Friday, November 12, 2010

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei by Charles Lowe

I first discovered Mrs. Wei Wei in a box of newspaper clippings in a dresser that had been picked up at a flea market. Mrs. Wei Wei was my wife; or rather was the pseudonym that my wife had once borrowed for her advice column, a 2 by 12cm feature with a black and white wedged in its upper left hand corner. The photo was not especially well taken, and I could not claim to recognize my wife at all—the outward lines, perhaps: the skin with rich curves like a porcelain plate and the lips puckered up just so as when in an early column, Mrs. Wei Wei advised how to survive when living with your husband’s family for the duration: always smile, not too much. That can cast suspicion, be more like a dumpling, thin lips squeezed out by the index and thumb. If you need, practice before a well scrubbed kitchen window. Make sure the window is closed first.

How Mrs. Wei Wei came to hand out such useful advice at the only major paper in the third largest city in China, Li could not be certain. Mrs. Wei Wei’s place on the Health & Technology Page had predated Li’s arrival at The Tianjin Daily. And Mrs. Wei Wei was a regular bottom feeder at the daily, so no one on the otherwise all male staff would have bothered with her history: certainly not the previous occupant, who had nailed down the position after finding the bad side of a senior editor, this old Mrs. Wei Wei taking every chance to vent his displeasure over receiving another complaint from another immigrant in trouble. So much so that the each staff member of the Daily took every step to avoid the good auntie. Li the one exception, having good reason to help the old Mrs. Wei Wei reply to some of the more troubling questions. She was that desperate. First, there were the dust storms in March.

Li worked on the business page, a job that required her to meet various supervisory personnel at textile and elevator mills (Tianjin’s main industries) spread around the city’s periphery. For that purpose, Li used a bike, which during the March storm season, became immersed in the cindery dust from the northern plains that filled the entire Goubuli District—crawling inside Li’s mouth and throat, inspiring Li each night to sleep at an arms’ length from her first husband, unwilling to touch his leathery skin, fearful that the cindery dust would pierce his self-composure.

Second, there were the Goubuli dumplings. A Goubuli dumpling is a steamed doughy wrapper, containing tofu and vegetables and sometimes shrimp or pork, each dumpling shaped like an oblong football and when prepared with an expert hand, has a lip that is completely sealed. During the March storms, the cindery dust, in addition to violating Li’s vocal chords, also inhibited her ability to taste the dumplings lined with Bok Choy, a leaf that was purplish blue and therefore was more wound than leaf. So when the old Mrs. Wei Wei became promoted after becoming engaged to a daughter of a Party boss, Li immediately put in to be the good auntie of the Goubuli District, a position that no one else on the otherwise all male staff had wanted but a position that provided Li a shelter from a cinder storm—which as Tianjin grew, seemed to grow in intensity.

The convergence of the old Mrs. Wei Wei’s engagement with a particularly harsh dust storm was indeed a fortunate occasion for the daily as once Li took on the part of Mrs. Wei Wei, the good auntie skyrocketed from her secondary position to becoming a front page regular, a crowd gathering each early afternoon in front of a sketchily stained board anchored by a dilapidated pair of sticks. There, at the back end of a park near the intersection of Pu-Yin Avenue with a brief alleyway, Mrs. Wei Wei’s many fans would argue sometimes heatedly over Mrs. Wei Wei’s latest recipe for self-correction. For instance, when a teenager worried about the non-arrival of her period, I am seventeen and all my friends bleed, and Mrs. Wei Wei advised a visit to an herbal doctor to acquire a medication that makes the body temperature just balanced, not too intense or too weak hearted: some of the residents a guy hawking yams the most vociferous, felt that ginseng presented a more suitable remedy. But when Mrs. Wei Wei replied to a migrant seeking a temporary residence permit for her and her kid by itemizing how to bribe a bureaucrat with steamed Goubuli dumplings: make certain to cook the Bok Choy so that the leaves are not chewy and are not overly malleable as well—the response of the bulletin board crowd was unanimous and could be summed by Li’s own auntie who incanted in about as religious a monotone as a member of the Party in good standing could muster, “That Mrs. Wei Wei.”

