My dad died three years ago. Lung cancer. When he was alive, he smoked so much that my mom often quarreled with him. I remember one time when my mom dashed out of the bedroom and bawled back over her shoulder, “Alright, you go on smoking. Sooner or later, you’ll die of it.” My dad, who had a volatile temper, slammed shut the door and barked, “Scram, bitch.” I have to admit that my mom and dad’s marriage was a tumultuous one, filled with mutual rants, accusations, recriminations of this type, resulting in an emotional chasm between them.
However, on the day when my dad’s cancer was diagnosed, my mom cried bitterly. You should’ve seen how she cried her heart out; it twisted my entrails to hear her. She kept saying she should not have cursed dad at all and that she should have been nicer to dad.
When my dad breathed his last breath, my mom was so distraught that she times made several attempts to throw herself out of the window, saying that she would like to go together with my dad so that they could always be husband and wife, in life or in death and was saved just in time by my relatives. We were terribly worried about her, afraid that she might be traumatized for the rest of her life.
Some of my relatives suggested that my mom find a suitable man, that is, a man of her age and almost the same background and get remarried. This way, she would forget the past and start a new life. Though my mom is not a young woman, she does not have a single gray hair; her face does not bear the creases and folds that other women of her age have. She is a tall, pretty woman with smooth white skin and curved brows that make her oval face rather graceful. But whenever the topic of remarriage was mentioned, my mom always objected violently, saying that in her heart, no one could possibly replace my dad. All my relatives were deeply moved by her loyalty to my dad. They all sincerely wished that the passage of time would finally assuage her pains and her life would move forward, slipping past these miseries and tragedies and troubles as easily as water flowing around a rock.
After my dad’s death, I helped my mom run a small grocery store. Life was quiet and uneventful and in a blink of an eye, two years had passed. One day, I was cleaning the toilet when I heard my mom laughing heartily outside. I was surprised; I had never heard my mom laughing in this way in the past. It sounded so unnatural and weird that the hair on the back of my head literally bristled. I dashed out and when I got outside, I saw my mom laughing together with Ah Jun, who obviously had just said something funny to her.
Ah Jun is a young man who worked at a small store next door to ours, selling fried sunflower seeds. He is a good looking young man of about my age with a pale shadow of hair on his upper lip; he has large dreamy eyes with double-fold lids that would sparkle whenever he smiled. He is the type of sunshine young man who embraces the entire world with his hearty candor and would mix with strangers, young or old, men or women, in a short time as chummily as if he had known them for a long time.
When I found my mom was laughing with Ah Jun, I felt greatly relieved. Ah Jun was perhaps telling jokes to my mom, I thought naively then, to bolster her spirits. But somehow when I was on my way back to the toilet, I suddenly felt a tingling in my gut. My mom isn’t the effusive type. It’s not like her to be so much amused and laugh without any constraint. For an instant, I experienced a sensation of something about to happen, which made me turn around and go back to them. I froze in my tracks when I overheard a conversation that I was not supposed to hear at all.
“Auntie, can I call you something else instead of Auntie.” Ah Jun’s eyes were leering at my mom as he put both hands on her shoulders and made her sit down on a chair.
“What do you want to call me?” my mom asked, cocking her head in a flirtatious way. She was obviously in high spirits; the corners of her mouth going upward a little, and there was a gleam in her eyes.
Ah Jun glanced around cautiously, as if to be sure that no one was within earshot. I straightened my back against the wall so that he could not see me. Ah Jun said, “My love.”
My ears pricked up at the word: “Love”. Heavens, Ah Jun was in love with my mom! I felt woozy and short of breath.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I am as old as your mother,” my mom said in almost a whisper, trying hard to stifle a little chuckle. Her cheeks were flushed and she squinted as the sun was hitting her in the eyes.
“In terms of love, age does not matter,” Ah Jun murmured in his most velvet tone.
“Then, what matters,” my mom asked, teasing him.
“In terms of love, love matters.” The word “Love” caused goose bumps all over my skin.
“I have already passed the age of love,” my mom said, the tops of her cheeks red as if rouged.
“You are talking about age again.” There was a perceptible trace of obsession in Ah Jun’s voice.
