A hundred and fifty dollars a month for rent! Even after he moved in Old Chai just couldn’t believe his luck. A bedroom, a dining room, a sitting room and a garage parking space – all his! Even the furniture was pretty much up to snuff. And he had his own entrance facing the backyard, so he and the owner could each come and go as they pleased. Old Chai felt that such a good arrangement was almost like a set-up, unless the landlady was going out of her way to be philanthropic toward an impoverished immigrant from mainland China.
The ad had said her name was Mrs Walker. That’s why the day he had first come through the door he had addressed the young white man who received him as ‘Mr Walker’. The young man had smiled right off, saying he was only a friend of Mrs Walker’s; please call him George. It wasn’t convenient for Mrs Walker to do certain things herself, such as receiving prospective tenants, so she had charged him with this task.
After Old Chai was chosen, he said to George, ‘I’ll bet there were lots of people who wanted to rent this apartment!’
‘There certainly were,’ George replied. ‘But they didn’t meet Mrs Walker’s standards.’ Suddenly George smiled. What kind of standards? It seemed that George used his smile to leave the rest unsaid, as if catching a slip of the tongue just in time.
Standards? Old Chai couldn’t help but fret over this, and he couldn’t banish his nagging doubts completely. This place was much too good, and for Old Chai, who had long since gotten used to ‘no good’, it seemed to harbour some sort of intrigue. Then again, he thought, what does a forty-eight-year-old pauper like me have to be afraid of? After all, you have to have something going for you in the first place for anybody to plot your downfall.
But for now Old Chai was just sauntering about his new dwelling. The faint sound upstairs was the landlady talking with someone. Talking on the telephone, Old Chai surmised. From his basement apartment up to where she was talking lay a distance of only ten stair steps. Old Chai had agreed that under no circumstances was he to go up those steps while Mrs Walker was home. He couldn’t make out what she was saying; her voice seemed too delicate. After listening to it for a while, it sounded like the meaningless prattle of a little girl. Mrs Walker, a little girl – this assumption struck Old Chai as absurd, and yet it was a rather attractive absurdity.
Before he moved in, Old Chai had first brought over some of his books. A woman aged about thirty had opened the door. Relieved and encouraged, Old Chai had greeted her with a cheerful ‘Hello, Mrs Walker!’ Just as with George, the woman had smiled and said that Mrs Walker had charged her with this task. She was Mrs Walker’s neighbour.
‘I live right next door. If there’s anything wrong, say, the heater doesn’t heat or the hot water isn’t hot, just come right over and see me.’
Old Chai laughed a muddle-headed, hollow laugh. Immediately the woman added: ‘Don’t go looking for Mrs Walker.’
That day, Old Chai received the key from this neighbour lady. Once inside the apartment, he saw a plain white card tacked on the inside of the door, on which were written a few words of welcome. On the table he found some chocolates wrapped in colourful foil and a bouquet of dry reeds to welcome him. The dry reeds were nicely arranged in an old, wide-bottomed earthenware vase, and the effect was really quite attractive. Old Chai didn’t dare touch the sweets, and suddenly he shrank back within the large space that he realised now belonged to him. Mrs Walker is a very unusual woman, Old Chai thought, a bit in awe and quite moved.
Old Chai wanted to take off his shoes and put on slippers. He had half a dozen slippers in his luggage. He had brought them all from China, and they were all souvenirs of his hotel stays. Each pair was embossed with the gold characters of some hotel or another. He had done landscape design for several hotels. He didn’t dare touch the food and beverages they put in the hotel room; if he did a considerable charge would be deducted. The only thing they gave away for free were these slippers: take one pair today and tomorrow they replace it with another pair. Old Chai felt that taking free things was not taking any kind of unfair advantage.
But Old Chai changed his mind and decided it wasn’t appropriate to wear slippers. Any time now Mrs Walker could come down those ten-odd wooden steps and look in on him. If landlady and tenant were to meet but once, it would surely be today. She was not the type of landlady who would ignore an impoverished tenant. After all, she had made quite a show of welcoming him. Right away, he put his shoes back on, tied them, stood up and raised himself up to the full length of his extremely limited stature. How could he even think of wearing slippers? The first impression he would make on Mrs Walker would be of some over-the-hill fellow, shabbily dressed with a pair of institutional slippers on his feet!
