Celia’s message on Ruyu’s voicemail sounded panicked, as though Celia had been caught in a tornado, but Ruyu found little surprise in the emergency. That evening it was Celia’s turn to host ladies’ night. These monthly get-togethers had started as a book club, but, as more books went unfinished and undiscussed, other activities had been introduced – wine-tasting, tea-tasting, a question-and-answer session with the president of a local real estate agency when the market turned downward, a holiday workshop on homemade soaps and candles. Celia, one of the three founders of the book club, had nicknamed it Buckingham Ladies’ Society, though she used the name only with Ruyu, thinking it might offend people who did not belong to the club, as well as some who did. Not everyone in the book club lived on Buckingham Road. A few of them lived on streets named less prominently: Kent Road, Bristol Lane, Charing Cross Lane, and Norfolk Way. Properties on those streets were of course more than decent, and children from those houses went to the same school as hers did, but Celia, living on Buckingham, could not help but take pleasure in the subtle difference between her street and the others.

Ruyu wondered if the florist had misinterpreted the colour theme Celia had requested, or if the caterer – a new one she was trying out, upon a friend’s recommendation – had failed to meet her expectation. In either case, Ruyu’s presence was urgently needed – could she please come early, Celia had said in the voicemail, pretty please? – not, of course, to right any wrong but to bear witness to Celia’s personal tornado. Being let down was Celia’s fate; life never failed to bestow upon her pain and disappointment she had to suffer on everyone’s behalf, so that the world could go on being a good place, free from real calamities. Celia’s stance as a martyr, in most people’s – and less than kind – opinion, amounted to nothing but a dramatic self-centredness, but Ruyu, one of the very few who took Celia’s sacrifice seriously, understood the source of her suffering: Celia, though lapsed, had been brought up by Catholic parents.

Edwin and the boys were off to dinner and then to a Warriors’ game, Celia told Ruyu when she arrived at the Moorland’s. A robin had flown into a window that morning, knocking itself out and setting off the alarm, Celia said, and thank goodness the window was not broken and Luis – the gardener – was here to take care of the poor bird. The caterer was seventeen minutes late, so wasn’t it wise of her to have changed the delivery time to half an hour earlier? In the middle of recounting an exchange between the deliveryman and herself, Celia stopped abruptly. ‘Ruby,’ she said. ‘Ruby.’

‘Yes,’ Ruyu said. ‘I’m listening.’

Celia came and sat down with Ruyu in the breakfast nook. The table and the benches were made of wood recycled from an old Kensington barn where Celia’s grandmother, she liked to tell her visitors, used to go for riding lessons. ‘You look distracted,’ Celia said, pushing a glass of water toward Ruyu.

The woman Celia thought of as Ruby should have unwavering attention as an audience. Ruyu thanked Celia for the water and said that nothing was really distracting her. To Celia’s circle of friends – many of whom would arrive soon – Ruyu was, depending on what was needed, a woman of many possibilities: a Mandarin tutor, a reliable house- and pet-sitter, a last-minute babysitter, a part-time cashier at a confection boutique, an occasional party helper. But her loyalty and attention, first and foremost, belonged to Celia, for it was she who had found Ruyu these many opportunities, including the position at La Dulce Vita, a third-generation family business owned by an old high school friend of Celia’s.

Celia did not often notice anything beyond her immediate preoccupation, but sometimes, distraught, she became perceptive of other people’s moods. In those moments she adamantly required an explanation, as though her tenacious urge to know someone else’s suffering offered a way out of her own. Ruyu wondered whether she looked disturbed and wished she had touched up her make-up before entering the house.

‘You are not yourself today,’ Celia said. ‘Don’t tell me you had a tough day. The day is already bad enough for me.’

‘Here’s what I have done today: I was in the shop in the morning; I stopped at the dry-cleaners; I fed Karen’s cats; I took a walk,’ Ruyu said. ‘Now, tell me how hard my day could be.’

