by Flora Qian
“On the late afternoon of their third day in Siem Reap, Dan and Hana hike up the steps leading to Phnom Bakheng, where the sun sets on the top of the mountain over the flat expanse of the treeline, and the ancient Hindu temple is enveloped in a golden glow. Both of them put on beige straw hats that they have bought from local children gathered near the temples of Angkor Wat, selling tourist books, postcards, and other souvenirs – the two of them look like newlyweds taking a stroll together in an exotic country for the first time.”
“I didn’t know that you went to Cambodia!” I tell Dad. I leaf through the beginning of his story and turn to my father – sipping coffee and working on his music blog, back hunched like The Thinker. My question seems to stop him typing for a while, or maybe he is just figuring out a special word to solve the jigsaw puzzle in his head. My dad has taken up the new tech-age hobby of blogging since my boyfriend Jonathan bought him a Macbook the last time he visited us in Tainan in early summer. It was an expensive gift, and I knew that if Jonathan could prepare some presentation slides and make a speech to win my father’s heart, he would. My father dislikes the fact that my boyfriend speaks a different language, and he made a comment over dinner one day, while Jonathan was wolfing down the home-made braised pork rice Dad had prepared. “Massey is obsessed with learning Cantonese these days – I cannot understand a bit – it sounds like a bird language to us.” He looked at my mom, who put on an awkward smile, totally unaware of his dry humor and hinted at him not to talk too much while our guest was eating. My father has still not come to accept the fact that I’m leaving our quiet old town in southern Taiwan, and moving to Hong Kong with Jonathan in a month.
It may be too early to think about tying the knot at the age of 22, with a boyfriend only two years my senior and who just got his first promotion in the workplace. But Jonathan is the guy I’ve had a long-distance relationship with for three years, and well, ain’t I just the luckiest girl in the world to marry the first boy I ever loved!
“I’m not one of those guys who only want to have fun,” he told me two months after we’d been dating. He took me to a Catholic church in my hometown on Christmas Eve. When we walked outside after the midnight Mass, chilly wind greeted us and behind the doors some people were still singing the last song with the choir. He gave me a new pair of thick gloves. “Put them on in case you get cold,” he said with a twinkle in his black eyes.
There was something in one of the gloves and when I pulled my hands out again under the street lamps, a platinum ring rested on my finger. “I’ll change it to diamond when you move to Hong Kong to be with me – by that time I’ll be able to afford our own place.”
My mom spotted the ring the next morning. “Come and see what Massey’s got on her hand – it must have cost him a fortune!” She always makes a fuss of everything and sometimes I cannot stand her high-pitched voice and practical way of analyzing everything – if the world we see differs from eye to eye, my mom is apparently seeing fewer colors than Dad and I. My father is a professor and writer, and my mother is only a dentist – I never found fixing holes in people’s teeth very intellectual. Of course, Mom was earning way more than Dad at that time, and she was from a wealthier family – her father was a prestigious eye doctor back in the day. Maybe that’s why my father had married her – even though he could have chosen a woman who would’ve made a better companion in terms of his capacity to connect and communicate.
“Don’t worry. It’s just kids’ fashion these days.” Dad smiled but his eyes didn’t stop examining the ring. “Jonathan is just an exchange student, isn’t he? Someday she’ll grow out of the infatuation.”
I never did, and now, after three years of phone calls and summer breaks together, I’m ready to move to a new city with surrounding islands, where people walk faster and their accent sounds like seagulls to newcomers.
I resigned from my part-time job two months ago so suddenly I have a lot of free time to sniff around in my father’s study looking for books and stories he wrote decades ago. Most of the stories are set in Japan – my father lived in Osaka as a PhD student for seven years before marrying my mom, and there ended his worldly travels and casual dating life. He was tall and masculine, and more athletically built back in his thirties and forties – I could easily imagine him having dozens of girlfriends over the years, even though now his white eyebrows grow really long and I have to help him trim them from time to time or he’d look like one of those crazy-eyebrowed Rakan statues in Hindu temples.
Among all his short stories written during the first five years of his marriage, I see a beautiful name “Hana” reappearing in a few stories. Her lovers’ names vary from time to time – Simon, Andrew, Michael, Dan…but Hana stays, which means “flower” in Japanese. In a story called “Eternal Return”, Dan and Hana make a secret four-day trip to Cambodia. The tropical hours pass by slowly – they wake up before dawn to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat and then the tour guide they’ve hired takes them to temple after temple.
“‘I don’t know what forever means, but I know it’s short compared to the extent of our longing,’ he whispered and nuzzled her hair. They stood there for several minutes.” On the hilltop of Bakheng before sunset, the star-crossed lovers turn into a twin stone figure. At the end of the story, it seems that even the narrator is confused about whether the stone was the origin of Dan and Hana. He seems to suggest that before they met each other, they were a single soul cut in half when the universe was born.
