Hui Lang is, of course, bored. Julia can tell by the way she looks out the window every time a car passes that she wishes she were in any one of those cars going anywhere, as long as it is out of Cleveland. Julia can’t fault her for she, too, is restless in this town but they made the mistake of not going back to New York immediately with Xi Jie, electing instead to wait a few more days to accompany Mongyuan back, but those few days have now stretched into a week and they are still a few days away from departing.
“Tomorrow we will go,” Mongyuan says. “Or, at the very latest, the next day. I promise.”
Hui Lang looks out the window and Julia nods. And both wonder what Xi Jie is doing now.
“Skating at Rockefeller Plaza,” Hui Lang says. “Under the Christmas tree.”
“Or shopping at Macys,” Julia says. “Taking advantage of all the sales.”
“She is probably making snowmen in Central Park.”
“We could make snowmen here, too.”
“Yes, but it is not the same. Even the snowmen are different in New York. Here there would be less sparkle when they turned to ice.”
“You are just prejudiced for New York.”
“It’s because I’m a Shanghai girl and we Shanghai girls only like big metropolises. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” Julia sighs. “I suppose it is.”
“Even Mongyuan is bored here. But she cannot just leave her husband too quickly.”
Julia laughs. “No, but you’re right in implying that she would like to.”
“Honestly, I don’t understand married couples,” Hui Lang says. “Their love always seems stronger when they are apart. And when they are together, they act more like brother and sister than lovers.”
“Perhaps the lover phase is reserved for private moments.”
“Or else it passes after marriage.” She sighs and looks out at the snow. “Marriage seems to kill any emotion stronger than affection. I don’t think I could live like that.”
Julia looks at her closely. “You don’t think Mongyuan and Yao Hua love each other?”
Hui Lang turns and their eyes meet. Hers are so intense that Julia almost loses her balance. The shift unsettles her. Before she can regain her equilibrium, Hui Lang says, “They love each other all right. But there is no passion. It is the love of our parents. But we are not our parents yet, are we? I do not think of myself as my mother’s age. Do you? Or have I missed something? Did something happen while I wasn’t aware?”
“You make it sound as if our parents didn’t love.”
“No, I’m saying that their love was devoid of passion by the time we were at an age when we could be aware of such things. Perhaps even before that. But I certainly don’t remember any signs of passion between my parents, do you?”
Images of her mother putting food into her father’s bowl, buying his favorite vegetables at the grocery, knitting a sweater, polishing his shoes. But her father, he was always remote somehow, a man more interested in his daughter’s education than in his wife’s thoughts. Try as hard as she can, she cannot remember one time that her father ever touched her mother with any warmth or affection. It was as if they didn’t know how. “They didn’t show it,” she says finally, “but they did care for each other.”
“Yes, mine, too, but that’s not the kind of life I want. I want to burn every time we are in the same room.”
“That could be dangerous.”
“Love should be dangerous,” Hui Lang says. “Filled with the passion of the operas we love. I know you think this way, too, Chao Ru. I know what is in your heart.”
“Yes, I want passion, but I think Mongyuan does, too.”
“No,” Hui Lang says, “she always was ruled by her head. Passion has no place in her life. It upsets all the calculations by its volatility.”
Julia can’t help but smile, seeing the truth in that assessment. “Yes, she even picked us as friends because she thought we would add necessary variety to her life.”
“And Yao Hua became her husband because she wanted one at that time and he was the best choice of the moment. If he had asked a year earlier, she would have dismissed him.”
Julia laughs. “But it is a good marriage. Something both of us lack.” She regrets having said it as she is saying it but the words are out there, soiling the air.
“Yes,” Hui Lang says, looking off somewhere beyond the four walls that encase them there in Cleveland. “In that way she is complete. And we, we are less so.”
Suddenly Julia feels the weight that her best friend, too, is carrying and they sag into each other. For they both hear the questions, from family, from married friends, from passing acquaintances: When will you marry? When? And the two friends are past the desirable age without a likely prospect in view. They just have each other. So in each other’s arms, they take what comfort they can.
