小心 [Little Heart]

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Café Delice menu was just big enough to hide Rosemary’s face if she ducked down. She had made sure to sit with her back to the window, so that the afternoon sun fell directly on her quarry: the late middle-aged couple sitting two tables in front of her.

Rosemary’s face, already well hidden by the café menu, would be even more obscured by its backlighting just in case the man (Dave or Dan or Stan, one of those names) decided to turn around. This was an extra precaution she did not have to take, since Dave/Dan/Stan, salt-gray hair, freshly shorn pale nape above expanse of work-crumpled white collar, was completely engrossed in conversation with the woman opposite him. That woman had nice curly hair, brown shot through with silver, and a wide-eyed, open face. She smiled beatifically at Dave/Dan/Stan like a Madonna. But Rosemary was always cautious, had always been cautious. Hadn’t her mother told her a million times, before she had left Harbin for film school in Burbank, 小心驶得万年船? And hadn’t her father told her she’d been born careful?

Rosemary was her Anglicized name. Out of an abundance of caution, she had chosen a name close in sound to her given name. She did it after her second day at the film academy, when the staff kept mispronouncing 荣玫, when they weren’t calling her by someone else’s name entirely. She liked the sound of “Rosemary,” which she had chanced upon in one of the framed posters lining the hallway leading from the film academy’s lobby to its administrative offices. She liked the look of Mia Farrow’s green profile in the poster, her elfin face so different from Rosemary’s own broad, wide one with her coarse and bulbous nose which she often rubbed in the middle of conversation to hide it, a habit that only drew more attention to it. Her mother had nagged her to stop—“You’ll give yourself acne”—and since her move to Burbank on her student visa, it was now her landlady, 王椴诗 whom Rosemary called Wang Ayi and whom she had heard Dave/Dan/Stan call “Dolly,” who had taken over the maternal nagging.

Rosemary felt a stab of resentment against her landlady, Wang Ayi, whose fault it was she was here. Then Rosemary reflected—it was her own fault. True, she stayed in the backyard of Wang Ayi’s slightly run-down, three-bedroom, vinyl-sided house, living in an uninsulated wooden shed (peeling powder-blue paint) that had been converted into a so-called living space, and true, she could not even use the bathroom in the main house after 10 p.m., and true, she was only permitted to cook in the kitchen by boiling, steaming, or baking (under no conditions could any boarders utilize the method of frying, stated a handwritten sign in both Mandarin and English posted above the kitchen sink), all of which was hardly worth the $750 cash she paid in monthly rent, but this was the second month in a row that her parents’ Western Union transfer had miscarried, and she was once again late with her tithe. Wang Ayi had slithered over to her, one red-manicured claw patting her coiffed and colored perm, and the other tucked under the unneutered bottom of her ill-tempered and intractably incontinent Maltese, Bad Boy, and suggested a bargain. If Rosemary would arrive at a certain time on Thursday at a certain Café Delice and take a few simple photographs, nothing more, of a certain ex-boyfriend, current bastard on a date, and report back, specifically, if that date was prettier than Wang Ayi, or younger, or more Chinese, then Wang Ayi would forgive her unforgivably late rent for the second time.

Rosemary asked how she was to know what that bastard looked like.

“It’s Dan,” said Wang Ayi. Or maybe she had said, “Stan.”

Rosemary had seen Dan plenty of times the first month after she had arrived in Burbank and moved into the shed. He was often in the main house, sitting with Wang Ayi on the couch in the living room in front of Wang Ayi’s 75-inch television as it blared CCTV and as a territorial Bad Boy barked at him and tried to burrow between the lovers, or sometimes chatting with another boarder, an unsmiling, older white man who rented a room in the main house and whose exact role in Wang Ayi’s life was unclear to Rosemary. Other times, Dan would be in the backyard where Rosemary’s home-sweet-shed was located, but he seemed never to really notice her, being more interested in the third and final boarder, Mimi from Liaoning Province, a second-year acting student at the same film academy as Rosemary, who lived in Wang Ayi’s other, much larger shed (with running water), and who, with her tailbone-length hair and filmic good looks and blatant legshow, was predestined for fame or at least for a green card.

After that first month, Rosemary had seen Dan no more. She did not know or care where he had gone, but she noticed that Wang Ayi was putting on more perfume and was often out of the house until 10 or 11 p.m. and would be unusually short-tempered in the mornings, complaining about unnoticeable hairs on the bathroom counter and the liberality of her boarders in wastage of water. It occurred to Rosemary then that Wang Ayi was not one who could tolerate being left. But Wang Ayi was not the only desperate one, and so Rosemary desperately agreed to her landlady’s proposal. She would therefore arrive on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Café Delice and take a few simple photographs, nothing more, of Dan, and make sure to report back on the attractiveness, youthfulness, and race of his date.

