FIVE SUMMER STORIES : RICE HUSBAND

TO THIS DAY, I BELIEVE MY MOTHER HAS THE mysterious ability to see things before they happen. She has a Chinese saying for what she knows. Chunwang chihan : If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold. Which means, I suppose, one thing is always the result of another.

But she does not predict when earthquakes will come, or how the stock market will do. She sees only bad things that affect our family. And she knows what causes them. But now she laments that she never did anything to stop them.

One time, when I was growing up in San Francisco, she looked at the way our new apartment sat too steeply on the hill. She said the new baby in her womb would fall out dead, and it did.

When a plumbing and bathroom-fixtures store opened up across the street from our bank, my mother said the bank would soon have all its money drained away. And one month later, an officer of the bank was arrested for embezzlement.

And just after my father died last year, she said she knew this would happen. Because a philodendron plant my father had given her had withered and died, despite the fact that she had watered it faithfully. She said the plant had damaged its roots and no water could get to it. The autopsy report she later received showed that my father had 90% blockage of the arteries before he died of a heart attack at the age of 74. My father was not Chinese like my mother but English-Irish American who enjoyed his five slices of bacon and three eggs sunny side up every morning.

I remember this ability of my mother's, because now she is visiting my husband and me in the house we just bought in Woodside. And I wonder what she will see.

HAROLD AND I WERE LUCKY TO FIND THIS PLACE, WHICH is near the summit of Highway 9, then a left-right-left down three forks of unmarked dirt roads, unmarked because the residents always tear down the signs to keep out salesmen, developers and city inspectors. We are only a 40-minute drive to my mother's apartment in San Francisco. This became a 60-minute ordeal coming back from San Francisco, when my mother was with us in the car. After we got to the two-lane winding road to the summit, she touched her hand gently to Harold's shoulder and softly said, "Aii, tire squealing." And then a little later, "Too much tear and wear on car."

Harold had smiled and slowed down, but I could see his hands were clenched on the steering wheel of the Jaguar, as he glanced nervously in his rear-view mirror at the line of impatient cars that was growing by the minute. And I was secretly glad to watch his discomfort. He was always the one who tailgated old ladies in their Buicks, honking his horn and revving the engine as if he would run them over unless they pulled over.

And at the same time, I hated myself for being mean-spirited, for thinking Harold deserved this torment. Yet I couldn't help myself. I was mad at Harold and he was exasperated with me. That morning, before we picked my mother up, he had said, "You should pay for the exterminators, because Mirugai is your cat and so they're your fleas. It's only fair."

None of our friends could ever believe we fight over something as stupid as fleas, but they would also never believe that our problems are much, much deeper than that, so deep I don't even know where bottom is.

And now that my mother is here--she is staying for a week, or until the electricians are done rewiring her building in San Francisco--we have to pretend nothing is the matter.

Meanwhile, she asks over and over again why we had to pay so much for a renovated barn and a mildew-lined pool on four acres of land, two of which are covered with redwood trees and poison oak. Actually she doesn't really ask, she just says, "Aii, so much money, so much," as we show her different parts of the house and land. And her laments always compel Harold to explain to my mother in simple terms: "Well, you see, it's the details that cost so much. Like this wood floor. It's hand-bleached. And the walls here, this marbleized effect, it's hand-sponged. It's really worth it."

And my mother nods and agrees: "Bleach and sponge cost so much."

During our brief tour of the house, she's already found the flaws. She says the slant of the floor makes her feel as if she is "running down." She thinks the guest room where she will be staying--which is really a former hayloft shaped by a sloped roof--has "two lopsides." She sees spiders in high corners and even fleas jumping up in the air--pah! pah! pah!--like little spatters of hot oil. My mother knows, underneath all the fancy details that cost so much, this house is still a barn.

She can see all this. And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts. But then I look around and everything she's said is true. And this convinces me she can see what else is going on between Harold and me. She knows what's going to happen to us. Because I remember something else she saw when I was 8 years old.