Anthony finds himself staring into the refrigerator for the fifth time in one day and it isn’t even dinner time yet. He knows he’s not hungry but he also knows he can’t seem to concentrate on writing or reading, his mind is too distracted, and he doesn’t have the luxury of having school work to ignore. So he finds himself looking into the refrigerator, wondering what he should cook. There doesn’t seem to be anything appetizing. He would find that depressing if he were hungry but he isn’t so he doesn’t. Then the phone rings to further complicate matters.
“So,” Robert says, “what did you do on New Year’s?”
“I managed to stay out of trouble,” Anthony says. “And you?”
“I went to a party with Meg.”
“These were all her friends and I was trying my best to be on my good behavior.”
“How’d you do?”
“Well,” and he sighs, “it was difficult.”
“What do you mean?”
“First off,” Robert says, “the woman throwing the party name’s Aria. So I say, as in area rug? Well, that didn’t get much of a laugh.”
“No sense of humor, huh?”
“These people, Anthony, they all talked like they had lockjaw speech. You know the kind, right? That upper crusty lockjaw. Like they eat cucumber sandwiches and are as witty as Oscar Wilde.”
“And these are Meg’s friends?”
“Not her best friends,” Robert says, “but she does ‘dine’ with them on occasion.”
“And you behaved yourself?”
“I was the picture of charm. That is,” and he sighs into the mouthpiece again, “until the alcohol kicked in. Then I think I might have gotten a little loud and a teeny bit obnoxious.”
“Ah,” Anthony goes and rubs his eyes. When he opens them he realizes that he still has the refrigerator door open. He closes it and says, “And I thought my life was complicated. All my problems, though, seem to center on what to cook for dinner.”
“Make chili,” Robert says. “That’s what I made this morning. And it was so good I ate two bowls full for breakfast.”
“You had chili for breakfast?”
“I eat what I want to eat when I want to eat it. Life is too short for compromise.”
“Jesus. You have one helluva constitution.”
“I’m a bull. You should have seen me at the party. I was challenging people to shot contests. And, of course, I ate a plant.”
“You ate a what?”
“A house plant. At least I think it was a house plant. It was in a pot.”
“Was it green?”
“Then it probably was a house plant.”
“I don’t think Aria noticed. But she’ll probably miss it eventually.”
“Did you leave the pot anywhere conspicuous?”
“I hid it under the kitchen sink.”
“You’re safe then for at least a month.”
“That’s what I figure.”
“They didn’t have any food there, I take it.”
“No, there was food. Finger food. It was that everyone was so polite, you know what I mean?”
Anthony says “Yeah” with suspicion.
“And I was, you know, feeling claustrophobic.”
“So you ate a plant?”
“Yeah. You understand, don’t you?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” Anthony nods in no one’s direction. “I’ve done things like that myself.”
“I knew it ran in the family,” Robert says.
“Yes,” Anthony says, but without much enthusiasm.
“Anyway, Meg didn’t mind.”
“She told you that?”
“Yeah. She’s coming over later for the chili.”
“You still have some left?”
“I made about eight pounds. That way it lasts for a few meals.”
“Oh.” There is a moment of silence while Anthony reflects on his life and Robert washes a few dishes. “Your New Year’s was certainly more eventful than mine.”
“Well, I’m going to take a nap now,” Robert says. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“No,” Anthony says. “I think it’s the wise thing to do.”
And they hang up. Anthony sits and stares at the wall for a long time. He wonders vaguely if he’s hungry yet. Then he closes his eyes, leans his head back against the kitchen wall, and falls asleep.
Once back in New York, Julia goes to Jonathan’s to retrieve her cat. Dinner, of course, awaits her.
“Your visit was a good one?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says, “but it was not exactly the place I would knowingly plan to spend two weeks. There is just too little to do.”
“They have a symphony, don’t they? And there is a Chinese community?”
“Of sorts, but my friends do not like to go anywhere if it involves spending money since they are sending money home for their son.”
He nods sympathetically, though Julia is not sure for whom. “It’s difficult,” he says, and though the comment could apply to them all, Julia is fairly certain he is referring to the trials of parenthood which he, too, shares.
