Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

The Ancient and Occupied Heart of Greg Li



He started a journal to keep track of the untruths his wife told him. Next to the fiction about their life together, he noted how he supported those untruths with fictions of his own. The act of writing down those untrue statements gave them permanence and visibility. It was the kind of untruths that couples engage in, some as simple as what if, as in: what if we had met earlier; what if you took that other job; what if you had married that other woman instead of me. The other untruths have some truth to them, as in: if we had that baby, she or he would be fourteen; if you hadn’t married your first wife, I wouldn’t have met you; if you hadn’t gotten divorced, you wouldn’t have me (and you’d be miserable). And, the third category contained the untruths about the possibility of things that could be true. Her untruths were narratives even episodic, not declarative statements. Ancient pictographs depicted animals, plants, weapons, tools, sun, moon, gods—images of things that existed—and the pictographs also recorded the possibility of other things that could exist—afterlife, places across the mountain in another valley, things other people might have seen, maybe even hallucinations and dreams. These were the untruths his wife told him more than any other—the possibility of things that could exist in the space between them, in the past or in the future. They were not dependent on the chronology of their life together, or of their collective memory, or of any kind of loyalty to a shared history. She wanted to know how something true or untrue felt when she said it or when her husband heard the untruth from her. The duration of that feeling was what she toyed with and offered various corruptions of the same fiction.

She said, one day, that he had a good immune system. She was speaking on two levels: the one they acknowledged about his good health compared to hers and the other, which they did not speak about, was the true meaning of her comment—the things he suppressed voluntarily. She took the suppression of these things to be untold truths, revelations, incomplete stories, and myths. In ideographic drawings a circle could represent the sun or the moon or imply the presence of sunlight, moonlight, or heat. If immunity were an ideographic symbol or image, he would draw a circle of protection enclosing two stick figures, which would represent the two of them. She would draw an incomplete circle around the two figures with a break in the circle next to her husband. What does that broken circle mean? That there is a broken line of protection around the two of them? Or, given the false sense of security and safety, there’s a place for him to leave for safer ground since the break is on his side? Is the broken circle an act of generosity or an accusation on her part? He would hope that the ring is round, secure and impenetrable while she would know that they both know it is not. Does the word immune also imply silence?

He embraced a kind of anonymous silence when he was with his wife in public. Nearly every time they were in a restaurant at dinner, women who knew her would say hello to her, walk over and greet her, women she didn’t know would tell her that they liked her dress, her coat, her sweater, her scarf, her shoes, or her purse and engage her in conversation. The women thought they spoke a language that he was not interested in or that what they had to say was just between women. “I love what you’re wearing, may I ask where you got it?”

His wife was wearing a black Italian linen sleeveless sheath dress, red leather flats with black leather bows, and a summer weight waist length black silk jacket with a hidden placket and three-quarter blouson sleeves. She was carrying a black rubber purse in the shape of a pyramid made in Japan. She never wore a necklace or earrings. That evening she wore an antique green Bakelite bracelet and her wedding ring. She was wearing the same outfit when they crossed Lake Como by ferry from Tremesso to Bellagio. Their car was the only car on the small ferry and they stood together on the car deck for the short ride. In Bellagio she walked into a hotel and asked the owner if they had any rooms while he waited in the car. He showed her a room with rose print curtains, matching bedspread, high ceilings, and French doors leading out to a wrought iron balcony overlooking the lake then he cut the price of the room by forty percent for her even though it was July and the height of tourist season in Italy. They celebrated her forty-sixth birthday there. The hotel owner told her husband, in Italian, that if he were married to her, he would stay home and photograph her every day. He began to translate, but the husband told him that he understood. It happened again in Milan—another discounted hotel room, this time a weekend rate. This time she entered the hotel wearing a microfiber straight-pleated skirt, white wrinkle-pleated shirt, yellow framed flip-up sunglasses, black leather open-toed sandals, a collapsible straw hat in hand. Her only question was, “Do you have an air-conditioned room available?” A pensione in Fiesole, had one room left with a sweeping view of Florence below. She bought orange leather gloves there. Then Rome.