Old Chai walked into his bedroom and ran both hands through his hair. The mirror was especially bright and Old Chai discovered that only in such a bright mirror could he make out a small patch of light-coloured age spots near his temples. They had appeared after his wife had divorced him. His wife had brought him over to America, to San Francisco, given him two thousand dollars and then left him. She didn’t make love with him even once during that time. He had never been a proper match for his wife, so her having spent ten-plus years living and sleeping with him must have been some kind of windfall. It had nothing to do with him; a fellow like him didn’t deserve such a capable, up-and-coming, good-looking MBA as a wife.
‘Just one last time . . .’ he had asked his wife in a pleading whisper.
His wife had almost kicked him out of bed. ‘One last time?! Do you think you can ever deserve it?!’ She added harshly: ‘It’s not as if I’m leaving you for another man!’
That was precisely the point that hit him hardest. If not for another man, then why leave? Was ‘no man’ preferable to being with him?
By now everything was all right. Old Chai had gotten used to ‘no woman’. Every evening from five to ten o’clock he worked for a Chinese restaurant delivering food. And during the day he spent three hours attending adult school. He didn’t much care how far his studies took him; Old Chai had little ambition. For him, his studies were not as important as the chance to meet women.
Old Chai thought he wasn’t too bad looking for forty-eight. He was neither bald nor fat. He just had those few age spots on his temple, and he could tease his hair forward to cover them up. If he kept going to adult school long enough, he was sure to find a woman eventually.
Suddenly he thought of those ‘standards’. What was it about him that had met the standards of this young and possibly very pretty landlady? What kind of ‘standards’ were these, anyway? Old Chai knew a few of them. One, for example, was ‘non-artist’. Artists spoil the whole atmosphere and raise a ruckus. They sleep by day and get inspired by night, take drugs, wear their hair long, bring home all kinds of strange women and so on. A second standard was ‘neither young nor old’. A third standard was ‘not female’.
A fourth standard was a willingness to help Mrs Walker faithfully and industriously at crucial times.
And what constituted a ‘crucial time’? Old Chai thought it couldn’t be anything more than moving furniture and doing some heavy lifting once in a while.
One hundred and fifty dollars a month. As soon as he remembered that, he became content again. Most of his windows were halfway underground, and once in a while the shoes of people on the street would go flashing by in all shapes and colours. Well, so what? What do you want for $150 a month?
From the neighbour lady, Old Chai had received some additional rules: he could only use the upstairs kitchen between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. (Old Chai’s basement apartment had no cooking facilities.) Every morning at 7 a.m. he was to put all the potted plants out on the patio, then bring them all back into the house again before 4 p.m. Every Wednesday he was to water the plants and early every Sunday morning he was to buy a Sunday paper and put it on the sofa in the living room. Old Chai had answered with a crisp ‘yes’ to each one of these conditions.
Later he found out that the times he was allowed to go upstairs were times when Mrs Walker was not around. Once, when he was just mounting the last step, he heard the front door close. She had just left. Old Chai quickened his step and clambered toward the front door to look out through its coloured glass panes. All he caught was the sound of a car. Old Chai recognised it; it was George’s car. As he ran to peek through the glass and stared at a retreating plume of automobile exhaust, Old Chai suddenly thought himself rather pathetic.
Chai peeled himself away from the glass panes and gazed dull-eyed at his surroundings. Mrs Walker was by no means extravagant. The furnishings in the living room were quite old, yet clearly everything was pieced together in a very refined manner.
There was a wood-framed, satin-covered sofa set, faded to a most agreeable colour. The rug was light beige and displayed an elegant antique pattern. Lamps were everywhere, and each one illumined only a small area. Old Chai walked over and turned off the lamps at either end of the couch. He couldn’t stand this bad habit of leaving the lights on during the day. A book lay open next to one of the lamps. He closed it, then spotted a tissue under the book. The tissue was slightly crumpled, kneaded into an indistinct shape. It also held a vague moistness as well as a light-red lipstick print. He lifted the tissue to his nose and perceived a fragrance that was ephemeral yet clearly present.
