How to Use Chopsticks
A short story written in 2008.
Peter and Fred boarded a plane six days after I arrived in Beijing. I was busying myself snapping photos at every turn, recording expenses and conversations, for the Travel feature. The sunlight slanted across my frequent haunt, the Palace Museum, in the early mornings of a beautiful spring. I satisfied my homesickness for Washington, D.C. by wandering through this temple to the arts. For the sake of the article, I’d also visited the typical tourist destinations of China, and was now preparing to tour various Buddhist temples in and around the city. I set out for Biyun Si, the Temple of the Azure Clouds. I never got to any temple beyond it.
All the details of the trip have long since been published by the Post. I should explain this business of Peter and Fred, a story that begins back in my lifelong home of the District. It was autumn, and a spicy musk filled the air. The breeze blew through my poorly-chosen outerwear, a crocheted sweater full of intentional holes. I shoved my hands deep in my pockets, and quickened my pace as I passed under the golden archway of Chinatown, spotting my favorite restaurant a block ahead. As usual, I would eat alone. I shared my life with the white fluff-ball I call Malcolm, a fellow creature of habit; he was the only living creature who calmed me and ignored my emotional baggage. The red door jangled softly as I shoved into the restaurant. Husband-and-wife proprietors smiled in unison at my appearance, directing me to my usual table with a glance. I nodded slightly, and trotted to the back of the restaurant, rubbing my arms like a boy scout’s fire-sticks.
A twenty-going-on-sixteen waitress in skinny black jeans stooped over me, as I impatiently repeated my regular order a third time: hot tea, chow mein, egg drop soup. She finally got it copied down on her notepad, turned with a toss of her long, scraggly hair, and wandered off to the kitchen. I busied myself with a colleague’s article on Belize, scratching out unnecessary words and squeezing lengthy comments in tiny script into the margins. The girl floated back to my table, plunking a tall glass unceremoniously in front of me. I stared for a moment at the drops of sticky brown liquid tainting the copy, then looked up at the waitress, moving only my eyes. The glare was sufficient. “Oh. Sorry,” she mumbled, picking the glass up and carrying it off to another unwitting customer. My tea finally arrived, lukewarm. I frowned into it, but said nothing.
The waitress, the kind of girl whose ethereal sparseness fit the contemporary ideal of desirability, brought my food a few minutes later. It was even the correct order. I watched her drop the plate in front of me with thin fingers, and noticed her elbows poking out under her taut skin. If she turned sidewise, she’d disappear altogether. I picked up my fork and dug into the chow mein, as the zombie-girl ambled off with my unused set of chopsticks, winding her hair around them absent-mindedly, forming a bird’s-nest chignon.
“You know, that’s not what those are for,” an elderly man a few tables away grumbled, holding his own set of chopsticks with fine precision. My head snapped up at the sound of his voice, and squinted at him. The girl ignored him, weaving among the tables, as the man turned, catching my face as my lips twitched into a smile, and winked at me. I really smiled now — he did recognize me! He dabbed his mouth with a napkin, and rose slowly, following the waitress’ own path between tables, until he stood stooping over mine. “Miss Rawlins,” his voice was earnest and gravelly, “so good to see you.”
I dropped my fork with a clang, and rose to take Fred’s hand. “Professor Qing. I never expected to run into you. How have you been, sir?”
Fred chuckled, a low burbling in the back of his throat, which set off a long string of wheezing, phlegmy hacking. His hand gripped the back of an adjacent chair tightly, relaxing only as his convulsing slowed. “I’ve seen better days,” he choked out, his eyes twinkling nonetheless. He pulled the chair around, and settled himself into it. “Old age is a hell of a thing,” he grinned. “Don’t mind if I join you a moment, do you Miss Rawlins?”
“No sir! Not at all,” I exclaimed, scolding myself for not offering him a chair. I resumed eating, carefully; now was not the time to spill anything. We chatted amiably for a while, reviewing briefly our lives in the past eighteen years. I neglected to mention my divorce, and the resultant anxiety that my life was destined for a dead-end. He didn’t tell me he was a widower, nor did he mention the cancer. This was just an unexpected, pleasant interaction between former pupil and professor. That might have been all it was, if I hadn’t been on my lunch break.
