A YELLOW ROSE FOR THE SINNER
The smell of camphor when I opened the clothes drawers made me stop. Uncle Vinh had left the white mothballs behind. They had shrunk as small as marbles. I never forgot the scent as part of my childhood. Mothballs in every clothes drawer. Such was the tradition back home but old-fashioned here. Uncle had only two drawers for himself in the five-drawer oak dresser. The other three used to store Faye’s―his wife―garments. The odor of camphor hung in the air. The chest together with the rest of the furniture would be sold as parts of the house.
I looked around. The clothes closet was empty. Above the headboard of their queen-size teak bed hung Uncle’s oil-on-canvas portrait. Uncle left it for me. He had been mistaken many times for my father. Even Uncle had told people that I was the son he’d never had. He had been a counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy before the demise of South Vietnam in 1975. Right after that, his American connection got him into the State Department. Faye, ten years his junior, was an immigration attorney at her father’s law firm in Washington’s Chinatown.
I listened to the emptiness of the house. All that was left to tie me to it were my two boxes.
This morning Faye had dropped by early. She had gathered all her personal belongings, then helped me pack up and empty the trashes. By five in the afternoon we were done when Mr. Kim―her lover―arrived in a station wagon. I hauled the last suitcase into the wagon’s trunk and Mr. Kim snapped the tailgate shut. He looked at his watch. The 7 o’clock flight to San Francisco was awaiting Faye.
We embraced. Keep in touch, Auntie, I said.
She looked up and smiled. I hope to hear from you again, Minh. And . . .
Just think about our old days when you look at the photograph I gave you.
I remembered her framed photograph—of an anonymous street corner in the snow.
She lifted her face to me. Any regrets?
I tried to grin but all I could do was make a dent at the corner of my mouth and my arms seemed long and awkward. She closed her eyes, her lashes glistening. Then she broke away and walked to the car.
Through the window I saw her upturned face overlaid by a blue sky and the maples. For an instant, she smiled.
I remembered the wedding picture Uncle sent home when I was in high school. The woman in the wedding portrait shone with a such a ravishing elegance that I fell in love with the bride in the photograph.
On Valentine’s Day Uncle wore his favorite jacket, which he saved for special occasions. Its banana-yellow fabric shimmered in the aquarium’s light. He looked at his watch. 6 P.M. At any moment the phone would ring. It would be Faye calling from the airport. She had flown to Bangkok with Mr. Kim, her client, two days before to pick up the Vietnamese child that Kim adopted—the case had been handled by her law firm. It was important enough that it had required her presence overseas with her client.
Before Uncle had known of her travel plans, she said to him casually, Kim and I will travel to Bangkok tomorrow—for an adoption case. He’ll be a father when we return.
When did he call your firm about this case?
Last month, after the New Year.
Adoption? That’s news. Why didn’t you tell me before?
If it were a child we adopted, I would.
Her face looked stolid.
Now, Uncle reached for the turntable next to the aquarium. Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 rolled in like tiny waves.
Faye would be back this evening. For Valentine’s Day. He didn’t want to miss their traditional dinner at his favorite French restaurant. He wanted to tell her the long awaited news about his nomination for the director’s job.
He looked up as I came down the stairs. A bouquet of long-stemmed red roses lay on the cocktail table. He saw me gaze at the roses and said, What’s wrong?
Why is it always red roses? Yellow is beautiful too.
Red rose means love. You know what yellow rose means? Infidelity.
Uncle. I sat down by him. You’re all dressed up. Are you waiting for Auntie?
I am. Valentine’s Day. Uncle slapped his thigh. I’ve wasted my time. Let’s do something. If you feel like Vietnamese, we’ll eat Vietnamese food.
What if Auntie comes back while we’re gone?
It was late that night when Uncle woke. He could smell brandy, sweet and wet in his nostrils. He had passed out, his attaché still open, sitting on the cocktail table beside the bouquet of red roses. Damn. He felt dizzy.
He glanced at his watch. Half past midnight.
Where the hell is she at this hour?
She must be with Kim. His temples ached. He had never questioned her whereabouts until tonight. What had happened to the vulnerability that used to make him shudder like a pale bamboo shoot at a flick of her smile?
He heard the creaking of the entrance door. Faye came in, closing the door behind her.
He sat up, the glass of Scotch still held in his lap. In jeans and a cerise knitted sweater, Faye looked as if she had just gone outside to park her car, though her hair was disheveled.
