Fiction / June 2013 (Issue 21)

The Uninvited Guest

by Cathy Adams

She shows up after Mit leaves for work, usually around nine. We, or I, have tea. We chat and she shows me pictures of things from her past. I don't know where she managed to get photographs, but there they are. Sometimes, I get bored looking at them, but I don't want to appear rude. Besides, I often find the background more intriguing than the subject. Palanquins, camels (I had no idea they had those there), soldiers, sometimes eunuchs can be seen in the distance behind the family members, standing or sitting, staid and stuffy for the camera. I hate to say it because it sounds so racist, but all of her family members look alike to me, even the servants. Black hair, slanted eyes, somber expressions. How many times can you look at the same aunt, uncle, sister and not get bored?

This morning she shows up at her usual time, nine o'clock, and sits at the kitchen table, waiting for me to finish the dishes. Of course, I never actually see her come in. She just appears, maybe through the wall or maybe she materialises like in the old Star Trek series. I asked her once how she did it, but all I got was a polite smile. She does that when she does not want to answer.

Mit had asked for waffles this morning, so there was more mess than usual for me to clean up. She just sat there waiting, not offering to help with the dishes or even wipe down the counters. She never does. She never addresses me until I sit down in my chair across from her. Says it's a protocol thing, as if I am one of the servants she is accustomed to having. We bid one another a good morning, and thus it begins.

"So Zhen Fei, how are things with you?" I ask because I am a polite person, and I want to be a good hostess.

"Very tired. I am very tired." She says this with a slight tilt of her head that happens so slowly I am sure someone must have coached her in how to do it.

"What could possibly make you tired?"

"Very long night, but I not talk about it," she says, looking at the tea maker longingly. I take the hint and get up to pour myself a cup. She likes to watch me drink it, and, more importantly, she likes to smell it. The ritual of the tea is the one time I actually feel sorry for her. I can tell she wants more than anything to drink tea with me, but she cannot. I find that part rather unfair. She can hold the cup, smell it, feel its heat, even put her finger in it, but she cannot drink it. One of the principles of being dead, she says.

I place the steaming cup on the table between us, so she can sniff the aroma while we talk. I lean closer and press the issue. "Are you going to answer the question?"

"I not talk about it," but she is waving her hand with stiff little fingers in that affected way of hers that I find irritating. The wave means she wants to talk about it, but she wants me to drag it out of her. I sigh and press on. "Could you not sleep?"

"I don't sleep. We talked about that," she says with a little curtness to her voice.

"Yes, I'm sorry. I forgot."

"It's that woman again."

"That woman" means the empress dowager, and since I taught her this condescending American phrase she likes to use it to refer to the empress. I have wondered if she says this to her face, as if the empress would even know to be insulted.

"So what is she up to now?"

"Same thing. She tell me to leave."

"Is she out of her mind?" I say. "It's not like you have any place to go." Zhen Fei says nothing. "You don't, do you?"

"She just want to be...I don't know the word...imitating."

"Irritating," I correct her.

"Yes, she want to be irritating. She know she can do nothing to me now, so she just bother me. All night long, she go blah, blah, blah. Sometime, I wish I could kill her."

"I'm sure you don't mean that," I say, because it is one of those responses you give when someone says something totally inappropriate, and you want to give them an out.

She says nothing. I sip my tea, and she puts her chin in her hand and stares out the window. Suddenly, she brightens and turns back to me.

"What my word today?"

I think a minute before it comes to me. "Hypnopompic." I repeat it three more times slowly, so she will get it. "It means the sleepy state you're in before you wake up."

"Yes, I feel this way when the servants come in," she says. "Himnopoppic. Himmopoppic."

"Perfect," I say this almost every time because it seems rude not to praise Zhen Fei's efforts as she accomplishes so little in her state. She smiles in that restrained way of hers, and I know she is pleased with herself. "Your English is getting better every day."

She does not say thank you. For Zhen Fei, acknowledging that her English is improving is simply recognition of a fact that I, as her subordinate, am obligated to point out on occasion. Sometimes, she makes me bristle. Sometimes, I am a little glad that the empress dowager had her thrown in a well. But then I feel guilty for thinking like this. It's terribly rude.

