A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted café was a very different thing.
They generally were clean, and lighted, though not necessarily well, the places I occupied in exchange for a salary during the past forty-eight years of my life. Like Hemingway’s old man, I could stay for as long as those responsible for keeping the lights on would let me. We don’t know if the old man, whom one waiter believes has money, ever earned a salary. We know little for certain about the old man, except that he is old and drunk and lonely. I, on the other hand, was employed at numerous businesses or multinational corporations, primarily in Hong Kong or New York but also in other cities, for the first twenty-four years, and for the latter twenty-four as a teacher of creative writing at universities or colleges around the world. I was seldom lonely or drunk in those clean places, whether well or badly lighted, because familiar strangers usually surrounded me. But such clean work spaces will become increasingly less accessible to me now that I am older, although not yet quite as old as the old man.
While most of the offices I worked in were reasonably kempt, the University of Hong Kong’s Department of English was the filthiest and most careless space I was ever paid to occupy. It was also lonely and surprisingly uncollegial, as the other faculty rarely spoke to me. In spring of 2006, I began commuting there by bus from Kowloon Tong across the harbor to Pokfulam to teach fiction to postgraduate diploma students in creative writing for four to six weeks each semester. Hallways were stacked and stairwells blocked by extra chairs and supplies. Their toilets stank. Dust layered unlit classrooms, which were generally in disarray, and the scheduled room was often locked when I arrived. No one in the department office ever appeared to even know there was a class. If the program leader was around, she’d locate Security with his master key. To wait, as I did on the evening of the first session, along with the seven students, was a nod to Godot. In time I figured out how to locate Security myself and arrived twenty minutes to a half hour early, sparing my students the existential crisis. Such inefficiency had benefits. Despite the more or less identical contracts given to me each semester, payroll never quite got things right and I sometimes wound up overpaid. I told the faculty supervisor, but the nightmare bureaucracy made it simpler for her to say, oh just teach or speak at a seminar at some point. That point proved impossible to schedule and eventually I gave up reminding her. My sister was also employed at the department for a brief time when a professor needed his research project completed, which his three funded graduate research assistants apparently could not accomplish. The senior researcher was too preoccupied with manicures and her side business reading tarot cards, I was told. But that was the nature of part-time academic work, at least at this public institute of higher learning, considered the most prestigious in the city. Some years later, the department was forcibly moved out of the old colonial building they had occupied since the dawn of time into a new wing, accessible by raised walkways that led to a lift to take you downhill to a new MTR station. This would have cut my commute from more than an hour and a half to a half hour at most, but by then I was employed full-time at another public university, which was more collegial, cleaner, well-lit, and efficient. That new wing is a maze, and bad for allergies. Some professors, I heard, refused to move until environmental cleanliness was assured. The last time I gave a seminar at the University of Hong Kong, it struck me how clean and well-lighted that new wing was, although general inefficiency still prevailed.
Why I Live At The PO
There I was over the hot stove, trying to stretch two chickens over five people and a completely unexpected child into the bargain, without one moment’s notice.
I still do live at the PO, at zip code 12962, a rural enclave served by a tiny post office on Route 22B. These days, I no longer “live” there for such long stretches, since I no longer fly between New York, Hong Kong, and the South Island of New Zealand with such alacrity, a routine that forced me to park mail there for months at a time to satisfy the IRS’s need for a “primary residence,” regardless of where I’m really living. The PO is a clean, well-lighted one, efficiently managed and friendly to boot. It’s where I wished I worked, the way Welty’s protagonist did. When I first obtained my super-sized PO box, the postmistress was a friend of my American aunt who lived at a neighboring zip, 12901, in a city you might mistake for a town or village Norman Rockwell might have painted. Auntie has since moved south, which she did after Uncle died. Minus forty in the winters can be tough on old bones. Before COVID-19, the PO regularly held and forwarded my mail officially and, for a time, even unofficially, by packing a large envelope monthly to send me my mail abroad, as you cannot officially extend address changes or forwarding requests beyond a certain period. The United States Postal Service, like the IRS, eschews the possibility of living in three places simultaneously.The United States Postal Service, like the IRS, eschews the possibility of living in three places simultaneously.