“I wonder if my father had an affair.” I can’t get the idea out of my mind, so I bring it up when Jonathan calls me one night. I realize that recently, Jonathan is the person I turn to whenever there’s a knot in my mind I can’t iron out. There used to be days when my father and I talked for a whole hour with him holding my hand until I fell asleep. Where have those days gone?
I close my bedroom door in case someone hears me – in fact, my mom is at work, and my father is still listening to music closely in the study processing something he calls “real-time song commentaries” – which means he writes in free-style while listening to music and only edits his typos afterwards. I don’t know if anyone actually reads his blog, but he doesn’t seem to have other things to do during the school summer holidays.
Jonathan does not sound as interested as I expect he’d be. “They are only your father’s stories, aren’t they? You spend too much time at home – why don’t you do some part-time job again, like the time you were helping in that art gallery? There must be something you like to do, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to stop talking to your ex-coworkers completely.”
“You are not listening! My father may have had an affair! That Hana…she’s nothing like my mom…she’s spontaneous and clumsy, maybe ten years younger than my dad I guess, and a mutual interest in literature drew them together. He was ready to leave my mom for her if my mom was not pregnant…”
“Your mom has done a lot for the family,” Jonathan replies in a calm voice. “She has taken care of a million of things in the household despite her demanding job, while your father sits in front of the desk all day and writes stories.” He always takes my mom’s side – how short-sighted he is to see the role of creativity! I’m a bit surprised to realize that somewhere in my heart I secretly wish the affair was true, and my father once had a girlfriend that shared his world, his silly word-play jokes, and his passion for something greater than the bare necessities in life.
Our call ends quickly as Jonathan needs to get back to work. He doesn’t seem to have a decent lunch break as an equity analyst, and there is always some sort of report deadline breathing down his neck. Sometimes it makes me nervous just listening to him patronize me about “asset management”, “interest rates”, or worse, “quantitative easing” – how am I supposed to know these terms? I open my door a bit, and the clear, pure sound of vinyl breaks in from the other room.
I was named after Neil Young’s live album “Massey Hall 1971.” “I would have given you the middle name “Hall” if it didn’t sound inappropriate,” he once joked. I make myself a cup of tea and sink into my armchair. Are these Hana’s songs? I imagine Dan and Hana sitting shoulder to shoulder in an artist’s cafe on a cold winter night, excited about their short meeting while a musician plays Neil Young songs on stage. I imagine their feet stepping on the brake and ending the affair, even while the songs set their souls on fire. Or was Massey Hall the album they played when he first kissed her, and she didn’t know how to respond to the affection of a married man?
“Shall we meet for lunch tomorrow? I don’t have class,” he suggested as he left her apartment.
“Okay,” she agreed, before she could regret it.
Hana masked her heart at first, resisting, but she couldn’t help looking through the peephole when he was waiting for the elevator. She couldn’t see anything – Dan tricked her by blocking her view with his thumb on the other side. They both laughed and couldn’t turn their eyes away. They built a cocoon, weaving the most intimate and reckless thoughts.
I’m surprised at how much imagination I have for Hana, as if her essence and her music are the flowers in my mundane small-town life. Or was it the songs she listened to in the early mornings when her heart was broken after reading his letter, bringing a final message that he couldn’t leave his wife with a baby due. Dan knows he has to distance himself from her to protect her as their past and future become something that only breathes on paper, in his stories…so he writes and writes and writes her name.
“Dad, why didn’t you publish this story?” I wave the folder of “Eternal Return” in front of him, after he has finished writing about another album. He lights a cigarette on the balcony.
My father takes off his glasses and looks at his product for a while, as if he doesn’t remember this piece clearly. “I think in those days most literary journals only took short stories of around two to three thousand words, but this one became a bigger beast of over seven thousand words. I should have included it in my book. Do you like it?”
There aren’t any traces of emotion in his eyes. I notice his nails grow yellower these days because of too many cigarettes. “Yeah, it’s a beautiful story – makes me want to visit Angkor Wat and ride on those tuk-tuks sometime.”
“Hong Kong is pretty close to Cambodia,” he says. “You have to bring a long skirt or pants to visit some of the temples, with respect for local tradition.”
Did Hana forget to pack one in her suitcase and end up buying a sarong? It could be one of those awkward memories they’d remember for years. Dan describes her as an absent-minded animal arriving out of the blue into his life, sensitive and inexperienced, stretching and turning her neck in the bushes to look for the right direction. My mom goes to overseas medical conferences every year, and she would never forget to pack anything – she always brought three pairs of shoes for different occasions. And she has already started packing for my life in Hong Kong, even though I won’t be boarding the plane for a month.