Old Chai discovered he was holding that vaguely scented, moist, colour-tinged tissue as if in a trance. He quickly threw it away and walked off, but then he went back and fluffed up the tissue, turned the light back on, reopened the book and replaced the tissue back under it. He did not understand why this tissue had roiled his emotions from one instant to the next. The tissue struck him as evidence of his excessive surveillance of Mrs Walker, and he did not want her to discover this surveillance.
But that tissue’s red trace and hint of moisture almost caused him to see the hand that had crumpled it and, by extension, the arm, the shoulder, the neck. Extending further were the lips to which a pale red lipstick had been applied.
Trying to divert his mind from this image, he wandered over to the window and looked out at the people on the street. It was rush hour, and there were many people around, among them many women. All the women wore lipstick, and he discovered that the tint ranged from pale to dark depending on age. Girl students had lips coloured a silvery pink, while fat, old women all had lips of an airtight dark red.
That meant Mrs Walker was very young.
Old Chai had never heard anyone play the piano next to the window. On top of it were three picture frames: an old couple, a not-so-old couple and a young man. Mrs Walker’s grandparents, parents and husband, Old Chai guessed. Was the husband in some far-off place, or were they divorced? Or maybe he was he just plain dead. Whatever. In the largest frame was a big group of female students. A graduation picture? Everyone in the picture was smiling; smiling so thoroughly that it made Old Chai start to smile just looking at it. The most slender and reserved dark-haired young girl – was that Mrs Walker? Whatever, Old Chai thought again. He finished placing the plants on the patio and went back downstairs.
That afternoon, Old Chai came upstairs again to bring all the houseplants and potted flowers in from the porch. Without thinking, he glanced at a narrow window on the side of the house. That window, normally closed, happened to be open today. It was the bathroom window.
Old Chai went into the bathroom and shut the window. The whole bathroom was pale green with a huge, pale green, oval-shaped tub. Above the bathtub was a dazzling display, like a mobile of jade pieces. Upon closer inspection, there were little, feminine things hanging there. Two pairs of powder-yellow panties, a pastel, flesh-coloured brassiere, a pale aqua handkerchief. Off-white, silver-gray and pale beige full-length silk stockings swayed softly as wisteria vines. Old Chai had never realised that women’s undergarments could be so pretty. Why had his wife’s undergarments never given him this feeling? His wife always hung her underwear up to dry in the bedroom. Decent women, she said, did not display these things to the masses. Back then he thought these things rather repulsive: all these oscillating objects dangling about like surgical bandages that, once used, could never be washed clean again.
How could anything be so beautiful? Hanging obliquely, strung up randomly over the whole length of the shower-curtain rod, every wisp of air swayed their sheerness and intricacy . . .
Old Chai’s mouth remained half-open for some time, his breath held back in his mouth, forgetting to exhale, until his tongue had dried in the air.
When he thought of what kind of woman these exquisite garments could envelope, Old Chai suddenly snapped back his tongue. Oh, no, look at the time! He scrurried about, moving all the flower pots outside, then he ran to the kitchen to boil some noodles on the stove. On top of the stove there was a white porcelain plate displaying a well-formed piece of home-made pecan pie. Perhaps it was for Old Chai, but Old Chai did not dare presume As soon as the noodles had risen to the top of the pot, the laughing banter of a man and a woman could be heard outside the front door.
Flustered, Old Chai nearly spilled his noodles. He didn’t know if this was from excitement or fear – Mrs Walker was finally going to make an appearance! Had it been an hour earlier, he would have prepared a proper smile and waited neither proudly nor humbly and exchanged greetings and pleasantries with her. But that was no longer possible. Something made him unable to do this, as if he had suddenly gotten too close to this landlady whom he had never laid eyes on – this closeness was one-sided and not entirely honourable and he could not feign being at ease. She would see through this pretense and detect his uneasiness.
The instant Mrs Walker and George walked in the door, Old Chai retreated downstairs.
