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Image by Scott Broome
Dancing Apart
By John Zheng
Seng loved dancing with Mei. Would he dance his marriage apart?

A hot night in Nanjing, a city by the Yangtze. Seng walked out of Crystal Hall and biked home. He climbed up to the fifth floor and opened the door. Light was on in the living room.


Seng walked to the kitchen to swallow a glass of iced water, then returned to the living room to pull off his leather shoes and short-sleeved shirt that absorbed Mei’s perfume. He took a shower to cleanse himself. Last week, his wife was told by her colleague that Seng was seen hanging out with a young woman at the dancehall. Like a raged lioness she roared at him, swearing to kick him out. She sniffed at his shirt if he came back late at night.


His wife had a crush on chemistry and always buried her head in lab experiments. Her father, who was the governor, didn’t want his apple to lose shine, found a man for her. That was Seng, a journalist then for a local newspaper.


One day, Seng did a televised interview with the governor about the province’s five-year economic plan. His witty questions and good manners impressed the governor, who, after knowing he was a bachelor, invited Seng to have dinner at the weekend and introduced Seng to his daughter.


They got married after two months of dating. A flash marriage in others’ eyes. For her, she just wanted to make her parents happy. Seng was a double winner. As the governor’s son-in-law, he became the deputy director of the provincial propaganda office and dreamed of being the director someday. He wanted to father a son, an A-plus for his climbing plan. But his wife disappointed him because her belly never grew into a round moon a year after marriage.


One morning as he walked to the elevator, he heard two secretaries’ chitchat ahead of him. One said Seng was incompetent though he had a powerful father-in-law; the other giggled, saying he was incompetent because he had a powerful wife. They chuckled.  Seng walked out of the building, stood under a sycamore tree, and lit a cigarette. After taking deep drags, Seng swallowed his anger. Instead of taking the elevator, he climbed upstairs to the fourth floor and marched to his office.


Eager to have a grandchild, Seng’s mother-in-law grew anxious. She sent the couple to the hospital. Her daughter was diagnosed with ovulatory dysfunction. Though Seng’s in-laws were shocked, his wife wasn’t at all. She felt she could give her whole heart to lab research now. Seng thought about divorce but feared it would anger his father-in-law, whose sneeze could make Seng fall off the ladder he’d been climbing.


With the chemistry between the couple gradually dissolved, Seng became a workaholic. Each day he spent more hours at work, knowing his wife wouldn’t care because she was a workaholic too, always having fun with tubes and flasks for long hours. Later, Seng frequented bars and dance halls and became an alcoholic and danceholic. He met Mei, a girl who brightened his eyes at first sight in Crystal Hall when she writhed her slender legs toward him for a lighter. Chatting and waltzing with her lit up his desire for Mei.


Yet, Seng didn’t want his wife to find out his interest in a sexy young dance partner. Each time he dined and danced with Mei, he wore a pair of sunglasses and a black cap like an actor in fear of being photographed by the paparazzi. But one evening as they walked hand in hand into a new restaurant, Seng immediately let go of Mei’s hand when he saw his wife’s colleague, who twitched her lips scornfully.


The next evening Seng’s wife dumped pails of curses on him, threatening to kick him out. Her threat gave Seng mixed feelings. He wished for divorce, but he certainly was not ready to have a free fall.




After shower, Seng brushed his teeth and shaved his chin. Feeling he carried no more perfume from Mei, Seng walked barefoot to the bedroom. Lying in bed, he moved his right hand on his wife’s flat belly, and she responded with a twitch which Seng took as a signal to welcome his advance. He kissed her lips.

“Ouch!” He drew back, stroking his right cheek pinched by her fingers.

“You thick skin, go sleep on the couch,” she commanded, turning her back at him.

Inching closer, Seng repeated his sweet cliché, “Honey, I can’t sleep without you by my side; I need chemisorption from you.”


