Where did all these candles come from? How can I possibly be expected to blow them all out? My wife, my children, and five grandchildren are all looking at me, waiting for me to take a breath much-too-deep for a man my age, and to put an end to this fire hazard. My son Ethan and his wife Karen are both math teachers, so I assume that it was their idea to light up all 75 candles on the cake. Seventy-five candles! You can imagine the scope of this cake, like an ocean of chocolate waves…
My wife is straight ahead of me at the other end of the table. She has the camera. Her face is a zoom lens and a blinking red light. “C’mon, deep breath,” my wife the zoom lens says. I breath in, exaggerating the effort. Everyone else around the table follows my example. Together we blow. A team effort.
Ethan and my daughter Jeannie have each come from a few states away to be here. My son Austin lives across the country, but we will be seeing him in just a week for my granddaughter’s baptism. It is good to have my family around at a time like this. What I mean is that no one should turn seventy-five alone in a bar, or alone in a basement, or alone in a park.
I am seventy-five, and I am not a bad man. I have raised three children, and they have all turned out reasonably well, all things considered. There were hard years in the beginning, and then again somewhere in the middle, but that’s the way it goes. You worry for a long time, and then you stop worrying so much; not necessarily because you’ve changed and now believe that everything turns out all right in the end, but because you just stop. Or else you die.
Ethan, as I said, is a math teacher. He and Karen teach at a boarding school, where they are also what they call “dorm parents.” Their own children are not yet of school age, and so the three little ones romp around the common rooms with adolescent boys and absorb the air of privilege through their skin. They are not bad children.
Jeannie is a librarian at the city university. She even has a master’s degree in librarian studies or some such thing. Her husband Ronald stays at home with their two children. Stays at home! What a world we live in! I may have liked to live as a young person today.
Austin owns a small business in, of all places, Austin, TX. He married Rachel, a reverend’s daughter, and somewhere along the way became much more religious than I would have liked. But he’s all right, and Rachel gave birth to their first child, Miriam, my sixth grandchild, three weeks ago.
My wife and I have been married now forty-eight years. Forty-eight years ago, my mother and father and my wife’s mother and father met in Korea and liked each other well enough and arranged for she and I to meet for a dinner date. My wife had a green card and I was a student; I took her to a chinese restaurant called The Red Dragon not 20 minutes from where we live now.
We did not like each other back then. My wife was mostly quiet and laughed too loudly for a quiet person. She made me uncomfortable. I could tell when she walked in to the restaurant and saw me waiting in the booth for her that, despite my new navy blue suit and fresh haircut, she did not like the looks of me. She asked me about my aspirations, and when I told her that I was studying to be a surgeon, she said nothing and ate more quickly. I asked her how many children she thought she might like to have, and she laughed (too loudly), said she did not think of such things. I took her home in my new olive green Dodge Dart and we said goodnight at the door of her aunt and uncle’s home. Three months later, our families arrived with gifts and traditional Korean wedding attire, and we were married.
What can I say? We did what was expected of us, that was how we lived back then.
Today is the first I’ve seen of my wife in days. She is very active, she keeps busy. I am not exactly sure what she is up to these days; in the past it’s been aerobics, volunteering at the hospital, drawing classes. I saw a brochure for tai chi on the kitchen counter the other day. She still looks young, and others tell me that she is full of – what do they say? – verve. When my children call, they ask why I don’t “get out more, like Mom.”
It has not always been like this. There was a time when I had a community gym membership, built shelving, chaperoned high school dances. Back then, she drooped and puttered and sighed heavily. At middle age, she took more pills and capsules than she does now. When she turned 50, she bought herself a twin-sized bed and slept in it – not just nighttime, but constantly, and instead of using regular blankets and sheets, she zipped herself up in a blue and yellow sleeping bag like a giant caterpillar. In those years, my wife’s face was yellow and her hands freckled, and she wore a lot of our children’s old clothes.
Today, my wife has her hair done up in a fancy twist in the back of her head. She has become one of those women who makes “gray” look “silver.” She is small and stylish and substantial and seems to enjoy these modern times.
I spend my days here in the house. In the kitchen, mostly, at a round oak table in an oak chair that rolls. I drink tea and use the bathroom often. I read. I am reading everything in English now, which is something I never thought I would be able to do. I am reading novels about love lost and found, and I am thinking about my wife, who has never loved me.
