Looking Glass

See Mrs. Chen. See how she sits in the middle seat of an emergency exit row on a Delta Boeing 737 at four in the morning. The cabin is dark and everyone around her is asleep. She crosses her legs one way then the other, fiddles with the air nozzles, puts her armrest up and down and up again. To the right of her is a teenager who’s sleeping with her head tilted down, her hair covering her face like a curtain, like she’s praying, saying grace with a pink smartphone clutched tightly in her hand.

To the left of Mrs. Chen is her husband, his face pressed against the window, handsome, dozing. How does she know he’s handsome? She can’t see him—his head obscured from sight—but she thinks she remembers that he is handsome, the back of his head is anyway. What is he dreaming about? The smell of curry fishballs in the narrow streets of Hong Kong, the face of the mother he left behind wrinkling in double time until she disintegrates to nothing in front of him, who knows.

The pilot on the loud speaker announces that they’re beginning their descent into Chicago. Mrs. Chen wraps her arms around herself like her online yoga instructor, Julia, recommends during times of change. Julia tells her, “Whisper to yourself, I am strong.” In an American movie Mrs. Chen watched once, the pilot came on the loud speaker as the plane crashed, while the oxygen masks were coming down and the passengers and their luggage were getting tossed from one side of the plane to the other, and the pilot just kept saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” The pilot on this plane sounds the same as the pilot in that film she doesn’t remember, or maybe it was a TV show. She elbows her husband in the ribs, but he doesn’t wake up.

See Mr. Chow. See how he smokes in the driver’s seat of his car parked outside of the suburban condo he’s in the process of moving out of because his wife got a six-figure advertising job in the city. He’s allowed to smoke in the blue Altima with its sagging fabric ceiling because he’s the one who bought the car for two grand off Craigslist from some electrical engineer who lived in his mother’s basement.

This January, Mr. Chow has smoked many cigarettes. In the shade of gas station overhangs, outside of the public library where he takes breaks from LSAT prep to watch little kids at the elementary school across the street eat shit on the blacktop at recess, under their condo’s still-bare oak tree during a thunderstorm watching the pinball game the rain plays with the branches. Mr. Chow smokes when he’s waiting for texts from his wife.

A Paul McCartney and Wings song comes on the radio, the sappiest of their sappy catalogue. How can I tell you about my loved one? I love you. How can I tell you about my loved one?

It’s a coincidence when Mrs. Chen and Mr. Chow move into their apartments across the hall from each other on the same day.

“These things never happen in real life,” Mr. Chow says as he holds a pink ottoman over his head and waits for Mrs. Chen to go down the staircase. He’s happy to move, to be useful, to hear his voice in the world. With crooked teeth, he smiles at her.

Mrs. Chen nods, says nothing in return, lets the sound between them die. Is this real life? she thinks. She carries a box of books up the stairs, all English-language classics—Mrs. Dalloway, Ethan Frome, the Great Gatsby—a sign of her education. Sweat slips down her back, into the curves of her knee-caps, makes impressions of her back bones on her grey t-shirt.

The Bridgeport neighborhood is up-and-coming, the blonde realtor said to both the Chens and the Chows. The neighborhood is being “revitalized,” there’s less crime here than ever, the south side of Chicago has quite a reputation but really there’s nothing to fear but the winters (wait for laugh).

Mrs. Chen waits at the top of the stairs as Mr. Chow wrestles with a rug. He has a simple ring on his left hand and it charms her.

“You’re married?” she asks.

She slips under the rug as she passes by him, her thumb pad brushes the edge of his white t-shirt.

“Yes,” he says. “You?”

“Yes,” she says. “He’s working today.” “Same,” he says.

Mr. Chow feels like he’s lying, but he’s not. He can picture his wife (straight-back, gold bracelets, kitten heels) sitting in a conference room brainstorming campaigns for a new mango- lime hand soap. He imagines her getting up from her seat and writing on the white board with a dry-erase marker: self-care, luxury, body positive. Is part of her thinking of him here? Can she picture him pushing this rug up the stairs against gravity? He stops smiling. He looks away from Mrs. Chen quickly, like when you realize a store window is impossible to see inside.

