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Published: Sat Jul 1 2006
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.

Under the Chinese zodiac, I am a dog. Swen’s in the Combat Zone has placemats that spell the whole thing out for you. My wife was born in 1924. This makes her a rat; which she doesn’t appreciate and therefore she refuses to put any stock in the whole thing. She is very dismissive. “Get away from me, Harold,” she says when I try to explain the semantics of the zodiac to her, “You’re full of shit.” Just like a rat, she is quick tempered and overly critical.

Though the name Swen sounds vaguely Swedish, it is in fact the English translation of

which is pronounced like the Mexican dog, Chihuahua. Over many late lunches, Swen has explained to me that one’s birth year holds the key to their lifelong character and well-being. Based on a twelve-year cycle, each year in the Chinese zodiac is represented by an animal. I was born in 1922. The picture of the dog on the placemat is one of a Scottish terrier, which may seem odd, but in fact only enforces the idea that the zodiac applies to all people of all nationalities and all faiths. Allowing for my belief that the Chinese zodiac shines a little light on the dark of our misunderstood selves, my wife says this hardly explains “who I’ve become.” For who I’ve become, she forces us to go once a week to a marriage counselor in Little Italy, Dr. Vincent.

“The Chinese zodiac says nothing about dogs being seedy, Harold. If you believe in your animal sign, why aren’t you ‘honest and faithful to those you love?’” she asks, tapping her finger on the illustrated placemat.

Just like a rat, she is imaginative. While I thought we were sitting here enjoying the #12 and #43 specials, she has imagined a scene which distorts the truth. Number one: I am honest. When she asks me where I’ve been, I always tell her: At the Triple X theatre across from Swen’s. Or: watching the live nude show at the Pussycat Club. I believe in the truth; as a man more famous than me once said, “It shall set you free.”

Number 2: I am faithful. Never once in our fifty-two years of marriage have I had an extramarital affair. Never have I propositioned a woman on a street corner or a bar stool, nor seriously entertained numerous offers for “business.” Of a large number of very attractive young secretaries, I never approached one in anything but a professional manner. Likewise, never did I offer to help anyone “move up through the ranks”; which I’ll note now were insurance.

For thirty-six years I worked as an underwriter and for 36 years we struggled (never once did I take a kickback, a brown bag). Yearly worries came weekly: rising interest rates, a new roof, a used car gone wrong. When my wife found out she was pregnant with our third-born (Harry, Jr.), she cried for a week. If I had known then what I know now, I would have saved us both the headaches: “Don’t worry,” I could’ve said, “I am a dog, I will come through.” Only recently did we discover that I was due back moneys from what we thought was a defunct pension scheme from my first employer. We are now “wealthy enough to have trouble getting through the eye of a needle,” as my wife’s brother likes to say. When I told Swen about my business past, “it is wise for business firms to hire dogs,” he said. Swen’s brother is also dog. He is the vice president of a top-notch electronics company in China.

“I’m sure the zodiac was based during a time when people weren’t biased against certain animals, or rodents for that matter,” I tell my wife.

Before our appointment with Dr. Vincent, my wife wanted to come by the restaurant that I spend so many afternoons at. She has remarked that Swen’s is smaller than she would have thought—thirteen tables, one small room—“But no less sleazy looking.” She does not see the pride with which Swen remembers his homeland but says the posters on the wall are “grease-stained thicker than your cataracts.” I demonstrate the strength of my vision by pointing out the propaganda of Mao above Tiananmen Square, the practitioners of Tai Chi in the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, the bicycles weaving through the streets of Xi’an.

“Before I die, I’d like to sit in a canoe down the Yangtze. You want to canoe down the river Yangtze?” I ask her.

Last week, Dr. Vincent had to admit that using chopsticks is good for arthritis, but my wife is a knife and fork woman . . . both of which she now puts down on her barely touched chow mein. She looks straight through me, but not I suspect at the poster of cherry trees blossoming in Beijing.

“Being a rat doesn’t mean that you’re cunning or a fink or shrewd or the spreader of a contagious disease that can wipe out more than half a continent quicker than you can blink an eye,” I say.

“Eat your moo goo gai pan,” she says, though she knows full well I’m not eating moo goo gai pan.

For the most part, nobody is ever here at this time in the afternoon, well past lunch, not yet supper. I like to sit here quietly picking over a plate of potsticker dumplings as I am now. You can order the dumplings fried or steamed; I order them steamed since they are more flavourful and also because I have never been one for fried foods. Ten dumplings normally runs you $4.50. Even though it’s nearly 4:00, Swen has only charged me $3.50, the lunch-special price normally reserved for patrons dining between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. If my wife were not here, I would flip pages while I eat, a copy of Hustler or Busty which I’d pick up from the newsstand across the street.

Despite the fact that she was the one who insisted on coming here, my wife reaches into her purse for a deck of cards and I can tell that she is beginning “the silent treatment.” Swen has said that the silent treatment has a similar psychological strategy to “the Chinese water torture,” where water is dripped ever so regularly on your forehead for as long as it takes to get a confession. My wife has become a master of the silent treatment, which she applies while laying down her cards in the familiar rows of solitaire with which she lines our white Formica kitchen table. She plays with “austerity and grace,” as the placemat notes are attributes becoming a rat; I think to tell her how austere and graceful she looks, but this would only make her mad.

“Another example of how an animal’s characteristics get lost in translation is my own,” I tell my wife. “In most English-speaking countries, referring to someone as a ‘dog’ might mean that they are hard working. ‘He sure works like a dog,’ someone might say. Interestingly enough, it is the Chinese cock who is hard working. Also interestingly enough, the cock is the one who is shrewd.”

