(cont’d from Nineteen Cent Chicken)
Dad went to grad school with Aunt Mimi’s ex-husband–the one who left her the night she arrived in America. I heard he was tall and good looking, so I always imagined him with a strong square jaw and chiseled cheekbones. Dad on the other hand was short with an almost perfectly spherical head and square glasses covering half his face. He always had a smile that made him look like he either heard a joke he couldn’t wait to tell you or he’s thinking of a joke to play on you.
In the summer of 1984, they were writing their final papers together in their dorm room when Dad turned to him and said, let’s get out of here.
It was one of those humid Shanghai nights when walking outside felt like swimming in wet clothes. The two of them were sitting in their boxers in front of a tiny electric fan and Aunt Mimi’s ex-husband said, do we have to? I don’t want to put my shorts on again. And Dad said, there’s nobody out there to see you. Come on. It’s probably cooler outside.
It really was cooler. They walked to the tall metal gate separating the Jiaotong University campus from the city outside and woke up the old security guard. The guard said it was late, but Dad said, we couldn’t sleep and we’re just going to take a quick walk. The guard said he would lock them out if they didn’t get back soon. He would never talk to a professor that way, but everyone treated the students like children. They scolded them when they stayed up too late. They scolded them when they skipped lunch. They scolded when, in Dad’s case, a student tried to climb a tree on his first day of class only to fall and end up in a cast for two weeks.
The road outside the university was completely still and dark. Peasants slept on the sidewalks next to the fruit and vegetables they had carried on their backs or in carts through the night. They will sell these in the morning rush of buses and bicycles and throbbing crowds in front of the historic university’s tall red walls.
Dad walked up to a vendor sharing a blanket with a pile of freshly picked melons. The old peasant was surprised to be woken up by two students in their underwear, but he politely offered them the ripest melon. We didn’t bring a knife, said Dad’s friend. I can slice it for you, said the peasant. And he did, and then went back to sleep.
The melon was very sweet and cool and they ate it slowly. When they got back to the gate, Dad’s friend knocked but no one came. Shit, he said. That old codger really did lock us out. They pounded on it. They heard a shuffling, some swearing, and finally the bolt was drawn back and the gate creaked open.
We said we’d be back, said Dad. You didn’t have to lock us out.
I fell asleep, said the security guard. Do you kids know how late it is?
As they walked back into the university, my dad said, You know someday we’re going to be professors here.
Sure, said the old guard. But today you’re still students. Go to bed.
They did become professors. My dad taught for two years and his friend taught for three. The friend married my Aunt Mimi, a classmate of theirs, around the same time my dad married my mom, his high school crush.
Ten years later they both ended up in Chicago.
My dad sent him an email once. Do you still remember that night we snuck off campus after midnight and bought a melon?
Of course! he said. That was fun.
Look, said Dad, no judgement from me. I just thought you should know that Mimi is staying with us for a while.
Dad never heard from him again.