Writer Sabrina Tom Artist Christine Wong Yap
Dale Meng does not like coincidence, serendipity or chance. He likes the connection in things, though what those connections are he's often hard-pressed to figure out.
Take the abandoned baby. It is no coincidence that, because of the winter rainy season, babies have been arriving on the doorstep of Fire Station 9. Rain has an effect on childbirth, seducing babies out of their mother's wombs, away from safety and into a kind of hopeful terror. The one that is being dropped off right now, a girl with downy hair and a white tag held by a rubber band around her ankle, as if she was a winter jacket whose price her mother couldn't afford, has a specific shine in her eyes. As soon as Dale Meng looks at her, he knows that she will change his life.
* * *
Three months ago, before the rain started falling, when mothers were still optimistic, Dale Meng received a letter. It had been lost inside the Department of Dead Letters, the branch of the central post office that takes in thousands of undelivered letters each year. Unpostmarked and unopened, these letters pile on top of each other until the man in the blue uniform, the lone worker in the Department, gets rid of all the old letters to make room for the new. The letter that had been at the top of that pile had not been thrown into the dumpster with the others. The man in the blue uniform had taken one look at it and decided to give it another chance, dropping it into the mailbox, where it was finally delivered to its rightful home.
Dale Meng held the letter in both hands. The envelope was an anachronism, bordered by blue and red arrows, the paper stiff and yellow. Inside, the handwriting was similarly old-fashioned, each word carefully scripted:
Dear Dale Meng,
I lost the baby in childbirth. I realize that this may come as a surprise, but I thought you should know.
Dale and Maya had met senior year of college and dated for a few years afterwards, long enough for him to progress from a training cadet to a full-time firefighter. Right off, Maya had disapproved of his profession. But that's not why they had broken up. Maya had gotten pregnant and decided to raise the baby herself, making it clear that she expected no involvement on his part. That was over eight years ago and, until the letter, he had not heard a word about her, or the child's, whereabouts.
While the men were outside playing basketball, Dale made a phone call. The line rang several times before anyone picked up.
“This is Dale Meng,” he said, and without waiting for a response, added, “I'm calling about your letter.”
“Hello,” Maya said. “It's been a long time.”
Her voice weakened him. How many times had he listened for it, hoped that she would call? And then, as the years passed, her voice echoed in his head. It evoked memories, flashes of sensations more than anything concrete: brown hair, pinkish fingertips, vanilla, brushed cotton. He would become nostalgic for college, that period in life, which for so many people hangs over them like a cumulous cloud, a cotton candy sort of feeling. You desire it, all the while knowing it's composed of nothing but air.
“How have you been?” he said.
“Pretty good,” she said.
“Life's good, too.”
“So,” he said, and for lack of anything more appropriate, asked, “Do you talk to anyone from school?”
“I still keep in touch with Pam Hannigan and Christine Bustan.”
“No kidding. What are they up to?”
“Pam's a teacher. Christine's a lawyer. The usual.”
“What about you? Do you keep in touch with anyone?”
“Not really. We all kind of drifted apart.”
“Yeah, that happens.”
A silence ensued. He listened to the dribbling of the basketball outside, the thud of plastic on asphalt. The men shouted at each other, commanding plays, coordinating defensive positions. They tried to one-up each other with tricky shots, laughing at their own mistakes. They ran and breathed harder.
“I'm sorry about the baby,” he finally said. He did not know her name. He pulled up the bottom edge of his T-shirt over his face and wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“Yes, the baby.” There was no change in her tone, no fluttering of the vocal chords.
The basketball flew in through the open window and rolled across the floor, stopping at his feet. He thought about kicking it as hard as he could, gathering all his determination into a single breath, and unleashing himself through the might of his boot. He thought about stepping over it, walking into another room. His final thought was the one he acted on. He scooped up the basketball and held it against his chest.
“Where are you?” he asked. “I think we should meet.”
* * *
It took him exactly nineteen minutes to walk across town and up the single flight of stairs to Maya's apartment. She lived less than a mile away.
He knocked on the front door. He heard her shout, “It's open!” He turned the knob and let himself in. His first sight of Maya was brief, and it was of her back, which flashed in front of him for a second before disappearing behind the refrigerator. Over the edge of the door, he could see an arc of brown hair.
“I'm making a sandwich,” she said, speaking away from him. “Do you want one?”