“I am talking about reality,” my mom said blandly.
“The reality is that I love you.” Ah Jun said in such a loud voice that it seemed that he were declaring it to the whole world.
Their conversation was cut short when a customer went in and asked for a bottle of mineral water. Till then did I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I sneaked back to the toilet. My knees being weak, the moment I closed the door behind me I leaned against it lest I would fall on the ground. I felt giddy and nauseated. How ludicrous and convoluted this whole thing was! I was flabbergasted beyond words.
That night I hardly slept. My mind whirled. Surely, Ah Jun was not seriously in love with my mom. He was at least twenty years younger than my mom. His upper lip was not quite downy yet. How could he fall in love with a woman of forty who was old enough to be his mom? My mom would never accept Ah Jun’s proposal of love. How could she? Ah Jun was only one year senior to me. She would never have a lover of almost her son’s age.
The next day, at dinner, I asked my mom testily if she liked Ah Jun. My mom blushed almost to the ears when she heard my question. She stopped eating and lifted her head from the bowl and gave me a hard stare and said, “Mind your own business. Eat your food.”
I felt a tingle of chagrin. Alright, I will mind my own business, as long as no one tries to mind my family’s business and make my life miserable.
A few days later, when I opened the wardrobe to get my jacket, I found in it some strange clothes for men. My insides sank. They were not mine, and obviously they could not possibly be my dad’s, his having already been packed and put away.
I called my mom loudly. My mom came rushing over from the kitchen, one of her hands still holding a spatula. She must be thinking that something terrible had happened.
“What are these?” I pointed to the clothes. My face was cold and heavy.
“Why? They are clothes,” my mom said. She stared at the clothes, uncomprehending and assuming an expression of innocence, which made me even angrier.
“Whose clothes are they?” I asked. I wasn’t far from tears and my mouth twitched violently.
“Ah Jun’s. Is there any problem?” My mom reached to touch me but I shied away.
“There is a problem,” I bristled in a high and whiny voice. “How can you put his clothes where my dad used to put his!” Tears were welling in my eyes.
My mom went up to the wardrobe. She gently and calmly closed it and then turned around and faced me, saying unflinchingly, “You must have been stuffed with gunpowder today. How come you’re so crabby? Your dad had long passed away. I thought I could of course put something else there.”
“But not Ah Jun’s,” I gruffed. Before my mom made any replies, I rushed out, biting back the cry that was fighting its way through my cramped throat. I knew my mom had accepted Ah Jun as her boyfriend. As I was wandering in the street I felt unhinged. What would happen next? Will I have to call Ah Jun “Dad” after he got married with my mom even though he is only one year my senior? What would other people think? I would be embarrassed to death. I felt disgusted with my mom, who seemed to have changed into a voluptuous woman. Why had she fallen for Ah Jun? What in him had caught her heart? How could she be so gullible and have fallen for a man so young. How could she, a woman of many experiences of life, be such a credulous ignoramus?
When I calmed down and gave the whole matter a coolheaded thought, I felt it wasn’t quite right. Ah Jun could not be seriously in love with my mom. It must be a move in his scheme of things, which I couldn’t figure out yet. Think about it: How could a young man of twenty fall in love with a woman of forty? For her beauty? For her kindness? For her womanliness? None seemed likely or convincing to me, nor anyone else.
A few days later, my mom said she needed to go out for a while and asked me to look after the store when she was away. My nerves were immediately on alert when I heard her saying that. I knew something was going to happen; my mom never went out at such an hour. I said to her there was no problem but as soon as she went out, I shut up the store and followed her at a short distance behind her. Soon, she came to an ATM. My mom took out her purse and pinched a card between her finger and thumb from it. She then inserted the card into the machine and after punching a few buttons, took a wad of money from it. She then went on along the street till she came to a cyber café and then went into it like she knew the place well. I took a few big and rapid strides and went into the café too, with trepidation, and was just in time to see my mom handing the wad of money to Ah Jun who outstretched one hand to receive the money while busily clicking the keyboard with the other hand, his eyes glued to the screen.