My wife refuses to meet my eyes. She stares down at her cards, needing a king of spades to close her stack.

“In America, particularly, referring to someone as a ‘dog’ might also mean that that person is not very attractive,” I continue. “‘Boy is she a dog,’ someone might say. The Chinese zodiac follows none of this idiomatic logic.”

“You don’t fool me, Harold,” my wife says, looking up. “A ‘dog’ is one who plays around. A dog is a man who can’t keep his thing in his pants.” She is speaking in the whispers she uses in public.

The bells on Swen’s door jingle.

A young couple enters and my wife stops her game. Sven has been going through the day’s take at the cash register, but he now leads the couple past us to their table. He gives them each a plastic menu and on his return to the front of the restaurant smiles at my wife who turns quickly back to me. “Open one of your girlie magazines,” she says.

She has made me bring a sampling of my magazine collection to show Dr. Vincent (who is only a Ph.D., not an M.D., I’ve pointed out to my wife). My wife leans back in her chair, keeping the cards in front of her like a barrier.

“Open one,” she says, “Act as if I wasn’t even here.”

“I’m not sure Dr. Vincent would recommend this,” I say.

“You don’t give a damn about Dr. Vincent, Harold,” she says.

Almost a year ago, when I retired from the firm, my wife bought me a leather satchel. “It’s more casual than a briefcase,” she said when she presented it to me with a copy of The Times inside. I still go day today with the strap looped around my shoulder. I am an avid player of the daily crossword.

“That’s right, take one out of the satchel that I bought you.”

I pull out a copy of Shaved and try to hand it to her.

“For Christ’s sake, Harold, put it on the table, I don’t want it.”

I know Dr. Vincent put her up to this. I imagine him saying, “Make him flip through one in public with you. Embarrass him into submission.” The Germans had Hitler, but don’t forget the Italians had Mussolini, I have had to remind my wife.

“Are you sure you want me to do this?” I say.

“Open it,” she says again. On the table, a line of kings and queens stare up at me; I lay the magazine down, covering the cards with two tanned and wet women playing lesbian. They are by the pool and posing with their tongues very close to one another’s genitalia. My wife does not turn away when I flip the page. Instead, she looks at me before twisting her bad back to see the young couple three tables away. They are ordering kung pao chicken, and shrimp with snow peas. Both dishes come with an egg roll and the choice of fried or steamed rice. Fried rice, because there’s no batter, is just about the only fried food I like. I flip slowly through the pages: a woman is bending over her washing machine; a puckered back passage, a glistening pudendum. Bright red fingernails pull back the creases of flesh to betray a bubblegum pinkness. When I unfold the centerfold, extend it, and horizontally lay it down on our table, my wife continues looking down. She doesn’t look at me when she takes hold of her bag, frees her knees from the booth, and gets up and leaves. After a moment, I close the magazine and collect her cards. I put both in my satchel and follow her out.

Outside the door, she stands in the middle of what’s left of the red light district. In the late 90s, zoning laws got rid of most of the Triple X theaters and pornographic shops. Increased police supervision got rid of the prostitutes. My wife uncrosses her arms and lights a cigarette. The last advertisements for peep shows blink at her from across the street. Even when it’s raining, the old Chinese men of the neighborhood sit under the shop-front awnings playing dominoes. It’s not raining and has not rained for the longest time.

“You forgot your cards,” I say, reaching into my satchel.

When my wife said she would like to see Dr. Vincent, I refused on the grounds that “nobody can tell you what you don’t already know about yourself.” When she threatened divorce—which was not the first time she threatened divorce—I said, “He who thinks he can tell another what to do is a fool” (both of these quotations I borrow from that greatest of philosophers of the second A.D., Confucius). When I later heard her crying behind the bathroom door, I spent the better half of the afternoon in the garage tinkering with the electric door opener, which we had installed over a year ago but which has never worked properly. I returned upstairs to find her sitting on the reupholstered couch—floral, overly so—and watching her soaps. “If I were to go to Dr. Vincent,” I told her then and confess to you now, “there is something I won’t talk about…it’s off-limits.”

Pregnant with Harry, Jr., my wife cried for a week, but not because he was our third, or even our second. She cried because he would not even be our first; the doctors had found something wrong with her womb, and when at five months he leaked out of her body and into the toilet, she would not get out of bed for a year.

“I know you no longer find me attractive, Harold,” she says without looking at me now, “But do you still love me?”

When we first got married, I bought a camera and set up a dark-room in the bathroom in our apartment. I took pictures of my wife spread out on the couch, or lying across the kitchen table, or in the back seat of our first car. We would hang the wet photos on a line in our bedroom and make love with the smell of developer thick in our noses. When she got pregnant we danced naked on our rooftop, holding one another close in the rain. After Harry, she lost all interest in pictures; the developer dried up, the albums put away. But there were times . . . I would return home from work to find the pages fingered with cake batter or a thumbprint of gravy from the chicken she was making for dinner. After we ate, she would pull me into our bedroom, and that night while she cried I would sleep without dreams. In a few blocks, I will ask her to sit on the park’s stone benches. Maybe we will miss our appointment. Maybe we will watch the kids skateboard, the young lovers kiss.

Anthony Caleshu is the author of a novella, a critical study of the poetry of James Tate, and two books of poetry, most recently: Of Whales: in Print, in Paint, in Sea, in Stars, in Coin, in House, in Margins. Current projects include a collection of stories and a new book of poems. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, AGNI Online, Poetry Review, and The Best British Poetry 2014. He is Professor of Poetry at Plymouth University in Southwest England. (updated 9/2014)

Caleshu’s The Siege of the Body and a Brief Respite was reviewed in AGNI Online by Ellen Wehle.

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