He had never even considered having children

He had never even considered having children. Even when he was nearly engaged to Sana, the thought of having a family that was more than himself and another person had seemed alien. He could remember their last real fight, the long muscles in her back jumping under his hand. It was cold and he could feel her skin puckering into goosepimples. His own arms were tingling, prickling. Her question was still hanging over them.

“So you’re saying you never want to have children?”

They hadn’t shouted at each other, not really. The fight was not an explosion. It was an unspooling of threads. They talked through the night. No tears, not from Sana at least, who took pride in not being like other women. He had cried finally, ashamed. As the sun rose, he cried, realising that when Sana went home that morning she would not come back. In the days after he had called her about 100 times, even pathetically messaging to say that he had changed his mind and of course he wanted children and he loved her and what kind of man that loved a woman would not also want to make her pregnant, create something with her that was a mix of both of them, big noses, sharp brains, dislike of pistachio ice cream, and then raise those chimeras until they became people, nothing like either of the parents, what sane man would not want that? But Sana had the kind of iron resolve that could not be melted by surrender or silence or any of the other things that had normally worked on previous girlfriends.

Three months later he was glad that it had ended. Sana would have been impossible in a marriage, which was another word for compromise. Wasn’t that what love was also about? Letting go of things and accepting things just so you could go on living with someone, getting along and sharing a life and so on and so forth?  His own mother had endured mountains of suffering just so him and his brother and sister could have good lives. And now his parents had sort of merged together until it was hard to tell who had originally been fond of antiques shopping and who it was that had dreamed of a vacation in South Africa after retirement. What did it matter, who had wanted what first? After forty years of marriage his parents now had become two parts of one person – with a love for turn-of-the-century vases and vacationing in Pretoria and everything else.

He and Sana had been together for fifteen months. He was thirty two years old, and he was alone again. His job as an account manager at a company that sold teleconference software kept him busy. It was easy work, predictable. There was routine, waking up, eating the same breakfast of bran flakes and the commute to the office. It worried him that he had begun to cross the same people every morning. The woman who did her make up on the train, applying mascara to her spidery lashes for ten minutes at a time. Each time he looked at her she looked more frightening, more black shadow ringed around her eyes. There was the man who bought a coffee at the stand outside the station at 9 15 am. And the Asian mother with her mixie baby in a pram he crossed in the street: the baby golden and beautiful, both Western and Oriental, the very best of both worlds in its immature features. In the evening when he went home he watched TV, read a book and sometimes cooked. He went to bed at 11 pm – another day under his belt. He couldn’t remember exactly when the days had started to run together. He did not notice that many months had gone past since the night he had last touched another person the way he had touched Sana’s back.

One day he woke up and realised he had not spoken to his family in something like 6 weeks. He had avoided calls, sent half-hearted texts to keep them from worrying, saying he was at work, he was busy busy busy, when really he had seen the phone blinking, and deleted emails without even opening them. He called up his parents – they were on their way home from a salsa class. He could not imagine his father dancing the salsa. But in retirement he had loosened up, begun to actually enjoy himself. Before fun had been a luxury, not a right. His mother’s voice sounded very far away. She was glad he had called, but also scolded him. He realised that his parents sounded old, older than the last time he had spoken to them. He hung up after promising them he would visit very soon, as soon as work let up a little. He made a cup of coffee and sipped it – thinking all the while how in just a few weeks his parents had aged even more. Next he rang his little sister. She was out and said she would call him later. She sounded harried, the way she always did now. He heard his nephew scream in the background. He was nearly six months old now, he realised.

 

 

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It doesn’t happen here

When you were born

We weren’t unhappy

Just because you were a girl

We raised you, dressed you

In the best clothes we could afford

You never went hungry

We sent you to school

So like your mother before you

You’d learn and get an education

When it was time of course

We no longer allowed you to wear jeans

Because your thighs grew bigger, more womanly

We wanted to protect you from those louts on the streets

From those wagging tongues

Who wanted nothing more than to cut you, us, our family

Down from our high horses, one leg respect, the other money

The third power, the fourth, morality

Though it took some cajoling

We allowed you to attend university in the next town

Warning you, at the same time

to stay away from any boys

who might mistake

your friendliness for hard lust

as though you could never desire anyone

You knew, your father’s threat of hanging you from the ceiling

Carried a vein of truth after all

So why did you fall in love with him?

Why did you take the life we so carefully built you?

And drowned it in mud, mixed with the blood

of your family members? Your mother – who took

the time out of her day to cane you

Your brother – who sacrificed a career abroad

to carry on the family business

Your sister – who married young and had children

Your father – who made sure

you would never have to work a day in your life

who bore on his back the burden

of everything that glues a family

together why did you kill us like this

Now you must do what we say

Marry your father’s sister’s son

Who is the only one that will take you now

And your soiled body which like a dog

you rolled again and again and again

in the garbage, chicken bones, goat intestines

dirty bandages, rotting vegetable scraps

Worse even than an animal

What’s that?

