LINA PUT A PINECONE CANDLESTICK on the dining table, then sat down on a love seat to wait for Panbin. This was the first time she had cooked dinner since they lived together. They were both married, their spouses still in China, and about a year ago she had moved into Panbin’s house as his partner. They had become “a wartime couple,” a term referring to those men and women who, unable to bring their spouses to America, cohabit for the time being to comfort each other and also to reduce living expenses. For some men such a relationship was just a way to sleep with women without having to pay, but Panbin had never taken advantage of Lina. He even claimed that he’d finally fallen for her and might go berserk if she left him. Still, they had separate phone lines in the house. Whenever he was speaking to his wife, he’d keep his door shut, whereas Lina wouldn’t mind his listening when she called her husband.
It was sprinkling, raindrops pattering fitfully on the bay windows. Lina was watching the evening news, but her mind hardly registered what the anchorman was saying, nor was she captivated by the horrific scene the TV was showing of the havoc wreaked by a suicide bomber at a bus stop in Mosul. Around six o’clock the door opened and Panbin stepped in. Leaving his umbrella in a corner to dry, he said, “Mm, smells good.” He was a tall man of thirty-four and looked younger than his age.
Lina went over to the dining table while telling him, “I came back earlier.” She lit a candle and planted it on the steel pinecone.
He scanned the meal. “What special day is today? A holiday?”
“No. I just thought we should celebrate.”
“Celebrate what, the second anniversary of our friendship?” He laughed, a little embarrassed by his own joke.
“You can say that, but this is also for our parting. Come, sit down and dig in.”
Having shucked off his jacket, he slumped down on a chair and picked up a pair of chopsticks. “I told you I wouldn’t think of it,” he said.
“Don’t be silly! Zuming will be here soon and I have to move out. If he knows about our affair, I’ll be in big trouble.”
He sighed, chewing a piece of curried chicken pensively. He’d never met her husband, but she’d talked about Zuming so much that Panbin felt as if he’d known the man for ages. He told her, “Maybe I can speak to him after he settles in.”
“No. Don’t ever provoke him. He practiced kung fu for many years and might beat you up.”
“So? If you want to divorce him, he’ll have no choice.”
“Why should I do that? Before I moved in, you and I had agreed that the moment your wife or my husband came, our partnership would end.”
“Don’t be softheaded about this. Come, for the good time we spent together.” She raised her glass of Chablis, but he shook his head and didn’t touch his wine, his pale face taut.
She put down her glass, and a prolonged silence ensued.
He finished the last bit of rice on his plate, got up, and said, “Thanks for this memorable dinner.” He headed away to his own room upstairs, his feet thumping up the flight of wood steps.
She expected him to come to her that night, but except for going to the bathroom to wash up and brush his teeth, he didn’t step out of his room. At the same time, she was afraid he’d join her in bed, because once he took her into his arms, she might lose her head and promise him whatever he asked for, even something beyond her ability to fulfill. She remembered that he’d once made her call him laogong (hubby) again and again while making love to her. Afterward she had felt so guilty that she bought a digital camera and had it delivered to her husband for his birthday. Tonight, despite her fear of losing self-control, she longed to have that intense intimacy with Panbin for the last time. After Zuming came, she would have to become a faithful wife again.
When she got up the next morning, Panbin had left for work without having breakfast. Usually he would make toast, scramble eggs, and boil rice porridge or sesame gruel for both of them, but today he’d done nothing and had not even touched the leftovers from the previous evening. She knew she might have injured his feelings, but he was being unreasonable. They had a written agreement that entitled either of them to call off their relationship anytime without the other’s consent. From the very beginning they’d both understood it was just for mutual convenience that they had come together.
In her tax office she was absentminded for a whole day, and even exchanged words with an old customer who complained that she had not deducted enough business expenses on the form she’d filled out for him. He was a supervisor at a warehouse but demanded almost eight thousand dollars in tax credits for things such as brand-name suits, shoes, a computer, books, magazines, floor lamps, batteries, even a pair of dumbbells. Lina said this was cheating the IRS. The bull-necked old codger flew into a rage and said he’d go to another tax office that could give him a better deal. Somehow a rush of emotion drove Lina to the brink of tears, but she took hold of herself and told him, “Okay, suit yourself.” Hard as she tried, she couldn’t manage a smile.
