She said that right after you give birth, all of your bones come apart. She said you need forty-two days to recover. She said she must lie in bed for forty-two days without moving or else when she is sixty she will have joint pain. I told her that everyone has joint pain at sixty. I’m only thirty-nine and I am starting to have joint pain. Yes, she said, but it will be worse.
My wife is Chinese. She is very obedient, but she will not obey me. She obeys her father. She obeys her mother. She obeys herself. She said she cannot obey a Canadian-American from Finland.
I am a Canadian-American from Finland.
In Canada and America and Finland, we worry about post-partum depression. We believe a trip to get mango ice cream or perhaps sitting out at a Thai cafe might be good for a woman in the days, the weeks after birth. But no, she says that you have to stay in bed for forty-two days and when I say stay in bed for forty-two days I mean stay in bed for forty-two days. You can only get out of bed to go to the bathroom. And some wives, she tells me, will not even get out of bed to go to the bathroom. She tells me I am lucky. She tells me that some Chinese husbands go back and forth with a bedpan all day for forty-two days. I tell her I will never touch a bedpan again. I worked in an emergency room in Marquette as a teenager. I will never touch another Foley catheter or bedpan or clean up blood from decubitus ulcers ever again. I tell her I will go to Trois-Rivieres. I will go to Negaunee. I will go to Oulu. I will not stay in Shanghai if she stays in bed for forty-two days.
She gives birth to the baby.
She stays in bed.
I stay in Shanghai.
My wife’s name means “Old Man” in Chinese. I would write the Chinese characters down for you, but my computer does not allow for Chinese characters. It does not allow for an accent grave for Trois-Rivieres. It is an old computer.
I laughed at her name the first time I heard it. I cannot date an old man, I told her, but I did. I married a young woman named Old Man.
Her nose. So cute. A button nose. A snowman’s button. A cute snowman’s button nose.
Her lips. So real. In America, lips can look so fake. Maybe because they are fake. Impossibly bright reds. Fat like herpes inflammations. American lips look like infections and spilled paint. Her lips were so real, so Asian, so soft. No lipstick. Ever.
She tells me she feels her bones falling apart. Coming apart.
I tell her to get out of the bed.
She tells me bad things will happen.
Her mother comes down from Beijing. She is going to stay forty-one days. She brings a bedpan. I tell her I think I am sick.
I go outside of our apartment. Five Chinese men smoke cigarettes in the hallway next to a No Smoking sign. I go back in the apartment. Days go by like this. Not enough days. Five or six. Forty-two days is forever. God could create seven universes in that time.
My wife says she cannot shower during these days.
I ask why not.
She says she cannot shower during these forty-two days. This is her explanation. A repetition.
I ask her mother. Her mother says, you know nothing about China. Take care of my daughter, she says, keep her bones safe.
They are not coming apart, I say.
They are, my wife says.
My mother-in-law goes back to Beijing. My father-in-law is having throat troubles. This is what she says. There is a problem in his throat. He is drinking too many cold things, she says.
I tell her it is July. It is hot, so he needs cold things on his throat.
She says I know nothing about China. She leaves. She takes the baby with her. My wife, surprisingly, allows this, her energy gone. I worry about this. My mother-in-law says this will be for the best. I understand I cannot fight it. And I want time with my wife. The baby needs to be in Beijing with a bad-throated grandpa. It is best for the baby. Best for us. And this is China, where nothing makes sense. My wife even says this to me. And she is Chinese.
My wife is in bed. No shower. 35 degrees Celsius. I repeat the temperature in English.
She says, why do you have such strange words?
What strange words, I ask.
Fahrenheit, it may be the silliest word I have ever heard. What if you have a temperature, she says, and a doctor says the word Fahrenheit, how do you take him seriously?
I tell her to get out of the bed.
She says her bones have come apart. If I touch her, they will stay that way. I sit on the bed. She says, please do not touch me. I sleep on the couch again. I get up the next day. She is awake. She never sleeps. She just stares at the ceiling, the square yellow lamp filled with dust that hangs above her bed. I can feel my organs coming apart, she says.
I tell her I am going to the park.
I go to the park. People walk in circles. They clap their hands together. In front of them, they clap; behind them, they clap. They clap hundreds of times, walking in circles. It is like a madhouse at the park. This is their exercise. Madhouse exercises.
When I met my wife, my co-worker said, if she is not Westernized, don’t marry her, she will drive you mad. My co-worker said, my wife is not Westernized, she has driven me mad. She is beautiful and perfect and my heart is inside of the sedan chair she rides in, but I am mad, he said. Do you see how I talk, I talk like I am mad, he said.
