Min and Jillian stood at the edge of the playground watching their children. Min’s boys had created some kind of war game, but were spending more time establishing the lines of boundaries and safe havens than actually warring. Jillian’s daughter sat in a sandbox having a hushed conversation with a doll in a blue, frilly dress.
“They’re so energetic,” Jillian said, nodding at Min’s sons. “They’re not in their heads, you know? Rachel always seems to be struggling with some great idea. Well, great to her. Like why does ice cream melt.”
They had not seen each other for ten years, but her laugh was still familiar to Min: a faint chuckle between large intakes of breath.
“Chasing them tires me out,” Min said. “If they not asleep, they destroy things. The house is always in state of disarray. Is that right? Dis-array?” Jillian put a hand on his arm. “It’s so cute,” she said, “we’re still doing our language thing.”
Min felt his face grow hot despite the cool, fall air. The sky in Cleveland was gray and he feared the rain that had been threatening all week—when he had been sitting in conference rooms—would start falling.
“Rachel,” Jillian said to her daughter, “get up and run a little. Get some exercise.”
Min took a cloth from his shirt pocket and wiped his glasses.
“Can I borrow that?” Jillian said as she took a pair of sunglasses from her purse. “Rachel licked these earlier. I don’t know what these kids think.”
Min chuckled. “Sounds like something you could write in one of your journals.”
“Not me,” Jillian said, “not anymore. I tried, you know, to keep them up. But one day I looked back at a few entries and realized all I had put in was food recipes or notes for appointments or some other shit. I thought, fuck this, this is depressing, you know?”
Min nodded yes as he watched Jillian absentmindedly tuck his handkerchief into the pocket of her coat.
“Minzhe,” his mother had said after he had been rejected by his third U.S. doctoral program. “Even a strongman can’t break concrete with his head.”
Min had ignored this advice and tried again the following year, this time expanding his search to cities he had never heard of and couldn’t have pointed to on a map. He was accepted to a Ph.D. program in Detroit. Without so much as telling his parents, he checked the acceptance box and dropped the letter back in the mail. A year later found himself in a tiny university apartment overlooking a fish shop and a liquor store. At night, the room was illuminated at night by a neon pink sign that read: “WE CASH CHECKS.”
Min found the city better than he had expected after reading about its high crime rate and plethora of abandoned buildings online. In some ways, it reminded him of his hometown of Datong, only the vast empty lots and windowless buildings in Detroit were at the end of their lives, not the start.
“My man,” the clerk at a convenience store said when he went on his first expedition off campus. “Buy yourself a lotto ticket and if you win, I’ll only take ten percent of the earnings.”
Back in his room, it took Min ten minutes with a dictionary to figure out what the man had been talking about. Min had known before leaving home that his English was poor, but he had been assured in numerous online chatrooms that it didn’t take fluency in the language to pass engineering-heavy course-load. Furthermore, these wizened Chinese student in the U.S. said, the teachers reserve F’s for “lazy Americans who never show up.”
But by the end of his first week, when Min had been unable to keep pace in a course called VLSI Architectures and Design Methodologies, he realized there was a problem. The course description had called for four hours of study outside class, but Min had read for 10 and was only halfway through the material. For the first time, he doubted whether “tricking” the university into accepting him with a personal statement mostly copied from online samples—a widespread practice among all his friends seeking to study in the U.S.—was a good idea.
That Saturday, he posted an advertisement for English and Chinese “trading” in the university’s student center. He got a call around 10pm at night.
“Is this, uhm, uhm—” he heard a female voice say.
“I, uhm,” a little chuckle. “I can’t pronounce your name. Is it Minzeeah?”
“Just call me Min,” he said.
“Min, right. I’m Jillian, and I’m interested in learning Mandarin.”
Min had been surprised a woman responded. He had literally not spoken to a woman since arriving in the country a month ago. His classes were dominated by men, and the only group he had found amenable to having study sessions with him were a group of Yemenis who all had wives back home. Min had heard these men call American women “aliens” because they seemed to be from a different planet than women back home. The term made Min feel uncomfortable, but he laughed anyway whenever one of them said it.
