Silence ~ Serena Crawford

 

On an afternoon when Catherine was able to duck away from the Quiet Adventures tour group, in between two lectures she was signing for the traveling hearing-impaired, she took a taxi to a village outside of Taipei, to a small English school where she’d once taught.  She’d lived on the third floor in a room with a bare bulb, an electric kettle, and a mosquito coil.  There was a hole underneath a loose floor tile, the kind of place you could stash your valuables and return to find them twenty, thirty years later untouched.  This was back during a brief hiatus from college, after the doctors informed her she was going deaf.

But the taxi pulled up to a luxury boutique hotel, the school building long gone.  There was a manmade waterfall at the entrance, and a long semicircular pond resembling a moat with three large, radioactive-orange carp.  She had to cross a cobbled footbridge to reach the door.  Once inside, she was greeted by a line of staff who, in blue vests, resembled cheerful, well-groomed train conductors.  It was a flashy hotel, full of etched glass and angled lights.  Corners were softened with feathery tropical plants; the air smelled of nectar.  Catherine heard a whirring sound that she at first mistook for tinnitus before she looked up to see the ornate wooden paddles of a ceiling fan.

There was a burst of music, something harsh and jarring, without words, a song that could have passed for a car crash.  She settled into one of the modern foam lobby chairs—comfort apparently out of style—and inserted an earplug.  The world around her became muffled and indistinct.  It was then that she saw something—the only thing—she recognized: the old marble drinking fountain.  But there were no kids lined up, pushing each other’s faces into the water.  It was cordoned off like a quaint oddity now, an antique of which no one knew its function.  The school had had two classrooms on the second floor and a small kitchen down below.  Bare bones.  Nothing like the mirage of smoke and mirrors she was sitting in now.

She was forty-eight.  Against the advice of everyone she knew, she’d taken a leave of absence from her job as a speech therapist to volunteer abroad, float around Asia alongside half the world’s population of aimless twenty-three-year-olds.  The term “mid-life crisis” had cropped up among her friends and family to help explain her erratic behavior, which began when both of her children went off to college and she asked her husband of twenty-five years for a divorce.  But Catherine saw it more as a need to take a break from the superficialities—the tablespoon of flaxseed meal on her cereal each morning, the all too frequent trips to the car wash and the hygienist, the discussions about whether the kids should be allowed to have credit cards or, for the older one, a motorcycle—each day a carbon copy of the one before.

The last time she’d been here, she was a girl too young to know any better.

She read the lips of the concierge: he wanted to know if he could be of help.  She told him she was meeting someone, a guest.  She was early; she would wait.  He bent in to listen, which meant her voice was too low.

Outside, a tour bus pulled up and a line of people stepped off with cameras like medallions dangling from their necks.  Brides in gauzy finery posed for pictures, standing, sitting, kneeling, with bouquets and without.  Children ran around with flower chains in their hair.  Apparently the hotel was a popular destination for weddings.

The concierge nodded and backed off.  She knew she would be taken at her word because she was a foreigner.

She’d come to Asia the summer after junior year in college, after her body unexpectedly failed her, to see (and hear) the world while she could.  In her case, it was a great pressure on one side of her head, a heaviness that threatened to topple her over, draw her ear like a magnet to the ground.  She lost all hearing on her right side; the doctors gave her prednisone, predicted another four, five months until it progressed to her left.  So she bought a plane ticket to Kathmandu, granting herself the rest of summer and fall to live life before the silence arrived.

It was hard to believe she was going deaf; at that age, the worst thing she’d experienced was breaking up with boys.  (She tried to explain it wasn’t their fault.  She was immature; she tended to lose interest.)  But it was a good excuse to take a semester off from a small liberal arts college where she had developed a crush on her boyfriend’s roommate.  She trekked in Nepal for a week before getting robbed by a British couple, drunks.  She knew if she called her parents, they would beg her to call it good, come home, put the pictures she’d taken in a fine leather album to show her future children.  They would give her the latest news on a handsome neighbor she’d once kissed—Bobby Anderson—who was about to graduate from law school at the top of his class, the implication being she should rush home and snap him up in the little time she had left.