For some time Old Chai regretted having missed his opportunity that day. One evening, when he came home from work, he saw the slice of pecan pie on his own table downstairs along with a note: ‘Please have a taste. I kept this piece especially for you.’ Immediately Old Chai thought he had jumped to conclusions: Mrs Walker had handled the relationship between landlady and tenant in a very natural and normal manner. Apparently, she had lingered downstairs for a while. She had left her knitting basket next to his sofa and a few coils of yarn dangled chaotically over the basket’s edge. The decorative sofa pillow had been turned sideways for back support. She had half-lounged there, her back leaning against the pillow. He could imagine her comfortable and languid manner and Old Chai knit his eyebrows slightly and smiled indulgently, the way a man smiles at the woman on whom he dotes. He thought Mrs Walker wasn’t really all that tidy: the only time she had truly tidied up was just before he had moved in.
Some days later, Old Chai was standing in the living room of some house waiting for his tip when suddenly he thought of the day when Mrs Walker had reclined there, leaning back and knitting. Perhaps she was waiting for him to return. Was she really? Did she often go downstairs to his place and walk about, look around and maybe wait for him for a while? When he thought about this, he couldn’t count his tip correctly.
When Old Chai got back to the restaurant, Little Hu, that Manchurian girl from the wilds of northeast China, asked him, ‘Shall we go?’
Only then did he remember that last week he had made plans with Little Hu to go see a movie. Everything about Little Hu was pretty except Little Hu herself. Her raincoat was far more stylish than those of the restaurant’s female patrons. A light chestnut colour with a buttonless front, she glided through San Francisco’s fog like a sailboat.
After he parked the car in the movie theater’s parking lot, Old Chai held Little Hu’s hand. Little Hu rested her face on Old Chai’s shoulder. Old Chai began to kiss her. As he kissed her, he thought, Little Hu, Little Hu, you’re only ‘little’ because you call yourself that. Little Hu’s skirt was short and tight and Old Chai’s hand was large; there was no way he could slip his hand under it. Very cooperatively, Little Hu unzipped the zipper. Old Chai sat up with a start.
How could those panties be so dingy, old, rough and coarse? The elastic waistband sagged, revealing all the things that had sagged from age. All the slumping parts spilled out as if they could droop down infinitely, bearing with them their not-so-attractive invitation. Old Chai thought, why did this woman allow such a gulf to build up between her interior and exterior aspects? For her outward appearance, she stinted neither effort nor expense, but on the inside she had completely let herself go.
At that moment Old Chai’s thoughts drifted to Mrs Walker’s lingerie. Twining like ivy along the shower-curtain rod they were a limpid, pure invitation of another sort. They invited you to cherish and protect them. They invited you to approach them, yet not sully them. A woman’s lingerie, Old Chai thought, reflected a woman’s essence. A woman’s true ornamentation was her undergarments, not her outer garments. When he thought of this, his desire for Little Hu was swept away completely.
After the movie, Old Chai did not take Little Hu back to look at his place as they had originally planned.
‘I haven’t seen your new place yet,’ said Little Hu.
‘What’s so new about it?’ Old Chai replied. ‘I’ve been there almost two months already.’
‘Two months, and you’ve never even invited me over,’ Little Hu noted.
Old Chai was also perplexed. In addition to Little Hu, he had also dated a Mexican girl, but he had never invited either of them over. It was always like tonight: he would change his mind at the last minute.
He sighed to Little Hu and said, ‘Maybe next time.’
‘There ain’t gonna be no damn “next time”!’ Little Hu exclaimed. With that, she got out of the car and made her way on foot back to the apartment she shared with three other people.
When Old Chai got home, it was already two in the morning. A car was parked in the driveway outside the garage. It was not Mrs Walker’s car. It was a dark blue, very overbearing and very masculine Volvo 740. He opened the garage door, but there was no way he could get past the car to drive in. The Volvo was hogging all the space. Old Chai cherished his car and could not stand the thought of leaving it parked out on the street all night. He thought this Volvo owner was a real asshole. Staring at the icy gleam of the car’s body, Old Chai gave in to the urge to give it a good, swift kick. When he was just about to place a second even harder kick, the sound of a car alarm came drilling out.
Old Chai drew back abruptly. Lights went on in the neighboring houses. The light in Mrs Walker’s bedroom also went on and a head came stretching out the window. It was definitely not Mrs Walker’s head.