Celia sighed and said that of course Ruyu was right. ‘You don’t know how I envy you.’

Ruyu had been told this often, and once in a while she almost believed Celia to be sincere. ‘You sounded dreadful in your voicemail,’ Ruyu said. ‘What happened?’

What happened, Celia said, was pure outrage. She went away and came back with a pair of white T-shirts. Earlier that afternoon she had attended a meeting to prepare for the fundraising of a major art festival in San Francisco, and on the committee was a writer whose teen detective mysteries were recent bestsellers. ‘You’d think it’s not too much to ask a writer to sign a couple of shirts for his fans,’ Celia said. ‘You’d think any decent man would have more respect than this.’ She dropped the T-shirts on Ruyu’s laps in disgust, and Ruyu spread them on the table. In black permanent marker and block letters, the writer had written, ‘To Jake, a future orphan’ and ‘To Lucas, a future orphan,’ followed by his unrecognizable signature.

Perhaps the writer had only meant it as a joke, Ruyu thought, a sabotaging wink to the boys behind their mother’s back; or else it’d been more than a joke, and he’d felt called to reveal an absolute truth that a child did not learn from his parents. ‘Unacceptable,’ she said, and folded up the shirts.

‘Now, what do I do with them? I promised the boys I would get them his signature. How do you explain to them that this person they admire is a jerk? An asshole, really,’ Celia said, and gulped down some wine as if to rinse away the bad taste. ‘Thank goodness Edwin picked them up from school so I didn’t have to deal with this until later.’

Poor gullible Celia, believing, like most people, in a moment called later. Safely removed, later promises possibilities: changes, solutions, rewards, happiness, all too distant to be real, yet real enough to offer relief from the claustrophobic cocoon of now. If only Celia had the strength to be both kind enough and harsh enough with herself to stop talking about later, that heartless annihilator of now. ‘Exactly what,’ Ruyu said, ‘will you say to them later?’

‘That I forgot?’ Celia said uncertainly. ‘What else can I say? Better for your children to be annoyed with you, better for your husband to be disappointed by you, than break anyone’s heart. I’ll tell you, Ruby, it’s smart of you not to have children. Smarter of you to not want another husband. Stay where you are. Sometimes I think about how simple and beautiful your life is – and that, I say to myself, is how a woman should treat herself.’

Had Celia been a different person, Ruyu might have found her words distasteful, malicious even, but Celia, being Celia, and never doubting the truth of her own words, was as close to a friend as Ruyu would admit into her life. She unfolded the shirts and studied the handwriting, and asked Celia if she had another pair of white T-shirts. Why? Celia asked, and Ruyu said that they might as well fix the problem themselves. You don’t mean it, Celia said, and Ruyu replied that indeed she did mean it. What’s wrong with borrowing the writer’s name and making two boys happy?

Celia hesitantly offered another set of T-shirts, and Ruyu asked Celia what message she wanted her children to wear to school.

‘Are you sure this is the right thing to do? I don’t want my children to think I lie to them.’

The writer, Ruyu wanted to remind Celia, had not lied. ‘I’m the one lying here,’ she said. ‘Look away.’

‘What if the other kids at school realize that the signatures are fake? Is it even legal to do this?’

‘There are worse crimes,’ Ruyu said. Before Celia could protest, Ruyu wrote, in her best approximation of the writer’s handwriting, a message of hope and affection to the beloved Jake and Lucas. After signing and dating the shirts, Ruyu folded them and said she would get rid of the original evidence to spare Celia any wrongdoing.

A car engine was heard outside the house; another car door opened and then closed. Celia’s guests were arriving, and she assumed the nervous, high-pitched energy of onstage-ness. Ruyu waved for Celia to go and greet her guests. She stuffed the two unwanted T-shirts in her bag, went into the boys’ bedrooms, and placed the ones she’d signed on their pillows.