Instead, she went to Taipei because she’d heard Americans could make quick money teaching English.  For two weeks, she stayed at an overcrowded youth hostel, where the only way to have privacy was to loop a towel through a slat from the bunk above and pull it down like a shade.  The first night, a Danish woman instructed her to sleep clutching her money belt to her chest.  In the mornings, she woke up with cramped fingers that would not straighten until afternoon.

Everyone in the hostel was looking for work, looking for a way to get out, to find a place where they might have a proper bed or a room with a door.  Taipei was a mob scene; any time she waited in line for a bus, she got trampled once it arrived.  Cars and motorbikes clogged the streets, an endless, stalled parade.  Because the Foreign Affairs Police had been cracking down, jobs for foreigners were scarce.  She was turned down at four schools, where they told her they were hiring only English-speaking Chinese until the police stopped their raids.

Then, a stroke of luck.  Walking a rented bicycle through a street market, a man approached her.  He had nice eyebrows, thin, quivery lips, the unlined forehead of someone her age.  “My English is very poor,” he said, hoarsely, handing her a square of paper:

 

THE BEST ENGLISH SCHOOL IN THE WORLD IS LOCATED IN A SMALL VILLAGE OUTSIDE OF TAIPEI WHERE THE HOT SPRINGS CAN BOIL EGGS AND THE CRICKETS OUTNUMBER THE CARS.  IF YOU AGREE TO TEACH ENGLISH CONVERSATION, I WILL PAY YOU AND PROVIDE ROOM AND BOARD.  MY SISTER, MEIMEI, WILL COME MOST WEEKENDS TO PREPARE DELICIOUS FOOD.  YOU HAVE TWO MINUTES TO DECIDE.

 

Before Catherine could finish reading, the man passed her an envelope, which, she was embarrassed to discover, contained a hundred-dollar bill.  No one else seemed to notice: the street sellers went about their business, shaking tea in canisters and steaming buns.  Catherine’s taking the envelope in her hands—it would have dropped to the ground, otherwise—seemed to seal the deal.

Mr. Wang—that was his name—escorted her back to the hostel on his motorbike, and told her he would come in his car to pick her up the following day.

“He wants something from you,” the girls in her dorm room said.  “You don’t get money for nothing here.”  They sat on a cot playing cards and blowing smoke rings, and didn’t invite her to join them.  That night she lay awake, thinking: a brothel?  No.  The man was clean-shaven, soft-spoken.  He wore a light blue polo shirt buttoned up to his neck.  She could tell by his lopsided smile that it had been hard for him to approach her.  And she with her baseball cap and ponytail was hardly the prostitute type.

He came as promised in a small, cream-colored car.  She had one bag, a green knapsack, which he ceremoniously hoisted into the trunk.  During the forty-minute drive, for most of which they were stuck in traffic, he reached into the backseat (which was too small for passengers) and offered up bags of peanut candy and seaweed crackers, enough food to last a week.  He chewed noisily in place of conversation.  They left the city, passing large warehouses and rice fields, until they reached a village that was just an intersection.  He pointed out the noodle stall and the small market displaying oscillating fans and fly swatters in pastel colors.  There was no traffic light.

“You won’t get lost,” he said, his voice catching.

“Yes, I think I’ll be able to find my way around.”

It was unmistakably a school, she was relieved to see, brand new, chalky white, with stately-looking columns bracketing the entrance.  There was a Z-shaped wheelchair ramp that emptied out by a swing.  She could already envision the mad rush: students bursting out the door and jumping the rails, vying to be the first to hop in the canvas seat.

“All yours?” she asked, because she owned only the contents of her knapsack.  And she wondered how he—not exactly the go-getter type—could have so much more.

His parents had given him the money, he admitted sheepishly.  The car was theirs too.

“My parents won’t give me anything until I get married,” she said.

He lowered his head, as if to duck her comment.

The walls inside the school were rough and unpainted.  There were metal chairs stacked by the door, unopened boxes of cleaning and classroom supplies.  He would spend the week setting up and preparing for the school to open the following Monday.  He hoped he would get it done in time.

She’d painted for two summers in college; she was happy to help.

He almost flinched at her offer.  And so that was what he had wanted.