“Hui Lang was very restless,” Julia says. “She had less patience with Cleveland than I.”
“That is because she is not grounded. She cannot have any patience for people who live beyond themselves.”
Julia doesn’t quite know how to respond. She thinks that although he is talking about Hui Lang, he could also be referring to her. Both of them are, after all, only concerned with themselves since neither one of them has anyone else. Selfish, he is implying. Or, at best, self-absorbed. And Julia feels pained by that assessment. But before she lets her pain react to his remark, she switches focus and asks about his vacation. Soon they are chatting about things remote from her. And from that place, she eventually, with cat in tow, heads home.
Once there, she sorts through the mail that has accumulated during her absence. A flyer from The China Institute catches her eye that advertises a concert for a popular opera singer from the mainland to be held at the 92nd Street Y. She thinks this would make an excellent outing for her friends and then, for some reason unknown to her, she thinks of the American Anthony. It suddenly seems important to her to have him there with her friends but she does not know how to arrange that. Then she thinks of Rebecca and calls her.
“I would love to go,” Rebecca says.
“And do you think your friend Anthony would like to go, also?” Julia asks. “Or would it be too much for him to be with so many Chinese?”
“I don’t think so. But we could always let him bring another American to give him language support.”
“Yes, it’s only fair.”
“Would you like me to call him?” Rebecca asks. “Or would you like to do it yourself?”
“I’ll do it,” Julia says. “After all, it was my idea.”
And having said so, she starts a new phase.
“What I don’t understand,” Frank says, “is why I have to go to the opera, too?”
“It’s not the opera,” Anthony says. “It’s to hear an opera singer.”
“That’s even worse,” Frank says. “That means I don’t get sets and costumes.”
“You don’t need sets and costumes to appreciate opera.”
“Maybe you don’t, but I personally don’t appreciate opera even with them, but at least with them, I feel like I should.”
“You don’t like the opera?”
“What kind of Italian are you?”
“I didn’t realize it was a prerequisite. I just thought owning Frank Sinatra albums was enough to get you membership in the club. Besides,” and Frank looks at him pointedly, “do you like the opera?”
“It’s all right.”
“All right?” Frank looks skeptical. “Beets are all right but I don’t go out of my way to eat them.”
“Beets?” Anthony asks. “You equate the opera with eating beets?”
“I’m just making the point that there are many things that are ‘all right’ but that we all don’t have to necessarily seek them out. And beets, like the opera, is one of those many things.”
“So this means I can’t count on you to play sidekick and go with me?”
“You mean like be the best friend that’s cute and funny but doesn’t get the girl?”
“I’m not sure if you can qualify as cute anymore.”
Frank’s eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”
“You’re getting a little too old to be called cute.”
“I’m as old as you.”
“Precisely. And I’m too old to be cute, too.”
“I’m not sure I like this conversation,” Frank says. “First my ethnicity is questioned because I am not partial to opera and now I’m losing all rights and privileges to youthful sounding adjectives because of my advanced age.”
“You’re getting very sensitive lately.”
“Sensitive?” Frank looks to the ceiling of the stockroom and sighs. “The man comes to the place I work, hustles me, insults me, and now criticizes me. And all on what is supposed to be my lunch hour.”
“You weren’t really hungry anyway.”
“Hmmmm.” Frank slumps back against the break table. “How can I intelligently respond to that?”
“The only response I want is your positive response to my request that you accompany me and a group of Chinese women to the 92nd Street Y to hear an opera singer.”
“Can’t we just do dinner instead?”
“We’ll do that, too.”
“Before or after?”
“Uptown or downtown?”
“I would guess Chinatown.”
“And you and I are to be the only people who speak English with native fluency?”
“Yeah, but we don’t have to hold hands.”
Frank nods. “I was a little worried there for a second.”
“So?” Anthony asks. “You’ll come?”
Frank lets out a deep breath. “Did I ever stand a chance?” He looks closely at Anthony and adds, “You’re nervous about this, huh?”