You refuse to marry him?

We won’t force you

But you must say yes yes yes

We are not like those other parents

We are not backwards

We won’t kill you to save our honour

That happens in other parts

To other families

from lower classes

This is not 1941 after all

Who else will take you now?

When you are so old – don’t think

you are some fairy-queen

No prince is coming to save you

This must be your life

You must be married, you must have children

You must be good, we know

what’s good for you

We are your parents

Would we ever wish you wrong?

You have no job, no more studies to do

Nowhere to go, nothing to do

Now here – take his hand

slide this ring on to his finger

sign this paper…

 

 

 

 

 

Bad spring poem

Something floral

scents the air

Then it’s blown away

by an icy, unforgiving wind

Hope – daffodils sprout

They survived the snows

Tulips too, I should be happy

Renewed like the earth

reinvents itself each spring

But I trudge on in winter

thermals, coat, scarf like a noose

Is it summer yet?

Each old you, each old dream

That a person can have so many skins

I learn this now

Each old you, each old dream

Is another separate self

If I look back through the decades, years

months, I see endless

versions of myself

That life would be like this

That adulthood would not be safe and static

That men, even fathers

are just as scared

as the rest of us, children and sensitive teenagers

and grown women, mothers

who need to protect their helpless babies

There’s no comfort in life

Only the softness of love

Only the weak glow of a heart that won’t stop hoping

Always rubbing up against the cold, hard facts

The Artist

A week after my twenty-fourth birthday, a friend and I decided to take a trip to Lijiang. Many people went there just to fall in love. Having an affair in Lijiang was not like having an affair in the city. It was blameless, pure and otherworldly to sleep with someone in Lijiang. No dust, no grime, could touch that place.

Before I visited Lijiang, I read a book about an artist and his wife who owned the Yao Wang hotel. The girl was from a wealthy business family in Shanghai. She had met the struggling artist when they were teenagers. Now they had a one year old baby. I decided that we would stay at the Yao Wang, where each room was unique and carefully designed, just like a piece of art. When we arrived I felt I was a different girl. In the past I had done things that I was ashamed of, like the time I had threatened to kill myself if my parents didn’t let me see the boy I was dating at the time. Purple wisteria bloomed everywhere. When we arrived I stood on a bridge in the city centre and looked down at the broken reflection of lights in the water. I imagined that someone might propose to me on that bridge, while fireworks exploded behind us.

The friend I was travelling with had recently broken up with her boyfriend. In the evening while we tried to rest her keening kept me awake. I rubbed her back and told her that she would find someone else. Finally I managed to get her out of the hotel room. In the dining room we saw the artist and his wife, both beautifully dressed.

“Can we join you?” the artist asked.

My girlfriend was surprised but I knew this was part of their hospitality. They spent time with all the guests that stayed at their hotel – I had read this in the book. We drank a lot of wine and my girlfriend flirted with the artist, who was handsomer and younger than I had thought. His wife noticed, and laughed along. But at the same time she placed her elegant white hand on the artist’s thigh. Afterwards I helped my girlfriend back to our room. She kicked off her shoes and I pulled the sheets over her. I sat on the edge of the bed and took off my own shoes. I rubbed the arch of my foot and thought about the artist and his wife. For some reason I thought about them in bed together, the smooth marble of their tangled bodies, the baby sleeping nearby. I walked up a wooden staircase that led to a bathtub right under the glass ceiling of the room. I ran the hot water and added some dried lavender. I lay there until the water grew lukewarm, staring at the blanket of stars above me. I ran my thumb over my wet lips and tried to imagine what it would be like to be the artist’s wife, to be loved.

The next morning my girlfriend was listless over breakfast. I ate mango and drank endless cups of green tea. We spent the day walking around the city, tiring ourselves out. Later that evening my girlfriend perked up and suggested we go to the bar. She wanted to meet some boys we’d spoken to at the hotel.  We both put on dresses and high heels. At the bar, I began to chat to a boy who had also grown up in Chengdu. He had serious brown eyes and a way of twisting his beer bottle round and round with his slim fingers. He made me laugh. My girlfriend was a few steps ahead of me, another boy’s arm draped around her waist. She was leaning in to him and when our eyes met, she winked at me. I smiled and closed my eyes for just a moment, listening to the smooth voice of the boy. Without quite knowing how, he had begun to hold my hand.

I was in the middle of this warm cosy glow when the artist appeared at the piano in the corner of the bar. He sang about lost love and a boat that had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. But then the ocean was really a bathtub and the fish were not fish but his own lifeless toes. It was nonsense. And he sang badly. I realised that he was drunk. He sang a few songs, picking at the piano keys with practiced clumsiness while the whole bar ignored him. Only the bar staff politely clapped after he was done. A few drunken people cried out in English, “Bravo! Bravo! Encore! Encore!” Suddenly I was not interested in the boy from Chengdu. I walked over to the bar instead. I looked at a painting on the wall. It was a portrait of two poor children in a field. There was something sincere and ghostly in their expressions. It was like they were asking for help. Who knew where those children were now? They could have died from malnutrition or drinking dirty water. Or they could be adults by now, with city jobs. I wanted to cry. I felt I had wasted my life, although I was only twenty-four.

