The Replacement Wife
Women her age aren’t supposed to need hysterectomies. That’s for older women, her mother, her aunt. In her family of hardy Chinese immigrants, it’s almost a rite of passage. But not yet. Not for her. It’s too soon.
When Jessica’s doctor told her the procedure was recommended for women with endometriosis, even with her relatively mild symptoms—painful cramps, an ache in her lower back that some days felt like a hot stove—she dismissed the idea as absurd. She hadn’t yet reached thirty, she intended to marry and have children, at least two. A hysterectomy was out of the question. And yet here was this doctor, a perfectly credible OB/GYN, with multiple diplomas and certificates on the wall of her office and a calm, confident demeanor, telling her that none of that was going to happen, that it was best to deal with the problem sooner rather than later, before it developed into something surgery might not be able to resolve.
Jessica wishes she had someone to talk to, but there’s no one. No big sister to lean on, no cousins she’s in touch with. She has friends, of course. The girls from the bookstore where she works would listen politely for a while, but they’re even younger than she is, more aware of their tattoos and piercings than their reproductive organs. They wouldn’t understand. There’s Lorraine, her college roommate, but she’s in Cleveland, and calling her is a gamble. The last time they’d spoken, Lorraine was in one of her depressed funks, barely coherent. That’s not what Jessica needs.
She obviously can’t tell Fengqi, although they’ve reached the stage in their relationship where they’re discussing intimate matters, self-doubts, even preferred sexual positions. She’d been relieved after their first time in bed together, when they talked about what had happened. Not in any bizarre ego-boosting way aimed at him, but about practical things: pace and angles, the finish, the cleanup. Although she’d expected him to be something of a prude—he’d grown up in China, after all, not in sex-crazed America—he’d shown no hesitancy to discuss these things and make adjustments. No other man she’d slept with had been so forthright and responsive. Was that something his late wife Maddie had taught him? The prep-school girl and Berkeley grad, rebellious daughter of privilege, auto-accident fatality? Jessica guessed it was. He would have gotten that openness from her.
But this is different. This is about Jessica’s wholeness, about her ability to bear Fengqi’s children, assuming that’s what he wants, assuming they will indeed marry, assuming so many goddamn things that she can’t keep track of all the variables. This is about her whole life. And who can understand that?
She wishes she could speak to her mother. But she’s never been able to talk of such things with her mother, dating from girlhood days when she was simply expected to know what was happening to her body, and questions she summoned the courage to raise were dismissed without answers. Tampons had suddenly appeared in her room one day, a pamphlet in black and white explaining what they were for, along with an illustrated guide to resisting boys’ advances. Jessica had resolved then to do a better job of helping her own daughter, when the time came, through menstruation and sex and birth control and all of the other mysteries of young womanhood about which she’d been left to puzzle on her own. But now, apparently, that isn’t going to happen.
Jessica picks up Fengqi’s younger son, Wesley, from preschool and listens to him talk about his day, although, in her distracted muddle, little registers. They arrive at Fengqi’s apartment at the edge of DC’s Chinatown to wait for Simon to get home from first grade. Fengqi’s father is puttering in the kitchen when they enter.
“Are you well, Lao Zhang?” she asks him in her limited Chinese, freeing Wesley to run to his room. Lao is a term of respect, she understands, although she’s uncomfortable calling anyone old. He has been ill for weeks, which is why she’s been pressed into childcare duty.
“Heng hao,” he answers. Very well. But then he coughs and bends to spit in the sink.
Simon buzzes into the apartment and dumps his book satchel on the living room floor; Wesley races back downstairs to greet him. Both boys climb onto stools at the kitchen counter for a snack.
“Can we have cookies?” Simon asks.
“Yeah, cookies,” Wesley says.
When she first started spending time with the family—visiting for the occasional meal, tagging along on outings—the boys mostly ignored her. Even if she tried to engage them by asking a question about school or some cartoon she was sure they watched, they would feign deafness, or babble nonsense to each other, or direct their responses not to her but to their father. She’d understood their resentment. They’d lost their mother, and she was an interloper. It had stung, but she understood. Now they seem to accept her, or tolerate her, which amounts to the same thing for boys their ages. They let her read to them. They let her wipe their noses when necessary. They let her prepare snacks. They draw the line at snuggling, a pleasure she’s not sure she’s prepared for anyway, but perhaps that, too, would come in time.