I hid myself behind a computer, my heart beating in my throat and almost sealing it. After my mom had gone, I did not make any move, sitting there motionlessly with a numbing pain tautening my chest. I felt angry, and manipulated as the series of events started linking together. So this was it! Ah Jun was aiming at the money my mom and I had earned through sweat. No wonder that he did not mind her age. My mom was really a model fool. I could not understand how she could be fooled so easily by such a shoddy trick. I totally agreed that a woman in love was the most foolish person in the world.
My suspicion of Ah Jun’s dirty tricks was deepened by another occurrence. A month later, my mom said to me that she wanted to change the name of proprietor of the store to Ah Jun. I did not comprehend completely what she was talking about for a moment. When the message was finally taken in, I tottered and gasped. I had to marvel at Ah Jun’s brilliant and unconscionable stratagem. I felt my head pounding like someone was going at it with a sledgehammer.
I expressed my objection at once, of course. My mom lowered her head and seemed to be thinking about something and then said, lifting her head, “I know this is indeed unfair to you, but you should be considerate of me. I am a lot older than Ah Jun. I can’t give him as much as a younger woman would. This is the only thing I think I could give him even though he himself did not ask for it.”
“You’re playing right into his hands. Mom, you are the stupidest woman in the world.” I shouted at her for the first time in my life, caught between sorrow and fury.
My mom looked at the ground, and remained silent, waiting for my anger to subside and then looked into the outside, muttering to herself, “I would rather be the stupidest woman in the world than an old woman.” Her voice was quivery and cracking.
My heart was softened. I went over to her and said, “Mom, it is not a terrible thing to be old. Everyone gets old. But it is terrible to be stupid. If one gets stupid, one even does not know what he is doing.”
“I know what I am doing,” she blurted, aggrieved and with sudden passion, her curved eyebrows going straight. “I know what real love is after I spent twenty years with your father. If only I could find true love, I would rather be a stupid woman.”
I sneered suspiciously and snorted through my nose. What could I say? At night, when I was lying in bed, I felt a terrible rush of worry. I had to do something to save my mom and the family. Then I thought of Ah Jun. He is so young and has so many choices of women other than my mom. If only I could persuade him to sever his relation with my mom, there would be perhaps a way to work this out.
Setting aside my dignity, I decided to have a talk with Ah Jun to sound him out. I knew he lived with his country fellows in a rented apartment. When I arrived there, I knocked on the door and a voice said to come in.
The inside was dark and malodorous. Someone tugged a string and a bare bulb lit the room. I saw a man lying on a bed, half covered with a quilt shiny with grease. He rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand and asked who I was. I told him I was a friend of Ah Jun’s and asked as casually as I could if he was living there. The man said “Yes” and then tipped his chin at a bed opposite his and said that was Ah Jun’s bed.
I asked, “Do you know when he will be back?”
“Who knows? He has been away for quite a few days.”
“Do you know if he has got any friend, so I can contact him.”
“Her. A woman often comes to see him.”
“Who is she?” I tried hard to feign disinterest as I asked.
“She is his girlfriend, I think.”
“What does she look like?”
“Quite tall and slender, and pretty.”
“How old is she?” My head started throbbing as I tried hard to control myself.
“Must be over forty. But who cares about her age when she is rich and so nice to him,” the man said with a wicked smirk. “Who can stop an old bull from chewing tender grass. No, an old cow, this time.” As soon as he finished, he started to laugh heartily as if he was terribly amused by something. His laughter was free and gusty in the quiet night.
I felt the room swaying together with his laughter. I suddenly had a manic impulse to start a brawl. I wanted desperately to draw his blood, break his bones; to flog him to the ground with a whip, and thrash all the breath out of him. But I contained myself. With my head heavy and something like mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, I staggered out of the room.
I went back home, sad and hurt. I was just about to knock on the door when I heard someone talking and laughing inside. I listened carefully and to my greatest disbelief, I recognized the voice of my mom and that of Ah Jun. He was indeed brazen and despicable. He had the temerity to sneak back to meet my mom while I was away. My head began to reel. My blood was boiling. It’s time to wind things up.
I opened the door with my own key. Seeing me, the two of them were surprised. My mom, pointing to the dishes on the table, asked in a gentle voice, “Have you eaten your supper?”