Living at the PO can be pleasant. There was the red-headed gal, the one whom I, like Charlie Brown, always hoped to see. She was good at her job, rising to the challenge of postal bureaucracy, especially for international mail which I regularly sent and received. A joy to see her behind the counter, to transact a friendly, efficient exchange. After she was promoted to Postmistress at another zip, Ray took over in her Senior Pigeon Roost and was there until he retired to greet me and my retiree husband when we come for our mail. The PO is where many others in our remote, rural community flock for their daily or weekly connection to humanity. We greet each other, even though many are strangers, we hold doors for each other, we all willingly wear face masks against COVID-19, we don’t talk politics. Except one time, when Ray excoriated the president’s Head Pigeon, who strutted around restructuring jobs, cutting postal workers’ hours, and closing post offices, so that the Christmas rush during a pandemic year was a nightmare for the country and the world.
I used to live at another PO, the romantically named Old Chelsea Station at zip 10113 in Manhattan where I had a PO box for years. Originally Station O, the historic building has a doorway arch watched over by deer and bear, rendered in 1938 by Paul Fiene. The lady behind the counter with her gray, teased hair clearly liked her job and expounded on the benefits of certified mail versus express or registered. Certified, I learned, was an excellent option back before all mail was tracked, as it was an inexpensive means to send any important document, such as taxes to the IRS, with delivery confirmation. I’d learned my lesson a decade earlier at a different zip code when the Brooklyn PO returned my filing to the IRS for insufficient postage, resulting in a late submission and penalties. That had been a dark time in my work book: I was laid off and on unemployment, with a mortgage and credit card debt to pay right after 1987’s Black Monday when jobs were difficult to find. Old Chelsea Station was a good PO to live at, until the crunch to streamline operations and improve the bottom line went into effect, undoubtedly recommended by overpaid management consultants who care not one whit about good service, reasonable work requirements, or the lives of the newly-laid-off or forcibly-retired postal workers. I still occasionally stop into my old haunt, but it’s a dark hellhole these days. Mail piles up and packages or held mail get misplaced, all the clerks are grumpy, and the wait on line is so long you end up going to FedEx or one of those new, brightly lit postal mini branches. Postal workers, these descendants of the Pony Express and carrier pigeons of two world wars, could once love their jobs, and undoubtedly some still do. Letters are old-fashioned, as is much printed matter now, but people still need to send and receive things, so a dependable community service shouldn’t be only about profit. I hope my Old Chelsea Station clerk got the retirement she was promised and deserved.
To Room Nineteen
It was an interesting job, but scarcely a reason for living.
