ON THE NIGHT of July Fourth the Gold Wok was closed. Some people in the neighborhood went downtown to watch fireworks in spite of the overcast sky. The Wus stayed home, glad to have a break. Nan was lying in bed reading Frost’s poetry. He was moved by the wise ending of the poem “Provide, Provide” and was contemplating how truthful the phrase “boughten friendship” was. Suddenly Ping-ping burst in and threw a sheet of brittle paper on his face. He sat up with a start and asked, “What’s this about?”
“About you and your sweetheart. Disgusting!” Her mouth twisted as she was speaking. Then she spun around, marched out, and slammed the door shut.
Nan glanced at the paper and recognized it was a letter from Beina. He had kept it in the unabridged Webster’s and had almost forgotten it. What must have maddened Pingping was that the letter was dated on November 12 without a year, as if it had been written recently. In it Beina asked him to help her with the application fees at three American graduate schools. He had paid $140 for her but hadn’t heard a word from her afterward.
He went into the living room, where his wife, lying on a sofa, had been singing in English repeatedly, “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family!” Though she covered her face with a towel that had just come out of the dryer, her voice was sharp and crazed. Nan stepped over and touched her upper arm, shaded by downy hair that he always liked to caress. He said, “Come now, don’t be so paranoid. That’s an old letter. I haven’t heard from her for almost eight years.”
She paused to stare at him. He kept on, “I really have no contact with her.”
“But you tried to bring her to America!” Pingping raged, dropping the towel to the floor. “Who knows? You’re a big liar. Maybe you’re still thick with her like before. You always do things behind my back.”
“Honestly, I’m not in touch with her and have no idea where she is.”
“Leave me alone! You spent our sweat money on that heartless woman. If she were good to you, I wouldn’t complain. You’re just bewitched by that fox spirit.”
“Like I said, this was before you came to America.”
“I see, you really meant to bring her here. If I hadn’t come and joined you, you would’ve lived with her instead.”
“This is crazy. She just used me.”
“But you like being used by her and always miss her. You’re so cheap that the worse she treats you, the nicer you’ll be to her.”
Their son stepped into the living room and listened to them. Nan told Taotao to go away, but the boy wouldn’t leave. Nan begged Ping-ping, “Don’t be so nasty. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have kept the letter.”
“Why not? That’s your receipt for the favor she owes you. She’ll do something in return one of these days. But why didn’t you hide it in a secret place? I don’t care what you do on the sly as long as you don’t let me know.”
“Honestly, I’m not carrying on with her.”
“Go away! I don’t want to see your face.”
Wordlessly Nan flounced toward the door while Pingping resumed singing behind him, “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family!… “
Nan wandered away from their house, alone with his numb heart. On occasion when he and Pingping quarreled, he’d get away awhile. His absence from home often enraged her more, but today she had chased him out. If only there were a place where he could stay a few days when his house got too raucous and too maddening. If only there were a friend to whom he could unburden himself. Dick Harrison lived fifteen miles away in Buckhead, but Nan felt Dick might be bored and look down on him if he went to him for consolation, which was the last thing he’d do. Every time after he and Pingping fought, he’d go either to the town library or to a bookstore for an hour, or just work off his anger in the kitchen of the Gold Wok. But this evening he had nowhere to go, so he walked along the lakeside alone. In the air hovered the effluvium of skunks, which had grown more intense as the summer deepened. Insects were shrieking explosively as if a large battle were in full swing, and time and again some waterfowl let out a sleepy cry from the dark woods of the other shore. Fortunately, the air was damp and few mosquitoes were flying about. In the southern sky a helicopter was ticking faintly, now buried in the clouds and now flickering like a drifting lantern.
Nan ‘s mind was teeming with thoughts. Deep inside he knew he was at fault. Pingping had lashed out at him not so much because of the money he had spent on Beina as because he had kept her letter as a kind of memento. Before they married, she had let him read all the love letters the naval officer, her former boyfriend, had written her, and then she burned them all in his presence. Oddly enough, he didn’t have any letter from Beina at that time and couldn’t convince his bride-to-be that there had been no correspondence between him and his former girlfriend since they had lived in the same city. To make her believe him, he showed her a photo of that woman, then dropped it into a stove. Now his wife must have thought he had been in touch with Beina all these years and that from the very beginning he hadn’t leveled with her. To her, he was a double-faced man.
It took him almost an hour to walk around the lake, which should have taken at most half the time. Approaching his house, he wondered if he should enter it now. All the lights were off in there, and the windowpanes kept reflecting the slashes of the lightning in the north, where the sky was beginning to jump a little. It threatened rain, the oak leaves fluttering in the gathering wind, so he decided to go in.
As he stepped into the living room, a pair of arms wrapped around him and Pingping’s hot face came against his cheek. She whispered, ” Nan, forgive me. I can see the letter is old, the edges of the paper already yellowed. I was nasty just now. Can you…?” Her words were muffled as he pressed his lips on her mouth. In response, she began kissing him as hard as if she wanted to breathe with his lungs. He could feel her heart knocking against his half-numbed chest. He touched her breasts, which were warm and heaving. A knot of feeling was quickly unfolding in him, and his hand slipped behind her to unbutton her dress.
“Don’t. Taotao can hear us,” she said.
He stopped and went into their son’s room. The boy was dozing on his bed, his feet rested on the floor and his face toward the ceiling. Nan covered Taotao’s stomach with a shirt, closed the door, and returned to Pingping. “He’s sleeping. I’ll be careful,” he said, and his hands resumed caressing her.
She slid down to the floor, pulling him down with her. Then they started peeling off each other’s clothes.
Soon she began panting and trembling a little. A few tears welled out of her eyes. Instead of being rough with her, he licked her wet cheeks, and her tears tasted a bit tangy, reminding him of the bitter-melon soup they’d eaten two days before. He adjusted her body to make her lie comfortably so that he could stay in her for a long time.
“Don’t cry,” he murmured. “Just relax and imagine we’re on our honeymoon.”
At those words she broke into smothered sobs, which startled him. He regretted having said that because never had they honeymooned anywhere and his words must have caused her to feel sad about their life. He said, “Forgive me for saying that.”
“Make me happy.”
He nuzzled her neck and nibbled her ear.