This was originally published at The Rumpus on September 26, 2018, and is included in Ada Zhang‘s debut THE SORROWS OF OTHERS out in May 2023 from A Public Space.
Ping looked up from his papers to watch Airong in the kitchen. She cracked an egg into the bowl with one hand. Her apron was bright blue with a tea cup print, white buttons where the straps around her neck met the bodice. Tight black curls exploded out of a scrunchie, haloed in warm light.
She had come home last week with a perm. She had said, “Lao gong, how do you like it?” using her fingers to fluff the back.
“Your hair,” her husband had said, stunned by its size.
“The style is popular here.”
“Exactly.” She smiled, specks of red lipstick on her teeth.
The curls gave her an invigorated, healthy look. Hard to believe that only seven months ago, they had taken a bus from Chang Wu, their hometown, to Xi’an, then a train to Beijing, where they would board their flight to the US. Airong had, for the entire train ride, leaned her head against the window, eyes closed but awake. Her face was an alarming white, her hair straight and stringy, clumped together with sweat.
“Is your wife okay?” an older ah yi asked.
Ping said, “She’s fine.” He added quickly, “Trains make her nauseous.”
In the kitchen, Airong turned on the radio. A rock station. She hummed along. With one hand she held the bowl to her stomach and with the other reached into a drawer for chopsticks. She stirred in tempo.
“How was work today?”
Ping looked down at his papers. “Busy.” He shuffled his pens around, took his glasses off. “Busy.”
“Dr. Hunt has me grading papers and tests.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be helping him with research?” She set the bowl down, chopsticks on top. She brushed a loose curl from her forehead using the fleshy part of her thumb. “You said his grant had gone through. He’s gathering more sources now, no?”
Airong often retained the minutiae from one conversation and applied it in the next, and while Ping knew to appreciate the attentiveness, he wished she cared less. At times he wished her life existed in a separate plane, intersecting and overlapping with his only in practical matters—a car or a house, or children.
“He has his graduate students doing that. I’ll be useful to him once the actual writing begins.”
The oven sounded, a flat, woeful note that startled them both.
There was hardly room for Airong’s ankles when she opened the oven; the backs of her legs touched the island cabinets. The kitchen was small like the rest of the apartment, the floor plan designed to imitate wealth—each section a distinct territory, separated by elliptical archways—resulting in an uneconomical use of space. She grabbed the quilted mitten sitting on top of the stove, fanned the heat with it. Dinner was a green bean casserole, her third casserole this week, and dessert, Ping guessed, would be a cake of some sort.
Airong’s obsession began in July, a month after they arrived in Tucson. Ping’s semester hadn’t started yet, so every morning, when downtown was quiet except for an occasional truck roaring by, they went for a long walk, not sure how else to kill time. They had only two paths to choose from: left from their apartment or right, stopping whenever they got tired or just felt like stopping, and then the same route back. It was hardly scenic; advertisements and signs for small businesses lined East Speedway Boulevard. Blasts of heat dried out their eyes, made their lips crack. They hardly spoke except to say how hot it was or to remark at a billboard: Saxon’s Sandwich Shoppes—OUR FOOD IS RATED G / GREAT. Summers in Xi’an were just as hot but humid, a lot of breathing in other people’s sweat. Ping was glad to be rid of the wetness.
On one of these walks, the return trip, Airong found an old copy of Good Housekeeping on the side of the road, faded from baking on the asphalt. She picked up the magazine carefully, as though she recognized the face on the cover, and held it in front of her at arm’s length. Ping stood behind his wife.
“So lovely,” Airong said, “this woman. What do you think?” She craned her neck around, bird-like.
Ping could feel his glasses sliding down his nose but didn’t bother adjusting them. He tilted his head back to see. The woman was, by all standards, attractive, but Ping had imagined someone more singular. For all he knew, she could’ve been the girl who rang up their groceries the day before at El Rancho, smacking her gum like it was the only thing she was good at. The girl had had big, red-brown hair and wide brown eyes. A skinny nose that turned up at the bottom, as though held by string. Each feature was striking on its own, but together they formed a generic blankness.