My mother had looked in my rice bowl and told me I would marry a bad man.

"AII, LENA," SHE SAID AFTER that dinner so many years ago, "your future husband have one pockmark for every rice you not finish."

She put my bowl down. "I once know a pock-man. Mean man, bad man."

And I thought of a mean neighbor boy who had tiny pits in his cheeks, and it was true, those marks were the size of rice grains. This boy was about 12 and his name was Arnold.

Arnold would shoot rubber bands at my legs whenever I walked past his building on my way home from school, and one time he ran over my doll with his bicycle, crushing her legs below the knees. I didn't want this cruel boy to be my future husband. So I picked up that cold bowl of rice and scraped the last few grains into my mouth, then smiled at my mother, confident my future husband would be not Arnold but someone whose face was smooth as the porcelain in my now clean bowl.

But my mother sighed. "Yesterday, you not finish your rice either." I thought of those unfinished mouthfuls of rice, and then the grains that lined my bowl the day before, and the day before that. By the minute, my 8-year-old heart grew more and more terror-stricken over the growing possibility that my future husband was fated to be this mean boy Arnold. And thanks to my poor eating habits, his hideous face would eventually resemble the craters of the moon.

This would have been a funny incident to remember from my childhood, but it is actually a memory I recall from time to time with a mixture of nausea and remorse. My loathing for Arnold had grown to such a point that I eventually found a way to make him die. I let one thing result from another. Of course, all of it could have been just loosely connected coincidences. And whether that's true or not, I know the intention was there. Because when I want something to happen--or not happen--I begin to look at all events and all things as relevant, an opportunity to take or avoid.

I found the opportunity. The same week my mother told me about the rice bowl and my future husband, I saw a shocking film at Sunday school. I remember the teacher had dimmed the lights so that all we could see were silhouettes of one another. Then the teacher looked at us, a roomful of squirmy, well-fed Chinese-American children, and she said, "This film will show you why you should give tithings to God, to do God's work."

She said, "I want you to think about a nickel's worth of candy money, or however much you eat each week--your Good & Plentys, your Necco wafers, your jujubes--and compare that to what you are about to see. And I also want you to think about what your true blessings in life really are."

And then she set the film projector clattering away. The film showed missionaries in Africa and India. These good souls worked with people whose legs were swollen to the size of tree trunks, whose numb limbs had become as twisted as jungle vines. But the most terrible of the afflictions were men and women with leprosy. Their faces were covered with every kind of misery I could imagine: pits and pustules, cracks and bumps, and fissures that I was sure erupted with the same vehemence as snails writhing in a bed of salt. If my mother had been in the room, she would have told me these poor people were victims of future husbands and wives who had failed to eat platefuls of food.

After seeing this film, I did a terrible thing. I saw what I had to do so I would not have to marry Arnold. I began to leave more rice in my bowl. And then I extended my prodigal ways beyond Chinese food. I did not finish my creamed corn, broccoli, Rice Krispies, or peanut butter sandwiches. And once, when I bit into a candy bar and saw how lumpy it was, how full of secret dark spots and creamy goo, I sacrificed that as well.

I considered that probably nothing would happen to Arnold, that he might not get leprosy, move to Africa and die. And this somehow balanced the dark possibility that he might.

He didn't die right away. In fact, it was some five years later, by which time I had become quite thin. I had stopped eating, not because of Arnold, whom I had long forgotten, but to be fashionably anorexic like all the other 13-year-old girls who were dieting and finding other ways to suffer as teen-agers. I was sitting at the breakfast table, waiting for my mother to finish packing a sack lunch, which I always promptly threw away as soon as I rounded the corner. My father was eating with his fingers, dabbing the ends of his bacon into the egg yolks with one hand, while holding the newspaper with the other.

