Dignity

Suzen Rita Chang

I didn’t come here on a boat. I didn’t get smuggled here like some exotic bird with my limbs folded and shriveled in the hold of a cargo ship. When I was eighteen, I bought a plane ticket with money I’d been saving since I was twelve, made up a story about visiting relatives in Los Angeles, got off the plane at LAX, and never used the return trip. I found a job washing dishes in a Chinatown restaurant and moved in with a few girls like me. One of them died five months later of “accidental poisoning” when she mistook the drain cleaner for the mouthwash, or at least that’s what the coroner said. What I wanted to know was why she’d felt she would find the mouthwash under the sink instead of in the medicine cabinet and why she’d then gone ahead and swallowed it, but some explanations were more comfortable than others, so the girls who knew her grieved for her accidental poisoning and moved on.

When I was twenty-two, I met a man, a fellow plane-jumper from Beijing. He had golden skin molded over cheekbones of architectural symmetry. Fifteen years we were together, though we never married because we were both afraid that doing so would expose our illegal status. Fifteen years he worked as a line cook in a restaurant while I waited tables. At night we would lie together and I would hold his hands up to the streetlights, tracing the oil burns that spotted his skin like continents on a map. Then one day he and his friend had an idea to open a restaurant in Beijing in the style of an old-fashioned American diner. They left with my blessings, until one day he wrote me to say he’d met someone else there, a twenty-five-year-old. I quit my restaurant job the next day because I didn’t want anyone’s pity.

A few years ago I met Henry. I’d been working as a shampoo girl in a barbershop and he came in for a flattop. He looked like every movie depiction of an American general that I’d ever seen—mid-fifties, mostly gray, broad-shouldered, not bad to look at. As I sluiced his hair with warm, needly water, he asked me where I was from and how old I was. I mewed that I was from Quanzhou, and that a lady never revealed her true age. “Ah, Quanzhou,” he said. “I was there once for business ten years ago. Such a beautiful place. Almost mystical.” He left a large tip and then called the shop a few days later to ask me out. There was no reason not to—who else was going to want me, at almost forty, with no citizenship and no money? Henry seemed like an upright man, a divorcé with an adult daughter he’d put through law school. We’ve been together since and he still opens doors for me and helps me with my coat, which my ex never did.

I’m meeting Henry’s daughter today. She is flying in from Switzerland, where she has been working for some nonprofit group. Henry is gliding about the house, adjusting his tie as intently and delicately as a child setting a star on top of the Christmas tree for the first time. He says it’ll be nice to have his two girls under one roof. He then looks at me and says, “Are you going to wear that? Why don’t you wear that sweater I got you instead?” I nod and slip into the bedroom to change.

As soon as I set foot inside the slow-cooker heat of the airport building, I begin to feel nausea roil in me. I’ve been feeling queasy for a few weeks now, probably as a result of Grace’s upcoming visit. It’s no secret that Henry asks his daughter’s opinion on almost everything, and I imagine after this visit he will ask her about me. The two of us wait for her in the baggage claim, next to a poster from China’s tourism bureau advertising for the Olympics. A woman in a qi-pao holds a torch aloft. Under her, the caption reads, “A New Era for an Ancient City.” She smiles broadly, showing off dimples so deep it’s as though someone had gone in with a needle and thread and gathered her skin into that expression.

Americans these days say a lot of things about the beauty of China, its history, culture, and art. But it is dirt poor. Shit poor. I started working when I was twelve at a factory that made Gucci handbags, except all the other girls and I thought it was pronounced Gu-Si, and in LA it sometimes seems as if all the women have one, some of them no older than we were at the time, some of them carrying dogs around in their bags. At first I wanted to scratch out their eyes, leave red crescent moons with my fingernails in their white flesh. Then I looked more carefully at them, the middle-aged women, emerging from cosmetic surgery clinics looking swollen and numb, the twenty-year-olds, coloring their bodies bronze and red and blond and huffing on the treadmills in the health club windows, running from time. And I realized there was no such thing as dignity; everyone was desperate.