After the customer left, Lina finished up for the day. It wasn’t four o’clock yet, but she planned to move out of Panbin’s house today. Three days ago she had rented a place, a one-bedroom apartment on Sanford Avenue. She wondered if she should ask someone to give her a hand, but decided first to make sure she had packed everything. Perhaps, she hoped, she wouldn’t have to take her belongings with her all at once. Her husband wouldn’t arrive until late March, still two weeks away.
To her surprise, Panbin was at home. On the floor of the living room sat her six boxes, all opened; evidently he’d been rummaging through them. She sneered, “You want to see if I filched something?”
“No, just curious.” He grinned and lifted her one-piece swimsuit. “I’ve never seen you wear this.” He sniffed it. “May I keep it?”
“For a million dollars.” She giggled. “I’m a married woman with a husband.”
His apology mollified her some, and she sat down opposite him. She said, “Please don’t act like a crazy youngster.”
“You know what, I feel I’m also your husband.” The expression on his face was serious, almost stony.
“Where’s our marriage certificate?” She giggled again, her cheeks twitching a little.
“That’s just a piece of paper. I love you. I know you better, I know every part of you, I know all your likes and dislikes, and I know you love me too.”
“Don’t talk like that, please! We’re both married and must be responsible. Can you abandon your wife and kid for another woman?”
“Well, I’m not sure.”
“See, don’t play the hypocrite. What we’ve done is wrong, and we ought to mend our ways, the sooner the better. Truth be told, I am fond of you, but I must take my heart back and tame it before Zuming comes.”
“Tell me, do you still love him?”
“This has little to do with love. I’ll try to be a good wife to him.”
“Can’t we remain friends?”
“Depends on what kind of friendship you have in mind.”
“I mean, we’ll meet once in a while.”
“And hop into bed?”
He grinned while nodding yes, his round eyes glimmering. “Honestly, I love you more than my wife, but I can’t divorce her because there’s no way I can take my son away from her.”
“So let’s part ways now,” she said, unsure if he was telling the truth. “The temporary pain will ward off all the miserable complications.”
“But you cannot make me stay.”
“You know, I have a mouth that can talk.”
“God, are you threatening me? You will brief Zuming on our affair if I don’t remain your mistress?”
He made no reply, an awkward smile breaking on his face while small fans of rays appeared at the outside corners of his eyes. He exhaled a long sigh.
Not sure if he’d just issued her a warning, she was upset and went to the kitchen to call a cab. He followed her and pressed down the switch hook of the phone, saying, “I’m still your chauffeur and coolie, you know.” He grimaced and his eyes clouded over.
She wanted to say he was a free man now, but her voice failed her. Together they carried her boxes down to his SUV in the driveway.
Living alone was no longer easy for Lina. She was accustomed to Panbin’s house, to its spacious living room and the big, comfortable bed, and also to the meals he’d made for both of them. When they’d been together, he wouldn’t let her cook because she complained that too much exposure to kitchen grease would age her skin. He joked that she was just a lazybones, but he took over the cooking and liked it. Now, in her own apartment, she had to do everything herself. Sometimes she wouldn’t make dinner and would just pick up one or two things at a delicatessen. Since moving out, she’d expected Panbin to call, but he never did. Perhaps he was still full of spleen, as the saying affirms: “You hate as much as you love.” But he was not a young bachelor and shouldn’t have behaved as if she’d jilted him and wasted his life. At times she wanted to phone him, just to see how he was doing, and once she even dialed his number but at the second ring hung up. If only she could shut him out of her mind. If only her workplace weren’t in downtown Flushing so that every day she wouldn’t have to pass the building that housed his software company. Whenever she walked on the street, she was afraid of bumping into him.
On March 24, her husband arrived. She took the subway to JFK to meet him. They hadn’t seen each other for more than four years, and he’d changed quite a bit. He had gained some weight and his face looked wider, his eyes weary, probably thanks to the twenty-hour flight. When they hugged, she gave him a smack on the cheek, but he didn’t kiss her back. Instead he said with a smile, “Hey, we’re in public.” His voice was still strong, though less hearty. She had always loved his manly voice, which often sounded fearless and even commanding. She noticed a sprinkling of gray hair behind his temples, though he was only thirty-three, two years older than she. He must have worried a lot these last few years. Together they lugged his baggage out of the terminal and joined the line for a taxi.