Mrs. Chen sits cross-legged on the wing-backed armchair near the window and calls her husband.

“I got an interview for the secretary position at that dentist’s office, Dr. Kaplan’s. I’ll learn a lot about teeth,” she says.

“When will you be home? It’s lonely here. I can hear the cereal boxes rustling. Do you think we have mice?” she says.

“I’ve never heard mice described as a myth. They’re real creatures, aren’t they? They’re not like minotaurs or the boogie man. They have bodies and blood and they live. More than me,” she says.

“No, I was just joking. Sure, yes, you’re busy. Bye-bye,” she says.

Standing in the alley outside of their apartment, smoking a cigarette, Mr. Chow calls his wife.

“Are you going to be home for dinner?” he says.

“I just wanted to tell you I love you. I’ve been thinking about what you said and I’m sorry. It was just one of those stupid things where I couldn’t see it at the time, but I see it now. Sometimes it takes me a while. I’m not as articulate as you. I don’t always know what to say, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have things to say, you know? And it’s just—” he says.

“No, no, I get it. You’re at work. But—” he says.

“Yeah, totally, totally, totally, totally. Am I still saying that word? Has it lost all meaning yet? Ha-ha!” he says.

Mrs. Chen sits behind the reception desk in her first day of work outfit, a floral print dress that cinches in at the waist. When the phone rings, she sucks in her stomach and smiles before she answers.

“Dr. Kaplan’s office,” she says.

She makes a point to enunciate her words. She keeps her tongue tucked behind her lower teeth.

The office smells of spearmint and latex. The paintings on the wall are ugly—vague renderings of landscapes: hills and mountaintops alongside lakes that reflect back said hills and mountaintops. Directly in front of Mrs. Chen’s desk is one of the more specific ones—a painting of a couple with umbrellas standing in the rain on a city street. What bothers Mrs. Chen is the liberties the artist has taken with light. The rain reflects taillights, street lamps, shop lights. It should be darkness with glimpses of color, but the artist got too excited and splashed color all over the night scene, turned every surface into a reflection.

On his way out for lunch, Dr. Kaplan slides a finger across Mrs. Chen’s bare shoulders. “If any unscheduled patients come in, tell them I’ve gone fishing,” he says.

Mrs. Chen doesn’t move. Not after he leaves, either. See the bouncing neon lines of her computer’s screen-saver. See the hair on the back of her neck lie flat. She stares at the painting until the phone rings. She picks it up.

In the public library, Mr. Chow stares down at a practice LSAT logic problem and chews on the mechanical pencil in his mouth. The problem: A cruise line schedules seven week-long voyages for its ship, Freedom. Each voyage will occur in exactly one of the first seven weeks of the season: weeks 1 through 7. Each voyage will be to one of four destinations: Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Martinique, or Trinidad. Each destination will be scheduled for at least one of the weeks. The following conditions apply to Freedom’s schedule:

Mr. Chow stops reading. He takes the pencil out of his mouth and chugs the rest of his room-temperature coffee. He studies with three beverages so he has an excuse to go to the bathroom every half hour. Today it’s coffee, iced tea, and water. He usually puts his liquids and his LSAT book on top of his laptop when he goes to pee as if before being able to steal it, someone would have to down the drinks and do every logic problem. But now, after five hours of flipping through practice tests and staring out the window at the tangle of power lines, he abandons the pretense. Mr. Chow leaves his laptop bare, his dare to potential thieves—Go ahead, make my day.

Alone in the bathroom, Mr. Chow studies the scratching above the urinal. The graffiti is a mixture of pseudo-intellectualisms and base male instincts: a Nietzsche quote next to an ejaculating penis next to a phone number. For a great time, call, but someone has crossed out “great” and written “grape.”

Mr. Chow’s tired (he was up all night arguing with his wife) and he lets his eyes drift closed as he pees. He sways holding his dick and imagines he’s back in middle school, slow- dancing with Sarah Jacobs, his arms resting lightly on her shoulders, the space between them a living being, rocking back and forth from foot to foot. Sway, sway, sway.

