Oh! to be a real person, with a husband, and a household, and squealing dependents. Or at least to be involved in a sordid affair—in a narrative of some sort, in the sending up of shoots and buds. Instead, Amaryllis Chen Hughes, age thirty-eight—Paralysis, she called herself—was mired in an e-affair that had died down several times, only to resurrect itself like a computer virus.
if i had it all to do over again, well, you can guess
What a far cry, that, from a real relationship, with careers to juggle, and family issues to work out—homework crises and Internet rules and laundry.
i had a pebble in my shoe today which of course i felt with every step and should have taken out but it reminded me of you somehow—believe me i knew how silly this was, and yet
You indeed should have taken it out. Please don’t be ridiculous.
And, one day, finally:
You can write these things but you know I am flesh and blood. I need someone to cook with and eat with and do the dishes with. Someone to complain when I produce horror for dinner.
if only i could be that someone! a great true regret
And for a few days afterward she received sentence fragments:
a great regret
what horror could you ever be capable of
Blather. And yet, as the fragments continued, she began to feel, despite herself, touched. The man was a lawyer. But that reckless candor: she recognized that from any number of poets. This was not poetry! But the impulse, she thought. She knew it, that’s all.
I would be happy to be friends. But please do not write again until you have returned to your senses, by which I mean standard grammar and the paragraph form. I love you.
Why did she write that? She hated him. He was a strange man, she knew it the moment they met—at a holiday party, this was, in a corporate lobby, beside a photo gouache series her agency had convinced his law firm to buy. There, as others gamely mingled, they had manacled themselves together, making their way, frame by frame, detail by detail, through the work. It was a bit like placing the series all over again, except that she did not have to emphasize how well the colors would complement the couches. Instead, she and this Will—his name was Will—simply looked at the pictures. Heroically scaled, obsessively wrought, all in sepia, the photos featured strange inventor figures in otherworldly settings, with elaborate inscrutable inventions. Leonardo gone Rube Goldberg, he said. She laughed. They talked: alternate realms, the needs driving invention. His art history background. Her disastrous visit to the artist, including how she had knocked Leonardo off a ladder. He laughed. Even as the crowd thinned and the help removed the reindeer punchbowl, they talked. People saw them. He put his hands in and out of his pockets. He played with his wedding ring. She could hear her friend Tara as if through an aural implant: There is something the matter with his life.
Still from the lobby he and Amaryllis went for a drink. And by the end of the evening, lo: there perched the wedding ring atop the wet orifice of a wine bottle. What’s more, she was coming to see something about him. How he gripped things; not unlike the inventors in the lobby, he had narrow channels of intense interest. His life was someone else’s life, an institution-sized edifice risen up as if of its own stony will, out of the generations. Family Bibles, family portraits, family summer houses. Kids. Absurd as it sounded, he was building a summerhouse of his own now—a laughable stab at freedom. There was going to be a boys’ dorm and a girls’ dorm, he said. For those who did not care for dorm life, there would be tents. Amaryllis shook her head. Her life was the opposite, a careening thing, her father having left his Western Pennsylvanian, anti-Hungarian, German-Irish-Welsh Catholic family for a Chinese immigrant, only to find that she embraced everything he loathed. No one can survive alone, Amaryllis’s mother used to say. It is important to get along, to fit in. What society doesn’t have rules? To which Amaryllis’s father would say, Immigrant toadying! Fuck convention. Your mother behaves as if loneliness is not the human condition, which, believe me, it is. Will shook his head; Amaryllis noted that what hair he had was half gray. Was it not slightly horrifying that she did not care more about this? “I’m glad I met you,” he said, smiling and showing his splendid teeth; such an eternal look they had to them. He had brown eyes. It was a wonderful moment. In their maturity they agreed not to try to get together again. Why, though, had they exchanged e-mail addresses? And why had they gone on to write to each other, as they had, for the better part of a year? Never even discussing getting together—just writing.
They were a case.
And now he did not reply and did not reply. She trained herself not to look for his name in the Sent By column. She deleted his old messages and threw herself into baby-sitting her friend Tara’s grandfather while Tara went off to save orphans in Uganda. That was a long story, about the orphans. But talk about event, action, narrative! Tara bit her lip, getting lipstick on her teeth, as she showed Amaryllis pictures of the kids. A little girl who never smiled—sullenness, it seemed, being a sign of malnutrition. A little boy whose hair was turning white, also a sign of malnutrition. Amaryllis listened, horrified.