“Beautiful,” he said.
Airong turned to face the woman again. She flicked a blade of yellow grass from the woman’s left ear, then rolled the magazine up and carried it home in her armpit.
Ping had expected it to be filled with leggy women in bright clothing, ads for skincare products; he had not expected recipes and tips on how to Make dinner easy, economical, and edible, too! For the whole family! Almost immediately, Airong began working in the kitchen with a diligence that had been absent when dinners were rice with bitter melon or tofu sautéed in chili oil, or even pork cutlet, which she had said was her favorite and her specialty—the recipe a family heirloom—but which she prepared and ate like it was a chore.
In August, shortly after the start of the fall term, Ping had come home to a dome on the table, the color and translucence of urine. Lettuce and small tomatoes on the outside as garnish, and on the inside, sliced radishes and shredded cabbage, frozen in space.
“How do I eat the food if it’s trapped?” Ping asked.
“You eat all of it, the whole thing.” Airong looked pleased with herself. “It’s lemon-flavored. They call it Jell-O.”
If Ping could go back and change anything, he would have scheduled the operation earlier, made sure there was no overlap between Airong’s recovery and their trip. Airong had tried, but the only appointment available fell three days before their train to Beijing. It was selfish, Ping knew, this desire to rearrange the past, but he wanted to forget—Airong’s wan skin over high cheekbones, eyebrows pinched together as though severe concentration could keep the vomit from coming. An image that had no place in his present, but invaded it nonetheless.
The baby had not been his. There was never a question about it. Ping and Airong had met only twice before they decided (or rather, their families decided) it was a solid match. The reason for such expediency was Ping’s going away; he had been admitted to a study abroad program at the University of Arizona, as a visiting scholar. The government was funding only a handful of students—just over 3,000, the newspapers said—and of course Ping was one of them. First in his class at Tsing Hua University. First in his class his entire academic life.
He was aware of the politics—what they would be to each other until they became something else, if they were lucky, something more. Airong: a way into a conventional life his parents had worried he would never have, on account of his severe shyness and the pockmarks disfiguring his round, dark face. And Ping, an opportunity: Airong’s way out of the dog-shit country China had become in the last thirty years. That’s how Airong’s father liked to describe the Party and the country, which to him were indistinguishable—as dog shit or, sometimes, horse shit. The rumor in the village was that Wuzi had been a wealthy man before the party took over, acres upon acres of land in his name. Ping’s parents knew this and, against Ping’s wishes, his reassurances that the government stipend was enough to support two comfortably and still have money to send home, they exploited it for a hefty dowry to make up for the fact that they were sending their only child away with very little besides a wife. Ping and Airong had to travel light, so the dowry came mostly in cash. They received none of the usual household amenities: dining sets, towels, satin bed sheets—everything in red for good fortune.
Ping cleared the table, put his pens and papers on the counter behind him. Airong was cutting into the casserole using a wide spatula. Twenty-one pieces, Ping calculated, three by seven. They would eat the leftovers tomorrow. The smell of creamy mushroom, which used to disgust him, now stirred his appetite. He held his plate out to Airong and watched as she scraped a piece from the side, testing it twice for balance before plopping it down, bottom side up.
Ping would never tell Airong, but there had been an adjustment period. Besides Jell-O salad, he had also suffered through vegetable salads, potato salads, tricolor pasta salads—all of which had been doused in clear vinegar or smothered in a thick, white sauce called mayonnaise. After two weeks of salads, Airong discovered the casserole on page 27 of Good Housekeeping, a more recent issue: The quickest way to feed a hungry family! A throw-back to America’s golden age! Ping had fetched it out of the secretary’s trash bin. He was tired of cold leaves for dinner, and thought a new magazine might give Airong some ideas, add a little variety to his diet. He had left the magazine on the island next to the old battered one, and hoped that his gesture would be seen as thoughtful, not critical.