Do I love Henry? Maybe. I know I miss him when he’s away, and the bed sags in a way that feels wrong, like the earth is tilted off its axis. I know that unlike some men I’ve heard about, he doesn’t allot me pittances of money in exchange for favors like a coin-operated horse at the supermarket. Giddy up. Another ride. I know that sometimes when we go hiking in the Sierra Madre and we’re standing right at the edge, I think how easy it would be to just push, and the thought makes me feel both terrified and alive.

We pick Grace up at the airport. She is an homage to her namesake, with her light blond hair brushed back and wound inward like a swaddled baby, her face tilted up as if to catch the sun. The way heads turn when she is in public—she’s the kind of woman men savor in glimpses, with a fervor that borders on faith. I believe that most women pray to be like her, and failing that, they pray to be lusted after. But in that moment, all I’m praying for is to not look like their housemaid.

C’est un plaisir,” I say to her, a phrase I learned from Henry.

She smiles. “A pleasure, Jo. I’ve been waiting to meet you for a while.”

“Yes, your father says you are very beautiful and he is right.”

“Oh, don’t listen to him,” she says, and then turns to her father to talk about the flight.

For dinner, we go to one of Henry’s favorite Thai restaurants. The hostess shows us in and seats us, and as I pass her she catches my eye to give me a look, as if to say, “I know what you are.” Next to me, Henry is asking Grace about her plans for Thanksgiving. Grace replies that she will be spending it with her mother. Henry scoffs and says, “Come on, why does she get you for two Thanksgivings in a row?”

“It’s the first time she and Tim are celebrating Thanksgiving together since the wedding. Tim’s daughter is going to be flying in from Penn State, and they wanted me to be there to, you know, make them feel like a family.”

“What, so now I have to get married just to get you to spend some time with me?”

I feel my jaw tighten. Grace glances at me, looks down, and takes a sip from her wine. Henry picks up his menu and begins to read the items with feigned interest.

After dinner I leave the two of them to talk in the den, but then I rejoin and bring them some coffee out of fear of seeming aloof. I ask if they would like anything to eat, to which Henry replies, “Yeah, some of those almond cookies you make would be great.” Grace turns to her father with dismay on her face, but he is looking at a stain on his shirt; she immediately volunteers to help me in the kitchen, against my protest. We end up mixing cooking dough side by side, and she says to me, “I’m sorry about my dad. He was the only son in his family growing up, and his mother went out of her way to make him happy.”

“Oh, no, it is not a problem. I like cooking.”

“Yeah, but I know how he can be. It can’t be easy to deal with.”

“It is not a problem,” I repeat.

“I would have trouble being as patient as you. You must really care about him to put up with all this.”

“Your father is a good man,” I say. “I love him very much.”

She says nothing, but I can feel her eyes on the side of my face. The two of us roll the dough into balls and then flatten them out between our palms until they are the size of sand dollars, and I suddenly get this image of a mother and daughter at the beach, collecting disks together. There is something so perfectly flawed about the moment that it makes me want to cry. Many years ago, I discovered I was pregnant and told my ex-lover. We couldn’t keep the baby, of course; we were too poor and could barely make the rent each month. So we took a bus together to the clinic and he sat in the waiting room until I came out. Afterward, because I didn’t want to go home, we ended up past the Ventura on a bluff in the hills. We sat in the dust, gazing out over the city at the headlights of a million cars coursing everywhere like volcanic streams. It felt as though we had discovered a hole in the world and were staring straight into it.

Henry and Grace stay up late into the night talking. I lie in bed, drifting in and out of dream. At one point I think I hear them arguing: Grace says something, and Henry responds, “Well, what if I do?” Then Grace says, “This is a joke. You know very well that you’re just stringing her along because you have something she wants—no, no, don’t act like you don’t, you know exactly what she wants—and don’t even get me started on the way you treat her. I mean, this is just wrong on so many levels.”