He stood in the middle of the living room, scanning the apartment for smoke detectors. Satisfied that it was up to code, he looked around with a less scrutinizing eye. The couch was slightly faded, especially on the edge of the seat cushions and armrests. The coffee table was covered with magazines. In the corner there was a glass cabinet filled with hand-carved figurines. Baseball paintings in cherry wood frames hung on all four walls. He was especially drawn to the portraits of heroes—pitchers on the mound, batters in mid-swing, outfielders at the wall. He remembered that Maya was a Giants fan.
“It's so weird that you called,” she said, looking up. She smiled at him briefly, before withdrawing into the recesses of the kitchen. She spoke to him through the wall.
“I got a call from Steve Vo yesterday. He told me he was going through his old contacts and came across my name.”
She appeared in the doorframe, holding a slice of bread in one hand and a knife in the other.
“And then, later the same day, I got another call from my friend, Joanne, who moved to Africa to start a clinic there. She's a pediatrician.”
“I think I remember her.”
“You might have met her at one of her parties.” Maya disappeared into the kitchen again. Dale sat on the couch, picked up a magazine, then put it back on the coffee table.
She suddenly emerged beside him, holding a sandwich and a glass of orange juice. “Wine would have been more sophisticated, but I wasn't expecting company,” she said.
He took the plate from her hand and made room for her on the couch. “That's okay. I'm not in the mood.”
He picked up the sandwich. Peanut butter and jelly on rye bread. Maya's favorite.
For the first time since arriving, the sight of her really struck him. It wasn't that she looked at all the same. There were differences, like her hairstyle, her makeup, the shallow wrinkles around her mouth. But she felt exactly the same to him, and it was through her posture, the way she held her sandwich with the delicate pads of her fingertips, the way she turned slightly away from him as she ate, the way one eyelid drooped when she cast him a sideways glance, that he felt years of buried feelings resurface. They took small bites from their sandwiches, looking down only to pick up a few fallen crumbs.
* * *
The baby with the golden eyes waits patiently on the doorstep. Dale Meng is the first to find her. Besides the white tag on her foot, she is covered in newspapers that cling limply to her body. He picks her up and takes her inside. He washes her, tenderly rubbing away the ink with a chamois, revealing smooth brown skin. He finds a basket from the utility closet and lays her down. While she is sleeping, he thinks about building a crib out of scrap wood. He will dress it in pink sheets and a soft blanket, hang a mobile above it, one that plays music, a light tinkling melody to cover up the blaring sounds of the station.
He isn't supposed to care for this baby, or any other. The instructions had been explicit. According to California law, a mother is allowed to drop off her newborn to any designated fire station with no questions asked. A social worker would then pick up the baby from the station and place him or her in foster care. The quick turnaround ensured that the baby would be given immediate medical attention and a safe haven.
But the rains have flooded the roads, making travel difficult, and so on this particular day, instead of fighting fires, the men are tending to domestic duties. The baby is fussy, but as soon as he picks her up she calms. She looks up at him with wide eyes. He vows to take care of her, to accept this responsibility. He thinks about calling Maya, but decides against it.
* * *
Dale and Maya sat on the couch, occasionally making small talk, monosyllabic questions and answers that came out more like hiccups than fully formed words. They babbled and burped, preparing themselves to speak. Eventually, just as the sun began to set, Maya told him about the baby. How the umbilical cord had been wrapped around her neck and suffocated her, how the doctors had induced labor, how Maya had fought off the anesthetics and watched the whole thing, up until the very last moment when the doctors pulled her out to reveal a tiny purple face.
He tried to connect himself to his dead child, but he felt nothing. He told her this.
“She was a stranger to you,” Maya said, nodding. “I canâ€™t expect you to love a stranger.”
“She was my daughter,” he said. “That should mean something.”
Maya got up from the couch and walked around the apartment, turning on all the lights.
“It's difficult for me, too,” she said. “We shared a body for nine months, but I never really knew her. What do I do with this?”
From somewhere down the street, he heard the wail of a siren as a fire truck rushed toward its destination. Another siren trailed after it. The two sirens overlapped each other, doubling the dissonance and urgency. He walked over to the window to try to locate the fire. He was quickly distracted by Maya's voice.
“If I wanted to, I could completely forget about this. Start a whole new life,” she said.
The sirens drifted further away. Softer and slower, until all he could hear was a final descending sigh.
“To begin again,” she said.
He was happy to be here with Maya, and not on that truck, heading into smoke and danger. He turned his back from the window and faced her.
“What would you do?” he asked.
“I don't have anything specific in mind. But I think I'm ready.” She stood at one end of the couch, eyeing him. “Does this make me a bad person?”