‘Who’re you?’ asked the man whose head stuck out of the window.
‘I am Mrs Walker’s . . .’ In his agitation, Old Chai had forgotten the English word ‘tenant.’
The man drew his head back inside. A sound of movement was heard for a time, then he came out the front door. Right off, sputtering bumpy English, Old Chai tried to explain the situation.
The man answered grudgingly, ‘I didn’t mean to block your car.’
Old Chai held his peace, but his heart held a rebuke: If you hadn’t been in such a hurry rushing in for a romantic tryst, you might have taken the time to park the car properly.
Over the man’s body was slung a woman’s bathrobe that barely covered the top of his thighs. The neckline revealed a chest of dense, curly hair.
Old Chai thought again of those undergarments, delicate to the point of insubstantiality. How could they tolerate a hirsute fellow like this?
Finally returning to his basement apartment, Old Chai sat down on the sofa but did not turn on the light. He did not know whether his hurt lay in body or heart.
The wooden staircase from the basement carried the sounds of a dialogue. Mrs Walker, with a delicate sound, was asking the reason for the commotion, and the man, with a rumbling sound, was explaining. They both laughed. Then came sounds of the refrigerator opening, of wine glasses clinking. Around the door at the top of the basement stairs came a thin aura of light. Old Chai’s eyes stared at it unconsciously. Two rays in the halo were the refractions from two glasses of white wine, and the wine glasses were two pupils of light conveying tenderness and seduction. On and on it went . . . Old Chai closed his eyes, trying to shut the halo out of his consciousness.
It was quiet. But in the quiet, Old Chai could still hear a faint stirring. This faint sound rumbled dully through the house and through Old Chai.
Suddenly Old Chai jumped up. He had never seen himself this furious, this desperate. A fury and desperation without cause. He felt like storming up and yelling at the people upstairs: ‘Would you please put a real door at the top of these stairs!’
That night, for the first time in his life, Old Chai had insomnia.
The successive nights of sleeplessness made Old Chai cease to understand himself.
He often saw the dark blue Volvo parked near the house. Sometimes it was even parked in the backyard that by all rights should belong to the tenant. The backyard was so small that the car had run over some of its dry reeds, spreading white fluff all over the ground. Still, he could sense a renewed cheer and liveliness in Mrs Walker.
The dark blue Volvo disappeared abruptly and came no more. Old Chai bought some flower seeds and spent two whole afternoons planting them. The neighbour lady asked him about this when he went to pay the rent.
‘Do you know how to grow flowers?’
‘I used to do landscape architecture back in China.’
‘Terrific! Mrs Walker will be so pleased! Maybe she’ll even pay you some money!’
Old Chai smiled nervously and just said, ‘Don’t want money, don’t want money . . .’
When Old Chai was planting the last handful of flower seeds, he heard the faint sound of a window opening. Old Chai’s back stiffened and his movements immediately became exaggerated. Mrs Walker must be there, looking at him, a smile on her lips. If I turn around now, Old Chai thought, we can see each other face to face and it would be so perfectly natural. But he had no confidence at all in such a ‘natural’ action. For the past few days, in his mind, he had been relentlessly following her traces and shadowing her and it was impossible for this not to show through in this first smile. His behaviour toward her had been truly meddlesome.
So why should he want to meddle in her affairs? After all, they were landlady and tenant; what right did he have to meddle?
Let her look wherever she wants. She must be awfully lonely; no blue Volvo any more. She can’t keep looking much longer. And, as he expected, by the time Old Chai went to fill the watering can to water the flower seeds, the open window was empty.
When the first flowers blossomed out in the yard Old Chai found a white teacup with a print of light red lipstick. This pale red lipstick print was complete, like a crescent moon. Old Chai thought Mrs Walker must have looked at the flowers and smiled, and the smile had become imprinted on this white porcelain cup. He picked up the cup and waited until just before four o’clock – during the time, according to the rules, when he could go upstairs and put it back in the kitchen.
As usual, Mrs Walker was not home. Old Chai knew that lately she had taken to going to the spa at this hour, with a female or a male companion.