A few hours later, I wake up feeling thirsty. Henry is sound asleep next to me, and I wonder if maybe I imagined the whole thing. I head down to the kitchen, but as I pass by the den, I stop. Nothing is out of the ordinary, of course. The cups and trays are exactly where I left them; Henry’s seat on the sofa still has his imprint. But there is a strange stillness in the room, just a quality of the air, a sense of imminence, as if there were a ghost nearby, a secret whispered to no one in particular and then left hanging around to dry. I quickly fill my cup and go back to the bedroom.

The remainder of Grace’s stay in LA is uneventful, just day trips and dinner. I cook Chinese dishes a few times at Henry’s request, and each time Grace plants herself right by me in the kitchen, helping out, asking about ingredients or cooking techniques. None of us ever mentions the phantom conversation.

A couple of days after she leaves, I sit next to Henry on the couch while he’s watching the news, even though I’m not particularly interested in the report and most of the commentary is meaningless to me. I ask him if he knows Tim well. He shrugs and says that his ex-wife is allowed to make whatever bad decisions she wants.

I let him know it’s nice that she and Tim are both willing to take a second chance at marriage—that it’s important, as people get older, to have a companion to help take care of them.

“That’s bull,” he says. “Maybe if people were still living on farms in the middle of nowhere, but not in LA. Sometimes I wish there weren’t so many people around.”

I leave him alone to watch his TV. I’ve brought up the issue of marriage with him before but the conversations didn’t get too far, though he never seemed opposed to it. I assumed it was a matter of waiting—his divorce had been a difficult one, and I knew well how much time such things could rip from you. But it wasn’t until Grace’s visit that I really began to wonder.

After dinner, as I’m putting the dishes away, he slides his hand under the bottom of my shirt and tunnels his arm all the way up my spine to massage the base of my neck, his sign that he wants sex. “I am sick,” I tell him, making a show of clutching at my own stomach, until he sighs and walks away.

I wake up actually feeling a little nauseated—the gods’ way of punishing me for lying, I suppose. The myths of China are full of plots about the treachery of women. Bai, a white snake demon, meditates for centuries until she is able to take on human form. As a woman, she falls in love with a young scholar named Xian and marries him, but one day a monk walking by their home detects the presence of a demon inside. He works his magic, turning Bai back to her snake form. Xian dies of fright upon seeing Bai like that and the monk traps Bai forever at the bottom of a deep well. The end.

Be truthful and don’t overstep your bounds, the story tells women.

Always assume your woman is lying to you, the story tells men.

At work things are quiet. Business has declined as more and more barbershops have sprung up around Chinatown, some offering tea and back-and-shoulder massages along with haircuts, some offering other types of massages by satin-palmed young women, in backrooms that smell like stale chlorine and incense. We drag out a few chairs and sit under the awning of the store, gossiping about clients and testing out the sun as if it were a pool of water, creeping our toes into the light to feel its warmth. “You know Melody, that woman who liked to walk around with her furs?” Julia says. “I saw her when I was at the doctor’s last week. She was crying and she had thrush all over the insides of her mouth.”

“What’s that?” Tina, one of the new girls, asks.

Julia, who was a nurse in Chengdu before she moved to the States, leans in and whispers, “Fungus. From AIDS,” and we all suck air in through our teeth at the same time.

“Was it her ex-boyfriend?” I ask.

“Who knows. She gets around enough.”

“Is she with anyone right now?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. She was there alone.”

There is a long moment of silence. I watch a boy, no older than seventeen, walking across the street. His right leg is a stump, and he struggles along on his crutches. One of his crutches slips on something and he almost falls, but when another pedestrian tries to steady him, he glares venomously at him. “Fuck off,” he says. The Good Samaritan puts up his palms and walks away. Maybe the boy is a castoff from one of the Asian gangs around here. The initiations usually consist of jobs. If you succeed at the jobs, you get in. If you don’t, then well, any of a number of things can happen. The things he must have done to survive.

“If you ask me,” Julia says. “Melody’s problem is that she has no self-respect. She did pretty much whatever men wanted, all for her stupid furs.”

“Julia,” I say, shaking my head.