"Oh my, listen to this," he said, still dabbing. And that's when he announced that Arnold Reisman, a boy who lived in our old neighborhood in Oakland, had died of complications from measles. He had just been accepted to Cal State Hayward and was planning to become a podiatrist.

" 'Doctors were at first baffled by the disease, which they report is extremely rare and generally attacks children between the ages of 10 and 20, months to years after they have contracted the measles virus,' " read my father. " 'The boy had had a mild case of the measles when he was 12, reported his mother. Problems this year were first noticed when the boy developed motor coordination problems and mental lethargy, which increased until he fell into a coma. The boy, age 17, never regained consciousness.'

"Didn't you know that boy?" asked my father, and I stood there mute.

"This is a shame," said my mother, looking at me. "This is a terrible shame."

And I thought she could see through me and that she knew I was the one who had caused Arnold to die. I was terrified.

That night, in my room, I gorged myself. I had stolen a half-gallon of strawberry ice cream from the freezer, and I forced spoonful after spoonful down my throat. And later, for several hours after that, I sat hunched on the fire escape landing outside my bedroom, retching back into the ice cream container. And I remember wondering why it was that eating something good could make me feel so terrible, while vomiting something terrible could make me feel so good.

THE THOUGHT THAT I COULD HAVE CAUSED ARNOLD'S death is not so ridiculous. Perhaps he was destined to be my husband. Because I think to myself, even today, how can the world in all its chaos come up with so many coincidences, so many similarities and exact opposites? Why did Arnold single me out for his rubber-band torture? How is it that he contracted measles the same year I began consciously to hate him so much? Isn't hate merely the result of wounded love?

And even when I can finally dismiss all of this as ridiculous, I still feel that somehow, for the most part, we deserve what we get. I didn't get Arnold. I got Harold.

HAROLD AND I WORK AT THE SAME ARCHITECTURAL FIRM, Livotny & Associates. Only Harold Livotny is a partner and I am an associate. We met eight years ago, before he started Livotny & Associates. I was 28, a project assistant, and he was 34. We both worked in the restaurant design and development division of Harned Kelley & Davis.

We started seeing each other for working lunches, to talk about the projects, and we would always split the tab right in half, even though I usually ordered only a salad because I have this tendency to gain weight easily. Later, when we started meeting secretly for dinner, we still divided the bill.

And we just continued that way, everything right down the middle. If anything, I encouraged it. Sometimes I insisted on paying for the whole thing: meal, drinks and tip. And it really didn't bother me.

"Lena, you're really extraordinary," Harold said after six months of dinners, five months of postprandial lovemaking and one week of timid and silly love confessions. We were lying in bed, between new purple sheets I had just bought for him. His old set of white sheets was stained in revealing places, not very romantic.

And he nuzzled my neck and whispered, "I don't think I've ever met another woman, who's so together. . ."--and I remember feeling a hiccup of fear upon hearing the words "another woman," because I could imagine dozens, hundreds of adoring women eager to buy Harold breakfast, lunch and dinner to feel the pleasure of his breath on their skin.

Then he bit my neck and said in a rush, "Nor anyone who's as soft and squishy and lovable as you are."

And with that, I swooned inside, caught off balance by this latest revelation of love, wondering how such a remarkable person as Harold could think I was extraordinary.

Now that I'm angry at Harold, it's hard to remember what was so remarkable about him. And I know they're there, the good qualities, because I wasn't that stupid to fall in love with him, to marry him. All I can remember is how awfully lucky I felt, and consequently how worried I was that all this undeserved good fortune would someday slip away. When I fantasized about moving in with him, I also dredged up my deepest fears: that he would tell me I smelled bad, that I had terrible bathroom habits, that my taste in music and television was appalling. I worried that Harold would someday get a new prescription for his glasses and he'd put them on one morning, look me up and down, and say, "Why, gosh, you aren't the girl I thought you were, are you?"