Lina had bought fresh, uncooked dumplings. Back from the airport, she put on a pot of water to boil them. Zuming hadn’t brought much with him; at her suggestion, he had stuffed one of his two suitcases with books, which are triple-priced in the United States. She was pleased to see the brand-new dictionaries and self-help books, useful to both of them. Zuming had said several times on the phone that he would like to go to graduate school once he was here, but she had neither agreed nor disagreed about that.
In addition to the books, he’d brought along six cartons of Red Eagle cigarettes at the advice of a friend who had been to America. Zuming lit a cigarette and dragged at it ravenously, saying to Lina, “I couldn’t smoke the whole way. That almost drove me crazy.”
His smoking unnerved her. She wanted to tell him to smoke outside, but she stopped herself. This was his first day here, and she wanted to please him as much as possible. She poured half a cup of cold water into the boiling pot so that the stuffing inside the dumplings could get cooked some more. After replacing the lid, she turned around and smiled at him. “I’m so happy you made it to New York finally,” she said. “After dinner, you should take a shower and then go to bed. You must be exhausted.”
“I’m all right.” He looked at her questioningly, as if wondering whether the full-size bed was big enough for both of them.
“I thought you’d need to rest well after the long flight,” she explained.
“We’ll see what we can do.” He tilted his big head, his heavy jaw jutting to the side while his nostrils let out tentacles of smoke.
He enjoyed the chive-and-pork dumplings and ate them with raw garlic, which Lina didn’t mind. For a whole year she hadn’t tasted raw garlic because Panbin was a southerner, from Jiangsu Province, and couldn’t stand the smell. She peeled several cloves for Zuming and also ate one herself. She found it quite tasty. She thought of reminding him to brush his teeth after eating garlic, but she decided to save that for another time. Maybe she would buy him some gum and mints.
“Do we have a drop of liquor in here?” Zuming asked, licking his teeth.
“No, only some cooking wine,” she replied.
“That’s no good.”
“No, no, don’t bother. I don’t like American wine anyway.”
An airliner roared by, the noise so loud that the ceiling seemed to vibrate. They both stopped talking. When the racket died down, he said, “Heavens, how can you sleep with airplanes flying right overhead?”
“They don’t cross the residential area at night.” She laughed.
“That makes sense.”
As they ate, Zuming told her about their families. His father had just retired and might start a kindergarten with the help of his mother and some other retirees in the neighborhood. His parents had demanded that Lina give them some grandchildren. He emphasized “some,” which meant they all knew there was no one-child policy in the United States. As for her parents, her mother missed her terribly and couldn’t stop talking to people, even to strangers, about her, the only daughter. Her father’s condition had improved a lot after the stroke, though he still couldn’t drive his cab and so had to rent it to someone younger. As they talked, Lina felt rather down, not because the news was bad but because the weight of the two families, despite the distance of an ocean and a continent, came back to her all of a sudden. She was still young, yet when she thought of her family she felt aged like an old woman.
She told her husband, “We cannot afford to have kids before we settle down.”
“I understand. There’ll be a long haul for us.”
Zuming insisted they make love that night, and she was willing. Afterward he fell asleep and left her awake for hours. She listened to his snores, which weren’t loud but sounded like a broken fan.
During the next week Zuming went out every day to get to know the area. He also spent many hours in the public library gathering information on business schools. He told Lina that he wanted to do an MBA, having found out that it was easy to earn small wages but hard to make big money here. “Who knows, someday I may end up on Wall Street,” he chuckled.
She was reluctant to discourage him, but she was worried. Living in Panbin’s house, she had paid only two hundred dollars a month for food and utilities because he refused to take rent from her. Now her expenses were more substantial. Her job at the tax office wasn’t secure; the filing season would end soon, and the summer and fall would be a lean time. How could she make enough to support both Zuming and herself?
One evening she told him, “I don’t think you should go to business school this year.”
“I have to.” His tone, full of resolve, surprised her.
“Why? I’m not sure if I have a stable job. Where can we get the money for tuition?”
“Don’t you have forty thousand in the bank?”
“Like I said, we mustn’t touch that because we’ll need it for the down payment on an apartment.”
“Well, I’m not sure we should buy our own place here. Anyway, I must get an MBA.”
