When I accused Wah of being an insult to women—“an insult to womankind” was my unfortunate phrase—we were sitting with our husbands at a fashionable rooftop restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. It was late, I’d made the mistake of starting in on a third martini, and straightaway I could feel the husbands begin to cower, whereas Wah confronted me with a look of hurt, almost to tell me that I’d betrayed some sort of feminine understanding.
“You’ve misunderstood me, Tessa,” she said, and I noticed that she was panting as though I’d shaken her physically. She cast around for help from her husband, Charlie, whose steady gray eyes were moving between us.
“I think not,” I said, before he could save her.
But, of course, she had a point.
I’d never been able to read Wah, and I still don’t believe that it was a matter merely of culture or ethnicity. True, as our current ethos would have it, she was a “person of mixed race,” something that might have contributed, beyond her unusual look, to the confusion of her submissive and queenlike demeanor. Though I don’t think even her relatives could have told you if her general mode of quietness was due to a timidity on her part or a righteousness that kept her at a remove from others; I don’t think anyone knew if she tended to smile courteously during conversations with that supple mouth of hers because she was incapable of keeping pace with our ideas or privately counting the ways those ideas were imbecilic. What I’m trying to get at is that I found her to be a tangle of both deference and hostility, if also some beauty, which is why, before the restaurant incident (and my unfortunately phrased accusation), I was sympathetic when Charlie suggested he wanted to leave her.
His first letter to me, routed by email through my publisher about nine months prior to all this, was a response to my essay on the question of Camus’s relevance. It’s not often that I allow myself to feel flattered by appreciative words from readers; I think, if you are honest with yourself, you will agree that flattery should be allowed to mean something primarily to the flatterer. But with the first lines of Charlie’s admiring letter, I understood that our minds could keep a certain, rare company. I soon broke my policy of not googling people whose work intrigues me, and after some searching I saw that he was a decently published philosophy professor at a research university near L.A. and, by any contemporary metric, practically invisible online. There was just one photo of him, on his department website: a candid-looking shot of an approachable, disheveled, frankly sexy man of middle age. Understand me: my swift response to his letter wasn’t a matter of loneliness, sexual or otherwise; my husband of seven years, Milton, and I still enjoyed various forms of camaraderie, but when a darkly attractive man from a similar desert of intellectual isolation comes bearing a cup of consolation, one drinks!
Because Milton was semiretired by the time Charlie came into our lives, and because the last of our children from previous marriages had long before left our Brooklyn home, Milton and I had come to enjoy a life of resolute drifting between the city and his family farmhouse upstate. It was at the farm, as we called it, that I tended to receive Charlie’s subsequent messages, which—for more reasons than I then understood—I began to share lavishly with Milton over our evening bottle of chilled wine. Any romantic union benefits from its share of excitements and threats; I suppose part of me thought it wise to remind Milton that others—in this case, a particularly eloquent, impassioned, and handsome man—could fall in love with, at least, my brain. But Milton found his own solace in Charlie’s letters, with their comedic disclosures and humbly put insights. Milton’s decision to phase out of the world of investment banking had been based largely on his desire to cultivate his passion for photography, a passion that was withering in inverse proportion to the amount of time he gave it, while, in his letters, Charlie complained of dying from a lack of scholarly productivity, a “sickness” caused by an inability to exorcise from his system everything he had come to understand yet couldn’t write. Soon enough, in my replies to Charlie, I was quoting Milton’s jocular retorts and bits of sympathetic advice, only occasionally feeling shouldered to the side by their developing male bond. We were three, to be sure, but none of us would have denied that I was the glue that made us three stick.
I see I’ve neglected to mention how the fourth among us fit into all this. Of course, from fairly early on in our correspondence, I’d learned of Charlie’s nearly twenty-year marriage to Wah, of her lectureship position in Asian studies at his university, and of her one book, a work of nonfiction that told the story of a girl sold by her Burmese family to Malaysian child traffickers before her eventual transfer to the United States as an adolescent refugee. I’ll admit that I frequently found myself violating my googling policy in those days, and I soon learned that Wah’s prose (ignored in the few critical reviews of her book that I found online) revealed a certain intellect, whereas her author portrait displayed all the features of dependency and insecurity that my feminism urges me to decry: the wide, wounded gaze; the helpless fragility. Other online photographs showed her clutching at a thin, lost-looking girl: this was Htet, the subject of her book and, as Charlie told me, their now fifteen-year-old adopted daughter, “the fixed point of Wah’s life.” In a sense, it was because of Charlie’s obligation to this relatively new familial arrangement, if not specifically to Htet or Wah, that I began to accept invitations to speak in California—that is, to give the kind of paid public readings and lectures there that since my marriage to Milton I’d had the privilege of generally turning down. You see, Milton and I were both eager to spend time with Charlie, who claimed to be able to get away only when a conference took him east. So it was that for a short period, Milton and I became regular houseguests at the Craftsman that Wah had meticulously restored in their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in urban L.A.
Let me skip ahead, for a moment, to give you a picture of what life looked like then, when we were all briefly settled into this domestic scene; I mean, when Milton and I stayed at the Craftsman over the course of three or four visits, and Charlie and Wah took care to host various dinner parties for us, and Wah seemed always to be hovering at the edges of things, floating from room to room in one of her too-floral dresses while administering to our needs—unless she was attending to Htet, who only ever emerged to make some claim on her time. With all her capable subservience and her tolerance of the girl, it was almost as though Wah wanted to prove a point: that she was alone, not just in the production of hostessing or parenting, but in the production of their shared life, and that her aloneness both explained her tragedy as Charlie’s wife and ennobled her, for she was strong enough to bear it. But I’m getting ahead of myself, referring to Charlie’s difficulties with Wah and the girl, when what I want is to give a glimpse of how things looked before all the trouble between us got going.
Excerpted from My Nemesis © 2023 by Charmaine Craig. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.