“I’m not saying she deserves to die of AIDS. I’m just saying that if she doesn’t respect herself, no man is going to either. Psychologists say that men separate women into two categories: virgins and whores. But you get to choose, you know what I mean? If you let them treat you one way, they’ll start to see you that way.”

I shrug. “It’s always more complicated than it looks.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Julia open her mouth as if to say something, but she doesn’t, thankfully. I feel a sudden lethargy, there on the sidewalk in the light of the sun, and I’m on the brink of sleep when Tina’s voice sounds next to me, “Hi, Mr. Lee, back for another trim?” We shuffle back into the store with our chairs. The lights and fans go back on, the shampoo station is prepared, and the entire space rustles into life again like a small animal coming out of hibernation.

I am aware my period is late. I am aware of it in the way some survivors of major catastrophes have described. They were aware of the danger coming, but it didn’t quite make sense, the overturned semi skidding toward their car, the wall of seawater advancing toward them, so they stayed still and they watched. It occurred to me a few days ago I might be pregnant, but Henry and I are almost always careful and my period had never been the most regular and I was so stressed by Grace’s visit. It didn’t make sense, until I woke up this morning feeling sick again and the image of the seawater finally resolved itself in my vision.

I call into work to say I won’t be coming in because of a burst pipe. As soon as Henry is gone for work, I set out for the pharmacy. I skip the first one I see, then the second one, then the third, until I’m a few miles away from the house, just in case the cashiers know him. At the store, I buy a test kit and lock myself in the bathroom. Pregnant. One of the clerks bangs on the door to ask me if I’m OK.

My lower abdomen gurgles when I lay my hand on it as if to confirm the test results, even though it’s still too early for the baby to be doing anything. Then, as I’m staring at the fuzzy blue line on the stick, a thought comes to me that almost makes me shake. This is my last chance. At forty-five, this is my last chance, and I can’t let it go again. But Henry has made it very clear he does not want another child. That was one of the first things he’d established in our relationship, one afternoon as we were shopping together. I was going on about the baby shoes and Onesies in the store, when he turned to me and said without a hint of humor, “Yes, kids are cute, but they’re a hell of a lot of work. I love my daughter, but I don’t want to do it again.”

That night, I prepare Henry’s favorite dishes for dinner. They’re all laid out as he walks in; he smiles hesitantly at the spread and I begin to wonder if I maybe overdid it. During dinner, we talk about the weather, the wildfires that will inevitably come this summer, the new hires at his company, their arrogance. “These kids think that just because they have an MBA, they know everything there is to know,” he says. “Grace’s last boyfriend was just like them. Sunk half his savings into a bad investment and then tried to borrow from her. Thank God she ditched him.”

“It is hard for women,” I say.

“It’s hard for everyone,” he says, swirling the wine in his cup and looking for sediments.

“Do you want Grace to marry? Have babies?”

“Of course I do,” Henry says, “if she finds someone good. But she’s young and all of that makes sense for her.”

“It will be nice if Grace marries. There is a Chinese saying, ‘A caring wife and obedient children are a man’s greatest treasure.’ Her husband will be very lucky.”

Henry nods. “Hey, I was thinking about driving up north to do some hiking this weekend. We can stay at that B&B you like, maybe get a massage together. How’s that sound?”

“Good,” I say, trying to catch his eye.

“Good,” he says, finishing his wine.

I stand up and begin to clear the table. As I stand over him, practically snatching his wine glass from his hand, I can’t resist saying to him, “You are a good man, Henry. You deserve a full life.” But his face doesn’t even twitch, as if he were not made of muscle and blood but something lighter and colder, like snowflakes or gold dust. In that moment he feels more like a stranger to me than ever before, and it revolts me to think I’ve let this stranger touch me, let him occupy the interstices of my body, the cleft between my shoulder blades, between my fingers and my toes. Yet here I am, living in his house, carrying his child, and if I get my way, I will be living in his house raising his child for many years to come. “What a whore you are,” I say to myself as I carry the dishes to the kitchen. “What a shameless whore.”