She sat alone in a cavernous room in a nondescript downtown Manhattan office building, surrounded by a stand of electronic trees. These desktop switchboards resembled miniature buildings with wires growing out of them. I had answered her want ad after my layoff from Pinkerton’s, the company that had relocated me with great fanfare to New York City a year and a half earlier to be their new marketing director. It had been my first corporate management position. It was also the late eighties when Reaganomics ruled and the M&A was capitalism’s favorite game. American Brands, the corporate parent, had sold Pinkerton’s to a California company and I was out of a job in that last-in-first-out method of elimination. Two months’ severance had run out, and unemployment barely covered rent and groceries. I had to find something soon, or risk going the way of Lessing’s protagonist. So, as I said, I answered an ad for a partnership opportunity in a new technology service
She promised independent work with flexible hours. At Pinkerton’s, I often pulled long hours—staging A/V presentations for a huge sales conference in Houston, revamping marketing materials to feature cutting-edge electronic security services such as retinal scans, updating the employee newsletter for the 30,000+ workforce by highlighting female detectives and longtime employees, liaising with film directors who wanted to make the Pinkerton story, prepping senior management’s media interviews. I was even asked to accompany the CEO, New York’s former police commissioner, to the American Brands offices in Connecticut for meetings. But right after I had managed to line up a Wall Street Journal interview for my marketing VP boss and the COO, the CEO called me and my department colleague into a private meeting to say he would be doing that interview instead now, because both those guys were about to be axed but don’t let on you know. The admin director and I were stunned, even though everyone knew my boss drank and often did not show up to work, while the COO was off playing golf, spending lavishly, and turning up late to meetings, which pissed off the ever-prompt CEO who once commanded, tell him to quit blow-drying his hair and get in here, now. Yet we were also a little glad, because now we could maybe get some work done and decisions made. A pyrrhic victory, because shortly afterwards the national sales director and I, the two newest middle management hires, were axed, and then, a couple of months later, the company itself was sold. That had been my introduction to corporate drone-hood. Independent work sounded promising.Writing was its own “Room Nineteen”
She was alone, as I said, when I entered her office. The opportunity was to get in on the ground floor of the latest in-demand thing—remote secretarial answering services for businesses. The machinery around her was like a giant switchboard, connected to voicemails for several companies and businesses. She needed another person for communication management, ensuring each client received their messages and her own company phone got answered. It gets a little lonely sometimes, she said, but work’s guaranteed and the system isn’t hard to learn. Plus I have to go get more clients and install systems so I need someone at the office. She was about my age, early thirties, and had a viable business model for independent contractors to grow her business. I admired her entrepreneurship.
That was the dawn of desktop computers, long before email and cellphones. She was an attractive blonde who liked the freedom of wearing jeans to work if she didn’t have to see anyone. I was still married at the time, and I’m not sure if she was married or not but I know I thought of her as single, wonderfully free, and answerable only to herself. I asked what drew her to this work and she shrugged, said it was better than putting up with bullshit. It was tempting, but the up-side to getting laid off was that I finally had time to write again. Since completing my MFA three years earlier, work life had stymied the fiction. I often woke at four to get a little writing done before work but with the long hours, that got hard. Plus, writing was its own “Room Nineteen” and a job similarly isolated was the wrong move, so I declined.
A & P
… there’s people in this town haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years.
You’d think Updike’s story would recall college summer jobs as a waitress and sales clerk at an upstate New York resort, but it echoes my time on Wall Street more than anything else. I wasn’t really on Wall Street, though, because a law firm, even one as prestigious as Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, is just a bunch of servants to financiers and not the real kingmakers who control the markets.
There was never a job I wanted to quit more than the one at Milbank, even though it was reasonably well paid, the workload light, and my boss one of the best I ever worked for. The offices were well-lighted, with a magnificent view of the Statue of Liberty. There were even perks like free tickets to a concert at Carnegie Hall, rink-side seats for a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden, and the annual Christmas party at the Plaza. The best perk at Milbank, though, besides the subsidized cafeteria, was unmonitored access to their excellent photocopiers, on which I made numerous copies of fiction manuscripts for submission to literary journals. This led to the publication of several short stories and a NYFA fellowship. Also, if not for Milbank, I would never have confronted class in America so directly, something that wrote itself into my novels.
There were reasons not to quit. Since my layoff from Pinkerton’s, I had freelanced for almost eighteen months and never made what I’d previously been paid. Yet money wasn’t the primary reason to stay at this job. After moving to the city, my husband at the time had quit playing jazz in favor of selling commercial real estate. His income rose significantly, and I no longer had to be the primary breadwinner. He was fine if I wanted to quit to find something else or just to write. But, but, but…that photocopier advantage. Even the culture was amenable to my real life as a writer. Few at my previous business jobs read literature, and when I’d left a very good career at Cathay Pacific Airways in Hong Kong to do my MFA in fiction, most colleagues thought I’d gone mad. Lawyers are different. They’re wordsmiths too. And because no lawyer thinks anyone knows more than they do about anything, not even marketing, my job was fake marketing, the work undemanding, without the scope or rigor required in real marketing management.