The casserole quickly became her go-to choice for dinner, prized, Ping was sure, as Good Housekeeping advertised, for its efficiency. Into a rectangular pan she dumped cans of various vegetables and beans, heavy cream, a bag of frozen peas that had thawed, and on the rare occasion that she used fresh produce, a diced onion went into the mix. She added fruit too sometimes, pineapples or peaches soaked in syrupy water.
His stomach revolted. He hadn’t yet learned the term “lactose intolerant,” but he figured it was the dairy. Either that or the preservatives—how long could food really keep in a can? Frozen? As he sat on the toilet, his mind would drift to thoughts of his mother’s hand-cut noodles, of cumin and chili lamb stuffed in a pocket of bread and sold in the street market alongside whole chickens roasting on a spit. Then a wave of pain would pass through his abdomen, and he couldn’t think about food anymore.
By October, Airong had gained confidence in the kitchen and began preparing more meat. Pork chops, lamb chops, chicken legs, wings—they all tasted the same, seasoned with salt and pepper and not much else. The first time Ping cut into a steak, he let out a whimper, not expecting the blood.
“It’s medium rare,” said Airong. “I should have warned you. It’s safe to eat, don’t worry.”
Ping resumed cutting, slower now, until he could see raw flesh on the inside.
“It’s safe,” Airong said again.
She had told him of her pregnancy at the west entrance of the town courtyard, only six hours after Ping had returned home to Chang Wu after his first trip to Tucson. The trip had been brief; three days. He had toured the campus and some of the city. There wasn’t much to see in Tucson and it had rained the whole time he was there, so he ended up staying in his motel a lot, watching sitcoms and jotting down colloquialisms he didn’t understand or had never heard of before. Bite me! Bogus! What’s your damage? On the last day, he had dinner with Dr. Hunt and a representative from Tsing Hua, who, in front of Dr. Hunt, went by Frank, and who introduced Ping as “one of China’s brightest.”
Airong’s voice was stern, matter-of-fact. “I’m pregnant.”
Ping had felt suddenly lightheaded and fatigued. He figured it was jetlag. He looked past Airong’s head to see dusk settling in, the remnants of light casting a persimmon glow over the mountains. He had thought that she was going to call off the marriage, and had prepared himself to react accordingly. He would not beg or plead with her, he had decided. He would honor her wishes, save what little dignity he had left and go to the United States alone. But what was he supposed to say now? To do? He took his glasses off, cleaned them using his hot breath and shirt sleeve.
“I’m pregnant, Ping.” Her chin quivered this time.
Standing in the courtyard, Ping put his glasses back on and replayed the day’s events in his head. That morning, as soon as he stepped through the pink cloth draped over the doorway, before he even put his bags down, his mother had said, “You’re back. I have a gift for you.” She set down the cleaver she had been using to cut chives and pranced like a deer into the bedroom, wiping her hands on her pants as she went. She emerged seconds later with a small basket of lychee.
“From your fiancée,” she said. “She told me she knows they’re your favorite.” The cheeriness in his mother’s voice, laced with something coy and teasing, embarrassed him. “She is already making efforts to please you. She already thinks the way any good wife does.” The way his mother was holding the basket—to her side, one hand around the handle, the other supporting the bottom, like the contents inside were heavy and precious—she may as well have been presenting him with gold.
Ping had waited the rest of the morning and into the afternoon for his mother to retreat to the bedroom for her nap. At the sound of the first snore, he went into the kitchen and turned the basket upside down over a wooden cutting board. The fruit scattered, careening around the countertop; the sound some of them made as they hit the floor was no louder than that of a fat raindrop. He heard his mother stir and then fall back asleep.
There was a note at the bottom of the basket, just as he had suspected there would be. It had been folded in half four times and felt like a pebble in his hand, compact and light. The instructions in it said: Meet me at seven at the west entrance, by the lions. I have an important matter to discuss with you.