He rose to his feet.
Don’t tell me you came straight from the airport, he said.
I didn’t. She glanced at him and dropped the key chain in her purse.
He blocked her exit from the foyer. Where were you?
You’re in my way.
Stop acting like you’re a guest in this house.
What did you say?
It was my mistake to let you go with Kim to Bangkok. You spoke with him even before he came into your life.
You have proof of that? The paleness of her lips made her look ill.
He spun on his heel. From his open attaché he snatched a sheaf of paper.
Check the calls I circled. He stuffed them into her hand. All of them. Aren’t they his numbers in New York? Kim’s office. Kim’s home. You know them by heart, don’t you?
He had asked her secretary to fax him copies of Faye’s phone bills from the last six months.
How the hell did you get our firm’s phone bills? She waved them in his face.
Isn’t that beside the point? Didn’t you say he contacted your firm after the New Year? And who called him last October? Your dad? C’mon. Cut the crap.
Those calls? her voice shot up. They were about the adoption case for this Vietnamese child we’ve just brought back with us. You feel left out? Okay. I’ll fill you in. Kim had also asked our law firm to handle his divorce case.
Ahh, thank you, Uncle said. Well, first the adoption case, now the divorce case. How apropos. Uncle laughed, hating her. Where’s the child now?
With Kim. That’s where I was this evening.
In New York?
Here in Washington. He now lives in Adams-Morgan.
To do what? Show him how to change the boy’s diapers?
I don’t like what I hear, Vinh. Excuse me.
She tried to pass him, only to be pushed back by his hand. Through the softness of her cotton sweater Uncle could feel Faye’s shoulder blades. How had she and Kim spent the two nights in Bangkok? He conjured up the images, felt nauseated and pushed them out of his mind. But they returned. And stayed.
Tell me something, he said. How did you meet him? For the sake of my sanity, I don’t want to be kept in the dark. He whispered, Please!
Kim is an old friend—
Old friend. Will you elaborate?
She smiled wanly. We met at the very last New Year’s reception hosted by the South Vietnamese Embassy. Before it was shut down by the U.S. in seventy-five.
I’m sure you didn’t introduce him to me that night. I was there with you, remember?
Yes, you were.
Let me ask you this. . . . Uncle brought the tumbler to his lips only to see it was empty. It threw off his rhythm. His hand shook. I want to see your hotel bill from Bangkok. That scare you? I know your nature, you reserved one room. My damnation is I didn’t know what you were doing behind my back. I do now. If Kim is hungry—or hard up—for a warm body, he’s knocking on the wrong door. The woman who lives in this house is married. She’s no whore.
Faye lunged at him, snatched the tumbler from his hand, and smashed it on the floor. Drunkard! she screamed. You goddamned drunkard!
She stormed upstairs into the guest room and slammed the door.
The Sunday of that week Uncle made up with Faye. He took her to his favorite French restaurant.
While the waiter served them dessert, the pianist played Für Elise. Velvety chocolate mousse glistened with droplets of condensation. Ginger-almond ice cream dusted with crystallized ginger and crushed pomegranate seeds in gold-trimmed goblets. The mustachioed French waiter uncorked a bottle of Malmsey Madeira, sniffed at the aroma and passed the cork under Uncle’s nose. His eyes closed, he inhaled the scent of faintly burnt, smoky caramel that wafted up and his mouth salivated. He nodded approval.
Faye sipped her wine. Uncle watched the smooth curve of her throat. A black mole dotted her collarbone. She looked ripe in her short, suede jacket the color of pineapple, its front unbuttoned to expose her stretchy gold satin blouse.
I don’t know how to put it, Uncle said, but I feel like this is our first anniversary, not eleventh. And you know why?
I won’t guess.
You look . . . voluptuous, like the evening in Nova Scotia.
He met the cautious gleam in her eyes, stopped and took a sip of wine. Its long silky finish left a smoky taste on his tongue. He had retained this image of her from that first evening of their honeymoon eleven years ago. The rest was blocked from his mind. The first time they met, her haughtiness had pierced and deflated his manliness as if she had just slapped him in public. Now, he owned that pride, the arrogance of a domesticated lioness, and it salved his ego. Her proud look was emphasized by the shape of her jaw, now that he noticed—a firm, round jaw. Only when she flicked her face away did he glimpse the fleshiness under her chin.