After Old Chai had finished moving the plants, he heard the sound of water dripping in the bathroom. He simply couldn’t stand the thought of people wasting water. He went in and tightened the faucet in the bathroom. It was the first time he had looked inside the tub. It was very amusing. Old Chai couldn’t put his finger on just what he found so amusing. There was a wooden rack next to the toilet filled with all kinds of magazines and women’s reading material. Next to the tub were a few bath toys. But that was not all. There was also an odour Old Chai had never smelled before and he couldn’t tell whether this odour was good or bad. The odour led the depths of his body into a dizzy agitation.
At that moment he saw a thin layer of pastel red on the pale green surface. It was a semi-transparent silk slip, but Old Chai was completely ignorant of its name and function; he only understood that it was one of a woman’s most intimate garments. Lying on the pale green surface of the bathroom tiles, the pastel form seemed to float upon a deep expanse of water. It was so thin, so soft, that Old Chai felt it was a membrane moulted by a beautiful body. As that body shed it little by little, it still retained that body’s shape and colour, its brightness and radiance.
The agitation in the depths of his body became an extreme, parching heat. He felt as if he must leave this place immediately, otherwise he would face danger. What kind of danger, he had no idea, but enchantment and danger are never far apart. Nonetheless, he picked up the slip. It turned out to be real, its substance was actually palpable. It was cool and smooth, its lingering feel so elusive that if he held it in his cupped hands it would flow away like water through his fingers. Yet he did not dare use force to grasp at it, as he feared he would crush it.
He didn’t know the proper way to pick up such a garment. Yet he felt impelled to do so by that unnamed and indefinable danger.
When the sound of brakes and the faint sound of women giggling drifted into Old Chai’s consciousness, he suddenly came to understand this danger.
Old Chai left the bathroom, returned downstairs to his bedroom and solemnly closed the door. For a while he stood before his bedroom door, rooted to the spot, until he finally realised that he was not empty-handed. He was still holding it. It was no longer cool and smooth but soaked from the sweat of his palms and crumpled up into a ball: it no longer had the aspect of struggling to flee, rather it now lay supine, lovely and innocently trusting in his grasp. Old Chai suddenly realised that this was the first time in his forty-eight years he had ever done such a thing. He lifted it up and smelled it. There was no mistake; the unusual odour he had noticed in the bath had permeated the slip completely.
He was done for. Now the reason for his apprehension was clear. This sort of behaviour was far worse than simple theft.
Several times that night while working, Old Chai drove to the wrong address. He was trying to think of how to restore the slip to its place while covering his tracks. Perhaps Mrs Walker didn’t know exactly where she had taken it off; she wasn’t a terribly methodical woman. Or maybe he could sneak it behind that magazine rack and pretend it had dropped there by mistake. Regardless, this matter had to be dealt with quickly. Otherwise, if he ever met Mrs Walker face-to-face, his expression would not be able to hide his guilt.
It was that evening that Old Chai received a picture postcard from his ex-wife. She said she planned to come to San Francisco on business and wanted to ‘cram in’ with him in his new place. Old Chai carefully selected a time when there was no possibility she would be home and left a message on her answering machine telling her that ‘cramming in’ with him was not an option. Then he hung up. ‘Cram in’ – he shuddered with revulsion at the expression.
When she called him back, his wife’s reaction was swift: ‘Do you have a girlfriend?!’ she demanded straight away, not bothering with so much as a ‘hello.’
‘I don’t believe you!’
Old Chai was silent. He really didn’t have a woman he could call his girlfriend.
‘You don’t have much time to waste,’ his ex-wife told him. ‘I’m arriving tomorrow afternoon at three. Make sure you find me a hard pillow.’
Old Chai became alarmed and blurted out: ‘I do have a girlfriend!’
‘Are you two living together?’
He let his ex-wife chew him out to her heart’s content. ‘You can stay in a hotel for a couple of days,’ he said finally.
He arrived at the airport at the appointed time to meet his ex-wife, then took her to the hotel. The hotel was inexpensive, because it had no connection with any mode of transportation. His ex-wife looked the room over from top to bottom.
‘You heartless brute! Are you just going to throw me out into this godforsaken place and be done with it?!’