Anthony considers that for a second and thinks, yes, yes, he is. He is so nervous about this that he doesn’t want to dwell on his feelings too long. And yet there is a sense of excitement, also. For wherever this is going, it is on its way. He can do nothing now but go along for the ride and hope beyond all reasonable expectations that somehow whatever place it leaves him is better than wherever it was he was going before.
Julia doesn’t know why she feels anxious except that maybe she is testing something here and the outcome of this could influence future events. After all, isn’t she curious about how her friends will react to Anthony and how he, in turn, will interact with them? And isn’t she also curious about his friend? What kind of person will he be? Like the old saying, if you stay with chickens, you will remain on the ground, but if you stay with eagles, you will fly above it. Isn’t she wondering whether he associates with chickens, or eagles? Wouldn’t that tell her something about him?
She studies herself in the mirror and then changes her clothes for the third time. She cannot decide what to wear because she cannot decide what image she wants to convey. Too formal would mean too stiff; too informal would imply she was more Westernized than she is. Yet she is going to a concert among Chinese and so must dress accordingly. She did not, though, want to look too out-of-fashion as so many Mainlanders do in this country. After all, what is chic back home is usually out-dated here. Therefore she has long since learned to wear the many clothes she brought with her from China sparingly and not in the company of Westerners. She has supplemented her wardrobe with outfits from Macys and The Limited and other shops she has discovered during her shopping sprees with Hui Lang, and it is in front of these that she picks and chooses for this evening.
Finally she settles on a black wool dress that stops a few inches from her knees. It hugs her body nicely and she has to admit that she still has maintained her slender shape. She could still wear the same clothes she wore while in college. That thought saddens her since this same body has been wasted all these long years since the only man who has known it, and who still knows it, has been Eric, a man who is married to someone else. Someone who even her best friend doesn’t know still sleeps with her. And what would Hui Lang say if she found out? Julia smiles ruefully at the imagined conversation.
And yet, is she planning to take another lover? Is that why she stares so intently at her shape in the mirror? Is that why the act of clothing her body has taken on such importance because she designs to allow someone to disrobe her? After all this time is she postulating a scenario where someone will have access to her physically? And then? Will she also allow him access to her thoughts? Her feelings? Will he touch her beyond herself? Will she grant someone that intimacy?
She shivers slightly. Wraps her arms around her chest as if afraid of something slipping out, something slipping in. She stares at herself for a very long moment in the mirror. She stares.
Frank sits impassively in the car as Anthony mutters to himself about the other drivers on the road. He knows that Anthony is nervous by the way he chatters and so tries to listen to music coming from the tape deck instead.
“It’s the long, narrow, vertical one,” Anthony says to the car in front of them, “that makes the car go, not the one you’re touching. That makes it stop.”
Frank rummages through the tapes on the console looking for something appropriate to play. He finds Frank Sinatra and pops it in. Soon he is singing along with “Strangers in the Night” and Anthony joins in. This, Frank concludes, will keep him calm. And the two friends harmonize as they weave down Queens Boulevard to Rebecca’s place. “Do be do be do.”
Rebecca enters the car to Sinatra’s “My Way” and gets an introduction to Frank. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she says, “I feel I know you already.”
“Me, too,” Frank says. “Except that I know Anthony long enough now to know that the more he tells a story, the less it resembles reality. So my information about you is probably more accurate than yours about me.”
“But facts do not always represent reality, do they? Don’t they say sometimes fiction is truer than nonfiction and so Anthony, whether he invents or not, is still telling the truth. Therefore we probably know each other equally well.”
Frank and Anthony exchange a look.
“I told you,” Anthony says.
“So you did,” Frank nods.
“And do you believe him now?” Rebecca asks.
“Good,” and she smiles. “I do so want to be like old friends.” She looks Frank in the eye. “Are we like old friends?”
“We go back several lifetimes,” he says. “Or at least since the last millenium.”
“That’s a very long time.”
“Yes,” he agrees. “So I guess it’s safe to say we’re like old friends. Which,” and he returns the smile, “is probably good for me since, according to Anthony, you’re probably one of the few people besides him and me that speaks English tonight.”
“There’s at least one other,” Rebecca says. “Maybe two.”
“Well, I can always practice my Chinese.”
“You know Chinese?”