The boys finish their cookies and milk and run off to their rooms while she boils water for Lao Zhang’s tea.
Lao Zhang is even tougher to get through to than the boys. Since his arrival from Shanghai, she’s seen him struggle. He can only communicate easily with Fengqi, although he’s picked up a fair amount of basic English from the boys. Jessica’s Chinese has improved, too, something she never thought would happen. Growing up in Los Angeles it was the last thing she wanted to learn, and she’d only acquired those words that her parents, immigrants from Taiwan doing their best to assimilate, incorporated into their own brand of pidgin.
Maddie’s mother, the boys’ maternal grandmother, is a frequent visitor to the Zhang home, and Jessica briefly considers talking to her about the surgery, but discussing anything with Mrs. Martin is awkward. Something this personal would be out of the question. Although the boys had never met their grandmother until after their mother’s accident, they love it when she comes down from Connecticut. She’s their link to Maddie, even though she’s retained some of her initial stiffness toward them and their father. She’s at least learned to bring presents for the boys and to eat with chopsticks and to drink green, instead of black, tea. She’s more comfortable with the whole family now. Except for her late daughter’s husband’s girlfriend.
But Jessica can’t keep quiet about her problem for long. She knows that Fengqi is going to propose marriage soon. That’s where their relationship has been headed from the beginning, and she’s done nothing to stop it. She knows what Fengqi is thinking and she knows the complications. She is to be the replacement wife. She wants to be married, and Fengqi is a good man, but the death of the beloved Maddie will hang over them for years, maybe forever. Fengqi has told Jessica that he feels sometimes Maddie is present, that she watches over the boys, that she hovers nearby. Can Jessica tell him how that frightens her? To know that everything she does, everything she says, is being watched? To sleep in Fengqi’s bed with Maddie in the room? Even if she doesn’t believe—but how could she not, with several millennia of Chinese superstitions telling her otherwise—it’s enough that Fengqi believes.
And, ghost or not, the household is imprinted with Maddie. “Mommy doesn’t read it that way,” Simon has said more than once, when Jessica fails to provide characters in his books with distinct, funny voices. “That’s not how Mommy makes the bed.” Wesley is too little to know, but he’s begun to say the same things. “This oatmeal doesn’t taste like Mommy’s.”
On top of all that, both boys have made it clear to Jessica that their mother is coming back. They have learned about resurrection in Sunday school, although of course they don’t know the word for it, and they’re convinced it could happen. Sometimes when Simon comes home from school, he wanders around the apartment, looking into rooms and closets as though he expects to find her. Before bed, Wesley occasionally asks if Mommy will be home for breakfast. And so, if Jessica is there, if Jessica lives in the same room with their father, sleeping in the same bed, won’t it be harder for their mother to come back? Won’t she be angry that there’s no place for her?
Jessica understands all this. It makes her want to run as far away as she can, but she understands.
Lao Zhang, on the other hand, doesn’t bear the same resentment. He had not known Maddie and is only living in the U.S. with Fengqi and the boys because she’s gone. In a way, Jessica and the old man are two feet filling the same shoe, and she’s grown fond of him. He reminds her of her own father, with his stray chin hairs and yellow teeth, the way his nose whistles when he sleeps. But Lao Zhang is failing. She sees this in his drooping, sallow skin, his hoarse speech, his unsteady hands. He sits in his room and sips the tea she brings to him, or ignores it, while he gazes out the window at the dusty alley, or at something beyond.
When Fengqi comes home from work, he and Jessica cook together what she has begun to assemble for the family dinner. She waits with the boys while Fengqi carries a tray to his father, and then they eat—part, not even all, of a makeshift family. They are a puzzle, and the pieces don’t fit. She doesn’t belong, and yet Fengqi will propose. It will be soon, she knows. Before Lao Zhang . . . before long, Fengqi will want to settle the matter. Make the arrangements. And she will have to decide.
The operation is scheduled. She still hasn’t told Fengqi, although he certainly could have noticed the symptoms. The bleeding has become heavier lately, as she was told it would, the cramps debilitating. Some days the pain is unbearable, a torment of fire, and she can only expect more of the same. But will the cure be worse?
