Last Stop, Flushing, November 2011. Almost midnight. He called an hour ago, and I left in the middle of a rehearsal, left the director and two actors without a word, slipped quietly out the dark theater.
This is part of our shared trade: disappearing. I will call him Jake Wu.
I’m on a local 7. Each time the train doors open, the riders bring something with them from outside. The wind or perhaps a car racing past Queens Boulevard. I hear the outside in them. I wonder if anyone can hear this too.
When I was a child, I hated traveling at night. Especially on long trips through Southwestern desert, along the U.S.-Mexican border, when my parents would pull over to change drivers at night. I’d stay awake, fearful of strangers who might assail us from those dark deserts. Sand lolling past. What does one do with all that sand? It moves. It’s unpredictable and unstable, has no set pattern. A hill today will be gone in a week, spread out into new dips and turns. Never trust the desert, my mother once told me. We’re city people. Civilized. Not like my ancestors who beat their wives and married off their daughters at 13. The men who always ended up disappearing, and if ever found, had a whole new family some place else.
We’re not like that, she repeated. Remember: Always act civilized.
Jake Wu didn’t leave New York for another family. He left because most of his family had to go back to China. He’s back now to collect the remains of Great Aunt, dead a year after his uncle and cousins were arrested in a smuggling ring here in the States. He has come to make a deal too, he said to me, though he won’t tell me what. He has come yet again to be the sacrifice; he’s so far from the drug-addicted philanderer he once was, so far from the two years it took to get clean.
Of course when we first met I knew nothing of this; I didn’t know he was here in New York illegally. The man I thought I knew was, he said, the man he’d become. And that he was grateful for that.
The stories came after we broke up, that before we were together, his family had written him off as a spendthrift, a black sheep, the sorrow and the ‘never-change’ of the family, how many countless family dinners ended with curses upon him and ancestral spirits and what of the backrooms with loan sharks who think they’d cheat him, but no one can best him or better him, so many have tried and investment partners who loved him like a son, he’s taken for a ride but it’s catching up with, Jake Wu’s running on all cylinders, when they’ve all busted broke. And where’s he racing? Don’t ask. And never ask why. He’d give you the impossible when he’s promised it to someone else.
Before she died, Great Aunt took my hand in hers and told me: To think the same man is rebuilding our family back in China now. The same man. It’s because of you. You saved our family.
Running in the rain, I see in a window a flash of a woman in a black dress. I forgot my coat and red shawl back at the theater as I approach the unmarked bar where Fuzhou’s roughest kind sit spread-eagle, drinking hard liquor. They are watching reruns of The Golden Girls. They turn to stare at me, all those tough faces turn toward me and the owner comes up and says, “close, close,” while handing me some napkins to dry my face. The owner’s seemingly mixed messages make me want to cry. He is pretending not to recognize me. He knows Jake and I were engaged; he knows we broke up.
I sit down at a table as the owner brings me a cup of hot water, and I stare into it. When he first introduced me to Great Aunt, she organized a dinner for us at a Dongbei restaurant not too far from this bar. A test to see if I could handle pungent flavors, Jake had told me, smiling. Cumin’s just my thing, I had said. It will be okay, he’d said, she already knows you’re not Chinese; I won’t let them do anything too crazy.
So I’m the first non-Chinese girl you ever brought home? I’d asked.
No, he’d said. You’re the first girl I ever brought home ever.
What we hadn’t been prepared for was meeting 10 other relatives, cousins and aunts and from-the-same-village family, mostly women, at the same meal. Jake and I could hear them from the entrance of the restaurant, arguing.
We’ve been tricked, he’d said, angry, and turning around, my hand still tucked into his.
No, it’s okay, let’s go in, I said, excitedly. I was in a red dress with a flower on the side, and I was feeling really good. The table quieted down as we approached, their faces frozen in surprise. Jake was fuming as he yanked out a chair for me sit down, but Great Aunt— a small woman with clear eyes that never left mine— came right up to me. She had Jake translate as we walked around the table, shaking hands, as I suppose they thought was my custom. I was dizzy with the faces and the excitement and the heavy smells of the food at nearby tables.