But, but, but…it was difficult having to constantly bite my tongue.
My introduction to Milbank—because the only way to get through their doors required one—came via a photographer who knew my boss. When I walked into their offices for the first time, several floors up in the 50s at Chase Manhattan Plaza, I knew at once I’d ascended into another realm. It was not just well but brilliantly lit, with huge glass panes facing the skies above the city for the sun to stream in. Everyone swanned. Everyone. No one got in, except those in the word processing pool, by answering a classified in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, the way I got my other interviews. Here, you had to debut correctly, like some Southern belle. Here was Gatsby’s impossible dream.
Was it just ego that made me want to quit, a need to declare, you’re not any better than me? Working there made me want to ape Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, hardly a heroic narrative arc, because all the politesse masked an unbearable savagery. Partners did not curb either their arrogance or their brutality, the brunt of which my boss bore, sheltering her team. But the stability of full-time, well-paid employment was still important then for my well-being as a writer in New York, and nothing else was on the horizon. So I stayed and met an actual Southern debutante, one of the handful of female partners, who wanted this fact included in her resume, one I wrote to market the Trusts & Estates practice she led. The job was a lesson in subsuming my ego. Law firm culture is good for that, because while each intake of associates is privileged to be hazed in their rise through the ranks, I was merely a bystander, unseen and simply ignored.
In the end, though, you can only ostrich so long, pretending to be stupid and erasing yourself just to fill the daily rice bowl. Eventually, I had to snap back and face the fact that this was not my world, never was, never should be. Besides, by leaving I could at least go down to the sea again, if not the ocean.
The Woman From New York
“You know,” she said, “New York has a big Chinatown. You don’t have to speak English there. There’re so many Chinese around. Books, newspapers, TV, and movies are all in Chinese. You don’t have to become an American devil at all.”
They gossiped unkindly about Ha Jin’s woman, and I suspect they did about me as well when I first arrived from New York, a “local-international” hire at Federal Express Asia Pacific, in the newly created position as marketing manager in Hong Kong. There were several of us internationally who reported to the “South Pacific Region” marketing managing director, a former air traffic controller based in Honolulu. I later relocated to a new regional Singapore office as senior marketing manager, supervising staff from Dubai to China to Southeast Asia. The first thing my boss said after I accepted the job was that I must quickly learn their intranet and this email thing we have. It was 1992, and I had left Milbank to take this job. No one I knew had an email account yet. What I did know, despite the company’s odd geographical reconstruction, was that the only reason I could be a woman from New York was because I was not hired on expatriate terms, even though by then, as a naturalized American citizen, I really was an expat. Those terms were given to mostly white Americans who transferred from corporate HQ in Memphis, home of the company’s founder, Fred Smith, a former Marine Corps pilot who had once flown Elvis.
By the nineties, expats had become the bane of multinationals everywhere because of the outsized expense. I had grown up in British colonial Hong Kong where this hierarchy of expats vs. locals was a given. British management executives, as well as government civil servants, university academics, schoolteachers, medical professionals, and leaders of religious denominations, had work visas and were paid significantly more than any local for the same job. They were also accorded perks such as housing, education for their children, domestic help, and extra-long home leave for their “hardship” to return to, presumably, “civilization.” But by 1992, when Hong Kong’s return to China was only five years in the future, locals were as qualified, if not more qualified, for many managerial jobs as their British and American counterparts, and expat terms were being reduced. It was startling how long multinationals, especially those from England, Europe, and North America, had perpetuated this practice in Asia, as if colonialism had never ended. At FedEx, any “local” was hired under different terms, regardless of nationality. As a “forever-permanent” Hong Kong resident, I could be classified as local and work legally without a visa. Technically, I wasn’t an employee of Federal Express, the US company, but of an Asian subsidiary not subject to US federal employment laws. In my four years at FedEx, I never got a W-2 or had US taxes or social security deducted. To the IRS I was an American abroad who worked for a foreign company.
