There might be only usIn a roomMy love and IBut that is fineWhat eyes are left for meAnyway what other eyes are left for me
—Dorothea Lasky, “Birds There is No Moon“
A few days after we land in Hong Kong, my husband notices a red spot in his left arm. We are dining on the rooftop of his parent’s building, having a seafood barbecue. Everything was still alive and swimming when his mother chose each creature from her favorite vendors in Shek Tong Tsui market. Scallops with shells larger than our hands, the meat inside the size of a gold ball. Jumbo-sized shrimp. Two different types of squid. And chunks of pork liver, large mushroom caps, and Italian-style bread, which his father special-ordered and my husband and I picked up at a bakery up the street. It’s hot outside, but much cooler twenty-four stories up, as his father ignites the small gas stove and tells us, again, that they need to repot their palm tree, the roots now more than visible, pushing out.
I tell his father I have the same problem with my orchid, that it needed a larger pot but I let it go, and only replanted it once all the blossoms and most of the green died, yet that by some miracle the roots of the orchid are still alive. That I didn’t mean to let it go, but then there’s always tomorrow and if something’s still around after all that, then maybe it will grow back even stronger, even more resistant. His father laughs and agrees.
The seafood takes a long time to cook. His father wishes me a happy and belated Passover. I tell him I chose to not celebrate it again. He says he’s been reading up on the holiday, so that we might celebrate a seder together, that it should be important to keep this tradition alive. I nod and pass my husband a can of beer when I notice another red spot on his right leg, followed by another on his left leg. His parents dismiss them as mosquito bites, although none of us have any. I am still jet-lagged. I pass out early after a short walk around the neighborhood, buzzing off the beer and disorientation that travel brings, reveling that we are exactly twelve hours ahead of New York, my head filling with deadlines that seemingly have magical extensions.
I’m half-asleep already when I tell my husband that his father is right. That it is important to keep these traditions alive, and that they must endure change. That once my father said all Jews needed faith in the Diaspora. That Jewish people can never forget they are Jewish lest they are reminded by intolerance. I remember arguing with my father about this kind of defeatist thinking, the hours spent discussing the where and why of Jewish suffering and who had it been caused by, those who had burned at the stake by the Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, or those among the scorched remains in Cologne left behind by the First Crusaders on their way to capture Jerusalem, or those silenced in 14th century Prague, and there was the special tax paid for being a Jew in the Ottoman Empire after fleeing Ferdinand’s Spain, the Russian Pogroms, the Nazis, the Vichy Regime, all of it boiling down to his point: intolerance. That night I dream terrible things I won’t remember distinctly, but leave me shaking: the smell of smoke and flesh burning, bound wrists, blistered hands gripping the iron bars of windowless rooms. In the morning I’m relieved that I am here, in this room with the man I love. In the morning I awaken to my husband’s body now fully covered in welts, both large and small, all very red, all itchy as hell.
* * *
We go with his mother to a pharmacy around the corner, and the doctor in residence greets us, inviting us to sit down. My husband and I both see this doctor every time we go to Hong Kong, each receiving a physical of sorts. Often we are given a medicinal drink and two rolls of haw flakes; the haw flakes are candy and given to temper the often bitter, biting taste of the medicine. The doctor examines the welts and asks my husband to stick out his tongue. He reads his pulse, feels his lymph nodes and makes copious notes. Likewise the doctor examines me, and finds nothing. The doctor tells my husband he has a cold. Not a cold cold, something very internal and not adjusting. He produces a prescription of two medicinal drinks a day, one in the afternoon and one before bed, for three days. My husband grimaces, and tells me if they taste anything like the medicine of our past visits, it’s not going to be good. We are told to pick them up each day at noon.
There is no charge for examining me. The doctor speaks only Cantonese. My husband has to translate: You adjust okay to Hong Kong, every time I see you. Any season you visit. I smile. I don’t want to jinx myself. I say that I have been struggling with jet lag, but I sleep much better in Hong Kong than I do in New York. My husband translates, and the doctor offers: A good immunity is everything.
* * *
It happens so quickly. Let’s start here: We are very affectionate, my husband and I. We hold hands. We kiss in public. And we are on vacation. We get to sleep in, wander the streets as we please, take our time in doing the smallest things like walking around Kowloon park with its ponds of turtles and pink flamingos. We linger under ficus trees. We call these Lovers’ Trees because they have twisted together so that we can’t tell where one trunk begins and another ends.
I stop and ask a couple sitting down on a bench if they’d take a photo of us in front of these trees. There is a pause. It happens so quickly. There is a pause. A familiar scene: someone is studying us together. Our couple-ness. The man looks us up and down, and says with a slight chuckle: Pardon? His accent reveals he is British. He stares at my knees. My bare knees. It is a hot day and I’m wearing an electric blue dress. It stops at my knee. It is loose, reveals little of my shape. The man grins to one side, and raises his brows, his eyes hanging onto my hemline. I hear myself repeat my request. I smooth my dress down. There’s nothing to smooth down. Why am I asking this?
In the back of my mind, I know what’s coming. Something that will destroy the day. I don’t know what he’s going to say. It is a familiar scene. The man looks at the woman next to him. She looks me up and down, her eyes lingering at my chest. She folds her arms against hers, closes herself in. She is smiling but that smile is not for us. The man turns to the woman, and then glancing back at us, he says: What did she ask now? It happens too quickly. The shift to third person. The erasure. As the woman shrugs, the man says: That’s not right, is it? The woman laughs an embarrassed laugh. It is not for us. She shakes her head. Behind them a knot of ficus trees tightens. The knot does not tighten. It is very hot. It is the heat only. I grow dizzy.