But what might have cemented Mrs. Wei Wei’s standing in the community were the sharp sayings cornering off Mrs. Wei Wei’s return correspondence, a favorite being that you should get a husband for family but a dog for affection: another that the key to a good marriage had to be to keep your husband in the dark. For instance,
Dear Mrs. Wei Wei, my husband and I have been with each other for 6 ms still no signs but the in-laws give us bed at night though my mother-in-law now complains
I’m defective, want bed back, what should I do, am worried.

For the needed background, Li waited until an evening when she was preparing a weeks-worth of dumplings: my wife always prepared dumplings for the long haul. First, the letter writer resided with her in-laws, and two of them had given up the only bedroom so as to have a grandchild. The District prepared a harsh fine to couple having more than one child. But more important, when there was no kid, the wife’s plumbing gets the blame, Li adding, “No one sees anything as the man’s fault, ever.”

“What recipe did Wei Wei offer?” I asked.

“Simple,” Li paused, “The good auntie advised finding a broom: then find a time when there was very little bathroom traffic: then, lock the door.”

Li studied my mouth, which was somewhat wide open, before she continued to shower the flour on the cutting board, more than a few speckles reaching the brief counter of our rental unit: “Once undisturbed, test if there is blood, make certain to be very gentle, a broom can splinter, but check. And always, the girls write back, they’ve been untouched.”

“What’s next,” I asked.

Li lined the wok with a film of cool water, “Tap enough so that there’s blood, then collect a reasonable sample. And when no one’s awake except you, hide the remains within reach of the marital bed.

“In the night, dig your fingernails just so,” here Li put her nails into the dough that she was kneading so as to leave a pair of eyes in the flour, before refashioning the dough so that the dough had its typically un-pierced feel: “then move him so that he’s just over you. Then, scream or do something to let him know that you are alive. When he’s done, make sure that you are shaking, shaking like a dog that’s been left out in the cold too long, and when he’s fallen asleep or feeling happy or at least feeling he should be happy, pour a few drops of blood, not too much on the sheets—making certain in the morning to give your mother-in-law the chance to inspect the work.

“She’s only one who counts in the matter.”

“Does it work?” I asked.

Li did not respond, instead surveying the rows of dumplings: each shaped like an oblong football: the lips completely sealed with thick doughy indentations. The dumplings I tried my hand at (I didn’t always watch) had small bits of filling invariably leaking out. If my dumplings were boats, the vessels crafted by a foreigner would be sunk by now, but her domestic variety became perfectly sealed containers, the scallions laced evenly: the pork or shrimp or tofu in small slices forming square tiles within a doughy wrapper.

“Well, does the recipe work?” I took out the bamboo steamer and placed the three tiers on top of the wok shielded by a line of cold water as well as by the layers of grease from yesterdays’ feasts.

“Do you think,” Li said, “Mrs. Wei Wei would mislead her little nieces? They’d send me photos of the babies, one of them named a baby after me.”

Li showed me another black-and-white. It was of a baby, having the same intense look as Li, a small curl drooping across her eyelid. Understandably, Li was proud to be the helpful auntie to immigrants hungry for advice from back home—which led me to ask a question that invariably arose whenever I heard a story beginning with, “Dear Mrs. Wei Wei.”

“You must have loved your husband?”

Li studied the tray on our brief counter before inspecting my lips as if they were the lips to one more dumpling in need of readjustment.

"You left a job that you were born for,” I said.

Li added, “For a marriage that was not working.”

Li didn’t go on. She didn’t need to, having told me the story first on a second date when powder all over her hands, a green plastic container containing finely cut Bok Choy intermixed with pork and scallions and while intently prefiguring a narrow interior, she said without a smile: My husband caught me in the arms of Mrs. Wei Wei.

