My father was not a man to show anger, but to hold it in. He did the same with pain. When his mother died, he must have mentioned it at dinner. Maybe it was a month later that I snuck into his room, I can’t remember—long enough that the death of a woman I’d never met had slipped my mind. I was surprised to see her unframed photo, still propped on the dresser against a plain candle of white wax, as from a blackout kit. These were not my mother’s candles, tall and red in silver holders in a dining room copied from a catalogue. The other white candle had fallen over, and the photo—so fragile, like the bony woman in it—was askew. I righted these and left. The room reeked of shut-in sweat and unwashed sheets, a smell my mother abhorred, and one I have since come to associate with privacy. His room was a bastion of it, but his closed door kept it from the hall with surprising completeness. It is always startling how localized strong smells can be. I recall that smell from his undershirts but not his suits, his coats but not his car. If, while clutching his hand as we walked in the park, I strayed to the span of our outstretched arms, it was completely absent, but should I press my face into his slacks it grew overpowering. There was no in-between.
I preferred my father’s left hand for holding, as it was unique. A scar that predated my birth covered the back of it. The accident was never explained to my satisfaction: something about being scalded by a pan of hot oil he had unaccountably brought to the doorstep to dump out. I had rarely known him to cook, much less carry pans of hot oil through the house, but perhaps he’d learned his lesson? Safe in thick blankets at night I thrilled to the thought that his hand bore a mark like a thief’s, like a man who had done wrong. The scar was thick—at least a raised eighth of an inch—and aggressive in its edges, unkempt as if recalling the original searing splash. Its mottle ranged in color from a tan darker than his skin to flecks of keloid pallor. Best of all, it was utterly smooth to sight and touch. The reticule that maps our skin more finely than the secret writing in a microdot balked altogether at that scar. I interrogated his hand, pressed and probed as if to force study’s reward. Sometimes all we have is our need, which must be taken as a gift. I pinched the hand; he pulled away. I clutched it back.
By the time I was twelve, the scar had grown smaller—not from any trick of memory or perspective, but because scar tissue is slowly resorbed by the body. I read this somewhere: it was a normal process, and would continue. I thought then that someday, somewhere—perhaps in an airport in a distant city, for it was already clear then that my father was going to leave us—a man would hail me as his son. I imagined him serene and beaming with his new life, and this would make him as much a stranger to me as the flawless hand he extended in greeting.
Around this time, my father began to pace the hall at night between his bedroom and the bath. I lay in bed and listened to the floorboards shift, his shuffle on the carpet. Leaning over the toilet to pee, he left a handprint on the wall, which my mother begrudged him. In a rare fit of rage, he accused her of being unfeeling. Did she even have any idea how much it hurt? I learned—again belatedly, though just how much so I’m not sure—that at this time he was trying to pass a stone. It sat in pieces in his kidney where the doctors had shattered it with sound, and every day he shook out a few excruciating crumbs. Was it like the movies where convicts strolled the yard, shaking bits of tunnel from their pockets? The last thing my father did before he left was to whitewash the bathroom—shoddily, my mom pointed out with some bitterness, for his inexperience had left streaks and drips on the silver towel rack, the outlet plates, the edges of the mirror. But I have told you all this because of what happened to me in Shanghai, the reason for this story.
It was clear why the company had sent me ahead. I suppose I am Chinese—I look and speak it—though it is not how I think of myself. And the work was important, as I was encouraged to believe. That first month in Shanghai, error freighted my every move. I wanted never to have been spotted in the stores I entered on a misconception, believing from some foreign logic of categories that they might have something they didn’t. When, after two or three false starts, I’d finally found what I set out for, I wanted to be done paying so I could disappear, a fleet reflection in a closing door. I kept waiting for someone to catch me in the act. What act? The act of trying to pass. I was trying to live up to my face, and failing. I moved furtively along the sidewalks, looking down, dodging shoppers strolling three abreast, girls with one hand in a boy’s and the other making a point with a lollipop.
The sky was so constantly the gray of used suds I suspected day and night did not really exist, their cycle instead supervised by the wax and wane of electric signs. Night seemed to smoke from these neon brands, tarnishing the air. Lighted characters and animals brightened with stinging intensity until they dominated boulevards flooded by the fluorescence of stores, which grew magically more luminous until their glow spilled from cramped rooms across piled goods through open doors to bleach the colonnaded sidewalks.
The hotel was safe and clean, the furnishings familiar, of a certain Western luxury my mother sighed over in showrooms. And in this way they provided some measure of home. It is not that my mother was materialistic. She was merely sincere in her belief that if we stood in living rooms as coordinated as our neighbors’, there would be no telling us from them.
At work I knew myself as I did not the minute I was released into evening. But gradually, I began to see gaps in the great machine of the city where I could slip in unnoticed. I ventured from the hotel’s sterile comfort, if only to the newer malls at first. In the evening, the bookstores were filled with people. I went out just to be among them, shoulder to shoulder. They thronged the display tables, browsing with a holiday urgency. In coats half-shed, the fur trim of a hood riding the shoulders, they stood absorbed by the magazine racks. I borrowed purpose from their studiousness, an ersatz belonging. To legitimate my presence, I made a purchase like an offering, a penance: a notebook, a steamed bun, something I could pocket.