Jillian was twenty minutes late for their first language exchange. She wore a white jacket with a puffy, fur-collar and sweatpants with the word “Heavenly” written down the left thigh. She was short and round, but made quick, efficient movements, such as when she reached into her large purse, pulled out a flip-phone, and typed off a message without once interrupting her breathless chatter about a teaching assistant who had a crush on her and had kept her after class because she didn’t seem to understand the assignment.
“Yeah, right,” Jillian said, and then made a clucking sound with her tongue. “I don’t think he looked me in the face the entire time, you know?”
Min did not fully understand, but nodded yes. He asked her what graduate degree she was pursuing. Ten minutes later he decided it was a mix of biology and environmental studies. He asked where she had grown up. Fifteen minutes later, he could only glean that there had been a lot of driving back and forth between divorced parents in the U.S.’s Midwest. When he asked what career she wanted, Jillian put her face in her hands and fake-sobbed.
“I’m trying to keep things open, you know?” she finally said. “I just know I don’t want to be stuck in some windowless office the rest of my life.”
“Do you?” Jillian asked. “I mean, do you want that?”
“What?” Min said.
“To be stuck, you know, in some shitty company selling some product you don’t care about?”
“Oh,” Min said, “no, I guess no. I am more interest in the microchip. The design of it. I think it change world.”
“See?” Jillian had said. “That’s the kind of passion I want to have. And you should say, ‘I think it can change the world.’”
During that first year Min would spend Friday nights with the Yemenis. Even when he was with them, though, his thoughts were generally on his language partner. What was she doing? What was she wearing? Was she thinking of him? Min tried to drop her into the conversations with the Yemenis, but found they were never interested. Only once in awhile would they ask about his “girlfriend.” Though he tried not to show it, this upset Min, because the joke was that such a thing would never be possible: Min with an American woman.
None of the Yemenis drank, and once, when Min brought a bottle of rice wine for the men to try, the first to taste it started repeating a Yemini word over and over, which sent everyone into fits of laughter.
“Min, I’m sorry, so sorry,” the man said in English. “But I’m telling them that this drink, it tastes a bit like, you know, like feces.”
Min had found it funny as well, but when he told the story to Jillian the next day—in part to show her that he had a social life outside their meetings—she didn’t laugh.
“Some friends,” she said. “If that’s what you like in China, then that’s what you like. We all have our cultural norms. I’m sure you don’t like every American food or drink. You need to start hanging out with more welcoming people, Min.”
Min had never been clear on Jillian’s exact background. She did not look white, black, Hispanic, or Asian. She had dark skin with black, curly hair, green-gray eyes and a sharp, straight nose. Whenever Min brought up the question of heritage Jillian would sigh.
“I’m a serious mutt,” she would say, and then, “just American, is how I put it.”
“And mutt?” Min asked, “what is mutt?”
“Oh,” Jillian said. “Like a dog. Mixed breed.”
Min also had trouble figuring out why Jillian was interested in learning Mandarin. It wasn’t until their sixth meeting that he realized she was trying to impress a Chinese boyfriend.
“If I let him teach me,” she said, “he’ll have all the cards. I want to surprise him. I’m not even telling him about us doing this, you know?”
By the fifth meeting, Min noticed they were conducting next to none of their conversations in Mandarin. He decided to write some of the most important Chinese words in pinyin so she could practice when he wasn’t there.
“Wow,” Jillian said when he gave them to her, “this is really awesome. You’re handwriting is, like, perfect.”
“Thank you,” Min said. “But you must read with me. Tone very important.’’
After going through a little over half the words, Jillian said her head hurt and excused herself to go to the bathroom. When she got back, she wanted to discuss the Chinese boyfriend.
“He is, like, insane about his clothes. Insane. He must have one-hundred shirts. And lots of pink. I mean, I like a man who isn’t afraid to wear pink, but he is passionate about it.”
Min nodded. His English had been improving since his talks with Jillian. Unlike the Yemini men, she spoke quickly and did not stumble over words. If he got only 50 percent of what she was saying he felt it was a day well spent.
“I’m thinking,” Jillian continued, “if we got married, he’d need the bigger closet!”
