in school. She was not interested in any man for the time being.
The next day I bought a new battery for Eileen’s car. After installing it, I drove the Volvo around a little to get the battery fully charged and the electrical system in sync again. Eileen was moved by my help and wanted to pay me, but I told her, “Take it as a birthday gift, okay?”
She nodded without saying another word. For a long while she gazed at me, her eyes giving a soft light. That pleased me a lot, and for the first time I swelled with a peculiar kind of pride that arises in a man who feels useful to a worthy woman.
Eileen’s forty-first birthday was approaching. Sami told me she didn’t know how to celebrate it. In the past years her father would take them to an upscale restaurant, usually Ocean Jewel or East Lake, where a cake had been prepared for her mother. This year, with her dad gone, Sami had suggested that the two of them dine out, but Eileen said she preferred to have a dinner at home. This meant I would get invited. Sami wouldn’t mind that as long as her mother was happy.
I was also considering what to do for Eileen. I couldn’t be extravagant, but I wanted to give her something more personal than a car battery. For a few dollars I bought a pair of cloisonné earrings from a street vendor, sky blue and in the shape of an ancient bell. I knew Sami had gotten a diamond wristwatch for her mother. She said Eileen needed a good one because her current watch would stop randomly; the girl had expensive tastes.
Eileen’s birthday arrived on a pleasant August day. That evening, traffic hummed faintly in the east, and the happy cries of children rose and fell behind a nearby house that provided day care. The neighborhood was alive and peaceful. Eileen had steamed a large pomfret and braised a pork tenderloin. When the table was set, we all sat down to dinner. Eileen opened a small jar of rice wine and poured us each a cup. Sami and I didn’t like the wine, finding its taste medicinal, but Eileen enjoyed it and took mouthfuls, saying it would warm and protect the stomach. She had such a quaint palate. I would have preferred a beer. But I liked the dishes a lot—especially the salad of julienned citron mixed with slivers of dried, spiced tofu—and I didn’t stop Eileen from serving me more. She was in a buoyant mood, though Sami looked a bit gloomy, as if her mind were elsewhere.
Sami and I lit candles on a chocolate cake and sang “Happy Birthday.” Eileen blushed and smiled wordlessly. Then Sami brought out her present. At the sight of the watch, Eileen said to her, “Thank you, dear. But you shouldn’t have spent so much. This must be outrageously expensive.” She didn’t try it on, but instead put it aside and let it lie in the velveteen case with the lid open.
I then handed her the tiny red envelope containing the earrings. “Please take this as a token of my gratitude,” I said.
“You bought this for me?” Eileen exclaimed as she opened it. “You’re so kind. Thank you!” She dangled the earrings before her daughter. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Sure they are.” The girl grimaced and ducked her head to avoid seeing Eileen’s happy face. She glanced at her own gift lying beyond her mother’s elbow. I was embarrassed.
Color crept into Eileen’s cheeks and her neck turned pinkish. For a moment her eyes wavered, then blazed at me. Her fingers never stopped fondling the earrings. I guessed that if Sami had not been there, Eileen might have tried them on, though the holes in her earlobes might no longer accommodate the wires.
“When’s your birthday, Dave?” she asked.
“Ah, just two months away. I’ll mark my calendar and we’ll celebrate.”
Her words warmed me because they implied she would still employ me after Sami’s fall semester started. I needed the income. I noticed Sami observing me intently; she must have surmised my thoughts. I said to her, “So you’ll have to bear with me a little longer.”
“I won’t give up on you,” she said, then grinned almost fiercely, her small eyeteeth sticking out.
Not knowing what to make of that, I turned to Eileen. “Please don’t trouble yourself about my birthday.”
“Come on, you’ll help Sami go through the college applications, won’t you?”
“Sure, I’ll be happy to do that.”
“Then you mustn’t abandon us.”
Sami stood and turned away as if in a sulk. Eileen grasped her daughter’s wrist and asked, “Why are you leaving?”
“I have a migraine and I need to be alone.” She shook off her mother’s grip and with a pout made for her room.
Eileen said to me, “Don’t worry. She’ll be all right.”
And then something—a cup or a bottle—shattered on the floor of Sami’s room. The thought of her late father hadn’t occurred to me until that moment.
