by Yu-Han Chao
Serena lifted up her favorite sweater, which bore on its left, where the heart would have been, a pink wound. She reached deep into the washing machine and fished out the culprit, her husband’s red washcloth, and threw it against the wall.
“I told him to throw this out!”
Serena sat down on the cold tile floor, tears streaming down her cheeks. It wasn’t just the sweater; it was his affair. The ruined sweater was a glaring symbol of his excessive overtime at the hospital, the mysterious late-night calls, and his overall lack of interest in her. She sensed something was going on, and for months she had been waiting for him to slip up, to break down out of guilt and confess, to come home with the clichéd lipstick-on-the-collar. But he was discreet, and she, too prideful to breathe a word.
Her parents had brought her up like a princess, and princesses lived happily ever after, didn’t they? As a young girl she went to a private music school, played the piano and flute, wore pretty dresses and jewelry made of 18k gold and real diamonds. Her petite bourgeoisie Taiwanese family groomed her to become the perfect trophy wife. Many eligible bachelors and their families were interested in Serena, a plump-cheeked, curly-haired musician who looked like a porcelain doll. She could have become Mrs. Ding, daughter-in-law of Powers Media Group, or Mrs. May, future owner of the pharmaceutical empire, Bioway. Ultimately she chose Mike Sei, a young doctor interning at Fu Da Hospital. She gave him her sweetest, dimpled smile on their first date because she knew her parents liked him the best.
The wedding banquet was an explosion of red; an elaborate twelve-course meal and only the best champagne and XO reddened the cheeks of over 200 guests all evening. Serena, in true princess fashion, changed outfits five times, since traditionally, the wedding banquet was a fashion show for a Taiwanese bride. She started with an ethereal, western-style ball gown with white feathers and Swarovski crystals. Next in line was a sultry purple silk dress that showed off her curves, followed by a pink cocktail dress, and a gold gown covered with dazzling sequins. The bridal secretary, an expert beautician and MAC makeup artist, tamed her curls and did her makeup differently with each change of outfit. The finale was a traditional red Chinese chi pao. It was so tight Serena could hardly breathe while she stood at the exit handing out red wedding sweets to departing guests.
The phone rang, interrupting Serena’s fond recollection of her banquet.
“Is Mrs. Sei there?” a woman’s voice asked.
“This is she, who’s calling?”
“I am your husband’s girlfriend,” the woman said.
Serena’s breathing halted.
“I have a business proposal for you,” the woman continued.
“Excuse me?” Serene clutched the phone.
“Five million NT. Tax-free. You can live on the interest alone for the rest of your life, or buy yourself a nice apartment. If you divorce your husband, the money is yours,” the woman said in a business-like tone filled with confidence.
“Are you crazy? Who are you? You can’t just call people’s houses like this, I have no idea who you are. You have the wrong number. I’m going to hang up—”
“Fine, I’ll prove it to you. Your husband’s name is Mike Sei. He has two moles on his left butt cheek, and a big birthmark on his right thigh. His favorite position is doggy style, and—”
Serena hung up. Her mother and father would be devastated if she got divorced. Her happy marriage to a doctor had been paramount evidence to them that they raised her right. Serena glared at the large wedding picture in the living room. In it she had been made-up and photoshopped to look flawless, thinner, and taller. Both she and Mike were smiling with the daft happiness of newlyweds. Serena wanted to tell every smiling bride in the world that it was all an illusion, a lie, that marriages don’t last, or at least the love doesn’t, even if the marriage survives.
The phone rang again. She let the answering machine pick it up.
“Hi, this is Mike, I’ll be at the hospital all night, there’s a last minute operation and no other surgeon couldn’t do it, so I have to step in. Don’t wait up. Bye.”
Tears spilled from her eyes. Exactly of what nature was this “operation” of his? But what could she do, ambush him at the hospital? What would be the point of that?
Serena walked back to the washing machine and moved the load into the dryer, separating out jeans and shirts to hang up on the balcony later. She clutched in her chest her sad, lavender sweater. She identified with the poor, ruined thing now and could not bring herself to throw it away.
Serena spent the night tossing and turning, between nightmares. In one dream, flames were devouring everything in her apartment, and in another she was at a charity event where her husband was being auctioned off. The auctioneer rattled off numbers quickly, like a fast-speaking commercial spokesperson. Attractive women, some younger than her, some older, raised their paddles and continuously outbid Serena, until she realized that she could not afford to keep her own husband. The bidding went as high as five million.