“I don’t think you should rush.”
“I want to give it a shot this year. You owe me that.”
“Why? Why are you so stubborn?”
“You still think I don’t know?” His face lengthened, his eyes ablaze.
“You shacked up with a man named Panbin Wang.”
“Someone told me.”
“That’s not important. If you wanted to have a peaceful conscience, you should not have slept around.”
She started to sob, covering her face with her narrow hand. Meanwhile, he lounged in a chair and, pencil in mouth, continued reading a dictionary. He would have to pass the TOEFL to be admitted to a business school.
Her sniveling accentuated the quietness of the room.
A few moments later she said, “Zuming, I’m very sorry. Please forgive me. I was a weak woman and needed a man to help me here. You’ve seen how hard life is in this place where everyone’s busy and treats others like strangers. I was so miserable and so lonely that I often thought I was losing my mind. On weekends I felt worse, cooped up in a room like a sick animal. Whenever I saw children I wanted to touch them and even imagined taking them away from their mothers. I wanted to live! To have a normal life. Panbin Wang comforted and helped me, emotionally and financially. Truth be told, without him I might’ve gone mad or died. At least without his help I couldn’t possibly have saved that amount of money for us.”
He sat up and took the pencil out of his mouth. “Honest to God, I didn’t touch a woman for four years, although I had opportunities. When your father had the stroke, I nursed him every night for three months, biking to the hospital through wind and snow. No matter how miserable and depressed I was, I had to take care of your family and mine. Don’t use your suffering to exonerate yourself. I suffered no less than you.”
Now she knew she would probably have no choice but to let him go to business school. This meant she’d have to empty out her bank account. There wasn’t another way to placate him, to prevent him from disclosing her affair to her in-laws and thus bringing her parents to shame.
That night she didn’t sleep, nor did she remove his hand resting on her thigh. Despite her fear of his anger, she felt she must stay with him. She also thought of Panbin, but still felt he was too glib and too smooth. She wondered how her husband had learned of her affair. The more she mulled it over, the more she was convinced that it must have been Panbin who had told him. She recalled his words—“I have a mouth that can talk.” Apparently he had betrayed her. How could he be so vengeful and so unscrupulous? He was a big liar and had lied to her about how he loved her. If he’d really cared about her, he wouldn’t have stabbed her in the back.
This wasn’t over. She wouldn’t let him get away with it.
She phoned Panbin two days later and asked to see him in the afternoon. He sounded pleased, though his voice was languid and lukewarm. He agreed to meet her at a karaoke club on Prince Street.
He showed up first and got a booth. A couple of minutes later she arrived. At the sight of the beers, mixed nuts, and fruit salad he’d ordered, she frowned but sat down without a word. He grinned, his lips bloodless and his eyes red. “So what’s up?” he asked.
“I never thought you could be so mean, disgusting.”
“What are you talking about?” He stopped munching nuts to gaze at her.
“You snitched on me to my husband.”
“I’ll have to spend all my savings for his tuition if a business school accepts him. Tell me, what did you tell him about us?”
“I don’t know him. Why don’t you believe me?”
“But you could call or e-mail him. I knew you were full of tricks, but I never thought you could be an informer.”
“Wait a second. I’ve had no contact with Zuming whatsoever. Don’t unload all your trouble onto me.” He sighed and then went on. “Matter of fact, I’m in a fine mess too.” He pulled an envelope out of his hip pocket and put it on the coffee table. He said, “A letter from my wife. She wants a divorce.”
Surprised, Lina wanted to open the letter, but refrained. Now she felt he might be innocent—he was obviously tormented by his wife’s demand. Lina said, “But who could have told Zuming about us?”
“We were not like some other ‘wartime couples’ and never bothered to conceal our relationship. Anyone who resented us being together could tattle on us. The world is never lacking in defenders of morality. My wife also knows about our affair and cited it as grounds for divorce. Apparently people back home sympathize with her, and she’ll get custody of my child for sure.”
Lina felt awful, knowing how he loved his six-year-old son. She was no longer interested in ferreting out the informer. Whoever that was, what was the use? The damage was already done, and they could do nothing about it.
“When did your wife find out?” she asked, taking a swig of the beer she’d just uncapped.