My co-worker is mad. So I don’t listen to him.
I took Old Man to Cantita Agave. I spent 350 RMB on her for our first date. She says, I cannot marry you without the passion. I don’t have the passion yet, she says. I take her to Japanese BBQ on the second date, spend 500 RMB. We get drunk. She falls all over herself, as if her bones are apart. In the street she vomits. She bends over. She has a nice ass, even puking. I marry her two months later. Three months later she is pregnant. Ten months later she is in bed. Only two weeks and she will get out of that bed. Sanity will return. We will go to restaurants and eat seven courses with friends. We will get enough niurou and mifan and hongcha and baicai to make a food traveling TV show host jealous. But for now, she is sweat and atrophy and stillness. It is not good, I say.
I can feel my organs coming apart, she says, do not touch me. And her body, in all honesty, does look wrong. I can’t put it another way other than wrong. I don’t tell her this. I go to bed. I wake up. She looks even more wrong.
I ask if I should get a doctor.
No, she says. Call my mother.
I call. There is no answer. I worry that her father is in the hospital, that the problem in his throat has grown. The news says there has been terrible rain there, power outages.
How can she not contact me when I am like this, my wife asks.
I look down at her. She seems to have elongated. I tell her this.
She says, it is the Chinese. She says, in the West you are meat-eaters, you are stronger, you have calcium. It is too late for me, she says, I am weak, I am Chinese, my bones must come apart.
I tell her I am getting some nin nai, real milk, Pura, from Australia, not that watery Chinese stuff, that we shouldn’t be drinking it, not after the 2008 Chinese milk scandal. I tell her I am going to the City Shop. I go.
I come back.
My wife says not to come in the room. I start to come in the room. She screams. She tells me to turn the light off. I come in. She screams for me to close my eyes. I close my eyes. She tells me to reach over, to turn off the light switch. I reach over, turn off the light switch. I open my eyes. The room is haunted with claustrophobic walls of dark, only the eeriest of reddish light from the streetlight below outside the window. I hear tears, no sobs, just the soft falling of tears snailing across skin. I’ve come apart, she whispers to the haunt-dark. The room smells like paren, it smells like fear, it smells like old mang guo coming from the apartment next door, from the trash down the hall. She tells me to keep the light off or she will die.
I tell her she will not die.
She says I do not understand China.
I yell I know.
She whispers for me not to yell, that a yell could kill her.
I ask what’s wrong.
She tells me that the worst is happening. She asks me what day it is, tells me not to lie.
I say it is Thursday.
It is xing qi si, she says. She says the si like a wounded snake, the way that in Chinese you can say hunger and it feels so much hungrier than in English. She says si like a dying wish. She frightens me with her si. And what day of the month is it? I don’t even have to say it. The fourth. Four. Si. Si in Chinese can mean four and it can mean temple and it can mean death. But it can also mean tear and think and consider and private and silk and resemble and like and seem. But she’s taking it as die. She’s taking it as dead. She’s taking it as the most superstitious of Chinese take it, the way that only the looniest of Americans would actually get nervous about it being Friday the 13th. She whispers, asking me if I will love her through anything.
I say yes. I say, I’m going to take you out of the bed.
She whimpers a plea not to move her, not to come near her, that I’ll kill her if I move her, that she is hearing the finger tapping of death. I ask what’s wrong and she says the bones have all gone. They have walked away, that they could not take the bed any longer.
I realize she needs a psychiatrist. I tell her I’m going to make a call.
She says that if they come they will take her away, piece by piece. And I wonder if I just need to wait two more weeks, if the sanity will return then. I wonder if I call the police if her mother would disown me forever. I’ve heard of Chinese mother-in-laws taking babies, kidnapping children. I’ve heard of Westerners being excommunicated, of Chinese families disappearing into the billion people of China, that they disappear into the jungle of Zhongguo better than in any country in the world, that Zhongguo (China) even sounds like “jungle,” that the word itself hints at its chaos, its wilderness, its ability to collapse its foliage in on you and you will never walk out again. My co-worker told me that China is a place where you can come to die and not even realize that’s what you came here for.
My wife whispers, I love you, Chifan. Her nickname for me. Her words feel like they come from a year ago, like they come from Cantita Agave and from her original button nose and the first day that she taught me how tender a kiss can be. In America, when you kiss, it is a battle. In China, it is a tea ceremony. It is the softest, purest thing. It is the way angels kiss. Careful angels. Angels whose lips might break. That is how they kiss. I feel her words on my cheek. I feel them touch my ear.