“Nee how,” he says and looks at her a little sheepishly. “That won’t get me too far, though, huh?”
“Not beyond the greeting.”
“That’s what I figured.”
Anthony shakes his head sadly as he drives them to Julia Wu’s. “I guess we white devils are in big trouble tonight.”
“Don’t worry,” Rebecca says in her most reassuring voice. “We Chinese have a long history because we have endured much. And we will endure you two, too.”
Anthony and Frank exchange another look. Then they both look out at the road in front of them. And they both sigh.
They arrive at Julia’s amid some confusion. There are introductions and much smiling, nodding, stiff handshaking, and mangling of names. Xi Jie is easy for the Americans but they stumble over Hui Lang and have the most difficulty with Mongyuan. But after a shaky start, they finally get the hang of it and even Mongyuan recognizes her own name. “What’s your Chinese name?” Frank asks Julia and, with Anthony, is soon repeating “Chao Ru”. The tones are a problem that the women seem to ignore. And so after the naming is complete, they all face the new crisis of seven people in a Toyota.
“I think maybe I should have driven, too,” Frank says, somewhat ruefully.
“There are too many of us,” Julia says apologetically. “We can take a cab.”
“Don’t be silly,” Anthony says. “It’s only ten minutes away. I’ll do two trips.”
There is some haggling here, mainly centering on who goes first and who waits, and then everything’s settled: Frank, Rebecca, and Mongyuan first; then Julia, Hui Lang, and Xi Jie. Anthony is, of course, the chauffeur. And when he returns for the second group, they climb in with giddy anticipation. Julia sits up front and thanks him for being so kind. “Don’t thank me,” he says. “Instead you should chastise me for being so stupid. If I had only counted the number of people coming, I would have known we would need two cars.”
“But I’ve caused so much trouble.”
“Nonsense. Frank could have driven. He just lives across the river, near me.”
“But it’s so troublesome.”
“He drives every day to work in Manhattan. He hates the subway.”
After a second’s hesitation, Hui Lang stirs in the back seat and asks, “What job does he do?”
“He manages a book store.”
“Ohhhh.” And then Hui Lang turns to Xi Jie and says in Mandarin, “One writes and the other sells books. It is easy to see the basis of their friendship.” Then to Julia, “It would be interesting to take a look at their bookshelves and see more evidence of their character.”
“But it would all be in English,” Xi Jie says, “and thus elusive to us.”
They laugh and Anthony asks about the joke. “Oh,” Julia says, “we were just saying you both must own lots of books.”
“Well, yeah,” Anthony says, but he thinks that couldn’t have been that funny, even in Chinese.
“And he is a poet?” Xi Jie asks.
“And a teacher,” Hui Lang adds.
“A teacher of English,” Julia says.
“He teaches people like us who are learning English,” Hui Lang says, and then she asks Anthony in English, “Where do you teach?”
“At a community college on Long Island.”
“It’s a shame you don’t teach here in the city,” she says. “Then we could be your students.”
“You sound pretty good to me.”
“Oh,” and she sighs, “I still have trouble. And Xi Jie, well she is a true beginner.”
“Dancers don’t have to speak,” Julia explains.
“My body speaks,” Xi Jie says. “But my mouth…” and she shrugs helplessly.
“It is probably for the better,” Hui Lang says in Chinese. “Words only bring trouble.”
They grow silent then, each lost in their own world. Anthony, too, is lost, but not in his own thoughts so much as lost because he is shut out of theirs. He thinks there should be a conversation here but it eludes them all. And that depresses him. But he pulls up in front of the Y before it overwhelms him and lets them out to join the others in the lobby while he drives off to look for a parking space.
The concert hall is filled with the sound of Mandarin and Taiwanese since the violinist also on the program is from Taipei. Anthony notices only a handful of other Americans in the audience. Julia notices him noticing that and wonders just how foreign he feels. But rather than making him uncomfortable, he seems to observe such things with a neutral expression. She thinks it is probably because he teaches foreigners that he is able to be at ease among them. His friend Frank also seems oblivious to it but mainly because he is engrossed in a conversation with Rebecca about some novel she is reading that Anthony gave her. Though Julia can’t catch who the author is, the conversation seems to center on voice. She thinks it appropriate that voice is dominating their interaction this evening.