What if he had married Hana? I feel my cheeks burning just thinking of the possibility. She probably wouldn’t care about keeping up with the Joneses, or making me play violin at extended family gatherings. What if my parents are crazy about each other instead of being lukewarm? Would they do more things together and talk more? And our house would be filled with their mutual friends. What is that feeling anyway, to find constant serendipities in another individual’s mind?
Summer throws light on distant hills – I spend lots of idle afternoons standing in front of my bedroom window with a cup of tea. This is our old town of Tainan, the leafy neighborhood, smell of steamed food, hot springs resort advertisements and music from the nearby shrines. I believe my father’s adventurous gene runs in my blood as my heart is set to freeze this picture outside the window and move to the unknown. “Not too soon,” a voice in my mind murmurs from time to time. “I can always come back,” another voice runs over the first one. Neil Young will bring me home – music, an umbilical cord hard to cut apart – it seals and shelves something that we find too heavy to carry, and only revives that something once in a while with a familiar song.
Jonathan has been quite busy with work lately and only rings a few days after we last talked. “I’ve found a place for you in Hong Kong, near your graduate school, with pretty reasonable rent. And I’ve signed up for water and electricity as well – you can change it to your name once you’ve moved in.”
I feel relieved – so he has been taking care of these things over the past few days. “Thank you. I still cannot decide which books to bring with me – there are too many. Maybe I should just bring a Kindle, don’t you think?”
“Listen, Massey, I don’t think this is working.” The connection turns a bit awful and brings in some slight noise. He pauses for a while, “I mean you and me, this relationship. I can’t be with you Massey.”
His words come intermittently, and I find it hard to grab them from the air one by one. Is he trying to break up with me when I’m about to leave everything behind and go to Hong Kong in less than four weeks?
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell you when I met your parents last month. But I don’t feel the same way for you anymore. I have someone else in my life. I still want you to come to Hong Kong and continue your graduate school study – it’s a great opportunity for you.”
But I’m coming to Hong Kong to marry you. “Who is this girl? We talk on the phone almost every night – I didn’t know anything about this.”
“I’m really sorry. Please give me a few days to think about this over again. Massey, do you think we really have the right connection? You were born with a live-in maid; do you understand how much burden I carry with the promise to take care of your life in Hong Kong? Do you know that I don’t even enjoying working in a bank, but I have to prove to your parents that I could provide for you? Your father protects you like a sylph living in his fairy tales…and you think of him as someone with a garland or a halo. But do you know that without your mom, he’d have no strength? I’m not sure that you are ready for marriage, or whether I’m the right person for you.”
I cannot say anything. I’m only glad that I have closed the bedroom door so that my parents won’t hear me sobbing.
“Give me three days,” he says again. “Don’t cry, Massey. I promise I won’t leave you alone even if we can’t be a couple. Please don’t cry.”
I hang up the phone. The sun starts setting, leaving the long shadows of trees on the grass. Two boys are playing with their cat nearby. The fluffy little creature stares at me in the evening twilight. For a moment, I’m afraid that it is going to open its mouth and talk to me. Jonathan always likes cats.
How can I live in a foreign city without him? Is she a co-worker in black pencil skirt who knows how to calculate “earnings”? Someone that speaks his language? Maybe that girl Jonathan is attracted to is like Hana to my father, who comes a bit too late in his life when his role as a husband and father is somehow set. How helpless would he feel when he realized that it was her voice that he had been looking for all his life! My family has seemed to be in good balance since I was born – whatever my father had lost or left behind, he sees in his daughter. “Their love for one another would be knitted in blood,” he wrote.
I don’t mention anything to my parents. Some aunties from church treat me to brunch or dinner at times, and I promise them a place to stay when they visit Hong Kong. It’s not that bad socializing anyway – my mom seems happy that I start to initiate connections with people I didn’t care for in the past. I’ve downloaded some new books onto my Kindle, but can’t seem to pass through a single chapter.
On the third day, Jonathan calls me a bit earlier in the afternoon.
“I realize it’ll tear me apart if I break up with you. I can’t do such a horrible thing when you are leaving your family and safety net for me – you probably don’t fully understand how big the deal is. There’s something pulling me back, something quite powerful, and stopping me from making a radical decision. Please forgive everything I said that day – let’s not give up on this.”
“What about that girl?” I’m not as cheerful as I thought I’d be.
“I’ll take care of that – you don’t have to worry.” His voice comes from a far distance, eager but sincere. “Please still come to Hong Kong, and we’ll work this out. I think I had cold feet, and I’m sorry if it lessened your trust.”