Fengqi suggests dinner out, just the two of them. Lao Zhang will watch the boys, and Claudia, their haughty but dependable neighbor, will stop by to check on things. It’s obvious what’s coming. Jessica knows there will be a ring, a question she should be prepared to answer. She knows she should tell him that Maddie’s presence makes her uncomfortable. She knows she should tell him about the surgery. Even with all this knowledge, she has no idea what to do.
The restaurant he’s chosen is Mario’s, the site of their first real date. They’re Chinese, he lives in Chinatown, they cook Chinese at home, but they both like Italian food when they eat out and this—so he declared, although Jessica doesn’t remember being consulted—is their restaurant. All signs say this is the night.
She decides to forestall him. She will eat, she will talk about the boys and Lao Zhang and poor Claudia, their neighbor who lost her job, and the baby Susanna down the hall is expecting—or no, maybe not the baby, she doesn’t want to talk about babies—and she will be thoroughly pleasant and charming. But, if he reaches into his pocket, if it looks like he’s about to launch into a serious topic, if he mentions the future, she will stop him. She will say, “Feng,” because she sometimes calls him Feng, the wind, “there’s something you should know.” And she’ll tell him about the endometriosis and the hysterectomy and what it means for them, and she will give him a chance to leave the ring in the box, safely tucked away in his pocket. She’ll save him the embarrassment of having to rescind his proposal when he learns the truth. She’s doing them both a big favor. And if he doesn’t reach into his pocket, if the conversation stays light and superficial, she’ll phone him one day next week to tell him she’s in the hospital, nothing to worry about. She won’t even tell him which hospital because the last thing she’s going to want is the Zhang family arriving with flowers and balloons when she’s just had her insides scraped out. When she leaves the hospital, she’ll go home, or she’ll visit her parents, or she’ll get away somewhere. She’ll gradually disappear from the lives of Fengqi and his sons and Lao Zhang because that’s what’s best for them all.
The salads come and go, the pasta, the dessert. Fengqi pays the check, and they’re strolling down Seventh Street. The night ends.
She postpones the surgery.
Lao Zhang is weaker. Fengqi takes him to doctors, including a clinic in Chinatown where one of the nurses speaks Shanghainese, but it isn’t clear what’s wrong. One doctor suggests that the old man misses China, that a trip back home might be good for him. Another says it’s city life that’s the problem, that he needs to visit the countryside. It becomes increasingly difficult to leave the boys alone with him, which brings back the whole issue of childcare that caused Fengqi to go to Shanghai to bring his father to America in the first place. Maddie’s mother agrees to extend her visits, and that helps some. Claudia, jobless and depending on the vagaries of freelance work to support herself, seems to appreciate the extra dollars that paid childcare brings her, and that fills the gaps. But Jessica suspects that everyone—Simon and Wesley, Lao Zhang, Mrs. Martin, Claudia, Fengqi, probably even Maddie, wherever she might be—is looking at her, the replacement wife, as the long-term solution to the problem.
Jessica and Fengqi go out to eat again, this time to a tapas bar on Seventh. It’s loud, a fun spot, not romantic, no danger of a proposal here. None of the worry has disappeared, but for one night it can recede.
“Lao Zhang is doing better, I think,” says Jessica, while they’re waiting for their meal to arrive. He isn’t, but she thinks Fengqi needs to hear it anyway.
“Yes. I think so, too.”
“The music here is good,” she says, because no other topic seems safe. “I love the Gypsy Kings.”
“Yes,” he says.
Between dinner and dessert, Jessica visits the ladies’ room. She makes her way back through a bustle of waiters and patrons, and, when she gets to the table and is about to sit, she sees a small black box sitting next to a steaming cup of espresso. With her hands gripping the back of the chair, the noise of the place suddenly louder, the music and the voices, she looks at the box. A painful lump forms in her throat. Her scheme to evade the question has been thwarted. She can’t look at Fengqi, but out of the corner of her eye, she sees his hand reach toward her. She pulls her hand away, turns and runs, bangs into a waiter, and ricochets into a busboy, toppling his stacked tray of plates and glasses. The crash of dishes and cutlery, the shrieks of startled diners, the complaint of the busboy and waiter—all echo together as she pushes out of the restaurant. She doesn’t stop to see if Fengqi follows. She thinks she hears him call her name but doesn’t turn around. She runs toward Pennsylvania Avenue, away from Fengqi, away from Nanking Mansion.
She calls the next day and asks him to meet her in a coffee shop. It’s familiar to them both and feels neutral, comfortable. When she enters, Fengqi is waiting.