"I know we've talked about this before, Zhen Fei, but you really should consider relocating. Cixi is not going to leave you alone, even if all she can do is irritate you. I think you should take action. These days," and I leaned in closer, not quite daring to put a hand over hers, "women don't tolerate that kind of aggression. You need to be a person who gets things done, not one to whom things are done. Do you understand the difference?"

Zhen Fei's eyes turned hard, like little nuts hiding in shells. I waited, let it sink in. I would not be the next one to speak. Dr. Weller had shown me the value of stating a case and then patiently letting the other party process and form a response. This new communication technique had worked wonders in my relationship with Mit. Let the silence support your confidence in your position, Dr. Weller had said.

"You may be right," Zhen Fei finally said, her eyebrows rising in acquiescence. "Maybe I go to new place. Place where she will not follow."

"Yes, that's the right way to think. A place where you can start over, a place you can make your own mark without her interfering." Finally, she was making some sense after months of going round and round about this. No one else was going to do anything to make her situation better except her.

"I will stay here," Zhen Fei announced.

I stopped my tea cup in midair and felt my lips try to form the words "Here, here." "Are you sure she won't just decide to come here, too?"

"She will not come here. Look at this place." Zhen Fei waved her powdery white hand around the room.

I put my tea down on the table quietly, and, for a moment, no one spoke. There were rules about hospitality that must be followed, even when your guests are nineteenth-century Chinese ghosts from the Forbidden City who show up unannounced and uninvited each morning. I had long ago ascertained that Zhen Fei would not reciprocate those standards, and, even though that did not release me from my social obligations, I was beginning to lose my patience. This was downright insulting.

"Mit and I spent $19,000 renovating this kitchen less than two years ago. That," I pointed behind me without turning around, "is a brand new Jenn-Air stove. Stainless steel. Upper and lower ovens, too."

Zhen Fei shrugged her shoulders. "I'm sure it's very nice," she said in a tone that was as close to apologetic as it got.

I took a deep breath and encircled my tea cup with both hands. The cup was white, a flawless matt-china cup that Zhen Fei had praised on her first visit three months earlier. It was a luxurious afterthought when we remodelled the kitchen to buy a half dozen impractically small teacups I could line up on my new lighted shelves. For the past few months, I had found it a comfort to sit with one of those cups in my hands at the breakfast table with Zhen Fei. She was easy company to have around. There was no social reciprocation of visitation. I never had to offer her anything to eat or drink. She wasn't even on my Christmas card list. And now she wanted, no, expected, to be a permanent guest.

"I'm not sure how Mit would take this," I started. "He's not keen on having people over unless they're business associates. You understand."

She did not understand. Her lips pursed in a slight smile, and she made a motion to get up from the table. "You want me to make business with your husband?"

"Certainly not. That's not what I meant."

Zhen Fei was walking with her tiny, swaying steps toward the stainless steel Jenn-Air. Stopping in front of it, she pulled up the sleeve of her right arm, and, with great theatricality, ran a finger over its pristine surface. I'd cleaned it after breakfast with 409. There was not a smear of grease on it.

"I am to serve a purpose with your husband so that he will not be angry with you." She was not looking at me, but I could see that her face was serene and businesslike.

"I am certain I don't know what you're implying." Sweat had broken out on my lip, and I wiped it away with a white napkin from the breakfast table.

"Arrangements may be made that will please everyone," she said, retracting her hand into her sleeve once more and looking back at me with a gentle smile.

"Mit is a member of the Lion's Club, the Downtown Development Council and the First United Methodist Church. He also volunteers with the annual fishing rodeo for the Juvenile Rehabilitation Initiative." There was something else I had intended to say, but somehow it was lost in the list. I cleared my throat and pushed up from the table.

"I may be of service in some way?" Zhen Wei's face had softened to a childlike expression, and she did something I had never seen her do: bow. It was slight and shallow, but it was a bow. There was something she could do.

"There is one way that you could stay here, and Mit would approve. Have you heard the term 'domestic service'?"

The eyebrows went up again, and Zhen Wei pushed her hands into their opposing sleeves. The gesture was charming, so ethnic. Maybe this could be a good idea. I quickly got up from the table and went into the laundry room, calling back to Zhen Wei, "I have a uniform you could wear so that you could, uhmm, fit in. Frida, my former housekeeper, wore it."

