BEAUMONT, TEXAS. NOVEMBER, 1996

ALLISON HONG MERRILL

1

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 there anymore. 

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 electricity. 

No telephone.

No food.

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 chill. 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 saw them sitting around the coffee table, Seinfeld playing on TV. I could smell their gumbo dinner, too. 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 a year––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. What I will say is that my short marriage to Cameron helped shorten the emotional distance between him and his father.

Glad to have helped. 

2

Upon discovering the non-working light switch, I realized I must overcome my dependence on Cameron as my mouthpiece, as well as the fear that crippled my ability to communicate with English speakers, and go immediately to the apartment office in the next building to talk with the manager.

“Hi, I’m Allison.” My voice shocked myself more than it did the manager, Jane––an overweight woman in her late fifties whose eyes at this moment were huge as tennis balls. She’d never heard me speak. In fact, she’d probably never really looked at me before. I was always behind Cameron and his proud Texan accent and charismatic humor. But the real surprise was hearing myself say my name that my tenth-grade English teacher gave me the way Americans do, without mixing up the L and R––one of the English-language learning curves that most Chinese people struggle with. Not Ayhreesong. I said Allison. The parting of my lips + the tip of my tongue kicking off the back of my upper front teeth + the soft dropping of my tongue + short hissing sss juxtaposed with an elegant nasal ending = Allison. I said that.

Jane took off her reading glasses. “Forgot somethin’?”

I shook my head. “Cam––Cameron gone.”

“Well, o’course. So should you. Why you still here?”

I knew what she said, but didn’t understand what she meant. I blurted out “yes,” but immediately felt idiotic and frustrated to be stuck with it. “My house”––I pointed in the direction of my apartment–– “cold.” I hugged myself and shivered exaggeratedly.

Jane shook her head. “K––ma’am, I’m confused. Why you still here anyway? Weren’t Cameron’s parents here earlier to move you guys out?”

Weren’t Cameron’s parents here earlier to move you guys out?

Weren’t Cameron’s parents here earlier to move you guys out? 

Weren’t Cameron’s parents here earlier to move you guys out? 

I got moved out?

“Really?” I exclaimed, not caring about mixing up my L and R

Jane pushed her office chair away with her bottom and walked to a wall cabinet behind her seat. She fished out a key from rows of hooks and waved it in the air. “See? Number 21. Your apartment. Cameron turned in the key.” She put her other hand on her hip and leaned forward. “Question, ma’am: Why you still here?” 

I was still here. In the apartment manager’s office. In Beaumont. In Texas. In the U.S.A. And I was mighty lost.

“Sorry,” I said, my scalp started to feel numb. “Please, one week”––I held up my index finger––“I find help. I want stay here––myself.” I hoped she would not only understand but also have mercy on me. My cheeks and earlobes were burning. My throat was tight, as though I were dry-swallowing a pill. And my head was so heavy, I could only look down at my shoes. At this point, everything about my life shared the same theme of emptiness: empty apartment, empty pockets, empty hands––palms up––asking for empathy.

Maybe Jane detected an unusual sense of urgency in the abandoned foreigner on her premises; maybe she fathomed the depth of my trouble and grasped the serious reality that, at this moment, she was the only one who could make the situation a little more bearable for me. Whatever it was, she slumped into her chair, clicked her tongue, pushed a pile of papers on her desk from one side to another, stroked her temple, and then, with her seemingly softened heart, said, “Ay––you stay.” 

3

Back at the apartment, I didn’t take off my shoes before entering. No need now. It wasn’t a sacred ground anymore, not like the Chinese culture had taught me what a home was. I’d convinced Cameron to leave his shoes by the door whenever he came back to this place––our place. He probably didn’t do it hours ago when he and his parents were here deliberately ruining my life. The carpet was likely soiled now. 

From now on, my life would be divided into before and after becoming a starter wife. My steps would chart a seam between two periods on my life’s timeline: one ending, one starting, right here where Cameron left nothing behind.     

But that’s not entirely true. He did leave behind the bed we’d bought together at a yard sale. I lay on it and curled into a ball. The utilities couldn’t be reconnected at this late hour. No heat. No light. The biting chill seeped through the sheet into my kidneys, my lungs, my head. I probably would see my breath if I could’ve seen anything, but I couldn’t even see my fingers when I waved them in front of me. I didn’t see it coming, all of this––Cameron teaming up with his parents for the blindside––and now I was in the dark, not knowing what to do next. 