“But some of the things you said are true – I’ve thought about them these past few days. I’m still quite immature and incompetent in the real world.”
He says he believes I’ll be a different person when I come to Hong Kong, and we’ll eventually share the same life goals. “You are only 22 anyway. We have known each other so long that sometimes I forget about that. And I ask myself these days – even if you are like your father all your life, so what – I’ll grow out to be a stronger person over time and protect you like he does.”
I nod gently, and soon realize he can’t see me nodding on the other side of the line. His words seem to pile up into something solid, knocking a place in the depth of my memories. How strange that nothing has changed after these three days while we were not talking, not a fact, not a future, not a destination has altered…but it is like looking out of the window when autumn just begins, the trees are still shining, temperature soaring high and people are still wearing their sundresses, only everyone seems to have a clear realization that the season has indeed changed without being able to point to any single evidence. Or maybe it’s not even necessary to find it. How strange, I wonder. “I’ll come,” I tell Jonathan on the phone. Neil Young left his hometown in north Ontario, and so will I. Who knows, maybe in the new city, something or someone else will remind me of these old songs while drinking a glass of Mojito.
That evening, I read some of my father’s stories again. Marvin and Hana write each other a lot of letters in another story after a getaway trip in Arashiyama, the stormy mountain west of Kyoto.
“You were right when you said to me that we should be grateful of the week we spent together. I’m still feeling my shadow in your eyes, the smell of your t-shirt and sweat on your neck. I’m truly grateful, and please don’t forget about me, Marvin.”
“I want you to know that not only would I never forget about you, but that I do think of you nearly every day…”
While I am sitting on the floor and digging up stories, I don’t realize that my mom walks into the study. “Don’t want to have dinner?” She smiles when she sees manuscripts scattered all over on the carpet. She picks up a few pages, “Reading your dad’s old stories I see. Is everything between you and Jonathan okay? You act a bit strangely these days. He’s been very tolerant to you but don’t push his buttons too much – I know how stubborn my daughter is.” Since when did she become that sensitive?
“We are fine. He found me a rented apartment in Hong Kong.”
“Good news! I was worried about whether he could nail down a good deal. Tell us more over dinner.” She adds, “You can always read those Hana stories later.”
It sounds unreal to hear the name coming out of my mother’s mouth. Has she read these stories? How much does she know? Did she find out that my dad had a secret lover?
“His 1980s collections,” says Mom, browsing through the headlines. “He did write a lot at that time. Well, your dad was freaking out a little when I first had you. He didn’t expect to become a father you see. And we had a hard time over the course of pregnancy – moving back to Taiwan and he thought I became a different person after that. It was a bit crazy don’t you think? We couldn’t go traveling forever, at least not when you were little. But it might be too abrupt to end our jaunty days like that. It took your dad a while to stop writing about Japan and we were both a bit depressed before you were born.”
“And that’s when Hana…”
My mom laughs. She has a quite careless and girly laugh that is very different from her usual poise. I like to see her laugh. “Hana was the student name I had in Japan,” she says. “He was such a paranoid – people would guess otherwise if he had them published. Anyway…your dad said I was wearing a floral print dress all the time when we went out so the name suited me well. But those were the days you see…your mom has a lot of wrinkles now.”
“You are still very pretty.” This has been the standard response every time she complains about a newly founded wrinkle or some grey hair. But this time I paused a few seconds before saying anything. Hana was the student name I had in Japan, says my mom. “Don’t worry about the wrinkles.”
“Okay, come on, your dad’s probably starving. We are having eel noodles tonight.”
“You guys can start first. I’ll come down soon.” I say. When my mom closes the door, the room becomes quiet again. I take a deep breath and stroll in our study for a while. Then I continue reading from where I stopped.
“I want you to know that not only would I never forget about you, but that I do think of you nearly every day. While we haven’t seen much of each other over the past few weeks, part of me feels the pain of the sudden hole in my life. It seemed as if for a week my whole mind was filled with you, and now suddenly I notice how much free time I have back to listening to music and trying to write or read. And I know that I too have been a little bit depressed. That’s what happens when something beautiful gets taken away from you and you desperately try to fill up the space with something else, but nothing will suffice, and you find yourself just sitting around daydreaming. It was hard for me to leave you up in the air, but I know how this works Hana. It breaks my heart to think of it, that we are just leaves swirling in the current, moving forward and moving apart…that we could never return to the start again.”
“Someday, maybe we should try to write a letter to our daughter. She is not even born to this world – she doesn’t know how hearts were broken, how helpless we felt, and how we love her.”
It is a late summer night in my hometown, a few weeks before heading to a new city for the first time in my life. I sit near the window, rolling up the age-old pink cartoon curtains, and read my father’s letters over and over again.