“I don’t need any supper. I am already fed with anger,” I said. I went directly towards Ah Jun, ignoring my mom’s desperate interception. I stood in front of him and asked, “Why are you here?” I felt I could have torn him apart.
“Hey, Xiaoming,” Ah Jun greeted me awkwardly with feigned enthusiasm, his eyes were fearful, tremulous; his face contracted nervously. He produced a false smile and tried desperately to explain, “Your mom asked me to come for dinner, so I’ve come here …”
I sputtered a laugh before he was quite finished. “What a joke. If my mom asked you to go to bed with her, will you come, too?” I asked. I hated his guts! I clenched my jaws so hard that my temples hurt.
“You must be joking, aren’t you?” Ah Jun chuckled mirthlessly and gave my shoulder a little push. He did not seem to be angry about what I said, or pretended not to. I was amazed at his capacity for provocation but I wasn’t fooled by his theatrics.
“I hope I can make such a joke with your mom, too.” My attack became vicious and it worked to its effect. Ah Jun gawked at me. He was too petrified to say anything.
“Stop that, Xiaoming. You are talking nonsense,” my mother snapped, her face the purple color of a liver.
“I am talking perfect sense. After supper, aren’t you going to bed?” This just slipped out.
“What?” Ah Jun shoved his chin out, his face white. He gulped and couldn’t say a word. He then cowered, his eyes darting and panicky. A confused look crossed his face.
“You two are going to produce a bastard brother for me, aren’t you?” I said recklessly, something like frustration erupting. I was just about to punch Ah Jun’s good looking aquiline nose with my tightly-held fist to turn it into an ugly flat nose when I felt a biting slap across my face. “Ouch,” I cried out. I sucked air between my teeth and my ears hummed. I had never felt pain like this, which spread flickering all through my body. I, by instinct, turned to look at my mom, in disbelief and with one hand over my stinging face. I saw a savage look leaping to my mom’s face.
“You want another one?” my mom said in a growl I had never before heard, her lips flattened against her teeth. I ignored her. Turning back to Ah Jun, I scuffled toward him. I wanted to snatch the front of his clothes and drag him outside and slap his face as hard as I could. My mom seemed to have already sensed what I wanted to do. She grabbed my elbow and shouted to Ah Jun, “What are you waiting for? Run; run as far away as you can.” Hearing her words, Ah Jun bounced up, pushed open the door, and then dashed out. When I got rid of my mom and ran out to the outside after him, I could see no trace of him. Such a sneaky rabbit!
Ah Jun had obviously run quite far away, as my mom had asked him to. He did not make any appearance in our store or his own store for a long time. I felt happy for a while but soon my happiness dissipated. My mom became reticent and gloomy in the absence of Ah Jun. Her face was bloated, and the skin around her eyes grew dark and flabby. For several times, I caught her sobbing and wiping her face with a handkerchief, her shoulders jerking violently. My heart was pierced. If my mom was not happy, how could I be happy?
I did not know what I should say to my mom. We had reached an impasse. I had to admit that behind my violent objection of my mom’s remarriage with Ah Jun was my selfish mentality. True, no one likes to have a stepfather of almost his own age, but what right do I have to deny my mom’s right to happiness. One day when I was idling along the street and passing by Lao Ma’s store, a thought like inspiration flashed through my mind. I thought that if I could find my mom a more suitable man to date, she would then forget Ah Jun and start a new life and I would not have a step-father of almost my age.
Our neighbor, Lao Ma is readily such a suitable one. Though a man of fifty, with his hairline receding almost to the center of his crown and his shiny bulbous forehead, he looks a bit older than his age. His wife died several years ago and he has always shown great interest in my mom. He is definitely a more mature match for my mom. When I one day invited him to come over to make dumplings with us, he instantly understood what I really meant.
Lao Ma came at the appointed time. When the door bell rang, I knew it was him and deliberately asked my mom to get the door. My mom opened the door, without any knowledge of the arrival of Lao Ma. When she saw him, she was so surprised and angry at once that she pulled a long face. Without saying a word to Lao Ma, my mom turned around and stomped into her own room, leaving behind Lao Ma standing at the door alone, embarrassed, and with a huge bunch of roses, not knowing where to put them.
