Over my fireplace hangs a watercolor painting of two red peonies on rice paper. It's handsomely double matted in pine green and light grey and in a black lacquer frame, although the giver of the picture told me not to frame it, it was a simple picture, on rice paper, and he had seen it painted with his own eyes. But I'm not too good at following directions. In the right hand corner are characters, which I assume to be the artist's name, but I don't know that.
This picture has followed me for almost twenty years. For a time it hung in my apartment in Michigan, and then in my office in North Carolina and later in Ohio, and now it has landed on two tiny nails above the white brick fireplace.
For a long time I wanted someone to ask me about the picture, how I got it, where it came from, what it meant. I was like a character out of the Chekhov story, The Lament, a story in which a cab driver yearns to tell his riders about the death of his son by pneumonia. His fares tell him hurry up, what's taking so long to get to the Kremlin? He finally tells his sad story to his horse, his best listener.
The giver of the picture--QiQuan--said we met the day I wore large gold earrings and smiled without showing my teeth. We did similar work, and we were both strangers in a strange land. He sent me a packet with porcelain white and blue dragon necklaces for my children, a silk scarf, an orange paper cutting that he said was from a famous novel, and a black lacquer tea set. He sent a hand written formal note on yellow legal paper, saying he hoped my children would like the dragons.
He told me he was unusually tall for a Chinese man, almost six feet tall, and he had a way of shaking his head that made his hair splay out like he was a shaggy dog emerging from the swimming pool. His breath smelled of exotic spices and he complained that American food was not very good, except for pizza and spicy mustard. He said when they expected company at home there were at least nine different dishes on the table.
When my young children were sick he made pastries from Hungry Jack canned biscuits, filled them with a special pudding, and called them Heart's Ease. He said at home all he did was study and teach his students, and he was an expert on Moby Dick. He said he could outdrink all of his colleagues, but that he worked so hard they had a nickname for him that in translation meant Balls of a Dead Man.
He went on a trip to Atlanta and when he came back he said he told many jokes, and he was known as the Johnny Carson of China. This seemed incongruent to me, as he did not seem funny so much as urgent and intense, with his head shaking and his desire to spill information out to me, making him breathless. He said he wrote to his wife that he still loved her and hoped she did not hit their son.
The picture of peonies he saved for last, before he left the country. He told me that the peony is the queen of flowers in China, and that he was giving it to me, because he saw how hard I worked with his own eyes, and that the queen of flowers should go to the queen of women. shouldn'tt have it framed, because it was just a simple picture. As I said, I'm not too good at following directions.
After almost twenty years, I think it's a good thing no one really asks about it, because maybe it's given me strength not to talk about it, after all. It's sort of a secret, closely held, a trump card I can peek at to remind myself, yeah, I worked hard, and I knew QiQuan, and I am a rich woman, not a character in a Chekhov story at all, at all.