During the intermission Hui Lang asks Anthony and Frank if they like opera. “Of course,” Frank says smiling Anthony’s way but not looking him in the eye. “We’re Italian. It’s in our blood.”
“But recitals can be different than performances because you lose the context of the song,” Julia says. “Sometimes you have only the beauty at the sacrifice of the meaning.”
“And I miss the interaction of the voices,” Rebecca says. “The drama of the songs.”
“And the orchestra,” Hui Lang says. “And the staging.”
“And,” Frank says, his eyes shining, “the sets and costumes.”
“Yes,” Hui Lang sighs. “The huge effect.”
“Well,” Anthony says, “perhaps we should all get tickets for something at the Met.”
“Oh yes,” they agree and conversation moves toward the future. Anthony looks over at Frank who seems to be immersed in deep dialogue with Rebecca and Hui Lang. Frank’s comments seem mostly confined to “right”s and “uh huh”s and “yeah”s but he does seem to be enjoying himself. Anthony begins to smile when suddenly he becomes aware of Julia’s eyes on him. He turns and their eyes meet briefly before both look self-consciously away. It is happening too fast, he thinks, she thinks, as the evening keeps spinning away from them on its own volition. People are talking, plans are being made, common interests discovered. And where will it end? Lives spin along in their own spheres and they intersect with other lives spinning and changes occur, some tiny and insignificant, others enormous and unfathomable. And here, in this auditorium, on this otherwise innocuous evening in January with snow covering a city weary of snow, these lives are spinning together and what will the consequences be? Julia, Anthony, their friends, are here, are now, and nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Dinner is, of course, in Chinatown but not before there is much discussion in Mandarin as to which restaurant would be best to bring the foreigners to. “But Anthony has Chinese brothers,” Rebecca says, “so he must know what to expect.”
“But,” Julia says, “his brothers grew up in this country, too, and so they are all probably used to the junk Chinese food they serve all Americans here.” She sighs. “There is probably no escaping that.”
“Well, we could take them to a restaurant with an American menu and let them pick some dishes.”
“Or we can go to one we frequent and instruct them,” Julia says.
“Open their eyes to new experiences?” Hui Lang asks, her eyes glinting mischievously as she studies her friend.
“Why not?” Julia’s question sounds more like a challenge and she regrets the tone. But everyone seems to agree.
“Let us Easternize these Westerners,” Xi Jie finally says. “Even if that proves to be an impossible task.”
“But one way to judge a person’s character is through their stomachs,” Hui Lang says, and then to Julia, “Isn’t that right, Chao Ru?”
Julia ignores the veiled meaning and settles on the restaurant. She then finds herself with Rebecca and Mongyuan in Anthony’s car while Hui Lang and Xi Jie travel in a taxi with Frank. Rebecca sits in front with Anthony so Julia slides in next to Mongyuan in the back. It is then, for the first time that evening, that she notices Mongyuan’s eyes. They are uncertain and lost, like a child in a strange house without her parents. Suddenly Julia feels guilty because she realizes that she has neglected one of her friends. “You’re not having a good time,” she says.
“It’s not that,” Mongyuan answers. “It’s just when you all speak English, my head spins. I just can’t keep up.”
“It is hard, I know.”
“Yes, but I seem to suffer the most,” Mongyuan says in frustration. “Xi Jie does not understand that much, either, but it does not bother her. She adapts better to these kinds of situations than I do. I guess that’s her dancer’s training. But me, I take this harder.”
“You always put such pressure on yourself.”
“Don’t we all?” Mongyuan asks. “Is that not our way?”
“And I have ignored you all evening,” Julia says, wondering if she feels bad about this act of omission or the fact that she doesn’t feel as guilty about it as she thinks she should.
“It’s all right,” Mongyuan says. “You have friends in two languages now and ones like me who are still trapped in one voice cannot expect to be included in both your worlds.”
Julia reaches out and takes Mongyuan’s hand in hers. She gently squeezes it and Mongyuan, smiling bravely, squeezes back.