The following morning, she awoke to the smell of hot soybean milk and fried dough sticks from the market.  He had set breakfast out for both of them downstairs in the foyer on a cardboard box turned upside-down.  It didn’t matter if she sat with her good ear to him: the place was so quiet, his voice—hoarse as it was—seemed to surround her.

“What kind of name is Catherine?”  He had only the faintest hint of an accent, the lilt of his intonation a fraction too slow.

“I don’t know.  A long one.  My friends call me Cat.”

“An animal’s name?”

She explained it was short for Catherine.

“Surname?”

“Davis.”

“Are you engaged to be married?”

“No.  What’s with all the questions?”

“I want to learn everything.”  He coughed into the back of his hand.

They scraped and sanded and painted until evening—no lunch—at which point he more than made up for the skipped meal with Styrofoam containers of noodles and dumplings and fried rice and clear soup.  Sometimes, he leaned back and ate with his eyes closed.  Other times he hovered over his soup, so close she could see his eyebrows reflected in the broth.

“Is your tatami comfortable, Miss Davis?”  He pointed overhead, referring to the mat she slept on two floors above.  His voice surprised her, sounding like it was teetering on the edge of something, about to fall off.  He was sleeping in the kitchen, she noticed, on a tatami identical to hers.  He rolled it up during the day and stuffed it behind the fridge.

“It’s fine.”

“Much harder than a mattress.”

“Where did you learn to speak English so well?”

He flushed.  “I have trouble with my pronunciation.”

“You speak perfectly.”

“I have good days and bad.”

With that, he was silent for the rest of the meal.  He cleared his throat when he got up from the table, tipped an invisible hat to wish her a good night.

 

The next day, he scared her by stepping out from the second-floor bathroom, where he’d been installing a paper-towel dispenser, to thrust a piece of paper in her hand.  She fumbled, almost dropped it, said, “What’s this?”  He didn’t answer, stared at the paint-flecked knuckles of her hands until she unfolded it and read:  FROM NOW ON, I WILL COMMUNICATE WITH YOU ONLY IN WRITING.  IF YOU FIND AN ERROR, PLEASE CORRECT AND RETURN IT TO ME.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.

To practice my spelling.  He wrote in his notepad, nodding grimly, as if the burden were all his.

“You don’t understand.”  She exhaled audibly.  “I might be reading notes for the rest of my life.”  But even saying it out loud didn’t make her believe it.

He offered to pay her additional for her trouble, but she shook her head vaguely, internally scolding herself for not taking the money, which—if she saved enough—would allow her to fly back to Nepal and pick up where she’d left off.  She convinced herself he would grow tired of writing, that it was a passing phase

In the days that followed, he’d come to her unannounced, once or twice a day, standing quietly in her vicinity, a square of paper in hand, until she looked up.  She learned to detect his presence in the stillness, to feel the vibrations of his padding feet, to sense his arrival like dawn.  He had a habit of pausing outside of doorways, as though to catch his breath.  Sometimes he didn’t appear, instead leaving his notes folded up on the overturned box by the breakfast he’d set out or pinned to the bulletin board he’d nailed to the wall in the hallway.  On those occasions, she found herself carrying the note upstairs to her room and opening it in secret like a schoolgirl.

At first, he wrote necessary information: the Spackle was located in the kitchen drawer, the heavy-duty primer under a tarp out back.  If the fumes got to her, he had a variety of masks.  He let her know by early afternoon what they would be eating for dinner.

Then, a question: Do you prefer the color olive or beech?  He’d been staring at the entryway to the school—the last section to be painted—and wanted her opinion on what was, apparently, a momentous decision in his life.  To humor him, she gazed at the paint cans he labeled in English for her, the sample swatches he taped to the wall.  In the end, she chose beech after lying awake and thinking about it all night.  They worked on the front hall together, meticulously—beech it was—spent practically the same amount of time it had taken them to paint the rest of the school.

There were observations:  This morning I woke up to jubilant clouds Parading across the heavens like peacocks.  The jet Plane that tore up the sky (with jealousy?) was no match.  He related obscure facts: did you know by counting the times a cricket chirps it is possible to tell the temperature outside?