I tell her to go to sleep. I tell her it will be better in the morning. I fall asleep on the couch. It is a hard couch. It is not meant to be slept on. It is not even made to be sat on. It is solely decorative. It smells like stale incense from the previous tenant. It smells like incense and old mango and fear. I fall asleep. The night, for me, is filled with my same torments of the years—the first girl I fell in love with who never has left my dream world (a Christian with large breasts and a smile like a pirate), the constant running from endless enemies from my high school with their torches and guns and ever-shifting faces, the alleys of Shanghai that seem so mysterious and fog-like, even in the daytime. The night was long and sad and repetitive, old nightmares that tire me, that make me exhausted in my sleep.
I wake up. The sun is violent. I go to my wife’s room. Her head peeks out from under the blanket. She is asleep. At the edge of the bed, I step on something, look down, and it is soft and small. I look closer and it is a foot. A severed foot. Two sawed bones sticking out. The foot is pale and cold and far too much like a Halloween prop for me to be frightened. I look at my wife pretending to sleep and I am happy that she has gotten up in the night to play this prank, even if it hints at more madness from her. But where did she get the foot? Was the whole event of last night part of the prank? I let her sleep. I go to the bathroom. I pee for the duration of an opera, a fantastic leak, I think to myself, shivering at the end of its marathon. My clothes fall off, slump on the floor like a melted witch. I get in the shower and see a glob, a thing, a muscular-type sac as if it has been hacked out of a dog, a cat, a pig, a thing on the tiled shower floor. This thing from a thing lies across the shower drain with a watery film around it, a yellowish tint. It’s fresh. It’s a prank gone too far. The madness is evident. I turn quickly, expecting to find my wife smiling like an “It’s a small world” audio-animatronic, something part gentle, part horror. But all that is in the bathroom is the bathroom. And me. And the glob of creature that looks like it’s recently ran into a knife.
I go to the bedroom.
My wife continues to pretend to be asleep. She seems to have wasted away. Something in her face feels Auschwitz. She hasn’t been eating. A horror in that alone. Thirty-plus days of near starvation. I examine her head. It has shrunken in. It is her, but without something, like her soul is gone. I stare at her. Afraid to touch her. To wake her. Afraid. I see something move. On the chest of drawers. Next to her folding dragon hand fan and dangle hook earrings, another thing. Beating. The thing. The impossible thing. In front of a mirror, so that there are two of them, both moving—the actual thing and its mirrored reflection. The thing that beats that can’t be there. Red. This muscle, this glob that has the significance of life. It can’t be. I go to it. I lean in. And it’s there. Alive. Impossible. In the mirror, I see my wife’s eyes open. She screams. I turn around. I rush to her. I yank the blanket back. She is gone. The head there. But just the head . . . and it collapses in. The body parts, her body parts—I look around—are everywhere. She is in the sink and in the window and on the floor and in the lamp. Her scapula and her ulna and her patella. Her lungs and her forearms and her ears line the walls. Trails of blood. Arterial. Venous. Pus. All body parts. Everywhere. They all seem to move. Away. This creeping. This crawling. Away. Cowering. Away from us. As if they want to go into every direction other than the center of this room, this bed. A finger inching. A stomach on the kitchen table, barely visible in its movement. But it is moving, across the flowered plate. Moving. As if they need to be a world away.
Her lips move. She speaks. From her sunken head, she speaks. She says something. Soft. I lean in. She says, nothing will stop them. She says, yours are next. She says, you did not understand China. She says, you will understand China. And I feel the own beating in my own chest shift to the right. And her lips move closer to me. Just her lips. Just her lips.
My Dad used to look like Alan Alda; now, the older her gets, the more he looks like Geppetto. My Mom, Mia Farrow; now, the splitting image of Gramma Bunny. Geppetto Dad stops leaning on the balcony railing in Shanghai, my ninth floor apartment. I told the landlord nothing above the ninth, in case I needed to jump if a fire broke out. I realize now I should have told him nothing above the third. A building two blocks down caught on fire last month. I keep a bucket of water by my bed. Gramma Bunny Mom sits on the pink couch that smells like a Buddhist temple. The couch, every time I sit on it, makes me cough. I’ve even started calling it “the cough.”
Dad says, “If you’re gay, that’s fine.”
My Mom nods in agreement.