To be fair, I have not much loved her either. There were those years early on, when the kids were born, one after the other, and I thought, what is this life I have, everything a chore or thinking of someone else first, everybody needing something from me. What kind of life is this? I blamed her for everything. What else could I do? How can you blame a little child for things so large and final(this I will never understand about these Americans)? And besides, as I said, I didn’t much like her anyway. She blamed me too. We had no love and no life, and we never had enough sleep besides. So what did we do? We ate. We bought things. We got fat and our house became crowded and overdecorated. I drove an expensive car.
But here I am now, here with my wife and family, on my seventy-fifth birthday. I look at the woman across the table, the woman that I married three months after not liking her, and then… I am blinded momentarily by the camera’s flash.
Last week, I tried to talk to my wife about love. We do not sit down to dinner together, but sometimes, every so often, we both feel like a warm drink before bed. I sipped my tea while my wife scooped coffee grinds. “You should read this,” I said. I held out a library copy of The Great Gatsby that I had just finished reading that morning.
“Where did you get that?” she asked.
“Jeannie sent it to me. They have a big sale every fall and get rid of their older copies. Have you read this one?”
“You know I don’t read that kind.”
“Why don’t you try? This one is a classic romance,” I say, quoting the back cover.
“Doesn’t everyone die in that one?” she says, taking the book from my hands and examining the cover. “Yes, now I remember, I read this one in high school. Too sad. Everyone sad and alone in the end.”
Once in a while, when my wife is out doing community things around town, I go for a walk. We live on a quiet street, and the climate is mostly mild here. I have my health, for the most part, save a few aches and pains. During the time of the gym membership, I feared my death more than anything. For years, I ate oat bran and just one egg a week, I checked my heart rate and kept my movements to low-impact. I covered my exposed body parts with SPF 18, even in the winter, and carried the faint smell of coconut with me everywhere. You could say, looking at me now, some thirty years later, that I won the battle; that caution pays off; that we reap what we sow. But I myself could not say that. I have not been able to say that.
There isn’t much to my walks. For an hour, I walk away from my house, and for another hour, I walk back towards my house. You are thinking that that’s a long way, but you must remember that not everyone is young; you must imagine the world and everything in it as very slow, very small…
After the camera’s flash, I have to blink and look away for a moment, then everything moves so fast. Someone is pulling out candles, someone else has put a knife in my hand, empty dishes await the speedy delivery of chocolate cake. “Too small, Dad,” someone is saying, so I shift the knife over. “Who’s going to eat that piece?” my wife says, and I look down and see that I’ve carved out almost a quarter of the entire cake. “Me! Me!” one of the little ones is saying. I put my hand on little Ethan, Jr.’s head and I hand him the plate. “Eat it all,” I say. “You cannot leave any for leftover.”
A few days ago, my wife tells me that she has joined the community theater. They are doing “Romeo and Juliet,” and she will be gone three evenings a week.
“What part will you play?” I ask her.
“I will play the nurse,” she says.
“The language is hard,” I say to her. “Are you sure you want to start with Shakespeare?”
“What are you saying?” she says. “You are not the only one who has ever read a book in English!” She was upset with me, of course, although I didn’t mean anything by what I said; but I am used to this, I am used to misunderstanding, missing the point with her. It is our only language, really.
I have read Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I find that they are difficult. At the end of each line, I am surprised and confused, just the way I felt the time I fell asleep at the wheel for a moment and then found myself driving on a street that was familiar to me, but I didn’t know how I got there. Who guided me to safety? How did I make that right turn without consciousness? After I finish reading a line of the sonnet, I retrace my steps and then return to the beginning of the sonnet so that I can read all the way through again. At the next new line, it starts all over. I am always going back and then going forward again. This is what I was trying to say to my wife.
My grandson has finished his cake. His hands, his face, the front of his shirt, are all smeared with brown goo. His mother is not pleased with me, she knows he will be running around all day, and then ill later on, and that she will have to stay up with him until he feels better. But she does not say anything to me, because it is my birthday.
Whose hands are these that now spend their days scribbling words on napkins? These were once the hands of a capable surgeon, a man of skill, a man with a productive nature. These hands gave life and comfort. The skin is now dry and leathery, much more dead than the rest of me because of all that scrubbing. And lately, they’ve begun to quiver when I hold the pen too tightly, or grasp my teacup with just the fingertips.