Sami began volunteering on Friday evenings at a nursing home on Forty-fifth Avenue, doing laundry, a service project that she could include on her college applications. She said the laundry room smelled like vomit. However, the old people liked her, because unlike some of the staff members, she didn’t yell at them. She often talked to me about the place and claimed she’d rather kill herself than go to a nursing home when she was old. Once, the night-shift supervisor asked her to help towel-bathe some bedridden old women. Her job was to hold their shoulders while a nurse rubbed and washed their backs, some of which were spotted with sores. One patient, shrunken like a skeleton, screamed in Cantonese, which Sami didn’t need to understand to know the crone was cursing her. Another one, who had a full head of white hair, sobbed the whole time and whined, “Such a nuisance. I better die soon!” Sami held her breath against their odors of sweat and urine.
She told her mother of the same experiences. Eileen was worried, afraid that her daughter might be more upset than she acknowledged, and asked me if Sami should quit. I assured her that Sami would be all right as long as she could talk it out. In fact, the girl wasn’t that fragile, though she seemed to lack willpower. I believed the service would toughen her up a little, and also she could ask the nursing home’s manager for a letter of recommendation, which might help distinguish her college applications. Eileen agreed.
When one of Eileen’s employees took a week off to attend his son’s wedding in Minneapolis, I offered to help in the afternoons. I didn’t know how to operate the printing machine or the computer programs, so I mainly did photocopying and other clerical jobs. One afternoon Mr. Feng dropped in and began to bicker with Eileen about his novel. I was collating a handout in the inner room, where the company’s motto was inscribed on two scrolls hung vertically on the wall: “To Publish Books by Anyone / To Disseminate Stories of Everyman.”
“No, no, the first printing should be at least one thousand copies,” I heard Mr. Feng say in a raspy voice. I looked over at him and Eileen, both seated at the long table with teacups in front of them. The old man held his chin in his knotted hand, his elbow on the tabletop.
“Please be reasonable,” Eileen said. “We can’t possibly sell that many copies, and neither do we have the storage space for them.”
“How many copies do you plan to bring out, then?”
“Two hundred at most.”
“We’ve never done more than two hundred for a novel. If you want us to print more, you should deposit a sum for the production cost.”
“What are you driving at?” The old man sat back as if in horror.
“You should buy the extra copies you’ve ordered.”
“I’ve no cash on hand at the moment.”
“Truth be told, we cannot lose too much money on this book.”
Mr. Feng coughed into his fist. He sighed. “Well, I guess I must bow to reality here. I used to have eighty thousand copies for a first run.”
“That was back in China. Don’t be angry with me, Old Feng. If there’s the need, we can always rush to print extra copies.”
“All right. I’ll hold you to that.”
“You have my word.”
With puffy cheeks, the old man slouched out the door. Eileen heaved a long sigh and massaged her temples with her thumb and forefinger. Outside, a truck was unloading steaming-hot asphalt on the street, flashing its lights and sounding warning beeps, while a worker in a hard hat directed the traffic with an orange flag.
I wondered how long Eileen could hold on to a publishing business that was unprofitable and too much for her to manage alone.
One afternoon in late September I sprained my ankle while playing tennis with Avtar. For several days I couldn’t go to the Mins’, so Sami came over to take her lessons. She was excited to be in my studio apartment, which in spite of its shabbiness provided an intimate setting for the two of us. Her brown eyes were often fixed on me when I spoke to her. She laughed freely and loudly. As if we had known each other for years, she would pat my arm, and once she even pinched my cheek when I called her “kiddo.” She worked less than before and talked more, though time and again I managed to bring her back to her textbooks. She sniffed the air, her pinkish nostrils twitching a little, and said, “Hm. I like the smell of your room.”
One night I couldn’t find my black undershirt. I’d worn it three days before and had dropped it beside my laundry basket, which was overfull. Nobody but Sami had been to my apartment that week. The thought that she had taken it alarmed me, because she was just a kid, and because I’d never known any woman to be fond of my smell. My first girlfriend said I stank to high heaven and always made me shower before bed. She wouldn’t even mix her laundry with mine. My second girlfriend never complained, so I seldom used deodorant.
