DRIVING back by I-74, Nan got off at Red Cedars, Illinois, where Beina was living. On entering the town, he stopped at a food mart and bought a bag of beef jerky for Taotao. He asked a saleswoman for directions, and she said Huron Road was in the north, about half a mile away and close to a cemetery. Without further delay he drove into Red Cedars. It was almost midmorning, yet the town, more like a big village, seemed still asleep, white clapboard houses wet with rainwater and some partly obscured by gray bushes. After Nan passed a traffic light, a cafe appeared, but it looked empty inside despite four cars parked before the yellowish cottage. In some front yards of the homes along the streetside, apples and pears were strewn under trees, half eaten by birds and animals, and yellow jackets buzzed into or exited from the holes in the fruit the birds had made. With little difficulty Nan found Beina’s place, a pinkish house with peeling paint and an overhanging second story. It sat on a slope at the end of the narrow street. His heart was thumping. Would she be in there? It was Thursday and she was probably out at work. He went up to the front door and rang the doorbell, but it was either broken or disconnected, no sound coming from inside. So he clanked the brass knocker shaped like a horseshoe, hoping her husband wouldn’t be the one to come out.
An old Chinese woman in a powder blue housedress appeared, holding the door ajar. “Who are you looking for?” She sized Nan up, her eyes glassy and shrewd.
“Does Beina Su live here?” asked Nan.
“Yes. You are…?”
“I’m a former classmate of hers, back in China, I mean. Is she home?”
“No.” Her face didn’t change. “She’s at her office, at Fifty-seven Chauncy Street, near McDonald’s. Go down the road and take a left at the second light. That’s Chauncy. You won’t miss it.” She pointed at a large orange sign in the south that claimed amazing bargains!
Nan was surprised that she treated him as if he lived nearby. He asked, “Aunt, are you her mother-in-law?”
“Yes. I’m taking care of their kids. My son is in-he’s correcting his students’ homework. Won’t you come in and talk to him?”
” No, no need to trouble him. I have to go along without further delay.”
He thanked her and drove away slowly, feeling lucky that he hadn’t run into Beina’s husband, that rabbit-faced man, who might have been able to guess who he was.
Having taken two turns and passed a few stores and a McDonald’s with a fenced-in playground for children, Nan found 57 Chauncy Street, which was a two-story brick building housing several business offices. He regretted not having asked the old woman what kind of work Beina was doing, but looking through the directory in the vestibule, he saw “Oriental Healing Arts Studio” and “Yoga Workshop.” He decided to go to room 206 first, where the studio was. As he climbed up the stairs, the wooden steps edged with cleated iron sheets, sharp creaks shot up from under his feet. He tried to walk lightly; still the noise wouldn’t go away. He looked up and could tell that the building must once have been a factory, the ceiling at least fifteen feet high and massive wooden pillars visible in places.
For some reason his heart was calm, as if this were a regular visit to an insurance agent or a physician. Beside the frosted-glass door of room 206 stood a small artificial pear tree in blossom, planted in a plastic pot. Nan knocked on the door, but no one answered. He turned the handle and went in.
At the sound of the door chime, a woman cried from an inner room, “I’ll be with you in a minute.” Nan recognized Beina’s voice, which sounded lively but a little forced, neutral in the tone adopted for business use. She then asked someone in a subdued tone, “How do you feel when I twist this needle?”
“The tingling is gone,” said a man.
“Don’t feel a thing.”
“Good. I can take out the needles now.”
Wordlessly Nan sat down on a high-backed bench like the kind in a train station and closed his eyes, his legs crossed at the ankles. On the right-hand wall hung an old oil painting of a windjammer surrounded by rowboats, and on the desk near the window stood a lamp capped with a white metal shade. Again Nan tried to imagine what Beina looked like, but somehow he couldn’t conjure up a clear image. He put his thumb on his wrist to feel his pulse, which was unrushed, about seventy a minute. He wondered what was wrong with him.
A tall whiskered man in a flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots ambled out of the inner room while saying over his shoulder to Beina behind him, “This really helps me relax. I can sleep much better now.”
“I told you so” came her sugary voice.
At the sight of Nan the man called out, “Howdy.”
Nan returned the greeting and stood up as the patient made for the door. Beina saw him and came over, stretching out her hand, smiling as if she were expecting him. She wore a pink dress that gave her a flattish figure, and on either of her wrists was a jade bangle. It dawned on Nan that her half sister must have informed her of his appearance at their home in Harbin, and that her mother-in-law must have called her just now; otherwise Beina couldn’t possibly have been so at ease. Still, he was puzzled. Hadn’t she played fast and loose with his heart? Didn’t she feel bad for the wound she had inflicted on him? Didn’t she assume he might hate her? Why was she so placid?
” Come sit here,” she said with a smile that revealed her tiny canines, and patted the back of a chair next to her desk. After making two cups of tea, she proceeded to sit down in her swivel chair. “What brings you to Red Cedars?” she asked.
“I went to visit a friend at the University of Iowa,” Nan said, seated beside the desk. On its mahogany top spread a trapezoid of sunlight. He observed her closely. She was almost a middle-aged woman now, her face slightly sallow, and her bangs had begun to gray. A few thin wrinkles appeared on her neck as she lowered her head. Despite her smiling eyes, despite her full lips, somehow she seemed subdued-the fire, the coquetry, and the insouciance that had once set his entire being aflame were no longer there. Even her voice had lost its crisp, bright timbre. She was just an ordinary woman with listless eyes and an incipient double chin.