The notes looked like formal invitations, painstakingly printed in all capitals, the letters spaced far enough apart that they stood alone at the same time they formed words.  He never made a mistake, not once.  They came on crisp squares of rice paper, which she inevitably touched with her tongue and held up to the light.  He signed each one with the Chinese characters of his name, as if there were a chance she might think they were from someone else.  Unable to find a trash can, she stashed them underneath a defective floor tile in her room; the concrete underneath was sunken like a bowl.  By the time he bought a wastepaper basket and placed it at the bottom of the stairs, she’d amassed a collection and thought it would be a shame to throw them away.

At the end of that first week, after he’d laid down fresh carpet in the classrooms and she’d caulked around the bathroom sinks, he drove into Taipei and brought back Peking duck.  He showed her the proper way to fold the duck in a pancake with a piece of scallion and sauce.  They had a wordless celebration.

 

Overnight, the school changed from pristine and quiet—just the two of them clicking chopsticks—to being overrun with rambunctious children with runny noses and sticky hands.  At first, it was hard to watch the smudges and scuffs that appeared, all the damage tiny hands and feet could inflict.  But it was also gratifying to see the results of their hard work put to use.  She drew on whiteboards he had hung; his students sat in small chairs she had assembled.  Across the hall, he held up a flashcard of a yellow cat she had laminated and his class said C-A-T.

The children loved to touch the hair on her arms, or draw pictures of her with bright green eyes steering a spaceship towards Earth.  They were sponges, and could mimic the intonation of her voice exactly within three tries.  She said something, they repeated, and they didn’t forget.  Their parents drilled them at night.  By the fourth class, they had mastered animals and colors, and moved on to the rooms of a house, learning at three times the rate she had originally planned.  They begged her for English names.  She borrowed heavily from the JV field hockey team on which she’d played sophomore year, tossing names out to the kids like chocolate coins.  A few times after class she walked outside past the intersection with the intention of searching for the hot springs, but midway there she always found a reason to rush back to the school.  Mr. Wang would write down what had happened in her short absence—a plugged-up sink or a new item in the lost and found—wielding his pen as if the possibilities were endless.

At night, she and Mr. Wang met at the cardboard box for dinner, exhilarated by their sense of purpose.  She showed him a picture one of her students had drawn, a dog with Xs for eyes frying in a pan.  Mr. Wang imitated the way his students scratched their heads when they’d forgotten how to spell a word.  He scribbled: THERE APPEARED TO BE A MEASLES EPIDEMIC DURING THE MORNING’S QUIZ.  He wrote quickly in her presence, sacrificing symmetry for speed.

Jacket or blazer, he wanted to know, producing a flashcard from a folder under his chair.

She wondered if that was what he would wear—an old-school blazer with gold buttons—if he were to take her to a nice restaurant.  Or maybe he’d be more comfortable in a white button-down since he didn’t seem the type to draw attention to himself.

“Take your pick,” she answered.  “What difference does it make to a bunch of kids?”

Enormous difference, he insisted, and she couldn’t help laugh at the way he’d written the word “enormous,” the letters so large they extended across the page.  She moved her chair closer to see what came next.

I am serious.  He added that as teachers, they opened up minds, transformed lives.  There was nothing else that left such a mark on the world.  One day, when she was older, a former student would come up to her and thank her.  Then she would understand the significance of it all.

She read along as he wrote, disappointed when he set down his pen.

“Okay,” she said.  “I’d go with blazer.”

Within days, people were dropping off padded boxes of imported apples and Japanese pears.  Someone donated a marble drinking fountain to the school.  They received a songbird in a cage, a tin of green bean cakes, a bottle of plum wine.  A small truck delivered a pile of painted scrolls.  One morning they stepped outside to find roses and orchids planted around the front entrance.

“So many presents!” she said.

They celebrate my success.

“How do you know this many people?”

Most I have never met.

“Then why do they give you things?”

There was an article in the newspaper.

That night, they drank the plum wine out of patterned teacups.  She showed him how to clink rims and toast.

How long will you stay?

She managed, she thought, to do a reasonable job of describing her situation considering the language barrier.  Her ears were bad.  Or one was, and the other would soon follow.  She would teach for a couple of months until she earned enough money to travel around and experience the world.  Then she would return to the States and go deaf.