What’s on your mind, Vinh?
About our relationship.
You mean the lack of it. Faye caressed the shining bowl of her silver spoon.
Uncle rinsed his mouth with a sip of wine. His tongue still tasted the roasted pigeon with wild mushrooms. Just give me a chance to make our relationship work again, that’s all I ask.
And if I don’t?
She bit down on the seed, hard, between her front teeth. The provocative glare in her eyes yanked him forward, his face inches from hers.
Look, his voice suddenly softened, I just want to protect our relationship. He held his breath. And our future.
His eyes drilled into hers, a cat’s dilated, empty eyes. The wine made her face flush. She pushed away the chocolate mousse, jerking her face ceilingward with a sharp intake of breath.
Our future? she said. And what is it based on? Love? Trust? You fill in the blank. I’ll be back. Excuse me.
Faye dabbed her lips with the napkin, then rose and headed toward the ladies’ room. Uncle leaned back, watching her. He glimpsed the whiteness of her thighs through the split of her striped mock sarong in silk chiffon wrapped at the waist. He imagined Kim’s hand sliding up her thigh through the slit. Suddenly it grabbed him. Did she wear it for Kim tonight? The evening was still young, and how did he know she wouldn’t slink out of the house after they got home?
Could a brute like Kim tire of such a voluptuous body?
Uncle let his gaze fall on Faye’s unfinished ice cream. It was melting in vanilla-yellow streaks down the side of its gold-trimmed bowl. He ate a piece of chocolate mousse. He leaned back, chewing slowly, then looked around the room. The walls were the color of crème de menthe with whipped-cream trim. He loved the luxury of enough distance between the tables only this French restaurant could offer.
He felt violated now as he sat alone.
Late that night when Uncle woke he hadn’t heard Faye come in.
He opened the guest room’s door―they had slept separately. In the dark he could smell a scent of jasmine. A white flash lit the room. A thunderclap cracked. He glimpsed the bed and in silence took a step toward it using his hand to trace its edges. The room slowly emerged, and he saw Faye, the quilt peeled back to her abdomen.
Uncle sat down and touched her face. Her hand clasped his. Her palm was soft and warm. He lowered his face, sought her lips. They opened, timid, then yielded to the moistness of his lips and tongue. Her eyes flew open. She jerked her face away.
What on earth . . . She gasped, raised herself up on her elbows. Vinh, what’re you doing in my bed?
I’m still your husband.
He braced himself over her, staring down into her eyes. She pushed him away and sat up. He banged her down against the pillow. Her hair bounced. He heard her yelp.
He flicked on the light on the night table. Been there all night with him again, haven’t you? Uncle said.
So? She stared back. That’s my business. Get used to it.
He could have been calm, but what he saw on Faye’s bosom caused him to explode. What is this?
Scratches like a cat’s claws.
Faye squirmed under the white satin quilt. She moved her bare arm across her chest to cover herself.
He did this to you? Vinh said. Sadist! And what’s this smell? You never wore this perfume before.
Everything in him suddenly collapsed. Why did the sight of the scratches on her breasts strike him? Jealousy? Loneliness? He couldn’t fake it anymore.
Bring the light closer! Faye thrashed her head on the pillow. Interrogate me . . . you brute—
Uncle backhanded her. He bent down, baring his teeth in her face. You love this? He mashed his fingers on her chest as if trying to smear the scratches. Or you wanted to please that bastard, eh? Tell me. Did you? Did you? His eyes blurred. You never weep for me, you never scream for me . . . just because . . . just because—
He choked, his chest about to burst. He had done everything to satisfy her sexual desire—all but . . .
Say it, Vinh, say it. Why? Why did this marriage go to hell. For eleven years—don’t tell me I didn’t try. Say it. Or I’ll say it for you.
She was on her knees on the bed. Before he could grab her she jumped from the bed and ran into the bathroom. The door banged shut. Furious, he twisted the doorknob. He pounded on the door.
Stop it! Christ, stop it! Faye said.
He heard her as if from deep in a barrel. The madness drummed in his ears. It was the sound of his fists banging on the door. I rushed out from my bedroom.
Uncle! I grabbed his shoulder. C’mon, Uncle. Please!
Uncle hit the door with his shoulder. The door frame shook.
I’m not finished with you, he said. Don’t you run away from me. Open up. Goddamn, open up!
