“KNIFELESS:” an excerpt from The Border of Paradise

Years ago I was putting our son to bed when someone knocked, but no one ever came to our door, not then and not now. The three of us lived far from the nearest neighbor, miles up the mountain from town, and so the knock seemed like nothing. But then I heard my husband. David said, “Marianne.” After William settled in, I came into the living room and there was a white woman in a brown dress, sitting on the sofa with her hands on her knees.

“This is Marianne. Marianne, this is my wife Daisy,” David said. “Daisy, would you please go to the bedroom?”

“Okay,” I said, but I didn’t. I went to the hallway instead, and I listened with my big ears. This is how I learned that the flat-bellied woman carried his baby inside of her. When I heard this, I quickly gathered my senses. I said to myself, You can’t shatter open. Instead of crying, I stumbled to the kitchen and made chamomile tea. When the water boiled I pressed my finger against the hot kettle, and I left the finger there for a few seconds before removing it. The skin was then bright pink, and a shape lifted from the flesh to form a proud, puffy blister. I sat with my tea cup at the table and lifted it to my mouth. My tongue burned to sandpaper, which shocked me out of numbness. So what was this? What did it mean, to be woken to this life here?

#

When David finally came into the kitchen after the blonde woman left, and he saw me sitting with my empty cup, quiet as a stump, I had already explained the situation to myself: he was a man; I knew what men did; I had, from my smallness to adulthood, served girls to men just like him. As a result, there could be no disappointment, only naïveté, in forgetting that he was the same. But I was surprised to see that he was scared, that his face had gone the same color as his hair. He was as frightened of my opinion as he was frightened by knowing about the pregnancy.

“Daisy,” he said.

I said nothing. I was angry at him for being weak, and I was despairing, too. What can I say about love now when I could barely express how I felt about him to his face when he was alive? It seems unjust to expose myself this way when he couldn’t understand me even after all of my efforts, which afforded us hundreds of words of English that were kilometers from enough.

“You listened,” he said.
“Yes.”
“Daisy, that was a woman that I had one time with. It was a single time, and a terrible, single moment. I was drunk, very drunk… I don’t love her. I love you, Daisy. You’re my wife. I can’t live knowing that you hate me. Daisy. I’m begging you.”

It wasn’t the correct tea that I was drinking, or even the right kind of cup, and I was not in Taiwan.

“It is okay,” I said. “We later talk about this. William,” I said, “will in a moment wake up.” I was horrified to discover inside a want to cry.

“Daisy,” he repeated.

He was the father of another woman’s child. The other woman would birth the child and that child would have blonde hair. It would have light eyes and skin and it would look like him and not me. Never would it look anything like me. David watched me rinse the tea cup, dry it, and put it back in the cupboard. I was doing everything right. He watched me leave the room, but as I passed him, he didn’t touch me, and I was glad.

When I came to William, who was still asleep, I sat on the bed and lifted him into my arms. He stirred without waking. I put my hand on his back and rubbed my hand in circles, more to soothe myself than to soothe him, and his legs twitched against my body.

He opened his eyes. “Ma,” he said, and I said, “乖宝宝, my baby.” He nestled his face into my shoulder, I laid him back down, and then I lay down next to him and closed my eyes. I put my arm over my child. I fell dead asleep. I didn’t expect David to come in. I am sure that he was afraid to.

And this ritual of tea-making, and going to bed, was the same thing that I did years later, after the phone rang and rang and I didn’t answer it, because David had left that morning as he was so prone to disappearing, and he was the one who always answered the phone. The phone rang again. It was not until the third attempt that I answered, but I had a terrible chill.

“Is this Mrs. Daisy Nowak?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you sitting down?” he asked.
But that was a different time, and a different shock.

#

For months we said nothing about the white woman. It could have been four months, maybe less. To an outsider I’m sure that we looked the same as we had before. But I think that even William noticed the difference between us, when David went from room to room like a ghost. The way that he touched me changed; his good hand would, for example, alight on my shoulder, nervously rubbing the outermost layer of my clothing, and when we slept in the same bed he backed toward me so that his lower back pressed into mine, but he did this with less confidence, while at the same time he seemed scared to let us ever not be touching in our unconsciousness. I thought that I could feel him strain to stay aware enough to be touching me in that casual way even as he tried to fall asleep. I noticed everything. I was sad to notice them, but I did.

He had started to bandage his hand again. I said nothing. Blotches of blood seeped through the gauze.

On the last day of this there was a knock at the front door again, and I knew before David let her in that it was the white woman. This time I was on the living room sofa, playing games with William, and David said her name again with the same amount of solemn moderation. I was already in the living room and what could he do? He could bring her into the kitchen and talk to her there, but it would be ridiculous if he avoided me and had to pass the entryway of the room with Marianne for me to see, and it was possible that the white woman would turn to me, and we’d look at one another with embarrassment or fear or too much politeness.

I think that he thought the same thing, because he brought her into the living room. It was the obvious wrong choice, which made it the right choice. She was wearing the same dress that she’d worn when she first arrived, although it looked funny now that her belly had grown low and round like a ripe yellow melon, and when I had a good look at her I saw that she was as miserable as I was. Her unwashed hair, oily and limp, was the color of a beard of white corn. Still, I admitted to myself, she was pretty in the ways of white women. We had one sofa, and one easy chair. David let her sit on the easy chair, and he sat next to William, who sat between us.