Already Mr. Chow knows something he’s not supposed to know.

In the two months since the Chows and the Chens moved into their respective apartments, they have spent two dinners, a game night, and a happy-hour together. They ate steaks with ketchup, drank martinis, played euchre and Settlers of Catan. They got along well—it was silly how alike they were, really. What were the odds?

When Mr. Chow knocks on the door, Mrs. Chen’s husband answers.

“Sorry to bother you. Did you receive a package by mistake?” Mr. Chow says.

“It would’ve been a big one. Square. We’re waiting on an Instantpot,” Mr. Chow says. “You already gave it to my wife? When?” Mr. Chow says.

“In the hall, of course. Modern day trading ports. We’ll have to play that game again won’t we? Good,” Mr. Chow says as the door shuts on him.

When Mrs. Chen knocks on the door, Mr. Chow’s wife answers.

“Last week, your husband mentioned he had some comic books I could borrow? I’m trying to take my doodling more seriously,” Mrs. Chen says.

“Oh, these are perfect, thank you. Have you ever tried to draw hands? It’s hard to get hands right. No one ever looks at them unless they’re drawn wrong,” Mrs. Chen says.

“I love your necklace. I have one just like it. Did your husband get it for you?” Mrs. Chen says.

“Good for you. Treat yourself. I swear it’s the same one my husband bought me. You two must have the same taste. That’s funny,” Mrs. Chen says and turns away.

It’s seven in the evening. Mrs. Chen has turned on all the lights in the apartment: the kitchen light, the living room light, the entryway light, the floor lamp, the delicate pink-and- yellow stained-glass flower lamp her father gave her when she was eleven, two years before he died. She hasn’t yet closed the blinds.

Last week, the streetlamp outside of the apartment burnt out and Mrs. Chen called the electric company and the night after, as she chopped carrots into sticks, chopped mushroom heads, put oil in the wok, the light turned back on.

“Look,” she said to her husband who was out of frame, in the other room, who hadn’t yet taken off his dress shoes.

Tonight, she watches alone as the streetlamp flickers off again.

Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen sit across from each other at a 24-hour diner three blocks from their apartment building. They have never done this before. In between them is a pile of pancakes with butter on top. Neither of them has yet poured syrup onto the pancakes and they look naked without them.

Mrs. Chen wears a tight emerald green dress that she bought at a thrift store for fifteen dollars. Mr. Chow wears a blue tie with small pink flowers.

“My husband has the same tie,” Mrs. Chen says. “My wife bought it for me,” Mr. Chow says.

Although it’s past five, Mr. Chow drinks black diner coffee, so strong it could be paint remover. Mrs. Chen ordered a green tea with an anemic-looking lemon slice.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked to meet,” Mr. Chow says.

The diner has a Cheshire cat clock hanging above the register and the tail swings back and forth like a metronome. Someone has to keep time. Mrs. Chen’s fingers are interlaced in front of her and she tries smiling at Mr. Chen. There it goes—it’s not hard—the lifting of muscles, one after the other, the teeth just another bone.

“I know why you asked to meet,” Mrs. Chen says. “How do you think it began?”

He carries the take-out box of the uneaten pancakes between them as they walk side by side through the empty alley below their apartments. The fire escape, the brick walls, the overturned trash can—the street looks like a movie set cliché. She looks up at him. She’s wearing heels, but he’s still taller than her. His hair’s greasy and romantic, a product of another time.

“I had a nice time,” she says, swinging her hand close to his. “Me too,” he says. “You’re easy to talk to.”

He guides her to one side of the alley, catches her against the brick wall. “My husband thinks I’m working late.”

“My wife doesn’t care what I’m doing. You’re different than her. She’s difficult, unintelligible, a stuck pickle lid. I can’t do it anymore.”

He takes her too-thin wrist in his hand. He could take her pulse if he wanted to. The dreamy look on Mrs. Chen’s face drops. She jerks her hand from his, steps backwards, and feels broken glass gives way beneath her heel.