Rosemary was just reaching for her new iPhone 6 in the pink leather purse that her mother had gifted for her last birthday when the Café Delice waitress came by for the second time. The waitress again asked for her order, one slender hand perched on angular hip drumming her almond-shaped nails against the black pleather of her skirt.

“You ready yet?”

Rosemary took a quick glance over the menu. Dan was still sitting there, although his date had disappeared, presumably to the bathroom to refresh her appeal. Rosemary looked apologetically at the waitress and then pointed to the cheapest item on the menu: a madeleine.

“One madeleine. ‘Kay. You want anything else?”

“No, thank you,” Rosemary said, as quietly as she could, lest Dan hear her voice and turn around.

The waitress made like she was chewing on an invisible piece of gum and reached for the menu. Rosemary shot her hand out to grab it, and the nylon of her beige jacket—another gift from her mother—caught on the table’s edge.

“You wanna keep the menu, huh?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Sure,” the waitress said, snapping her invisible gum and turning away, a trace of clove smoke in her wake.

Rosemary opened the menu and placed it carefully upright on the table and ducked her head down below it again until only her eyes cleared the top. She reached for her iPhone and unlocked it, swiped to the camera, and then pointed it, too, carefully over the top of the menu until Dan was in the middle of the screen. Then, steadying her camera hand with her other arm like a tripod, she waited, scarcely breathing, for Dan’s curly-haired and smiling date—who was not Asian after all, nor did she appear to be any more juvenile than Wang Ayi—to return.

Several minutes passed, and Rosemary’s hand shook from the effort as blood drained out of it. Dan’s image in the camera quivered. Rosemary prayed that the waitress would not come by to interrupt her surveillance, although part of her was annoyed that the waitress was taking so long with her madeleine, whatever that was. As she was just trying to decide whether she should switch hands, Dan’s date swept back around the corner—literally swept, her floor-length patchwork skirt dusting the tiles—and made to sit back down. It was the perfect shot. Rosemary pressed the button on her phone’s camera app, and the flash on her new iPhone went off right in the woman’s face, and her phone made a loud, artificial shutter sound, and Rosemary froze.

The woman frowned. She looked directly at Rosemary with her wide Madonna eyes. Behind the menu, Rosemary put her head onto her folded arms and wished she were dead. She silently cursed Wang Ayi and her dog and her shed and her life. The waitress returned with perverse timing and clicked a tiny white plate holding a seashell-shaped cookie down onto the table. Rosemary looked up. The waitress had cocked one crisply drawn eyebrow up at Rosemary in disbelief and one down in pity. As Rosemary lifted her head, the top of her frizzy hair brushed against the menu, which toppled over pathetically and landed with a slap on the tile floor. She saw the curly-haired date gesturing at her from the other table and saying something to Dan, who half-turned in his seat with his elbow hooked over the back of his chair and pulled down his thin-rimmed glasses with his other hand to get a better look at Rosemary. She felt the eyes of all the other diners on her, too, but this was only a feeling she had, since she was too humiliated to actually look at anybody else.

Dan was rising now and coming over to Rosemary. His date remained seated, staring at Rosemary grimly. The waitress slid away as if now repelled by the same magnetism that had drawn her earlier. Dan put his glasses squarely back on his face as he reached Rosemary’s table. She saw the sun wink in the shiny buckle of his belt, the horizon between his wrinkled and tucked white button-down and his faded navy dress pants.


“Er,” said Rosemary.

“Mimi, right?” Dan said, smiling big at her, but with a worried look in his eyes. “One of Dolly’s tenants. I remember you.”

Rosemary was not sure if Dan was making fun of her, but here he was, holding out his white hand with its elegantly creased palm and bas-relief tendons on the back to shake hers like they were in a business meeting, and Rosemary took it. The skin of Dan’s palm was smooth and warm against her own clammy one. She thought he might wipe his hand on his shirt after, but he only made another tic-like adjustment of his wire-rimmed glasses.

“Funny running into you here,” Dan said, but he made the sentence sound like a question. Rosemary was not sure how to answer. She flicked her eyes over his shoulder at his date, who had by now crossed her arms and was rocking in her chair.

Dan seemed embarrassed at Rosemary’s continued silence. He raked a hand through his silver hair. Despite the white stubble that salted his cheeks and chin, he looked boyish in his perplexity. Rosemary felt her ears burning. She hoped it was from the sun that had been beating on the back of her head through the café window.

“Well,” Dan sighed, rising again, “I don’t know.” He looked like there was much he did not know. “I guess I made a mistake.”

Rosemary blinked. She felt her eyelids gum together as if they wanted never to part.

Dan was backing away now. “Sorry,” he said. “Have a nice day. Enjoy—” He stopped, closed his mouth, and returned to his seat. Rosemary saw his date throw a last, nasty look in her direction, a Medusa snaking out from behind the Madonna, before returning her doe eyes to Dan, who was petting her hand from across the table. Before the waitress could orbit back, Rosemary made a quick exit, the madeleine unpaid for.