The next morning, when Serena woke up, Mike was still not home. She took a shower and went to school. She didn’t teach until three in the afternoon, but she did not want to run into Mike. She had a lot of student workbooks to grade, anyways. At noon, she and Ms. Lai, a home economics teacher, went downstairs to buy bentos from the cafeteria. They ate across from each other at their desks in the shared teacher’s office, a giant rectangular space which housed over 80 desks, one for each instructor.
“You look tired,” Ms. Lai said.
“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep last night.” Serena rubbed her temples.
“It’s been so cold these few days, I’m having trouble sleeping, too. My circulation is very bad, and my feet are always freezing, even if I wear socks,” Ms. Lai said. “It’s lucky that you have a husband to warm your bed.”
Ms. Lai blushed a little when she talked about husbands and beds, but Serena frowned. She was about to say something back to Ms. Lai when she heard her name.
“Teacher Sei? You have a visitor who wants to see you,” an elderly math teacher called from across the room.
Serena put her chopsticks down in her barely-touched bento and pushed back her chair.
At the door stood an attractive woman in a delicate, silk chiffon dress, sparkling necklace of diamonds around her neck. She looked oddly familiar, but Serena could not place her. The math teacher self-consciously touched his bald spot in front of such an attractive visitor.
“Hello.” Serena extended one hand towards the woman.
The woman shook her hand with a claw-like grasp, scraping Serena’s palm with her jeweled, acrylic-tipped nails, and said, “Can we talk somewhere more private? It’s about my son.”
“Sure,” Serena said, “If you don’t mind, we can sit on the benches by the basketball court.”
“I have a better idea. Let me treat you to lunch. Do you have class today?”
“Not until three. But—”
“Please. It’s for my son. It’s important, and I need your professional advice,” the woman said.
Serena thought it very odd that the mother of a student would need her advice, of all the teachers at the school. As a music teacher she hardly spent any individual time with students, unless they were in the school band and needed extra help. Maybe this was band-related. Or about applying to music school. Yet there was something about the woman’s demeanor that made Serena nod.
At a cozy western-style restaurant on Fushing South Road, Serena sipped black tea with lemon while the student’s mother ordered sizzling steak meal specials, complete with soup, salad, and dessert for both of them.
“So what is it you wanted to talk about? And your son’s name is?” Serena asked.
“To be frank with you, Mrs. Sei, my son isn’t born yet,” the woman said.
“I am pregnant with a son. I wanted to talk to you today about him,” the woman said.
“Why me?” Serena asked. It occurred to her that the woman might be insane.
“Because you are married to my son’s father,” the woman said with a smile showing all of her pearly teeth.
Serena pushed her chair back and was about to stand up, but the woman reached across the table and grabbed her hand with her acrylic claws.
“There’s no need to make a scene. You are already here. I’m not toying with you, or trying to make things difficult,” she said.
“Let go of my hand,” Serena hissed.
“Have you seen the variety show, Beautiful Lady?” the woman asked.
It suddenly clicked for Serena—that was why the woman looked so familiar, she was on TV! She was Jenna Lee, the host of a small-time variety show about makeup and fashion. How did her husband meet someone in the entertainment industry, someone who so ostentatiously wore jewels all over her nails and neck? And she was pregnant? Serena sank back into her seat.
“I guess you recognize me now. So you see, if you make a scene, it will be all over the news. Please stay and eat. Listen to my business proposal. I come to you with sincerity.”
“What do you want from me?” Serena asked through her teeth.
“I told you over the phone. I would like to offer you five million NT in cash, in exchange for you to divorce your husband. That’s over a hundred and eighty thousand US dollars. You could buy real estate in America and live there if you want to. I can even arrange for someone to help you get a green card. What do you make as a music teacher at a middle school? Thirty-thousand NT a year? I think five million is a very good deal for you.”
“My husband is not for sale.”
“I am really doing this for all of our sakes. I want my son to grow up with a father. I don’t mind if the media jumps all over me for being an unwed mother, but the child is innocent. I don’t want people to call him a bastard.”
Serena looked away.
“Think about it,” Jenna continued. “You don’t have anything to lose and have everything to gain by accepting my offer. You aren’t tied down with a child, so you can still marry someone else. Maybe have a child of your own.”
