It was not a place, Gao said, that he wanted to go. ‘It’s not a very nice country,’ he said. ‘Dirty, but without being charming.’ We had only two weeks and we should spend it someplace romantic, a real honeymoon destination, he said. I protested. As a child my favorite doll was a Chinese porcelain girl with stiff black plaits and gold-veined red pajamas, and tiny satin booties that matched. I’d always wanted to go. ‘I’d like to see where you’re from,’ I told him, but he shook his head: another time.
We had met that previous October. I must have seen him on campus before, though I don’t know that I would have noticed him. If I had, I would have thought he was a graduate student. He had that look, somewhat underfed, and habitually wore a leather coat that in later years I would tease him about, zipped tightly around his middle. It made him look like an aspiring motorcycle rider instead of what he was, a newly minted associate professor of German with a few promising publications under his belt.
The coffee shop where I usually worked was crowded that day. He arrived and looked inquiringly at the seat beside me, and I smiled and pushed aside the anthropology syllabus I was working on. I noted the book he was reading, a Pushkin biography, and we got to talking. Gao had a funny demeanor that took a while to parse: restrained, almost haughty at first, but sometimes he’d break out in a hearty bout of laughter that took you by surprise. It took me. He was very entertained, for example, by the fact that I’d grown up on a farm.
‘A farm!’ he said, and burst out laughing. ‘No, really. Goats, cows, that kind of thing?’
‘Alfalfa, actually,’ I said, smiling. ‘Indiana.’ I couldn’t tell what he found so amusing, but he was so pleased I found myself laughing as well.
As I later learned, the stop-off for coffee was part of his post-gym routine, prior to heading back to his office. He was, in all things, rigidly disciplined. He spent two hours a day at the gym working through a precise program he’d designed himself, quadriceps and laterals, a routine that sounded to me like a series of math problems. Then he’d head home and eat a half-pound of Brussels sprouts, boiled in a bag on the stove. He never touched anything with sugar, nothing fried. ‘I’m not interested in food,’ he told me.
At first it was a walk in a botanical garden, lunch at a brightly lit cafe, a visit to a weekend flea market. I had almost reconciled myself to thinking we were simply friends when, during a student chamber-music concert one evening, Gao slipped his hand over mine. Afterwards, standing on the sidewalk, we exchanged some chaste, dry-lipped kisses, hands fumbling experimentally about each other as though we were teenagers.
He didn’t like to talk about himself, something that I found refreshing, almost old-fashioned after so many years spent in a confessional university environment. ‘You’re from China,’ I said on our second meeting as we strolled amid the spiked leaves of the botanical garden, a section devoted to North American desert plants. I looked at him expectantly, and he nodded, as though this was part of a series of formalities he had to endure. ‘Which part?’
‘Someplace you’ve never heard of,’ he said, and named it. ‘It’s a backwater,’ he said.
‘Rickshaws and rice paddies?’ I grinned, and he shrugged. ‘You could say that.’ I asked him how he’d learned German, but there, too, he was laconic, saying only that he’d gotten a high-school scholarship to go to Europe, and that he’d stayed. ‘I haven’t been back since I was sixteen,’ he said indifferently, meaning home, in a tone that discouraged questions.
He wanted to know all about me, though, to hear about my fieldwork, my family, he had a greediness for knowledge of me I’d never experienced before, at once intoxicating and intensely flattering. He wanted to know everything from childhood nicknames to details of my school science fairs, studying me as intently as if he might have to someday defend our relationship to a panel of colleagues.
‘You’re so self-sufficient,’ Gao said to me, early in our courtship. It was after he’d visited my apartment for the first time and opened the refrigerator to see the rows of Tupperware neatly stacked, the shopping list registered in a precise hand. He’d meant it as a compliment, and after a pause, I thanked him.
One Saturday six weeks later we spent the afternoon in my bedroom, naked in the bright sunlight, inspecting each other curiously, without desire, as though we were museum curators cataloguing idiosyncrasies: the raised mole here, a pale depression of stretch marks there. The afternoon light came in through the window, irradiating every body hair. I felt lazy, warm and speculative. We’d been half-watching a Spanish soap opera, me periodically offering up translations; the plot (involving a priest officiating a wedding who halfway through the ceremony took off a false beard and revealed himself to be the bride’s lover) kept us laughing.
‘You’ve never done it, right?’ he said, when we turned the TV off. ‘Gotten married.’
‘No,’ I said, staring at the ceiling. It hadn’t bothered me. There were a lot of things I hadn’t done: run a marathon, become a doctor, developed a taste for Mediterranean food. There were a lot of things I had.