Li was never clear in this story or in the others that followed what led to her being in such a compromising circumstance—alone with another man in her and her husband’s apartment. But Li was vehement that the cause for the meeting was not romantic: that the old Mrs. Wei Wei was unsettled—more than usual, and was following the new Mrs. Wei Wei down Pu Yin Avenue in the midst of one cindery dust storm that turned the scholar trees lining the Avenue into red candelabras until the two Mrs. Wei Weis (at one for the duration of a seasonal dust storm) reached a basement apartment at the corner of an alleyway.

“You can imagine,” Li said, “how reluctant I was to let him in, but Shen was mostly at school at that late afternoon hour, so offered some tea, pouring the green leaves out three times till the water had no cloudiness and waited for him to recover so as to get out should my husband stop to snag a few dumplings on the way to the library when suddenly, the old Mrs. Wei Wei grabbed me and squeezed me like I was sponge, soaking my dress with tears, when my husband walks in. Well, you can imagine.

"Old Mrs. Wei Wei falls off right away. He’s got a butcher’s fat hand but not the strength from having to cut with a knife and is worried my husband will throttle him with a Prince racket, but my husband leaves, refusing to put on a show for the two Mrs. Wei Wei’s. So I chase after him, and he goes directly to his mom’s house: a good choice. My mother-in-law hates me, she thinks reporters are sluts, calls us roses of Tianjin—who else would interview a manager in private, she was not alone here, the whole neighborhood could not believe in any other reason except my mom and maybe Shen, and my mother-in-law says I am a rose of Tianjin a number of times, what can I do. Deny who I am—which is what I do, pounding on her door, saying I am not a rose that a manager would want, I’m Mrs. Wei Wei, the good auntie of the District but Shen doesn’t open his mom’s door—ever, and my hand grows cut from the sharp gold enamel on the door that shows a dog with a tail straight up. The old witch was born in the year of the dog.”

Then, Li showed me the scars that made for several chain links across her knuckles. I reached out, figuring if those scars were covered, that would be for the better, but she pulled back, her face a cindery red: which I discovered later was a rare condition in my wife, who preferred to show little emotion.

“Well, you have to understand, by now the whole alleyway must believe that I am a rose, not that I think Shen really believed that, but I had humiliated him, and every time I tried to explain how I could not be on romantic terms with the old Mrs. Wei Wei, Shen would leave for his mom’s dog cut door until we pretty much were a pair of tight-lipped dogs except for the basic household stuff, which was as far away from the subject of a rose as I could safely find, I being afraid that he would disappear, though I wasn’t surprised—really, I expected that when we reached the States he would find a younger student type, someone like me, but without a past. You see I am closer to her bulletin board crowd than Mrs. Wei Wei, which was the secret to my being a wise auntie to the hungry immigrants to the Goubuli Distict so did my part as his wife, giving up what I was born to do, knowing what would happen, which was four months into the part of my immigrant part, what I was afraid would happen did happen. He found a young, maybe had a rose color though I never did see her face, not from a distance, but a foreigner who couldn’t be the rose of Tianjin, of course—so one evening, when I got home, doing my part-time maid work, I was good at that job, Shen emptied our bank account onto the kitchen table, giving up half, the coins also. My first husband was a very fair man.

“I didn’t say anything. What could I? I smiled, a sealed dumpling, and packed up. Don’t think I didn’t want back at my mom’s apartment, my stomach tightening till I almost collapsed, inhaling mom’s Bok Choy lined dumplings, the steam clotting up a kitchen window, but I am Mrs. Wei Wei and would never go back to China for a man, maybe a dog but not a man, so I take a backroom of a house owned by a couple of Born Again’s, so here we are.”