The man repeats himself, this time looking right at us, and the couple laughs together. Suddenly my husband and I are not here. My husband and I are not here. We have been erased from a conversation about us. And just as suddenly as we are erased we are reappeared by their collective, smirking gaze. The woman goes back to her phone, but the man stares at me. I see—no, feel—where the man’s eyes linger: the welts on my husband’s legs and my husband’s longish hair, then to the large bruise on my left leg, my bare shoulders and exposed shoulder blades. My husband is in a t-shirt and shorts. I am in a short, loose dress with a small purse on a long, gold chain. On a hot day, everywhere I show flesh is a fault. To this man nothing else makes sense. I know the narratives that this man believes, the narratives that are his lifelines, the stories, films, romances, the fine print of human permissions. I don’t want to generalize what he is, but the little he said about us and not to us settles any doubts I want to give.
I am angry. I know in the larger narrative I’m not there, that in this my husband and I don’t fit. My parents went through this, as a mixed couple. My husband and I have already been through this. We’ve gone through this in many places. It’s old news. It’s paint-by-the-numbers predictable. Outwardly, I am merely annoyed. Outwardly, I am particularly defiant. My insides are boiling as my husbands laughs it off and we take a photo right there and then with this man watching us. We hear him mumbling indistinct things to the woman that we cannot make out but know what they are, as we walk away, slowly, taking our time, we have that kind of time, we will take our time, we don’t need to run away. Around us the ficus trees climb away from the ground, away from humanity. I can’t catch my breath. My husband’s grip on my hand tightens. I feel welts rising on the back of my arms and legs. They never surface like those on my husband. When it happens, it happens so quickly. And we are defiant.
* * *
And yet this too is true: at dinner we tell his parents the whole story. We laugh at the stupidity, the backwardness, the obvious intolerance. And I can’t let it go. How a stranger’s few words try to remove us from love because they won’t acknowledge such possibilities. This is not new. I can’t let it go. This happens to us often. This is not new. We are laughing at the table in the secure confines of my in-laws’ home. I am defiant until I realize I’m telling the story again, telling myself this story of intolerance and exposed shoulders and public displays of affection, until I realize I’m trying to laugh the laughter meant for us, meant to displace us, and it is distorting my voice, my face.
How dare that man. How dare that man make us feel ashamed for feeling joy on a hot day. But this is not why I’m angry. I’m angry because my husband is the kind of person I can only hope to be. Because his heart is my aspiration. Because he is the kind of person who, just after our second date, carried a jug full of my urine to an early morning doctor’s appointment, who told me when I laid frightened on an examining table that he would be there for me as my husband, who has made good on everything he said, who was there holding the hand of my late uncle just before he died, who gave up all his vacation days for a year to fly down with me to the Rio Grande Valley, to help feed and care for my late uncle, a man who spent his own entire life caring for others.
The tears come. I don’t want them to. I won’t give in. I do. I feel foolish, powerless. His mother holds me. His father stares into the food at the table, patting my husband’s back. Both men get up, wring out their arms. I say to my husband: Tell them. Tell them, it happens all the time. How it happens so quickly. It’s other people’s bullshit. Not us. It’s nothing to do with us. His mother holds me. She smooths the electric blue dress I’m still wearing; it’s quite wrinkled now. She wipes my forehead and presses her own against it. She doesn’t say it will get better. I’m so tired of hate. I cannot write this enough. My husband’s legs are still covered in welts, some of which have scabs. In the morning I’m relieved that I am here, in this room with the man I love. In the morning I am awake and grateful that there are good people whose hearts are my aspiration. A good immunity is everything.
* * *
Three days of the medicinal drink, twice a day, does no good, and his mother takes us to see another doctor in Central who has an office in a high-rise building. He shares his floor with other doctors and various businesses in shipping, trading, a private car service. It is a long white hallway with a low ceiling that glows a fluorescent blue. When we arrive, the waiting room is packed, yet we don’t wait long as the nurse soon comes to collect us. Wearing a surgical mask and a white lab coat too large for his lean frame, the doctor is writing behind an enormous desk. He appears to be in his early sixties. Various degrees and awards are posted around his office: American Board of Dermatology Fellow (Harvard), Royal College of Physicians (London), Guest Professor at Jinan Medical College (Guangzhou).
My husband sits before him while his mother sits down next to me. The doctor pulls up another chair, and gestures for me to sit down beside him. He asks me something in Cantonese. I shake my head and he says: We will speak in English then. I smile and say no need, I’m not the patient. Behind the mask he says: But you’re worried and you want to understand. He tears off a new clean sheet from his pad. He begins to write and says to my husband: You’ve been bitten by fleas. You get them on the street around this time of the year. It’s very humid. Nothing to worry about. I’ll give you a shot, some pills and a cream. It will be fine.
His mother and I are dumbfounded. If it’s fleas from the street, then why don’t she and I have bites? The doctor stops writing, takes off his mask and looks at us. He says: You think one person gets cancer, another gets it? No. Fleas bit him, and he has a reaction. Maybe they do bite you. You give off no reaction. Your husband here is very allergic, tolerates the bites less than you. And you are so worried. I see it in your face. Don’t be so worried. When I see this on people, I say, wear long sleeves and long pants. No need for a tie. Just protect your arms and legs. Then he laughs, and calls the nurse in. The doctor says to my husband: Your wife, look at her, she’s so worried still. We all laugh. The doctor takes my hand, and places it in my husband’s arm, the one that the nurse is not swiping clean with a swab of alcohol. My husband gets an injection, and I hold his hand. My husband gets an injection, but I’m the one who looks away, who does not feel the pinch and puncture of skin, but the brief tensing of his hand, the strengthening of his grip, and then the release, the sweet release of pressure, that perhaps here, at least for now, a temporary intolerance has been alleviated.