“West Lake” by Sara Schaff
BLAST, TMR’s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In “West Lake,” Sara Schaff’s protagonist meditates on uncertainty, female capability, and finding community as a stranger in a foreign land.
by Sara Schaff
When I was nine months pregnant with Lili, I took the train to Hangzhou to punish my husband. I put myself up in the Sofitel, with the intention of living under soft sheets before I became a single mother. When I stepped into my clean and shining room, I felt a little flash of shame about my privilege, which had allowed me this sudden retreat from my life as I knew it.
And yet I was not ashamed enough to avoid room service the next morning. The young woman who brought me my tray of Western breakfast regarded me with frank surprise and, eyes on my belly, asked me where my husband was. “Beijing,” I replied, unfazed. “Working.” Which was true enough, but still I searched her round face for signs she understood the subtext. She only nodded and left me to my eggs and toast.
I spent the next two hours in bed, eating tiny bites of food and going over the tormented expression my husband had worn three days earlier when he told me he was in love with a Belgian woman, someone he had met on his frequent business trips to London. I did not know what she looked like or anything about her. When I asked for details, he refused to tell me, saying it wouldn’t make me feel any better. This only enraged me more. The fact that I could not even picture her in his arms made the betrayal feel worse, I told him, because in this way he had deprived me of even the pleasurable misery of hating her face.
At some point as I lay in my king-sized bed, tray of food to the side since it wouldn’t fit over my stomach, Lili began kicking so hard I almost thought I was going into labor. I knew the only way to soothe her was to move, so I spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the lake.
Xihu, which I had first walked around with my English husband before he was my husband. Willow trees and temples reflected in the lake’s glassy surface. The day was hot but bearable. Tourists and locals strolled with small dogs and children. People were friendly and greeted me with smiles and the occasional cheer. I was very large then, but of the opinion that I walked gracefully. Though emotionally I felt weak and depleted, I had never felt physically stronger, and I wore good shoes—running shoes, though I no longer ran—and didn’t care that they looked odd with the black cotton dress I’d packed for the trip.
In spite of all the calculations I kept making and remaking (how long before the pregnancy had the affair started, the extent of my stupidity, etc.) as I walked around the lake, I experienced real moments of joy. It was easy to see why Xihu had inspired generations of poets. Something about the water and the rhythm of my walk made me especially aware of the syllables surrounding me, the tones of my adopted language that I had once found so difficult but now thought very beautiful.
On that first afternoon in Hangzhou, a family from Shandong province approached me and asked to have their picture taken next to me, the lake as shimmering backdrop. Once I had written home self-indulgent letters about my loss of anonymity in China and my discomfort at being found remarkable. The “New Colonialism” was what my husband and I called it—the way white people in China were made to feel special for doing exactly nothing more than walking around.
And now here I was, doing exactly nothing aside from walking around while pregnant and white. Yet this family’s brief encircling of me almost made me cry from relief. They each in turn told me I was beautiful and fat, laughed at my Beijing accent, and corrected my pronunciation of their village when I said it.
Because of their kindness and the beauty of the lake, I had my first glimpse of a manageable future without my husband. I believed that I would be fine and that my daughter, destined to be born in Hangzhou, would also be fine. At the very least, her Mandarin would be better than mine, and someday she could make fun of me for that.
I realized it sounded a little unhinged, coming all this way to deliver my child, but I never doubted the decision. I’d been happy in Hangzhou before, with my husband, who had taken me here to convince me to marry him and move to China many years earlier. Now I wasn’t sure whether it was the place or he that had worked some magic on me. There was a strange kind of logic to delivering our child here without him.
Mostly, though, I didn’t want him to see his daughter’s face the moment she was born. I certainly didn’t want him to see me, at my most naked and animal, while probably fantasizing about his Belgian lover’s perfect body and perfect comportment, unblemished by either pregnancy or betrayal. Without informing anyone but Xu Yan, my closest friend in Beijing, I had already made arrangements at a hospital here, one that served the expat community in the region. Xu Yan had recommended the facility because of its accomplished staff of midwives from both China and Australia. She knew I’d always found the Australian accent amusing. At that point, I felt entitled to be amused.
