April 27, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiteratureRemembrancesWriting

And The Moon Is the only Kindness We See

Diane Chang, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Ed Pontee & Clinton Guthrie (Chang’s husband)

Dear Diane,

Every time it rains, I think of you biking across Queens, and I pray you’ve already made it to work at Rikers. Often you arrive only to find a patient is gone, been “released,” abandoned to the streets or shelters, just left somewhere, just left, and just as you try to find out what happened, another woman is waiting for you in the jail complex’s clinic.

There is always another woman waiting for you, urgently needing care.

Always another promise they’ll close Rikers— only to open jails elsewhere.

Kindness is harder a practice than any prayer.

Much harder than when you confess to me medicine’s limitations: that even a wealthy patient could sell a house just to get a second opinion from Johns Hopkins—and still die months later, of causes unknown. Because you have seen this too.

You’ve never said it directly, that our lives are really, always, out of our hands, that illness cannot be seduced by which seduces the human body.

The difference between inevitable past tense and the fleeing present.

You’ve never said this outright.

It’s a kindness you grant others.

This is where we—if we were sitting at our usual table in the back of Aubergine cafe on Skillman Avenue—would stop speaking. This is where the people we love who have died speak into the clatter of tea cups and dishes, those unanswered passings humming around us, plucking at our kindness as if strings, those out-of-tune tightropes between living and whatever it means not to be.

Kindness is a woman who has known there is no middle to such tightropes.

Kindness is a writer who studies medicine at one of the best schools, and only leaves her work at the meth clinic for a chance to treat and advocate for women prisoners at Rikers.

*

It’s National Poetry Month, and I’m writing letters to poets, or trying to at least, and although you say you only write prose, you are one of the truest poets I know.

You’d deny that immediately, like a true poet would.

Lately, you tell me you are nowhere done with your novel, that it will take you a few more years.

And I tell you I’ve had more than one dream that you complete it, in that beautiful study that will one day be your son Babo’s bedroom, as you look out the window at a small, fenced garden, hidden from the street. Such secret gardens exist in Queens. I dream of your floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that came from Ikea less than a week before Babo was due, when you suddenly moved from Manhattan to Queens, just a few stops away from me on the 7 Train, surely an inadvisable move from a doctor’s perspective, given your nearly-nine-months-pregnant state.

My dreams of you are unlike any others I have. They are unlike our elevated-train-noise daily lives. In them, the winds are opening the windows in your study, gauze curtains are blowing away and toward us. I can never remember what we say after you tell me you’ve finished your novel, only that we should go for a walk in the garden.

We never make it.

When I wake up, I am forgetful and full of new things from those concealed conversations that manifest throughout the day in what will become a kindness I try to leave with others.

I know exactly, though not always for sure, which parts are strictly you.

*

I still remember the first time I saw you: knee-length skirt and tank top, bare-faced, smiling, sitting on a bar stool as your boyfriend at the time got up so I could sit down next to you. Our mutual friend Ed Pontee, a poet, introduced us: you had just graduated from the University of Michigan’s MFA Program in Fiction, and received a Fulbright to work on your book in China. You were an outgoing Rackham Merit Fellow, and I was an incoming one, uncertain of my choice to leave New York City for Ann Arbor which one friend at NYU had described as “one big Central Park,” although he’d never even been to Michigan. I looked very young for my age; at twenty-two, most people thought I was still in high school, but that night we exchanged stories of borders and languages, of our hard, hard mothers who put their dreams in us and the post-revolutions-not-so-post that had raised us, stories that seemed strange in pristine classrooms where men challenged themselves writing about art and nature and aggressive, unapologetic sex with women and then art and nature again. You were not any of that; we didn’t have to explain certain things to each other. Your face was flushed from drinking. Soon mine was too. I felt both a sense of calm and my heart flutter.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you that.

I have many times I’m sure, when we’ve been drinking.

But I’m almost certain when we first met, I never told you that after we dropped you and your boyfriend off, I told everybody in the car ride home how lucky that boyfriend was, and I couldn’t believe how soon you’d be gone anyway, although we’d see each other quite a bit before you left for Shanghai, and as I rested my head on another poet’s shoulder, a poet who I didn’t even like that much, I knew even then I’d never get ahold of that new, small college town like I can overcrowded, sprawling cities, and I thought you might be like that too.