There I was, the woman from New York who looked Chinese, spoke Cantonese like a local, but, as every local would exclaim whenever I spoke English, you sound just like a gwaipo, feminine for the derogatory devil-ghost term for foreign men. No one knew exactly what I was because I spoke with neither the American-Chinese Cantonese accent nor the Hong Kong–Chinese English one. To placate peers who resented “intruders” it took a few drunken karaoke sessions where I sang in both Cantonese and Mandarin, my Chinese literacy just good enough for pop lyrics, before they finally said, you’re one of us. Among American peers, after my promotion to the regional job, it took a few happy hours where I drank beer from a bottle, talked baseball and other Americana, to be finally christened a “hogette” among the hogs, as my all-male colleagues called themselves. Corporate life was like that. You had to be one of the team. Alcohol and language were the greatest equalizers.
I Stand Here Ironing
I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness—the explosions, the tempers, the denunciations, the demands—and I feel suddenly ill. I stop the ironing.
Until my father lost all his money when I was ten, I had grown up in a life of privilege. My parents employed three domestic helpers, servants we called them. The only time, other than in Singapore, that I had domestic help was when I was at Milbank and hired a part-time cleaning woman, an immigrant from Colombia. We were finally living on less than we earned, and it was luxurious lightening my domestic workload. But it made me uncomfortable, and I was glad to return to doing my own housework after we moved to a tiny flat in Hong Kong. Small spaces offer their own peace of mind.
Perpetuating an underclass of domestic workers in cities, comprised mostly of migrants or those from poor communities, certainly not of the elite or power ethnic group, is an ongoing global problem of financial and racial inequity. In Singapore, which is approximately 60 percent Chinese, my gardener was Sri Lankan and the cleaning woman Indian in our gloriously large and stunning home in Changi, rented for a song from a wealthy Chinese woman. She covered expenses for domestic labor to ensure upkeep of this beautiful garden home by the sea that she had purchased and designed-furnished for her daughter and new son-in-law. They preferred to live in a flat in the city, closer to their real life. This elegant Chinese woman with exquisite taste spoke wistfully of this home when I met her and was pleased my husband and I would rent it furnished. It was my most comfortable home ever, and evenings enjoying the tropical garden while my husband was at his jazz gigs were serene. In later years, when my widowed mother developed Alzheimer’s and I had to leave my man in New York to live with Mum in Hong Kong, I hired and supervised caregivers and domestic helpers from the Philippines to look after her, while earning my salary as a full-time university professor. In those years, serenity was often in short supply.
Domestic workers are mostly women, often single mothers, except for chauffeurs or gardeners who are mostly men and generally better paid. Vivien, the most entrepreneurial Filipino I hired in Hong Kong, quit to become a driver (she took lessons and got her license in her free time while in my employ) and saved enough money to go home to her village where she now runs a successful farm. How she made her real money was as a loan shark to other Filipino workers in the city, charging interest and keeping track of clients in a little black book. They spend too much, she said, and give away money to husbands, fathers, and brothers too lazy to work. Vivien did good work. She was frugal and practical and kept careful track of household expenses down to the last five cents, less than a US penny, the smallest currency in circulation in Hong Kong. Her loan business was the only personal endeavor I ever asked her to curtail, and only insofar as not having clients at our home. A busybody Cantonese neighbor complained about this stream of visitors, and the building security guard clued me in to what she was doing. The neighbor threatened to report her to Immigration. It’s okay if you want to make extra money, I told her, but you need to know that what you’re doing is illegal and if you get caught, I won’t be able to help you stay here. So keep it out of the building. She promised to do so and never got caught. The law is irrelevant when you must make a living, and also a life. Borders are negligible. Mum’s helpers did not have to clean my rooftop space or cook for me, but they did my laundry as I couldn’t install a washer-dryer. I always did my own ironing.