And here they were, everything going according to Airong’s plan, and Ping could not find anything to say. He pictured her writing the note by candlelight the night before, after her parents and siblings had fallen asleep. Folding the note into a tiny square and placing it into a basket, which she then filled to the brim with lychee. He pictured her that morning, riding her bike four miles, up two steep hills, to drop the basket off with her soon-to-be mother-in-law, telling her it was a gift. He understood it was the only way to ensure the secrecy of their meeting, but now he considered whether Airong knew that he would recognize the gift instantly as subterfuge. If this was true it was sad, for it meant that they both knew such romance was beyond them. Or, did she think he would embrace the gesture as it appeared? Her idea being that he would eat the lychee noisily and fast—charmed by her flirtation—only to realize he was a fool at the end. Which version of her was worse? Which version of him?
He had savored the fruit anyway, sucking on its white flesh until there was none left.
Airong said now, “I’m getting an abortion. You don’t have to come with me.”
How much time had passed? Ping looked at the sky again—the orange had faded into indigo—and then at the woman in front of him. A loose braid hugged the curve of her neck. Her lips and cheeks were rouged, not totally natural, though the shades of pink mixed for a convincing imitation of a face in full flush. She smelled like chrysanthemum. He had to wonder if she did it on purpose, made herself beautiful to soften the impact. But he didn’t feel pain or even jealousy, just a hollowness, and that’s when he knew, if there was any doubt before, that he didn’t love her.
“If you’re going to get an abortion, then why bother telling me you’re pregnant at all?” he said finally.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Airong.
“Where was this morality when you were with another man?” A meanness grew inside of Ping, pulling him into a feeling of power he’d never known before. His heart beat fast in the back of his throat.
“I was caught in a different morality then,” she said. “I loved him.”
She held Ping’s gaze, did not blink. Everything was still except for her bangs in the breeze. He felt himself coming down, losing control as quickly as he’d gained it.
“What about him?” she said. “I’m marrying you. I’m leaving this place.”
A child rang the bell on his bicycle, shouting after his brother—“Ge! Wait up!”—and Ping found his familiar surroundings suddenly strange, like he was seeing it all for the first time and every detail was extraordinary in its dullness. The ground of the courtyard, covered as it always was in a tan powdery dirt. Men smoking cigarettes, gray pants rolled up to their knees to expose glistening shins, sweaty from a long day of readying sorghum for harvest; women returning from the marketplace, walking in slow side to side rocks, baskets of peaches and dried dates dangling from their wrists. The commonness added insult, ill-suited as it was for this half-tragedy.
It was mid-January now, and he and Airong had fallen into a steady routine centered around mealtimes. In the morning, he would leave his wife in the kitchen, scrubbing at the sausage stuck to the pan.
He would say, “I’m leaving,” and she would pause, meeting his eyes with a look of disorientation, like she needed a moment to recall their relation.
“Goodbye, lao gong,” she would reply finally, and though the muscles in her face relaxed and she was smiling, he could tell she was meeting the reality of their respective days with surrender. “Walk slowly.”
He went about his day, attended classes and meetings, and didn’t think about his wife again until noon. His lunches had become standardized. Every day she packed him either a sandwich or a wrap, sealed in thin plastic. Ping enjoyed these for their utilitarian quality, how the ingredients stacked on top of one another. He developed a habit of peeking inside before taking the first bite, wondering how Airong decided today whether it was going to be turkey or ham, lettuce or spinach. He ate in the common area outside the math and sciences building, on one of the couches. Whenever one of Dr. Hunt’s grad students walked by, Ping pretended not to notice.
He came home around seven, walked through the front door to her skinning a carrot or draining the excess liquid from a can of tomatoes, wearing that same apron, and she would say, “Dinner’s almost ready,” to which he would say nothing, choosing instead to loosen the collar on his shirt, hang his tie over a chair.
Ping never formalized it before, the tickling irony; it was love that had nearly ruined their future, and the lack of love that made it work in the end, allowing them to move forward. Airong was at the island now, on the tips of her toes, piping icing from a bag. Ping had been right: cake for dessert, from a box that advertised, Add your own eggs!, which he could see sticking out of the trash can.
