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New York City, 1993
Down at the Fulton Fish Market, a person could still buy the illegal eels pulled from the Hudson, eels that had evolved, in the last one or two hundred generations, an enzyme that resists the PCBs and that is, according to people who have a bent for this sort of thing, very tasty, laces the meat with a flavor that is, as Peter described it, woody and vibrant. It's the eel's response to the modern world, to General Electric in particular, and Peter believed he could taste this. Though Peter believed he could taste anything in an animal: age, history, strength, fear. You could say he was an antivegetarian -- loved bodies, claws, forms, hooves, ribs, though I guess his favorite food was still the litchi nuts he picked up every morning on his way in to work, as he passed through Chinatown. He lived in Cobble Hill, in Brooklyn, took the F to East Broadway, and then walked up through Chinatown to our office on Houston Street.
Peter and I ran a nonprofit called the Aquinas Foundation. Actually, Peter was its founder, and I worked for him. Officially the mission of Aquinas was to promote the intersection of Eastern and Western medicine. Unofficially, Aquinas was the practical arm of Peter's fancy. Our most visible project and our most troubling was something Peter called a "healing center," which was to be built on the edge of the Yangtze River in China. It helped to think of it as not quite hospital, not quite spa, not quite temple, but a mixture of all three, some organization of materials devoted to fulfilling a person's mental and physical potential. At first I had thought the project would be a very difficult sell, donor-wise, but instead it had appealed deeply to that strange human bird, the celebrity, many of whom felt such a place was utterly legitimate, since they themselves required close, intricate types of attention -- acupuncture, biofeedback, qi gong -- but were not actually sick in any way. Money was rolling in from them.
This morning I was again battling over the phone with a man we called the Gripper. Peter and I stood side by side looking out at Soho, both of us with headsets on. The Gripper was a Hollywood agent and lawyer, and he was very stealthy and demanding. Once at a party I had seen him eat an olive and then split the pit with his teeth, sucking out some private and nasty goodness within.
Today he was insisting that his client's name be on the center, on a plaque. "I want his name on the hospital itself," the Gripper said.
"It's not a hospital," I said. "It's a healing center."
"Whatever it is. I don't care. He needs more recognition."
"That's what he needs?" I said, trying to emphasize the word need in order to suggest how ironic it was in this context. And anyway, this plaque was going to be on a building that was nearly toppling into the Yangtze River, not exactly a high-traffic area.
"Listen," the Gripper said. "Do you think my client needs for his career your little Noodle House?"
Peter smiled wanly at this. We'd been trying to dream up a name for our project, something that would pay allegiance to its mysteries and healing powers, something vaguely Asian, but from that moment on, almost against our will, we called it only the Noodle House.
And then I noticed Peter's hands were trembling a little, which meant the conversation had to end, since he needed insulin or juice or crackers, or maybe just rest. I could never guess exactly what he needed at any moment, given his diabetes. Somehow he calibrated and controlled it all -- the rise and fall of his sugar and insulin levels, the tiny waves in his blood -- by a very careful monitoring of sleep and food and emotions. Sometimes I thought this was what was responsible for his extraordinary appeal and attraction, the fact that he was keeping his body together by dint of his own will alone.
"We'll figure out something by tomorrow," I said.
"That's fine," he said. "We'll figure it out." He was preparing his little needle. "Good job, little one," he said to me.
So I'm thirty-one, and not really anybody's idea of little, but Peter first knew me twenty years ago, when I was ten and he was twenty-eight. Peter was then working for Richard Nixon, one of those young Democrats Nixon was said to love to hire and to keep under his thumb. Peter was doing some combination of diplomacy and intelligence, first in Cambodia and then in Beijing, during the time my family was also living in Beijing, my parents both Christian missionaries. Peter came to our little house on Fuling Street frequently, and eventually fell in love with my beloved amah, Su Chen. I recall him standing in our small kitchen, trying to help Su Chen cook, hovering over her as she scooped squid parts out of the soup or tied up the wings of little game hens. When she wasn't taking care of me, Su Chen was earning her Ph.D. at Beijing Normal, and like many students, she was a Red Guard. She was alive with optimism for Mao, and many afternoons we would make poster boards at our kitchen table for one struggle session or another -- Defeat the Running Dogs! Advance wave upon wave!
By 1973, after Mao's dream had curdled, almost all foreigners, including my family and Peter, had begun to flee the country. My family moved back to New York City, where my parents had long ago met and married, and Peter went away on a boat, toward I never knew where at the time, just into distance, where his people were. But Su Chen never left at all -- she went first to Zhongnanhai, and then to a labor camp near Mongolia, and then even farther north, which is death. Her soul, according to Mao and Marx before him, would have stayed woven to her body, as the brightest thread is still part of the fabric, still there, under her snowy grave west of Chang-Chun-Sa.
Copyright ©2006 by Rebecca Lee
Posted July 15, 2010
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Posted July 8, 2011
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