The evening’s topic was a recent bestseller written by a woman who called herself a ‘Chinese tiger mom.’ As always the gathering started with the exchange of tales about children and husbands and family vacations and coming holiday recitals and performances. Ruyu drifted in and out of the living room, refilling wine glasses and passing out food, her position somewhere between a family friend and a hired hand. Affable with the guests, many of whom also hired her in one way or another, Ruyu nevertheless stayed out of conversations, contributing only an encouraging smile or a courteous exclamation. Knowing how the women saw her, Ruyu did not find it difficult to be that person in their eyes: an educated immigrant with no advanced job skills; a single woman no longer young; a renter; a hire trustworthy enough, good and firm with dogs and children alike and never flirtatious with a husband; a woman lucky to have been taken under Celia’s wing; a bore.

When the book discussion began, Ruyu withdrew to the kitchen. At most gatherings she would not have absented herself so completely, as she did enjoy sitting on the periphery. She liked to listen to the women’s voices without following what they said, and look at their soft-hued scarves, their necklaces designed by a local artist they patronized as a group, and their shoes, elegant or bold or unselfconsciously ugly. To be where she was, to be what she was, suited her. One would have to take oneself much more seriously to be someone definite – to pose as a complete stranger, an outsider; or to claim the right to be a friend, a lover, a person of consequence. Intimacy and alienation both required an effort beyond Ruyu’s willingness.

Celia stopped at the entrance to the kitchen. ‘Don’t you want to sit with us?’ she asked. Ruyu shook her head, and Celia waved before walking away to the bathroom. If Celia pressed her again, Ruyu would say that the topics of parenting, school options for children, and the tiger mom – who was not even Chinese but called herself one for sensational reasons – held little interest for her.

Ruyu studied the flowers on the table, an assortment of daisies and irises and fall leaves arranged in a half pumpkin, around which a few persimmons had been artfully placed. She moved one persimmon further away and wondered if anyone would notice the interfered-with composition, less balanced now. Celia’s life, busy and fluid with all sorts of commitments and crises, was nevertheless an exhibition of mindfully designed flawlessness: the high, arched windows of her home overlooked the bay, inviting into the living room an ever-changing light – golden Californian sunshine in the summer afternoons, grey rain-light in the winter, morning and evening fog all year round; the three silver birch trees in front of the house – birch, Celia had told Ruyu, must be planted in clusters of three, though why she did not know – complemented the facade with their white bark, adding asymmetry to the otherwise tedious front lawn; the shining modernness of the kitchen was softened by a perfect display of still lifes – fruits, flowers, earthen jars, candles in holders, their colours in harmony with seasons and holidays; and the many corners in the house, each its own stage, showcased a lonely cast of things inherited or collected on this or that trip to this or that important place. Celia’s family, always on the run – soccer practice, music lessons, pottery classes, yoga, fundraising parties, school auctions, trips to ski, to hike, to swim in the ocean, to immerse in foreign cultures and cuisines – had done a good job of leaving the house undisturbed, and Ruyu, perhaps more than anyone else, enjoyed the house as one would appreciate a beautiful object: one finds much random pleasure in it, yet one does not experience any desire to possess it, or any pain when it passes out of one’s life. Ruyu’s heart, if she borrowed the much-used verb from the book club, resonated only with unlived and unlivable moments in life.

From the living room, the women’s voices meandered from indignation to doubt to worry to panic. Over the past few years Ruyu had got to know each of the women, through these gatherings and working for some of them, well enough to pity them when they had to come into a group. None of them was uninteresting, but placed together they seemed to negate one another’s existence by their predictabilities. Never did anyone show up dishevelled, never dared any one of them admit to the others that she was lonely, or sad, or suffocated under the perfect façade of a good life. It must be the isolations that sent them to seek out others like them, but in Celia’s living room, sitting together, the women seemed more bravely isolated.