And I think that feeling of fear never left me, that I would be caught someday, exposed as a sham of a woman. But recently, a friend of mine, Rose, who's in therapy now because her marriage has already fallen apart, told me those kinds of thoughts are commonplace in women like us.

"At first I thought it was because I was raised with all this Chinese humility," Rose said. "Or that maybe it was because when you're Chinese, you're supposed to accept everything, flow with the Tao and not make waves. But my therapist said, 'Why do you blame your culture, your ethnicity?' And I remembered reading an article about baby boomers, how we expect the best and when we get it, we worry that maybe we should have expected more, because it's all diminishing returns after a certain age."

And after my talk with Rose, I felt better about myself and I thought, of course, Harold and I are equals, in many respects. He's not exactly handsome in the classic sense, although clear-skinned and certainly attractive in that wiry intellectual way. And I may not be a raving beauty, but a lot of women in my aerobics class tell me I'm "exotic" in an unusual way, and they're jealous that my breasts don't sag, now that small breasts are in. Plus, one of my clients said I have incredible vitality and exuberance.

So I think I deserve someone like Harold, and I mean in the good sense and not like bad karma. We're equals. I'm also smart. I have common sense. And I'm intuitive, highly so. I was the one who told Harold he was good enough to start his own firm.

When we were still working at Harned Kelley & Davis, I said, "Harold, this firm knows just what a good deal it has with you. You're the goose who lays the golden egg. If you started your own business today, you'd walk away with more than half of the restaurant clients."

And he said, laughing, "Half? Boy, that's love."

And I shouted back, laughing with him, "More than half!You're that good. You're the best there is in restaurant design and development. You know it and I know it, and so do a lot of restaurant developers."

That was the night he decided to "go for it," as he put it, which is a phrase I have personally detested ever since a bank I used to work for adopted the slogan for its employee productivity contest.

But still, I said to Harold, "Harold, I want to help you go for it, too. I mean, you're going to need money to start this business."

He wouldn't hear of taking any money from me, not as a favor, not as a loan, not as an investment, or even as the down payment on a partnership. He said he valued our relationship too much. He didn't want to contaminate it with money. He explained, "I wouldn't want a handout any more than you'd want one. As long as we keep the money thing separate, we'll always be sure of our love for each other."

I wanted to protest. I wanted to say. "No! I'm not really this way about money, the way we've been doing it. I'm really into giving freely. I want. . ." But I didn't know where to begin. I wanted to ask him who, what woman, had hurt him this way, that made him so scared about accepting love in all its wonderful forms. But then I heard him saying what I'd been waiting to hear for a long, long time.

"Actually, you could help me out if you moved in with me. I mean, that way I could use the $500 rent you paid to me. . . ."

"That's a wonderful idea," I said immediately, knowing how embarrassed he was to have to ask me that way. I was so deliriously happy that it didn't matter that the rent on my studio was only $435. Besides, Harold's place was much nicer, a two-bedroom flat with a 240-degree view of the bay. It was worth the extra money, no matter whom I shared the place with.

So within the year, Harold and I quit Harned Kelley & Davis and he started Livotny & Associates, and I went to work there as a project coordinator. And no, he didn't get half the restaurant clients of Harned Kelley & Davis. In fact, Harned Kelley & Davis threatened to sue if he walked away with even one client over the next year. So I gave him pep talks in the evening when he was discouraged. I told him how he should do more avant-garde thematic restaurant design, to differentiate himself from the other firms.

"Who needs another brass and oak wood bar and grill?" I said. "Who wants another pasta place in sleek Italian moderno ? How many places can you go to with police cars lurching out of the walls? This town is chockablock with restaurants that are just clones of the same old themes. You can find a niche. Do something different every time. Get the Hong Kong investors who are willing to sink some bucks into American ingenuity."

He gave me his adoring smile, the one that said, "I love it when you're so naive." And I adored his looking at me like that.