“Long ago, evidently. She said she’d fallen in love with an architect, who promised her to treat my child like his own. They’ve been carrying on for a while. That must be why she gave me all the excuses for not coming to join me here. How long has your husband known about us?”
“He wouldn’t tell me. He must’ve planned all his moves before he came.”
“See? I told you not to try hard to bring him over.”
“I meant to keep my marriage.”
“You simply couldn’t pull your neck out of the yoke of the past.”
“I would try.”
She sighed. Too late for me now, she thought. She wanted to talk with Panbin some more, to get advice on how to tackle her predicament, but she restrained herself, fearing he might take advantage of the situation to wreck her marriage. In the back of her mind some misgivings about him still lingered.
For weeks Lina had been looking for a different job while her husband spent his days cramming for tests. On weekends when she was home, he would go to the library, saying he had to concentrate. He’d wrap an egg sandwich for lunch and also pocket a handful of chocolates. Back in China he’d done graduate work in economics, so he was somewhat familiar with the test subjects. His main obstacle was English, which he was determined to overcome. In a way, Lina admired his devotion to pursuing his ambition. From the very first days of going with him, she had liked his optimism and his ability to work hard. He’d once fainted in a public restroom where he studied a math formula while squatting over a toilet bowl. In his home county, he was the only one accepted by a college in Beijing that year.
As May approached, Lina landed a bookkeeping job at a law firm. She was pleased and a bit relieved. Still, she was unsettled by Zuming’s determination to go to business school despite the hardship it would cause. She was prepared to pay his tuition, even though she might have to borrow some money. But what would he do after he got his MBA? Would he still want this marriage? Anything could happen during the next two years. If he met a woman he liked and hit it off with her, he might file for divorce. He must have been waiting for such an opportunity while squeezing whatever he could out of her, his unfaithful wife. The more Lina thought about the future, the more agitated she became. Sometimes she felt sure he must despise her. Back in Beijing, she’d planned to give him a child once they settled down, but now she was no longer willing to do it.
At night they slept in the same bed, and he would make love to her once or twice a week. She didn’t enjoy it, so she wouldn’t mind if he left her alone. It was after the lovemaking that she’d feel miserable, listening to him snoring while she felt used. Sometimes he’d grind his teeth or whisper something she couldn’t make out. She wondered if he felt she was dirty and rotten, tainted by another man’s lust. Shrewd and inscrutable, Zuming must have harbored quite a few plans, which he would never confide to anyone. When they had sex, he was sometimes rough as if intending to hurt her. That would make her miss Panbin, who, when doing it, had always spent what seemed like an hour with her and kept asking how she felt this way or that. He’d made her eager to open herself and indulge her passion. Sometimes she thought of recommending to her husband a book like The Joy of Sex or She Comes First, which he could borrow from the library, but she never dared to bring that up, knowing he might think her shameless.
She suggested that they sleep separately, and Zuming didn’t object. His compliance convinced her that he would leave her someday. Even so, she was willing to pay his tuition, as a way to make up to him. She didn’t regret having brought him here, though she felt it might have been a mistake to have broken up with Panbin in such a rush.
Meanwhile, she’d called Panbin at work several times, but he never picked up the phone, nor had he returned her calls. Then, one day, he did answer. He was cold and businesslike, saying he had no time to talk for long and his boss was awaiting him upstairs.
“How are you?” she asked almost timidly.
“Still alive.” He sounded so bitter that she felt a twinge in her chest.
As she continued talking, he cut her short. “I have to go.”
“Can I call you again sometime this week?”
“Didn’t you say it was over between us? I won’t have a mistress anymore. I want a wife, a home.”
She remained silent and knew that something had happened to his marriage. Before she could ask, he hung up. She turned tearful and went to the law firm’s bathroom to compose herself.
Later, through a mutual acquaintance, she found out that Panbin had granted his wife the divorce and the custody of their child. Over the past five years he’d sent his wife more than seventy thousand dollars, which made her rich; even after paying off her mortgage, she still had a good sum in the bank. Crushed, Panbin rarely stepped out of his house these days except when he had to go to work. Lina also learned that some young women had been recommended to him, but he wouldn’t meet with any of them. He just said he wouldn’t date a Chinese woman again. He seemed to have changed and now avoided people he once knew.