‘Why don’t we?’ Gao said.
‘You’re joking,’ I said.
‘Why not?’ he said. I turned over then, and looked at him. He was lying with his head propped on one arm, gazing at me with an unreadable expression.
‘We hardly know each other.’
‘I’m serious. We get along, don’t we?’
I flopped back onto the bed, astonished. ‘Okay,’ I said, still watching him to see if he was kidding. ‘Let’s do it.’
He rolled over on top of me and tickled the underside of my chin with his finger. ‘You’re sure, häschen?’ he said. It meant bunny, an animal I never liked – too anxious, too red-eyed – but I didn’t mind the endearment when he used it.
I nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said, and rose, humming. ‘What are you doing tomorrow, then?’ I reached out, laughing, trying to pull him back down, but he went to the kitchen, where I heard the tap being turned on and the sound of ice being cracked and water running. Even after living in the US for more than a decade, Gao still couldn’t get over the fact that he could drink from the tap, could drink a dozen glasses a day.
After our marriage, Gao’s relentless questions about me stopped, as though I were a topic that his restless brain had sufficiently mastered. We folded ourselves into each other’s lives neatly, seamlessly. He moved into my apartment with just two suitcases’ worth of clothes; all his books and papers lived at his office. Our dish rack held two plates and two mugs, mine maroon and his green, that we rinsed and replaced every night.
That summer, we went to Indiana to see my parents, who had clamored to meet him for months. For a week, Gao shucked corn from the market with my mom and rode a tractor on the farm with my dad. At nights we sat with the porch door open and listened to the crickets in the grass. Usually I grew antsy there, felt stranded, but I could see something about the life appealed to Gao. He was the ideal guest, eating things he wouldn’t usually touch – bacon, thick pancakes – and asked my parents endless questions about the farm in a way that reminded me of how he’d been when we’d first met. They responded as I had: flattered, instantly wooed. (They also asked me if he was a Chinese spy: ‘He’s so fit!’ my mother said, and looked almost disappointed when I said no.)
‘Actually, Gao grew up on a farm, too,’ I told them over breakfast on our second day.
‘No kidding!’ my dad said.
I saw Gao hesitate. ‘Not really,’ he said.
‘I thought you said you grew up in the countryside?’
‘More like a small town,’ he said. ‘My mom was a high-school principal,’ he added. ‘My dad was a government official.’
I hadn’t known either of these things, and it made me feel foolish, exposed. I got up, annoyed, and went out to the porch with a glass in hand, expecting him to follow, but he didn’t, and after a few minutes I returned, not wanting to make a scene.
In the months that followed, Gao was often away, working late at his office or at the gym. I didn’t mind, I still hadn’t accustomed myself to spending so much time with another person. Though we took many of our weekday meals apart, we ate dinner together at a Sichuanese restaurant every Friday, dining on petal-soft pieces of white fish cooked with blood-red chilies that made my lips tingle.
Now and then we’d go for a hike along the fire trails up in the hills. We were good companions. Only occasionally did it occur to me to wish for something more. For our first anniversary – paper – he’d given me a beautifully fashioned set of origami boxes that he’d made himself. I’d opened them, expecting a gift inside, and flushed when I found them empty, realizing my mistake, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
At night these memories still swim up to me, unbidden. Most of the time I pat them on the head and send them away, releasing them back into dark waters. I tell myself it doesn’t do to fixate too much on the dead: apart from everything else, they can’t answer you.
The flight to China was a distance of 6,000 miles and seventeen hours. Flight attendants came through the aisles offering tea and almond cookies. I leaned my forehead against the chilly, black window and watched a miniature plane trace a dotted line across the blue and green map on the seatback screen. As we neared our destination, the airline played a welcome video of misty pagodas and lily pads spread over a pond flecked with golden fish, observed by a woman in trailing magenta robes who carried a paper parasol.
The scene outside the airport nearest Gao’s hometown was considerably less appealing: a sprawling monochrome of warehouses that ran untidily for miles, hardly the small town Gao had described, though I supposed it might still have been one when he left. As we entered its outskirts, I felt the cab driver eyeing me, a woman alone in his backseat. ‘America,’ he said. It wasn’t a question. ‘Yes,’ I said, in an attitude of brightness, but he just nodded.
