An Essay by Richard Lin
I head through the cornfield. It has been a few days since our trip to the Grand Canyon. Lesley had called me a couple of times, but I haven’t yet called her back. I needed a bit of time to work through my feelings about her interaction with James. This morning, I felt much better about the whole incident and make my way to her house.
When I arrive, Lesley greets me at the door, looking a bit pensive. I enter the house and see Mrs. Gomes and Esther sitting in the living room. They, too, look somewhat reflective or even blue.
“Hi Mrs. Gomes, hey Esther,” I say, trying to inject a little sunshine into the house. Usually, while relatively quiet, the Gomes residence is a happy place, especially with Lesley around. Esther, blonde like their mother, has a sweet, calm disposition more akin to their father. Mrs. Gomes can be chatty, but it’s Lesley who tends to spread good cheer in the Gomes house. Yet today, she is strangely subdued.
“Where’s Mr. Gomes?” I ask. Has something happened to him?
The gals all look at each other.
“He’s in Sacramento,” says Mrs. Gomes.
Thank God he hasn’t been killed while on a secret mission for Delta Force or something. “Oh, cool. He’s on a business trip?”
Again the three of them look at each other. Lesley then grabs my hand and asks, “You hungry?”
“Uh, no, it’s 2 pm, and I just had lunch.”
“Well, come try these new cookies my mom baked,” she says while leading me into the kitchen.
We go into their kitchen, which is quite homey in color and feel. Mrs. Gomes cooks every day for the family but never seems to leave evidence of her daily efforts. The kitchen is always very orderly and neat, and yet it still exudes the warmth of a kitchen run by a mom who maintains the center of gravity for her family.
“I need to tell you something,” Lesley says, looking into my eyes with dolefulness in hers.
“You don’t have to tell me if Mr. Gomes’s mission in Sacramento is top secret. I don’t want you to put the family in danger.”
“What?” she says, and then she burst out laughing. “No, Dad isn’t on a Delta Force mission.”
“Oh, good. So he’s ok,” I say, with palpable relief.
“Yeah, he’s fine,” she says, before pausing for a second.
“Wait, are you about to propose to me? Because usually, it’s the guy that does it.”
She laughs again, then wipes away a small tear in her eye.
“Yeah, you wish. No, I need to tell you that we are, we’re moving. To Sacramento. Dad got a job there and went ahead to prepare our house first.”
When I was younger, I had the wind knocked out of me twice. Once, I played Red Rover in the fourth grade and proceeded to get clotheslined by two burly sixth-graders. The second was when the Thompson Boys played snow rugby and decided to use me as the ball. Both times I got knocked prone on the ground for minutes gasping for air. This time I have been emotionally sucker-punched. I remain upright, but again I struggle to pull air into my lungs as my diaphragm spasms uselessly. Now feels exponentially worse than the first two times.
“You ok?” Lesley asks with her usual tenderness and concern.
“Yeah. I think so. When?”
“We move in two weeks.”
“Two weeks?!?!?” I ask, trying to maintain a semblance of decorum while I withstand the effects of another sucker punch to the gut. “How long have you known?”
“About a month or so,” Lesley says quietly.
“You’ve known for a month and yet—”
“Sorry, I didn’t want anything to change between us. And I wanted to tell you the last time we spoke, on the phone. But you seemed a bit, you know…”
“I know. Sorry.”
We hug. Lesley turns to head back into the living room. As I follow her, I look up to see on the wall just above the entrance to the living room a wooden sign with an inscription:
Make new friends, but keep the old
One is silver, and the other is gold.
I think to myself that Lesley is way more precious than gold to me. She is platinum, rhodium, diamond, and moon rock. Combined.
I spend the next thirty minutes making small talk with the three of them, asking them as evenly as possible about the move, whether they need help, and how they must look forward to moving back to California. All four of us engage with each other in dialogue, but it seems that our individual hearts float elsewhere, each with our own hopes and trepidations.
I find the next two weeks most arduous. Lesley and I meet a few more times, but somehow everything between us is a muted version of what’s transpired before. It’s as if we have entered a netherworld of neither here nor there, a twilight zone with no yesterday or tomorrow. We have shared and done so much together. We’ve done as lovers do, but what do we have now to show for it? Just a future filled with the unknown as we go our separate ways, compelled by forces beyond our control.
For Lesley, she would be moving once more. She will have to start all over again, navigate her way through her third high school in as many years, and celebrate her upcoming birthday with no friends around her.
For me, it means a return to loneliness. Of course, I have my family, friends at Deer Valley that I still cling to, and new emerging friends at Brophy. However, for the past year-and-a-half, Lesley has been my north star to guide my way through the long, lonely night that had been my life before her. She has filled my days with light and laughter that I had never thought possible, granted me the joy and ease of mind, heart, and soul that philosophers and poets, painters and playwrights from around the world have longed for, penned, and celebrated through the millennia. Lesley has put me on the map, but suddenly the map is being redrawn in the dark with no candle to light the way.