I sorted through the folded clothes looking for the grey dress with the white collar that I had bought out of my own pocket for Frida. She was a hefty woman who liked to curse in Spanish under her breath. I mean, I don't really know that she was using actual curse words, but it was one of those things you can just feel. I found the dress on a shelf with the detergent and took it to the kitchen. Zhen Wei held it up and smiled at me as if I had expected her to put on a Taco Bell uniform, if she had known what a Taco Bell was. She casually dropped the dress on the kitchen counter and drifted across the floor in that little sashaying way she does, stopping at the table. It was the kind of mimicking walk one does behind another person's back, except this was the way she walked all the time, her hands extended like bent wings.

"I think maybe I will remain as I am," she said.

"It will be awfully difficult for you to clean house in that." I pointed at her silk dress that dragged the ground, but she did not answer. "Well, alright then. You don't have to wear the dress. I just thought..."

"Maybe I will not clean," she said, smiling sweetly.

"I thought we had an arrangement, remember?" I did not want to appear confrontational. I have long believed that negotiations could be accomplished much more successfully with mutual cooperation, and the way to attain mutual cooperation was to be unflappable. Yes, I would be unflappable, just like Zhen Wei.

"I have explained that Mit will not tolerate...that Mit would not approve of any arrangements that do not involve equitable economic benefit." My visions of her serving mimosas at the Junior League monthly meeting were wavering before my eyes. "As a professional consort, you can surely appreciate that such business arrangements, especially for someone in your condition, are a rare opportunity. You really should seize upon this as a means of improving your lot."

This time she seemed to be thinking about what I had said. She pursed her lips and cocked her head in another of her affected moves. "And you can wear," I put up a hand and gestured up and down to her yellow silk, embroidered gown, "wear your dress. I do insist that the head piece go."

She put up a dainty hand and touched one side of the unwieldy, flat, beaded head board. "Yes."

I was trying to imagine her without the hat when she met Mit, an inevitable necessity that I preferred not to think about for the present. "Let me show you how to make a mimosa," I said. "That's what everyone likes at the Junior League meeting."

I wanted to tell her that I would be co-hosting the next meeting with a neighbour at my house the following week, and she would be serving, but it seemed like too much information for the time being. I would have to ease her into such an idea. She had to think it was hers.

When she sniffed the mimosa, I could tell she would have really liked the drink if she have could tasted it. Her mouth turned up in an excited little smile and she put her hand over her mouth in delight. "I so wish this could be my taste."

"Now when you finish mixing the drink, cut up a strawberry, like this." I pushed a sharp cooking knife through a strawberry and pushed it gently onto the rim of her glass. "Put it on the glass like this. It's all in the presentation."

"Pretty is important," said Zhen Wei, turning her glass round and round in her fingers, admiring the strawberry. I was relieved. She seemed to be getting it.

She sat down in the kitchen chair and held the mimosa glass as if she had been drinking it. I was about to show her how to cut up a kiwi into a little fan shape when I saw Bunny Brown at the sliding glass back door of the kitchen. She was pulling the door open before I could speak.

"Juuustine! I didn't know you had a new girl." Bunny stuck her fat, over-priced salon high-lighted head into the kitchen. "I am so glad you let that Frida go." She pushed the door shut behind her and took a seat at the table right next to Zhen Fei. "She was smoking cigarettes in the backyard with my Mystique when she was supposed to be working. Bad influence," she added in a theatrical whisper.

She let her limp hand wave back and forth in a dismissive gesture at Zhen Wei. "And look at you! I thought I saw somebody in here with you the other morning when I was in the backyard setting out impatiens. Isn't she adorable? And in costume no less!" Bunny sat back and took a long look at Zhen Wei, who cast her eyes downward and grinned. "Are you Japanese?" she asked in a much louder voice.

"I am Han, of the imperial palace of the Emperor Guangxu. I am called Consort Zhen Wei," she replied in a dreadfully important voice.

"Oh my stars, where did she learn that?" Bunny burst into laughter. "She must be right off the boat!"

"We've been going over some of her duties," I said, because I could think of nothing else to say.

"I just hope she can cook better than Mystique. That girl could burn water," said Bunny. "Did you find her at an agency?"

"No," I said and sighed. There was an uncomfortable silence, and it was clear Bunny had been offended.

"Well," Bunny looked at me and then back at Zhen Wei, "I guess it's your business if you don't want me to know."

"She just has," I searched for the right words, "no people around here. It's a uhmm, it's a sad story."