Lao Ma was formally dressed that day. He must have applied a lot of pomade to his hair, which was wet and shiny. I went over and took the flowers from him. I asked him not to mind my mom’s rudeness, saying she would be alright soon. Old Ma chuckled drily and briefly and said of course he did not mind and that he could wait as long as it took.
He waited, however, much longer than he probably had expected. Long after Old Ma and I had begun to make dumplings, my mom was still in her own room, refusing to come out. I could not allow this to go on forever, so I stood up and went into my mom’s room where I found she was folding a pair of her pants. Beside her, there was a pile of clothes.
“Mom, Uncle Ma has come,” I said in the cheeriest voice I could summon. “You should at least come out and say hello to him.”
My mom made no response.
Lao Ma heard every word I said to my mom. “Come on, Old Sister,” he called from outside, his voice a high singsong; my mom’s dislike of him he blandly ignored. “We have long passed the age of feeling embarrassed in talking about love.” He even injected a little jocularity into his voice.
My mom put away the folded pants and took a shirt from the pile of clothes and started to fold it, not stirring or speaking, as if Lao Ma and I had not existed at all. A sour silence was congealing in the air.
I then had to go out and join Lao Ma. I shared a look with him, who grimaced and made a gesture to say he did not mind. Then suddenly, after we had made most of the dumplings, the door of my mom’s room cracked open and my mom finally came out of her room, her face blotchy, dark and squally and her eyes bulged slightly, as though she had just cried. She did not come out to join us. She went directly to the door where she stopped, turned around and said, “Lao Ma, do not come to our place again. You are so annoying.” With that, she turned around again and opened the door and then went out. The door slammed with a sucking sound which made my insides clench up. How I regretted the crackpot idea of inviting Lao Ma over. I should have known that in my mom’s heart there could not possibly be anyone else beside Ah Jun. I said to Lao Ma, apologetically and working as much heartiness into my voice as possible, “Uncle Ma, let’s continue to make dumplings.” Lao Ma, however grinning and good-natured, looked at his watch and drained a cup of tea, and said, with flat disappointment but great self-control, “Well, I think it’s time for me to go back. Please pass my words to your mom that I will never come back again.” His voice was a bit shaking as he tried his best to keep bitterness out of his voice.
It was until very late that I heard the door creak and slap and I then saw my mom entering. Her face seemed bloated with pain, her bangs stuck to her pale forehead. Her eyes roamed around the room, obviously to see if Lao Ma was still in the room. When she found that Lao Ma had gone, she gave me a hard look and entered her room without saying a word to me.
I followed her into her room. I fumbled for the proper way to start a conversation with her, knowing that at this time, all my conversations with her called for strategy. However, I could not think of a better way than this:
“Mom, are you still waiting for Ah Jun?”
“I am waiting for nobody,” my mom snapped, scowling.
“Mom, do you really love Ah Jun?” I asked again.
My mom raised her eyebrows, grimaced, her chin wrinkled and loosed a long sigh. Tears brimmed in her eyes.
“Mom, don’t you know everyone will laugh at you if you get married with him,” I persisted. “You must pluck him out of your chest.”
“When I was married with your father, indeed no one laughed at us,” my mom said. Her voice contained a briskness, the hint of irritation. “But you know what a hard life I had then. A marriage is not for others to gossip about; it is for oneself to see if it fits both the two parties.” Her mouth was set in a firm straight line and the corners of her eyes were drawn down with a kind of wounded disappointment.
“But Ah Jun is too young for you,” I said. “You know what people are saying behind you? They say you are an old bull chewing tender grass.”
“Oh, no, an old cow,” I quickly corrected. As I was saying, I felt terribly embittered, Ah Jun’s roommate’s nasty laughter ringing again in my ears.
“I am not an old bull, nor an old cow. I am a human being. I don’t care if he is too young or too old. What I do care is if he really loves me or not,” my mom said, her eyes flashing, her voice raspy and her anguish overflowing.
I was abashed, and then I thought of my dad.