Fortunately, I have a distraction. After A-Gong and San Bo returned to Taiwan, Wai-Gong comes for a visit as well. He usually visits us with Wai-Po, but this time mysteriously, he comes on his own for several months.
One evening, I overhear my parents chatting as I pass their room. Something about Wai-Po sending Wai-Gong to our house to stay as she had found a love letter he’d written—not one for her, it appears. I have heard fragments here and there regarding Wai-Gong and his past before bringing the Tang clan to Taiwan. How he had three wives, and Wai-Po was the third.
Following the custom of the era, Wai-Gong’s parents arranged his first marriage after graduating from his village high school in Zhang Jia Jie, Hunan, a southern Chinese province. They married him to his first cousin, the daughter of Wai-Gong’s aunt. While it is banned in about twenty-four states in the US, marrying first cousins in Europe, China, and many places worldwide is not only legal but can be viewed as natural or even preferred. In this case, the parents on both sides thought the marriage between the cousins would bind the family closer and keep the wealth in-house.
However, Wai-Gong and his cousin had grown up together like brother and sister. As she was two years older, she had helped to take care of him as he grew up. Many first marriages in China are of that nature, where a family might have an older girl living with them, taking care of the son, with the understanding that she will eventually become his first wife when they come of age.
So the two of them never felt the love of man and wife towards each other, and whether they ever consummated their marriage, only Wai-Gong knows. Soon after, Wai-Gong went to Wuhan, capital of neighboring province, Hubei, to study economics at the acclaimed Wuhan University. During the next four years, Wai-Gong rarely went home to his wife. Meanwhile, she graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in Education to become a teacher and, later, the village middle school principal.
After graduation, Wai-Gong immediately traveled to Japan to pursue a master’s degree in Economics at Tokyo University of Commerce. While there, he stayed at a Japanese home near campus with several other students where he met and became enamored with a beautiful young Japanese girl who tended to the housekeeping. As Wai-Gong was tall, handsome, and charming in both Mandarin and Japanese, it would not be long before she too fell in love with him. Together they married. In 1936 she produced their first son and in the following year their second.
That same year, after the notorious Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July, the Imperial Japanese Army began its full-scale invasion of China, the prelude to the Pacific theater of World War II. A few months later, Japan expelled all Chinese citizens and their families. Wai-Gong left the land he had come to admire and love, returning to his alma mater Wuhan University, where he took on a professorship to support his family.
Japanese forces overran Hubei and entered Wuhan in 1938. The military leadership elected Wuhan University, with its large, beautiful, and centrally located campus, as its military headquarters. This greatly alarmed the university administration, of course, so they tasked Wai-Gong with dissuading the Japanese from going through with their plan. Wai-Gong and his Japanese wife paid a visit to the Japanese military leader, bearing gifts, speaking in fluent Japanese, and informing him that the university planned to plant hundreds of cherry blossom trees throughout the campus. This would provide the Japanese occupiers with a beautiful haven away from, but reminiscent of, their home in Japan, where the cherry blossoms were a national treasure each spring. Of course, Wai-Gong emphasized, this would only be possible if the military leader could assign the headquarters to another location. The leader agreed, and to this day, each spring Wuhan University is resplendent with its famed cherry blossom trees across the entire campus.
That same year, Wai-Gong’s second wife had their third child, a daughter. Even with two wives, two toddlers, an infant, and China engulfed in a calamitous war, Wai-Gong still found the wherewithal to fall in love once again. This gorgeous young lady would turn out to be my Wai-Po, of course. When her father found out that a man with two wives and three children was in enamored pursuit of his daughter, he did what any wealthy man would do in such a situation––he kidnapped his own daughter and sent her on a boat back to their hometown of Huang-an.
Wai-Gong, never one to easily give up on true love but lacking funds to charter a boat, pulled some strings with the Japanese military (who loved his cherry blossom trees) to secure himself a ship. They intercepted and essentially commandeered Wai-Po’s boat, like a Chinese Robert Smalls but with less danger and a decidedly different cause. Wai-Gong proceeded to triumphantly board the ship only to be ferociously dressed down by Wai-Po. It took no small measure of charm, imploring, and promises of eternal love and care for Wai-Po to agree to become Wai-Gong’s third wife.
Now, after having provided Wai-Gong with five additional children and sharing his bed for over forty years, Wai-Po would do whatever it takes to make sure she stays his final wife. Hence, Wai-Gong and his three-month stay with us. It is not to rest and relax. It is not to practice calligraphy. It most positively is not to teach me Tai Chi or how to eat a large air watermelon. It is to serve out his banishment.
I, too, will soon be banished from the one I love. Thankfully, we are there to bring a little sunshine and solace to each other when we both need it most.
I enter the cornfield yet again and perhaps for the last time. I’m about a quarter the way across when I notice a raven-haired girl walking from the other side. It’s Lesley. She wears blue shorts and a white t-shirt that makes her look as fresh as lilacs in the spring but as hot as an Arizona heatwave.
“Hey,” Lesley says as we near each other.