You see, I didn’t notice the crowd thinning, or hear the seconds trickling away like the soda that my skinny waitress spilled. I didn’t feel any shift in the breezes, but change was happening, and my usual insistence on punctuality somehow evaporated. I was describing my editorial position at the Washington Post, pointing to the article I was proofing, abruptly stopping mid-sentence as realization dawned on me. It was after three o’clock, and I was missing a meeting with the Editor in Chief. For a moment, my stomach bolted into my throat. Fred noticed my panic immediately. He didn’t say anything, simply stood, and rested his hand on my shoulder.
“Rawlins,” he rumbled, “time to get a move on, my son’s expecting me.” He winked again, and shambled away through the empty restaurant and the red jangling door. I dove instinctively for my purse, and the trusty pill bottle. I swallowed a pill down dry, tossed a bank note onto the table, chucked the bottle back into the purse, and hustled back to the Metro. My boss was going to kill me!
Racing up three flights of stairs, I flung myself through the oak door without preamble. Francine, the secretary was probably stunned by my behavior, but I had already shot past her and slammed through the Editor’s door. He wasn’t there.
I swiveled around, scuttling back to Francine. “Where is he?” I wheezed.
“Mr. Hoskins is in a meeting,” Francine stated primly.
I groaned, and without another word, made my way slowly to the second floor. Some of my coworkers watched my walk of shame to my desk, their eyebrows raised, but no one said a thing. I slumped down in my office chair, gulped a mouthful of air, then sat up straight, tense. After a few minutes, I forced myself back to the stained half-proofed article, and began mechanically adjusting punctuation marks.
I popped up when my phone rang. It was Francine. “Mr. Hoskins would like to meet with you at four.”
“All right,” my voice warbled, “thank you, Francine.” I dropped the receiver.
Fourteen minutes, another pill, and one flight of stairs later, I watched as George Hoskins arranged his wide frame into a black leather wingback, behind a massive mahogany table.
“Mr. Hoskins, I am so sorry,” I started.
He held up a hand. “Jeanine, please. How long have I known you?”
I calculated quickly, and mumbled, “eight years.”
“Then please, after eight years,” he scowled, “call me George!”
“Sorry,” my fingers crushed against themselves in my lap. “George.”
“Fine, fine,” George stared at me for a moment, leaning back, presumably to better accommodate his rotund belly. “Out of curiosity, why were you late?” He assumed a look of definite curiosity, tilting his head.
“I ran into one of my old professors.”
“Oh?” George was resting his head on a hand now, his bulbous nose pushed into his knuckles. “Of what subject?” he somehow managed to get past the cage of fingers in front of his mouth.
“History of China,” I mumbled, hoping I wouldn’t have to explain the entire conversation to my ever-interrogative boss.
“Well, fancy that!” he exploded, “it really is a small world!”
“Why do you say that…George,” I added.
“Well, that gets me to the point of this meeting. I have an assignment for you.”
My stomach clenched up. “An assignment? But sir –”
There was that annoying hand, up again to stop my fluttering. “Jeanine, I know you haven’t been up for the travel for a long time, but I need you on this one. You’re my best editor, but you’re a better writer. And you’re the only one who can do this job.”
“What’s the job?” I heard myself squeak out. I forced a deep breath; I needed to regain some composure.
“China. Next March.”
I shook my head slowly, trying to process this ridiculous concept. “Sir — George,” I corrected, “I don’t think I can do that.”
“Of course you can. You’re the best I’ve got, and besides, you know the language, you’re a talented photographer,” his voice trailed off as I stared at him.
I blushed queasily. “I’m terribly rusty,” my voice cracked, “I haven’t spoken Chinese or taken a photo in years.”
“Like riding a bike, Jeanine, like riding a bike.” George grimaced a bit at the hue I was taking on, his hands now gripping the arms of his chair. “I’m giving you fair warning, so you can decide. But Jeanine,” he began to slowly ascend, “you’ll put me in a terrible pickle if you don’t accept the job. This story’s going to be important. The readers want — hell, I want to see China. Through your words, we will.” George was staring hopefully down at me past his jowls.
“I’ll — I’ll think about it.” I stood up shakily, my stomach flopping around even more at higher elevation. George simply nodded, turning to a window as I trudged the long way back down to my desk.
My colleagues watched silently as I slouched into my chair again. My eyes lit upon the yellowish tape that affixed an old postcard to my PC monitor: The Great Wall of China. It was too much for me to take, and I ran down the corridor of desks to the bathroom, my hand over my mouth.