Then Eileen phoned and said she didn’t feel comfortable with her daughter away from home in the evenings. My ankle was improving, so I agreed to return our sessions to their home. I missed her cooking. But to my surprise, the next afternoon Eileen appeared at my apartment in person, carrying a basket of fruits—tangerines, plums, apples, and pears. She apologized for not warning me. I was elated; for days my mind had been straying to her. She sat as I made her herbal tea. Her face, a bit tilted, shone with happiness.
“Well, I’m so glad to see that you can move around,” she said. “How worried I was!”
“About Sami or me?”
“Both.” She tittered.
At those words, she lowered her head, her complexion turning red. Then she raised her eyes to peer at my face. I touched her wrist; she placed her other hand on my chest. We fell into each other’s arms.
We moved to my bed as if out of habit. In an ardent voice she confessed, “Ah, how often I dreamed of you doing this to me!” She held me tight with both her arms and her legs while I was inside her.
For the hour she was there, my studio was for the first time awash in the warmth of a home.
Smoothing the wrinkles in her dress, she said, “Please come to teach Sami in our house. I cannot have peace of mind if she’s out in the evenings, especially with you. I’m sure you must attract lots of girls.”
“I’ve already agreed. And don’t worry about that; I prefer a ripe woman.” I knew I wasn’t attractive.
She nodded and smiled, ready to go. I lurched up to see her off, but she stopped me and walked briskly to the door. Before closing it, she wheeled around and said, “I’ll miss you, and also him.” Her index finger pointed at my crotch. Then she disappeared, giggling.
She left a delicate fragrance like apricot on my pillow. For a long time I fell into a reverie, my face half buried in her scent while I imagined making love to her in her home.
For a week I helped Sami with her college essays. She was a decent writer, but at times her sentences could be convoluted, built of abstract words and clichés. I encouraged her to write simply and directly, to ensure that every sentence added something to the whole piece, to view any unintended repetition as a defect. I explained that each school received thousands of applications and couldn’t consider every one carefully. The readers formed their judgments by impression and interest, and their task was to determine whether the applicant could write. So as long as the writing was clear and interesting, the content was less relevant.
Eileen and I chatted briefly and eyed each other wistfully. Only on Friday evenings when Sami was away at the nursing home could we be together. I would sneak into the Mins’, and we’d go to bed for two hours. I loved Eileen. With her, I felt at ease and content, as if she were a sunlit harbor where I could anchor. She made me promise never to let her daughter suspect us of the affair.
My birthday was just a week away, and Sami and Eileen had talked between themselves about what to give me. They even asked me. Sami bought a pair of tennis rackets, which I saw stowed away under her bed. I wondered if she planned to give me both or just one of them; she had once asked me to teach her how to play sometime in the spring. Her request pleased me, because it showed that she expected me to stay around.
Actually, I wasn’t a good tennis player. So, anticipating that Sami would hold me to my promise, I played with Avtar more often.
I also noticed a laptop in Eileen’s room, still sealed in its box. Before I left the Mins’ one evening, I overheard Sami complain to her mother, “What if he’s still around next year? Will you give him a car?”
“I want him to help you more,” Eileen said.
She knew my monitor had recently burned out and I’d been using a computer at the library.
Three days before my birthday I again snuck over to the Mins’. It was Friday evening. Turning onto Folk Avenue, I saw Mr. Feng emerging from Eileen’s front yard. He wore a windbreaker cloak-style, the sleeves dangling. I waved to greet him, and he grunted and frowned and convulsed in a fit of coughing.
Eileen answered the door and hugged me. I asked her why Mr. Feng looked so out of sorts.
“For the same old reason,” she replied. “He wanted me to print five hundred copies of his novel.”
We left our shoes at her bedroom door and began making love unhurriedly. The twilight deepened outside, and we sank into the king-size bed as if we had turned in for the night. No light was on, because Eileen preferred darkness. “So I can let myself go,” she told me.
“Don’t you want me to give you a child?” she asked.
“Sure, I’d like to father a bunch of them. How many will you give me?”
“A dozen if I could.”
“I love kids.”