Nan tried to appear natural but felt his jaw go stiff whenever he attempted to smile. He kept lifting the tall teacup to his mouth so that he didn’t have to face her all the while. He didn’t talk about himself and just listened to her. She said she envied him because he had gotten a green card without spending a fortune on an immigration lawyer. If only she and her husband had come to the States before the Tiananmen massacre. That way they too could have been granted permanent residency automatically. Nowadays it was so hard to get the papers that she wasn’t even sure if their lawyer could really help them.
Then she offered to take Nan to McDonald’s, where they could talk over lunch, but he declined, saying he ate restaurant food every day and the cup of oolong tea she’d made for him was good enough. Also, he’d have to hit the road soon. “Do you like it here?” he asked, hoping she’d say something negative.
“I don’t know-I guess I do. Hongbin, my husband, is studying toward his degree, so I have to work to support my family.”
“What’s he studying?”
“Related to Japan?”
“No, he has almost forgotten his Japanese, which he doesn’t use here.”
“I see. Does he help you in this studio?”
“No. I do acupuncture by myself, just to make a couple of dollars. I spent a whole year learning how to do it before we came to America, so I passed the exam and got the license here. How about you? I heard you owned several restaurants.”
“We have only one, very small, and I don’t like running it. I’ve been writing.”
“Nan, I can see you haven’t changed much, still a dreamer. Your heart is still young.” She smiled and shook her head as if in disapproval.
“I guess so. Besides dreams, what else can I have?” He said that as if to himself, realizing he could no longer share his thoughts with this woman for whom he had almost lost his mind sixteen years ago.
She lifted her teacup and took a sip, then went on telling him more about her life in this town. “Hongbin and I won’t mind settling down here. The town has good public schools, well above the average in the state. On top of that, real estate is cheap here. For a hundred and fifty thousand dollars you can buy a big house, even with a pool in the backyard. You saw my mother-in-law just now. She’s all right and takes good care of my kids, especially the younger one, just two years old. Did you see my son Michael, the younger boy?”
“He’s absolutely adorable. The problem with my mother-in-law is that she’s too stingy and always translates dollars into yuan when she spends money. She can never get accustomed to American life. But she loves my kids and I appreciate that. My kids are the center of my life. Now I know what parental love is like and why Confucius taught people to be filial to their parents. I would do anything for my kids, even die for them. See, I’m a dutiful wife.”
“Also a good mother.”
“Still, you must rule the roost at home.” He managed a smile as a twinge tugged his insides. He raked his fingers through his thick hair.
“Tell me, why did you come to see me?” She curled her lips, her round cheeks coloring a little.
“To see if you’re like the Beina I often dreamed of.”
“Well, you came too late, to be honest. Eleven years ago I asked you to help me come to the United States, but stupid you, you didn’t seize the opportunity. I had no children then and I was thinking of leaving Hongbin. “
“You mean, you might have come to join me here?”
” Well, that was a possibility. I always had a soft spot in my heart for you because you hurt me.” “I hurt you?”
” Yes. You gave up on me too easily, as if I was not a woman worth your effort to compete with Hongbin. Worst of all, you burned all the poems you’d written for me. That’s like you gave me a gift and then took it back. You humiliated me, you know.”
“Wait a minute. I was a poor man you despised, and I couldn’t buy you anything like the red scooter Hongbin got for you from Japan. “
“But later you came to America. Couldn’t you promise me a red car? Even just lie to me?” She forced a titter in an attempt at levity, her thumb rubbing her ring finger.
” I see. I became a man of means to you, but what made you think I’d be willing to buy you a car?”
“Because you loved me.”
“So you believed I would abandon my wife and child for you?”
“Wouldn’t you? Didn’t you come all the way just to see me? I bet your wife has no idea where you are.” Her eyes flashed, and for the first time since he came a familiar vixenish look crept on her face. Then she lifted her chin with annoyance, apparently aware of Nan ‘s eyes riveted on the pocket of flesh hanging under it.
He said in a half-flippant voice, “Don’t assume I’ll come and slobber over you whenever you whistle from far away. I’m too old to be a slave of love anymore. Besides, how can you be sure I’m still smitten with you after so many years?”
“I’m your first.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“For a man like you, the first love is always the flame consuming your heart. You cannot stop your torch song.”
“You’ve underestimated me. I know what true love is like now. You’ve never loved any man devotedly, whereas my wife loves me and is always ready to suffer with me.”
“Still, you don’t love her, do you? I’m pretty sure you’ll come to see me again. But don’t take this as an invitation.”
” Well, you think you still have your hooks in me?”
“Try to get them out.”
“We’ll see.” He chortled but couldn’t laugh it off. His chest tightened.
Deep down, he knew this trip was a mistake-all the years’ longing and anguish had been caused by a mere illusion, and all his pain and sighs had been groundless, wasted for the wrong person. What an idiot he had been!
But this disillusionment was perhaps necessary for him to sober up and begin to heal. Indeed, he didn’t feel the old numbing pain anymore despite sitting so close to Beina. Something tickled his throat and made him want to laugh, but he checked himself lest he go into hysterics. He felt as if there were a wall between her and him. Probably she had already set up such a barrier in her mind before he came, or such a wall might be just another ploy of hers. Even without her doing that, he could no longer imagine getting closer to her.
A few minutes later he took his leave. A wind swept through the empty street and tossed up a tuft of his hair from behind. He stepped into his car and pulled away. Beina hadn’t asked for his phone number or address but had given him her business card, on which a pair of cranes was flying to the realm of longevity. In his heart he knew he wouldn’t contact her again. Coasting along the on-ramp to I-74, he rolled down the car window and flung out her card, where it blew into the wild grass.