That night, after a very uncomfortable train ride home, the memory of lunch fully coated my memory, now that I’d experienced it twice. I pushed past the food part, and shifted my focus to the strange meeting with Fred Qing. I was stretched out on my back over the length of my sofa-sleeper, reading a novel by Anchee Min as my cat, Malcolm, was curled up snoozing on my stomach. I scanned the same lines for the fifth time, and gave up on the novel. My mind was too busy drifting over the day. Would I go to China? Well, of course, I would. I had to, I know that now.
Two months passed, days of dreary rain pelting my head, mashing the fallen leaves into the muddy ground. Thick velvety grey clouds blanketed the sky for weeks, it seemed. I contented myself with weekly visits to the Freer Gallery, my favorite of the Smithsonian’s museums. I bundled myself up each Saturday in my wool pea-coat, hopped onto a train (the complimentary Orange and Blue Lines vying for my affections), and strolled through the gallery. Usually, no one bothered me, though the docents did seem to recognize me.
It was nearly December when Fred and I met again. I was intently studying a sea foam-colored Guan Ware crackled vase (Song Dynasty, 12th Century), when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I tensed up, turned, and met the grinning eyes of my professor, once more. “Professor Qing!” I exclaimed. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d embraced him, my tension gone in an instant.
“Ms. Rawlins, pleasure to see you again,” Fred mumbled, almost as taken aback by the hug as I was.
“And you, sir.”
Now again, I was permitted a first-name basis. I wondered why these situations were coming up now, and why I was so uncomfortable with those terms of familiarity. My shrink would say it stemmed from my fear of intimacy and my inability to get over my divorce. She’d probably have cheered if she’d seen me nearly tackling my elderly professor.
I realized I hadn’t spoken in several minutes, and was now staring into space. Coming to, I breathed, “I’m sorry.”
“What for, my dear?” Fred scratched the tufts of white hair at the base of his bald head, and smiled. “I assumed you were studying that jade statuette,” he said, pointing over his shoulder with a thumb.
I could only beam at Fred’s kindness. “Fred, would you care to walk with me for a while, on the Mall?” Fred graciously agreed. We wandered together, stopping occasionally to muse over a scroll or carving, before collecting our coats. I busily pattered on about ceramics, as Fred nodded and grunted, but found myself stopping midsentence once again, as we stepped through the doors. Fred looked at my bemused face, and he radiated calm, as though he were himself responsible for the sight before me.
Great feathery clumps of snow drifted down all around us, covering the trees and grass in pure white. How was this possible? I could have sworn it was raining when I arrived three hours ago! Fred’s cabby hat sat jauntily over the fuzzy white hair, his pipe dangled from his lip. Smoke encircled his head like a wreath, and he began to look like an Iconic portrait of a blessed saint. I felt then that Fred possessed a kind of magic.
I spent the day with Fred, kicking up the snow as we sauntered about the Mall. He smoked and listened as I told him about the proposed assignment in China. “What do you think?” I asked.
“Jeanine,” Fred pulled on his pipe, his black eyes shining, “you should go. You know this.”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I have always wanted to, but — ” I hesitated. “I’ve always been too scared.”
“Fear is understandable, Jeanine. And anything that can be understood can be overcome. You make an agreement between yourself and fear. You tell fear to be afraid!” At this, Fred raised a fist triumphantly.
I laughed at Fred’s exclamation, heartily, and he joined in. The bout of coughing that followed lasted much longer than the last time, agitated by the cold, and Fred gripped onto my arm for support. I faced him, tapping on his back helplessly with my free hand, then wrapped the arm around his back, my fingers in his armpit. I supported him this way, as we resumed the walk, more slowly.
“Don’t ever get old, Jeanine,” Fred rasped. I sighed helplessly.
Fred and I descended the escalator at Smithsonian station, and boarded a train, sitting alongside one another toward the back. Fred’s thin-skinned hand, the hand that so delicately controlled a pair of chopsticks, that I imagined once formed a clay jar, or wrote fine calligraphy, rested weary between both of my own. I accompanied him to his home, an apartment on the third floor. We rode a rickety elevator in silence. Fred perked up when we reached the landing.
“You can meet my son, Peter!” Fred nearly bounded into the apartment. I remained in the elevator, marveling at the sudden vitality flooding his cheeks, then squeezed myself past the doors as they began to slide shut.
Fred left the front door hanging open, as he padded around the apartment, looking for Peter. But Peter wasn’t there. I passed through the open door, into the foyer. Fred returned to me, frowning. “He went out for the afternoon, I suppose,” he muttered, twisting the cabby hat between his hands.