Even to her, the story sounded false, like one of the far-fetched excuses she’d heard foreigners used—a sudden death in the family, AIDS (if the employer was resistant)—when they were ready to quit and travel again.  Two months at the school now seemed pitifully short, barely enough time to remember the kids’ names.

She thought he would demand she stay longer.  Instead, he wrote, the timing suits me, then wanted to know how much money was enough.

She aimed high, took a stab.  “Three-thousand US dollars.”

He nodded perfunctorily, as though he had arrived at the same figure.

Did he understand?  She wasn’t sure.  He pressed his tooth with his thumb, shook out his hand.

Helen Keller, he wrote.

“Well, not exactly,” she tried to explain.

He poured another dash of wine into his teacup and slugged it down as if he himself had been handed her diagnosis.

His sister Meimei arrived the following weekend carrying the kind of cheap mesh bag tourists bought when they had too many souvenirs to lug home.  It was full of kitchen utensils.  She spent all of Saturday in the kitchen, filling the school with smells.  First pork, then fish, then sweet bean.  Then something fiery that caught in Catherine’s throat and made her cough and step outside.

The weather was pleasant, a not-too-hot summer day, and she decided she would take a walk.  She didn’t make it five yards before the father of a student stopped on his bike to shake her hand.  A woman hailed her from across the street.  Two students skipped around a yard singing her name.  Could she come to their house for lunch?  She couldn’t remember if it was rude or not to accept.  But then she had no choice, because her students pulled her into a small row house also filled with the aroma of cooking.  It was the first of three lunches.  Afterwards, she was escorted back to the school by a small, exuberant crowd.

A feast awaited her.  Meimei, a round-faced girl of eighteen, led her to the makeshift table; she’d turned over three cardboard boxes to accommodate all the food.  They both knelt down before eight or so plates, and Meimei put a scoop of rice in a bowl for each of them.

Catherine eyed the food, already stuffed.  “Should we wait for Mr. Wang?” she asked.

She could see a sliver of light underneath the kitchen door, the flicker of a shadow, Mr. Wang walking past.  The school now smelled of ginger.

Meimei put two flat hands to one side of her cheek.  “He will not eat.  He rests.”

“Do you think he’s caught whatever’s going around?”  A couple of Catherine’s students had gone home sick that week.

Meimei nodded, unsure of herself.  She pushed a whole fried fish towards Catherine, the eyes an icy blue.  Catherine tried to think of a subject they had in common.

“I met Mr. Wang at the market.  I don’t know much about him.”

Meimei had yet to pick up her chopsticks, apparently not hungry either.  “He dreamed to be an English teacher since he was a boy.  He listened to cassette tapes every night when he went to sleep.”  She frowned at the pea sprouts.  “He is a good brother, a good man, just twenty-four years old.  He likes to do everything for himself, but he cannot cook.”

“The students like him.”

“He was afraid they would laugh.”

Catherine heard the water turn on in the kitchen, wondered if Mr. Wang was listening through the door.  “Even the first day, the classrooms were overflowing.  He had to start a waiting list.  Some drove all the way from Taipei.”

Meimei stood up when the light in the kitchen went off.  “He worried no one would come.”

“Can I help you clear the dishes?”

Meimei motioned for Catherine to remain seated.  “Please.”

Meimei went into the kitchen without turning on the light and shut the door behind her.  Catherine stared at the wall; the paint had bubbled up in a few spots but otherwise looked decent.  She heard a lone motorcycle roar down the street, the muffler shot.  A dog barked.  She thought maybe Meimei had gone to bed when Meimei came out carrying a deck of cards.

“Can you play?”

“Sure.”

Meimei shuffled the cards.  “I will go to nursing school after this.”

“I don’t know what I want to do.”

Meimei looked surprised.  “You are a teacher!”

“Right now.  But it’s not my career.”

“Why not?”

“I’m too young to commit myself to any one thing.”

Meimei set the deck down between them.  “You are very brave!”

They didn’t know any of the same games, so Catherine taught Meimei how to play crazy eights.  Meimei showed Catherine how to hide cards up her sleeve.