It was just me here now. A twenty-three-year-old immigrant with a three-year-old’s English vocabulary. A newlywed, dumped.

I could cry. I could curse. I could scream. But whatever I did, I’d do it all alone. 

I––what a lonely word to be left alone with!

4

Four years prior, in 1992, I was a freshman at Fu-Jen Catholic University in Taipei, Taiwan. One rainy December night I walked down the street with an umbrella, past a bus stop, and heard a panicked cry behind me.

“Stop! Stop! Hey––STOP!” 

Two unlucky young Caucasian men were chasing the last bus of the night that rolled away without them. An African man slowly caught up to them, his white cane tapping in puddles. Obviously frustrated, one of the Caucasian guys threw his backpack on the sidewalk by my feet in total defeat. I was shocked and confused. Should I pick it up and return it? Remain still? Offer him my umbrella?  

I peeked at him from under the rim of the umbrella. He was Bruce Willis’s doppelgänger with full, brown hair. Fit, about five-foot-ten. A crooked nose. Straight-as-a-wall teeth. Penetrating brown eyes. In that precise moment when I caught him looking into my eyes too, my body caught fire, and I had a distinctive revelation that he’d someday be my husband. I can’t explain where it came from––a tiny thought that seeped into my mind and instantly caused my face and ears to turn hot. I became so shy, I struggled to make eye contact when he spoke to me. 

“Excuse me. My friend here”––he pointed at the African man––“is going to the School for the Blind. He missed the bus––”

I nodded sympathetically.  

“Can you call a taxi for him? My Chinese is––” He sighed and looked away. 

I couldn’t look away now if I tried. I couldn’t even blink. That handsome face . . . Gosh, I’d fallen in love with a stranger! Not madly, yet, but the attraction was undeniable. Even though I suspected the feeling was mutual, I had no way of finding out. 

I was a nineteen-year-old Taiwanese Mormon girl who spoke pathetic English; he was a twenty-year-old American Mormon missionary who spoke scattered Chinese. Scattered Chinese prevailed, in our case. But it wasn’t even the language barrier that kept me guessing if the attraction was mutual. It was because this guy, Elder Cameron Chastain, was required to abide by the church rule forbidding missionaries from getting involved in a romantic relationship during their two-year service. They were expected to serve the Lord with all their heart, might, mind, and strength. 

Following that night at the bus stop, I frequently spotted him and his mission companion––the other Caucasian young man I saw that night––walking on campus, usually outside the Foreign Language building where my classes were. Maybe they were there every day and I just never noticed. Now that I’d seen him talking with people in the courtyard, I could no longer sit in the classroom without glancing out the window, looking for him, wanting to see his face and hear his voice. I scribbled his name in my notebook and sketched images of him and dreamed of replacing anyone who occupied the space next to him, who held his time and attention when I couldn’t.

5

Every Sunday, Cameron, his companion, and a group of Mormon students from my school rode the same bus to church. A bus in Taipei on a Sunday usually carried what seemed like double the number of passengers than its maximum capacity. Those who didn’t get a seat wrapped their wrists around the ceiling hoops and stood like a thick jungle of trees; their backpacks and handbags smacking into one another like branches in the wind.

It was a battle parting the sea of bodies to get to the back of the bus, but I had to. Stepping on toes, rubbing chests with strangers, inhaling body odor and garlicky breaths, I had to get to the back so I could daringly stare at Cameron from a distance, through the cracks of silhouettes. I studied the movement of his mouth when he talked to people and imagined the words he said. His slant-lipped smile made me swoon. If the sea of people between us was the string that connected two plastic cups––Cameron’s mouth pressed into one; my ear to the other––would I hear “I love you” too?

Yeah, I’d do anything to be near him, but being too close to him made my heart jumpy and my mind foggy and I broke out in hot sweat even on a wintery day. It happened whenever we attended the same event or were simply in the same room for single young adult’s activities at church, Sunday School class, and scripture study in my dorm lounge. The worst was when I asked him to help me with my English homework one day. I couldn’t stay away from him like I did on the bus, obviously. I sat next to him at a cafeteria table; his companion across from us, memorizing Chinese words from flashcards. 

Cameron carried a pen in his shirt pocket. He used it to write down new Chinese vocabulary he learned in a pocket-size spiral notebook. Watching his fingers wrap around the pen, firmly and tight, I wished I were that pen––that lucky little thing––to be touched by him that way. To be tucked in his shirt pocket, close to his heart. To go home with him, live with him. To be the one thing he couldn’t leave the house without. And I fantasized him writing in his diary that I was his wildest dream. 

