So there I am in bed at 12:20 p.m., a perfectly fine hour to be in bed when your husband is out of town and you’ve spent last night watching the entire third season of Downton Abbey and crying over a baby’s birth and a mother’s death and good storytelling. A harsh buzzing from the nightstand informs me that my cellphone, ever so silent since your departure, is alive with the desire of Someone Seeking Christine. It is an unknown number, a random string of digits that mean nothing to me, though my somewhat Asperger’s mind tries, in that split second before I answer, to discern some meaningful pattern in the digits.
“Hello? Wei?” I say, prepared to end the call as soon as I hear a Mandarin-speaking telemarketer try to sell some great deal I might contemplate buying if only I could understand.
“Is this 陈____.”
If there is an inflection in his voice that makes his statement a question, it is lost on me. I am too surprised that he’s spoken my Chinese name, a piece of personal information no one uses except Mom and Dad, Amazon.cn and KFC Delivery. He repeats my Chinese name, and what can you say to a strange voice that asks if that private Chinese name is yours, the three components rolling off his tongue like he possesses it, like he relishes that knowledge, that he is almost absolutely sure that you are she and he has found you?
“Ah, yes. That’s… that’s me?” My voice is shaky.
“Good,” he says, and nothing follows — as if his confidence is gone, as if he has prepped himself for only one moment, and now that it’s over — I’ve answered the phone, and it is me indeed — he’s not quite sure how to proceed. “Do you remember me?” he finally asks, and there’s a desperation that makes him repeat his question again.
Am I supposed to remember you? I wonder. What have you done, what have we done, that would oblige me to remember this voice calling from a number that hasn’t been important enough for me to save? I stay silent, and he says it again, “Remember me?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“I am David.” He murmurs something in Mandarin, I thought you would remember me, and laughs, nervously. And my mind drifts the way it does, musing about how this Chinese man with an English name is seeking me out with my Chinese name. He forces another laugh but can’t mask a sigh, and I suddenly understand that there has to be romantic intent, something to do with love and hope and dates and possibilities for holding hands or banging or marriage — that is the only reason for this call and that nervous laugh.
I panic at this realization. Did we hook up somewhere? Did I meet him in a bar, did he buy me a drink, did we sidle up to each other and put our hands on each other and did I do something I should regret? But I’m giggling as soon as I think this, laughing at my inner drama queen who secretly longs for a juicy past. Instead, I was practical, unadventurous. No nights out, no dancing, no drunken fumbles in corners with strange men. Just one Mr. Right and a diamond ring two years later, a different kind of adventure.
“I met you two years ago,” he says, snapping me out of my thoughts, prodding me to remember our history. “In 2010, in Wujiaochang. You lived near there. I work in a language school, do you remember?”
There it is, his “do you remember” again, as if the more he repeats it, the sooner I will recall who he is. Give me more clues, I say, and he repeats Wujiaochang, language school, two years ago. But his repetition works because the memory does come, though it is vague at first, like many memories of my first year in Shanghai, that time of uncertainty and hesitation and alienation, of deciding whether to stay or to go.
In my mind’s eye I see myself in a black coat in April 2010, on the corner of Zhengtong Lu and Songhu Lu waiting for the light to change. I am with a man I am very interested in, and we have just had Thai food for lunch. This is date number — ten? eleven? I can’t remember — and I haven’t slept with him, and I wonder if I ever will. I like him, like spending time with him and he makes me laugh, so here we are, standing together, but also apart — I’m careful to keep my distance, not wanting to force an intimacy just yet, no brushing of arms against arms or my breasts against his back. I’m sneaking looks at this man who will become my husband when I feel a strong grip on my shoulder.