The concierge touched her shoulder.  The person she was meeting had arrived, which was strange, because she wasn’t meeting anyone.  She had made that up so she wouldn’t be disturbed.  He motioned to the corner of the lobby where a Chinese man sat with his back to her, kneading his knuckles against his lips.

She knew it was a misunderstanding; it was all too familiar.  She’d become accustomed to nodding at garbled speech in restaurants, to answering the wrong question, to missing the joke, to people talking into her deaf ear (her husband had complained she purposely turned it towards him).  Her kids’ friends had imitated her behind her back, tapping a lampshade and saying, “I need to be on your right side to hear you,” and, “Could you please face me when you speak?”  It felt like half of her was underwater.  But she knew how to go through the motions—she was adept at smiling her way through meaningless exchanges—and she would do so now.

She walked across the lobby to the man.  “Hello?  The concierge said you were looking for me?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  There’s been a mix-up.  I’m waiting for a different American woman.”

“I thought that might be the case.”

She gave a small bow and retreated back to her foam seat.

Three weeks later, in the evening, she was taping her students’ pictures on the classroom wall when the room began to spin.  She clutched the back of the chair she was standing on and screamed.  He came running, dropped his masking tape, which looked to her like it rolled up a wall.

He took her in his arms and lifted her off the chair, pinning her hands to her sides, as if he thought she might try to inflict harm on herself.  She fell to the floor and he went down with her, angling his body underneath hers to lessen the blow.  He tried to make her comfortable, brushing away the hair that stuck to her lips, moving her elbow so it didn’t jab her in the side.  Then he wrapped himself around her and didn’t let go.  She lay in his grip, his heart pounding against her back, as the room bucked and swam.

She woke several hours later to darkness and his even breath against her neck.  He smelled of scallions and furniture polish; his palms were cool.  Her throat felt sore and her cheek was chafed from the rough carpet, but the room was still, upright.  She could hear the toilet down the hall, its gurgles and sighs.

She’d lain plenty of times in the arms of a boy, but never under these circumstances.  Should she leave?  Stay?  In any case, she had to use the bathroom.  She pried back his fingers and made for the door.

The second-floor bathroom had been designed for the students.  She had to squat to reach the toilet seat; the sink came to her thighs.  She ran the hot water and leaned over to let the steam rise to her face.  She looked in the mirror: he would call a doctor if he saw her like this.  She tried to pinch color into her cheeks, then combed her hair with her fingernails on the way out.

He was awake, standing by the classroom window, looking down onto the street below, holding the slats of the blind apart with his forefinger and thumb.  There were no streetlights, but the market had an outside light that gave the intersection a dusky glow.  He tugged at the drawstring, showed her it was stuck.  Together, they untangled the knots until the blind opened and closed freely, then went their separate ways to catch the last few hours of sleep, as if they often met at night to make minor repairs.

Will you give me an English name?  He wrote the following morning at breakfast.

She stood back and nodded, walked a circle around him, made a show of trying to think of a name that fit.  She was surprised to catch herself flirting.  She thought of Robert first, but she’d had a fling with a Rob once.  Same went for Anthony, Tim, Nick, David, John, Peter, Mike, Charles, and most other common American male names that came to mind.  They all had associations.  It would be unfair to peg him as the captain of the lacrosse team or the dorm proctor or the guy who ate Fruit Loops in the cafeteria alone.  Mr. Wang was unlike anyone she had met before.

“How about Dirk?”  He was not a Dirk, but it was either that or she’d have to start searching in a different language.

Dirt?

“No, D-I-R-K.  Dirk.”

He mouthed it to himself, nodded.  He wrote it down in his notepad and underlined it twice.

I am honored.

She had the feeling if she’d given him the name Dirt, he would have said the same thing.

“Don’t you ever get tired of writing?”

Sometimes.

“It takes forever,” she said through an exaggerated yawn, surprised—again—to find herself trying to pick a fight.

Thank you for your patience.  He didn’t take the bait.

“You don’t need help with your spelling.”

I must continue to practice.

Later, lying on her tatami, listening to the sound of crickets wafting through her open window, she thought perhaps she would stay longer.  As a favor to him.

