Yun is at letter p, practicable, pragmatism, precarious… She has precariously passed her TOFEL and is now preparing for the GRE. She has a plan. She’ll get in a graduate program in Chinese and then get a job teaching Chinese and once she’s all settled, she and Allen will perhaps adopt a child. The man is not in her plan, whom Allen calls a “stalker,” who tracks her down at the library and the bookstore and stares at her like a beast of prey. He can get hold of her, she knows, which is why she stays at home and keeps the shades shut. She waits for Allen to come home and when Allen makes love to her, she wonders what the man would do if he cornered her, what if that man instead of Allen were on top of her. She’s been at letter p for days now, ever since that man, the “stalker,” entered her vision. She can’t look around without seeing him and the things he could do to her.
His eyes are bulbous, fast moving but steady—even when they dart around they seem to be fixed on her. His face clean-shaven, puffy, glossy. His hair a crew cut, a patchwork of gray and beige, combed forward and sprayed into stiff strips. He could be anywhere from 30 to 50.
She’s at the public library when she first sees him—at the very beginning of letter p, appreciating with certain despair the neatness of the words lining up in front of her, each slight shift signifying an entirely different meaning. She’s in her late thirties and her brain grows a crust when it comes to learning language. At this age, she also doesn’t expect anyone to stare at her like this man behind the reference shelf across the aisle—his eyes darting away as though stung, only to dart back the moment she lowers her eyes. It’s a bewildering stare that makes her blush and shudder at the same time.
When she looks up again, the man drops his entire upper body behind the shelf. From the corner of her eyes, she sees his black trousers pop out in the aisle. He moves toward her, his eyes held high, chest pushing out. He walks past her. Chills crawl up her back. He walks past her again, barely brushing her elbow. Two steps away, he swivels on one foot: “May I sit here?” He points at the empty chair by her, his voice quivery, light bouncing off his bulging eyes.
She glances around: all the desks are taken—some people appear to know each other, some don’t. She gives a faint nod. He sits down and opens a thick book he must have removed from the reference shelf. She continues to copy GRE words, pacifism, palatable, palpitate... “You can teach Chinese here,” Allen told her when they were dating online. “People are getting really interested in learning the language.” And that’s what she’s been working toward: after all the hurdles, she’ll stand in front of a class of American students and say, “Unlike English, Chinese words at least try to resemble or indicate what they mean.”
She jerks when the man’s arms and knees are suddenly turned toward her. He stands up, circles behind her, throws a gum wrapper in the trash bin on her other side, and while doing so, he hovers above her like a standing bear. She freezes as if to play dead, holding her breath, telling herself it’s time to go, but is afraid to move, as if any movement will expose her further.
After the man repeats the same motion, hovering even longer above her this time, she bolts up out of sheer will, scuttles out of the library into the glare of the late-afternoon sun that peeks out over a cluster of office buildings. Her eyes throb. At the first traffic light, she looks back: he’s not behind her, but she can’t be sure—he could’ve dodged behind a tree, a bush, a car, or into a doorway the moment she turned her head.
She scurries past houses with lawns and flowers. This has been her favorite stretch of walk, but it looks specious now, like it’s all a façade, a stage prop in a silent movie, and she sees herself: a panicked foreign woman rushing past the pretend tranquility.
She and Allen live in one of those three-story apartment buildings reminiscent of the utilitarian constructions during the Mao era. Theirs is a one-bedroom, a room less than the condo she once owned with her ex-husband in Guangzhou. Though Allen has emptied part of the closet for her, most of her things are still packed in the two suitcases she brought from China three months ago, now stacked on top of each other in her side of the closet. In Allen’s side, on the shelf above his hanging clothes he stores his gun collection, which includes a rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol. He lets her use the pistol when he takes her to target shooting on Saturday mornings. The first time she held the exotic weight of a real gun, aiming the pistol at the center of the target, using her dominant eye as instructed by Allen, the black dot enlarging, pulsating, and as she pulled the trigger, the bullet making its inevitable trajectory and her body jerking with the recoil, she was struck by a brand-new thought: she could be anyone in America, even one of those Kill Bill girls, fearless, assured, capable of vengeance.
She takes a final glance before stepping into their unit entrance. Allen won’t be home for another hour. She gulps down a glass of water in the kitchen and slumps into the green armchair by the living room window. She found the chair by the dumpster, and Allen helped to haul it home. Besides a few bald patches in its upholstery, it’s in decent shape and above all, it feels to be something that’s hers.