You are so pretty, one cousin said to me in English.
And so thin, said another cousin, do you not need eat?
Of course she eats, Jake said, what the hell’s wrong with you? This was followed by something in Min, their dialect, and the cousin fired something back at him, while everyone laughed.
What did you say? I whispered under the din.
Just letting her what’s what, he said.
When we finally sat down, tea was brought and everyone fell silent, watching Great Aunt. I felt Jake tense up.
With the teapot in her hand, Great Aunt smiled and poured the first cup for me. I knew enough from what he’d told me days before. She was honoring me. It was going to be okay.
That night we closed down the restaurant; the family had many questions, and many Jake refused to translate from the older members, which sent laughter rolling through the restaurant. We left smelling like roasted lamb and cumin. Great Aunt squeezed my hand as we said our goodbyes and offered us a ride in her car driven by a younger relative.
We’re going to walk, he told her. It’s a nice night.
It was. A perfect early October night when the humidity’s finally gone and it’s just cold enough to remind you of how good autumn feels against the bare parts of your skin. He and I wandered deep into Flushing, electrified with the occasion.
We spoke about the holidays and getting a menorah; he was curious about Judaism. We wandered our way closer to Main street, toward the unmarked bar where I now wait for him. That night I drank too much. I told him I wanted to get a parrot too, that I missed seeing the wild amazons that cross back and forth over the border.
I told him how my grandfather nursed sick or wounded amazons back to health in these large, wire cages he kept outside his three-room house. I remember waking up in the mornings when I stayed weekends with my grandfather, and running outside to see brazen wild amazons kissing the caged amazons through the wires. It made me upset for some reason, and I’d start howling and chasing them away, and my grandfather, usually such a solemn, serious man, would start cracking up as he made us breakfast and Jake was pouring us more soju and laughing and telling me how he wish he could have seen that, that maybe he’ll find some pigeons and stick them in cages outside our house in Woodside and we didn’t know it then but soon we’d get a parrot, an African Grey, and we’d love her and we’d lose her once he had to leave and I could never trust him again, the parrot had a bad heart, the vet would say, but to this day I know her heart broke when we broke.
I remember after we left the bar, we got lost and ended up on a street with houses packed together tightly. Somewhere along the way we each scrawled the other’s name in wet asphalt. Our names together, thought like us, not forever. I am thinking of these things now and desert nomads who’ve forsaken their families and amazons who don’t understand border lines when I hear a knock on the window.
I’m rushing out the door to him while he’s coming in, he’s thrown his coat around me and guiding me back inside. We are holding on tight as we sit down, still both soaked to the bone. We cannot get close enough. He looks exactly the same, a tall, well-built man, dressed in black. The owner comes with tea and then noodles and The Golden Girls is still on and the men are looking at us until Jake looks up at them and they look away. We sit like that without speaking until he turns his face to mine and says, let’s go home.
But we don’t live together anymore. We aren’t together anymore. Our home in Woodside is long gone. Great Aunt too and her clear eyes. But for a moment it seems like that night I first her and her family, when we wandered into this bar and I knew that I’d never be able to understand the world again without him in it. Because the next morning we woke up to a seagull in the window in the middle of fucking Queens and I knew I’d never understand that without knowing him. Because in the middle of that storm, before collecting the ashes of his dead aunt and daily inconveniences and showers we’ll have to take and beds we’ll have to make again and again, we still had one more night together, one more train to take, for all the dark, winding roads of lamp lights we’d left behind, the few and the far between, the glowering upon broken-down bars and deserted lots lit-up, all those moment we wouldn’t have anymore— all of that fucking mess was still a love story, our goddam love story.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni graduated from New York University, where she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned a Master of the Fine Arts in Poetry, and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where she completed post-graduate research. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater, her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Rosebud is a co-editor for HER KIND at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and at work on her first novel, The Imitation of Crying. Her work appears in Arts & Letters, B O D Y, The Brooklyner, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Puerto del Sol. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, her debut book of poems SOLECISM will be published by Virtual Artists Collective in early 2013. She is at work on her second book of poetry. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org.