Ruyu had first met Celia seven years ago, when Celia had been looking for a replacement for their live-in nanny, who was returning to Guatemala with enough money to build two houses – one for her parents, and one for herself and her daughter. Of course it crushed her heart that Ana Luisa had to leave, Celia had said when she called Ruyu, who had replied to Celia’s ad on a local parenting website; but all the same, wouldn’t anyone feel happy for her? Ruyu had been an odd one among the more ordinary applicants – she had no previous child-care experience, and she lived rather out of the way. But having a Mandarin-speaking nanny would be an advantage over having one who spoke Spanish, Celia had explained to Edwin before she called Ruyu.

She did not have a car, Ruyu had said when Celia invited Ruyu to the house for an interview, and there was no public transportation where she lived, so could Celia, if interested, drive down to interview her? Later, when Ruyu was securely placed in Celia’s life, Celia liked to tell her friends how wonderfully clueless Ruyu had been. Who, if not Celia, would have driven one and a half hours to meet a potential nanny?

Why indeed had she agreed, Ruyu wanted to ask Celia sometimes, but the answer was not important, as what mattered was that Celia did go out of her way to meet Ruyu, and – this Ruyu had never doubted – if not Celia, there would be someone else willing to go out of her way to meet Ruyu.

When Celia arrived at Ruyu’s cottage, which, with its own garden and views of the canyon, would have been called ‘a gem’ in a real estate ad, Celia could not hide her surprise and dismay. There was no way she could afford Ruyu, she said; all she had was an au pair’s suite on the first floor of her house.

But that would suit her well, Ruyu said, and explained that her employer was getting married in a few months, and she would like to move away before the wedding, since there was no reason for her to stay on as his housekeeper. Celia, Ruyu could see, was baffled about the relationship between the cottage and the three-storied colonial on the estate, which Celia must have seen while driving past – as well as that between Ruyu and Eric, whom Ruyu only referred to as her employer.

Curious, Celia later described the Chinese woman to Edwin; peculiar even, but all the same she was pleasant, clean, spoke perfect English, and deserved some help. Ruyu had not talked about the exact nature of her relationship with her employer, but Celia had guessed rightly that sex, with an agreement, was part of the employment. About other things in her background, Ruyu had been open with Celia during that first meeting: she had married her first husband at nineteen, a Chinese man who had been admitted to an American graduate school; she’d married him to leave China. Her second marriage, to an American, was to get herself a green card, which her first husband would have eventually helped her get, but she did not want to stay in the marriage for the five or six years it would have taken. She’d earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from a state university and had worked on and off but never really built a career, which was fine with her because she did not like numbers or money. For the past three years, she’d been working as a housekeeper for her employer, and she was looking forward to moving on – no, she didn’t mean to marry again, Ruyu had said when Celia, out of curiosity, asked her if she was going to look for another husband; what she wanted, Ruyu said, was to find a job to support herself.

When Celia called again, a week later, she did not offer Ruyu the nanny position but said that she had found a cottage, furnished, which would be available for three months during the summer. Would Ruyu be open to taking it – she’d have to pay the three months’ rent up-front – and work for Celia on a part-time basis? She would be happy to help Ruyu settle down, find her another cottage after the summer and refer her to a few other families who could use Ruyu here and there. Without hesitation Ruyu had said yes.

The garage door opened, the noise reminding Ruyu of the immodest grumbling from inside one’s stomach. She was fascinated, even after years in America, by the intimate contract that sound confirmed: a door opens and then closes, yet through it neither departure nor arrival is damagingly permanent. Sitting in Celia’s kitchen and listening to her husband’s return, Ruyu allowed herself, for a brief moment, to imagine the possibility of such a life. Not a difficult task, in fact, as two men among the people of the world had offered her that – yet in the end, she was the one who had left. Had she stayed in either marriage she would have had to become one of those women in the living room, and the thought was amusing. ‘Your problem,’ Eric had said when she informed him of her moving plan only after finalizing it with Celia, ‘is that you don’t want enough. Though I suppose that also means things will always work out for you.’