“I’m not going to Uganda forever,” Tara said, “only for four or five months, whatever it takes—if that’s OK?”
“Of course,” answered Amaryllis. “Stay as long as you need to.”
She understood that Tara’s siblings resented her do-gooding; her brother Andy, in particular, did not see why she had to go to Africa to baby-sit. What’s more, Amaryllis was well positioned for the job, as she lived on a bus line that ran right to Tara’s grandfather’s place; and as the subway from Flushing into midtown was in fact more convenient to her office than the subway from Brooklyn. Most important of all, though, Amaryllis was the only friend of Tara’s who, if she did not exactly speak the grandfather’s dialect, at least understood it, her mother having spoken something similar. Of course, in one way it was strange that Amaryllis’s mother’s dialect should still figure in her modern American life. But in another—a claim of relationship. She had so few.
Tara did not care about getting married. That was a dead idea at odds with the patently polygamous nature of human nature, she said. She said that while in Uganda she was planning to take up long term residence in a hostel, and winked. As for what Amaryllis had to wink about, well, she said, there was this lawyer. She did not mention his e-mails. “He sleeps in his suit,” she said. “If he gets a new one I may not recognize him.” Tara guffawed. Of course, she was larger than Amaryllis. Still her laugh was disproportionately louder and raunchier.
In the meanwhile there was Tara’s grandfather in Flushing to think about—Yah Yah, Tara called him.
“He’s going to want you to give him a bath,” she warned. “Just say no.”
“No baths,” promised Amaryllis.
“And he goes to get groceries in Manhattan Chinatown on Wednesdays. Don’t ask why, we’re just glad he still knows when it’s Wednesday. So if you go and don’t see him, that’s where he is.”
“How old is he?”
“How old is he. Ninety-one, we think, though he seems younger. He’s outlived both his kids. He’s more agile than I am. This doctor is always asking him what he eats.”
“Is he difficult?”
“Is he difficult. No. But he can be stubborn.”
“He sounds amazing.”
“He is amazing, as are you. You are the only person I know who would do this.”
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “Don’t say that.”
ara’s grandfather was no help to a woman trying to make a life of her life. But there he was in it. He did not look like a person who might ask someone to give him a bath. He was spidery thin and pale, with sporadic hair—the long trickling beard and 3-D white eyebrows of a sage. His face was kite-shaped. His skin, thin and spotted, was tenuously adhered. His lips were dry, his teeth mostly there—accordioned in places, and stained, and showing some waist near the gum, but there. He sported a tweed cap with its brim flipped up, even indoors; with this went a flannel shirt, a sweater vest, and aqua training pants with intermittent hems. His hands shook. And yet Tara was right about his agility. He negotiated his cluttered apartment with grace, apparently thanks to the tai chi he did in the park every morning. Amaryllis did not call him Yah Yah, as he was not her grandfather. Neither could she pronounce his name in Chinese—she had trouble with her u-with-an-umlaut sounds, two of which his name involved. So instead she called him Uncle Jeff, Jeffrey being his English name, and uncle being what Chinese people called older men at all close to them. Amaryllis might be, as a California boyfriend so sweetly put it, barely Chinese, but even she knew that much.
Though Tara had of course brought Amaryllis to the apartment and introduced her, Amaryllis began the first couple of visits with an inane, “Hi, remember me? I’m that friend of Tara’s. Amaryllis.” Reminding him just in case, and trying to ease the awkwardness of barging in on him. Tara had said that her grandfather would probably not hear the door if Amaryllis rang, that she should just use her key and let herself in. But how weird to simply show up and begin filling the air with English. I think this fish has gone bad. Does your radiator always clank? I see there are no more light bulbs. She wished she could speak his dialect as well as understand it. But she couldn’t, and silence seemed somehow worse than English, which Tara had said he did understand, a little. Not that the apartment was so quiet. Both visits he had had some Chinese program on his black-and-white TV. He did not watch this, though, any more than he watched her as she puttered around companionably. Cleaning out his bird cage, picking up as best she could. One whole room of his apartment was jammed with furniture and boxes, everything thrown in an enormous pile, willy-nilly; it looked as if there had been a fight, or as if he had been unable to pay his moving bill—something.