You wrote me from China. I kept all your letters. I was miserable in the Midwest, in the cold small townness of Ann Arbor, I didn’t understand how people could just stand outside in snowy, freezing parking lots talking about pedagogy and art, and art and nature and their aggressive, unapologetic sex with each other and then nature again, and expect me to do the same, and often I walked home because you have to take a car to get anywhere at a certain hour in Ann Arbor; the buses stop running. I couldn’t afford a car, and told myself I didn’t want one anyway. I missed the sprawl of the city. I missed the warmth of the Rio Grande Valley where my family waited for me to do great things. Yours expected the same from you.

It’s no small thing that after seventeen years—after living on opposite ends of the world, at different times in our lives—it’s no small thing we ended up the same city after all. From Ann Arbor, you went to Shanghai and then Chicago, and I, to Jerusalem. But somehow, seventeen years later, we both ended up in New York City, and somehow only a few neighborhoods away along the 7 Train.

The same borough. The same train.

To think I walk around every day like this doesn’t surprise me.

That you make me rethink what are homelands. What is alighting. What is sure-footedness.

That sometimes these things stops me in the rain, when you most likely biking home to your husband Clint and to Babo from Rikers in the rain, in the night from a place where the city is most broken and the moon is the only kindness you’ll see.

*

In the summer of 2011, Glimmer Train published your story “The Teacher and The Revolution,” in which Teng, a teacher in Shanghai, sends his young son to America to graduate school, years after Teng’s friend Old Zhang managed to get full financial support from an American university—and at middle age.

Like his friend Old Zhang, Teng survived the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and then the Cultural Revolution, but starved in such a way that “his body no longer produced the enzymes that digested rich foods.” Teng witnessed a public execution of his mother’s brother, only to grow old a society where “none of today’s youth knew of class struggle, rationing or hunger” while he was convinced such atrocities continued but “never found their way into the news.”

Many things fall apart in your story within this man never made whole: his relationship with Chen, a young woman whom he also wishes to see study in America and who then only tells him she believe in China’s promise that “a degree means nothing; it is . . . your ability to shape the new society.” Teng is pressured to retire early so that it would give “the brightest young minds a chance,” and as he stares at his students who look “at one another as if they knew he had nothing important to teach them,” he envisions himself in the last stages of his life, riding “on buses with other retirees,” looking at “cranes and the new buildings being constructed on the top of the city that he knew.”

And yet it’s only when his much-younger wife—who, in the end, quits her job at a cosmetic counter after being sexually harassed by her boss and confesses her dream of going to America to start a new chapter in their lives—that Teng must contend with the one person who both haunts and reminds him of human capability: the man and the myth that are Old Zhang, someone who

“studied in a little room that contained nothing but a rickety child’s desk and blankets to sleep on, fanning himself with sheets scribbled with equations in the summer, burrowed deep in his blankets to do his work when it was cold . . . rose early and jogged before anybody else woke up.”

His friend who left him being, Zhang who never would be as old as Teng was anyway, who seemingly was “superhuman,” who “could go without food for three days and three nights and remain tough minded.”

I’ve been meaning to tell you that a man like Teng, in a lesser writer’s hands, would never be allowed to break free from such brokenness, even though it’s too late for him.

A lesser writer would leave him with his demons.

And yet. And yet, my friend, you write that “there must be a way,” you grant him this open, uncertain, ungentle kindness, the testament to the will of a single human life:

“. . . he wondered . . . if he, an old man with a grown son, could shed the weight of history; if his small soul could bear the miracle of [his wife’s] love and the possibilities that their remaining years still held. What was his heart thumping against the cage of his chest telling him? He tried to listen to it, to discover if a continent could rise from the ancient, frozen ocean.”

I wanted to tell you that five years later, during that one time I’ve seen you cry in public, in that Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights not far from the train, I was thinking of what was written here in this last paragraph of this story.

The reasons why might be clear to you now.

The conversation I remember by heart, but will take to the grave.

*

Tomorrow, I’m going to handwrite this letter, and mail it to you, with the city, state as “7 Train Love, NY.”

Please forgive me if it’s late.

This is a long letter.

And I wanted to tell you that for all my love of cities, I’m still thinking about grabbing my husband and running away to Iceland to raise sheep on a farm in which I won’t allow slaughter.

There is nothing to scare away the wolves, not there.

There is in every room a place for you and Clint and Babo.

There are some places strictly for you only, so that you might write your beautiful prose, that you might look up and out the window where I’m teaching Babo to weave the wolves not there into our steps, weaving from the rain that suddenly falls on a perfectly clear day in some Icelandic spring.

I’ve already looked at the maps.

It’s quite a serious matter, sheep farm real estate.

So I’m looking at maps.

But knowing us, we will get there another way.

—Rosebud