It feels as though the baby is tripling in size on a daily basis, though I’m fairly certain nothing has changed on the outside. I don’t let Henry touch me these days. He is frustrated, but he is still a gentleman, so he just sighs and rolls out of bed to go watch TV or pour himself a drink. We never did drive out to the Sierra Madre; he’d approached me to say something had “come up” at work and I’d told him that the owner of the barbershop had denied me the vacation days. We nodded at each other too eagerly, used too many words to say “it’s OK,” and stayed out of each other’s way for the rest of the week.

A few days ago, while I was at work listening to Tina and Julia bicker about celebrity romances, I had a realization about the roommate of mine who’d died from “accidental poisoning.” It became clear to me, though I had no proof at all, that she had found out she was pregnant and then in her own ignorant way had tried to abort the baby. Who was the father, I wondered. Did he know she was pregnant? Did he encourage her to get rid of the child?

“Hey Julia,” I said. “You know about vitamins, right?”

“Enough. Why?”

“I was just wondering, what’s good for strengthening the body?”

“What?”

“You know, to boost the immune system, or just for general health.”

Julia turned to face me. She squinted at my face for a long time, and then at my torso, her eyes lingering on the drawstrings of my sweatpants. “Oh my God,” she said. “You’re pregnant.”

I nodded. Tina immediately congratulated me, but Julia stayed quiet. “Does he know?” she asked me.

I shook my head. Then I started to cry. Julia walked up to me and pulled me in for a hug. “Don’t tell anyone, please,” I kept saying to her. She promised me she wouldn’t, though who really knows with her.

“Take care of yourself, OK?” she said. “The first few months are the most dangerous. A lot of things can go wrong. Take care of yourself.”

After my roommate died, we chipped together whatever money we could scrounge up and buried her in one of the low-cost cemeteries outside of LA. I visited the cemetery only once: I got as far as her row but couldn’t bring myself to go to her grave. Instead, I wandered around, noted the names on the stones, and made up stories about their lives. Teresa Ruiz: She ran a food stand in East LA that sold tortas with pork or shredded beef. Her fingertips always smelled like smoke and poblano peppers, but one day she caught a cold from staying out in the rain and then the cold turned into pneumonia. Matthew Warner: An old man, maybe, a veteran with a wife but no kids. When his wife died, he began to give away all of his material belongings except for his wedding ring. “How are you?” he would say to passersby. “Have some dinner china.” At the end of the section was a freshly dug grave. I stood over it doing nothing for what must have been ten, fifteen minutes, gazing at the overturned earth. The dirt was black and the plot was deeper than I would have guessed, and for a second I felt an incredible urge to jump in and begin digging, half-believing that if I dug hard enough, I could create a passageway back to China, back to its predictable poverty.

How many people like me disappear into these graves and then are forgotten forever? How many of us disappear into massage dens and gangs, into the back of take-out restaurants and Laundromats? Before I quit my job at that restaurant so many years ago, a friend, Lan, had pulled me aside. She was older, and in my first years in the country, she’d taught me the rules: how to flirt, how to simper, and how to fight. “Nobody’s keeping records,” she said, gripping my arm. “Nobody cares. There’s no victory in saving face.” But I quit anyway and we began to see each other less often, until one day she just stopped—stopped returning my calls, stopped going into work. There were rumors about what might have happened, all dry talk in the end, but for a long time afterward I kept an old holiday card she had given me, if only as proof that she ever existed. What is the crime, then, in misleading Henry about my feelings for him, pressuring him to marry and help raise my child, when I have so much to lose and he so little?

“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” Julia said as I was leaving work today. She waved a hairbrush at me as though conducting a symphony. “I’m serious, Jo. Just be very nice to him for the next few weeks. Don’t talk about marriage, don’t nag him. Men like to think things were their idea.”