“Hey,” I say in return. Always the classic response. “I thought I was going to your house. To say goodbye to your parents and Esther.”
“You already said goodbye to them last night. How many times do you have to hug them?”
“I dunno. Seems like your dad could use another hug from me. He was getting a bit misty-eyed yesterday.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a bit of a softie,” she says. Then she adds, “I thought we’d say goodbye without everyone around.”
I am so glad she came out to meet me. I think back to when I first saw her in Mrs. Long’s class, an alluring mix of demureness and sensuality, elegance and playfulness. I am reminded of her otherworldly beauty inside and out and how she graced and touched me with both.
Images of us dancing together at MORP, waltzing in the gym, and babysitting while toddler Zach slept fill my mind. After all this time, I still marvel at how we came to be: the pauper who dared to love a princess and the princess who had the courage and compassion to see and love him for who he was in return. It’s almost more than I can bear as my heart feels like bursting with all the things still left unsaid and all the intimacy still left to be shared.
“So, you really moving? Tell me this is a Candid Camera, and it’s all a big joke.”
“I know. I wish it were. I will miss you. I’ve never had a friend like you, someone I could talk to about anything.”
“And do stuff to.”
“Yeah, and do stuff to,” she says with a playful laugh. There go her eyes again, and there goes my heart once more. “Thank you. You always made me feel loved even in my most anxious moments.”
“You had anxious moments?”
“Yeah, I was quite worried about fitting in here. You made me feel that I belonged. From the beginning.”
“That’s easy to do. You’re so gorgeous. Everyone adored you from the first moment you stepped into our lives.”
“Gorgeous? You always tell me that you and your friends think I’m gorgeous. I’ve always appreciated it. But I’ve never seen myself that way.”
“What? C’mon, you know you’re stunningly beautiful, right? You’re always so poised and confident.”
“Well, a lot of it’s an act. Like some of the things we did? I never felt some of the things I experienced with you before.”
“You mean like feelings of…”
“Well, yeah, and also your, um, your thing. I don’t think I’ve ever had one in that state of fervor so close to me before. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, and that felt a bit, you know…”
“Yeah, it scared me a little bit.”
“Please, “scary’ is okay, but please don’t ever mention ‘little bit’ when you’re referring to a guy’s, uh, instrument,” I say with a smile.
“Oh, right. Sure, I was big time scared by it,” Lesley says with a giggle. “Anyways…”
We both fall silent.
“I gotta go,” she finally says.
“So, this is…”
“…it. Yeah, this is it, for now, I guess.”
Lesley leans in and gives me a light kiss on the lips, perhaps our final kiss, until who knows when or ever again. And it’s just one of our usual “hey how ya doing” or “see you later” affectionate-type kisses, not one of our slow passionate ones. We last shared one several weeks ago, and it rapidly sinks in that that particular kiss may have been our last meaningful kiss ever.
For the first time, I realize that you can never truly know when might be the very last time you do anything. The last time you take a walk with your mother, hold your baby sister’s chubby little hand, do Tai-Chi with your grandpa. Or deeply kiss the love of your young life. Therefore, you need to relish and drink in the moment each time you do something special, especially when it’s with the one you love. To cherish each delightful instance as if it might be your last. Because otherwise, by the time you realize the last time has passed, it will be too late.
Therefore, I quickly resolve to live in and seize the moment. As Lesley turns to leave, I pull her back in for one last kiss. And I make it count. I lose myself in the moment: the soft sensuality of her lips upon mine, the honeyed sweetness of our tongues intermingling, and the mighty waves of yearning, passion, and love that crash upon the vast shores of my entire being.
After a time, we let go. We smile at each other… a bit shyly, somewhat slyly. It’s like we have stolen one last cookie from the cookie jar together.
“Ok, I gotta really go now,” she says.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Lesley turns to walk away, and it takes all my strength and what remains of my pride to resist running to her, grabbing her from behind, spinning her around, and begging her to stay if only for one more embrace, for one more kiss, for one more slice of heaven on earth for me.
She suddenly turns around, smiles, and says, “I almost forgot. Love me forever?”
“You know I do. Always,” I say with a smile and wave.
With that, she literally rides off into the sunset. Except she’s walking. Still, the effect is the same. It’s the most bittersweet moment of my young life, but I am surprised at how, at least in the present, the sweet washes out the bitter as I watch her walk out of my life for now. And as the Arizona sun slowly melts into the horizon, she too gradually fades into the crimson red sky.
Richard Lin recently retired as a corporate executive to focus on family, philanthropy, and writing. “Never Tear Us Apart” is an excerpt from Richard’s debut coming-of-age memoir, Arizona Awakening, to be published in 2022. It is the first in a series of four that focus on themes of interracial romance and relationships, immigrant intergenerational conflict, and ethnic tensions in America, China, and Taiwan. He would like to especially thank his mother, Minghao Tang Lin, for her contributions to the Wai-Gong portion of the story. Richard’s work will also be appearing soon in The Write Launch, Potato Soup Journal, and Drunk Monkeys. He may be reached at email@example.com and via his website.