At dinner, Yun tells Allen as best as her English allows about the man at the library. Allen puts down his fork, looks at her with an expression she’s seen a few times before—when he was filling out her immigration papers or when he saw something on the news—a tightening of lips, bunching of brows. “Chinese women are different from American women,” he says. “If it was an American woman, she would just say no to the guy, say I’m not interested.”
“But how do I say no? He asked to sit down at the desk. It’s public desk. I thought it’s rude—”
“Well, an American woman would say no if the guy made her uncomfortable.”
He goes to the living room and turns on the TV. She cleans the dishes. When she was a teenager in China, a hand grabbed her breast in a crowded bus. She was too startled or ashamed to make a sound. All she could do was to glance at the man’s face, which was blank as if it had nothing to do with the groping hand—and elbow her way out of his reach. She vowed she would slap whoever dared to do that to her again. But she had never slapped anyone’s face. When her ex told her that he needed a child of his own after all, she didn’t even think of slapping him until he was gone.
After the divorce, she became invisible. Men would look right through her at someone younger, prettier. On TV, an interracial couple was interviewed: the Chinese woman looked older than her, holding a Chinese child on her lap; the man wore a grayish blonde goatee and smiled comfortably. They met on the internet, the woman said, fell in love, got married, and came back here to adopt a child. We’re happy, she concluded, and her husband repeated her last words in Chinese with a delectable accent.
Yun’s first overseas dates ended quickly. They asked to Skype as soon as the emailing began. She signed up for a course at the Crazy English center. She’d seen it advertised on TV: hundreds of people stood on a rooftop or in an open field or an outdoor stadium, shouting out English words in unison. It looked ludicrous but also oddly alluring. During her trial class, she got a bonus—with the yelling out of each word, however it was pronounced, whatever it meant, her interior became less tangled, as though each word, each sound, foreign as it was, was able to loosen the knots inside her bit by bit. After each session, her feet felt lighter on the pavement, her stomach less knobby, and she was more ready to move forward from emails to audio and video communication, and the idea of overseas marriage felt less crazy.
Allen “winked” at her. On his profile: 48, Caucasian, a tech company employee, divorced without children, and in the blank under “Wanting Children Or Not,” he put “Not sure.” She put the same. Allen said the reason for his divorce was that his wife had cheated on him. She said the same. Neither pushed for more details. Neither was too interested in Skype either. On the phone, Allen’s voice sounded titillatingly foreign, his English exotic, authentic, unlike the yelling Crazy English which had started to feel like some remote version of Chinese. He told her he liked science fiction and she got hold of some of the movies in pirated DVDs, watching them diligently like taking an independent study.
The first time she saw him in person—at the Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, nine months ago—he didn’t recognize her right away. She had not pushed to the very front of the pickup crowd, and when he came out of the exit, a head taller than most of the homebound travelers, she raised her arm to wave at him, but his eyes swept right across her and stopped at a younger woman standing by the exit. A smiley exchange followed between them and she suddenly wasn’t sure whether he was Allen or not. They had exchanged a dozen photos, but she realized now she was never quite sure what he looked like. His face seemed to shift from photo to photo, and when at night she imagined his body pressing hers, his face kept its mutable manner.
The man who might or might not be Allen looked up from the younger woman and glanced again across the crowd, his eyes uneasy now. She waved again, this time standing on her toes to be taller. He saw her, weaved his way through the crowd toward her, and, when they were a foot apart, raised a brow. “Yun?” he said her name in his peculiar way. She nodded. He gave her a full-body hug; she giggled girlishly. Nobody had paid her much attention earlier, but now they looked at her with mouth-gaping curiosity. She took hold of Allen’s hand, guiding him out of the crowd, as though any moment longer these people might do something to her—to them.
That night when they made love, he put her on top of him, her flat belly on his bulky one. His pale flesh spread. He grabbed her hip and moved her up and down upon him, like she was a pump but it was her belly that was filled with air.
The next day at the library Yun finds a study area on the second floor: a row of single desks between the windows and tall shelves. She picks an empty desk blocked out of view from the stair landing.
Around mid-afternoon, when she turns to the window to rest her eyes, the man darts right into her vision. He is marching down the sidewalk toward the library, his body straight, pace determined and methodic like those Terminators in the movies. The GRE words swirl. She copies more: pestilence, petrify, petulant... When she looks up, he’s there, striding down the narrow aisle between the desks and the shelves toward her, a self-congratulatory glimmer in his eyes. She holds her breath as he brushes past.