“About last night,” she begins, “I’m sorry.” She wants him to stop her, to say that no explanation is necessary, but he doesn’t stop her and clearly an explanation is necessary. “I kind of freaked.”
“Yes,” he says.
Over the years he’s been in America, he has nearly perfected his English, but he still doesn’t always say the right thing. Now, he doesn’t joke about her apology, although she wishes he would. He doesn’t laugh, or say, “you sure did,” or “you got that right.” Nor does he soften his acknowledgement of her admission with “I wouldn’t say that,” or “I understand.” Instead, he’s honest and blunt: “Yes.”
“I wanted to explain.”
“We talked about this,” Fengqi says. “I thought it was what you wanted.”
“It was. It is.”
The problem is the surgery. She’s been up all night thinking about it, and that’s the conclusion she’s come to. Of course she wants to marry him. He’s a wonderful man. Distinguished. Smart. Great with his kids. His kids, although in time . . . She’s seen how loving he is with his father and respectful with Mrs. Martin. He works hard. He’s even Chinese, which her mother had long ago given up hoping for.
So it had to be the surgery that was bothering her, and it wasn’t fair to him not to explain.
“The thing is,” she says, “I have to tell you something.” Oh, God, it sounds so melodramatic, like she might be about to admit she’s an escaped convict, a serial killer, or worse. “And when I do, I’ll completely understand if you don’t want to marry me.”
Fengqi’s face grows a worried expression, the eyes turned down, narrow and serious. He reaches for her trembling hand, which this time she lets him take. She tells him about the endometriosis, the pain, the bleeding that’s been getting worse, and the recommended treatment. He doesn’t know the word in English. She has to explain the excruciating details of what will be done to her body, what’s going to be removed. What it means for the future.
When she finishes and settles into a damp-eyed silence, looking not at him, but at her own hand in his, he pulls the little box from his pocket and places it in front of her. This time she opens it.
She’s in George Washington University Hospital for four days. Fengqi brings her home, his home, her future home, and sets her up in his room, while he moves to the living room couch. She protests that one invalid in the house is enough—Lao Zhang now rarely leaves his bed—but in truth, she’s grateful. She has nowhere else to go, no one else to help her recover. She still doesn’t want to talk about the implications of what has been done to her, but she doesn’t want to be alone either.
Fengqi hires Claudia, who arrives early to make breakfast for the whole family, gets the boys ready for school, and looks after both Jessica and Lao Zhang until Fengqi comes home in the evening. The boys, having been warned to be quiet so both patients can rest, take their responsibility seriously, and Jessica barely hears them.
At the start of her second week of convalescence, she wakes to see Simon and Wesley standing at the door of her room—Fengqi’s room.
“Your eyes are open,” Simon says.
“Are they?” she asks, and both boys nod.
“Ye-Ye likes us to read to him when he’s sick,” Simon says, holding up his book to show her. Ye-Ye is what they call Lao Zhang.
Jessica pats the bed, and the boys, thus freed from their vows of silence, noisily race to hop up. Simon lands with a whoop between her and Wesley.
“Once upon a time,” Simon begins, even before he opens the book.
In time, she recovers. Although Claudia still visits each day, Jessica feels useless and takes over some of the lighter household duties. She makes breakfast. She dusts. She wonders what she is supposed to do. Should she go?
One evening after Fengqi gets home, while the boys are in their room and Lao Zhang is in his, she perches on a stool in the kitchen while he prepares dinner.
“I’m feeling better,” she says.
He looks at her over the measuring cup filled with rice. “Good.”
“So I suppose I should leave.”
He adds the rice to a pot of water, checks the gas flame on the burner, and moves to the cutting board where he picks up the cleaver and, in one swift move, splits a green pepper. “There’s no hurry,” he says, dicing the halves. Then he turns to her. “Is there?”
He hasn’t pressed her to go, or to set a date for the wedding, or to do anything. They haven’t even told the boys that they’re engaged. She waits for it now, the question of when, has she given thought to this, made arrangements for that, but he’s chopping and stirring and asks nothing.