After an hour, we reached the hotel, a concrete block streaked with brown rust stains that said Gold Phoenix Villa. Tinny advertisements blared from a shop selling hosiery across the street. Inside, the hotel’s lobby was cold and hung with a faded watch ad featuring a Western couple. The woman had sallow cheeks and a wide nose that wouldn’t have made the cut in an American advertisement, posing beside a blond man who smiled with the grimace of a serial killer appearing in a family portrait.
Gao’s mother met me there the next morning. She wore her hair in tightly wound curls and a dark green skirt with flounces, and came straight over and linked her arm through mine with a warmth that surprised me. Neither she nor Gao’s father came to his funeral, and I had tried not to judge them for it, unsuccessfully.
‘You’re here,’ she said, and briskly steered me outside, not quite making eye contact. ‘Welcome.’
‘I’m so pleased to meet you,’ I said, flushing. ‘I’ve wanted to come here for so long.’
Outside in the parking lot, she slid her legs behind the wheel of a dark grey sedan and made an elaborate performance of adjusting the mirrors. ‘New,’ she said. ‘My baby,’ she said, and laughed, as though to make sure I knew it was a joke.
We drove for a while, passing crude shops with pasteboard signs, mostly identical in style but on some of them you could tell what was being sold by their emblems: a sheep standing in front of a pot (presumably a restaurant of some sort), a series of pipe fittings. All around us, rain darkened the road.
She had not invited me to visit, I had invited myself, and as we drove without speaking, I felt a growing awareness of the fact. ‘It’s good to be here,’ I said at last. ‘Gao told me so much about this place.’
It wasn’t true, and perhaps she sensed it, simply nodding. There was a temple, she said, she’d take me. There was a museum, as well, not very large. What else did I want to see?
‘Anything from Gao’s childhood,’ I said.
She said there wasn’t much left: the government had torn down their old family home years ago and replaced it with a shopping mall. The school had been converted into government offices.
I was disappointed, but tried not to show it. ‘I’d still like to see it,’ I said.
‘The mall?’ The fact that Gao’s mother had been a high-school principal showed, I thought: beyond the perm and flouncy skirt, she had an aura of steely competence to her.
I said yes, but she shook her head impatiently. ‘There’s nothing there. You should see some history. This city has 4,000 years of history.’
When I agreed, she nodded and turned on the radio, drowning out the need for further conversation.
Gao hadn’t been a popular child, but he’d commanded a certain amount of respect because of his mother’s position. Other parents, in particular, fawned on him. They passed him sweets when picking up their children after school, they praised his cleverness. Eventually he drew to him a small coterie of boys like himself, bright and a little insecure. Their names regularly topped the list of students with the best grades, weekly posted outside the school gates for all the parents to see.
But there was one boy who always topped the list for both reading and math, not of their group, whom they called Mouse. He was one of the boarders, he’d come from a village a day’s travel away. Gao shrugged when I’d asked about the nickname. ‘He was small,’ he said.
As the high-school entrance exam neared, students studied six days a week, eleven hours a day, and Gao hardest of all, because everyone expected him to do well. ‘You can’t imagine what the pressure was like,’ he told me. ‘It was cruel.’
At the time, we were in Germany on our honeymoon and he’d taken me to see the university where he’d done his degree. We’d visited the carrel in the library where he used to study and the classroom where he’d defended his dissertation, and it was there that he’d paused, and for a while it didn’t seem like he’d ever want to move again. ‘So you can imagine how glad I was to get away,’ he said.
At the temple, I asked Gao’s mother what her son was like as a child. ‘He was a good student,’ she said. We were standing side by side, staring at a statue of a robed god painted blue with vermillion eyes. She had linked her arm through mine, making it hard to see her expression, though when I asked her what else she could remember, I could feel her sigh at my side, just a little.
‘He was very well-behaved. Hard-working, good at his studies.’
Something about her repetition of these qualities annoyed me, and I walked away on the pretext of examining a placard more closely. ‘Was he a happy kid?’ I asked.
‘Yes, of course,’ she said, a sudden defensiveness in her voice.
‘It’s a shame he never came back here,’ I said.
‘Not really. Why should he?’ she said.
We resumed walking. The temple was composed of a series of courtyards, with one long corridor dotted with small niches containing scores of Buddhas cast in shiny gold plastic. The green and white and maroon that swirled in fanciful shapes about the ceiling’s wooden beams looked newly painted, and there were heaps of new tiles and nails scattered carelessly about. A sign said that the temple was destroyed in a fifteenth-century fire and rebuilt, and damaged in an earthquake and rebuilt again.
‘It has a history of six hundred years,’ Gao’s mother said. ‘Very old. Not like your America.’