On mint green cocktail napkins, I write:
Words that I like, words that I can hear inside my head as I read them, words that conjure and make my brain work.
caterwaul (something like a waterfall, but with claws)
element (it’s cold and hard, but always reliable, the sound of a “clink”)
pilgrim (“Good Pilgrim, you do wrong your hands too much… For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch” – Romeo, but with more common sense)
I keep my napkins folded up in triangles in one of the kitchen drawers. They are not hidden, just kept.
No one has said anything to my wife about her new acting endeavors, and so I assume she has not told anyone yet. I take the liberty of divulging her secret. “Everyone, listen up: my wife, your grandmother, and your mother, will now give us a preview of her critically acclaimed performance as Juliet’s nurse in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’” There is a buzz in the room. My wife glares at me.
“What’s he talking about, mom?” Jeannie says.
“Do they let Asian people do Shakespeare?” my eldest granddaughter whispers to her father.
“It’s nothing,” my wife says.
“A play – Mom, that’s excellent,” Ethan says.
“When does the show go up?” Karen asks.
“Come,” I say. “Recite some passages.”
“We’re not even rehearsing yet,” she says. I grab my copy of the play off the bookshelf and hold it out to her. Everyone urges her to read, but my wife declines. “There’s more ice cream, everyone,” she says. “Jeannie, come help with dishes. Karen, get that little one up to bed before she starts crying and upsets the other children.”
The excitement is over, and the room seems to deflate. My birthday celebration comes to an end. We all obey my wife, we go to our chores.
There are certain ways of saying things in English that I will never quite understand. The word “like” for instance, which English speakers seem to use so liberally. “It’s like, 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” I heard someone say the other day. Or, “I like tofu because it’s kind of like cheese.” In the first usage, it seems to function as a sort of verbal pause, a hesitation. We do not have this kind of pause in Korean, only perhaps the international “uhhh…” when you are unsure of what to say next. The second usage is much more forthright than the first; rather than putting off the main point of the sentence, the “like” is a declaration, an active verb, the most important thing there is to know about the speaker. In Korean, we would never say, “I like” anything, but rather, such and such is good. “Chocolate ice cream is good,” or “Going to the beach is fun.” Whether I like it or not is not so much the point as whether or not the thing is worthy of liking. The last usage is the most confusing of all: it implies an equation, but immediately turns you around to remind you that it’s not an equation. Two things are equal, but they’re not. Tofu is cheese, but it’s not cheese. In Korean, the comparison would be much less ambivalent, strictly speaking: “They are the same,” we would say. “Tofu and cheese, they are the same.”
These kinds of things I think about as I read, as I sit, as I walk.
It seems a scandalous thing that I should find myself in this place of immaterial things. I am the one who taught my children that they must work hard to earn their keep, that nothing comes to those who do nothing. A man should dream and wonder when he is young, grow wise in simple truths when he is old. What is noble about an old man and his napkins (my wife’s voice is clear like a bell in my head just now)?
She was an attractive young woman, this much is true. Petite and olive-skinned, she wore the most alluring long lace veil – it just brushed the floor behind her – on our wedding day. During those early years, when we took to buying nice things for ourselves, she wore long-skirted party dresses, narrow all the way to the ankles and snug around the hips, with little matching jackets that covered her arms and fell just above her waist. I wore argyle vests and wing-tipped shoes, and I slicked my hair back like Humphrey Bogart. Even though I knew that we were nothing but a “show couple,” I knew that the other men noticed my wife when she entered a room, and I enjoyed that, I savored it. Those were the few moments when I felt like being married to her counted for something, that our marriage actually mattered in some, albeit foolish, way.
Have I loved her? You may as well ask have I loved anyone, anything. The answer is the same: I cannot say for sure. I have loved pieces of things, moments, a certain smooth curve on a woman’s body (both hers and others), the sound of my children’s laughter before they were old enough to doubt me, words more than sentences. What would it mean – what great chasm in the history of my life would be bridged – if I were to love something, someone, whole?