“Daisy, this is Marianne. Marianne, Daisy,” he said, although he had introduced us before.

We said hello to one another. William looked up at me, and I smoothed his bangs down over his forehead.

“I’m sorry to have come back,” Marianne said. “But I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Do you need help? More help?” David asked.
Marianne: “Money again?”
“Money… Tell me what you need and I’ll try to provide it for you.” “David… I left the _____. I’m pregnant. I have no husband. What am I supposed to do? Will you tell me? Don’t just push money at me.” As she spoke her eyes darted toward mine, zigzagging between David and myself. “Does she understand?” she finally asked.

“She understands most things,” my husband said, which I hated. The woman began to cry, quiet and dignified.
David said, “Do you want us to take the baby?”
This made Marianne cry harder.

He looked at me. I said, “That is not my baby.”
“Baby?” William asked.
“We’ll talk about it, Marianne,” David said. “If it’s something you want to do.”
I wanted to say, I am your wife, not her, but I held my tongue.

David went to the kitchen. Eventually Marianne stopped crying and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. She said to me, “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry that this is happening,” and still I didn’t speak to her.

My husband came back with a glass of water. He held a check in his other hand. She took a few sips and passed it back to him. She said, “I can’t raise a baby on my own.”

“We’ll talk about it,” David said again.
Marianne stood.
“Wait,” David said. He handed her the check. “I know you don’t want this, but you need it.”
She took the check and looked at it briefly before putting it in her pocket. “For the baby,” she said. She turned toward the hall and was gone.
David stood in the middle of the room. Now that the stranger had left, William crawled into my lap and pulled on my lips. When David continued down the hall and into our bedroom, I felt betrayed as soon as the door clicked shut, and so I didn’t follow, because so what if he suffered, because he deserved to suffer for what he had done. Instead I absorbed myself in playing with William, who was in a bright mood, and he said in Chinese, “Sing me a song?” I sang about a little girl carrying a doll and walking though the flower garden. The doll cries and calls for its mother, and the birds laugh at her crying. It’s a common song.

The distraction worked for a while. At the same time, David was hanging himself in the bedroom. There are high beams in every room, I was playing with our child, and David was tying a rope to the beam. I don’t know how he learned to tie a knot like that, but he hadn’t thought about the strength of the rope, which might have been half rotten in the damp of wherever he retrieved it from, or maybe he knew that it was a gamble. I heard a crash and I screamed. I wouldn’t have had such a reaction if the sound were less violent. It was the sound of something gone truly wrong, and not just a lamp knocked over. It was declarative.

There was no answer after I cried out. I lifted William, who was crying, into my arms, and I hurried to the bedroom. I yanked at the locked door. William said, “What’s bad?” I yelled David’s name again, and when he didn’t answer I took William to his room, sat him on the bed, and said, “Stay.” Then I closed the door. He was scared. I didn’t blame him for his fear. He shrieked for me, but I couldn’t let him see.

I am glad for flimsy doors, and the strength of frightened wives. With a hammer from the kitchen I smashed a hole in the door and reached inside to unlock it, the splinters scraping my skin like teeth. When I stepped inside I saw that a swaying rope, like a fishing line that had nonchalantly lost its prey, was hanging from the ceiling beam, and David was on the floor, lying next to a toppled chair with the rope’s remainder around his neck. I thought, You’re a coward. You can’t leave me here. I think I may have also thought, This is it, but I thought this so many times between then and the end, when what felt like possible endings were not really endings, when he died a little bit more by the year, by the month, by the day. And yet I’m surprised that I didn’t actually think that he was dead. It was shock, I think, that let me believe he could be alive, and it was that which coaxed me into going to him. I could save him. It would be like bandaging his bad hand. If only I could make the blood go away. If only I didn’t have to see the redness everything would be all right, and so I rubbed at the floor with my bare arm until I remembered that I had to tug at the loop around his neck. I was numb as I untied the rope chafing against his skin, and I shook my husband, thinking it was possible that he had so badly hit his head that he would be gone quickly. It was possible that he would die, and it was possible that he would live, but either way his death was staring at me whether it was now or later, then or now—the possibility of suicide had come into the house like a stubborn relation, and it would never leave until it got what it wanted, or until we rid ourselves of it, and what was the likelihood of either?

I’ll also note that before I took on more responsibility in the house, I had no idea how to contact anyone for help, I had so little power then. All I could do was wait and shake him and hope that he had not broken his back while I swallowed my terror. After a few minutes he opened his eyes. I didn’t think to kiss him, or say that I was glad. Nor did I think to yell. I stared at him and I said nothing.

“Oh, God,” he said. “My leg.” He gestured. Only then did I realize that it looked wrong. And then he said, “I didn’t mean to live.”


Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press, 2016), Wang has written for Catapult, Hazlitt, Lit Hub, Salon, and Lenny, and been written about in the New Yorker Online, Fusion, and the New York Times. She is currently, having won the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, working on a collection of essays about schizophrenia.

 

 

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