So I stammered out my love. "You . . . you . . . could do new theme eating places . . . a . . . a . . . Home on the Range! All the home-cooked mom stuff, mom at the kitchen range with a gingham apron and mom waitresses leaning over telling you to finish your soup.

"And maybe . . . maybe you could do a novel-menu restaurant . . . foods from fiction . . . sandwiches from Lawrence Sanders murder mysteries, just desserts from Nora Ephron's "Heartburn." And something else with a magic theme, or jokes and gags, or . . . ."

Harold actually listened to me. He took those ideas and he applied them in an educated methodical way. He made it happen. But still, I remember, it was my idea.

AND TODAY LIVOTNY & ASSOCIATES IS A GROWING FIRM of 12 full-time people, which specializes in thematic restaurant design, what I still like to call "theme eating." Harold is the concept man, the chief architect, the designer, the person who makes the final sales presentation to a new client. I work under the interior designer, because, as Harold explains, it would not seem fair to the other employees if he promoted me just because we are now married--that was five years ago, two years after he started Livotny & Associates. And even though I am very good at what I do, I have never been formally trained in this area. When I was majoring in Asian-American studies, I took only one relevant course, in theater set design, for a college production of "Madama Butterfly."

At Livotny & Associates, I procure the theme elements. For one restaurant called the Fisherman's Tale, one of my prized findings was a yellow varnished wood boat stenciled with the name "Overbored," and I was the one who thought the menus should dangle from miniature fishing poles, and the napkins be printed with rulers that have inches translating into feet. For a Lawrence of Arabia deli called Tray Sheik, I was the one who thought the place should have a bazaar effect, and I found the replicas of cobras lying on fake Hollywood boulders.

I love my work when I don't think about it too much. And when I do think about it, how much I get paid, how hard I work, how fair Harold is to everyone except me, I get upset.

So really, we're equals, except that Harold makes about seven times more than what I make. He knows this, too, because he signs my monthly check, and then I deposit it into my separate checking account.

Lately, however, this business about being equals started to bother me. It's been on my mind, only I didn't really know it. I just felt a little uneasy about something. And then about a week ago, it all became clear. I was putting the breakfast dishes away and Harold was warming up the car so we could go to work. And I saw the newspaper spread open on the kitchen counter, Harold's glasses on top, his favorite coffee mug with the chipped handle off to the side. And for some reason, seeing all these little domestic signs of familiarity, our daily ritual, made me swoon inside. But it was as if I were seeing Harold the first time we made love, this feeling of surrendering everything to him, with abandon, without caring what I got in return.

And when I got into the car, I still had the glow of that feeling and I touched his hand and said, "Harold, I love you." And he looked in the rear-view mirror, backing up the car, and said, "I love you, too. Did you lock the door?" And just like that, I started to think, It's just not enough.

HAROLD JINGLES THE CAR KEYS AND SAYS, "I'M GOING down the hill to buy stuff for dinner. Steaks OK? Want anything special?"

"We're out of rice," I say, discreetly nodding toward my mother, whose back is turned to me. She's looking out the kitchen window, at the trellis of bougainvillea. And then Harold is out the door and I hear the deep rumble of the car and then the sound of crunching gravel as he drives away.

My mother and I are alone in the house. I start to water the plants. She is standing on her tiptoes, peering at a list stuck on our refrigerator door.

The list says, "Lena" and "Harold" and under each of our names are things we've bought and how much they cost:

Lena Chicken, veg., bread, broccoli, shampoo beer $19.63 Maria (clean + tip) $65 groceries (see shop list) $55.15 petunias, potting soil $14.11 Photo developing $13.83 HAROLD Garage stuff $25.35 Bathroom stuff $5.41 Car stuff $6.57 Light Fixtures $87.26 Road gravel $19.99 Gas $22 Car Smog Check $35 Movies & Dinner $65 Ice Cream $4.50

The way things are going this week, Harold's already spent over $100 more, so I'll owe him around $50 from my checking account.

"What is this writing?" asks my mother in Chinese.