For those days I waited for my daughter to be born, I spent all my afternoons walking around the lake. After each turn, I stopped in at a café called Starfish, with a green and white logo that would get any coffee shop back home into serious legal trouble. The coffee was terrible there; it tasted like sweat, but I liked the steaming pots of tea and the tables right next to the water. I always had a book tucked into my small purse, though I never read much of it. Instead, I stared out at the glassy surface and watched the little paddleboats gliding across it.
The evening Lili was born, I felt winded and had to sit a long while so I could catch my breath. By this time of day, the crowds were thinning. As I waited for my tea, I put my hand on my stomach and felt Lili rolling around. Through my skin, I rubbed what I thought was her sharp little ankle.
I wondered what my husband was doing, aside from going mad trying to figure out where I’d gone. How earnest and aphoristic he had sounded the last time we were here together—China is the land of opportunity now. I want to make a life there with you! It’s hard to spot the suspicious clichés when you desperately want to get back to the hotel and take off your clothes.
Now the sun was setting behind the distant hills. Something stirred in my peripheral vision. Potted juniper bushes lined this section of the promenade, and in one of them a rolled-up newspaper stuck out out of the soil. It was the newspaper that had stirred, and it did so again, this time a quick and insistent jerk.
That’s when I saw a man hunched between that pot and another, his legs dangling over the edge of the stone walkway. He was slight; his feet didn’t touch the water, which was high that summer. When he turned his face from the lake, blowing the smoke from his cigarette in a slow exhale, I saw that his skin was lined and dark. Dressed in a dusty suit jacket over black pants, the hems frayed, he sang quietly to himself and tapped his cigarette-free fingers against a bag of woven plastic. The seams of the bag were stretched to capacity. I wondered about the contents, where they’d been packed, how far they had traveled to arrive at this corner of Xihu. The man nodded his head to the rhythm of his quiet song, and as the sun disappeared, he became a silhouette against the lighter water.
The newspaper flopped again, and the man turned to it, mumbling. Dropping his cigarette into the lake, he stood up, then picked up his bag and the paper, which I understood now was a fish, recently caught. He saw me staring and nodded, then stuck the fish into the pocket of his baggy pants and walked away.
Though I resented my husband for his desertion, I was actually content to be alone. I had been an only child, and though sometimes a lonely one because of it, I had become accustomed to hours of silence, or hours filled only with the sounds I made: reading aloud to my dolls, inventing songs, snapping twigs in the forest to build myself a log cabin. It had been easy enough to become the wife of a rich man who was often traveling. I kept myself busy with painting our apartment, inventing new meals to make from the produce at the local covered market, and going to yoga class, where I met Xu Yan the year I moved to Beijing with my husband.
At first, Xu Yan and I joked about our status as tai-tais, wives to wealthy husbands, and we played the parts nicely, with our manicured nails and beautifully tailored clothing and trips to the salon to get our hair darkened or lightened or blown out.
But the truth was, Xu Yan was not a real tai-tai at all. Her husband was a professor at the prestigious Bei Da, and though doing well, he certainly wasn’t as rich as the Western and Chinese financiers in the capital. Besides, it was actually Xu Yan who was the success story in her family, when it came to providing a certain kind of lifestyle. After her son started school, she had worked quietly on her own business, making intricate, looped pearl necklaces and exporting them to North America and gaining such acclaim for her designs that I rarely saw her anymore. Her work had been profiled in what I thought of as our local paper, the China Daily, but also in international fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle.
We still met for coffee and sometimes our weekly yoga class, but Xu Yan was usually in New York or Paris or Toronto, wooing clients and attending fashion shows and getting new ideas for her latest collections.