The house is quiet. The children have all gone to sleep, spread out and tucked in in homemade beds across the living room floor. Even little Ethan, Jr. has surrendered to his sweet dreams. I hear a soft moan coming from the guest room, and I listen carefully until I am sure that it is Karen. The sounds of love. I am glad for Ethan, I am proud of him at this moment, he has done well for himself and his family, better than I could have ever hoped, better than his father, whose wife is now once again a caterpillar, sleeping alone in a twin bed.
Sunday morning, and I am up before dawn. At certain times of the year, the shadow of the moon lingers in the dim and colorless morning sky, and then for a moment, as darkness exchanges for daylight, sun and moon rule together, like King and Queen, over a rose-colored world; at that moment, we are all poets (we who are awake), alone and intimate with our fair sovereigns, regal ceremony, sacred changing of the guard. Today, only clouds. From upstairs, I hear footsteps and an occasional creaking, the sound of a once-new house turning old. My tea is ready, the color of bark, and I go to my rolling oak chair. It is gone. Only the high-backed fabric chairs that my wife picked out five years ago to replace the other oak rollers. The footsteps are now in the kitchen. It is my wife.
“Where is my chair?” I ask her, startled by the piercing echo of my own sharpness.
“Good morning to you, too.” She is still in her bathrobe, hair not yet brushed, her face full of sleep. “The armrests were shaky, I took it to get repaired.” She pours water into the coffee maker and yawns a much-too-loud yawn. I resign to one of the high-backed chairs and hold my teacup with both hands. “It’s cold this morning.”
“Fall is coming.”
“Maybe we can get Ethan to start bagging up the leaves.”
“There’s hardly any yet; not for at least a month.”
“Just to get started. That boy down the street charges us too much.”
“Ethan is on vacation. He came for the party, not to clean the yard.” I sip my tea. The light is grayish purple coming through the clouds into our kitchen.
“What about the baptism?” I ask.
“What about it?”
“With your play, and the rehearsals. Did you forget we said we’d go for the whole week?”
“No, I think it will be all right. There are full acts where the nurse has no lines. They will rehearse without me.”
Here we are. The sun is coming up, much too slowly. We wait for it to save us, to fill the room with something, anything. My wife shudders visibly. “You’re right,” she says. “It’s cold.” She pours a cup of coffee and holds it with both hands close to her face. The purple light is richer now, a foggy glow that has found its purpose. She stands by the window, her silver hair is everything about her, like all her youth and mine. She closes her eyes and breathes in deeply. I think: don’t move, hold that breath, just hold it, forever…
A busy breakfast, the smell of bacon and eggs and toast drifts all through the house, then a bustle of dishwashing, packing up of things, getting diapers changed. The house begins to empty, and we say our good-byes. We’ll try to make it sometime in the spring. Maybe you can spend a week with us in the summer. At any rate, we’ll see you at Christmas. Take it easy. Drive safely. The families drive away in their family cars. My wife follows them halfway down the street, waving her hands, patting the cars on the back. We both stand, I on the front porch, she on the street, watching our lives disappear into the distance…
Friday evening. I’ve just gotten off the phone with Austin, passed on vital information – flight number, arrival time, etc. In return, Austin has informed me that the weather is warm and dry, but pack a sweater for evenings. Little Miriam is well, they are all excited about the blessed event. I am putting together outfits, gathering travel cases, camera, the right shoes. My wife is at rehearsal, the third of the week, and as far as I know, she has not packed her things. We leave for Austin early, early, and she usually does not return from rehearsal until late. I look around in her closet – rows of shoes and racks of dresses, skirts, blouses. Maroon seems to be a favorite color of hers, something I never realized before, but now that I think about it, yes, she does wear maroon quite often. I know nothing of what my wife would pack for a week-long trip to see her son’s family.
I am putting on shoes and a coat and looking for car keys. I drive so rarely that I cannot remember where I’ve put them. Ah, here they are, by the mail. I will drive to the community center and seek out my wife. Perhaps she has a moment in between scenes to write me a list, and I will put her things together. Perhaps before I let her see me, I will sneak a peak at the rehearsal, listen to my wife recite Shakespeare…
Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.
In the car, I imagine my wife, playing the sly and romantic nurse. I imagine her giddiness at Juliet’s clandestine acts, her complicity in scandal for the sake of love.
…hie you hence to Friar Lawrence’ cell;
There stays a husband to make you a wife.