A waitress arrived with two bowls of creamy corn chowder and ornately plated fresh salads that looked like volcanoes exploding with alfalfa sprouts. The green leaves of the sprouts, shaped like hearts, laughed in Serena’s face. Her appetite for both men and food had gone. The issue of not having children had always been a thorn in her side. It was no secret her husband’s parents thought there was something wrong with her, because she had been married for five years and had not yet reproduced. And now, to have a trashy entertainer with loads of cash rub it in her face…
Meanwhile, Jenna Lee picked up her salad and dumped it into her soup, scraping the plate with her nails. She swirled her salad and soup mixture together and spooned a mound of the mixture into her bright red mouth. Serena felt disgusted by the way the woman ate. Who puts salad into soup?
“I’m so hungry, I hope you don’t mind if I dig in. I’m eating for two.” Jenna spoke with her mouth full.
Serena thought to herself that Jenna Lee, ex-model though she was, looked like a cow, literally, with those green sprouts coming out of her mouth.
“I am leaving now. The answer is still no.” Serena stood.
“Think about it. Between a divorce settlement and the five million, you’d be the richest middle school music teacher ever! Why live the way you do when you can be rich and free?”
Serena picked up her purse and walked out.
When she got home that night, Mike was cooking dumplings in the kitchen. He’d forgotten to turn on the fan and the kitchen was filled with steam and the smell of boiled pork and starch.
“I came home early,” he said. “I am making dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I take it she spoke to you.” Mike stirred the dumplings.
“I can’t believe you have the nerve to stand there and ask me about it.” She pictured for a moment dumping the entire pot of scalding liquid and dumplings all over her cheating husband.
“I really didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“How did you meet her?”
“There was a benefit event for the hospital. She made a large donation and was honored as a VIP guest. The chief of medicine sent me to the banquet in his place to accept her check and thank her, as a formality,” he said.
“That’s how we met, that’s all.”
“How long has it been? When did you find out she was pregnant?” Serena closed her eyes since she could no longer look at him.
“Since last December, but she only just told me she was pregnant. I was shocked.”
When Serena finally looked at Mike, she saw in his eyes and the wavering corners of his mouth that he was actually happy that woman was pregnant, and she hated him for it. She knew he wanted a son, but to have one from a mistress was going too far.
“How could you do this to me?” she asked, trembling. “For five years, I’ve made your meals, cleaned your house, done your laundry, shared your bed, waited for you to come home at night. And you run off with a cheap entertainer?”
“She said she would offer you enough money to make it worth your…while. She is very wealthy. And of course, I would give you a very generous settlement in the divorce, on top of whatever she offers you.”
“Don’t you mention divorce to me!” Serena cried. “Or money! Nobody, nothing around here, is for sale!”
“Please consider it, Serena.”
Serena ran into the master bedroom and slammed the door.
During the next few days, Jenna Lee’s photo was all over the tabloids and entertainment news. She had gone public about her pregnancy and leaked Mike’s name and the hospital he worked at. Jenna even told reporters about the five million NT offer she made to Serena, except she embellished the story from her own point of view. The newspapers portrayed Mrs. Sei as a crazy shrew who pushed her husband into the arms of another, more loving and now expecting, woman. Reporters swarmed like wasps: at Mike’s hospital, outside Serena’s school. The principal temporarily excused her from her teaching duties to keep the scandal and paparazzi as far away from the school as possible. The phone rang incessantly; reporters wanted Mr. or Mrs. Sei to make a statement or do an exclusive interview. Finally, the answering machine, beeping miserably, rejected all calls: “Sorry, the message box is full.”
Even while hiding at home, Serena could not turn on the TV without hearing about Jenna Lee.
“Eighty-five percent of our viewers online say that the wife is a fool to not take the money,” a female reporter said.
“There is even a child involved, the wife should think of the innocent child,” a man added.
Serena turned off the television and dashed the remote control onto the hardwood floor, where it cracked open and spewed out two AA batteries.
He is my husband, she thought to herself, mine. Nobody can make me divorce him, and nobody can make me let him go. She found a stick of lipstick from her purse and took it to the wedding picture in the living room. Wo De, MINE, she wrote, in two large red characters, onto the glass over Mike’s face. She went to other picture frames displayed around the house, and scribbled over each of them, wo de, wo de, wo de. Then she moved on to the walls.