“I CANNOT imagine marrying a man younger than myself.” That sentence, spoken by Beina sixteen years before, had been reverberating in Nan ‘s mind ever since he’d been home. In fact, she was just four months older than he. His memory of the proposal still stung him. Fat snowflakes had fluttered around as he proposed to her, saying he’d do everything to make her happy, including most of the household chores. He also promised her that they’d eventually live in a city south of the Yangtze River because she disliked the cold climate here. And with trepidation he waited for her answer. A few sleepy birds croaked in the treetops, whose branches had all caked into masses of snow. Her voice was flippant, which unsettled him, though he had steeled himself for the worst. When the final answer came, he felt crushed and wounded, leaning against the bole of a young birch crusted with ice. “I’ve got to go now. Good night,” she said, and walked away, fading into the darkness. Tears, hot and unstoppable, coursed down his face.
If only he had cut his ties with her right then and there. But instead, he had returned to her later on and gotten enmeshed deeper and deeper in her maze.
For several days now he had been thinking about her. Has she been happy? What does she look like now? Like a middle-aged woman? That’s unlikely. She always knew how to take care of herself. Does she still remember me? Does her husband, that fellow with a rabbit face, really love her? Would she like to see me? Will my reappearance disturb her? What does she do? Still working as a translator in the information office of the sewing machine factory?
He hadn’t asked his siblings about Beina, and nobody had mentioned her either. But he was determined to see her before returning to America. He wouldn’t expect to rekindle her feelings for him. All he wanted was to see her once more so that he could preserve her in his memory as a lovely woman beyond his reach, as someone who still possessed his soul, so that the flames of inspiration would blaze in him again.
On Sunday morning he set out for Daoli District, for Beina’s home. He walked the entire two miles, first along Thriving Peace Street and then along Worker and Peasant Boulevard. The poplars on the sidewalks were twice as large as when he had last seen them, but most buildings alongside the streets were grimier as if coated with coal dust. Since coming back, he had taken some herbal boluses that helped relieve his allergy, so he could breathe normally now. He turned onto a small lane after he passed the sewing machine factory, which, according to one of the signs on the gate pillars, now manufactured motorcycles as well. He found Beina’s bungalow easily, which was tucked away behind two rows of tenements and which he had thought might have been torn down. This Japanese-style house had appeared in his mind from time and time, usually surrounded by cherry blossoms and tulips, but now, standing before it, he saw only a few aspens that seemed to have withered. The grape arbor and espalier that used to shade the east side of the house were gone, replaced by a small garden grown with eggplants, bell peppers, tomatoes, fava beans. The large willow under which he had often watched Beina’s window on the second floor looked ragged, as if it had been struck by lightning, its stringy branches floating in the breeze. He stood under the tree for a while to collect himself. Then with a throbbing heart he climbed up the brick steps and knocked on the door. He backed up a little, his stomach aflutter.
A noise came from inside, and a svelte young woman in a pastel sundress came out. She looked familiar, but Nan wasn’t sure if he had ever met her. “Who are you looking for?” she asked in a voice full of sleep, her eyes fixed on him.
“Beina Su. This is still her home, isn’t it?”
” Sure. Do I know you?”
“I’m Nan Wu.”
The woman’s eyes widened with a dreamy light. “Oh, I heard of you. Come in. I’m Beiya, Beina’s half sister.”
She showed him into the spic-and-span living room. Once he had sat down on a chintz sofa, she asked what he’d like to drink, tea or beer. The latter was a household beverage in Harbin, enjoyed by both men and women, even by children. “Just boiled water will be fine,” Nan told her.
Having placed a cup of tepid water before him, she sat down and said, “So you went with Beina for some time, didn’t you? In fact, she often mentioned you. Didn’t you go to America in the eighties?”
“Yes, twelve years ago.”
Nan scrutinized her face. Her little nose and thick-lashed eyes didn’t resemble Beina’s at all. A baby boy in blue open-seat pants was playing with a rubber ball in the room. He wagged his fleshy buttocks as he crawled and toddled around, chasing the ball. Beiya lifted him up and sat him on her lap.
“Your sister men-mentioned me?” Nan ‘s voice caught. He lifted the cup and took a gulp, the water reeking of chlorine.
“Yes. She said you must be a rich man by now.”
“I’m just getting by.”
“So you haven’t met Beina in America?”
