My father stands on a hill in a high wind, a strapped black bag at his feet. No, it's a dock, a stupendously busy dock, in the port of Shanghai, the most crowded city in the world. Anyone can see that he doesn't belong here, that he's a peasant from the outbacks of the north, from the style of his cheap blue serge suit, made by a local tailor, and his ill-fitting black shoes with their bulbous toes. Still, even among these city slickers he cuts a remarkably handsome figure. He is tall for a Chinese, nearly six feet, with the proportions of a tall person, lean-necked, arms and legs long for his torso. His full hair is slicked back in a side part, his eyes have the doey shape of a matinee idol's, with thick lashes. If you were to look into them you would see that he is terrified. This is the first time in his life he has seen a steamer. He has never ridden in a car, and the night express that took him from Wuhan to Shanghai is the only train he's ever been on. The shape of his lips is generously drawn, as if he were a sensual man, although he is not. He has the hands of an intellectual, pale-backed, narrow-palmed, with long, tapering fingers. His wrists are knobby, his Adam's apple unusually prominent, he is thin by any standards.
When the gangplank clangs down, my father hangs back from the crowd. Not out of politeness, or even tentativeness, but because he is sailing steerage and must wait for the first- and second-class passengers to board before him. He waits without aggression, the bag at his feet like a sleeping dog. He waits without heart.
The hill again. A cemetery by the sea. To the east the grass fades into cliffs and then there's the drop to the Pacific. Afterthe funeral, my father was cremated and the ashes were flown to San Francisco, then transported down the coast to be buried. Behind my father sleeps his mother-in-law, my Nai-nai, buried in her best silk "chipao"--a violet one--and tiny black satin slippers.
The ghost's eyes are larger than the man's were in life. He has shed the blue serge suit jacket and now stands only in trousers and a loose white shirt. The black bag has decayed into shreds. His feet are bare. His hair is turning white.
White in China means death. Corpses are wrapped in white blankets, mourners wear white, white flowers are carried in funeral processions. White is bloodlessness, despair, the color of the sky on the March morning I tried to kill myself. Chapter One
"Christ, it looks just like that prissy boarding school you went to." I could hear my sister's voice in my head as we started up the winding drive. A cluster of white Colonial houses, with several tasteful modern buildings thrown in. Near the gate to the left were half a dozen tennis courts and to our right was an amoeba-shaped lake surrounded by weeping willows. All the buildings were connected by neat flagstone paths. On one of these paths a group was walking with cheerful expressions, faces upturned to the weak sun. A teenage girl stopped, yawned, and slipped her sweatshirt over her head to tie it around her waist, casual, like any kid, anywhere, on an early spring day. It really could have passed for a campus, except for the wire fencing out front and the fact that it was much too quiet.
This was my second hospital in five days. The first was Yale New Haven, where I'd been admitted from the emergency room and they'd doped me up with somethingthey usually use for psychotics. It made me not care so much when my shrink Valerie told me where I was going when I got out of there. She'd drive me up herself, she said.
She shook her head. "I don't have a choice, sweetie. You broke our pact. You promised you'd let me know if things got this bad."
"If you'd done that you would have blown up every house on your entire block. This isn't England in the sixties. You're not Sylvia Plath."
The whole way up I'd been in a trance. We stopped at a Howard Johnson's for breakfast, but I didn't eat anything, just sipped black tea and chain-smoked until Valerie said, Come on, we're going to be late. The only thing I remember about the drive was watching the trees along the highway--maples with their massive trunks and dark snaky lower limbs, fatalistic lean oaks, spears of birches angling whitely and every which way against the lightening sky.
Admissions turned out to be in one of the Colonial houses. Again, the feeling was boarding school--the headmaster's study, where you reported to if you'd been caught drinking or with a boy in your room, or if they were going to tell you that someone in your family had died. Valerie and I sat in Queen Anne chairs upholstered in red velvet while a snotty-looking woman in half glasses took notes at a desk facing us. Her chair was a regular office swivel one, which she trundled ruthlessly over the faded pink and blue Oriental rug to retrieve forms from the file cabinet.
The information they wanted was simple enough: Age: 27 Allergies: ragweed History of psychiatric illness: noneAdmission: voluntary Status: suicide risk
Several official-looking documents, like leases, were handed to me on a clipboard. How civilized this was, nothing like I'd imagined. I signed, using the ballpoint attached on a string, not bothering to try to make out any of the small print. I can't tell you how my handwriting had deteriorated by then, I was lucky to be able to make any kind of mark at all. Valerie signed each form after me, her writing loopy and leaning, the kind my best friend, Fran, says indicates a generous nature.
"Okay, honey, I have to be getting back on the road now. I have a ten o'clock client." When she leaned to hug me, I felt the strength in her lean arms and shoulders. "They'll take good care of you here, Sally," she whispered. "And don't worry--remember, I'll be coming up to see you once a week."
When Valerie had left, Swivel Chair Lady peered over her half glasses, meeting my eyes directly for the first time. "Would you please hand me your suitcase?"
"That bag's falling apart, but I don't like throw away. Are you sure you want? I have better."
"No, this is fine."
In fact, it was appropriate, because I too was traveling to a strange land from which I might never return.
After a while Ma cleared her throat and said: "You don't worry about expenses. However long ittakes, okay."
Her eyes were glassy. It made me uncomfortable and I looked away, pretending I hadn't seen.
The straps and buttons gave Swivel Chair Lady a little trouble but I didn't offer to help. She stuck her claw right in, rummaging, feeling everywhere--between my folded clothes, into all the corners, her nails scraping leather.
In Mandarin, my Uncle Richard once told me, there is a special category of nouns for long, skinny things like pencils, chopsticks, hair. All numbers modifying these nouns must end in "zhi."
Swivel Chair Lady confiscated all my "zhi "objects: cigarettes, shoelaces, belts, hair elastics, the drawstring to my parka.
Also, contact lens solution, nail clippers, aspirin. She asked for the pearl studs in my ears and the gold watch Ma gave me when I got married. Then she picked up her telephone receiver and dialed four numbers. "The new admit is ready." She said to me: "An MH will escort you to the ward."