“No, my husband wouldn’t say that,” she says. “He wouldn’t make the first move.” Mr. Chow says nothing. What can he say? Maybe she’s right.

“Okay, let’s try again.”

He carries the take-out box of uneaten pancakes between them as they walk side by side through the empty alley below their apartments.

This time, she stops him. She bends down to look at a plant growing between the cracks in the asphalt.

“It’s true what they say: March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb.”

She plucks an early budding Lamb’s Ear leaf and rubs the fuzz on her skin. She stands up and touches his hand, opens it, places the softness in the center, and closes it again. With her fingertips, she follows a vein in his wrist up to his forearm and he lets her. His chin brushes the top of her hair. He doesn’t even realize he’s holding his breath until she turns away.

“Do you really know your wife?” Mrs. Chen asks.

When Mrs. Chen gets home, she takes off her emerald dress and places it on the floral embroidered pattern chair in their entryway, very traditional, a wedding present from her mother- in-law. She leans down and digs her fingers into the stitching. In the shower, she turns the water on so hot it fogs the mirror in a minute.

It’s not possible to hear her crying above the noise of the running water, although she may be. From outside the bathroom door, it sounds like nothing, just the creaking of bathroom tile as her outline crouches down, tries to disappear, a little crescent moon. Watch the fog on the mirror grow heavy until it condenses into liquid and runs drip, drip, drip into the basin of the sink.

Mr. Chow calls Mrs. Chen as he smokes outside of a McDonald’s. He already ate a cheeseburger and a hash brown, but he’s saved the second hash brown for after the phone call, the greasy spot on the paper bag his reward. He’s calling because his wife left yesterday morning for a week, a spontaneous business trip to New York. She’d kissed him on the cheek, leaving the faintest of stains.

Mrs. Chen’s husband left yesterday too, a finance summit, and for once, he’d packed his own suitcase, rolled his own black dress socks into balls and folded his boxers into pocket- squares. He’d left while Mrs. Chen was still asleep with her back to him and then her back to the empty space he’d left.

“What do you think they’re doing right now?” Mrs. Chen asks. “Ordering room service? Drinking freshly squeezed orange juice on the terrace? Trying on each other’s robes to see which one is the softest?”

“They’re probably fucking,” Mr. Chow says.

After they hang up, he sits on the hood of his cheap car and eats the cold hash brown in two bites.

Behind the reception desk at Mr. Kaplan’s office, Mrs. Chen opens an incognito window on Google Chrome. Mrs. Chen googles, “lie detector cost,” “lie detector accuracy,” “how to tell if someone’s lying,” “my husband’s a cheating fuck.” Mrs. Chen googles, “divorce,” “death,” “how long do men live versus women.” Mrs. Chen googles, “best cities in America.” Mrs. Chen googles, “puffy eye cures.” Mrs. Chen googles, “red panda videos.” Mrs. Chen googles, “best noodle shop Chicago.”

Mrs. Chen calls Mr. Chow. He has to whisper into the phone because he’s in the library. Mrs. Chen can almost smell his coffee breath.

“Have you eaten dinner yet?” Mrs. Chen asks.

They go to the same steakhouse that they went to as a foursome. Last time they were there on a Friday at eight, the tables were full. Now, a Tuesday at five, it’s dead.

“How did your wife order her steak?” “Medium rare,” he says.

Mrs. Chen cringes at the blood when she cuts into the filet, but the red swirls mesmerize her as she chews, the antagonistic relationship the blood has with the oil.

“What did your husband put on his baked potato?” “Hot sauce,” she says.

Mr. Chow pours so much Tabasco on his potato that it looks like a fifth grader’s volcano diorama. He stabs it with his fork and lets the big bite sit in his mouth before spitting it out. Mrs. Chen laughs despite herself.

“We won’t be like them,” she says in the Uber they share from the steakhouse to their apartment complex. She tries to look out the window, but it’s too dark to see anything but her reflection.  

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