Seng thought the use of a chemical term would help him climb up her Great Wall, but his wife rolled over, “I’m not your honey nor your chemisorption; I’m your wasp, your pincher. Without you by my side, I can have a honey dream. Get out. Go dance with your girl in your dream.”


Her eruption of anger grumbled like thunder. Seng crawled out of bed like a doleful puppy and moved to the living room. He lit a cigarette. His mind wandered like a caged wolf moving restlessly. In the drifting smoke, Mei’s soft voice, soft lips, and soft body loomed large.



When the yin yang of Seng and his wife no longer matched, divorce scurried in like a sewer rat. Seng moved out. When his ex-parents-in-law invited him for the last dinner, they didn’t mention his dance affair. Later, he learned that his ex-wife simply told her parents she had no more chemistry with Seng and wanted to divorce him so she could devote herself to her lab experiments.


Like a caged bird released to the sky, Seng danced with Mei almost every night in Crystal Hall, no longer afraid of being seen by acquaintances. One evening when Seng and Mei walked into a riverfront restaurant, they ran into the same woman who spread gossip about his dance affair. This time Seng walked up to say hello while she tried to evade. Seng gave Mei a loud smack on her rouged face, then gave the woman you-know-what-I-mean wink. The woman humphed and walked away.


On some nights Seng and Mei strolled in the quiet park under moonlight and kissed each other long enough as if to break the Guinness World Record. Sometimes they swallowed four jugs of beer and chewed thirty beef skewers at a street food stall. Seng would puff out a contrail of “I love you” while Mei would chirp happily like a bell cricket.


Dining, dancing, and kissing became an inseparable part of Seng’s life. If he missed dinner or dance with Mei, he’d feel separated for three autumns, so he wanted to add a tie to hold them tight. One evening, Seng strutted like a peacock fanning out its feathers to Mei’s place. With a diamond ring in his right hand, Seng kneeled before Mei to ask for her hand. He had learned to propose this way from watching a foreign film.


Surprised with wide eyes, Mei stepped back. Though they had dated for a while, Mei never thought she must accept him as her only boyfriend. Still in her twenties, she wanted to dance for more chances to find the best tree to hang her swing from, especially one with no marriage history.


While Seng remained kneeling, Mei articulated her verdict in a tone that sounded like reading an elegy, “I talked with my mother, but she told me not to mention your name anymore. She doesn’t like divorced men, especially men who switch love like replacing broken light bulbs. She said I’ll never be her daughter if I continue to be your girlfriend. You know, I can’t disobey because my mother raised me single-handedly after my father eloped with his high school sweetheart.”


Hearing this, Seng sprang up, stunned agape. He had never expected such a straightforward rejection though he thought her mother would be the Himalayas between Mei and him. Having been blinded by Mei’s shining eyes, Seng never realized he was just one of the targets in Mei’s man-hunting game.

Without a word, Seng rushed out, his mind tangled like a coil of yarn. The moon looked like a white-faced clown climbing over trees. He roamed like an alley cat. When a sprinkler passed by, he didn’t sidestep; he was sprayed.


One night after Mei rejected his proposal, Seng went again to Crystal Hall, wishing to dance with her again. He drank a can of Tsingtao beer, and his eyes swept the hall like searchlights to spot the familiar figure among shadows of shaking bodies.


Mei was swinging in ecstasy with a young man. Seng leaped like a leopard from the chair and edged through the crowd toward her. When his eyes met Mei’s, he caught an icy, touch-me-not look. He felt pinched, not on his cheek but in his heart. He walked back to the table and gulped another can of Tsingtao.


That night, stirring in bed, Seng felt disgusted with himself for dancing his marriage apart.

Image by Thomas Griggs

John Zheng is the author of several poetry collections including The Dog Years of Reeducation and A Way of Looking, which won the Gerald Cable Book award, and editor of seven books including Sonia Sanchez's Poetic Spirit through Haiku and Conversations with Dana Gioia. His work has recently appeared in journals including Birmingham Poetry Review, Mississippi Review, and New World Writing. 

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