And here we were—I in the company of Mrs. Wei Wei in a kitchen whose counter space was clogged full of dumplings, the steam painting a brief triangular window with steady crystalline spots, and I expecting to finish a dumpling date which she had invited me on flirtatiously. But instead of driving off from our second meeting, I felt Mrs. Wei Wei’s fingernails digging in my knuckles—guiding me to the back of the house to a cell somewhat barren of material possessions except for two photos on a wooden dresser picked up at a flea market, one photo of her first husband showing Li how to grip a Prince tennis racket, and the other opposite Li’s pillow, showing Shen using the same forehand to grip Li’s hand on a honeymoon cruise down the Yangtze River. Li smiled, looking like her natural self. I mean the self that I imagine I would have married had I been the first, not the eventual second husband. Shen, though, did not smile at all, appearing instead to be curious as to what I was doing in his ex’s bedroom, which was why I imagined that my Mrs. Wei Wei again dug her nails this time into my lower back before turning off the lights.

But of course, I wasn’t satisfied with a sampling of a few photos. I wanted to meet Mrs. Wei Wei’s first husband and, after several months, gathered the courage to find him, a fairly simple task considering that Shen was a fellow doctoral candidate and with a more consistent routine than I have ever shown. Around 7 each morning, Shen visited the lower cafeteria in the University Center, not where I went for overpriced pastries but where the eggs were micro-waved, and you could pick up breakfast for less than a buck. There, he read a paper whose pictographs I could spot from across the oblong shaped room before leaving a few minutes before 8 so that when the library doors opened, he was immediately inside, stopping at the basement to search through the card catalogues and the computers before climbing to the twelfth floor where all the translations were kept. And very quickly he’d have a stack of them up to his nose and be working there until 12:30 exactly where he’d take one break, to go to the graduate lounge where he and his friends, all foreigners—a couple of Indians plus one Iranian chick though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the one that he dumped Li for. The two of them seemed pretty distant, would talk, laugh, have coffee until 1:30 exactly as if wired to be an egg timer, Shen slung his leather pack over his shoulder and within fifteen minutes, was back in his small cubicle. I had been assigned one of those but couldn’t work there. There was no sunlight, just the dry smell of well bound books—until around 10 at night. Then, Shen walked to the pond in the center of the campus, fed the ducks and a swan the leftovers from a snack that his new girlfriend had no doubt prepared (Li said Shen never cooked) and disappeared into the graduate housing near an open parking lot where if I continued to trail him, he would certainly have spotted me if he hadn’t already, so I stopped.

This routine of mine went on several months until Li suggested that I and her first husband meet for lunch at 12:30 at the graduate lounge at UMASS. As far as I knew, Li didn’t know I was stalking her first husband. The ostensible reason was that Shen had found a job at U. of Missouri and was calling to convey the good news when one thing led to another, and when I asked whether Li wanted me to go, Li didn’t offer her counsel, returning instead to line our brief counter with trays of uncooked dumpling, but even with this relative lack of direction, I assumed that since she brought up the matter, she meant for me to take the plunge. Still, I was honored to be replacing Mr. Wei Wei’s three regular lunch companions, including the Iranian chick, and agreed to the meeting, arriving 10 minutes early so as to carefully position my back against the back wall of the graduate lounge like a gunslinger in a Western. But I became distracted by the art on the wall, the lounge regularly exhibiting paintings by graduate students, this collection of the extreme Rorschach type—which was why I failed to notice that Mrs. Wei Wei’s first husband was standing in front of my semi-circular table, holding out a coffee and a fancy pastry.

I offered him a seat, which he cautiously accepted, and while he was carefully adjusting his chair, which as a result, cut off the one exit in the oblong shaped lounge, I considered how he could have happened on my preference for overpriced desserts. Here I pictured my eventual wife complaining to her Mr. Wei Wei: three dollars a shot. A prince, we'll never save a dime, to which Mr. Wei Wei gave advice mirroring a cost-benefit analysis, ending with a favorite saw, that Western poets were known to be the impractical type, but what could you do. Of course, the conversation could have taken a different tact: Li bragging to her old husband about her new boyfriend’s high class taste for overpriced pastries, a hypothesis that at first was appealing. But then, I would have to live up to whatever expectation my wife had cooked up, and what if our meeting was an extension of a prolonged marital dispute, and in fact, my presence proved a point in Shen’s favor, though what that point was, I wasn’t altogether certain, only that it had something to do with the relative positions of our careers, the balance decidedly in his favor.