Each day she’s a little stronger. She’s ambulatory now, but hasn’t yet gone back to work. The manager of the bookstore has been generous beyond expectation. She’s welcome back whenever she’s ready, and she thinks the time has nearly come. Lao Zhang needs little attention, sleeping as he does most of each day. She reads and finds that she is drawn to Maddie’s dog-eared favorites: Austen, Eliot, the Brontës. She studies Chinese halfheartedly, practicing the strokes for each character over and over again until her mind has drifted and she no longer has any idea what the pictograph means. She leaves the apartment to walk up and down the hallway gallery, and tries to make sense of the paintings that hang there. These excursions wear her out, at first, but then it isn’t long before she strolls the block in front of Nanking Mansion, watching the leaves on the maples turn, watching one house decay, another, swarmed by workmen inside and out, revive. She tries a loop, turning the corner and passing through the alley, until one day she is confronted by two neighborhood toughs. After that, she confines her exercise to M Street, down to the corner and back.
Returning from one such stroll, she notices that the door to the building’s front unit is open. The girl who works at the coffee shop, Susanna, has recently had her baby and moved from that unit into the back apartment with Aloysius. Jessica has spoken to neither, but in these weeks of lying alone in Fengqi’s bed, she has heard the baby’s cries, has tried to tune them out, has failed to erase the baby from her thoughts.
Cautiously, because she’s curious about the owner of the apartment, a famous writer who has not long ago returned from France, she approaches his door and peeks inside. The man is sitting at his kitchen table.
He looks up just as she steps into view. “Mei-ling!”
She lurches back, looking for someplace to hide, but there is no escape. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “I’m Jessica Lee. I live,”—she points vaguely down the hallway—“that is, I’m visiting the Zhangs.”
“Of course. The boys. Sad.”
The man is not as old as she’d thought. His eyes are sharp and dark, his hair, slate and ash, is swept back. He invites her in and they drink tea. She admits that she’s not read his books, although, having worked in a bookstore, she’s read widely. She tells him about her current obsession with the nineteenth century writers, but she also loves Kingsolver, Atwood, Tan. Novels by men intimidate her, she says, although as soon as the words leave her mouth she wonders if that’s true.
“I think,” she says, trying to explain, “that I don’t understand men.”
He nods as if she’s uttered something profound. He rises, retrieves one of his own novels. On the cover is a photograph of a boat. The photograph on the back is of a younger version of the writer: thicker hair, slimmer waist.
“It’s a love story,” he says. “In the end, they’re all just love stories.”
She reads the book, keeping it hidden from Fengqi, although she can’t say why. It’s about an all-consuming love of a man for a woman, one that shreds the man’s soul when his wife dies. Does passion like that exist in real life? Fengqi is a good man, but she doesn’t feel that way about him, and she knows he doesn’t feel it for her. But is that what he had with Maddie? Is the hurt he experienced when she died so deep that he’ll never recover? Or will there come a time when the two of them grow into such a connection? Isn’t that what every woman wants? She is weeping when she reads the final words of the book, and she begins again.
A few days later, she knocks on the writer’s door to return the book, and again he invites her in for tea.
“I couldn’t put it down,” she says. He hasn’t asked for a reaction, but Jessica is still amazed that the book’s protagonist could feel so much. “When he set fire to the boat, I cried.”
“That’s the difference between men and women. Men become angry that he is in such pain over a woman. They think he should get in the boat and sail away. But that’s not a real ending. That’s a recipe for heartache.”
“This way he deals with it, doesn’t he,” she says. “He doesn’t mope around forever trying to recover what he’s lost. It’s cathartic.”
“Exactly,” he says.
She visits every afternoon, before the boys come home. She showers, puts on makeup, a drop of perfume. Dressing is difficult because she hasn’t brought much from her own apartment, but she tries to wear something different each time, or a different combination: jeans and her white blouse with a sweater one day, a shawl the next. She checks on Lao Zhang before she leaves and slips through the gallery to the writer’s apartment.
As the days pass, she grows stronger, the pain less demanding of her attention. She can’t justify her continued presence at Nanking Mansion, but she makes no preparations to return home.
One evening at dinner, while the boys are telling their father about school, about a playground incident or something else that barely registers on Jessica’s consciousness, she is thinking of Nathan, the writer. On her visit that afternoon he told her she was beautiful, that she looked regal.
“Are you feeling all right?” Fengqi asks.
She realizes that he and the boys are staring at her. Her untouched rice and stir-fried vegetables have grown cold on her plate, but she feels heat rise in her face as if she has been caught in a lie.
