Edinburg, Texas. November 1996
I learned that I became a starter wife from a light switch.
Not a light bulb, like I had a big idea. A light switch. A light switch in my apartment that I flipped on and off but the living room remained dark, and that darkness caused a pricking, tingling sensation in my hands and feet.
When I left the apartment two hours earlier, the lights worked, the heater ran, and Cameron––my husband of sixteen months––was doing homework on our bed. Lately we kept fighting about investing in the boat his father planned to purchase. I said no, and we had been giving each other the cold shoulder for days. Tired of our never-ending arguments, now I wanted reconciliation. This particular day, around dinnertime, I went to seek marriage advice from my classmate, a fellow Taiwanese student. Before leaving, I stood before Cameron and said good-bye. If he heard me, he acted otherwise. So I wrote I love you, Cam. on a post-it note and left it on the inside of the front door. It wasn’t here now.
Now I had to feel my way to the bedroom.
Felt the bed.
Felt one pillow.
Felt a chill.
I didn’t need to keep feeling anymore. Didn’t need to avoid bumping into the desk, or the chairs, or Cameron’s bike. They weren’t in the dark with me.
In the dark, there was no warmth.
No gas for the heater.
My heartbeat quickened and thundered in my ears.
What happened? Am I in the wrong apartment? Must be. All the units look the same on the outside . . .
I felt my way out of the apartment and double checked the gold number nailed to the door: 21. My apartment, no mistake.
NO!––no, no, no, no, no! Where’s Cameron?
I tucked my hands under my armpits in the November evening chills. My legs trembled as I paced in a circle in small steps. The windows of other units in the building glowed in golden light. Through my next-door neighbors’ blinds, I noticed them sitting around the coffee table, Seinfeld playing on TV, the waft of their gumbo dinner in the air. It looked warm and inviting where they were. I stood in the dark, cold night, staring past my door into the abyss. For tonight’s dinner I’d planned to make chicken stir-fry. Cameron would’ve enjoyed it on the couch right there, over there, there, there, there, where it was nothing but emptiness now.
The black of the apartment reminded me of a summer night, three months earlier, when the power had gone out in the entire complex. That night Cameron drove back to his parents’ home, in the next town, for an air-conditioned room. I didn’t go with him because I would’ve rather eaten dog food than see my in-laws. To say they were bad people is telling only half the truth. A big part of the problem is me––I avoided them to avoid speaking English.
I was born and raised in Taiwan and was only confident speaking Mandarin Chinese. On this fateful night, I was a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant––having been in the U.S. for only sixteen months––and heavily dependent on Cameron’s Chinese-speaking prowess for almost everything. For example, underwear shopping: he had to tag along to tell the lingerie store clerk I wished to get my size measured in the metric system. America’s customary system didn’t mean anything to me. Another time, I accidentally cut my finger with a rusty utility knife while opening a package. Cameron had to explain to the emergency room nurse why I needed a tetanus shot. For me to carry on English conversations wasn’t just a linguistic challenge or an intellectual evaluation, it was an insurmountable task.
Of course, avoiding my in-laws couldn’t possibly be healthy for my marriage. But there were other contributing factors to my shaky relationship with Cameron too. To say it was all my doing is giving me more credit than I deserve. After all, there are always two people in a relationship, one simply can’t start a marital war alone. However, I’ll say, my short marriage to Cameron helped shorten the emotional distance between him and his father.
Glad to have helped!