Min thought of his own closet back in the dormitory with his five long sleeve shirts, seven tee-shirts, and five pairs of slacks. Perhaps he would need to upgrade if Jillian ever came over—maybe he could borrow a few items from the Yeminis.
A few days later, Jillian referred to the boyfriend in the past tense.
“I notice you say ‘was’ for your boyfriend,” Min said.
Jillian swept her arm across the formica table. “He’s gone, Min. I dumped him.”
“What?” Min asked. “What he do wrong?”
“Nothing,” Jillian said. “That was the problem. Nothing. He was dull. I guess I was just interested in him being a foreigner, anyway.”
Min sipped his coffee, which he took black, size small. Despite the free tuition and scholarship money that paid his room and board, he found money went quickly in America. This $1.00 coffee plus twenty-five cent tip and his monthly bottle of Chivas were two of the only things he allowed himself that weren’t essentials.
“Min,” Jillian asked him, “do you keep a journal?”
Min shrugged. “I have the equipment,” he said.
Jillian tilted her head sideways.
“The equipment,” Min said, “I have a nice pen and a notebook. It was gift from my parents before I come here. But I hardly use.”
“God, don’t say equipment for little stuff like that,” Jillian said. “But really, you should write things down. Every night before I go to bed, no matter what has happened that day, I write a little about what I’ve been doing.”
She reached into her purse and pulled out a black, leather journal.
“These are great,” Jillian said. “All the American writers used to use them. Hemingway, Kerouac.”
Min took the book in his hands, turned it over a few times, and then opened it to see scrawling blue lines on page after page. One of the pages, he noticed, had his name on it.
“Min!” Jillian shouted. “You can’t read it.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“What,” he said, “you think my English that good?”
Jillian found this funny and laughed, her chest heaving with every puff of air.
“Okay,” she said, “but I’m not giving up on my Mandarin yet. You Chinese are coming up in the world. So give it to me again, that third tone. I hate that freaken third tone.”
“Yes yes,” Min said, “listen close.”
Min and Jillian had been at the park in Cleveland over two hours and Min was feeling fatigued. Jian and Lei, whose names were Jake and Lee at school, had ended their war game and were mostly moping around near the grown-ups, waiting for their father to get up and let them pile back into the car.
Min had heard about the numerous jobs Jillian had held in the past decade, including a stint working as a roadie for a band and another selling textbooks. More recently, she had started working at an insurance company while taking classes in massage therapy.
“I want to do something that helps people,” she told Min. “Otherwise, life is a constant sell.”
“Call me when you get good,” Min said, hoping to make her laugh.
She gave him a startled look.
“Sorry,” she said, “you just reminded me I needed to make a phone call.”
“You need to go?” Min asked.
Jillian slumped on the bench, but made no move to go for her purse.
“It’s just my husband,” she said.
“I see,” Min said. “You tell him you would be back by now?”
“Shit,” she said, “you think I would tell him who I was meeting? No way.”
Min’s first mugging happened on a Sunday afternoon. He had taken a break from studying to stretch his legs and go to the convenience store on the corner to buy milk. The streets of his neighborhood were quiet. He liked the peace that seemed to settle down around the city on the weekend, with the only interruption from the Lincolns and Buicks and Cadillacs—mostly ten or even fifteen years old—driving past with men and women in their Sunday clothes.
When Min rounded the corner from the store he saw movement out of the corner of his right eye. A moment later, he saw someone on his left. Sensing a problem, he started moving move to the center of the street. It was too late. A third man had emerged a few yards ahead; he held a large knife in his hand. The two men that had been coming from behind grabbed Min’s arms and the third held the knife to his neck.
“Take all, take them,” Min said.
“Shut up, man.”
The two men behind Min had already gotten his wallet and were fumbling to pull his cell phone from his pocket.
“Take is okay,” Min said again.
One of the men behind him started laughing and doing a mock impression. “We is okay taking.”
The others laughed at this, and then the man with the knife ran the blade over Min’s chest in a Z-pattern.
“Keep walking, motherfucker,” said one of the men.