So for the past few hours, I’ve been cooking dinner and picking up clothes and old newspapers lying around the house. I greet Henry at the door and make no mention of marriage or children either during dinner or after. Henry is suspicious at first but eventually relaxes into our routine chitchat. I ask him about the people at work, whether he thinks we’ll be able to take a vacation this year to Napa as he has been meaning to do. “I could use a vacation soon,” he says. “Bob at work has been talking nonstop about this winery he ‘discovered’ there. Now I don’t know if you remember Bob from the Christmas party, but he was the one who arrived, shall we say, pre-moistened?”

“Oh, Santa Claus?” I ask.

“Yep, him. Anyway, how much do you want to bet he didn’t discover anything but just passed out drunk halfway through his trip and dreamed that he did?”

I laugh and reach out to stroke his forehead. He pushes his head into my touch, almost like a cat, and suddenly I feel a rush of affection for him, this dumb thing, who just wants to be stroked and to keep his life as simple as it was before womankind descended upon him with its equivocations and coyly guarded secrets. He slides his hand under my shirt, up my back, and I find myself lying back onto the couch. But then he begins to settle more of his weight on me and I panic, as if the baby might burst like a piece of overripe fruit. “No, stop,” I say between his kisses. I punctuate the last word with a shove.

“Damn it, Jo!” he says, sitting up. “What the hell is going on?”

“Sorry, sorry. I do not feel good.”

“It’s been a month. What the hell kind of stomach bug do you have that you can be sick for a month? I’m not stupid.”

I look at him, staring pathetically at his own hands with his chin in his chest, a dumb, simple thing again. And then, because there is nothing else left to do, I take one of those hands and place it on my belly. “I am pregnant,” I say.

He doesn’t yell, though I didn’t expect he would, but he also doesn’t smile, though I was hoping he might. He rubs his thumb gently over the skin there. “How far along are you?” he asks.

“Two months.”

“That makes sense.”

We sit quietly, stiffly, side by side on the couch. He gets up, goes to the kitchen and brings me a glass of water. This is maybe the fifth time since we started dating that he has fetched me something instead of the other way around. I can’t tell if it’s pity.

“I want the baby,” I say.

“I know.” He pulls me to his shoulder.

“Why do you not want to marry me?” I ask. “Why do you not want a baby with me?” But he doesn’t answer, and I’m too tired to push any further. I start to fall asleep on his shoulder to the sound of the cars outside, and in my mind I see myself at twenty-five, sitting in that patch of dirt in the Hollywood Hills, staring into the hole in the world. I’ve been here before, I think before fading out.

The next morning Henry’s already gone for work when I wake up. On the dining room table, there is a plate of apple slices, along with some ginger tea. The apples are turning brown at the edges like a piece of paper held to a flame. Under the thermos is a note:

I know you want to keep the baby. I just don’t see myself spending another twenty years of my life raising a kid. But I really care about you and I want us to find a good compromise. We’ve been dancing around the issue of marriage for a bit now, so why don’t we just do it? I will marry you, if you agree to go to the doctor. I will, of course, handle all costs.

There are a couple of scratched-out lines I can’t make out, and then he writes:

Maybe you’re worried that I will make you get the procedure and then I won’t marry you. I assure you, and you know very well, that I am a man of my word.

That is true. I don’t doubt for a second that if I were to end the pregnancy, then he and I would marry within the year. My citizenship would be official by the end of the following year. I could travel finally, maybe go back to school. I could stop feeling panicked around police officers, as if something about me were inherently alien, inherently wrong—but at what cost?

I go into the bedroom, dig out my suitcase, and begin folding my clothes. After, I sit down on the suitcase in the middle of the house, just listening to the hollow quiet in the room and the blaring of horns outside. It’s nowhere near rush hour but there are still so many cars on the freeways, flowing in and out of the city, and suddenly I understand that LA is fed by that flow, nourished by it, and that if it were ever to stop, this city would fall asleep and then gradually erode away. I look around the living room, at Henry’s permanent imprint on the couch, at the various knickknacks I have added to his house over the years: picture frames, animal figurines, cheap little vases holding plastic roses. He called them junk, but he also never threw them away. They make the room look frantic. They make it look like home.

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