“Perhaps he went to look for you,” I mused.
“Yes. I suppose that’s a possibility.” Fred glowered. “I wish you could have met him, I think you’d get along very well.”
I smiled at Fred’s obvious matchmaking attempt, and replied, “Another day, Fred. Another day.”
“Yes.” Fred stood stiffly in the doorway to the kitchen. I took his cold hand again. He squeezed my fingers and nodded, then abruptly shifted away, into the kitchen. I silently released his fingers, and reached for the doorknob aback me. As my fingers alighted upon it, Fred shuffled back into the hall, croaking my name. He silently held a pair of lacquered wooden chopsticks out to me, his eyes twinkling, falling stars. Any objection I might have had faded, as he gently placed them in my hands, murmuring, “You can learn.”
“Will you teach me?” I whispered. Fred simply smiled, his wrinkled face so very tired, and blinked dilatorily. He patted my hands, chopsticks and all, and left me again. I waited in the grey-lit hall for several minutes, but Fred never reappeared.
Another day never came. I meant to visit Fred again, but I suddenly found myself busier than I’d been in years. My colleagues, for some reason, had taken to asking me to lunch. In January, I dragged my trusty old rangefinder out of storage, and began to take test shots. George approved of them — actually, he jumped, don’t ask me how, and exclaimed, “Brilliant!” so loudly that Francine spilled coffee all over her desk. At that, I couldn’t help but remember the waif of a waitress, which brought me back to thoughts of Fred. But I could do nothing.
My psychiatrist told me I’d never seemed healthier; she suggested a “drug holiday.” I decided to try it in February. I didn’t know what to do with myself at first, but I adjusted after a few weeks; by the time my “working holiday” arrived, I felt surprisingly well.
March’s groundcover consisted of snow-mush puddles. Cherry trees came to bud as I reviewed Chinese phrasebooks and packed my bags. Francine kindly offered to care for Malcolm during my absence. I didn’t sleep the night before the flight, but read a novel and began another one, which I continued during my four hours at the “hurry up and wait” sport of commuting by air: Orange train, connecting Coach, line to check-in, line to be checked out, hike down Concourse C — why are flights always at the furthest gate from Security? By the time I did finally get on board, I was exhausted; I slept for most of the flight (besides the irritating connection in Ontario).
All the other little details of my trip to China were in the feature, but the important thing is this. I went to the Temple of the Azure Clouds. It was day eight, a Thursday. The temple shone blue-bright among the Western Hills towering around it. I moseyed around, basking in the locus of mysterious electricity, remembering occasionally to take a photograph, when I spotted a man kneeling by the goldfish pond of one of the courtyards. There was nothing particularly unusual about this, except that beside him, in incredibly fine form, was a pale turquoise vase, which I would have sworn was Guan Ware. I found myself drawn to this specimen, for surely such an antiquity wouldn’t be on the ground here?
I approached quietly, but the man sensed me nonetheless, and looked up. His salient face revealed he was middle-aged, and his black eyes shone wetly. I bowed, greeting him in Chinese. He looked amazed that I spoke the language, and returned my greeting.
“Pardon me,” I ventured, “but do you know anything about this vase?”
“Yes,” the man replied, “but why do you ask?” He stood now, taller than me, and carefully picked the container up with both hands.
“Forgive me, but it looks like an antiquity of the Song dynasty.” The man smiled, again surprised at my knowledge.
“Yes, that’s exactly what it is,” he said quietly, stroking the side of the vase with a thumb. I crooked my head forward to examine the ceramic, curiously. After a few moments, I realized that I might be disturbing him. I quickly looked up, prepared to apologize, but I saw his eyes twinkling.
“Sir — ”
“Peter,” he corrected. He angled his head toward a wooden bench across from where we stood. I preceded him, and we sat, the vase resting between us, both our eyes glued to the rare, beautiful object. As I studied it, something clicked in my mind. A scrap of something, perhaps only a dust mote of inkling, floated from the far reaches of memory. George Hoskins was right, I realized, it really is a small world.
“Peter,” as I pronounced his name, my throat tightened. “Why are you here?”
He took a deep breath. “My father,” he said, reverting to English, without warning. He stroked the lid of the urn with his long index finger, his voice cracking. “He wanted to be buried here, in these hills.”
Tears were already falling down my cheeks as I asked, “What was your father’s name?”
“Fred,” Peter said softly. “His name was Fred Qing.”