“What? You mean she’s in the States too?”
“Yes, in Illinois.”
“She’s there alone?”
“No, with her family.”
“When did she leave?”
“About five years ago.”
“Oh, if only I had known.” Stupefied, he suddenly felt drained. A strange emotion overcame him, as if he had been taken in. He asked for Beina’s address and phone number, which her half sister jotted down for him with a red fountain pen. By her manner and knowing smile he guessed she knew Beina had once turned down his proposal. In her voice there seemed a touch of sadness and sympathy.
“How is she doing in Illinois?” he managed to ask.
“She complains a lot. She’s working hard to support her family.”
“In the beginning it’s always hard. You have to struggle to put down roots in America. Usually it takes ten years to settle down.”
” So you already have a green card?” “I’m naturalized.”
“That’s awesome. My sister hasn’t got her green card yet.”
“That shouldn’t be difficult for her.” He grimaced.
He wanted to ask more about Beina, but restrained himself. The baby was hungry and wanted to suckle, so Nan seized the moment Beiya turned to give her breast to her son and got up to take his leave.
On his way back he felt dazed, dragging himself eastward absent-mindedly. His hand patted the trunks of the poplars lined along the sidewalk as he passed them. Some pedestrians turned to look at him as if he were a lunatic. Approaching home, he forgot to enter the compound through the back alley. Instead, he walked into the front gate and even nodded at the people sitting in the guard office. One man recognized him and pointed him out for the others in the room. A few men gathered at the opened window to observe Nan, who was an overseas Chinese now. They whispered, “Look at his face, so pink. He must’ve drunk cow’s milk every day.”
Nan pretended he hadn’t heard them. However, the moment he rounded the corner of the first building, Uncle Zhao appeared, holding a galvanized kettle. The mousy old man, pock-faced and beetle-browed, froze midstride, then approached Nan, saying, “Big nephew, you don’t remember me? No? You have such a short memory.”
Nan recognized him, but also remembered his father’s admonition to avoid this old codger. He forced a smile, his face blushing blotchily. “Of course I know you, Uncle Zhao. How are you?”
“I’m good. When did you come back? Why didn’t your father breathe a word?” He looked upset, a frown gathering on his bulging forehead.
“I didn’t tell him about my return either. I’m on a business trip and dropped in to see my parents.” ” Have you been home for days?”
“No, I arrived yesterday.” Nan had to lie to exonerate his father. “Uncle Zhao, I’ve got to go. My mother’s waiting for me.”
“I understand.” Despite saying that, the old man looked sour, his face a little crumpled as if Nan had slighted him.
Uncle Zhao phoned early that afternoon to invite Nan and his father over for dinner the next evening. Nan’s father kept thanking him while apologizing for Nan ‘s inability to come. He said, “He’s leaving tomorrow morning. He didn’t plan to come home. He just took a break from his business engagement in Beijing…No, this evening is out of the question. We’re going to Peacock Pavilion for a family gathering. Nan hasn’t seen his nephew and niece yet.…You see, he’s really in a hurry… Ahem, why did you say that? Of course he’s grateful. Only because he doesn’t have time to see anybody here. Listen, Old Zhao, he brought back something for you. I won’t tell you what it is now…Don’t work up your temper like this, all right?… I’ll see you soon.” He hung up.
Nan was uneasy about his father’s promise to Uncle Zhao and said, “What are you going to give him?”
” That will be up to you. How much do you want to spend?” His father grinned, a tea leaf on his eyetooth.
“I don’t have time to get anything for him.”
“No problem. You can leave some money with me, and I’ll buy a gift for him and say you brought it back.”
“But he’ll be able to tell it’s a hoax.”
“Don’t worry about that. Give me two hundred dollars.”
“I can buy a small air conditioner for him. It isn’t much, really. You owe him-he gave you four of his best paintings. Any one of them could be worth that amount. This is cheaper than to arrange his visit to America, isn’t it? He always dreams of holding a one-man show there.”
“All right, all right.”
Nan took out his billfold and gave his father four fifties. He felt this was a good arrangement, since he’d have to repay the debt to Uncle Zhao one way or another. If he had gone to the old man’s home for dinner, he was sure that the geezer would have tried every way to make him promise to help arrange a show of his paintings and calligraphy in New York, or D.C., or Atlanta. He was afraid of meeting that monomaniac again.