Ahhh . . . 

After editing my report for my English class, Cameron taught me a Bible message: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . A time to love, and a time to hate . . . 

This time to love and to hate concept was fitting and pertinent in our relationship. In the present moment, I only felt love. Never had I thought there would be a time when he would walk out of our marriage, leaving me homeless, penniless, voiceless in a foreign land. No, I couldn’t fathom a time when he would make such a hateful choice.

6

After serving six months in my college town, Cameron completed his mission and returned home to Texas. On the day of his departure, I lay in a dry bathtub in the dorm and counted. One more hour before he boards the plane. One more minute. His flight is taking off. He’s been away from Taiwan for a minute now. An hour. Two. Three. He’s gone . . . And every second he flew farther away, I ached more in the head, in the eyes, in the nose, in the ears, the mouth, the heart, the stomach, the arms, the legs, and I didn’t know how to go on with life. All I knew was to fill the bathtub with tears and snot and dangling saliva from my mouth that repeatedly wailed, “Cameron . . . Cam . . .” 

7

Before Cameron returned home to Texas, we’d exchanged our mailing address. A year after he returned to Texas, I served a mission in Taiwan from 1994 to 1995. He wrote to me weekly, telling me about his transition back to the student life, about his breakup with different girlfriends, and about the feelings he had kept secret during his service as a missionary. I fell in love with a girl . . . it’s you. 

All my life, no one had ever used the word love on me. I read his letter over and over until I memorized his confession of attraction, and I could see his cursive I love you with my eyes closed. It was surreal to have the confirming knowledge that the deep affection I felt for him was mutual. I refused to think I was likely a rebound from his most recent breakup. Instead, I imagined I was the reason for the breakup. I convinced myself what mattered was he loved me now. I believed the thought I had on the day we first met would come true, that he would someday be my husband. It would take decades for me to grow, to mature, to gain experiences and wisdom, to look back and see all the dots in my life connected to chart a detoured path. Yes, Cameron would be my bridegroom––a bridge, bringing me to America, to fulfill a purpose my twenty-two-year-old self couldn’t yet understand. Now, at 44, I do. I believe everything happened for a reason. 

8

When I returned home from my mission, Cameron flew to Taiwan to visit me for two weeks. The night before his arrival I stayed up, going through the combinations of seven blouses, five skirts, three dresses, and the only pair of heels I owned, staring into the mirror to decide which outfit best showed off my physique. 

Funny how I thought I needed to impress him. It’s not like we’d met on a dating website and this was our first meeting. He’d seen me after a school volleyball game––unkempt hair, beads of sweat on my nose and above my upper lip, dirty cotton t-shirt stuck to my chest. Yeah, he’d seen the disheveled side of me before. But on this night my heart insisted that after two years of being apart, our reunion now would be life-changing for both of us, and I needed to look my best for this historical event.

In a turquoise cotton dress and white heels, I showed up at the Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport two hours before his scheduled landing. I picked a corner seat in the waiting area, facing the gigantic overhead screens of arrival flights. The artery in my neck thumped almost audibly. The tap-tap-tap of my foot on the marble floor intensified my anxiety, but I couldn’t stop. I fanned my face with the newspaper I found on a chair. My hands trembled mildly, my palms wet. I stood, paced around, sat down, wrote in my diary, doodled, practiced what to say when I saw him. 

When Cameron emerged from the glass sliding door separating the customs and the greeting lobby in a gray t-shirt and cargo shorts, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. That same face still made my heart race: clean-shaven, his trademark smile that pushed the right cheek higher than the left, and the white patch of birthmark above his right ear. I stood by the glass railing that lined the walkway into the main hall, looking at him looking for me. A warm current circulated through my body. Never had I felt wanted like this before. Nervously, I inched forward to expose myself to his full vision. Before I knew it, he ran up to me and gave me a python-like hug, his face in my hair. Through his shirt I could feel his quickened heartbeats and smell his soapy deodorant.

This familiar scent triggered a special memory from the night of my twentieth birthday. Cameron bought a slice of cake from a bakery and brought it to my dorm. When I told him that was the first birthday cake I’d ever had in my life, something moved in his eyes. He put his arm around my shoulder and sang Happy Birthday. I inhaled deeply and memorized that same scent of his skin. 

“I missed you so much––” he said in Chinese. “I’ve been waiting for this far too long.” 