Old Chai gave a slight smile and made haste to leave.
‘You heartless brute! You can’t leave! How will I get around?’
Old Chai asked with some trepidation, ‘Aren’t the two of us through?’
‘No, we’re not! I’m not through with you, you heartless brute!’ His ex-wife began to cry. The corners of her mouth drew down to each side while the pitch of her voice rose up. He had never noticed before how odious the sound of her crying was. He remembered Mrs Walker’s weeping: nothing more than a moist tissue.
Old Chai handed his ex-wife a tissue. She used it thunderously to expel her bubbling, angry catarrh.
Old Chai ended up accompanying his ex-wife for two days. For two days he drove her around, diligently taking her shopping and to restaurants. For two days he listened to her call him a ‘heartless brute’.
Just before his ex-wife got on the airplane, she asked him: ‘What’s she like?’
His two eyes were vacant. His heart was also vacant. Yet, oddly, a sort of contentment slowly came over him.
When Old Chai finally returned home, he hurried to open his closet. But the slip was nowhere to be found. There was no mistaking it: he had carefully hung it in the innermost corner and used both hands to smooth out all the wrinkles. He was stunned. His fingers flipped spasmodically through all the clothing. It was definitely gone. It was as if its already less-than-substantial existence had now passed into nothingness.
Old Chai broke out into a cold sweat. He started to search all over, hoping to find a note of the sort that she usually left him: ‘Thank you for planting flowers!’ ‘Thank you for taking out the trash for me!’ ‘Thank you for fixing the garage door light! . . .’ At least there should be a note of severe reprimand or disdainful invective on one of those pale yellow, powder blue or pastel pink note squares. He could have dealt with that. The absence of anything was the most difficult conclusion for him to bear.
He accidentally knocked into the wide-bottomed earthenware vase. The long-since dried reeds suddenly shed their white fluff. Old Chai stared at them; it seemed as if they had suddenly acquired consciousness.
Old Chai went to find the neighbour lady.
‘Mrs Walker tells me the two of you get along really well! I’m really glad to hear that. It’s not often you find a tenant and a landlady who are so compatible . . .’
Old Chai smiled. How was he going to use the language he had so carefully formulated in his belly to tell her he was withdrawing from the lease and make it sound both definite and tactful? His reckless actions had ruined a perfectly nice relationship, a relationship that existed even though they had never had occasion actually to meet face-to-face. He had to observe propriety and leave. Otherwise, any future contact would be awkward in the extreme.
After the neighbour lady had grasped Old Chai’s intent, she was perplexed.
‘Mrs Walker is very frail. You must forgive her if her moods are sometimes odd . . .’
‘No, her mood is just fine!’
‘She really feels she gets along very well with you. You show a lot of concern for her and make her feel so safe . . .’
Old Chai smiled sheepishly but still insisted on withdrawing from the lease.
The neighbour lady kept a melancholy silence for a while. ‘Now she has to find a new tenant all over again. What if they don’t get along? The poor dear, she hasn’t got much time left . . .’ The neighbour lady’s voice trailed off.
Old Chai gave a start. Mrs Walker, the neighbour lady continued, was terminally ill. She had already had three operations. Old Chai didn’t know what to say. So that was why the blue Volvo suddenly disappeared. And that was why those boyfriends would be intimate with her, but none was ever a true partner for her.
Old Chai very quickly found another place to live. He would move out a week later. He only prayed to Heaven that he would not meet Mrs Walker face-to-face before he moved. Both sides had already understood that something had happened; what kind of face could they show each other if they were to meet? Old Chai in particular would have no face at all to show her.
By the time he got off work, it was already midnight. There was a power failure in the whole neighbourhood, probably because of the thunderstorm earlier that evening. In the darkness, Old Chai groped his way back into his basement apartment. Suddenly he heard someone call him. It was Mrs Walker. Old Chai answered. He walked over toward the sound and discovered she was sitting on the basement stairway. Just as Old Chai had surmised, her voice was delicate, like a little girl’s. She said she had just heard he had withdrawn from the lease and would be moving out. She was just going downstairs to see him when the power had failed. After that, she hadn’t dared move.