Anthony meanwhile tries to listen to Rebecca but his mind keeps being distracted by the Chinese voices in the back. He wonders what they’re saying and then thinks that life with these people would be filled with moments like this when the language being spoken by all around him would be foreign to his ears even though he would be in the middle of his native country. There would be so much said that he could not understand. Could he handle that?
“You managed to survive the concert,” Rebecca says. “Now do you think you can find a parking space?”
“That is always the big question around here,” he answers, looking at her but with one ear still tuned into the back.
“Of course, we could have had this problem magnified by two,” Rebecca says, “if Frank had a car, too. So we are lucky we are using a cab.”
Anthony looks at her a second and then says, “Multiplied.”
“Multiplied?” she asks. “Why not magnified? Isn’t it bigger?”
“Yeah, but we’re talking about an increase in number, not one car but two, not size as in a small to a medium.”
“Oh,” and she nods. “That makes sense.”
He nods, but the Chinese keeps distracting him. His eyes move to the rearview mirror and he watches Julia’s mouth moving, emitting those sounds, and his mind begins to wander. This is not healthy, he tells himself, and he pulls back to focus on Rebecca, on the traffic, on the quest for a parking space, on familiar ground.
Dinner begins with soup. It is not wonton or hot and sour or egg drop as Anthony and Frank are accustomed but broth with pork kidney, bok choy and pickled vegetables. There is also jelly fish and glutinous puffs and belt fish for appetizers and dishes of squid and vegetables, scallops and squash, pork and bean curd, beef tripe, clams in black bean sauce, and steamed flounder follow. And though the food is delicious, it cannot compare in Anthony’s mind to the way the women had debated and discussed each dish before ordering, trying to create a truly memorable dinner for the two Americans. That, for him, would be the one memory he would keep locked away in his heart.
Frank, meanwhile, quizzes everyone on what exactly everything is, and how each is cooked.
“Do you cook?” Hui Lang asks.
“Mostly Italian,” he says. “And I do many things with chicken.”
“I love all kinds of seafood but the only thing I make is clam sauce, both red and white.”
“Shanghai people love seafood,” Julia says. “It is because we are a port, I suppose.”
“Italians love seafood, too,” Frank says. “All the men in our families used to go fishing in the Long Island Sound. It was their way of bonding.”
“My father used to fish all the time,” Julia says. “He would take me with him when I was a little girl and teach me songs to sing that would attract the fish.”
“Did it work?”
“I believed so then,” she laughs. “But now I am older and wiser and know better.”
“I wonder if we ever know better,” Rebecca says.
“Wondering is a step in the right direction,” Anthony says. “Besides, singing probably didn’t hurt.”
“That would depend on who’s singing,” Frank says. “If I sang, for instance, you wouldn’t be able to find a fish within a twenty mile radius.”
“And if I sang,” Rebecca says, “they would jump on shore to silence me.”
“You two are both the extreme cases of fishing and singing,” Anthony says. “The yin and yang of sing fishing, so to speak. Most of the rest of us fall somewhere in the middle.”
“Except for me,” Hui Lang says. “I don’t fish at all. I just enjoy the labor of others.”
“And that might qualify you as the cleverest one since you enjoy what the others enjoy without doing the work,” Rebecca says.
The steamed flounder arrives and is immediately a big hit with the men. “I’ve had flounder ever since I was a kid but always breaded and pan-fried or else baked or broiled but this is a hundred times better,” Anthony says. “It’s so tender and juicy that it tastes like another fish.”
And the women, of course, all marvel at the men’s use of chopsticks, or at least all of them marvel except Rebecca and Julia who both know better. “So adept,” Xi Jie says.
“Like Chinese,” Hui Lang adds.
“It’s because they’re New Yorkers,” Rebecca explains. “They pick up many foreign habits.”
“Yes,” Julia agrees. “It’s the advantage of being a port of entry.”
Anthony and Frank exchange a look and then Anthony asks, “You’re not talking about us, are you? I mean I only ask because you all keep looking at us as you talk and it’s making Frank self-conscious.”