“No,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“You really believe that?”
“Good, because I don't think it does, either. But you never know.”
The fire truck vanished into the distance. The room was quiet again. They resumed their seats on the couch.
“What was her name?” he asked.
“Wilhelmina. I would've called her Willie.”
“She could've been a baseball player,” he said. “With a name like that.”
Maya beamed at him. “She could've been anything she wanted.”
* * *
It is raining harder now. The sky refuses to settle down. The air is cracked. No one inside the station notices—they're old hands with the elements. Besides, when it rains like this they are free to let down their guard. They cook. They clean. They play. They worry.
Dale Meng worries about the baby. Where is her mother? Will she come to take her away? He cradles her in the crook of his elbow. With his free hand he strokes her cheek, her arms, her fingernails. She wears a hospital bracelet on her wrist with a series of numbers on it, the same code that has been entered into the logbook, next to the other numbers representing her height and weight. The social worker will need this information later. He reads the numbers on her wristband. 173920. He wants to give her a name. A name is a flashlight, illuminating the dark corners of identity. A name is a tool for survival, along with things like class, conscience, muscles, hope.
Take his name. His parents had chosen it with roll-off-the-tongueness in mind, a name people would be compelled to say. This, partly because of Chinese tradition, where names were selected for their meaning and resonance, and partly in case their son ever became famous, something for the flashing lights. In childhood, he was given no nicknames, no affectionate diminutives. From schoolteachers to college professors to his buddies in the station, he was always referred to by his full name. Strangers followed suit, as strangers often do. Women liked to call it out in bed.
A name is something to grow into. He decides on the first one that comes to mind. Jackie.
He marvels at how tiny she is. His pinky finger is longer than her entire hand. He places one of his fat fingertips inside her palm. Her fingers immediately curl around it. Awed by this gesture, he swears this is the firmest grip he's ever felt from a newborn. He praises her softly. “Good Jackie. Good Jackie.”
He walks around with her in his arms, introducing her to the station. First he goes to the garage, where he brushes his hand along the waxy length of the truck, feeling his way around each curve and knob. He grips a rough circumference of rope, tugging it lightly. This is his home, but he's never experienced it as vividly as he does now. He runs his fingers up and down the ladder, as if stroking a cat.
Next he weaves through the sleeping quarters and the bathroom. In the living room, a group of men are playing poker. Between the clinking of chips on the table as they toss in their antes, and their incessant, mindless chatter, the room is full of noise. Dale circles the table, explaining the game to Jackie. He enjoys sharing his observations with her, describing how each player responds to his hand, the kinds of bets he's willing to make, when he bluffs and when he folds.
“Dale Meng! Sit down and play a hand.” Ed, one of the cadets, motions to an empty chair.
He shakes his head, and rocks Jackie gently.
“I see,” Ed says. “Too busy playing daddy, huh?”
Before, he would've been right there with the other men. Now, he discovers that this outside vantage point suits him. Jackie's warmth spreads into the folds of his stomach. With her in his arms, he is content. He motions goodbye and continues walking.
He goes into the kitchen, following the scent of garlic. Mike is making meatballs, an all day affair when twelve mouths require feeding. His assistant, Russell, hovers over a vat of cake mix. Dale pokes into the vat and withdraws a chocolate covered finger. He licks it clean, smacks his lips and gives a thumbs-up to Russell.
“Want some milk to go with that?” Russell asks.
“Do we have anything for Jackie?” Dale asks.
As Russell prepares the baby formula, Dale points to the pots and pans, the mixing bowls and whisks, identifying each object to her. Even though she is asleep, he persists. He is compelled to speak to her. It would be impossible for him to recreate the sensations of pregnancy, that corporeal connection, those exultant feelings of interdependence. But what he feels is equally irreproducible. Experience pours out from his skin to her ears, his nose to her mouth.
He settles into a comfortable armchair. Jackie lies across his chest. He holds the bottle to her lips, the pressure to get her to suck more unnerving than any fire he's ever faced. He sweats. After a few gentle prods, she starts to drink. He starts to talk again, comforted by the sound of his own voice, smooth and consistent, in tune with the white noise of the station, the steady beat of rain, Jackie's arrhythmic slurp. This is not egotism. This is love, for he has thoroughly forgotten himself, lost track of time and space, and it is in this utter negation that the person formally known as Dale Meng fades into the humanness of another.
