Seven years of my life are gone. Looking back, it doesn’t seem that long, but I guess it was a long time. I always find myself nagged by a single, ugly feeling: that I wasted my time. That no matter what I did, I never used it wisely enough. For all the stress my rebirth in China brought, there was a lot it did away with. I had time plenty to write a novel, to learn a programming language, hell to learn a real language. What did I do?
The ‘what ifs’, those are the worst feelings. Those are the ones that haunt you. I read somewhere that you will regret your virtues more than your vices. I can’t say that I disagree with that. There are things I did when I was younger that I felt horrible about at the time, but as I grow older, I don’t feel so bad anymore. Maybe it’s the positive you can draw out of even the worst situations…or maybe it’s just getting older. Wondering what more you could have done.
I do wonder what would have happened if Wei Wei had never left China. Would I still be there now, married to her, our one child reared by her mother? Teaching English at some university, missing a few heartbeats whenever it came time to renew our contracts.
As you already know, marriage was never something I was particularly good at. She and I had discussed it of course–seems you can’t have a relationship with a Chinese woman without it coming up at least once. But we never did. It’s for the best, I think. In a strange way, I feared ruining the already great relationship I had. I feared it.
Because I had done it before.
It was my first wife, appropriately enough, as it seemed to set the stage for things to come. I was young, immature, without a good grasp on how things worked. I did not fully understand the commitment marriage demanded, nor did I fully appreciate how much she loved me. Although we were the same age, she was light-years beyond me in wisdom. God bless her, she did her damndest to make it last, but there’s only so many times you can throw a life-preserver to a man who seems content to drown. At some point he has to use it, just as at some point you have to just walk away.
And let him sink.
So is that a regret? If I could do back and do it again, I would have done it a lot differently…but that doesn’t mean I regret what happened.
Wei Wei’s parents were together for about fifty years, and they had been operating the same one shack of a store on Wuhan’s outskirts, catering to migrant workers and people passing through. In their younger years, they had supplemented their income with hard labor, their sweat along with that of hundreds of other unsung sires ushering in Wuhan’s modernization. Those days were far behind them now. They were two frail, old people, used up but still doing whatever they could.
She once had a brother, but we won’t talk about that. What we can talk about are fathers. Wei Wei had a good relationship with hers, as far as I can tell. Of course, I’m not sure I would know what a good father-son relationship is; I had a father growing up. I did. It didn’t matter to us that we were not related by blood or that my mother had passed on. He loved me. I loved him. He took care of me, spending my childhood working long hours, all so I could have a place to eat, a place to sleep, and a toy or two for Christmas.
As a result, we were never very close to each other, and I think that’s how it goes for a lot of men. In a society like ours, you live to consume, you work for it. You work hard enough just to have basic commodities…and if you should feel sad for trading away time with your family for the chance to make someone else rich…well isn’t that just too fucking bad? Poverty is right over there.
The other so-called father, the man who had impregnated my mother and then signed me away to avoid child support, I never met him. I had spent a good deal of time imagining what I would say to him, but really, why would I say anything? What do you say to a total stranger who just happens to share some DNA? Especially as it applies to a man who after leaving you started another family, had a daughter who he decided to actually raise.
I knew it was a dumbass thing to do, but I went and did it anyways. I found out her name, where she lived, and I drove the three hours down there. It was a warm Sunday afternoon. Out in their front yard was a big white cross. A sign below it read, ‘Get right or get left’ in block letters. I knocked on the door. A man answered. I identified myself, asked for her, he went to go get her. She came to the door. She looked like me in some ways–the same nose, eyelids the same curve. She had a baby in her arms, and back in the house I could hear a kid talking. I told her who I was, fighting back the tears as I did so. She told me to hang on a minute. Then she closed the door.
It took me awhile to figure out she wasn’t coming back, and even longer than that to return to my car, back down the driveway, throw it in drive and take one last look at their rundown two-storey home, and that cross in the yard. Get right or get left. I’ve never forgotten that. It’s one of those things that just sticks with you.
Wei Wei’s parents had taken care of her. She spent the holidays with them, sent them money, and when Wei Wei’s father passed on, she moved her mother in with her.
Outward, she showed no signs of grief. She showed…nothing, to be honest. She got the phone call, went back for the funeral, and came back to me and we went on with our lives. I knew I should not bring it up. I thought she would talk to me when she was ready to talk about it. Thing is, she never was. The only sign of her grief I got during that time was on a visit to her apartment.
I helped move her mother in. I helped them get everything into that tiny extra room in the back, exchanging her desk and computer for a hard bamboo bed, knitting tools and a fan, not to mention an old green desk full of pictures, all of whom were dead. One had been a soldier in the Chinese Civil War. I never asked about the others, but some of these photos looked even older than her mother, older than the 1911 revolution itself.
The photos were gray, some were yellow, and as I stared at them, I became aware of my own age. The young man who’d ruined his first marriage had long since vanished. Creased, wrinkling skin, 12,000 miles away from everything I had ever known, this was the new me. I stared at the pictures. Jesus, I must have stood there like that for a good ten minutes. We all know death is coming for us, but something about those photographs–not to mention the candles–brought it home in a way I had never thought possible.
Wei Wei’s voice called me to help. Her computer desk now went into her bedroom. I moved it in for her and hooked up her computer and her mother called in Wuhanese and Wei Wei went off while I noticed something white in one of the desk drawers. I pulled it out and saw that it was a letter of sorts, line after line of Chinese characters in a scribbly hand. The paper was wet. The ink had run off on parts of it. And though to this day I cannot say more than three things in Chinese (not that it has stopped me from trying), let alone read those thousands upon thousands of characters, I recognized one in the first line. I knew it because a Chinese teacher had showed it to me after I asked what a student had written on the board. It was “ba”, fourth tone.
It meant father.
I quickly put the note away and never brought it up to her. Here was a man who had survived the famines, the purges, the Cultural Revolution, and he had done so rising at the crack of dawn and going into the fields and returning at dusk. Then, later, they had somehow gotten that store set up and spent their days sweating and freezing in that little shack and their nights across the street in a shanty-house on hammocks, shivering or sweating, whatever Wuhan’s seasonless weather called for. Rise at dawn, work, return at dusk, and rinse and repeat for more than five decades. All I can really say to that is, Wei Wei’s father, I do hope you rest in peace. After your hard life, you deserve it.