When she looks up again, her vision jerks to one of the shelves diagonally in front of her—it takes a chilling second to discern something shadowy behind a crack between books—an eye, his eye, leveling its gaze on her like a gun muzzle. She drops her head like someone condemned. A few seconds later when she’s able to lift her eyes again, he’s no longer there, the crack a tiny vacuum. She peers around, can’t see him, but is sure he can see her.
She stuffs her things in her backpack and scampers out of the library. She glances behind her several times, her back hairy, like being poked again and again by an icy finger. When she reaches home, she hooks the security latch after locking the door.
She’s making dinner when the knob turns, followed by a push and the jarring of the latch. She crosses the living room in hesitant steps. “Allen?” “Yes!” Of course it’s Allen, but as she unhooks the latch, she can’t shed the vision of the strange man’s fervid and oddly impersonal eyes. She would try to shut the door back up, leaning all her weight against it, but he would have already thrust a sturdy foot in.
“Looks like you’ve got a stalker,” Allen says after she describes the new development—even more haltingly than last night. He interrupted her several times with “Slow down, you’re not making sense,” and in her apologetic attempt to rephrase, reword, repronounce, her more pressing sense of linguistic incompetence dulled her terror a little.
“What’s a stalker?” she asks.
“It is someone who stalks you, follows you around.” He stands by the kitchen door, looking at her gravely. “Surely you have stalkers in China.”
She puts down the spatula, finds her electronic dictionary in the living room, asks him to spell the word, and types it in. She sees no simple equivalent of the word: its translation reads very much like a Chinese rendering of what Allen just said. Oftentimes when she learns a new English word that refers to a known thing, she feels a small satisfaction, like another loose piece has just found its rightful place in a never-ending jigsaw puzzle. But this word only confirms the man’s criminality and her own victimhood—only months in America, still waiting for her work permit, she has become a target of a “stalker,” something that doesn’t even have a word in Chinese.
“What do you do with a stalker?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been stalked… Maybe don’t dress like a 20-year-old?”
She’s wearing jeans and a gray tee shirt, purposefully picked for today to be anonymous. Yesterday, she wore a pencil skirt and a V-neck top that showed a bit of cleavage, and her skin felt plucked under the man’s peeking eyes. “I don’t, I don’t dress different from other women my age, American women or Chinese women!”
“Well, if you say so.” Allen loosens his lips to try a smile. “Asian women look younger than their age anyway.”
He steps over to give her a hug. She resists the urge to recoil from him, his large frame, his musty smell that she’s been vaguely attracted to.
She stays at home the next day, a Friday, slumped in her green armchair, a GRE book on her lap.
She misses Crazy English, the yelling, the camaraderie, the collective visions for a future floating above everyone’s head like auspicious clouds. The mouths shaped around those potent syllables as though they must contain all that was missing here and now. No one wanted to believe those hardship stories—“Tell You a Real America,” “A Chinese Immigrant’s Real Experience in America,” “A Chinese Woman’s Real Account of her Transnational Marriage.” No one cared about those so-called “Reals,” which were not what kept their voices sonorant and buoyant in Guangzhou’s polluted air.
She rises from her chair, steps to the center of the living room, and starts yelling out words the way she did at the center: phan-tom, phi-lan-thro-py, phleg-ma-tic, pi-geon-hole… The syllables bounce against the shaded window, the security-latched door, the bare wall, Allen’s plywood shelf loaded with science fiction books and DVDs, his multi-drawer desk covered with his computer, soup-can penholder, insulated coffee mug, and a spaceship-fronted hardcopy, his swivel office chair, his faux-leather couch with the visible dent on the side where he always sits, and the glass-topped coffee table with his bonsai tree placed exactly at the center. “This little tree belongs here,” he said once when she moved it aside to clean the table and forgot to move it back. “It gets the exact right amount of sunlight where I put it.” He cares for it as though it were his infant child, watering it with a measuring cup, mist-spraying its miniature leaves, trimming its branches like they were tiny fingernails. And she loves him for that. She must do, she tells herself, as the odd syllables fall like crumbs around her.
After dinner, Allen drives her to the bookstore. It’s part of the routine—bookstore on Friday nights.