Now comes the wanton blood up in your cheeks:
They’ll be in scarlet straight at any news.
Hie you to church; I must another way,
To fetch a ladder, by which your love
Must climb a bird’s nest soon when it is dark.
I am the drudge, and toil in your delight;
But you shall bear the burden soon at night.
Go; I’ll to dinner; hie you to the cell.
I pull in to the parking lot of the center and look for my wife’s car, a dark red Volkswagen. The space next to it is empty, so I pull in beside. Dark red. I step quickly and lightly, like a man who knows something. At the information desk, a sleepy teen points me to the main hall. I walk down the long corridor, and as I approach the double doors at the end, I hear voices, loud, slow, over-pronounced, the sounds of drama and emotion. I stand by the open door and poke my head inside. The actors are wearing street clothes and holding scripts in their hands. I find myself disappointed. They are rehearsing a scene from the beginning part of the play, an exchange between Romeo and his kinsman. Romeo is tall and thin, blond hair flopping over his face, very young as far as I can tell from where I am standing.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything, of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this!
“Can I help you?” I start. A man with a clipboard, the director, I assume, is talking to me. He is clearly irritated.
“I am sorry. I am looking for my wife, the Nurse. Is she here anywhere?”
“There’s a backstage door on the other side.” He waves his clipboard in no particular direction, then turns back towards the stage. “Okay Romeo, let’s start again.”
I backtrack down the corridor and around to the other side of the main hall. I find the door; there is a yellow piece of paper taped to it, a bit crooked, that says: ACTORS ONLY. I knock softly. A short, stout woman with a happy face answers. “Yes?”
“I am looking for my wife. She is playing the nurse.” The woman’s face turns from happy to concerned.
“The Nurse? In Romeo and Juliet?” I nod, eagerly.
“I am sorry sir, there must be some mistake. I am playing the Nurse in the production.” The woman pauses, her palm flat to her chest, allows me a moment to understand her. “Are you sure you’re at the right place?”
“Are there any other community productions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ going on?”
“No, not that I know of. I’m sorry.” She seems genuinely apologetic. I tell her my wife’s name, and she shakes her head, again, apologetic. I describe her as best as I can, using my hands awkwardly to indicate size. The woman steps back from the door and looks over her shoulder. “Is that her over there?” Across the room, I see her, my wife’s back. She sits at a large table, bent over and concentrating on something. I squint and realize that she is working at a sewing machine. “She’s wonderful,” the woman, the Nurse, says. “She keeps a copy of the script at her table and follows along. She seems to want to get the costumes just right. I don’t think Jack, our director, appreciates her much. Barely grunts at her when he sees her.” My wife turns a page. Her lips are moving, forming shapes that match the muffled voices coming from the other side of the curtain. She does not see me. “That’s her, isn’t it? Sir?”
“What? No, I’m sorry, no. I thought it might be, but it’s not. Thank you. Thank you, anyway.” The woman smiles and furrows her brow, then turns, closing the door behind her. I take slow, long steps back down the corridor.
There is a fresh chill in the air, announcing itself, calling attention. This I know because I am driving home at snail’s pace with all the windows down. There is so much to see, even in the dark, even in this shapeless and pacific town that I’ve lived in for almost 50 years.
Heavy lightness. Well-seeming forms.
I drive slowly, my foot not even pressing on the accelerator, this car nothing but a giant creature of useless movement, from here to there and back again. I am a prisoner of this creature, it carries me home, dead weight.
Here we are. Vanity. Brawling. Misshapen. Where are my napkins when I need them?
I will wait for my wife at home. I will wait for her to come, to park her maroon car in the driveway, hang her coat. She will come in and see me sitting at the oak table in my rolling oak chair, and she will ask me what is wrong, why do I have that strange look on my face.
I will talk to my wife.
I will tell her nothing. I will tell her everything. I will say that I have been thinking about it, and maybe we shouldn’t go to Austin, maybe we can cancel our plans and call the children in the morning, let them know that we are going to take some time to rest this week. She will ask me why would we do that, don’t be ridiculous, and I will look up at her from my chair, look long and deep. I will find the shape of her eyes, and I will tell her that I would like to know her. She will hear me, my wife, she will see me; and at that moment, we will both feel something – something new, something unfamiliar, something like love.
The story was originally published in Sonora Review, 2001.