I’m forty. I just turned forty. I turned forty when the building was burning, the same day. I had no birthday cake. I watched it burn. It wasn’t beautiful. It wasn’t majestic. No one died, so don’t worry. It was just smoke. In fact, it seemed like there wasn’t any flames, if a building could just burn with smoke.
“Dan, the music teacher at the school’s gay. He’s your Mom’s best friend.”
My Mom nods. He’s not her best friend, but is a friend.
Mom’s stopped putting on makeup. Ever since the cancer. Cancer, for my Mom, was a joke. They diagnosed it and then it was like it just left. I’m sure she got treatments, but she didn’t tell me about any of them. It was just one day, “It’s gone.” “What?” “It, it’s gone.” “Forever?” She nodded. My Mom kicked its ass.
“Just sit down, Dad,” I say.
He doesn’t sit.
“I’m—I’m not gay.” They don’t believe me. “I think I’m the opposite of gay.”
Mom frowns. Dad copies her frown, like he doesn’t know what to do, so he borrows her gestures.
“What does that mean? The opposite of gay?”
“I don’t know.”
Last year Dad told me he tried to commit suicide twice—when he was sixteen and when he was forty. He was drunk telling me this. Well, not drunk. Tipsy. At the bowling alley. He’d bowled the worst game of his life and just quit, mid-game. Started drinking instead. I think he’d got in a fight with Mom during the day. He said in a low voice that he tried to drown himself the first time and the second time he closed the garage door, started up the car, and waited and he said he got bored waiting to die, that it was taking longer than he thought and it made him angry and he turned off the car and opened up the garage door and went back in the house.
“I’m not ever going to get married,” I say.
My Dad sits on the cough/couch.
When I took the job in China, they said I’d get a free apartment. I knew what free meant. The next-door neighbor smokes pot everyday. For some reason I thought China would be like living in Disney World. I thought China would be like having an apartment in Epcot. There’s no laws here. There’s too many people for laws. You can’t have laws when you have thirty million people. It’s massage parlors and cars going through red lights and pot in the room next to me everyday. Everyday.
“I do want to make it clear though that if you are, we love you.”
“I’m not. Let me just make that clear,” I say, “This is important. I’m glad you’re here, because there’s nowhere you can go. You have to listen to me.”
“I’m—and this is something I’ve realized over years now. And it feels like I’m the only person on the earth who has this, is like this. But I’m asexual.”
I’m in sweats, blue sweats, the opposite of high waters. When I walk, I step on the bottoms of the sweats. They’re starting to tatter. They’re sweats made for Shaq. Made for Yao Ming.
I make $30,000 a year. I edit everything in-house for a cigarette company. They turn in sentences that read, “Rich flavor makes lust and gets drunk days.” I ask Li what this means. She explains. I still don’t understand. I ask Xia what it means. She explains. I think I understand. “So you’re saying that the user is passionate for the rich flavor of the cigarette, that the customer becomes inebriated by the rich flavor?” “Yes.” I do this every day.
“You’ll have to explain what that means.” My Mom crosses her legs. That means she’s angry.
“Asexual? You’ve never heard of asexual?”
“That means you don’t have,” Dad lowers his voice, “Sex.”
I feel like Pinocchio, like I’m not a boy. Not a girl either. Not anything. I think I died in 2001. Back when my Dad was failing at committing suicide. When our cousin was buried for twenty-two hours in the rubble in New York. A paramedic. A hero. And my Dad had the garage filled with smoke. And my Mom was chain-smoking cigarettes. And in me something switched off. A flash. But this flash that was years in the making. Overnight and years long. This moment where the human body stopped having meaning to me. Where it was like everyone became these boring objects of flesh, like I could see death in them, this Buddhist concept I’d heard of during my Bachelor’s, of how Buddhist monks practiced seeing people as the bones they’d become, except I didn’t have to practice it; the world became that. And my parents were that. Especially my parents. Geppetto and Gramma Bunny becoming corpses. And even they were seeing the world that way. I heard my Dad one night, with his best friend, Kevin Kalliokoski, talking about how my mother stopped wearing lingerie years ago and how he was fine with that, how he was fine with . . . and his voice dropped off.
And I thought how the hell do I explain this—how do you explain that you don’t feel? And then I just let it out. “I wish I was gay. Being gay would be simple. Coming out of the closet. If I was gay, I would just—I would just bound out.” Gay clubs and your first out-of-the-closet kiss and the fight for gay marriage and the politics, the magazines, the music. Being gay must be like skydiving off of a mountain.