“If my dad were alive, he wouldn’t allow you to do such a stupid thing.” I became shrill. I had wanted to say that after she and my dad had weathered together for so many years, how could she put aside my dad and pick up a new love so easily. Don’t people say that one night’s husband and wife guarantees a hundred days’ affection? But I bit my tongue when I saw my mom stand up and go to the table. She pulled open one of the drawers and took out an envelope. With the envelope she came back and handed it to me. I was puzzled, wondering what might possibly be in the envelope. Could it be my dad’s ashes? I felt a curdling inside. I opened the envelope and to my surprise, there was nothing but a letter in it.
It was a letter from my dad to my mom. Things turned foggy before me. I closed my eyes, too giddy to read it. I took a deep breath, and reopened my eyes to read it, a lump in my throat. My eyes skimmed back and forth and stopped at a place in the letter where my dad said my mom could get remarried with anyone she wished to, young or old. He said he was sorry he had not taken a good care of my mom while he was alive and he wished that someone would give my mom a life he failed to give her.
I crumbled the letter into a ball of paper as I snuffled back my tears. My mom came over and hugged me and I felt my throat close up and choke with mixed emotions as pity, misery, and disgust all welling up in my chest.
That shut me up. Finally I came to see that I had to face the fact. True, things in life didn’t usually measure up to my dreams. Disappointment was a constant risk. Mom had got to shed the past, get up off her pity pot and find some new reason to hope. I promised my mom that I wouldn’t banter about the subject of her remarriage again. She could get married with whoever she wanted to. Life had to go on.
But how could life go on without Ah Jun. So far, there was no news from him. What had happened? Could it be possible that he had changed his mind and decided not to get married with my mom? When I tentatively mentioned the possibility to my mom, her response was heartbreakingly innocent. She shook her head ruefully and said, “It can’t be possible. I won’t believe it until I hear him say so himself.”
My mom had such a stubborn streak when she set her mind on something. Since I had driven away Ah Jun, I had no other choice but to go find him and bring him to my mom. I managed to obtain Ah Jun’s family address through one of his best friends. I set off and soon arrived at Ah Jun’s home on a Sunday morning without telling my mom anything about it. It was a large courtyard in the countryside with high walls. An unusual hush enveloped this place as if it were deserted. I knocked on the door, but for a long time, no one came to get it. Just as I was about to turn around to go back home, the door of the next house opened just a crack and a frumpy, middle-aged woman gazed out at me suspiciously and asked whom I was looking for. I asked her if Ah Jun lived there. The woman nodded her head and then shook her head, explaining that he indeed lived there but right now there was no one in the house; the family had all gone out to make preparation for Ah Jun’s marriage.
“A marriage? With whom?” I asked, taking care to keep my voice flat and matter-of-fact.
“With a young woman from a village not too far away from here.”
“But don’t you know he has got a girlfriend in the town?” I asked, regardless of propriety.
“Yes, of course I know. Almost everyone in our village knows that. That girlfriend in the town is too old for him. She is old enough to be his mom,” she said. A fat pitying smile stretched her lips.
“But as far as I know, he loves her and he says he will get married with her,” I said, feeling my throat constrict.
“His parents won’t let him. His parents would be so humiliated that they said they would rather die than let him get married with that old woman. That is why they in a great hurry had asked the match maker help them find a more suitable girl for him in the neighboring village.”
“Is he himself willing to get married with his younger girlfriend? He hardly knows her. How can he marry her in such a short time?”
“Willing?” The woman gave a little shrill laugh. I caught a trace of disdain crossing her face. “He should not only give consideration to his own feelings. He should think more about his parents’ feelings. He should not be that selfish.”
“How could he be selfish when both of the two love each other and are willing to get married with each other?” I found I was defending my mom.
“Yes, selfish. That old girlfriend of his is selfish, too. How could she think she could get married with someone young enough for her son? She is shameless, too.” When she finished, her nostrils hoist in distaste.
“But that is not true,” I continued to argue, but apparently my argument made the old woman suddenly become suspicious of me, and realize something. She waved her hand to me and closed the door. When I shouted outside to ask her to open the door again, the door never opened.