By the time a blue, rusted Taurus drove by the men had vanished around a corner. Min walked as fast as he could without breaking into a trot.
The next day, when he met Jillian, he didn’t tell her about the mugging until nearly the end of their session.
“Min,” she said, “you should have called me. I could have helped.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Nothing to do from it.”
“Do you need some money? Do you have credit cards? Cash?”
“I have money. The card on order.”
Jillian reached across the table and stroked his hair. “Jesus, Min, you have to be careful. Don’t go walking around when it’s not busy. You’re a target, you know?”
That night, when he got home, he tried to replace the sensation of the knife running over his chest with the feeling of Jillian’s fingers touching his scalp.
After Min’s first year in the U.S., despite spending as much time studying English as about verylarge-scale integration, he had not failed one course.
Jillian, meanwhile, had switched her master’s program from biology to art history. It would take her a year longer to finish, but she said her parents didn’t mind paying the extra money. Her Mandarin hadn’t improved much, but Min believed that if she ever went to China she would at least be able to order food and get around using the bus system.
By this time, instead of meeting at the campus coffee shop, she and Min had started spending hours driving around in Jillian’s old Honda to run errands in the city, eat at diners, and pretend to study at various bookstores. On these days, Jillian would “dress down” in sweatpants and cotton shirts, but Min always noticed she still put on makeup and kept her hair stylishly spun
on top of her head.
Once, at a department store, they ran into one of Jillian’s ex-boyfriends. He was a tall man with a muscular chest ensconced in a tight, mesh shirt. He had a big nose and wide face, but his voice was surprisingly high-pitched.
“So you’re from China,” he said to Min, “as in China, China?”
Min nodded yes, but heard Jillian sigh. The boyfriend looked at her.
“Which China do you think he’s from, Ben?” she asked.
“No, I mean,” Ben said, “a lot of people are from Hong Kong or Taiwan, you know? Like the people running the restaurants.”
“I am from mainland,” Min said. “Shanxi province, it’s north and central.”
Ben nodded. “Cool, man,” he said. “Well, welcome to the U.S.”
Jillian sighed again. “Jesus, Ben, he doesn’t need a greeting. He’s been here for two years. He’s not like some hick. And he doesn’t work at a Chinese restaurant, okay?”
Ben rolled his eyes at Min.
Min smiled back and wondered if Ben thought he was Jillian’s new boyfriend, or if, perhaps, Jillian wanted Ben to think that.
When they pulled up to the graduate dormitories, Jillian let out a sigh.
“You see why I left that guy, right? I mean, he’s just doesn’t get things, you know?
Asking if you’re from China China. Like he was trying to call you out or something. Like you don’t know you don’t look American?”
Min had nodded even though the comment hurt him. In the past year, he had bought a hoodie, jeans, and a number of tee-shirts from thrift shops with nonsensical writings such as “Benny’s Bawlers” or “Farmington Football Is the Fastest.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess he is kind of sexy, right?”
She laughed, and then touched Min’s arm. “I’m sorry, honey, did I hurt your feelings?”
“Not me,” Min said. “I’m tough.”
She kissed him on the cheek.
“You’re a lot more of a catch than him,” Jillian said. “What we need to do is find you a girl!”
“Yes,” Min said.
He wanted to tell her that she was that girl. But he quickly decided that this would be the wrong approach, and that it might ruin what they had and make his life in America even lonelier.
“What does this mean?” he asked to break the silence. “To be a catch?”
“Oh, Min,” Jillian said, “you really are from China, China, aren’t you?”
By the time Min had started serious work on his dissertation he found he was even busier, but he always spent as much time with Jillian as he could. He told himself it was to practice English, but by now, in his third year, he had enough to get by without much trouble.
One night, while he was working to decipher a complex circuit integration, Jillian called to ask if he could come over. There had been another breakup, but this time the man had left her.
“I’ll be over soonest,” Min said, hearing something wrong in the wording.
“Soon, honey,” Jillian said. “Just say soon.”
Min took the city’s ailing bus system to the suburbs where Jillian stayed in a rented bungalow. He found her in a short, black dress with eyeliner smeared on her face. It was nine o’clock, and Min could see the latest boyfriend had broken up with her before a night out.