Among the three servants my mother employed in my childhood was a washerwoman called 亞 三. If that looks like “number three,” that’s because it is, and denoted her birth order among her siblings. She was from the New Territories, the largest Hong Kong district, which, in the sixties, was mostly rural villages and farms. Public bus lines served these areas, but they were infrequent and slow. Our three servants lived with us and went home weekly on Sundays, traveling an hour or more one way. Today’s term—“domestic helper”—is pretentiously hypocritical. Such workers are virtually indentured servants, away from family, husbands, children, and paid a minimum wage well below the median income. In some households they might not get enough food, or space to live, or worse, are physically or mentally abused. Their consolation is that at least they’re not prostitutes, the other paid work for women available in cities. Our three shared a single bedroom with bunk beds in a second flat we owned. My mother treated servants well, while still demarcating the division between them and us. None of my siblings or I were allowed to be rude to or lord it over them and were scolded if we ever dared behave badly.
I never knew 亞 三’s real name. She was rarely around, as she did all the washing, drying, and ironing in the second flat, which was in the rear of the building. The only time most of the family saw her was when she brought the neatly starched and ironed piles of clean clothes back to our home. But I saw her, because I went to the back flat regularly to practice on our old upright until my parents acquired a new piano for the bedroom my sisters and I shared.
亞 三 was tiny. She wasn’t much taller than me at six or seven and was likely no more than four foot eight or nine. Her shoulders were slightly hunched, her hair thinning, and she wore glasses. None of my adult relatives wore glasses yet, and I didn’t until I was nine, so her delicate, wire-rimmed spectacles fascinated me. She sometimes wore the white-and-black cotton samfoo many servants wore, loose black pants with a white, high-collared blouse buttoned across one clavicle and down the side. But in memory she is often all in black. Was she widowed? I never knew much about her or her family. She was dark-skinned, and I wonder now if she might have been Hakka or Tanka because she spoke with an accent. She was older than the nanny and cook, both of whom wore samfoo made of colorful material, usually with a floral pattern similar to that for cheongsam, a Chinese dress professional and society ladies wore. Both the other two spoke about children and families and were more a part of our lives. 亞 三 was the most invisible, and, I later realized, probably paid the least. Yet she stayed with us the longest, while nannies and even the cooks came and went.
亞 三 seldom spoke. Her work was grueling, scrubbing out the family’s clothing and linens by hand in a wash tub, hanging the laundry out the window on a rack of bamboo poles to dry, and then ironing the piles of sheets, pillowcases, napkins, and tablecloths, plus all the skirts, blouses, shirts, pants, dresses, school uniforms, underwear, and handkerchiefs so that our family could go out looking respectable. Her own clothes were always ironed. I would see her seated on a low stool, bent over a large, oval, iron wash tub, scrubbing our things clean with a bar of yellow soap against a wooden washboard. It is difficult to picture her hanging out things to dry. That would have been laborious, and she needed to be careful not to lean out too far, as the flat was on the seventeenth floor. The privileged often do not see, hear, or know the labor of those who serve.
Without 亞 三, family life would have been much harder, and what she did was important. My mother taught all of us to iron and hand-wash things before the advent of the washer-dryer, just in case our futures didn’t include servants. Mum was realistic, and prescient.
I can see 亞 三 standing there ironing, holding a metal spray can of water to soften the starched cotton things. She taught me starch was made of rice, that you bought laundry soap from the market where the vendor would cut a chunk off from a larger slab, that cotton had to be ironed at the highest heat if you wanted all creases out. And then she’d shoo me away, telling me to practice piano or do homework. To leave her in peace.
In Amherst, Massachusetts, where I attended grad school, a friend who was doing her MA was in my home once and watched me iron. I hate ironing, she said, absorbed by my ironing everything, even jeans. She was from either a middle- or working-class family somewhere in the Midwest and her dream job was to teach English in a private high school here in the East, for the pay, good working conditions, and prestige. Except for those in that top 2 percent, we are all servants, working to afford a life and, if we’re fortunate enough, a little of the dream.
