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From The Vault: Lan Samatha Chang
This week we bring you Lan Samantha Chang’s Readable Feast from issue 28. Warning: don’t read this before lunch.
The End of Laughter
Lan Samantha Chang
How can I tell the story of our love affair that never took place? There are no words for it. It was not a liaison, a dalliance, or a fling. It was not friendship and not family. It’s an attachment, I would say to you. An attachment with no usefulness in real life.
It happened in a city on a faraway coast. In that hilled city, winter shadows lengthened early, and so our attachment flourished in the dark. Our darkness was not frightening or cold. Our darkness gleamed with happiness, it was sustaining; it wrapped around us like a curtain and kept us safe from gossip. You were beautiful and I was old, and we were both with other people. We were not allowed to touch. We never held hands. We never made love and so, instead, we ate.
We ate hamburgers and sushi and pancakes with pecans. We ate chicken fingers, tapenades, French chocolates, and ice-cream shakes. To carve out time, we had late lunches, early dinners, and frequent duplicate meals, reassuring each other that we had not eaten recently and could use a bite. We ate for love, for sympathy and fun. We ate out of confusion and emptiness and lust. We ate our meals in public and kept our true hungers a secret.
Although you could not come to Hangzhou, your letters followed me there, and I wrote back to you about the beggars’ chicken and crisp fish. You flew home to Boston for two weeks, surfacing after an eternity with tales of Portuguese tapas and stuffy family recipes. Together we visited the cuisines of China, Japan, and Thailand; over lunch we went to Pakistan, Ethiopia, and France. We traveled far in search of our meals. We sneaked off in the middle of the day and drove to the wine country. We ordered too much and sat in restaurants for hours. And at those meals we never discussed the people nearby. We never chatted with the waiters and we never paid attention to the silverware, the dishes, the artwork, or the atmosphere. I don’t remember the names of the places where we went. I don’t remember the prices. I remember laughing on the street, winter rain in your brown hair. I remember watching the dark descend: soon it would be dinnertime.
I remember a diner where we always ordered breakfast no matter what the time of day. Breakfast offered solace and helped us ignore the clock. We let the time slide by and chatted over our French toast. We stayed an extra half hour and then another half hour, trifling the time away because it was our enemy.
I remember a dim cave, the recessed tunnel of a Greek restaurant where no one ever came. Steam from our hot potatoes fogged the window. You told me how alone you felt and how you couldn’t sleep. You envied my forthcoming book, my answered questions. We were more than years apart, you said; our age difference put us into different times of life. That evening you were frightened, unsure of whom you would become and whether you would ever satisfy your dreams. I said that you were like my college friend Peter, who was always valiant, large-hearted, and ambitious. I didn’t tell you Peter had been ill and died when you were twelve years old. Instead, I said you would never be alone and I’d be there for you. In my heart I knew this wasn’t true, that someday you would love someone appropriate and I would not forgive you. I said it because I wished it. As I wished the winter would never go away.
I remember a Chinese restaurant high on a hill. You felt we should celebrate the arrival of spring. I dreaded the coming of long days, but didn’t want to tell you, so we ordered dumplings swimming in a spicy sauce, scallion pancakes, the stir-fried special vegetable, “eight delights” chow fun, twin lobsters with ginger, salted rock crab with hot peppers, and steamed sea bass with soy sauce. The waitress said we’d ordered too much. We set out to prove her wrong.
We split the pancakes evenly. They were delicious, loaded with scallions sliced leaf-thin. The special vegetable was kong xin cai, a Chinese staple with a hollow stem. I translated its name for you: “hollow-hearted green.” You went at the steaming kong xin cai with a voluptuous greed that made me look away. I saw then, coming toward us, the enormous platter of chow fun, bulging with brilliant greens and curved pink shrimp and waving tentacles among its eight delights, including one unidentifiable delight you later claimed was tripe. I felt I’d had enough to eat when the three seafood plates turned up. You kept on, deliberately and with confidence; your capacity for everything was prodigious.
I watched you dismember sea creatures, something you had learned to do when you were growing up and spent your summers on the shore. I watched the oil gleam on your lips; I watched your hands. You had sturdy, homely hands, intelligent and versatile. They had fixed motorcycles and built bookshelves; they had cleaned fish and sharpened a thousand pencils. I laughed at your attempts to get the last of the meat out of the lobster claws, and again at your interest in the vivid, knob-eyed lobster heads, which, you concluded after close examination, were “cartilaginous” and “merely ornamental.” You kept prying at them, though, unwilling to concede to the inedible.
In his apartment thirty miles south, my lover ate leftovers from the beef stew I’d made the day before. At least three girls were thinking of you that night; you didn’t check your phone. Instead, we talked about the meals we’d had and the meal we were eating and the meals that were to come. A few times you stole my water glass. You smiled slyly, put your beautiful mouth against the glass, and drank. I had slowed down long ago, but you tried to keep me eating. Using long arms, you sneaked more fish onto my plate.
I said, “I will remember . . . ”
And you said, “I will remembe . . . ”
Staggering down the hill, after having eaten so much that we could hardly breathe, you told me a story about consuming birdseed as a child. You had been drawn to it, you explained to me, because it was forbidden. Then you stopped walking. I smiled, waiting for you to recognize the irony in what you had said, but you stood, puzzled, as if struggling to know who we were and how we had come to this place. Your confusion only worsened when we both began to giggle. Then I was snorting and you howled at me because I couldn’t stop. We laughed until our stomachs hurt, until we had no idea why we’d begun. We were delirious and confused, pickled on too much dinner.
Afterward, I wondered why giving in to laughter feels so risky. It’s because laughter suspends time, you said. When we fall into such giddiness we don’t know when it’s going to end; when we begin to laugh we step out of time. I told you what my mother believed: that if we laugh too hard we’ll cry; and you recalled that as a child, after a long spell of hilarity, you would feel a sudden melancholy. Such as after making love, I said, and you were silent.
You would leave me soon, I knew. The old know what the young do not, and most of all they can foresee the end of youth. I had tried to tell you this, but you refused to hear it. You didn’t understand for months, not until you tried to walk away and recognized, too late, that you had ingested me too utterly and too faithfully. I had become a part of you. And then our age difference became embarrassing to you, and our attachment an awkwardness. You grew desperate to cast me off. You shouted; you sobbed; you pushed me away and then called begging to hear my voice. You stormed out of a restaurant and then insisted that you could not live without me. Finally you succeeded. As the days lengthened into midsummer, you spent hours in the pool and refused to eat anything except steamed vegetables and broiled meat. You managed to escape in search of someone more appropriate, someone whose love would not keep you from your glorious dreams.
Lan Samantha Chang‘s fiction has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Story and The Best American Short Stories 1994 and 1996. Chang is the author of the award-winning books Hunger: A Novella and Stories and Inheritance, and the novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. She is the recipient of the Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote fellowships at Stanford University. She also received, from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a Teaching-Writing fellowship and a Michener-Copernicus fellowship. Her many awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she directs the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.