Inside Faye shrieked. You bastard! You don’t own me. You don’t own my body. You might own the marriage paper, but I don’t want that. Stop banging. For God’s sake, just stop!
The door gave. Faye stood barefoot on the mosaic tile, holding a razor blade to her throat.
No! I shouted. Oh, no. Don’t!
You take one more step, Vinh. I’ll kill myself.
Alright. Uncle pointed his finger at her. You know where you stand in this house now. I want you to remember— He turned to me. Don’t you try to corrupt him. He’s innocent—the only one not yet corrupted in this house.
By the time I got back to the house, the streetlights were lit. In the living room Faye was toting a suitcase down the stairs.
She wore a short-sleeve teal T-shirt, stretch lace, tucked into a white linen skirt. Under the scalloped lace I could make out the shape of her braless breasts.
Where have you been? Her forehead glistened with perspiration.
You look like you’ve just come in from this heat.
No, I’ve been packing.
Oh. Going somewhere?
You could say that. She knelt by the suitcase and threw its lid open. Looking to open a law office in Frisco myself.
What? You not coming back?
For a while.
I’m moving out, too. Tomorrow.
Where? She stood up straight, eyed me.
In this area. On Reservoir Road.
Well, well. She sat down, arms crossed over her knees. That’s news. Why didn’t I know that?
Because I made up my mind this morning.
On the Oriental rug, next to the suitcase, sat a leather club bag, its exterior pockets unzipped. A garment bag lay on the sofa and an expensive-looking leather attaché in glossy black was on the coctail table.
You need help with these? I asked.
Well . . . She tried to close the lid of the suitcase.
I helped her pat down the garments, and then she put her weight on its lid while I zipped it up. I could smell her perfume as she glanced up to thank me. Under her eyes were bags, dark and puffy.
Auntie, what happened to your eyes?
I haven’t slept much the last two nights. She blinked as she looked away.
I stood up and tapped the suitcase. Where do you want it?
Can you leave it in the foyer? I’ll have the cab driver carry it out tomorrow.
Sighing I lugged it to the foyer. You’re going to carry all these yourself in Frisco?
A friend of mine will be there to pick me up. Don’t worry.
She rummaged through the club bag, her slanted shadow behind her on the Oriental rug. In the stillness I heard the humming of the air conditioner. Why’s the house so quiet?
Haven’t seen him. She started zipping up the outside pockets on the club bag.
So . . . I felt the tightness in my throat. This is how it ends.
She picked up the bag and walked to the foyer where she set it beside the suitcase. She was barefoot, her toenails gleaming cherry-red, her feet gliding on the oak floor with a cat’s agility.
How long will you be gone?
A few weeks. She unzipped the garment bag on the sofa to look over her suit. By the way, I called you earlier today—before noon.
I was over at the front office, I said. Uncle got the promotion.
Is that so? Faye said, eyes dilated. Don’t you love politics?
I sat down in the armchair. Anything important that you called about?
No. She fastened the garment bag and then ran her hand down its length to smooth it. I just wanted to get out of the house for a while. I’ve been cooped up here all day and it’s starting to get to me.
We still can go somewhere, if you want. Where would you like to go?
A movie, a bar. She shrugged. A walk to the waterfront. I don’t care.
I didn’t know you liked taking a walk.
I don’t. She chuckled while clicking open the attaché. She knelt against it, the table’s edge cutting into her abdomen, and I caught myself looking at where her lace shirt stretched taut.
Let’s have dinner together, I said.
We can take my car.
We got back at eleven. Faye pulled up to the curb, letting the car idle.
Should I go back in? she said, gazing at the house.
Still our house, I said.
Till tomorrow. A smile barely flicked the corner of her mouth.
It’s late. What time do you leave tomorrow?
Now, Minh, don’t worry about my bedtime. She patted me on the back of my hand. But I’ll leave at four in the morning.
I’m just worried for you.
Okay. Then join me for a brandy.
She found a spot up the street and eased her Volvo in, and we walked back. I watched our shadows on the sidewalk. Tomorrow she would be in San Francisco, and me somewhere else but here. For the first time I felt drawn to her as a friend.
We sat down on the bean bag in the living room. Outside the window the sky was opaque like the milk froth on a cup of cappuccino. Then suddenly the room lit up as the full moon peeked out of the clouds.
How did you find out about that place? Faye asked about the restaurant we had dined in.
It’s Lan’s favorite restaurant.
