I came home early. You had pulled all our furniture away from the walls, the better to scrub every vestige of dust from existence. But you weren’t scrubbing. You were reclining on the sofa in the dark. I thought you were sleeping, until you stirred, and sat up. But you continued to stare into space.

To me, within the four walls of our tiny apartment you were either guest or interloper, depending on my mood. To you, the roles were reversed. We both had our own scripts, our own lines. When it came to cohabitation, they didn’t match up. When it came to life domestic, my attempts to take responsibility for the simplest task were dismissed with one of your favorite catchphrases:

“Men aren’t meant to do that.”

You always kept my mug filled with hot water, even though I only drink cold. You expressed fascination at my preference against the millet gruel that formed the basis of your meals. If I were constipated (which you’d know through observation), you would take it upon yourself to secure foul-tasting herbal remedies that never worked. Boundaries were for other people – it was fair game even if it was crammed in a drawer, wrapped in plastic under the bed, or tucked in the pocket of my jeans. I eventually gave up trying to reorganize your reorganizations of my living space.

Washing the dishes, you would look over my shoulder and gently point out what I was doing wrong. Folding my clothes, you’d come with tips on how to do it your way – which, of course, was superior. My every offer to cook, or sweep, or mop, or polish was met with the same confident response, voiced with the sagacity of a Taoist monk:

“Men aren’t meant to do that.”

On that afternoon, in the gathering gloom of our badly lit walk-up, you continued to stare, silently. I attempted to make conversation. I knew today wasn’t just another day. Two weeks earlier, in a halting, broken phone call during a trip to New York City, with me within earshot, your son made an announcement. You and your husband were waiting in our apartment when we got home. That night, you had a tearful, loud conversation across the thin partition that split the apartment’s only bedroom from the constricted sofa bed you and your husband occupied. He left the following day, the tension unresolved.

Your son was getting married. To a man.

Men aren’t meant to do that.

I offered you tea, then wished I hadn’t. My offer rang out as another reminder that the roles you’d scripted for me, and for your son, were now subject to change. Men – least of all guests – weren’t supposed to offer to pour tea for women. But all bets were off. You sighed.

I sat beside you. The questions began. A trickle at first, then a flood, as the faulty dam, built on sand and hope, gave way to a cold, dark reality. Men couldn’t marry, you insisted. They couldn’t have children. We were both good boys, from good families. What kind of future would we have?

Tears pricked your eyes, your diminutive, rounded frame vulnerable beside my Nordic bulk. You’d spent the years since your son left for college preparing for the final stage of a Chinese woman’s transfiguration: from dutiful daughter to devoted mother to, finally, omniscient grandmother. The first two stages had gone flawlessly, you were so close. Months later, I would be by your side when your mother was dying, when you first beheld your grandchildren. But that balmy October afternoon, so early in our relationship, that was the only time I ever saw you weep.

I loved your son. I was devoted to his happiness. But that happiness was the source of his mother’s pain, unfurling itself before my eyes.

“My sky has turned black,” you said. I reached for your hand – we’d never touched before – and held on to it, feeling your callused fingers, the warmth of your palm. To my surprise, you did not pull away.

You knew the answer, but asked anyway. Couldn’t we change?

I responded the only way I could – with the truth. It took a long time, as I tripped over my second language, my sense of helplessness. You listened. Your eyes dried. You let me keep hold of your hand.

“I don’t know if I can accept this,” you said.

“I hope you can,” I replied.

We sat, and listened to the sound of children playing beyond the mosquito blinds, starling-clouds of dust swirling in the rose gold evening light.

You let go of my hand, stood, and started dinner. I offered to help.

You asked me to slice the vegetables.

Illustration by Xie Yuanmo