Before I became pregnant, I confessed to Xu Yan my fear that my husband might be sleeping with someone. I did not say I thought it was probably one of the Chinese women who worked as his assistants. Such affairs were not uncommon in my husband’s office, or in our circle of friends. One of my husband’s colleagues actually called it an “occupational hazard”—leaving one’s Western wife for a younger Chinese woman. He did not seem to see the implicit racism or sexism in coining such a phrase, something my husband pointed out in a taxi ride home from that colleague’s apartment one summer night, our first summer in the city. Another aspect of New Colonialism, we decided. And I think we felt both comforted and superior for recognizing bad behavior in our fellow foreigners.
I thought I was aware of my own blind spots. My Mandarin was passable, but I was basically illiterate. And aside from Xu Yan, I had no real Chinese friends. No real foreign ones, either. Most expats annoyed me. I told Xu Yan it was because I couldn’t stand the flock mentality. In reality, the foreign women who annoyed me the most were the ones who reminded me of myself: privileged sidekicks to their CEO husbands, mildly bored with their free time, quick to complain about the air quality any chance they got.
After I told Xu Yan my fear about my husband’s affair, she had pressed a packet of herbs into my hand and told me to make a tea of them every night before bed.
“Then what?” I said. “I magically wake up, and my husband’s not cheating on me?”
“Don’t be a fool.” She didn’t smile. “You’ll just sleep better.”
“Then you’ll have the energy to go out and get a job.”
I did sleep better. I did get a job—as a guidance counselor at a small international school on the outskirts of the city. I liked it, except for having to sit in traffic to get there and back. A few months into the job, I got pregnant. When I told Xu Yan, she lit up. “Wonderful!” Still smiling, she added, “Don’t quit your job.”
In the movies, when your water breaks, it’s this dramatic, definitive moment—like Niagara Falls between your legs. But for me, it was just a gradual dampness, and though I thought it might be getting close to time now, I did not hurry.
Now that the sun had disappeared, Xihu looked dark and mysterious—except for the glimmers of purple and green from the light show just north of me. The show began every afternoon as the sun began its descent: electronically controlled fountains close to shore would expel in time to elevator versions of Moonlight Sonata and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
In Beijing, I had a good doctor, a man from Shanghai who had trained in the United States at SUNY–Buffalo. He had posters of the Bills in his office, and I teased him about their losing streak, but he didn’t mind because neither of us actually cared about American football. He had delivered Xu Yan’s son, who was now thirteen, and I think she half-recommended him because he looked like Cui Jian, the Chinese rock star Xu Yan had adored as a teenager.
He advised me that when my water broke, I need not panic and rush to the hospital. I would probably be more comfortable at home, walking around the hutongs of my neighborhood. And so, in my temporary home in Hangzhou, I took one more slow walk around the lake, clockwise, the way the pilgrims perambulate around the monasteries in Tibet. Though I am not religious, the light show and music and the dark around the lake satisfied in me a need for prayer.
I felt relieved that I was on my way to a flock of women to see my child born into the world. Initially, my husband’s betrayal had felt like a betrayal by all men. Yet it was my doctor’s words in my head as I walked to my hotel, packed up my belongings into my small suitcase, and carried it down to the lobby. When she’s ready, she’ll let you know. When she’s ready, you will be, too. My doctor’s words, but Xu Yan’s voice.
In a matter of hours, I would be holding my child in my hospital room. By then, it would not feel like revenge but an opportunity. My husband, probably huddled with his lover in our chilly aristocratic apartment, had never turned down an opportunity. The life that came after this was hard to imagine, but it didn’t matter if I could imagine it or not; the next moment would come, and the one after it. I would call my husband eventually, and he would be angry. Let him be angry, it was the least he could do.
“West Lake” is from Sara’s second book, The Invention of Love, forthcoming in June 2020 from Split Lip Press. Her first collection, Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books), was a 2017 CLMP Firecracker Award Finalist in Fiction. She’s an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. Read more of her work at saraschaff.com.