"Oh, nothing really. Just things we share," I say as casually as I can.

And she looks at me and frowns but doesn't say anything. She goes back to reading the list, this time more carefully, moving her finger down each item.

And I feel embarrassed, knowing what she's seeing. I'm relieved that she doesn't see the other half of it, the discussions. Through countless talks, Harold and I reached an understanding about not including personal things like mascara, and shaving lotion, hair spray or Bic shavers, tampons, or athlete's foot powder.

When we got married at city hall, he insisted on paying the fee. I got my friend Robert to take photos. We held a party at our apartment and everybody brought champagne. And when we bought the house, we agreed that I should pay only a percentage of the mortgage based on what I earn and what he earns, and that I should own an equivalent percentage of community property; this is written in our prenuptial agreement. Since Harold pays more, he had the deciding vote on how the house should look. It is sleek, spare, and what he calls "fluid," nothing to disrupt the line, meaning none of my cluttered look. As for vacations, the one we choose together is fifty-fifty. The others Harold pays for, with the understanding that it's a birthday or Christmas present, or an anniversary gift.

And we've had philosophical arguments over things that have gray borders, like my birth-control pills, or dinners at home when we entertain people who are really his clients or my old friends from college, or food magazines that I subscribe to but he also reads only because he's bored, not because he would have chosen them for himself.

And we still argue about Mirugai the cat--not our cat, or my cat, but the cat that was his gift to me for my birthday last year.

"This, you do not share!" exclaims my mother in an astonished voice. And I am startled, thinking she had read my thoughts about Mirugai. But then I see she is pointing to "ice cream" on Harold's list. My mother must remember the incident on the fire escape landing, where she found me, shivering and exhausted, sitting next to that container of regurgitated ice cream. I could never stand the stuff after that. And then I am startled once again to realize that Harold has never noticed that I don't eat any of the ice cream he brings home every Friday evening.

"Why you do this?"

My mother has a wounded sound in her voice, as if I had put the list up to hurt her. I think how to explain this, recalling the words Harold and I had used with each other in the past: "So we can eliminate false dependencies . . . be equals . . . love without obligation. . ." But these are words she could never understand.

So instead I tell my mother this: "I don't really know. It's something we started before we got married. And for some reason we never stopped."

WHEN HAROLD returns from the store, he starts the charcoal. I unload the groceries, marinate the steaks, cook the rice and set the table. My mother sits on a stool at the granite counter, drinking from a mug of coffee I've poured for her. Every few minutes she wipes the bottom of the mug with a tissue she keeps stuffed in her sweater sleeve.

During dinner, Harold keeps the conversation going. He talks about the plans for the house: the skylights, expanding the deck, planting flower beds of tulips and crocuses, clearing the poison oak, adding another wing, building a Japanese-style tile bathroom. And then he clears the table and starts stacking the plates in the dishwasher.

"Who's ready for dessert?" he asks, reaching into the freezer.

"I'm full," I say.

"Lena cannot eat ice cream," says my mother.

"So it seems. She's always on a diet."

"No, she never eat it. She doesn't like."

And now Harold smiles and looks at me puzzled, expecting me to translate what my mother has said.

"It's true," I say evenly. "I've hated ice cream almost all my life."

Harold looks at me, as if I, too, were speaking Chinese and he could not understand.

"I guess I assumed you were just trying to lose weight. . . . Oh well."

"She become so thin now you cannot see her," says my mother. "She like a ghost, disappear."

"That's right! Christ, that's great," exclaims Harold, laughing, relieved in thinking my mother is graciously trying to rescue him.

After dinner, I put clean towels on the bed in the guest room. My mother is sitting on the bed. The room has Harold's minimalist look to it: the twin bed with plain white sheets and white blanket, polished wood floors, a bleached oak wood chair and nothing on the slanted gray walls.