“Not self-conscious so much as curious,” Frank says.
“We are admiring your skill with chopsticks,” Hui Lang says.
“Oh,” Frank sighs. “I thought it was my other charms.”
“What other charms?” Anthony asks.
“That’s why I was curious,” Frank says. “I wanted to find out, too.”
And finally they get red bean soup for dessert in addition to the sliced oranges and fortune cookies the men are used to.
“I’ve never had this before,” Anthony says.
“That’s because they don’t think Americans would like it,” Julia explains. “But it is traditional in China during the winter months.”
“You get red beans in winter,” Rebecca explains, “and green beans in summer. One is to raise your body temperature and the other is to cool it down.”
“I was always suspicious that there were two menus,” Frank says, “but not two color beans.”
The evening ends at Julia’s place where they all drink tea and nibble on pineapple cakes and fruit while Rachmaninov plays softly in the background. There is a kind of melancholy in the air as the two Americans finally leave with Rebecca. It’s almost as if they all want to prolong the connection that was made as long as possible. A door has been opened and they have all peeked inside. A certain amount of solidarity has been reached that was not expected and this causes the lingering sadness. The cold winter air does what it can to take that away.
Later, as Anthony drops Frank off at his apartment, he looks over and asks, “So what did you think?”
“Well,” Frank answers, “I did miss the costumes and the sets.”
“But the food made up for it. Especially the steamed flounder.”
“Yeah,” Anthony agrees. “That was a high point.”
“‘Course the company wasn’t bad, either.”
“No,” he nods. “It wasn’t.”
“Yeah,” Frank says and sighs. “You are going to have to watch yourself there, partner.” He looks over and their eyes meet. “Know what I mean?”
“I think I might have crossed the line already.”
“I don’t mean about how you feel,” he says, “because you’d have to be crazy not to feel what you’re beginning to feel. No, I mean about how you handle it.”
“Ahhhh,” and Anthony’s hand loosely rubs the steering wheel. “That’s always the tricky part.”
“And old dogs have a hard time with tricky parts.”
“Yeah, and from one old dog to another, you got any advice?”
“Even if I did, I don’t think you ought to take it. After all, I’m living alone, too. So you see how successful I’ve been in this business.”
“Hmmmm.” Anthony stares out the windshield while Frank stares at him. “I think,” he says finally, “I might be out of my element.”
“It’s certainly a different world than the one we’re used to,” Frank agrees. “And I have a feeling we just saw the tip of the iceberg.”
Anthony looks over at him. “So you think I should sidestep this.”
“I didn’t say that,” Frank says. “I just said watch yourself. This will require more dexterity on your part. So if you’re serious, be careful.”
“I’m serious,” Anthony says. “I think she’s the most interesting woman I’ve met in a long time.”
“No doubt about it. But she’s different than you’re used to so proceed with caution. You don’t want to cause any unnecessary pain through misunderstanding, right?”
“So do more research before you try to draw any conclusions. Okay?”
Anthony nods. “Okay.”
“And next time you need moral support, call me.” Frank grins. “Especially if it includes eating out.” And with that, he departs.
Anthony sits a minute in front of his building with his car idling. Then he straightens up and puts the car in drive. He takes a short breath and touches the gas pedal. The car moves into the night.
Julia sits in her apartment watching Mongyuan sleep. She thinks it will be better for her once Mongyuan moves into a place of her own next week. She never thought she would want her friend to leave so soon but this evening’s outing made her realize how her world, her life is changing here in this country. Mongyuan’s inability to participate fully was only a further indication for Julia of her own estrangement with her old life in China. She is still not fully integrated into American society but she feels she could be, should be a part of it. There is a bridge she must cross and her intuition tells her that her new American friend can help with that crossing. She will need her life in order at home before she can begin to change. Mongyuan’s presence confines her movements and so she needs the space cleared of obstacles to her growth. For she is beginning to see Anthony’s face when she least expects to, and thinks it might be more convenient to live alone again if this new friendship is to grow into anything else.
And when she stares across the room at the shadows along the wall, her body tingles with expectation. She closes her eyes as the tingling spreads. She begins to smile.