Suddenly there was a bang at the door. I sat up, breathless, my heart kicking. Then came Sami’s shrill voice. “Damn you! Shameless animals!” She hit the door again, with something rubbery this time—it must have been my shoe—and then ran away upstairs. Eileen was shaken, her face haggard and her eyes blinking in the dim light thrown by the rising moon. She urged me to leave. “You must go now, quickly!”
A sweat broke out all over me. Hurriedly I pulled on my clothes and rushed out of their house. The streetlights were swimming in my eyes as I took flight.
Eileen called the next morning. She sounded exhausted and didn’t say much on the phone. Apparently she was not alone in her office. She asked me to come to her house that evening, which I agreed to do. I couldn’t figure out why she had rung me up just for that; maybe she wanted to make sure I would continue to teach Sami. But how could I remain composed in the presence of both of them?
After dinner, I set off for the Mins’, full of apprehension. Approaching their yard, I saw a cardboard box next to their trash can, and lying on the box was a pair of tennis rackets, with most of the strings severed. The sight wracked my heart. About twenty feet away, five or six plump sparrows bathed in a puddle of dirty rainwater, flapping their wings and pecking at their feathers, chirping happily and ignoring me. Somehow the birds cheered me.
I rang the bell. Eileen answered the door, and I entered the living room. She simply handed me a check. She said tearfully, “Dave, we don’t need your help anymore. Please don’t think I called you in just to humiliate you. Sami insists I must make this clear to you in front of her.” Her voice wavered.
“I understand,” I managed to say. “Thanks very much.” I accepted the paycheck. The house was swaying.
Before I could turn to the door, Sami said, “Wait a sec. My mom has something for you, a birthday present.”
“Stop it, Sami!” Eileen burst out.
“Why not let him take it home? You won’t return it or smash it anyway.” She indicated the laptop on the sofa. “Please take that with you.” Without waiting for my response, she tore away, hand over mouth, to her room.
“Please forgive her,” Eileen murmured.
“That’s all right.” I scanned her pallid face, her twitching cheek. Then I walked out.
The laptop was delivered to me two days later. I thought of sending it back but feared that would hurt Eileen’s feelings. I missed her terribly.
In the weeks that followed, I kept running into Sami. At first I was abashed, but she would converse with me casually about various things—the recent muggings of several Asian immigrants, an edifying sermon by a Tibetan monk, the shows in celebration of the Spring Festival, Falun Gong’s call to renounce Communist Party membership. She didn’t tease me as before, and even called me from time to time. I told her then that I had genuine feelings for her mother and hoped she could accept our relationship. I made her mother happy, and she made me a better man.
“Forget it,” Sami huffed. “She’s old enough to be your mother. Didn’t you used to call her ‘Aunt’?”
“Come on, Sami, she’s only thirteen years older than I am.”
“You’ll never marry her. Why should you toy with her heart?”
“How do you know I’ll never marry her?”
“Because she cannot give you children.”
“I don’t care.”
“You’ll just have fun with her for a while, then dump her.”
“Don’t call me again.” I hung up, dazed at the thought of Eileen’s infertility.
Though upset by Sami, I believed she’d told me the truth. When we made love, Eileen had never mentioned contraceptives; I’d assumed she was on the pill. If I were to marry an infertile woman, it would devastate my parents. I’m their only son, and they expect me to carry on the family line.
Yet I couldn’t drive Eileen out of my mind. I longed to sleep with her in that king-size bed, deaf to the outside world. Never had I been so hopelessly in love. I phoned her once and grew short of breath. I said I missed her; she sighed and told me not to contact her again, at least not before Sami finished her college applications. “I just don’t want to disturb her at the moment.” She sounded resigned, but I could tell I was on her mind too. I reminded myself to be patient.
Unlike her mother, Sami was always in contact with me, continually calling me for advice on her applications. Her SAT scores weren’t high, so her chances for the Ivy League were slim. I advised her to apply to Penn and Cornell in addition to some colleges in New York City. Her ideal school was my alma mater, NYU, because she wanted to stay close to home to keep her mother company. One Saturday morning I ran into her in the public library, in a corner on the second floor, behind the book stacks. She wore knee-high suede boots and a red peacoat with enormous buttons, looking sturdy and thick but still girlish. Unconsciously her hand kept touching the single-paned window, leaving prints on it that immediately faded away. Outside, fluffy snowflakes drifted on the wind beneath patches of blue sky. As our conversation continued, Sami insinuated that I might have an eye on Eileen’s money. “Of course, lots of men are interested in women of means,” she said.