So, when Shen asked how my book was coming, I assumed that the question was intended to drive home the above point, so naturally I said that the work was “highly promising,” though of what I never explained, instead swallowing his overpriced pastry and sipping on his fresh ground coffee, while considering a more obvious possibility. Mrs. Wei Wei’s ex was exhibiting a genuine interest. After all, we did have a great deal in common. First, we were members in good standing of a doctoral program, and though his progress might appear to be effortless, Shen might be sympathetic to the extremely measured nature of my progress and as he had left Li in precarious circumstances, might wish for her and my success. It was then that I noticed the other features that had inevitably escaped my Li's stories of their break-up. Shen had an appealing smile, not at all tightlipped like a dumpling but warm and inviting and his hands were soft, not at all like a butcher’s, which led me to recall something else that Li had mentioned, that her first husband relaxed by playing a piano and also had sung with the neighborhood choir along with Li’s father. Shen did have a soft voice, a little high pitched for a man, but according to Li, he could definitely hold a tune. And though Li didn’t say, I could tell this quality of steadiness appealed to her. I was also aware that he enjoyed writing stories, had a few pieces published in some minor journals, though he had given up on fiction until he could find gainful employment.

We stopped talking shop and switched to baseball. It turned out that he was a fan, and I couldn’t really hate him there either. I was hoping that he would be a Yankees fan. That was what I expected, figuring Yankees fans to be front runners, but he was for the Red Sox, experiencing the typical Spring fever high and had even expressed a preference for the Bills in football, which I couldn’t figure out as he said that he hadn’t been to Buffalo. To be honest, I actually liked the guy when he said that he had to go back to the library. He was preparing for his defense next week and even parted with some advice on writing, which since I found beneficial, which was just to try to write a paragraph a day and see what happens.

I actually wished that we had met earlier. I felt like we could be friends. I hadn’t been very close to my older brother and imagined that even though he might have been a few years younger, he could have played the more mature sibling; of course, that was absurd. Li might want me to get to know him a little, but to be close friend with an ex that had dumped her for a younger rose, well that would be very awkward. So, I walked with him to the library, went back to the convenience store in the University Center, bought some chips and fed the ducks and a swan before returning to our apartment—Li and I were living together by that time—and settling my pack on the floor in the bedroom. Li was already showering and shouted from the bathroom that she was in the mood for a movie and had read about one playing at the Academy that might be interesting.

I waited for her to ask me about my date with her ex, but either she wasn’t biting or Shen had already called in the details, and Li started preparing some dumplings, the steam carving up the triangular kitchen window with a steady pointillist rain. Then, in a tone that must have been Mrs. Wei Wei’s when advising young immigrants in trouble, offered up the random trivia that the phrase for Goubuli dumplings had many different meanings in Chinese, one of which was to be a silent dog. Then, she served me the dumplings, and I was silent.

Later, I drove her to a flea market in Hadley where she bargained with a dealer before purchasing some bridge chairs that she figured could be transformed into a kitchen set and tied the chairs to the roof of my Volks, and while holding her finger to make sure the knot was secure, advised me to start again, and we crossed the Calvin Coolidge Bridge in the middle of a rain storm that quickly abated by the time we got to the back parking lot nearby a Greyhound station. I noticed that Li’s fingers were almost the color of a rose when she gripped my hand as we climbed a closely wound metal staircase, reaching the back of a park named for a Polish war hero when we or at least I spotted her first husband walking beside his new girlfriend whose hand nearly brushed against his. At least, I assumed that it was his girlfriend, sharing Li’s outlines: slender, almost willowy, a strand of her hair bleeding into the side of the lips.

I started to wave at the two of them, but before I could get any further, Li dug her nails into my knuckles, then, lower back; when following a recipe passed down from a string of good aunties all with lips flavored with Bok Choy, pulled me behind the statue of war hero until the two of us disappeared entirely.

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