June healed slowly, but after four weeks she returned to our weekly Bible study, a paler, quieter, more mature version of herself. She was the one who invited me to attend the annual Graduate College talent show one cold evening in March. One of her closest friends was in my pedagogy class and would be performing that night.
The auditorium was packed. Six hundred students filled the closely placed folding chairs and a hundred more were clustered by the exits. I chose to sit with June and her friends rather than in the space reserved for teachers and judges. My entire pedagogy class was there, presumably to give its enthusiastic support to the young lady who would be performing in the 16th act, and they were elated and proud that their foreign teacher had come. Quite a few heads were turned in my direction, but when the lights dimmed and the show began the darkness rubbed me into the crowd.
During the second performance there was a commotion at the end of my row. One of my graduate students who was earning his M.A. in Chemistry made his way toward me. He climbed awkwardly through the nest of seated spectators and knelt at my feet. He was holding an enormous bouquet of roses.
“Miss An,” he said eagerly, “Miss An, one of our friends will sing tonight and we want to give her these flowers.”
I stared at the roses in his hand. “Oh!” I said, immeasurably relieved that the roses were for someone else, “That’s nice.” Gifts, I had learned, are an essential part of spectating at a Chinese event. At every decent performance there will be fans who run on stage several times during the evening and press tacky plastic flowers, balloons, or tinsel into the hands of whoever is singing. It is a tradition, and it contributes greatly to the all-around sense of satisfaction people have at a public event. But the young man kneeling before me had purchased some real flowers, over a dozen blood red roses that were artistically arranged. This must be a special girl.
“Miss An,” he said, “will you give them to her?”
“Me??” I was taken aback. “She will be much happier if they come from you!” I felt I could speak with unlimited feminine authority. “Trust me on this.”
“Oh no. It will be more special if you present them to her. Please?” It was one of those quirky things about being a foreigner. Everything was more special if I did it. June, a few seats away from me smiled brightly. Sarah, a pedagogy student seated on my left giggled.
“Well, Okay,” I said.
“I will tell you when to go up there,” said Sarah, helpfully. “And the student who will sing tonight has such a beautiful voice, we all think so. You’ll see…” My Chemistry student retreated, clambering back through the crowd as it smiled and smirked at him. I clutched the roses and sat back.
I thought I had to wait until the sixteenth act, but tt the ninth act Sarah sat up straighter and gripped my arm. “This is her!!” She hissed, “Now, wait for a bit, you don’t want to go up right at the beginning.”
“Of course,” I said, as though I regularly ran on stage during performances to thrust flowers at whoever was singing. My hands grew damp as I thought about what I had to do. I would have to fight my way to the end of the row, then walk to the stage, up the steps and into the glaring spotlights with my bouquet, which seemed to have inflated to the size of a hedge. What if I tripped? What if I sprawled across the stage and spewed roses into the laps of the judges? 700 people would laugh at me.
As I contemplated the possible complications to my plan, a most perplexing thing happened. The music for the ninth act began streaming from the speakers and an unusually tall young man in an immaculately pressed black suit strolled nonchalantly onto the stage. Black hair falling over his forehead, confidence in his firm step, his loose white dress shirt casually untucked, and one hand in his pocket, the young man paused for a moment in the floodlight and then began to sing.
I nearly choked. Suddenly I heard my Chinese teacher laughing ghostlike in my ear: Now remember, there is no difference in spoken Chinese between “he” and “she,” or “him” and “her.” We have just one pronoun for everyone. That is why Chinese people have a hard time learning to say “he” and “she” correctly in English…
I stared, stricken, into the dark petals as a roar of applause drowned out the young singer completely. But the room grew still quickly as everyone, but especially the girls, clung quietly to his every note. His light, smooth tenor soaked the room like thick, scented oil. I found myself wrapped in its warmth, growing oblivious to everything around me.
Suddenly a girl from the audience snapped me back to attention. Legging it for the stairs, she leaped onto the stage clutching a large, purple plastic flower. She ran into the spotlights and desperately stuffed the gift into the singer’s hands. She was to awkward to make eye contact with him, and kept her gave fixed nervously beneath his chin. He smiled kindly, and she ran, crimsoned faced off the stage. The audience shrieked its approval.
Sarah giggled and held my elbow. ‘Not yet…” she whispered.
I groaned inside, wondering frantically how I could get out of this without breaking a promise. Another blushing admirer sprinted onto the stage, this one holding a tinsel garland which she boldly looped around the singer’s neck. The gesture drew scattered applause from the crowd. I slumped as low as I could, willing the song to end before I had time to follow her.
When a third girl galloped across the stage with ferocious velvet lilies and a large orange balloon in hand, the crowd simply laughed. She pressed her gifts into the singer’s hands and gazed rapturously into his face. The evening’s MC strode on stage to escort her off of it.
“Okay,” said Sarah, “now, go!”
“Now?” I doubted he could even hold my flowers; his hands were so full of other tokens.
“Yeah!” she cried, “Go, go!”
I stood shakily to my feet, feeling the blood flow from my head to my stomach, nearly crushing the flowers in a death grip as they threatened to slide from my damp fingers. The room seemed to narrow. I was vaguely aware of a slow roar rising from the audience as I climbed toward the aisle. The closer I got to the stage the louder the gasping and cheering grew till, as I stumbled into the floodlight, the audience was standing and the room was shaking with applause so loud it swamped the music entirely. The singer paused, skipped several lines, and reached to accept the flowers that I thrust toward him. Pulling his head away from the microphone he gave me a radiant smile. His brown eyes dazzling, he said “thank you!” words which caught in the microphone and instantly brought down the house.
I pushed my way back to my seat, holding my hands over my face, wishing I had contracted the flu or had otherwise been able to come. The song ended, its last, tenuous strains sucking the breath out of the audience until the room again thundered with appreciation.
A minute or two later another commotion at the end of my row interrupted the tenth act. Being carefully passed from person to person along the length of the room was a single red rose and a whispered message, to be delivered to the foreigner in the middle row: “Thanks again.”
I had in mind to murder my Chemistry student after the performance was over, but I did not see him. So I gingerly avoided everyone I knew and strolled home alone in the cold electric glow of the city, clutching my rose and laughing.