I went back home disappointed and told everything to my mom, who put her face in her hands and began to cry convulsively. I pitied her for deluding herself to think she had a chance with an impossible lover. Yet, it also broke my heart to see how she was lonely for him and pined for him. She was like a silly girl first in love. I hated Ah Jun’s bone marrow. I would have skinned him alive if I had grabbed hold of him.
“Mom, you’d better forget him,” I said when my mom finally stopped crying, her nose still leaking. “He won’t come back.”
“I can’t. He will come back eventually,” My mom said. There was a vacant look in her red-rimmed eyes; her lips were trembling.
“When? Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow? If he wants to come back, he would have come back already.”
“I don’t know when he will come back,” my mom said. “But if he loves me, I am sure he will come back to me.” Her voice was husky and low, almost a whisper. She repeated in an unconvincing monotone, “He will come back to me, eventually.”
As if she suddenly remembered something, my mom took out a sheet of folded paper from her purse. She unfolded it and gave it to me. I took over the paper and saw Ah Jun’s handwriting.
“My dearest wife,” I read aloud the first line on the paper. “I will always be your devoted husband.” I felt my skin was creeping and stopped reading aloud the letter. The rest of the letter was full of sweet words and honeyed phrases of this type. I skipped most of it to read the last line which said, “If ever I betray you, let thunder blast kill me instantly.”
I handed the letter back to my mom. I did not said anything to her but I was saying to myself Ah Jun must have already been killed by thunder blast somewhere. My mom weakly expelled a weary sigh when she took the letter back. She folded the letter carefully and then put it back into the purse, a crystal tear escaping her eye and slipping down her soft, rounded, pretty cheek.
Ah Jun did come back one day. He reappeared when we least expected him to. I was busy putting boxes of eggs onto the shelves in the store when I felt someone patting on my shoulder. I turned around to see it was Ah Jun. He seemed harried, tired; his face was pouchier than I remembered; he had dark circles under his eyes; a patchy growth of whiskers framed his face. He looked at least ten years older.
“Hello,” he said and extended his hand to be shaken, smiling at me amiably. I was so surprised that I dropped a box of eggs on the ground with a dull noise. I opened my mouth and closed my mouth without saying a word; my heart was a hammer in my chest. My mom heard the noise and hurtled out from the inside room. “What happened?” she asked, looking at the broken eggs on the ground and then lifted her head to see Ah Jun standing right in front of her. She was so excited that she took hold of his arm in a flash as if he would disappear again if she did not do so. They looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity.
“So, you are back,” my mom finally said. Her voice was soft; her eyes were bright with merriment. I felt a contraction around my heart.
Ah Jun made a noise in his throat and then unpeeled my mom’s fingers from his arm. “I have …,” he halted on the words which seemed to be stalling, congealing, sticking in his throat. “I have come back to say Goodbye to you. I am going to get married.” His voice was clogged and thick.
The smile on my mom’s face froze and then receded. None of us then said anything. We all stood there in embarrassing silence.
“With whom?” My mom broke the silence after a while, wrinkling her nose. Tears were sparkling in her eyes.
Ah Jun swallowed air and said, “I am sorry. I do wish that you were the bride.” He took a deep breath, his nostrils flaring.
“Don’t say anything like that. I understand,” my mom said. The expression on her thin face was sombre but decidedly settled. Tears fled her eyes and dripped off her chin.
Ah Jun winced and lowered his head. Then he hesitantly stretched out his hand again, intending for a handshake. But before my mom took his hand, he withdrew it and turned around and dashed out. My mom and I followed him out, but when we got out, we could only see the back of him, fluttering vaguely like a falling leaf and finally disappearing in the gathering dusk.
It was snowing. The snowflakes were as big as feathers. Slowly, my mom took out her purse and from it that piece of paper loaded fully with Ah Jun’s promises and sweet words; slowly, she tore that piece of paper into pieces and then threw them forcefully into the air. Waking up from reverie was like coming out of anesthesia, and I knew what a pain my mom was suffering inside. The white pieces of paper flew in the air as if they were snowflakes. I tried to catch some of them, but they all slipped through my fingers and fell on the muddy road and were immediately run over by the coming and going cars in the street to be melted into the mud and then to be seen no more.