"Ohhh honey, were you one of those sex slaves?" Bunny turned to me, "I've read about those. It is just so sad what they do to those girls. But sweetie," she leaned in toward Zhen Wei and took one of her hands, "we do not judge around here. You're in America now, and you can be anything you want to be as long as you work hard and keep your nose clean."

"I am quite clean," said Zhen Wei staring down at the hand Bunny clasped in hers.

"Oh darling, I know you are. Your hands are freezing," Bunny said, rubbing the backs of Zhen Wei's hands.

"I was thrown down a well," said Zhen Wei.

Bunny stopped rubbing and sat upright in her chair, unsure what to say. "Oh my lord, that's terrible. But things like that don't happen here. The worst thing anybody can do to you here is fire you, and, like I said, you'll be fine if you work hard and don't steal. That's important. You remember Linda, the little Filipino girl I had two years ago, don't you, Justine?"

"I do not steal," said Zhen Wei, pulling her hands from Bunny's grip.

"Of course you don't. I was just saying, you know."

"She's not worked in a private home before," I said. "Her experience has largely been in a governmental environment."

"Oh, I can tell you're different from the usual level of household help we get around here," said Bunny. She stood up from the table and went to the tea maker to help herself. "If you've done housekeeping in an embassy or something, no matter which country, then you have to be top-tier. They really check those workers out. I just can't imagine how you ended up here at Justine's place," said Bunny. She gave a little laugh and looked at me before turning up her cup she had filled with tea.

"I can't either," I said.

"I hope I'll be seeing more of you," said Bunny. "Justine and I are the co-hostesses of the February Junior League meeting, and it's scheduled right here at Justine's place, so you'll be working with Mystique on that. You told her about the Junior League meeting, right?"

"We were getting to that."

"That is what mimosas are for?" asked Zhen Wei. "We will serve drinks to Juniors League."

"Mystique will be helping, but don't worry. She's done three meetings already. She can show you everything you need to know," said Bunny. She crossed her feet and leaned against the cabinet. Bunny had an annoying way of appearing as though she was the owner of whatever space she happened to be standing in.

"Mystique is a consort?" asked Zhen Wei. She stood up from the table and wobbled a bit before getting her footing.

"We call it a 'domestic' here." Bunny crossed her arms and took another sip. She shook her head at Zhen Wei. "I just can't get over how cute she is. Is she going to wear the costume at the meeting? I should get up something for Mystique to wear. Something African. We could change the theme to something multicultural." She extended her coffee cup toward me in a gesture pleading for agreement.

"We're still working on the mimosa thing," I said. "But we'll talk."

Bunny shrugged her shoulders and put the cup on the counter. "OK then, I've got to be off. The carpet cleaners are due in a half hour, so I've got to get my jewellery out of sight." She made a little shaking motion of her head that said you-know-what-I-mean and headed for the sliding doors. "It was nice meeting you," she called to Zhen Wei, who sat very still and said nothing. Bunny stopped at the door before going out and sliding it shut behind her, "Get her a pair of your old gloves, Justine. The girl's hands are like ice."

Before I could respond, Zhen Wei stood up and dipped her head in a small bow. When she looked up, she stepped close to me with her eyes on mine. Her face was open in a way I had not seen before, and her eyes lacked the carefully measured control she had always shown. They were large, childlike and slightly sad. "I have enjoyed our talks very much. I am sorry things could not remain as they were on our mornings. I think maybe I return now. You will not see me again."

"Oh now, Zhen Wei. You can't go," I said, putting my hands out to her shoulders, but somehow I could not bring myself to touch her. "I mean, I've enjoyed our visits, too."

"I will go. This is not best place for me," she said, and stood up full.

"I hate to see you go," I said, and I meant it. I think I meant it more than anything that I'd ever said to her. Something hard grasped me inside, deep in my stomach, and I had to look down. The front of her gown revealed two stumpy feet no more than three or four inches long tucked into shoes held up by platforms that raised her at least five inches. In truth, she was no taller than my shoulders. I don't know why I fixated on this sight so completely in Zhen Wei's last moments with me. I slumped forward, staring at those feet, until she must have thought I was bowing to her.

"You are better person than her." These were Zhen Wei's last words before she dissolved before me. I still wonder if she was referring to Cixi, the empress dowager who ordered that she be thrown in the well, or Bunny.

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