Eric had been wise not to over-offer, as her two ex-husbands had, but he did indulge her, granting her all the space she needed, and making clear she should never feel bound in any way to him. Sometimes she wondered if, for that reason, she should have treated him better. But how does one treat a man better – by becoming more dependent on him, by asking more from him? All the same, what was the point of thinking of that now? A few years ago, Eric had made the local news for his involvement in a fundraising scandal during his campaign for assemblyman – so much for his wanting more.

Celia, who must have been listening also, came in from the living room and told Ruyu to show the T-shirts to the boys. Her pitch a bit high because, Ruyu knew, of her nervousness about lying to her family. It was in these moments that Ruyu felt a tenderness toward Celia, who, despite her constant need for attention and her petty competition with her friends and neighbours, was, in the end, a woman with a good and weak heart.

A while later, with the boys in bed, Edwin came into the kitchen. In the living room, the women were still arguing about the best way to bring up a child competitive in a global market. A heated discussion today, he commented, and touched the stem of a wine glass before changing his mind. He poured water for himself.

Certainly Celia had chosen the right book, Ruyu said, and moved to the sink before Edwin sat down at the table. ‘I’ll start to put things away,’ she said. ‘Celia has had a long day.’

Edwin asked if he could help, though Ruyu could tell it was a half-hearted offer. Probably all he wanted was for the women debating the future of American education to vacate his house. There was not much she needed him to do, Ruyu said. Edwin kept the conversation going, talking about trivialities – the Warriors’ win that night, a new movie Celia was talking about going to see that weekend, the Thanksgiving plans of the Moorland’s, a bizarre report in the paper about a man impersonating a doctor and prescribing his only patient, an older woman, a regimen of eating watermelons in a hot tub. Ruyu wondered if Edwin was talking to her out of a sense of charity; she wished she could tell him that it was okay for him to treat her, at this or any other moment, like a piece of furniture or appliance in his well-kept house.

Edwin worked for a company that specialized in electronic books and toys for early-childhood learning. Though Ruyu did not know what exactly he did – it had something to do with creating certain characters appealing to the minds of toddlers – she wondered if Edwin, a tall and quiet man born and raised in the Minnesota countryside, would have been better off as a sympathetic family physician or a brilliant yet awkward mathematician. To spend one’s working days thinking about talking caterpillars and singing bears seemed diminishing for a man like Edwin, but perhaps it was a good choice, the same way Celia was a good choice of wife for him.

‘Things are well with you?’ Edwin asked when he ran out of topics.

‘How can they not be?’ Ruyu replied. There was not much in her life that was worth enquiring about, the general topics of children and jobs and family vacations not an option in her case.

Edwin brooded over his water glass. ‘You must find their discussion strange,’ he said, pointing his chin at the living room.

‘Strange? Not at all,’ Ruyu said. ‘The world needs enthusiastic women. Too bad I am not one of them.’

‘But do you want to be one?’

‘You either are one, or you are not,’ Ruyu said. ‘It has nothing to do with wanting.’

‘Do they bore you?’

She would not, if asked, have considered Edwin or Celia or any of her friends a bore, but that was because she had never really taken a moment to think about what Edwin, or Celia, or anyone else for that matter, was. Edwin’s face, never overly expressive, seemed particularly vague at the moment. Ruyu rarely allowed her interaction with him to progress beyond pleasantries, as there was something about Edwin that she could not see through right away. He did speak enough to make himself a fool, yet what he did say made one wonder why he didn’t say more. Had he been no one’s husband she would have taken a closer look, but any impingement on Celia’s claim would be a pointless complication.

After a long pause, which Celia would have readily filled with the many topics bubbling in her mind and which Edwin seemed patient enough to wait through, Ruyu said, ‘Only a bore would find other people boring.’

‘Do you find them interesting, then?’

