The botany of a marriage – fiction by Yang Huang
As soon as I set foot in the nursery’s garden I find the auspicious flower: a red double peony. Its huge blossoms burst forth as if brimming over with rose-red joy. I stand in awe, while the store clerk tells me its strong stems never fall, even in the harshest weather. Its name, Old Faithful, makes it perfect for my home, as my husband and I are going to have our thirtieth wedding anniversary in two weeks.
“Yes,” I say.
I carry the potted peony to the storefront. My husband is talking to a young woman with a fluffy, chrysanthemum-like hairdo. “Can you give me a hand?” I call out to him. The woman glances at me, backs away into the crowd, and boards the bus.
My husband takes my heavy pot and clamps it onto the back seat of his bike. “You scared away some business,” he tells me with a smile.
“What sort of business?”
“The bawdy kind.” He crisscrosses the pot with a nylon rope and fastens a dead knot. “I’m pretty sure she was a prostitute.”
“You mean she wanted you?”
He pushes the bike onto the sidewalk. “Am I not a man? Don’t I have a wallet?”
“Watch your mouth!”
I feel a sharp pain in my back and grab the seat of his bike. My fibroids are acting up again. I’ve had them for more than ten years; now I am beginning to have belly and back pains. My husband took me to the hospital this morning, and the doctor suggested I have a hysterectomy – to have both my uterus and ovaries removed. It’s a safe procedure, she told me, and many women who have had it are very happy with the results. I told her I had to think about it. Upset, I left the hospital with the single thought that I’d buy something nice to cheer me up. I found the Old Faithful, but what’s the use of that if my husband is bent on ruining my day?
“You carry on like this, and make sure that bad luck follows my heels,” I accuse him.
“Take it easy.” He holds my hand and squeezes it gently. “She wants business and we don’t, so there’s no transaction, end of story.”
I watch the crowd move in the street. Young men and women dress in white, fawn, lavender, and dark summer outfits that bring out their radiant faces. No one knows I am about to lose my uterus, with which I have carried three children. My older daughter is expecting a baby, and my younger daughter is getting married to an Indian man. My son is dating a professional dancer, who seems to think herself too pretty for him. Not that I care much for young people’s folly, but here I stand on the sidewalk in the midday sun, feeling stranded on an island of youth with my old man.
“Look at you!” I stroke his sunken cheek, his lusterless skin. “You’re not too wrinkled for a fifty-three-year-old, I guess.”
He wraps his arm around my waist, and pushes the bike with his free hand. “Wife, you’re a shapely fifty-one-year-old.”
As far as I can remember, I placed only one bet in my whole life – to choose a man and marry. Based on the Gregorian calendar, my husband’s birthday was in early July and mine was in late July. However, according to the lunar calendar, we were born on the same day and hour but two years apart, which I took as a good omen when we started out. Back then he couldn’t afford to take me to a good eating house. There was a peony tree near where he lived, so he brought me a white peony on our first date. I kept it in a pink enamel cup for over a month until it withered. Its petals became brittle and eventually broke to pieces. We were married a year later on our lunar birthday. The sweet scent of peony permeated our new home. Ten months later we had our first daughter. From then on we celebrated our anniversary in place of our lunar birthday. We were blessed with a son and a younger daughter in years to come. Bringing up three children nearly took all that we had; I never owned a tube of lipstick until my children left home. Yet every year I bought a half-dozen cut peonies to celebrate our anniversary. Today, for the first time in thirty years, I allowed myself to buy a specimen plant.
I unlock the apartment door and let my husband carry the potted peony inside. “Was she good-looking?” I ask casually.
I drop my keys, which fall noisily on the dining room table. “The woman you met at the bus stop, in front of the floral shop.”
“I’ve forgotten her face.”
“Times have really changed.” I kick off my pumps and slide into my cloth slippers. “There wasn’t a divorced family in our neighborhood until ten years ago. Now a hooker can approach my husband in broad daylight, when I turn my head for ten minutes.” I sit on the sofa and watch him take the watering can from our balcony.
“I have to tell you a story.” He brushes my knee with his fingers as he passes me on his way to the kitchen. “Once upon a time, an old monk and his disciple went to cross a puddle, where they found a beautiful woman who was stranded. The young disciple chanted, ‘Amitābha, may Buddha preserve us,’ so that he wouldn’t be tempted.” My husband raises his voice as water pours into the can. “The old monk went ahead without a word and carried the woman over the puddle. The disciple was distressed by his master’s action, but didn’t dare to voice his opinion. Then, after a long while, the disciple couldn’t stand the silence anymore and asked, ‘How could you, my master, carry a woman in your arms?’ Surprised, the old monk replied, ‘I put her down long ago. Are you still carrying her?’”
I don’t smile but peer at myself in the armoire mirror. People always said how young I looked, until last year, when I stopped having my periods. I haven’t gotten more wrinkles, but my skin has lost its sheen and become a little rubbery. Every morning after I wash, I have to rub in a palmload of cream to keep my skin from feeling tight on my face. I pat my cheeks and suck them in to make myself a pointed chin.