“If you’re gay—”
“I’m not gay!” I yell, worried the pot-smoker will hear me, although his English is non-existent. “Just listen. Jesus Christ, this isn’t easy for me!”
“I’m not swearing! And you’re not even Christian, so don’t try to tell me what swearing is!”
“You don’t know what I am,” my mother said. I forgot that during her cancer month she started reading all this Zoroastrian and Baha’i shit. Tony Robbins. She started watching The Three Stooges. Started doing and reading anything and everything she’d never did or read before. And it worked. If I ever get cancer, I’m going to be just like her and try everything. The opposite of now. The trying of nothing.
“Just listen. OK, I’ll pay you to listen. I will pay you if you just listen to me. I have money now.” I went to the closet, pulled out my wallet, took out 300 RMB.
My Dad waved me off.
I put it back, glad because I need that 300 RMB.
“I googled it. The writer of Peter Pan was asexual. Tim Gunn from Project Runway. Janeane Garofolo. Paula Poundstone. They exist. But I just don’t know any of them. And no, I don’t want to be alone. I just want to be with someone who wants to spend time with someone and never have sex ever. Ever. Ever.”
My Mom covers her mouth. My Dad covers his mouth. Poker-facing. I hear a siren outside. The sky looks like death. It always looks like death here. The sky looks like it has lung cancer. The U.S. government web site listed today as Hazardous for air quality. The China web site listed today as Good. I thought about buying a nurse-type mask, but I would be too embarrassed to wear it. This is where I live now. Cancer sky. Alone. The Chinese look at me everyday, stop, turn, watch me walk down the street, everyday, like they can see how little I feel, like they know I’m strange on the inside, different. Like they know it’s not just my skin.
I punch the wall, hard. A knuckle lacerated, tiny. A bit of skin hanging off.
“Don’t do that.” Mom uncrosses her legs, which means that she’s angry.
I look down from the balcony railing. Some guy with a cigarette walking by. A 60-year-old with a skeleton head, balding. And then he’s gone.
We go to a park. There’s not many places to go. Either food or a park. The park’s free. It’s boring. People walk in circles. Old men clap their hands over and over and over again while walking, some bizarre form of exercise. Everyone’s getting a breath of fresh air that isn’t fresh, that’s barely air. A teenager pees on a bush.
My Mom tells my Dad to walk ahead. He does.
We go in a circle. There is no wild life. No birds. I don’t know what happened to the birds. There is a dog though, stray. It looks like a poodle that’s been electrocuted. It looks like a mad scientist. It looks like it’s done heroin. It’s cute.
My Mom points to a bench. We sit.
There is water nearby, a pond, a Chinese classical garden. The water is polluted and looks beautiful.
“Your father, when he was young, he was—you don’t know this, but he was—there was things that happened in his family, that he—he would never want to talk about. But he was, he was like that when we first married.”
“Just let me finish. It’s my turn this time.” She takes cigarettes out of her purse. “Do you mind?”
“Yes,” I say, “Yes.”
She puts them back. We watch the people, their circle, the feel of a Turkish prison but with much prettier flowers all around.
“Do you still want to be hugged?” she asks.
“Yeah, of course.”
“Good,” she says, “Because I need one. Do you mind?”
I lean into her.
“No, a real hug,” she says.
I really hug her. My Dad circles back around, joins us.
The sky has died. It has surrendered. I imagine God trying to see through the clouds made out of benzene and exhaustion. I imagine God coughing.
I whisper, “God, when I was a kid, looked like Santa. Now, he looks like Jesus, on a crucifix.”
“Don’t forget,” Mom says, “Jesus was asexual.”
“I don’t know if that’s true,” I say.
“It doesn’t matter,” Mom says, “Look what happened to him. It all turned out good.”
They both hug me so hard that it hurts. The people ignore us and I’m happy for that.
© Ron Riekki
Ron Riekki was born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P.). He is a graduate of the Brandeis University theater program (playwriting), the University of Virginia creative writing program (fiction), and the Western Michigan University creative writing Ph.D. program (literature & creative writing). He’s also the author of the novel U.P. (Ghost Road Press, 2008). In May 2013, Wayne State University Press published the anthology The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works, edited by Ron Riekki and featuring new writing by Vincent Reusch, April Lindala, Andrea Scarpino, Janeen Rastall, Amber Edmondson, Marty Achatz, Sue Harrison, and 36 other talented U.P. authors, http://wsupress.wayne.edu/. The book was selected by the Library of Michigan as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book. Riekki’s writing has appeared in two previous issues of Loch Raven Review.