‘Well, I guess I’ll be going now,’ she said. ‘It’s really dark.’
He walked forward a step to catch up to her and somehow happened to grasp her hand. Or perhaps it was her hand that grasped his. Her hand was very cool and it trembled slightly, but it was delicate and smooth; it was both a classic hand and a young hand.
‘Oh, thank you. I’m all right; I can walk by myself now. I really regret that you’ll be leaving.’
Old Chai did not speak. If he were to reply with something like, ‘I regret it, too,’ he would be seen by her as a totally shameless person. So what is it that you regret? You’re the one who ruined this opportunity. He didn’t have the courage to open his mouth. Both of them knew the secret. She was only speaking this way to show tolerance. It was her right to be tolerant, but what right did he have to express anything? She did not unmask him, but if he so much as opened his mouth, he would unmask himself. In his heart he truly regretted his own moral failing, regretted having done something that was generally recognised as despicable. Yet when he examined his own heart, he had not at all done it with despicable intentions.
Slowly she ascended the staircase. His eyes had started to adjust to the darkness and he began to discern her outline. As he had expected, it was lithe and graceful.
‘Goodnight,’ he said.
‘Goodnight!’ she replied. ‘And goodbye!’
He didn’t know how it happened but she fell, with a cascading sound as soft as a length of silk. It turned out that forty-eight-year-old Old Chai was agile enough to catch her before she fell down all the way. She appeared to be unconscious.
Somehow Old Chai managed to pick her up in his arms. Her thick dressing gown fell open. Under it was only an enchanted, diaphanous nightgown that looked as if it could evaporate at any moment. It gave the body it enveloped an even more exquisite quality. Old Chai’s heart thumped loudly, both hands supporting her, positioned as if absorbing the skin that felt as if it were gliding away, floating past him. She was so close to him. Old Chai thought about that odour in the shower – it was exactly that indefinable odour that permeated this poor creature with its unfresh scent.
Old Chai carried her into her bedroom and placed her on her bed. He feared the hammering of his heart would scare her to wakefulness. He stroked her forehead, nose and lips, then stroked her cheeks and the nape of her neck. He felt his hands could not possibly stop at her neck. The impulse to do something foolish fluttered in his throat. He couldn’t do anything too rash, not as rash as all other men would have done for a woman for whom they yearned. He could never behave that way toward her. It would be enough just to lie close to her, to let every soft, smooth curvature of her body lock with his – to let his thick, rude hands taste only once the exquisiteness of those curves, to let his hands caress that thin sheath of satin.
Through the greyness he could just make out her long hair and the contour of her profile. Slowly he leaned over her and both his arms, braced on the bed and carrying the entire weight of his body, began to tremble violently as his good and evil desires concluded their final struggle.
Old Chai tore himself away from her bedside and telephoned the neighbour lady and George, asking them to come over. They said there was no cause for concern; that she would awaken soon.
Old Chai returned to his room and saw that a candle had now been lit upstairs. He lay on his bed fully clothed, facing upward. He couldn’t remember how he had fallen in love, nor could he remember how love was lost. Two tears crept out and stretched toward the crannies of his ears, coldly collecting there.
He didn’t remember whether or not he had fallen asleep. It wasn’t until the sun had risen very high that he finally rose listlessly out of bed. He started to pack his bags. With no desire to fold his clothes, he just tossed them randomly into his suitcase. All except his good woolen overcoat, which he had never found a suitable occasion to wear; this he carefully took down off the hanger. In that instant a strand of pastel red revealed itself under the coat. It was the same slip that had disappeared without a trace.
Was it possible that he had hidden the slip so thoroughly that even he had not been able to find it? Or perhaps it was Mrs Walker who had hidden it? Could it be that she understood, sympathised, even winked at such behaviour? No, impossible. He must have done this himself. Or had he?
He loaded the luggage into the car. When he went back into the room for a final inspection, he saw a note: ‘Thank you. Thank you for everything. Farewell.’ It was so simple and yet so desolate.
Like an old man, he turned slowly, and slowly he began to walk out. In the sky, under his trembling gaze, there was still just an ordinary sun.
Photograph © Sarah Sosiak (detail)