He has a photo of her seated at a small table with a pink tablecloth in the Piazza Navona in Rome. There are three desserts in front of her; two they ordered and a third given to them by the waiter. He had overheard her trying to decide between two different desserts. “You deserve both,” he said. She was the first woman her husband had ever dated who would walk up to a door and then stand to the side so that he could open it for her. She never drove a car or used a computer, an ATM machine, a cell phone and when they were married, she had never been east of Spokane, Washington. In retrospect, in Italy, it must have been hard to resist a petite Asian woman holding her summer hat in her hand while asking if there were rooms available.

In Hieroglyphic and ideographic writing, symbols were meant to be read and not spoken or if spoken the writing or images implied or inspired much longer narratives or stories. In essence, people invented their own fiction from the actual story told on a tablet or wall or stone obelisk. The image of something is not the thing itself. A photo or a drawing of a chair is not a chair. In ancient pictographs the image of a snake was a snake and in order to make it safe to read, it was drawn as if it had been cut in pieces or with a knife in the middle of its body. A whole snake or serpent would be unsafe to read if left whole. In one sense untruths were safer to talk about than the truth because they didn’t actually exist.

He left his first marriage to be with her. In her fiction about his life, she always imagined that leave her for the next woman who would be, in her mind, younger, taller, slimmer, not Asian or a different Asian ethnicity from her. Once she asked him who, during their marriage, did he have a crush on. The two names he mentioned were no surprise—younger, but not by much, slimmer, one blond.

In the next untruth she said, “Your wife will have beautiful skin, green gray eyes, and thick brown or blond hair. On Wednesdays, it will be your job to take your child to swimming lessons. In the mornings, you will sit on our couch and watch Sesame Street with your son. You might take him boating around the San Juan Islands.” He wrote in the journal, “I am too old to have children. I get seasick.”

“You’ll want your life to be as different as possible from this one.”

In logographic writing there is one sign to represent one word or meaning. Chinese characters are logographic. Two Chinese people who speak different dialects can communicate by writing the character for the word on a dusty tabletop, in the dirt with a stick, or trace the character in the palm of their hand. When you teach a baby sign language, pointing one finger at the palm of the other hand means “more”. There are already ideograms in the palm of the hand where the heart and life lines intersect. His palm says that he will have a long life and three children.

He hadn’t reinvented himself for his wife and there wasn’t any puzzling behavior about him that she needed to read. She remade the way he dressed. She read his body and dressed it in Italian wool or linen, shirts made of silk or rayon, but she let him choose the shoes. He chose Italian. She took him to her hair stylist and ordered a new cut and made him wear contacts and set aside his round wire-rimmed glasses.

In the High Middle Ages eyeglasses were invented, but people didn’t start wearing them for another 100 years. They trusted the memory of the object more than the thing itself. What you saw was a fiction of sorts. Hallucination meant something and foretold something. Before books were readily available, people relied on memory palaces, a system of remembering in which one divided their memories into categories, built a room around each category or subject. When he wrote down what they said to each other, it wasn’t an exact transcription of what they said, rather a more articulate and condensed version of what was said or it was condensed into one conversation that was, in reality, three conversations over three days. A fiction.

She said, “I will miss you.” An untruth. This could not be true, he knew because it would he who would miss her. When they resorted to fiction, they had been speaking too honestly to each other and dealing with truth too long. An untruth is often less threatening. There is a difference between an untruth and a lie. A dream is a fiction, a second life or a parallel life. A custom-made knee-length white wedding dress made out of brocaded silk has a story behind it. September 20, 1987. They bought a small two-bedroom house near downtown Seattle and a red Maserati. They were both thirty-eight. A house, drawn as a square in ancient hieroglyphs, offers protection for those inside.

If he were to say the word “cancer” did he then accept that it existed in the space between them? If he drew a symbol of two people standing inside an incomplete circle, does one leave or do they both leave the protection of that circle? Images and symbols were eventually attached to specific words and words were followed in writing history by letters, then the letters were assigned sounds in phonetic writing so that the reader could speak the exact words.