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Mrs. Brown and Mr. Brown in South Bend

| Friday, September 23, 2016

Professor Menes said to me, “Talent will burn out, soon, but faith will not. That’s what keeps us writing.”

Do you remember Mrs. Brown? The old woman we met two weeks ago through Virginia Woolf. She sits in the corner of a train from Richmond to Waterloo, whose feet, in their “clean little boots, scarcely touched the floor,” but “gathers herself with superb dignity.”

Mr. Brown is her husband. He went to the same college with Mrs. Brown, and that was how they met. His real home, however, is China. Mrs. Brown calls her husband Yuan, his real name.

On their first date — he remembers it clearly — they sat down in a cafe on campus. Mrs. Brown wore a navy blue sleeveless top and a marylebone skirt, her eyes fixed on a thick book, her legs crossed, her hair half-covering her bare shoulders. He remembered staring at her and praying that she would look up and their eyes would meet and their destiny would be written. But Mrs. Brown did not. And for that, he liked her.

“Hi, are you Rebecca?”

“Yes, I am. You are Yuan?”

The date went well. She asked him why he asked her out. He was a little thrown off by the question. Blushed, he told her he thought she was cute. Nothing more? Eh, not at the time I asked you out, no, but … he paused as he saw her face darkened.

“Do you have a dream, Yuan?” What a question to ask on a first date. She did not wait for him to answer. “I want to eliminate poverty,” she said, staring into his eyes.

He looked at her, marveling at her courage — it takes effort to dream; it takes even more to reveal your dream to another. She did both. He remembered a line from his favorite book, “The English Patient:” “New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.” Then he saw that fire in her eyes. It was the fire of resolution and idealism; it was also the fire, unfortunately, as he was taught back in China, that would soon be quenched by reality. However, looking into her eyes, he saw youth, and that was the moment when the crush transformed into love. He loved her, and he loved her soon-to-be-shattered dreams too. The fire in her eyes blessed her with a kind of superb dignity, a phrase another women would use to describe his wife many years later.

It turned out that what he was taught in China was partly right and partly not right. As she slowly realized the societal pressure to get a job, pay off the rent and raise a child, she heard her dreams crushing. Many nights he would mention that maybe it is time for her to conform, to settle down. Yet she would not listen. So she took off.

She was going to Chicago from South Bend, and from Chicago, she would take an international flight that he didn’t know of to another continent. He did not know when she would be back. Neither did she. “It is not an end, Yuan. It is a new beginning, for both of us,” she waved him goodbye. He kissed her on the cheek as she shed a few tears. It was the strangest feeling – he felt like he was kissing himself. A random photographer at the train station took a picture of them and said they were a beautiful couple.

He felt the emptiness in the bedroom every day. Her departure eternalized that fire of dream in her eyes, like a bell, waking him up every morning. He wanted to fill the empty space but did not know what to put in — after all, he has never been a dreamer. For her, difference should be celebrated and ideas, good or bad, must be heard. He did not know how to adopt that mindset. America is quite different from where he was brought up, where everyone has every right to judge you.

“You see, being a writer is so much easier than living as a writer,” his creative writing professor told him. In his poor, listening heart, ripples of joy became waves.

And so after her departure, he became a writer, to seek meaning and beauty between lines, and among words. He thinks it is a safe medium because in this country, in this era, almost every form of writing is appreciated.

A couple of weeks ago, he wrote about her, whom he loves, admires, and in some ways, always tries to become. He published his article and received lovely comments, saying that he taught the readers how to appreciate another’s beauty and recognize the integrity in humanity itself. On a bright morning in his room, he read those comments. Then suddenly he heard her voice, outside the window calling his name, “Yuan, I am back.”

Rebecca Feng is a senior at Notre Dame, double majoring in accounting and English, but traveling and living abroad is her real education. She read Shakespeare and old English poems in Scotland last semester and interned at Forbes Magazine Asia business channel in New York this summer. Email her at yfeng2@nd.edu for story ideas and comments.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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