I whirl around, ready to snarl, but a pleasant face smiles at me. Wavy hair, bright round eyes, lips like mine. He has flyers in his hand, and he asks me in Mandarin whether I want to enroll at an English school. It is early enough in my China life that I’m still excessively proud of my English, and I tell him I speak it fluently, thank you very much, and turn to go. But he follows me, reaching for my shoulder again, asking question after question — where are you from, what do you do? He’s so friendly and nice and thrusts his business card in my face so I take it. Overly mindful of Chinese etiquette, I hand him mine as well, a simple scrap of off-white cardboard with my cellphone number, my Chinese name and an email address I rarely use. “Let’s keep in touch,” he calls out when I finally walk away.
He called me three days later. I was at my new boyfriend’s apartment, boyfriend and girlfriend, we’d settled on that. Back then I recognized who David was when he called, his face and that hand on my shoulder still fresh in my mind. “Let’s go out,” he said, “let’s meet again.” Clear, direct, a little too commanding for my liking. I might have agreed if I hadn’t been sitting on the same couch that I’m sitting on now as I write this. I might have said why not? if I hadn’t been cuddled up against the same man I said “I do” to seven months ago.
But if I’d been single, I might also have said the same thing: “No thank you. I don’t think so. But thanks for calling, have a good weekend.” Because he was too eager, too persistent, too unnerving. “But I think we should meet now, soon,” he said again before I firmly said goodbye.
He kept calling that week, and I decided not to answer. Why should I? I’d said no. I’d been polite. We’d had nothing more than a three-minute conversation on a busy street corner, honking cars and yelling children punctuating that brief exchange. Surely I hadn’t led him on in three minutes. Surely he knew that handing him my business card was a mere act of politeness, not a foreign harlot’s come-on. Had I made a cultural mistake? I fumed, and my boyfriend told me to calm down. David finally stopped calling, and that was that.
Now, two and a half years later, he is back. “Are you in Shanghai?” he asks. “Maybe we can hang out and have dinner. Where are you? What are you doing now?”
“Yes, I’m in Shanghai,” I say.
“I can cook for you, would you like that?” he says.
“Um, well,” I say.
“You are very free these days, aren’t you?” he presses on. How does he know this? Can he tell I’m in bed at noon? He’s scaring me with the way he says “surely you’re not busy now, let’s see each other.” He speaks quickly and seems to gain confidence as he says these things to me, these things that really make no sense since we don’t know each other and will not know each other.
“Actually, I’m very busy,” I tell him, still in my PJs, my head hurting from too much TV. “I have a lot of work.”
“Really?” He doesn’t believe me. “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.” I think of my abandoned blog, which I ran from in panic after my miscarriage, after an anonymous hate-filled message about the eventual rape and murder of women like me and our filthy mixed-blood monsters escaped my blog filters and left me sobbing for days, exacerbating my depression in the months when my empty body felt most raw. I think of my incomplete manuscript, the 60,000 words that need so many more. “I write now,” I hear myself saying, wishing it were true.
“Ah, okay.” I can almost hear him thinking, and I wonder why I am still talking, prolonging this awkward, pointless thing. “Well, where are you?” he asks again as if he has a right to know, and I don’t want to do this anymore.
“I’m at home with my husband” I hear myself say, and there’s a long silence before a bright Congratulations! rings out, tinged with hurt. Now he’s babbling about how my husband and I can both come over and we’ll all cook together like one happy mixed-up family. I gently tell David that I’m sorry. “Take care and goodbye, ok?” He still asks me, begs me to keep in touch and call him. We hang up and I hold my breath waiting for another call, a follow-up text, but there’s nothing.
Two and a half years. I wonder what happened to David in that time, what kind of life event compels someone to dig through a collection of old business cards, looking for a connection from an empty three-minute conversation with a stranger on a crowded sidewalk years back. I imagine a recent broken love affair, and a deep loneliness as he lays in bed each night, thinking that all you need to be happy is someone beside you. I can’t help David, and I’m sorry. I hope you find the connection you’re looking for, but we both know it’s not going to be from a married woman with a different kind of hurting heart.
*David’s name and details have been changed.