Her ears continued to burn on the Uber ride back to Burbank. She felt like she could not breathe or hear what the driver said to her, although after she alighted, she seemed to remember he told her he had always wanted to visit Japan. Then the front gate to Wang Ayi’s big, white house would not unlock, and although the chicken-wire fence was not high, Rosemary felt like a criminal as she clambered over it onto the patchy lawn. The Maltese Bad Boy rushed into the front yard, barking supersonically, stopping briefly to urinate on a sunburned aloe plant before continuing to bark at Rosemary’s feet. Rosemary wanted to kick him. A few moments later, Wang Ayi followed Bad Boy into the front yard.

“Well?” Wang Ayi said, scooping Bad Boy up and preening the tear-stained fur away from his eyes.

Rosemary took out her phone. She noticed that Wang Ayi had come out into the front yard in her house slippers. The slippers were mesh with embroidered flowers and were almost identical to her mother’s slippers, except her mother’s slippers were yellow and Wang Ayi’s slippers were red, that most auspicious color, like everything else she wore. Rosemary glanced at the picture on her phone. The flash had illuminated everything in that scene: the Technicolor patchwork of the curly-haired woman’s skirt as she froze in mid-sit, the reflective veneer of the Café Delice table, the back of Dan’s smooth neck and unsmooth white shirt. Wang Ayi was looking at Rosemary with fearful hope and pursed lips. Rosemary saw how imperfect the line was of Wang Ayi’s scarlet lipstick, the edges feathering into her pale, made-up, yet shiny face. It stabbed right into Rosemary’s heart.

“They weren’t there,” Rosemary said, slipping her phone back into her purse.

“What do you mean, they weren’t there?”

“They weren’t there. They didn’t go.” Rosemary marveled at how steady her gaze was.

Wang Ayi’s mouth broke into a jagged shape. “Let me see.” She held out her hand. “Give me your phone.”

“Ayi, no.” Rosemary turned away and began walking slowly toward the back of the house, toward her wooden shed. She saw Mimi coming from the back, wearing a flimsy pair of shorts and a velvet halter top, a pack of Chunghwa cigarettes in her hand and an unlit cigarette in her mouth.

“Hey,” said Mimi, the word coming out around the cigarette.

Rosemary brushed past her without replying.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Rosemary walked into the backyard. She pushed open the door to her shed, which opened with a splintery crack, and sat down on her extra-firm twin bed, crammed between the space heater and the piles of books and clothes and a still-unopened suitcase full of supplies from Harbin that her mother and father had pressed on her in the airport before they parted. A few moments later, Bad Boy ran into the shed and started sniffing at the suitcase, which probably contained something perishable that had by now perished. He was threatening to lift his leg when his attention was distracted by the appearance of Wang Ayi.

“Give it to me.” Wang Ayi jabbed a finger at Rosemary. “Give me your phone.”

“Ayi, there’s nothing to see.”

“Give it to me.” Wang Ayi’s voice cracked. “Or you’re leaving today.”

Rosemary reached into her purse, unlocked her phone, and handed it to Wang Ayi. She lay back on the bed rubbing her nose, watching Wang Ayi peck at the phone with an index finger. Wang Ayi squinted. She moved the phone closer to her face. Her squint became more pronounced. She moved the phone farther away. Rosemary closed her eyes. She waited to die.

Then, she heard a sound like a bird singing. The sound went up an octave and back down. Rosemary opened her eyes again. It was Wang Ayi’s laugh. Yes, Wang Ayi was laughing. Bad Boy, hearing her laughter, wagged his tail, with his very small, very pink tongue hanging out from behind missing teeth. Finally, Wang Ayi stopped laughing and tossed the phone onto Rosemary’s bed.

“It’s only his wife.”

Rosemary sat up quickly and felt a sudden vertigo. “What?”

Wang Ayi waved the question away with one red-clawed hand. “I thought he was cheating on me.” She brushed a stray hair out of her face. “But it’s only his wife.”

“What?” Rosemary said again, but Wang Ayi was already scooting back into the house in her slippers, calling out to no one in particular, “No worries! He will come back to me.”

Rosemary sat still on her bed. She wanted to cry, but her tears would not come. Bad Boy resumed his nosing around her suitcase.

“Get out!” Rosemary cried at Bad Boy, who froze for a second, then began barking at her.

“Stop it!”

Bad Boy kept barking his electric barks that rattled his whole body and split the close air in her tiny shed like birdshot.

“Shut the fuck up, Bad Boy!” Rosemary stood up from the bed and towered over him, then reared one sneakered foot back and kicked him in the ribs.

“I said shut up,” she repeated, tears rolling down her face, as Bad Boy began to piss all over her clothes.

Friday, January 15, 2021