JIERU ZHOU was born and raised in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. She came to the United States in 2000 and moved to Hong Kong in 2010. She began her writing career in 1991 and won The Bud Award for Fiction in 1996. She has published eleven books, including Island Roses and Story of Chinese Doll. She was regarded as the most productive writer among the New Generation Writers in China. She is currently living in Hong Kong and the editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Literature.
Ying Alexandra Cao
YING ALEXANDRA CAO is a visual artist based in Los Angeles, California.
THE HOUSE IN AVENEL
Written by Jieru Zhou
Translated by Ying Alexandra Cao
A little bear and a little tiger lived in a little house; they were best friends. One day they found a crate of bananas in the river; it came from Panama. They decided to go to Panama, the land of their dreams. They met many animals on their way, a fox and a crow, a hedgehog, and a hare. When the little bear and the little tiger asked for the way to Panama, all the animals told them to turn left. If you keep on turning left, where would you end up? Yes, quite correct. Finally, the little bear and the little tiger had returned to their home. As time went by, their house was rather weather-beaten, so they couldn’t recognize it. But they were very happy; they thought this place was the land of their dreams, Panama.
I often dreamed about the house I used to live in when I was in China. I dreamed about its front and back door. I saw my green mailbox and I opened it again and again. I discovered outdated newspapers and magazines, all soaked by rain or snow. When I was twenty, I left that house and moved to California. Within California, I moved several times. I moved a lot after leaving California until I finally settled down in Avenel, New Jersey. Right after I crammed my old furniture inside my new house in Avenel, I started dreaming about the place where I was born and raised. I never dreamed about any of the other houses.
You think they might just as well have stayed home all this time; you think they didn’t need to take a trip to Panama at all.
You are wrong.
Because then they would never have met the fox and the crow, they would never have met the hedgehog and the hare, and they would never have realized how comfortable a homey, soft, plushy sofa could be.
Avenel was full of Indian and Pakistani people. If someone wanted to be close to fellow Chinese people, Avenel was not the place. But I went out to the world to meet a fox, a crow, a hedgehog, and a hare. I met Anita and May in Avenel. Anita was Polish and May was Indonesian. They lived among foreigners so they were used to speaking English.
Anita was the kind of person you could hit off with instantly. The first time we met, she told me that her husband was twenty years older than her. I felt like she told me this information way too soon, and I didn’t know how to respond. I made a funny face and gave her a compliment. I think I said that an older man was more likely to be wiser and know how to love someone better.
I remember that Anita winked at me.
May had two kids, aged one and three. Every morning at seven, she put her two children in the car, strapped them in their car seats, and drove her husband to the train station. In the afternoon, when the kids took a nap, she went outside to her small yard and did chores. I passed by one day while she was washing her car. We greeted each other.
“Have a cup of tea with me,” she said. “These cookies are best with tea.” It turned out that she was selling homemade cookies.
“Ten dollars for a huge jar.” She made an exaggerated expression, “delicious and it’s a good price.”
She was wearing a loose frock, probably without a bra underneath. Her hair was dry and frizzy. She obviously didn’t take care of herself. Her house was clean and neat, though. The windows were so clean that I barely noticed their existence. The sofa was white, soft, and plushy. The car parked in the short driveway was white, too. It’s hard to keep everything white when you have two kids.
And then they mended their house. Everything was just as good as it used to be. The little bear went fishing and the little tiger went looking for mushrooms. In fact, it was even better than it used to be because they bought themselves a soft, plush sofa. They thought their little house amongst the bushes was the most beautiful place in the whole world. “Panama is the land of our dreams, and we can stay here forever and ever.”
I paid for the jar of cookies. They were really good.
If I had to choose whether to speak to Anita or May, I would choose May. Anita made me nervous, while May was more level-headed.
May took afternoon breaks between her various outdoor jobs. She sometimes ventured to my house to use the fax machine or printer. “I’ll pay you,” she said. May kept her promise. She printed out coupons and used my fax machine to send handwritten documents. I was a bit curious about what was written on the papers, but I never acted upon my curiosity. May carefully placed the papers face-down every time. Whatever. I thought to myself. As long as she pays for the long-distant telephone fees.
May called me one afternoon and asked if she could use the fax machine as usual. After she was done sending fax, May asked me if she could use my computer. “Just five minutes,” she said.
I said it was okay and then left her alone. Five minutes turned into a hundred minutes, and she was still hunched over at my desk. I had to intervene and walked up behind her. I caught her chatting with someone online.
“I have to tell you the truth,” May said sheepishly, “my husband is home today.”
“Doesn’t he allow you to use the computer?” I said.
“Yes and no. Please don’t look at me that way. I was talking to my ex-boyfriend. I was supposed to marry him, but I married my husband instead. That was a mistake because my husband is an asshole.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked. May’s husband was a computer engineer. He spoke English well and didn’t have an accent. I only spoke with him once or twice. He looked like a decent man.
“My husband slept with his secretary.” May was on the verge of tears.
“Well,” I shrugged and politely said that I needed to use my computer. May looked disappointed and left.
If I had allowed May to continue, she would have gone on and on about how she would have left her husband if it hadn’t been for the children. It would have upset me because I didn’t know how to fit her in my Panama story. When the little bear and the little tiger asked for the way to Panama, all the animals told them to turn left. I wouldn’t have cared if May had told me to turn left or right. I just hated to hear that she was stuck in-between.
I started saying “no” to May when she asked to use my computer. Sometimes, I even ignored her phone calls. One night, she left me a voicemail when I didn’t pick up the phone. She sounded terrified and said that she needed to borrow around fifty dollars. I returned her call, but she didn’t answer. I left a message saying she could come over. She didn’t show up and I didn’t see her working in her small yard the following week. I was a bit worried about her.
The next time I saw her wiping the windows, I made sure to greet her.
“Hi,” I said. “How was your week?” I tried to sound as casual as possible.
“Boring,” she said, “nothing happened.” She looked straight at me. She could read my mind.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“I went to my relative’s house,” she said. “I just needed some cash to pay for the toll bridge. I don’t have a credit card. My husband left me some cash for groceries, but that’s all. I wanted to apply for a credit card, but I don’t have any credit history. My husband didn’t want to vouch for me.”
That explained why she was selling cookies. Her husband paid for the ingredients. He never wondered why his household consumed so much flour, sugar, and butter.
Before that visit, I made sure to bring last month’s telephone bill with me. There were fees from her long distance calls. One call was made to Queens and two calls were made to Indonesia. Although I needed to ask May for five dollars, I cut her story short. I didn’t have the patience for a depressing story. I left her in such a brutal hurry that I never had the chance to ask her for the money that she owed me.
May died the same day I moved out of my Avenel house. I saw police cars parked outside her small yard and an old woman stepping out of May’s door carrying May’s one-year-old baby in her arms. May’s three-year-old toddler followed behind the old woman. The windows were still dust-free, but the curtains were drawn closed.
I couldn’t see anything through the windows, except for my own reflection. I didn’t ask anyone what happened and I didn’t want to know.
Check out The Strangers for the whole story.