“Yes. I mean, no, not really. I think I’ll lie down.” And she knows they are watching her as she climbs the stairs to the bedroom.
Nathan asks if she would read pages from his new book. He’s especially interested in her perspective as a Chinese woman. His second wife was also Chinese, he explains, and then fills her in on his less-than-admirable marital record. The next morning, after Fengqi has left for work, she reads the account of a family destroyed by the Nanjing Massacre, of slaughtered infants and women, of the thousands of lost souls that now wander in search of their families. That afternoon, she returns the pages and he tells her more about his novel tracing the history of atrocity.
“It’s about silence,” he says. “It’s about the obligation to speak.”
She tells him what she knows of the massacre, although her parents have not talked to her about it, and as far as she knows her family was not affected. They fled to Taiwan in ’49 from their native Sichuan Province to escape a different set of horrors. He makes notes as they talk and the next day he shows her revised pages.
While she reads, silently turning the manuscript pages on the table, he takes her hand.
“No,” she says, tugging free.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s just that you remind me . . .”
When she leaves, she lingers by the door. He comes to her, lifts her hand to his lips, kisses it. And then he kisses her mouth. She’s told him she is engaged to Fengqi, that she will soon become his wife and stepmother to the Zhang boys, but still he kisses her. She lets him kiss her.
As a little girl in LA, along with all of her little-girl friends, Jessica dreamed of a big wedding, in a church filled with flowers, followed by a lavish reception attended by movie stars. Never realistic, given her parents’ modest means, that dream has long since faded. Now, as the preparations for her real wedding proceed, she thinks small, mixing Chinese and Western traditions. It will be more party than religious rite, more passage than destination.
Fengqi has left all the arrangements to her. She secures a hall at the Chinatown community center. She has invitations printed, hires a caterer who claims he can do both dim sum and hors d’oeuvres.
Everyday she meets with Nathan, and they work on his book. He asks more about her heritage, of which she knows too little, and teaches her not only about the Japanese atrocities in China, but also about Mao’s disastrous policies, about famine and genocide, about the Cultural Revolution. Each day, as she leaves in time to greet the boys after school, she lets him kiss her.
“Feng,” she says, almost whispering his name. They are in the living room, each reading in the glow of a table lamp. He looks up, marking his place with a finger. “Would it be okay if we postpone?” She’s talking about the wedding, of course, but she can’t bring herself to say the word. She waits for a reaction, but the blankness of his expression, like a cloudless sky, says everything.
“It’s just that, maybe, I’m not totally recovered. From the surgery.” A thud, followed by laughter, reverberates from the boys’ room. A fly bounces noisily inside the lampshade. “Another month or two should do it.”
“If you think that’s best,” he says and returns to his book.
It isn’t that she wants him to argue with her, to somehow prove that he really does want to marry her. He’s a patient man, and that’s as much a part of love as passion is. But she needs to be blamed. She needs to be accused so that she can defend herself and argue with him, so that she can purge the guilt that has filled the empty place inside.
Outside, the air has turned cold when, months after her visits with Nathan began, she lets him take her to bed. Mentally, she longs for him. Physically, though, since the operation, she feels no desire, feels more like a mannequin than a woman, a stand-in for the real thing. But Nathan has been so kind and gentle, urgent in his kisses yet respectful of her reluctance, and she wants to please him. She is ready now when he undresses her. She lets him explore her with his hands, tries not to flinch when he enters her first with his fingers, tries not to cry out in pain. She moves him away, onto his back, and then straddles him, eases herself onto him, pushing up when the pain comes, slipping down, then up again, until her body grows accustomed to the new sensation and she can make a gentle rhythm for them both.
Every afternoon it is the same, and soon the pain subsides. She knows what she can tolerate and what she cannot. A kind of pleasure returns.
One afternoon after being with Nathan, Jessica returns to the Zhang apartment to find that the boys are already home from school. Lao Zhang sits on the couch in his pajamas and slippers. His face is drained and his hands shake.
“You go out?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says. “To visit a friend.”
“Boys come home.”
Lao Zhang says no more, and she helps him back to bed. When Fengqi gets home after work, she wonders what the old man will tell him. As they make dinner, peeling and chopping and frying, she feels the engagement ring on her hand and wants to tell him about Nathan. Or, rather, she wants not to tell him about Nathan, but that she can’t go through with the wedding.