The following week, on the night her hearing ear started crackling, a noise that in no way could be interpreted as good, she ran downstairs to the kitchen.  Mr. Wang was contemplating his notepad, crumpled balls of paper strewn at his feet.  He stood up forcefully, toppling his chair.  She didn’t say anything but he knew.  He strode across the room and cupped her ears, pulled her head to his chest.

He held her, stroking her shoulder, her cheek, circling the scar on her chin leftover from a bout of chickenpox.  He swayed from side to side, and they began to move around the kitchen.  This calmed her down.  He seemed to be saying: if this was her moment to go deaf, her ruin, together they would defy it.  He eased her down onto his tatami and tucked his body against hers.  She reached for his thigh, but he guided her hand away.  He breathed with his mouth against the back of her shirt, lulling her to sleep.

In the morning, he put his watch to her good ear and seemed as relieved as she was when she could hear it tick.

 

She didn’t see him the next day, or the one after.  There was a sign on the door of the school canceling his classes, and his students went home.  Meimei arrived mid-week and she and Mr. Wang were holed up in the kitchen, talking in low voices.  When Catherine crept downstairs at four in the morning, his light was still on.

“Where’s Mr. Wang?” she asked Meimei at dinner the following night.  It was a feast again—sesame noodles, egg flower soup, shredded pork, bamboo shoots—as if every night they expected company that never came.

“He rests.”

“Again?”

“His neck,” Meimei said, brushing the front of her own.

“A sore throat?”

“His hand also.”

“Why doesn’t he come out?”

“He is—how do you say?—pride.”

The kitchen door hadn’t opened in two days.  Catherine had repeatedly checked the floor around the bulletin board in the hallway, thinking he might have pinned a note for her there that had fallen down.

“Is he avoiding me?”

“He is sick.”  Meimei accidentally spit out a piece of noodle and put a hand over her mouth.

“He stayed up pretty late last night for being so sick.”

“He cannot sleep.”

“Do you think he’ll teach tomorrow?  I’m afraid the students will stop coming if he keeps canceling class.”

“They will come.”

“I doubt for much longer.”

Meimei pushed a bamboo shoot with her chopsticks.  She brought it to her mouth, but at the last moment withdrew it.  “Where else has no tuition?”

“What do you mean no tuition?”

Meimei tipped her head forward, letting her hair fall over her eyes.  “Already, I say too much.”

Meimei wanted to play crazy eights after dinner, but first she had to run out to buy MSG at the market before it closed.  Catherine waited until she left before knocking on the kitchen door.

“What’s going on around here?  Open up!”

No answer.  She thought she heard a sound like rustling leaves.

“Classes are free?” she said.  “What kind of school is this?  Why did you bring me out here in the first place?”

Again, rustling.

“You said you’d pay me three thousand dollars.”

The fridge clicked on, an unsteady, wavering hum.

“I know you’re in there.”

She was getting ready to barge in when the door opened.  He stood there swallowing, holding his throat, a diminished, less nourished version of himself.  His eyes searched hers for something—understanding? compassion?—or perhaps just to gauge the truth of what she saw.

He fumbled with a slip of paper, tried to write something down, but his hand wouldn’t cooperate, wouldn’t hold still.  She realized she hadn’t heard him speak in weeks.  She slapped the pen out of his hand.

“No, tell me to my face,” she said.  “You owe me at least that!”

He slurred something unintelligible, saliva coating his lips, swung his head in the direction of a thick envelope lying on the counter near the sink.  Even from the hall, she could tell there was more than three thousand dollars inside.  He stumbled across the kitchen to retrieve it; she couldn’t bear to watch.  For a moment, she imagined throwing herself at his feet, but then shut the door and left, as if he were just another boyfriend who had fallen out of grace.

This time it was the man nudging her.  He thought he’d recognized her.  Had she ever lived in this town?

She said she had a long time ago.

Was she an English teacher?

Not now.  But before, yes.

The man sat down across from her and folded his hands, looking like the bearer of bad news.  He had the kind of intrusive mustache that made lip-reading difficult.

“I was a student of yours.”

“Oh?”

“You gave me the English name—what was it?—Bernie.”