Rooftop of Lijiang © Wenjie Qiao, Creative Commons License (2)
Rooftop of Lijiang © Wenjie Qiao, Creative Commons License

The artist came to me and said, “What do you think?”

“It’s yours?” I asked.

He leaned forward so that his shoulder was nearly touching mine and told me how he had visited a village in the mountains of Daocheng and come across those two children. They were brother and sister, the children of a barley farmer.

“Do you like it?”

I touched the rim of the wine glass to my teeth and said, “It’s very beautiful. But it also makes me sad.”

“Many things can make us sad. But that doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful.”

While he spoke his fingers trailed across my forearm. In that moment I felt no longer drunk. I felt full of purpose.

“I want to see all your paintings,” I said.

This time I was the one who put my fingers on his wrist. He held his hand out to me and I took it. Before we walked out, I saw the looks my table was giving me. My friend waved at me while the boy from Chengdu was pretending very hard not to notice me.

Upstairs in his studio he showed me his other paintings: huge canvases, many of them unfinished, with thick brushstrokes of colours over them in no particular pattern. Some of them looked as though they had been painted by a child.

“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of abstracts,” he told me.

He lit a cigarette with shaky fingers. He put his hand on the canvas, telling me how the brushstrokes were careless on purpose. He called it a careful carelessness. I kept walking around and came across a painting that was propped up against a wall. It was a portrait of the artist’s wife, but much younger, a teenager. Strands of hair had come loose from her ponytail and her hands and mouth were wet, as though she had just been washing her face. In her expression there was something off-hand: she knew she was being captured but did not care. She seemed bored with the whole idea of painting.

The artist slipped his arms around me. I felt his breath stirring the hair at the nape of my neck. I pulled away from him and turned around to see his anger. Rich and powerful men like him did not take rejection well. A shudder ran through him and he dropped to his knees. His arms were around my waist and he was crying. “Please,” he was saying. “You are so young. You don’t know what it’s like to be unhappy, to feel stuck. Please, let me kiss you so I can forget for a while.”

I felt a mixture of wine and disgust in the back of my throat. I couldn’t breathe with his hands on me so I pushed him, hard. He careened back and lost his balance, splaying out on the floor. He looked up at me in total shock and I laughed.

He got to his feet and said, “Stop laughing.” He lurched towards me and I felt a far-away fear, almost separate to myself. I ran towards the door and in the second before the doorknob was in my hand, I was afraid that it would not turn. But it did. And a few minutes later I was in the brightly-lit hotel lobby.

Later in our room, my girlfriend was drunk but solicitous.

“What happened?” she said. “We were worried about you. Why did you go with him?”

“I…I don’t know,” I lied.

“That wasn’t like you,” she scolded. “Oh,” she said. “I miss Wei.” And she began to cry in wet gulps.

Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang © Andrew and Annemarie, Creative Commons License
Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang © Andrew and Annemarie, Creative Commons License

The next day we took our cases down to breakfast after checking out. We wore twin expressions of penitence. My girlfriend forced herself to eat some eggs. I could not face the thought of anything heavier than fruit and buttered bread.

I noticed that the artist’s wife was having breakfast a few tables away from us. Her son was in a high chair, and she was feeding him porridge. When she saw us she came over to our table.

“The staff told me you are leaving us today. I do hope you enjoyed your stay,” she said.

“Yes, thank you,” I said. “Everything here was so wonderful.”

“It’s a special place, Lijiang,” she said. My girlfriend and I both agreed.

“Lijiang is special. But you are not,” she said, looking at my girlfriend. “Whatever he told you, whatever he promised you, he has said so many times before it’s become like a script. You are exactly like every other worthless girl he has ever slept with.”

With that she walked away to greet guests at another table.

______________________________________________________________

Years later, after I had put the baby to sleep, I saw a picture of the artist’s wife in the newspaper. She was standing next to her son, now a teenager who was nearly her height. Behind them was the lush green of the hotel gardens. I put down the cup of tea I had just made and began to read about her success. Artists from across the world came to Lijiang to stay at that hotel and hold exhibitions. In the very last line, it said that the woman’s ex-husband, whom she had started the hotel with, had faded into obscurity. According to one source, he was now a homeless drunk. I heard the baby fussing and was glad for the distraction. I smoothed down his dark, fine hair and thought again about the artist’s wife. I thought about her in the painting, her wet hands and mouth. I saw the barley farmer’s children, pleading with their small, dirty faces. I rocked the baby back to sleep and thought no more about it.