She sees him right way—sitting alone at a table in the café, holding a magazine while eying two women at a nearby table—both of them Asian, maybe Chinese, maybe Korean or Vietnamese. She grips Allen’s arm to stop him on his way to the café where he’ll order a grande mocha and take a seat. “That man,” she whispers, “the stalker.”
Allen pauses. The man turns his head toward them. She cringes, cowering beside Allen. Allen steps onto the escalator, she trails along. “I still don’t know which one you were pointing at,” he says at the second-floor landing, looking lost for a moment before heading toward the science fiction shelf.
“The one in striped shirt,” she whispers, “gray hair, young face, maybe my age, maybe not, I can’t tell.”
Allen makes no comment, pensively removing a book from the shelf. They’re standing between two shelves, out of sight from the escalator landing.
“He stares at two women, Asian—” Her voice breaks off: the man is standing right there on the aisle, cocking his head at her, squinting as if to make sure she is what he thinks, then walks on.
“It’s him—” She elbows Allen, mouthing the words.
Allen looks at the empty aisle. She knows any moment the man will be circling back, or maybe he is peeping through a crack at her right now.
He reappears on the other aisle, the skinny pathway between the shelves and the windowed wall. Again, he cocks his head at her and walks on.
“I’ll tell the manager someone’s following my wife,” Allen says after they back away from the shelves to the stair landing.
“What will they do?” she asks, still whispering. “Will they catch him?”
Allen doesn’t respond. He steps down the escalator; she follows him. He heads over to the café instead of the customer service desk. Had he decided not to tell the manager then? Let’s go home, she wants to say, but she doesn’t really want to go home—it’s their night out, a weekly treat. Allen gets his mocha; she gets a hot tea. They sit down at an empty table. Allen takes out the spaceship book. She takes out her GRE stuff. After reading for several minutes, Allen stands up, says, “I’m going to check out some books,” and leaves. Her eyes follow him like those of a drowning person. Then she glances across the bookstore—all the shelves seem to grow eyes. She buries her face in the GRE book: pinnacle, pique, piteous…
When she looks up again, she’s already known what is there to see, but still, it appalls her to see how close the man is, how fast and soundlessly he’s able to move, and how settled he appears in his chair, holding a magazine just below his eye level. She buries her face lower in her book and continues to copy.
Allen comes back, putting a new hardcover on the table. The stalker is sizing him up, and for a second she wonders if she should feel flattered by the man’s attention, but chills are zigzagging on her. He senses her gaze. His face flushes, his eyes flitting behind his magazine like a shy lover. She nudges Allen on the elbow, pointing her chin at the man. “Can we go?” she mouths the words.
The man is still pretending to read. Allen gets up finally, grabbing his half-finished mocha.
“You can’t just walk away whenever there’s a problem,” he says after they get in his car. “Here in America, people face their problems and try to solve them.”
“But you’re—” Her voice comes out with an edge but falls silent. She swallows the words “my husband.” What does she expect from a husband? The old one left just like that. The new one at least saved her from an unmarriageable life and got her to America. The night air suddenly turns to the color of a nasty bruise. Buildings are dark or dimly lit: What’s going on inside them? She has no way to know.
“What do you want to do now?” He gives her a long look. “Go home and watch a movie?”
Saturday morning, at the shooting range, Yun half expects to see the stalker again—omnipresent as he seems.
When she aims Allen’s pistol at the target, she sees the stalker looming out of the shadowy shelves, enlarging as he stomps toward her. Cold sweat loosens her grip; she wipes her hands on her jeans: she sees herself crouching like a terrified woman in the movies, muttering the trembling English phrase, “Stop, or I’ll shoot.” But he will keep coming, with those evasive eyes and blushing cheeks so mismatched with his body’s surety.
She pulls the trigger. A moment of blindness. The bullet goes through the bottom edge of the target.
She aims again, steadying her arms. She exhales. The bullet hits closer to the center, maybe close enough to render an attacker immobile. “Not bad,” Allen says, patting her shoulder.
Back in their apartment, she watches Allen clean his guns. She asked him once about this “hobby” of his, which he had not mentioned during their email exchange, and he said something about one needing to be ready to protect oneself, which she found alarming, but like other things she found alarming, she put it aside to deal with more immediate things.
“Why lock them?” she asks as he places the guns in their individual cases.
“Because I don’t want them stolen. This isn’t a bad neighborhood, but there’re still break-ins.”
“Can I have a key to the pistol? If there is a break-in and I’m here, alone?”