“How awful.  I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Then you don’t mind that I changed it?”

“God, no.”

“I always felt guilty.”

“Please don’t.  What is it now?”

“Ben.”

“Much better.  It suits you.”

The man looked pleased.  “Do you remember me?”

She nodded vaguely, picturing a group of kids sucking on blood popsicles before class.  Their red mouths had sickened her at first—it looked like they’d been gorging on raw flesh—but after a while, she’d learned to pretend it was cherry or grape.  Was Bernie the one who had lice?  The one who’d lost his tooth in a steamed bun?  Or maybe that was all of them, one and the same.

“What happened to the school?” she said.

“Changed hands a couple times, torn down, and now this.  What brings you back?”

“I left the school in a hurry, forgot some things.”

The man looked around, amused.  “You weren’t expecting to find them, were you?”

“I don’t know what I expected.  Probably not.”

“You did leave rather abruptly, I remember.  After six weeks?”

“I returned home.”  She reluctantly took out her earplug; she’d wanted to take a break from listening—it was a constant strain with one ear—but the man wouldn’t quit and the mustache was throwing her off.

“You don’t like the music?” he laughed, pointing up to the speaker as a clash of cymbals broke in.

“My ears are very sensitive,” she said, stupidly.  You told people you were part deaf, and they’d holler about a sister confined to a wheelchair or a widower uncle who’d gone blind, as if to remind you that purgatory was better than hell.

The man lifted a clenched hand to his mouth, as if to cough, but didn’t.   “You knew he had Lou Gehrig’s disease?” he said, touching his lip.  “His parents bought him the school so he could live out his dream before, you know…”

“I knew he was sick.”

“He was embarrassed by his voice.  His speech became impaired.  It didn’t take long for the rest to follow.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“There was a rumor he ran off with you and opened a new school.”

“No.”

“I believed it, anyway.  Even after I knew the truth.  It’s funny, I still have to catch myself.”

A blond-haired American woman arrived, and the man introduced her as his fiancée.  He’d met her online.  “All because I had a great English teacher,” the man said, flourishing a hand at Catherine.  They were planning on having their wedding banquet at the hotel.  They were late for a meeting with the chef to finalize the menu.

The wedding was only a week away, but would Catherine be able to attend?

She would not.  She had to get back to the tour group—and, of course—to her kids, her job, to finalize her divorce, to the accrual of mundane problems unimaginable to her the last time she was here.

 

In the end, she called her parents for help and they wired her the money to come home.  She finished college, dating the roommate of her ex-boyfriend senior year.  She learned sign language—to hedge her bets—and got a degree in speech-language pathology.  She was paired with Bobby Anderson in a mixed-doubles tennis tournament one summer and married him the next.  The doctors were wrong: the hearing in her good ear fluctuated over the years but never left.  She vigilantly protected what she had with earplugs.  She worked part-time and had kids.  She’d been impatient with them at times, but she’d also been there for every musical performance, every game, once stopping up her younger son’s bloody nose with a new silk blouse.  She’d been known—after a few drinks—to sing karaoke every so often.

There were times her tinnitus got so bad, it kept her up at night.

Awake at night, she sometimes thought about him, wishing she’d stayed, but what was the use?

She’d made whatever she’d made of herself.  That part was done.

She packed her green knapsack, ran out the front door, and bumped into Meimei on her way back from the market, nearly knocking her into a rose bush.  She thought Meimei might try to stop her, but instead she wordlessly dropped her bag of groceries, led her out into the intersection, and helped her flag down a passing bus.

The girls at the hostel were different, but the same.  They shuffled cards on their bunks and took turns cutting the deck.  The Danish woman had returned after a short modeling stint, for which she hadn’t been paid, and was looking for more work.  She sat on her cot, clipping her nails.

“That man from the street market?  I remember he gave you that money up front.  What did he want from you?”

“It was a school,” Catherine mumbled.

“Did you sleep with him?”

“It wasn’t like that.”

The girls gave her sympathetic nods.  “Of course not,” they said.  “Try not to think about it too much.”

They moved their card game over to her bunk, consoling her, saying what a letdown life was, how sorry they were to see her go.

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