The third visit Amaryllis began to notice, first that he took his hat off when she came, and then that he lifted his left ear—his good ear?—when she spoke, the underside of his beard catching against his chest. Maybe he liked being spoken to, even if he didn’t quite understand her? In the park, Amaryllis had seen how mothers talked to their babies as if the babies could understand; the babies kicked and talked back. Of course, Uncle Jeff was no baby. Still, she imagined him taking a similar simple pleasure in her talking and so was startled to find his gaze, by the fourth or fifth visit, alive with an ironic bemusement more grandfatherly than infantile. Would her mother’s father, had she known him, have ever looked at her this way? She knew little about her grandfather but had the impression that he would have more likely looked straight past her to his grandsons—her grandfather having been a mogul of sorts, with bodyguards and a Sikh doorman.
Her sixth visit she knocked on the door instead of letting herself in with the key. She was afraid for a moment that Uncle Jeff had not heard her, as Tara predicted. But the door opened, and this time, when she introduced herself, he smiled.
“You’ve told me many times,” he said.
He talked! Softly, and straight down into his chest, but he talked!
“I wasn’t sure you understood,” she said, speaking slowly and loudly.
“You talk so fast.” He mimicked her, opening and shutting his mouth very fast.
“You do this.” Amaryllis put her head down and talked into her shirt.
He smiled a little and lifted his chin, his beard rising free of his sweater vest. “Tara is a good girl,” he continued mildly.
“She is,” she agreed.
“You are a good girl, too. Chinese girl, I can see it.”
Hapa, actually, she wanted to say. In fact, though she had the straight black hair, nobody had ever called her a Chinese girl. People, generally, did not call her anything, though they did sometimes ask, What are you? Men, especially. Drunken men, especially. It was one of the things that Amaryllis had liked about Will, that he had fixed on other things.
“My mother was Chinese,” she said. “From northern Zhejiang Province, right near Jiangsu.”
“I can see it,” he said. “Zhejiang people are capable. They are not lazy, like Jiangsu people. Jiangsu people have too much land. In Zhejiang, there is no land. Everyone has to work hard, even the rich people have to work hard.”
“Was your family from Jiangsu?”
“Our hometown is in Jiangsu Province. Yes. But we were not rich. No.”
Amaryllis was hoping he would say more, but after inviting her in, he sank into his armchair, put on his hat, and seemed to go to sleep. By his shoulder, his bird chirped.
The seventh visit she came early in the morning to watch his tai chi group, which turned out to be one of several groups of white-haired Chinese in the pocket park. One was a dance club with a cassette recorder. Another did tricks involving two sticks with a string between them and a kind of drum—how they made it jump and spin! The groups were not large—three, five, eight people—but they occupied several corners, as well as the paved antechamber to the park, on the street. Amaryllis, wearing high heels, felt strange. No one, though, looked at her strangely. Even Uncle Jeff, after saying hello, looked past her. His group was beginning their routine—slow, even, hypnotic movements that made lithe old people seem younger, Amaryllis thought. Or, no, not so much younger as of indeterminate age—somewhere between life and death, she wanted to say. No, that was wrong too. They were simply, wholly alive. And yet as the brilliant morning light shot through to them, exploding past the yellow leaves of the sycamores, the group—more women than men—did seem to pull and lunge and step in a sphere removed from ordinary reality, their world not unlike the world of a picture. They did deep, deep knee bends—Uncle Jeff’s deeper than almost anyone’s. Their legs stretched long; their shadows longer. Forward and back they moved, unperturbed by the bolting squirrels and loudly crunching leaves. A funnel of birds pooled suddenly around them on the cracked asphalt and then just as suddenly spiraled away, flapping. Still the group gazed calmly at their slowly moving hands. Uncle Jeff’s moved as steadily as anyone’s; no sign of his shake. What did it mean, that unison, that focus? That planetary synchrony. She heard her mother’s voice: No one can survive alone. It is important to get along, to fit in. But no, this was something else. As it was cool, the group was wearing its team uniform, the padded vest; both men and women wore those padded vests, often with stretch pants. Only Uncle Jeff wore a hat. Most wore sneakers, though one wore plastic sandals with socks.
It surprised Amaryllis that the old people did not do more together after tai chi. She gathered that some did go to a senior center, where in a fluorescent-lit room they took classes and played mah-jongg until three o’clock, when several had to pick up their grandchildren. Others hung around the park. But Tara’s grandfather preferred to sit home and watch TV. He hadn’t always been this way; according to Tara, he used to be lively and social. Then suddenly the senior center was too hot. The park was too cold. Tara wrote in an e-mail how she would almost have thought he was pulling in, hunkering down, preparing to die, except for the tai chi and the grocery shopping. And look how he still cooked for himself, too.