‘Many of them hire me,’ Ruyu said. ‘Celia is a friend.’

‘Of course,’ Edwin said. ‘I forgot that.’

What was it he had forgotten – that the women in the living room provided more than half of Ruyu’s livelihood, or that his own wife was the angel who’d made such a miracle happen? Ruyu placed the plates in the dishwasher. She wished that Edwin would stop feeling obligated to keep her company while she played the role of half-hostess in his house. In the cottage, she cooked on a hotplate and ate standing by the kitchen counter, and the draining board, left by a previous renter, was empty and dry most of the time. In Celia’s house Ruyu enjoyed lining up the plates and cups and glasses, which, unlike people, did not seek to crack and break their own lives. When she continued in silence, Edwin asked if he had offended her.

‘No,’ she sighed.

‘But do you think we take you for granted?’

‘Who? You and Celia?’

‘Everyone here,’ Edwin said.

‘People are taken for granted all the time,’ Ruyu said. Every one of the women in the living room would have a long list of complaints about being taken for granted. ‘I’m not a unique case who needs special attention.’

‘But we complain.’

Ruyu turned and looked at Edwin curiously. ‘Go ahead and complain,’ she said. ‘But don’t expect me to do it.’

Edwin blushed. Do not expose your soul uninvited, she would have said if Edwin were no one’s husband, but instead she apologized for her abruptness. ‘Don’t mind what I was saying,’ she said. ‘Celia said I wasn’t my right self today.’

‘Is anything the matter?’

‘Someone I used to know died,’ Ruyu said, feeling malicious because she would not have told this to Celia even if she were ten times as persistent.

Edwin said he was sorry to hear the news. Ruyu knew he would like to ask more questions; Celia would have been chasing every detail, but Edwin seemed uncertain, as though intimidated by his own curiosity. ‘It’s all right,’ Ruyu said. ‘People die.’

‘Is there anything we can do?’

‘No one can do anything. She’s dead already,’ Ruyu said.

‘I mean, can we do something for you?’

Superficial kindness was offered every day, innocuous if pointless – so, why, Ruyu thought, couldn’t she give Edwin credit for being a good-mannered person with an automatic response to the news of a death that did not concern him? She had only known the deceased for a short time, she said, trying to mask her impatience with a yawn.

‘Still – ’ Edwin hesitated, looking at the water.

‘Still what?’

‘You look sad.’

Ruyu felt an unfamiliar anger. What right did Edwin have to look in her for the grief he wanted to be there? ‘I don’t have the right to feel that way. See, I am a real bore. Even when someone dies, I can’t claim the tragedy,’ Ruyu said. Abruptly she changed topics, asking if the boys were excited to see the T-shirts signed for them.

Edwin seemed disappointed, and shrugged and said it mattered more to Celia than to the boys. ‘Mothers, you know?’ he said. ‘By the way, did you grow up with a tiger mom?’

‘No.’

‘What do you think of this fuss, then?’

If only she could, as was called for by the situation, say something witty – but rolling one’s eyes and saying witty things were as foreign to her as eight-year-old Jake’s contempt for his friend’s family, who ate the wrong kind of salmon; or Celia’s fretting over their Christmas lights, lest they were too flashy or too modest. The freedom to act and the freedom to judge, undermining each other, amounts to little more than a well-stocked source of anxiety. Is that why, Ruyu wondered, Americans so willingly make themselves smaller – by laughing at others, or, more tactfully, at themselves – when there is no immediate danger to hide from? But danger in the form of poverty and flying bullets and lawless states and untrustworthy friends provides, if not a route to happiness, then clarity to one’s suffering.

Ruyu looked harshly at Edwin. ‘I don’t think,’ she said, ‘that is a worthwhile subject.’

 

The above is an excerpt from Yiyun Li’s forthcoming novel, Kinder Than Solitude, published 27 March by Fourth Estate.

Image by Alan Huett

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