He doesn’t respond right away. Slowly, he puts the pistol in the foamed indent of its case, fastens the lock, and places it on the top shelf in his side of the closet. Then he goes to the safe squatting at the corner by his side of the bed, turns the combination lock this way and that like disarming a bomb. He opens it a crack, takes out a key chain, removes one key, and locks it back up. “Make sure you don’t lose it.” He hands her the key, looking into her eyes like a parent handing down an heirloom.
She is still at letter p and her GRE exam is less than a month away. She’ll fail it, end up waitressing in a Chinese buffet or bagging groceries in an Asian market, fabricating lies to her family and friends on the phone. She can’t go back either, not even if she could bear the shame—her copy-editing job was filled less than a week after she turned in her resignation, by a younger woman with a master’s degree. Every decent job requires a master’s degree now, here or there.
She rises, crosses to the bedroom, and reaches at the pistol case in the closet. After opening it with the key, she holds the gun with both hands and aims it at her reflection in the wall mirror. She stares at her face till it settles. Then she puts the pistol in her purse. It hits her hip as she walks to the library.
It’s a newly renovated library with vaulted ceilings and wall-sized windows. When Allen first took her here, she was elated to know she didn’t have to sit in her green chair in the apartment all day long; she could come here and be around people and actually feel she was in America.
She glances across the shelves, aisles, tables, and computer stations. She climbs upstairs, comes to an open study area close to the stair landing, away from the shelves: she’d rather he stare at her in the open than peeping through a hole. She sits by a window, turning her face sideways so that she won’t be easily distracted. She copies words in her notebook, the pistol’s weight pressing her lap.
Her eyes are yanked up by the same hunch that has become familiar—he is sitting at a desk two rows diagonally to her left, settled into his magazine-holding, eye-peeking pose. A briefcase leans against his chair. What is in there? Ropes, tapes, cutting tools, suffocating devices, a pistol?
Her fingers tighten around her purse, feeling the comforting contour of the pistol. From the corner of her eyes, she sees him stand up, disappear in the direction behind her and the space she can’t see instantly turns murky. Like before, she seems to be shrinking into a dummy of herself, awaiting whatever destiny may befall her. He strides past her, nearly scraping her elbow, and stops at the desk right in front of her, which, to her dismay, is now empty. Has he just willed away the drowsy man with glasses slipping down his nostrils? He sits down, holds up the same magazine, his eyes burrowing toward her from behind the crisp pages, latching onto her and patiently, meticulously clawing, chewing her. She looks down at her notebook: predicament, predilection, prefigure… What do they mean? What do any of these words mean? And after p, there’re still q, r, s, and t… “What are you doing!” she hears a shrill voice hitting the air.
The man shoves the magazine up to cover his face. People turn to look at her.
“He follows me,” she explains to the closest pair of eyes, which belong to a woman with pale ruffled face, who has been reading at the desk to her left since she got here—surely she’s noticed the man peeking at her and closing in on her and will agree those are not normal behaviors. She points at the man who by now has lowered his magazine to his desk and is gazing at her with the same quizzical and indifferent look as everyone else.
The woman shakes her head: “What did you say?”
Yun rises, crossing the three steps to the man’s desk. “Why you follow me? What you want from me?” she shouts at him. His clean-shaven face looks innocuously bare, his sprayed grayish hair like trampled wintry grass. He blinks.
“What? What did you say?” His voice comes out steady, not quite as shivery as she remembered.
“You follow me. You stared behind the shelf, like a gun. A pistol. In the bookstore too. You pretend. You stare at me, scare me. You are everywhere,” she yells. She is shaking. Words boom in her lungs, bounce off her vocal cords: they almost do not feel foreign or stiff. “Why? Who are you? What you want from me?”
“I don’t understand you at all,” the man says measuredly.
“You sat down at that desk...” She turns to point at the desk downstairs, but her vision is blocked by eyes around her, staring eyes that pin her to where she is, and among the suspended motions and loud murmurs, a man in a dark uniform is striding toward her, his hand resting by his waistline, on top of something resembling a holster, and she becomes aware of the stiffness of her hand, which has not once loosened its grip on her pistol-filled purse.
“What’s the matter?” the security guard asks, looking at her face like detecting symptoms of madness.
The floor wobbles beneath her, the air buzzes, and she suddenly realizes there’s something she hasn’t yet said to the man, something crucial—the word no. Why didn’t she say it? It’s such an easy syllable to pronounce. And so unmistakable it must sound.