The only decoration is an odd-looking piece right next to the bed: an end table made out of a slab of unevenly cut marble and thin crisscrosses of black lacquer wood for the legs. My mother puts her handbag on the table and the cylindrical black vase on top starts to wobble. The freesias in the vase quiver.

"Careful, it's not too sturdy," I say. The table is a poorly designed piece that Harold made in his student days. I've always wondered why he's so proud of it. The lines are clumsy. It doesn't bear any of the traits of "fluidity" that are so important to Harold these days.

"What use for?" asks my mother, jiggling the table with her hand. "You put something else on top, everything fall down. Chunwang chihan. "

I LEAVE MY MOTHER IN HER ROOM and go back downstairs. Harold is opening the windows to let the night air in. He does this every evening.

"I'm cold," I say.

"What's that?"

"Could you close the windows, please."

He looks at me, sighs and smiles, pulls the windows shut, and then sits down cross-legged on the floor and flips open a magazine. I'm sitting on the sofa, seething, and I don't know why. It's not that Harold has done anything wrong. Harold is just Harold.

And before I even do it, I know I'm starting a fight that is bigger than I know how to handle. But I do it anyway. I go to the refrigerator and I cross out "ice cream" on Harold's side of the list.

"What's going on here?"

"I just don't think you should get credit for your ice cream anymore."

He shrugs his shoulders, amused. "Suits me."

"Why do you have to be so goddamn fair?" I shout.

Harold puts his magazine down, now wearing his open-mouthed exasperated look. "What is this? Why don't you say what's really the matter?"

"I don't know. . . . I don't know. Everything . . . the way we account for everything. What we share. What we don't share. I'm so tired of it, adding things up, subtracting, making it come out even. I'm sick of it."

"You were the one who wanted the cat."

"What are you talking about?"

"All right. If you think I'm being unfair about the exterminators, we'll both pay for it."

"That's not the point!"

"Then tell me, please, what is the point?"

I start to cry, which I know Harold hates. It always makes him uncomfortable, angry. He thinks it's manipulative. But I can't help it, because I realize now that I don't know what the point of this argument is. Am I asking Harold to support me? Am I asking to pay less than half? Do I really think we should stop accounting for everything? Wouldn't we continue to tally things up in our head? Wouldn't Harold wind up paying more? And then wouldn't I feel worse, less than equal? Or maybe we shouldn't have gotten married in the first place. Maybe Harold is a bad man. Maybe I've made him this way.

None of it seems right. Nothing makes sense. I can admit to nothing and I am in complete despair.

"I just think we have to change things," I say when I think I can control my voice. Only the rest comes out like whining. "We need to think about what our marriage is really based on . . . not this balance sheet, who owes who what."

"Shit," Harold says. And then he sighs and leans back, as if he were thinking about this. Finally he says in what sounds like a hurt voice, "Well, I know our marriage is based on a lot more than a balance sheet. A lot more. And if you don't, then I think you should think about what else you want, before you change things."

And now I don't know what to think. What am I saying? What's he saying? We sit in the room, not saying anything. The air feels muggy. I look out the window, and out in the distance is the valley beneath us, a sprinkling of thousands of lights shimmering in the summer fog. And then I hear the sound of glass shattering, upstairs, and a chair scrapes across a wood floor.

Harold starts to get up, but I say, "No, I'll go see."

THE DOOR IS OPEN, BUT THE ROOM IS dark, so I call out, "Ma?"

I see it right away: the marble end table collapsed on top of its spindly black legs. Off to the side is the black vase, the smooth cylinder broken in half, the freesias strewn in a puddle of water.

And then I see my mother sitting by the open window, her dark silhouette against the night sky. She turns around in her chair, but I can't see her face.

"Fallen down," she says simply. She doesn't apologize.

"It doesn't matter," I say, and I start to pick up the broken glass shards. "I knew it would happen."

"Then why you don't stop it?" asks my mother.

And it's such a simple question.

Reprinted by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons. Copyright 1989 by Amy Tan.

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