Timeline: Occurs during "This is Joy" (AU)
Z.G. leaves after the art lesson ends while Tao and I are still putting things away. This is unlike him, and I am alarmed that something is off; he usually lingers after the lesson. No one likes to leave Tao and me alone since I told them about the incident of I Tzu, Erh Shih – Swap Child, Make Food – and that Tao had almost let it happen. Everyone knows my hatred has no limits when it comes to him. I also know that Tao winced when I spoke of ai jen, the love one has for a lover, and his back stiffened when I spoke of that love in the past tense as though it is dead and gone. He whispered something to my father afterwards. I realize now that it must have been a request to speak to me alone. Too bad I'm not interested in anything he has to say.
"Joy…" he begins. I can tell he has been thinking about what to say to me for a long time. He speaks like a young boy asking a girl on a first date, and he stumbles over his words the way a clumsy child learning to dance trips over their own feet. His awkwardness, a sharp contrast to his usual cool, apathetic demeanor might have been charming once upon a time, but his ineptness is not endearing now. He had been so suave in the way he courted me, even for a country bumpkin. Who is this trembling, fearful man before me? What happened?
Life happened, and the hardships that inevitably come with it. Don't forget it changed you too.
The voice that reverberates in my head sounds like my mother, but she is not here, and although I force her voice to leave me, I can't escape that thought. It has changed me. I have become hard, and Tao is partly to blame.
"I know I don't deserve your forgiveness, but please allow me to make an apology."
"I'm just not ready to hear it," I say. "Maybe another day."
He grabs my hand. Ahhh, so there it is, that boldness that has lain dormant for so long. Here is the Tao that I at least recognize, and I hate to admit it, but this is the man I sort of miss.
"Please." His voice sounds more confident this time.
"Another day," I promise. Grudgingly, he lets go of my hand. I'll won't admit it, but I lament losing that contact, and as soon as he releases me, I regret pushing him away, but that won't stop me from continuing to do so.
"I still love you, ai jen," he says. His bravery rises with every moment I fail to tell him I hate him. Every moment I linger in hesitation cultivates his hope and thus his brashness. I should shout my hatred for him and run from him. I should tell him he is a beast and that I will tell Sam dreadful stories about her father so she will grow up sharing my loathing for him, even if I will never do that because I could never hurt her. I wish to hurt him, except when I look at the wide gash on his temple that still has not healed properly, evidence of the beating he endured when trying to save Sam. I feel nothing but a sharp sympathy that is dangerously close to reopening the place in my heart I sealed off where love used to reside. I look away. Our bodies are still only beginning to heal from our malnourishment and abuse, yet that feels like an entire lifetime ago.
"I'm afraid it's too late," I say. I put the rest of the brushes away while he swallows and seemingly tries to fight back tears. He clinches his fists repeatedly. He isn't used to not getting what he wants. His mother spoiled him, always giving him the best of everything, from the largest portion of the rations to the best clothes they could afford. Once again, I silently thank God that she is dead.
"I won't stop until I get you and Sam back," he says. "Now that we're in Shanghai, nothing can stop me from fulfilling my potential, and when I get rich, I want you both by my side. I'll never stop trying."
I smile. Little does he know, we won't be here much longer. He mistakes my smile as encouragement, so I change to a stolid demeanor to dishearten him.
"Whatever, Tao. You say you love me one day, then blow me off the next. In the village you grew cold towards me, even before starvation set in. Why should I think this time will be different?"
"Because I almost lost you," he says as though it is the most obvious thing in the world. "That hurt me more than you can imagine, more than losing all my brothers combined! And now that I know how horrible it would be to lose you and Sam, I am determined to not let that come to pass! My mother isn't here to poison me against you anymore. In a way, I am sort of grateful that she isn't here. She was so afraid she was going to lose me to you and Shanghai, never accepting that I wanted to leave even before you came into the village. I wasn't meant to stay there forever. All she really accomplished was driving a wedge between us and making everyone miserable. She whispered things to me. Told me you were promiscuous, that Sam probably wasn't even mine, that you were a snob who hated living with us and resented me for the life I couldn't give you. I assume the last part is true, but I know the other stuff isn't. I just couldn't see that at the time, but I see it now."
I knew my mother-in-law hated me, but these are some difficult words to hear. My eyes burn with rage as I imagine all the lies she fed Tao and everyone in the village that would endure her gossip. Aside from the pain of hearing her deceit, listening to Tao speak of his destiny in Shanghai and his delusions of grandeur that are more potent than ever before now that he is here reminds me yet again that Tao and I are destined to live separate lives. Perhaps it is best I just accept it. His paintings possess potential. With the right connections and his association with Z.G., he could go far. He could possibly fulfill his aspirations if he stays in Shanghai. There is no way I am staying in China without my mother. She is going home, and so am I.
I cannot tell Tao this though. He can't know my mother and I are leaving the country, and as much as I hate to admit it, I can't wound him when he is looking at me with such hope and optimism. It is as though all our dreams can come true now that we have escaped the horrors of his home village.
"I need time to think," I say, which is the only truthful response I can give that won't entirely crush him. I have not told him that I love him or forgive him, but he takes my ambiguous words to heart and hope soars within his eyes. His cheerfulness radiates like beams of sunlight. I guess surviving intense famine and overexertion can make anyone an optimist.
Maybe even me.