His voice made me dizzy. How could this all be possible, this joy? My mouth was in his armpit, my words came out muffled. “Me too.” 

He produced a diamond ring from his shorts pocket. No kneeling. No proposing. He slid it onto my finger. Then, cupping my face in his hands, he gave me a passionate, tongue-tangling kiss. 

Taiwanese people didn’t kiss.

In fact, back in the 1990s, kissing was such a rare expression of love among the Taiwanese, when there was a kissing scene in a TV show, it made the newspaper headline in the entertainment section. 

All this––the embrace, the kiss, the engagement that composed a monumental life event––took me by surprise. Sure, I’d dreamed of it. But never in the form of a tsunami wave of happiness, coming at me strong, powerful, and all at once. It made me feel like I’d been favored by God. Cameron was His gift to me––the first man who celebrated my birthday; the first man who noticed me among millions of Chinese faces; the first man who told me he loved me.

Around us, children giggled. A girl pointed at us and said, “Mama, take a picture of them!” 

Cameron and I laughed and kissed, waving and posing. I wondered how we looked together as a couple. I wondered if any camera could truly capture the meaning of this blissful moment, me––Cameron’s fiancée

9

Besides the engagement ring, Cameron also brought me admission and scholarship applications to the university he was attending. “It’s faster and easier to get you into America as a student than as a U.S. citizen’s fiancée,” he said. This was his vacation, but it wasn’t a tourist’s pleasure. We filled out the forms together, requested my transcript from Fu-Jen University, and applied for my passport and student visa. Two weeks later I was accepted by Lamar University with a scholarship to start in three months, in the fall semester, 1995. Everything developed as Cameron had planned. The next step was for him to fly back to Texas to prepare for my arrival while I stayed in Taiwan to wait for my student visa. He gave me all the Taiwanese dollars in his wallet, more than enough to book myself a one-way trip to Houston to unite with him. 

I didn’t expect our coming together to be so . . . unusual. We got engaged, got married, and commenced dating, in that order. Though our story was untraditional, it developed the way it should––peaceful and smooth. I don’t choose lightly the word peaceful here, because before and after my engagement to Cameron, there had been––and would be––no peace in my life to speak of. 

My parents divorced when I was fourteen, and my father married the mistress he’d been seeing for four years. This was the woman who sent Mama to an empty bed in an empty house for ten years till her death. 

The woman who attempted to send my sister May, born with cerebral palsy, to an underground doctor to mutilate her female organs to sell on the black market. 

When my sister Dee tried to stop her from hurting May, the woman sent Dee to the emergency room with a cracked skull. Dee’s head injury saved May’s organs. 

The woman who, while Baba was having eye surgery, stole all the cash for his medical expenses and left him penniless in the hospital with pending treatments.

The woman who commanded Baba to beat me for her viewing pleasure. Which he did. 

The woman who brought out suicidal thoughts in me at age fourteen. 

But without her persecutions, I wouldn’t have sought suicide. 

Without seeking suicide, I wouldn’t have been inspired, instead, to seek God. 

Without God, I wouldn’t have met Cameron. 

Without Cameron, I wouldn’t have come to America. 

Without coming to America, I would’ve been like a frog at the bottom of a well looking up, thinking the sky was only a pinhole. 

ALLISON was born and raised in Taiwan. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a committee member of the Storymakers Writer’s Conference. Her essays won Grand Prize in the 2019 MAST People of Earth writing contest, first place in the 2019 Segullah Journal writing contest, and Honorable Mention in the 79th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Contest. Her book was a finalist in the 2014 Serendipity Memoir Discovery Contest. She was a featured interviewee in KSL (TV Show) Mormon Times and Roots Tech Conference. Her work has appeared in the Life Story Anthology (Taipei, Taiwan), the Ensign Magazine, the Liahona MagazineFlying South Literary Magazine, Dialogue Journal, Pigeon Pages, and LDS Beta Reader Mind Game Anthology. Allison lives in Utah with her husband and their three sons.

TINY SPILLS
  • Your rituals (writing or not):
    First thing every morning: scripture study and prayers. 

  • My writer crush:
    Fredrik Backman.

  • Character (TV, book, movie) you most identify with:

    Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, A Memoir.

  • Question you secretly want to be asked:
    “When is your memoir coming out?” The Answer: September 21, 2021.

  • Least impressive thing about you:
    I grew up in a beach house in Taiwan, across the road from the Pacific Ocean. I can’t swim.

  • If you had to brag about yourself:
    I used to be a model and an actress.