Airong had eaten her corner piece of casserole in under a minute. Ping was on his third serving and taking his time, making careful, even demarcations with each forkful. Lately Airong ate fast and very little, the experience perfunctory, it seemed. But he couldn’t complain; it was better than before, when every swallow seemed like a laborious overcoming, and they would sit at the table for what felt like epochs chewing loudly, tearing at the pork cutlet like savages to try and fill the quiet. They ate in silence still—that much hadn’t changed, but Ping knew that soon Airong, now that she was back in the kitchen, would become chatty.
Smoothing the icing on the side of the cake using a butter knife, she asked Ping the same question she asked every night, the same question she’d had about her hair.
“Do you like it, lao gong?”
Ping replied, “Yes, it’s good.”
“I’m glad,” Airong said, not looking up. Her efforts always amounted to this exchange of niceties.
She carried the cake to the table just as he finished the last bite of green beans. She pushed his dirty plate aside and placed the whole cake under his nose.
“Devil’s cake,” she said, and clapped her hands together close to her ear, “with fudge icing.”
Striations from the butter knife. Air bubbles lodged into the dark brown, almost black paste that Americans put on every dessert. Icing. The sugar gave him a headache. Moon cakes and red bean buns had hinted at sweetness. Here, the flavor reached its full potential.
Airong stood over him and divided the cake into eight pieces, four cuts along different diameters. Her breast grazed the right side of his head.
“Forgot the silverware,” she said. “Wait.”
She skipped into the kitchen, hair bouncing, slippers slapping the tile, and after some rummaging, came back with another fork, another small plate. The slice nearly fell on the table during the transport from the serving tray; Airong used her index finger to stabilize it.
“Go ahead, eat.”
“You don’t want any?”
“I’ll have some later. I want to know how it tastes first.” She pulled a chair close to his and sat. “It’s a cake from Betty Crocker.”
“Who is that?”
“A woman who knows all the secrets about cooking and baking.” Airong crossed her legs energetically. “She makes baking easier for women like me.”
Women like you? Ping thought, and then, picking up the clean fork, he wondered exactly what type of woman Airong was, if he could qualify her. She had slept with another man during their engagement, but if he hadn’t loved her, hadn’t even known her, then how bad was the transgression, really? Ping often critiqued himself within these same parameters, asking if he was, if not necessarily the right man, at least a good man, for his wife.
He was starting to believe it was all a matter of playing pretend, and that a person’s commitment to pretending was a kind of integrity, the only type of commitment needed to make any valuable thing last. Away from his wife, Ping practiced this virtue. He feigned solidarity with the professors and other students—How’s it going? a simple line he always made a mess of by saying How it’s going?—but he could sense their discomfort at his attempts to be one of them. Tight lips, wandering eyes, bodies that angled away, eager to leave.
“Aren’t you going to eat it?” Airong asked. She gave his plate a nudge.
If there was a way to quantify the qualities between them, the math would come out positive on her side, showing that she was the better person. Ping knew Airong was pretending to love him, and this make-believe was a show of kindness because it was sincere. She was steadfast in her new life, never seemed sorry over what had happened—neither the problem nor its solution. Instead she found a way to keep busy, make herself useful.
Most of the time he didn’t think about it, but sometimes at dinner, when Airong was milking the motions of wifely affection, he contemplated whether or not it was cruel that he didn’t urge her to keep the child, offer to raise it as his own. What would their relationship be like, with an ordeal like that between them? And then he would feel ashamed for indulging in this impossible fantasy, and beyond that, for allowing his imagination to grant him a goodness that he knew he had not earned.
Each time, he concluded that he was making things unnecessarily complicated. Their situation was plain. All they could do was play their parts, achieve a likeness to love, and hope it would be enough. Ping sunk his fork into the spongy loaf. Not hungry, he ate.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.