“Men are rodents,” Jillian said. “All of them.”
Min ordered a pizza and they ate watching the comedy station. Min found stand-up comics to be great teachers of not just English, but American culture, which seemed to him an odd mix of earnestness and irony.
“Min,” Jillian said, “I think I have to give up on learning Mandarin. I’m just too lazy. I have no ability to finish things, you know?”
“No,” Min said, “you have improved a lot.”
She laughed. “Stop that act. I was done at ni hao and you know it.”
She started breathing heavily. Her eyes were watering.
“It okay,” Min said to her. “You teach me English, right? I much better than I was.”
“You would have figured it out,” she said.
Tears fell on her cheeks.
“No,” Min said. “If it wasn’t for you I don’t know if I would still be here. I might have given up, gone home.”
She wiped her eyes and got up. They cleared the pizza boxes and watched a comedian do a routine about getting out of a pickup truck that was too large for his short body.
“It’s not very manly,” the comedian said, “when you have to brace yourself for the landing.”
Jillian gave him a blanket and Min tossed and turned on the couch until he dozed off.
Around 3 a.m., Jillian woke him. She motioned him upstairs to the bedroom.
They didn’t start kissing until they were both in the bed and under the covers. When he went to take his pants off, he stumbled slightly in the dark and Jillian chuckled and continued doing so even after he had gotten the condom on and they were about to start having sex.
“What?” Min asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” she said, “just go ahead Min, go ahead.”
The next morning, Jillian got up to go to a class and Min lounged around the house sipping coffee and trying to remember every detail from the past few hours. When he went to get his sweater from her bedroom he opened her closet and looked at the long row of skirts and slacks and dresses. On top of a shelf he saw a stack of journals at least a foot high.
He took them down and brought them over to her bed. Careful not to get the books out of order, Min started reading. He was skimming, mostly, for his own name. At first he couldn’t find it anywhere, as almost every page seemed filled with details of whichever boyfriend was occupying her at the moment. Then he found the entries from their first meeting.
This guy is so cute I can’t stand it, Jillian wrote. He’s totally nerdy, but you can see underneath the glasses and the fact that his English is so bad he’s pretty cool. I feel like, in this weird way, I’ve found the one!
Cute? The one?
Min thought back to that first meeting. She had seemed so preoccupied with other things that might as well have been a stuffed mannequin. Yet, it seemed from the journals she had been smitten.
Subsequent entries held the same level of excitement.
I told Min about dumping Chen today, she wrote. I tried to read his reaction to see if he was excited or what, but couldn’t get anything. He’s just too cool! Reading his thoughts is like finding a light switch in the dark—I love that about him.
In other sections, she seemed to think he was not interested in her, and not the other way around.
It worries me, she wrote, that he thinks I’m fat and stupid. I can’t even say goodbye yet in Chinese! What must he think of me?
At another point, she had written: If Min only knew what he could have. Why did he even come to the U.S.? Imagine the kind of woman he could get in China? Probably beautiful, rich, and intelligent. Instead, the only person he can get here is me, and that’s a sad thing.
The more entries he read the more Min wanted to shut the journals. How could it be possible he had missed these signs from her? Why, until last night, when she dragged him into her bed after yet another rejection, had they failed to become a couple? Was he so weak and pathetic? Was he so afraid of life and the things it had presented him?
In an entry from three days prior, Jillian had seemed to have given up on their coming together. He’s the marrying type, she wrote, and though I can see us getting married, once he becomes successful he’ll realize he could have done better. I shouldn’t put myself in that situation. Besides, if it hasn’t happened by now why would it ever happen?
After reading these lines, Min placed the journals on the shelves and finished getting dressed. He couldn’t finish his coffee, and as he washed the dishes in the kitchen, he saw his hands were shaking.
When the bus to campus didn’t arrive on time, Min started walking. He would be late for a meeting with his advisor, but he didn’t care. From here on out, he had decided, there would be no more wasting time on frivolous conversation and trips to the mall. There would be no more misunderstandings in this stupid country with this stupid life he had worked so hard to acquire. There would be no more Jillian.