When she opens her mouth to speak, watching steam rise from the boiling rice, the scent of the onions hits her, and tears form in her eyes. Her body aches. She can’t say the words.
That night, instead of sleeping on the couch, as he has been doing since he brought her to the apartment after her surgery, Fengqi comes into her room, his room, and slips into bed next to her.
At dinner the next night, Fengqi looks at Jessica and clears his throat. “Boys,” he says, although his eyes are still on her, “we have something to tell you.”
Jessica looks down at her plate, at the mound of rice that isn’t like Maddie used to make, and the snow peas that aren’t like Maddie used to make, and the soy sauce and oil that congeal between them like blood.
“I know you boys still miss your mother very much. So do I. But Jessica and I are going to get married. And she’s going to live here with us.”
Jessica expects the boys to protest, to scream or run to their room and slam doors, to insist that their mother will come back. But instead they stare at their father, with his own blank expression.
After dinner, as Jessica and Fengqi do the dishes, he asks, “Have you picked a date?”
“Yes,” she says, without hesitation, and she names a date.
“Good,” he says.
This time there is no rented room, no invitations. Partly because Lao Zhang is so ill and partly because Jessica cannot bear to make her deception so public—she has continued to see Nathan each afternoon while Fengqi is at work—they are married at City Hall. After the event, they host a reception in the apartment that spills out into the gallery. Susanna and Aloysius are there, one or the other of them checking frequently on the baby. Claudia is there, but she spends most of her time looking after Simon and Wesley. The sculptor is there, and the painter. Also, the school teacher and the decorator. Everyone in the building comes. When Nathan appears, Jessica avoids him. She knows she should say something to him—neighborly pleasantries, anything—but she can’t. Instead, she takes Fengqi’s arm, feeds him a bite of wedding cake, turns her back to the guests.
She returns to work. The surgery now feels like a bad dream, one that haunts her when she remembers what has been taken from her, that she is less than a woman now. But mostly it is repressed, and she is too busy to let it surface. Fengqi has invited her to add her own touches to the apartment, to pick out new furniture or move things from her old apartment, to repaint. They can all do it together, he offers, to put their mark on the place as a family, but she’ll be in charge of the project. She picks up catalogues from Crate & Barrel, from Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware, and they all page through them. Lao Zhang selects a low cherry cabinet to replace the altar table he’s made in the living room. The boys, at first, choose beds that look like race cars, but Jessica is able to convince them that a double desk with shelving for books and games will be more practical. Fengqi says he wants nothing, but she notices that he lingers over a particular armchair covered in a plush, red fabric. She also studies the catalogues, but nothing grabs her interest. All of the catalogues migrate to a drawer in an end table. She places no orders.
On a cold, dark day, after Fengqi has gone into the office and the boys have gone off to school, and Lao Zhang is settled on the sofa in the living room with his tea and comforter, she sets off for work. The trees are bare and the wind whistles through the swaying branches. She turns the corner onto Seventh Street and is startled by the flashing red of three police cars and a fire truck. Two vehicles—one a black Mercedes and one so rumpled that she can’t identify it—sit in the center of the road as if locked in an embrace. The windshield of the Mercedes is marred by a gaping round moon surrounded by waves of shattered glass, like ripples in a pond. Spectators have gathered to watch the extraction of the victims. They point and whisper. Jessica turns away and stumbles to the curb, where she sinks.
The sound of breaking glass reaches her, the cry of metal stretched, shouted instructions, horrified gasps. She thinks of Maddie and her accident, the gaping hole in the Zhang family that Jessica is meant to fill. Her stomach convulses and she vomits in the street.
She stands, unsteadily, and totters back to Nanking Mansion. She will call the store, tell them she’s had a relapse. Already embarrassed by what she’s told them about her surgery, they won’t ask questions now. She’ll call again tomorrow and the next day and eventually she’ll tell them she isn’t going back.
She climbs the steps into the building and stops in the gallery. At the end of the hall is her home, where she lives with her new family, her husband and sons. In the center are the abstract paintings, like windows to the unknown. And at the front of the building, in the apartment with a view of the gray, cold street, is Nathan. Behind the door, he works on his book, or reads, or sleeps. It doesn’t matter what he does so much as what he could do, what he understands about her, about the world. She listens to the wind howl outside. And then she takes a step, and knocks on Nathan’s door.