“Honest to God, I’ve no idea how rich your mother is,” I protested. “And I don’t care.”
“Well, I’m richer than her. I have a big trust fund.” She stared at me, her eyes a bit wide set. “You have to give up on screwing my mom—enough’s enough.”
“I love your mother, but I can’t understand why you’re so heartless.” Exasperated, I spun around and clattered down the stairs.
When I saw her again, I tried to be friendly because I realized I could not afford to make her my enemy. If I were to see Eileen again, I had to be accepted by both daughter and mother.
For weeks I worked hard on my thesis, sharpening the argument, smoothing out the rough spots, and preparing all the footnotes. I made myself busy to quench my miserable feelings. My professor praised what I’d written and said I could graduate before summer. The rapid progress bemused me, however, confronting me with decisions about what to do after graduation.
The days were getting longer. In late March, Sami began to receive letters from colleges. Penn turned her down, but unexpectedly Cornell accepted her. She came to my place, wild with joy, and hugged me tightly, saying that now her father must be pleased underground. In her excitement her cheeks grew ruddy, and even her hair seemed glossier. I rejoiced at the news myself, though for different reasons, and said a lot of good things about Cornell.
I called Eileen to give her my congratulations. She too was enraptured. “Without your help, Sami couldn’t possibly have gotten admitted by that school,” she said earnestly.
“You should urge her to go to Cornell,” I suggested. “It’s a great place. I know some alumni. They all loved it.”
“I know what’s on your mind, Dave.”
“I miss you, a lot.”
“I miss you too,” she sighed, “but we must be patient.”
A few days after that conversation I saw an ad in a local newspaper, The North American Tribune, for an editorial assistant position at Eileen’s press. It was a part-time job, twenty hours a week, offering “wages commensurate with experience.” This possibility set my mind spinning, and for a whole day I vibrated with hopes. I asked Avtar whether I should apply. Dunking a tea bag in his steaming cup, he said, “Man, if I were you, I’d go for the daughter.”
Two days later, I went to Everyman Press early in the morning. None of its employees had arrived yet, and Eileen was there alone. She was surprised to see me, but composed herself immediately and led me into her office. The walls were lined with slanted shelves, mostly loaded with books and brochures. She poured a cup of coffee for me. A sad smile crossed her face, which was a bit gaunt then, her chin pointed. “Hazelnut,” she said. “And cream and sugar. Sorry there’s no honey.”
“This will do fine.” I was moved that she remembered I liked hazelnut coffee with honey and cream. I told her of my interest in the job. “I’ll be a good helper to you,” I assured her. “Who knows, someday I may even become a big editor.”
She gazed at me, her mouth parted a bit, her bottom lip slightly thicker than the top. Then she closed her mouth and her face turned calm again. “It’s too late, Dave,” she said.
“What do you mean? The job is filled?”
“No, we’re still looking for someone, but I cannot let you work here.”
“Why? I’m not qualified?”
“No, not because of that. Sami was just accepted to Queens College. She’s going there.”
“You mean she gave up Cornell?”
“Yes. She’s afraid I’ll be lonely without her. I tried my best to persuade her to go, but she wants to stay home.”
“How can you be sure that’s her only reason?”
“She and I had a long talk last night. We both have feelings for you, but we promised each other that neither of us would see you again.”
“Don’t be mad at me, Dave. I cherish the time you spent with me and will always remember you fondly. I know that for a woman my age, I may never meet another man as good as you. But Sami just made a big sacrifice for me, and I mustn’t let her down again. No matter how much I love you.”
“She’s lucky to have you for a mother,” I muttered.
Tears welled in my eyes, and I scrambled to the door. I didn’t want her to see my face. I hurried away on the street, aware of her eyes fixed on my back. It had begun drizzling, and a fine rain swirled in the air, soaking the leafing branches and my hair. I was more touched than wretched.