I was not trying to fool them, for they were oblivious to me—I was one of them, for all they knew, or not, for all they cared—I was trying to fool myself, as though by standing among them at a corner, waiting for the light to change, a small bag of some warm food swinging from my wrist, I would go back to something very much like what they, short and tall, male and female, smiling or preoccupied, were hurrying home to, in heels, in sandals, in buses, in taxis, on mopeds leaning as they rounded a corner. Then that month came to an end, and I turned thirty alone in a foreign city.
On the night of my birthday, I had decided to try dinner at a night market. Wrappers, napkin scraps blew across the alley strung with paper lanterns. The restaurants all looked the same: dingy, informal, anonymous, decked out with mismatched lawn furniture and folding tables. It was as if families had simply opened their own kitchens, in all their shabbiness, to the public. I picked a fluorescent parlor of tile fronted by a battered range—really, a parked pushcart where an aproned grandmother turned up the heat beneath a beaten wok, a cigarette limp between her lips.
A stain-encrusted stockpot, tended with one hand, on constant boil; wire baskets of noodles, soy meat, mushrooms. The hand that peeled the cutlet from the frozen stack was the same that plunged into a bowl of diced scallions to sprinkle them on soup, or carried half a papaya, or brought a bamboo steamer tray of dumplings to the waiting skillet. That hand was never still, nor its owner: the asphalt was her kitchen floor, the city gutter the drain into which she rinsed or swept. Her tools were shabby. The wok held oil thick as honey; on its sides were dark rings like a vinyl record’s. The makeshift scene staked no greater claim to permanence than the crud of habit, cooking grease on the pipes and valves.
I was almost finished with my dinner when the waitress asked if I would follow her to the family’s apartments. Perhaps I had misunderstood her? She was embarrassed, but firm in her request.
“The owner would like to see you,” she said. She could have been the daughter of the grandmother up front, and wore a kerchief over her hair. She led me in back through a beaded curtain and up a flight of cement steps of inconsistent height.
The room was dim, and cramped with the assembled family. A small shrine had been arranged atop a dresser, where beside a Buddha and wrapped oranges, smoke twisted from incense sticks to sting my eyes. And yet beneath that smell, incompletely masked, was a sour one of sweat and illness and close living. In one shadowed corner, paper streamers fluttered from a whirring fan into the light. In another, a man lay in bed with his arms on the covers pulled halfway up his chest.
“We are so happy you’re here,” said a man in the row of family members on the far side of the bed. He was balding, bowing slightly, his hands clasped before his waist. His face was kindly and familiar.
“Imagine!” cried the woman beside him, who might have been his wife. The chest of her red tracksuit bore an embroidered butterfly. “Of all the nights, of all the—”
No sooner did she step forward than she took two steps back, her hand over her mouth. The fan turned away, and back again.
“He saw you earlier,” the woman with the kerchief explained in a low voice. I started. I hadn’t realized how close to me she was. “Now he is sleeping.”
“Of course, we couldn’t have known you’d come.” The tracksuited woman cast a look around the room and saw a box of scallion crackers on a chair. Her avuncular husband put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off and picked up the crackers, holding them out to me. “Here—take this, at least.”
“I’m sorry,” I said in English. “You must have mistaken me for someone else.”
“No sorry.” The other woman, having removed her kerchief, had been worrying it in her hands. She stopped. “No mistake.”
“Come closer,” she urged, and tugged my sleeve. She couldn’t have known how much I hated that. How old ladies here, as I was leaving the bus, would grab my arm with one hand, the other pointing to their groceries expectantly, as if I were a universal son, when all they had to do was ask.
I shook her off. “There’s nothing I can do.”
The family kept their gazes lowered at the floor. The woman with the kerchief walked slowly to the bed and, taking the man’s hand, began to stroke it gently.
“Wait,” I said.
The man on the bed wore a frown of pain kept only briefly at bay, like a nearing storm. Closer now, I could see the stubble in the folds of his face was gray. His scalp through his thinning hair seemed eggshell-thin. One eyebrow was trim and normal; from the other, a single bizarrely long hair snaked out.
“Do you know where is your father?” the woman asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t heard from him for eighteen years.”
“This is your father,” she said. “He is dying.”
Gazing at him, I did not question the truth of her words, only their unfairness. I’d seen men living on the streets older than the man who lay before me. Sometimes all we have is our need, which must be taken as a gift. When she put his hand in mine, I did not pull away. The hand was not warm and full, but dry and light as a leaf. How little what I knew then seemed beside how much I wanted; how much longer I’d go on, indebted and dutiful. I passed my thumb over the back of his hand, even and unblemished.
That was when he opened his eyes.
It was a smile radiant with certainty. In that moment, the years melted away, and I saw my father: serene, unlined, and terribly familiar. He had the face of a young man about to make, in utmost confidence, the greatest mistake of his life.
“No.” I stiffened. “I don’t know this man.”