Soon after taking all the tests, Zuming found a job at the martial arts institute called Wu Tang on Parsons Boulevard. He was hired as an assistant instructor, mainly tutoring a tai chi class. Lina was amazed, although it was a part-time job that required Zuming to mop the floors and clean the restrooms as well. He was a survivor, full of vitality.
In late June a university in Louisiana notified him that its one-year MBA program had admitted him. Lina knew he’d planned for a more expensive school, but he’d missed most of the application deadlines. He jumped at the late admission; he wanted to go. She felt he’d begun leaving her. God knew what would happen in New Orleans once he was there. After he had his degree, where would he go? Back to China, where a U.S. MBA was worth a lot and he had already built up a business network? That was unlikely. He would probably start a career here, even though Wall Street might be beyond his reach.
She felt wretched but had no one to talk to. If only Panbin were still around. He used to listen so quietly and attentively that she had often wondered if he fell asleep as she was speaking. Afterward he would help her figure out what to do and whom to see. He was full of strategies and, despite his training in computer science, loved reading practical philosophy, especially Machiavelli and a modern book on the ways of the world titled The Art of the Shameless.
One Saturday afternoon in early July, Lina took a shower, let her hair fall loosely on her shoulders, slipped on a pastel blue dress that highlighted her slender waist, and went to Panbin’s house as if she just happened to be passing by. He answered the door and looked surprised, but let her in. He was a lot thinner, yet spirited as before.
“Tea or coffee?” he asked her when they’d entered the living room.
“Coffee, please.” She sat down on the love seat, which felt as familiar as if it belonged to her. The room with bay windows was the same, except for the floor, which had been recently waxed and was shiny throughout. He seemed to be doing fine.
He put a cup of coffee in front of her and sat down. “Well, why did you come to see me?” he asked in a flat voice.
“Is it illegal?” She tilted her oval face, her chin pointed at him as she smiled, her lips curling a little.
“I thought you’d already washed your hands of me.”
“I’m still worried about you.”
“No need. I’m tough and I know how to get by.”
“Zuming’s going to New Orleans in a couple of weeks.”
“So? What does that have to do with me?”
She tittered. “Didn’t you used to feel you too were my husband?”
“That was four months ago when I still had my family.”
“You feel differently about me now?”
“Things have changed and I’ve changed too. My wife found the love of her life and took my son away from me. That almost killed me, but I resurrected myself and have become a different man.”
“I’m going to Kiev to see my girlfriend next week.”
“Yes, I got to know her online.”
Lina couldn’t help but sneer. “So you want to become an international womanizer?”
“Oh, you can call me a cosmopolitan playboy, but I don’t give a damn. From now on I won’t date a Chinese woman again. Just sick of it—every Chinese has so much baggage of the past, too heavy for me to share and carry. I want to live freely and fearlessly with nothing to do with the past.”
“Without the past, how can we make sense of now?”
“I’ve come to believe that one has to get rid of the past to survive. Dump your past and don’t even think about it, as if it never existed.”
“How can that be possible? Where did you get that stupid idea?”
“That is the way I want to live, the only way to live. If you hadn’t worried so much about all the ties to your past, you wouldn’t have left me, would you? That’s the reason I’ve been dating a Ukranian woman, who is lovely.”
“She just wants to get a green card; she can’t be serious about a yellow man. Even if she agrees to marry you, she might not give you children. Or maybe you’ll dump her once you’re done toying with her.”
“That’s not something for you to speculate about. Didn’t you do that to me? Anyway, you mustn’t think ill of my girlfriend. I believe in names. Do you know any woman named Olga who is an adventuress?”
She laughed. “You’re so silly. You haven’t even met her yet, but you call her your girlfriend. Doesn’t she have siblings?”
“She has a younger brother, she told me.”
“Doesn’t she have parents?”
“She does, and grandparents.”
“See, are those not a kind of baggage? The same sort of past as we have?”
Stumped, he looked at his wristwatch and stood. “I have to go to the UPS store.”
She got to her feet too and refrained from saying she wished to remain his friend, but told him she missed his cooking, to which he didn’t respond. She lifted the cold coffee and downed it to the last drop, then stepped out of his house without another word. She wasn’t sure how serious he was about Olga or whether he’d bought the plane tickets for Kiev. Maybe he couldn’t help but act out of character. Whatever he might do, she hoped he wouldn’t make a fool of himself.