My husband turns off the faucet and carries the watering can into the living room. “What I don’t get is how a wise woman like you, who has raised three grown children and is a worshiper of Guanyin, can get jealous over a prostitute?”
“Jealous? Get over yourself!” I get up to take the watering can from his hands. “I was worried about you, who might be tempted.” I’m about to say “by a young chick,” but I don’t feel like reminding him about the hooker, so I try a figurative expression: “by the weeds at the roadside.” I mist the peony, its bright red blossoms and dark green leaves. If only my skin could plump up with water and glisten like that.
“Is this a good plant?”
“The best: it’s called Old Faithful.” I put the watering can on the floor and stand up to push my fist into the small of my back. “The kind of peony that creates good feng shui for a married life by counteracting bad influences from the streets.”
He lies on the sofa and leers at me. “Teach me more.”
I stride over to hit his hand. “Be serious! She’s an expensive specimen.”
“Are you sure it’s a she?”
“She blooms like a lady.” I sit on the sofa and lean my head against his shins. “When the dew seeps into the bud, the peony flower opens like a bride to her groom.”
He jolts my head lightly with his knees. “Dirty talk.”
His shins open and I drop onto his stomach. I say with a laugh, “Aren’t you a little concerned I’m going to lose the potent organs in my belly?” I slide a hand to lace my fingers with his.
He pulls me up to lie on his chest. “Yes.” I stiffen a little, waiting for him to continue. “Our children ought to be here and help me look after their mother.” He reaches his hand down to my belly and rubs it with his palm. “But I’ll do my best to be your nursemaid, and make sure that you recover through and through.”
I let out a long breath that I didn’t know I was holding. Then I lay my hand on top of his to rub my belly with him in slow circles. I can feel the dry warmth of his palm.
When Saturday comes, I help my husband sort the new survey forms for his youth unemployment study. For the first time in months, he gives me a handful of forms with one-inch Polaroid headshots instead of the booklets of psychological test results. It’s nice for me to match a face with a form. I thumb through the stack of paper with interest. Suddenly one photo makes my eyes pop. I fold its corner and peer at my husband, who carries the watering can and a basket into the yard.
“Skip the peony,” I tell him. “It needs to stay dry.”
I study the form, certain that I’ve found a culprit, then bring the sheet to him in the yard. “Do you recognize her?”
He unfolds the corner of the paper with his wet fingers. “Who is she?”
I wave the form in his face. “Do you really not know her?”
“I designed the study, and my grad students helped me with the research. I’ve never met her.”
“Oh, yes, you did.” I prod his temple. “She asked you to do a certain business with her.”
He snatches the form to have a closer look. “Her hair was different, wasn’t it?”
She looks bald with her hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail. There’s nothing sultry about her, except for the maroon lipstick on her mouth.
“She ought to be disqualified,” I say.
“Well, doesn’t she have a job already, a business, as you call it?”
“She’s one of the twenty-five finalists in my survey pool, which started out six months ago with more than a thousand subjects.” He hands the form back to me. “We want to recommend her to the employment agency.”
“But a prostitute belongs in jail.”
“It so happens she also belongs to an expensive study.” My husband snaps off the daylily blooms, which he’ll use to make an appetizing soup for me. “There’re so many young women from the countryside who don’t hold salaried jobs in Nanjing that it’s hard for us to track them down and get the statistics. I need her for a final interview before sending her away.”
I want to tell him she’s trouble, but I’m afraid he’ll laugh at me for being jealous. What have I got to be jealous of? Nothing at all. I’ve only slept with one man in my life, and I’m almost an old woman. But the photo doesn’t show me an attractive woman. With a pug nose and a thin yellow face, the prostitute looks underfed and sleepy, and nowhere near as pretty as my pregnant daughter who was born the same year as she was. Last night I browsed through my daughter’s photos on her website. Getting heavier each week, she looks like a pampered child with her soft plump cheeks. But this woman, Sui, if that’s her real name, wanted to sleep with my husband for money. In other words, she intended to rob our family bank by opening her legs.
I take the form and roll it up. “If she means that much to your study, can I do you a favor and interview her for you?”
“You know we welcome free labor, so long as you put on your kind, motherly face and ask them our list of questions. Don’t be creative.” He puts the watering can on the ground. “Next Saturday, be on time.”
I cover my mouth with my hand, because it’ll be our birthday and anniversary. I’d give anything to avoid bad luck on that day, but I have no choice. I’d rather suffer it out myself than have the trollop go near my husband again. I stamp my foot so hard that I nearly crush a daylily.
“Not so fast.” He grabs my hand. “You have to interview all my subjects because I don’t want interviewer variation in my data.”
“Maybe I’ll start off by asking this woman how unemployed she really is.”
My husband reaches up and pinches my bottom. I slap away his hand and run back inside. What if our neighbors see us? Sometimes he picks the wrong place to be funny. ∎