He had been swimming, and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously, as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure. It seemed to flow into his chest.
For three years after I left Singapore in the summer of ’96, I swam at least four or five times a week in an outdoor, open-year-round, Olympic-length pool on the fourth level of the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong. It had been years since I’d had regular access to a pool. The last time was in Cincinnati, over a decade earlier, right after grad school, where our apartment complex had a small pool. No one ever swam in it, and work life was so debilitating that I seldom swam. I was naïve, having never been anything but a foreign student in the US, and did not know what it was really like to live and work in the country.
As an older grad student, who had worked almost seven years back home in Hong Kong after my BA, I had traveled extensively in my airline marketing job and worked on the travel magazine, overseen an international ad budget, and been a part of a marketing team that ran major promotions. I could afford membership at the Kowloon Cricket Club with its lovely outdoor pool, clubhouse bar, and excellent inexpensive restaurant that served everything from curry to noodles to steak. Grad school had confirmed that a teaching career was not for me, so when I was done with my MFA, my husband and I headed to Cincinnati, where he had grown up and where I hoped to restart my marketing career in the US. I did eventually get a job as the marketing director of an architectural firm. However, I had reckoned with neither my dislocation outside the ivory tower where “being a writer” mattered nor my cultural alienation in insular Cincinnati. In the real world, no one cared about literary culture, and my former international life in Asia might as well have been on the moon. At one job interview for the city’s convention center, the director stared at me and asked several inappropriately personal questions. When I steered the conversation towards job expectations he finally said, oh there’s no job, and said that he wanted to meet me after receiving my resume because I’ve never met a Chinese woman before.
I survived a year and a half before I left for New York. My ex wasn’t entirely pleased, because he’d begun making a name for himself as a jazz musician and impresario, playing across the racial divide in the city between white and Black musicians, and booking top names from New York and elsewhere for a club in Cincinnati. But I was the breadwinner, so we left. Otherwise, I would have ended up as delusional and mad as Cheever’s Neddy Merrill. I was already on the way, having checked myself into the mental ward after an aggressive emotional meltdown and diagnosis as “clinically depressed.” I was violent, which frightened my ex who did his best to keep me calm. It was terrifying when the police arrived after neighbors called 911, because they immediately assumed my husband was an abuser. How do you say that no, it’s the demure, petite Asian woman who is out of control, and not this hapless white male? I was unhappy in my marriage and blamed my ex for bringing me to this hellhole, but my emotional control wasn’t his responsibility. Besides, I had agreed to the move, and he just wanted to be around his mother who was alone and missed her only child. It would be several years before my deadening gloom lifted.
When I first began swimming in that gloriously empty pool in the evenings at or just after sunset, I had resigned from FedEx after my last boss failed to fire me, begun divorcing the jazz musician, published two books with a third forthcoming, and swam when I wasn’t at happy hour with my colleagues at Leo Burnett Asia.
I used to think often about Chairman Mao when I swam in that pool. In 1966, to secure his grip on power, Mao had himself filmed swimming the Yangtze to prove his robust health. It was an image I carried from childhood, never quite sure how to parse it. It had been such startling news, something my father would mention, and later, when I read about that history, Mao became my eternal swimmer. China would not have become a modern country without him, but he also caused enormous devastation as a result of his delusional grip on reality, which grew worse the more his power isolated him. Work was a form of power for me, because by then I was also earning a high salary and job offers came my way without my seeking them out. My writing life was real, and all my various business positions gave me some public profile so the media called often for interviews.
But a grip on power is meaningless if you lose the grip on reality. Eventually, it catches up with you, even when everything appears to be entirely in your control. Cheever knew. Life really isn’t stranger than fiction, but you have to keep reading, and rereading, to know that.
This excerpt from The Work Book, a memoir in progress by Xu Xi, appears in the latest issue of The New England Review.