Ah, your mysterious sweetheart. The moon lit up half of her face tilted at me. How is she?
We’re getting serious. Very serious.
You’ve never told me about this. I know you’re not secretive by nature.
Because you two have been unhappy with each other, I didn’t want to sound like a happy idiot.
Faye’s eyes gleamed in the moonlit room.
That’s marvelous, she said. I wish I could trade eleven years of my life for what you have. She looked up at the moon. I remember when I was a child, I lived up the bank of the Perfume River in Hue. At night the boatmen would play their flutes when they docked their ferries. My childhood fantasy was . . . She hung her head to one side. An elegant scholar was sitting under a weeping willow. He was playing the flute for me.
I held myself still.
There was this cute little gray squirrel in our backyard this morning, Faye said. He came out from behind the maple and hopped on the bench. He sat there and watched me. I wanted to reach out and stroke him, but I was afraid he might run away. She swallowed. You wondered why my marriage went to hell, and why our family problems finally put us at the crossroads. Call it soap opera, but I wedded Vinh eleven years ago only to remain a virgin because of his impotence. I remained a virgin until I met someone at a New Year’s party at the Vietnamese Embassy in seventy-four. I became pregnant and had an abortion. She sucked in her breath, her chest rising. I believe there’s a void in each of us that you can never fill. I’ve tried for years to shovel dirt into that void by throwing myself into my job, and in all-night mah-jongg games, where the day begins at nine in the evening. But I’m not getting any younger. You know what I always wanted? A baby. I crave to suckle that tiny human being in the cradle of my arms, and I would rock my baby to sleep humming a tune from my childhood still etched in my mind.
I looked at her and finally saw a face without a mask. I had ached for her. But that flame abated whenever I was beside her because of her coldness. Now I felt awkward as I placed my hand on her shoulder and, bending my head, said I was sorry. In silence she swallowed her sobs, then to stop shaking she pressed a palm against her lips and bit hard into its heel. Slowly the shaking passed.
Who was this man you met? I asked.
Mr. Kim. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—
I know. I’d never told you my secret. She dabbed her eyes with her fingertips. I take the blame for letting on.
I was sure what she revealed was only one of many secrets. I had always been an outsider to their world. Yet she must have found something in Mr. Kim besides his virility, perhaps a kinship that stretched beyond love.
He’s also my confidant, Faye said. Legally, I’m married to Vinh, and . . . of course, he can’t father a child for me. But I don’t want to have a child born out of wedlock with Kim. That’s why he adopted a Vietnamese child, in case Vinh refuses to give me a divorce.
She sipped her brandy and raised the tumbler to my lips. I took the tumbler from her hand and swilled it. The cognac burned my throat, stung my nose and my eyes watered.
Her hands clasped behind her head, she slid down and as I rested my head on her abdomen I could feel her breasts heaving as she breathed, and her breathing came and went like the sound of distant waves.
You ever slept with her? Her voice sounded husky.
No. I smelled the brandy in my breath. Her perfume got into my breathing and I felt the back of her hand, as soft as satin, caressing my feverish throat.
Would you sleep with her if you found a chance? Would you? her throaty voice hovered above me like a long filament of syllables.
I thought so.
She combed my hair with her fingers, then, slowly, in a circling motion, her fingertips massaged my scalp. The sharpness of her nails shot a prickling sensation along the back of my neck. Then I felt them behind my ears. I buried my face in her abdomen. Like dough, its softness yielded. She sucked in her breath. I found her hand and snuggled its palm against the side of my face. Her fingers crawl down to the corner of my mouth. Her voice dropped to a whisper, You ever want me?
She took my hand and slid it toward her mouth and bit its knuckles.
Like you want her?
She cupped my upturned face. Her nostrils quivered.
A desire suppressed so deep within me broke to the surface when I clung to her like a hungry baby to his mother’s breasts.
It started to rain. The wind picked up, the curtains fluttered. A thunderclap sent vibration through the walls. I laid my head on her heaving chest. Her heart throbbed to a steady beat. On the charcoal bean bag the white of her body shimmered, and her hair cut in a slant down her jawline covered her face.
I’d better get going, I said, sitting up.
At this hour?
I’m moving my stuff to my new place. I should be done at first light.
She hooked her finger on my jawline and pulled my face toward her.
I’m sorry, she said. I’ll never forget the love you have for both of us. Just don’t hate me.
Loud thunders drowned out her words.