Min looked up to see a man approaching him with a slight limp. The man asked Min for the time. As Min went to move the sleeve from his watch, the man lifted his shirt to reveal a gun handle.
“Just hand over your wallet,” he told Min. “Just like you was giving me a gift on my birthday.”
Min reached into his pocket and the man grabbed at him. “Don’t fuck with me.”
“I am just getting my wallet,” Min said in calm, correct English.
After the man had left, Min hailed a cab. He paid for it with the $20 he kept tucked in a hidden pocket in his sneaker. He tipped the driver $7 because his hands were shaking too much to bother counting out change.
“Hey, man,” said one of the Yemenis, who was leafing through his mail in the lobby, “where you been?”
“Fucking an alien,” Min said.
The sun was so low that it was glistening off the metal chains of the swingsets. They had stayed two hours longer than their agreed upon visiting time. Min reached into the bag in which he kept
snacks for the boys and pulled out a Moleskine notebook.
“After we stopped our meetings, I started keeping a journal,” he said to her. “I didn’t do it often, but sometimes.”
He handed it to her.
“This is the only one?”
Min nodded. “Just big things I wrote. That’s all.”
“Wow,” Jillian said.
“It’s for you,” he said.
“But why?” she asked.
“I did not write it for me.”
Jillian sat for a moment looking at her daughter.
“You know, Min,” she said. “I’ve never forgiven you for what happened. After that one night—you know. I never understood. You didn’t call. You wouldn’t respond to messages or letters. It’s embarrassing, but I used to walk by your dorm room day and night hoping to see you. It was mean, what you did.”
A knot formed in Min’s throat. He tried to clear it and failed.
“I know,” he said. “If I had known how things would—” But he stopped himself. Too much time had passed. “Read the journal,” he said. “It explains some things.”
“I don’t think so,” Jillian said. “I don’t care to know anymore.”
She handed the journal back to him.
“I understand,” he said, “but I want you to know I kept this for you. That was the whole reason for my writing it.”
This was true. Min had begun the journal with the idea—at times consciously, at times not—that he would give it to Jillian to show he had succeeded in the U.S. He had written, for instance, of the obsessive time he had put into finishing his dissertation and the praise it won from colleagues. After that, he wrote about the job he landed with a computer engineering firm in Chicago, which ensured his chances to stay on in the U.S. He had written about the Chinese woman he had met through an Internet dating site who had originally been seeking a U.S. husband, but who he managed to woe. He wrote about their first years together, and how he helped her with English and tried to teach her how to dress more like an American. He wrote about the time that, when he told her to “dress down” to go for a hike, she showed up in athletic shorts and high heels.
Jillian’s daughter was tugging at her skirt and whining.
“There’s one part I want you to see,” Min said. “It’s toward the end.”
He opened to the page and handed it to her. She read: Some days I cannot believe how much has changed in such a short time. I came here foreign, but am now a U.S. citizen with a good job, family, and hopes for future. But there is still something missing. For a long time I did not know what, but I think I do now. It is my Chinese language partner. If only she had told me how she felt before I had grown too proud of myself. Things may have turned out differently.
“Well,” Jillian said, “Your handwriting is still perfect. And now it’s even in proper English.”
“Is that all you want to say?” he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
They hugged, and Min smelled Jillian’s perfume, strong and oddly sour. He went to pull away, but felt her hands tense on his arms, and instead of pulling back, he lowered his face. Her lips were cracked and dry, and it took them a moment to get a proper kiss going.
“The kids,” she finally said, and let go of him.
“Yes,” Min said, and did not dare to look at his two sons, who were old enough to know this was not a simple goodbye kiss, but not yet old enough, he hoped, to find it necessary to tell their mother.
Within twenty minutes of the city limits, his boys were already asleep and snoring softly. Min got a little lost, but managed to spot a familiar street name and followed it back to their hotel. He pulled into a parking spot and, when opening the door, noticed a trash can a few yards away. He picked the journal up off the seat beside him, walked the few steps to the bin, and tossed the book inside.
© 2012 Alex Ortolani. All rights reserved.