* * *
A couple of half-eaten sandwiches and two empty glasses littered the coffee table. Dale had lost his appetite, not because of Maya's painful recollection of childbirth, but because he realized that had it not been for some fluke in the postal system, he wouldn't be here listening to her story in the first place.
“Why didn't you just call me?” he asked.
She shrugged and bit her lip. “Why didn't you call me?”
He let both questions go, understanding how some events can render you speechless. It's not about the inability to find the right words; it's as if the vocal chords themselves had gone slack. You open your mouth, and nothing comes out.
They sat on the couch, not knowing what to say next.
Maya broke the silence. “Let's go up to the roof,” she said. “Get some fresh air.” Dale was happy to have the distraction and willingly followed her up the stairwell and onto the deck.
He was struck by the panoramic view, the even, uninterrupted skyline. To the right he detected a break in the black horizon, a reddish cloud over the twinkling lights. This must be where the fire was, he thought.
“Interesting, isn't it?” she said. “You can't tell how far away anything is.” She stood next to him so that their shoulders were touching.
He could see nothing specific, no flames or floating ashes. He could not smell the smoke. But he knew that something was happening out there. Somewhere that did not involve him, or need him to be involved.
He put his arm around her. She took his hand off her shoulder, twisted it around and over her head, and pressed the heel of his palm to her stomach. She faced him.
“This will keep me warmer,” she said. “Do you mind?” He shook his head, sensing that all the words and silences that had passed between them in the hours before was build-up to this moment. His hand lingered on her stomach, feeling the softness of her skin, the tiny hairs around her belly button.
They took turns leading one another back into the apartment, through the hall to the bedroom. It was dark inside, but they found their way around each other. Despite the years that had passed between them, they betrayed their familiarity, calling up old memories, habits, tastes. Dale brushed his fingers along the slightly raised, horizontal stretch marks on her stomach. Perhaps it was the sensuality of those marks that made him feel the presence of his child, so that as their lovemaking intensified, every touch resonated with birth. He sensed that Maya felt it, too, in the way she willingly gave up her body to invite another in. Every move echoed a past life. Every thought indulged the possibility of creation. This did not spoil any of their enjoyment. In fact, it only intensified their union.
In an hour they dressed and walked outside. On their way out, Dale accidentally kicked over a toy truck that had been left out on the front steps. The rubber wheels spun around in mid-air.
“Kids playing in the street,” he said.
“Did you say something?” she said.
They stood on the sidewalk, partially covered by an elm tree. The weather had changed. The wind swirled and the rain catching the streetlight looked white and silky like milk.
He took off his coat and held it over their heads.
“Your feet are going to get wet,” he said, looking down at her terrycloth slippers.
“I like the rain,” she said, stepping away from him.
“Me, too,” he said. “I was just trying to help.”
“You don't have to worry about me,” she said, smiling. “I'm all set.”
He put his coat back on. A steady stream fell around them, wetting their hair and cheeks, sliding under their shirts and down their backs.
“How long do you think it's going to be like this?”
“This is probably the first of the season,” he said. He looked toward the row of parked cars, their painted-on skin glistening in the rain. One of them had been left there for some time. He saw the dirty windows, the flat tires and spider webs around the rims.
“I guess it's a good time to start nesting, then.” She gave him a final look and headed back up the stairs. At the entrance to the building, she turned around and waved, showing the easygoing nature he had always admired about her. She seemed to sense this and smiled again. Then she disappeared inside.
Dale lingered on the sidewalk, his mouth half-open. He could feel the words clogging up his throat. Had Maya been there to listen, he would have told her about the period when he drank a lot and could not fight any fires. He would have told her that the day after they broke up, a call had come in the middle of the night about a burning building on Washington Street. By the time he arrived at the scene the building was already up in flames. He searched the house for survivors. He saw an open window, out of which a man hung over the side of the building, desperation visible in the whites of his fingertips. Dale reached out for the man's hands, one at a time. First the left, then the right. For an intensely short and overpowering moment, he clung to the man, not budging under the weight of him, believing he could lift him up to safety with a single pull. Then he felt his gloves slipping, and saw the man falling, and the moment was done.
Dale had also lost a life and he wanted to share this with Maya. But he couldn't. Instead, he looked at the red truck lying sideways on the stairs, listened to the sound of rain hitting metal. He picked up the toy and saw, just above the rear wheel, a single letter carefully carved in lower case. He tucked it inside his coat, in the dry spot under his arm, where it was safest.
A Dead Letter Love Story
Writer Sabrina Tom Artist Christine Wong Yap