Expat from Wuhan – Nathan Pettigrew
December 28, 2021
Vanessa was no longer the dear friend we remembered, though we couldn’t tell when seeing her again for the first time in almost twenty years. Appearing in the Main Terminal of Tampa International from Airside C, she was rockin’ the same fro that she had in our college days and an all too familiar outfit: a Wu-Tang hoodie, Chuck Taylors, and tight jeans with rips at the knees.
And despite spending close to a day in the sky on her way in from China, Vanessa was chock-full of energy and still the loudest in any room.
Her unfiltered volume was a trait my wife Nassira had found endearing when the three of us were roommates in Framingham, Massachusetts. We’d partied together from January of 2002 until the summer of ’03 when Nassira left to pursue her New York dreams.
Vanessa was the next to go after accepting an offer to teach English to children in Beijing.
Staying in Framingham, I’d found a new living situation and a steady job downtown as an emergency dispatcher. My bachelor’s in English remained a priority, but I was more focused on a co-worker who I married on June 23rd, 2006.
She had fallen in love with Clearwater Beach on our honeymoon—so we saved and moved down in the summer of 2011. For half a decade we’d rented in a small apartment, but my bride insisted on becoming homeowners once we pulled the trigger on Florida, and then filed for a divorce just two years after we’d christened her “dream home.”
But why? Why was she throwing all that we’d worked so hard for away? A beach life far from the winters and taxes of Massachusetts—and homeowners at last. Isn’t that what she wanted? What did she mean she’d fallen out of love with me?
She had no answers, denying me clarity, but her greatest disappointment in my role as a husband had become crystal clear on a Saturday after a failed Drano session. Our kitchen sink still clogged up, forcing me to call someone. I wasn’t Tim Allen on Home Improvement and couldn’t fix things around the house without help, but my father-in-law built houses for a living and hadn’t raised his daughter to stoop so low.
To move the divorce along, my ex-wife had allowed me to keep her “dream home” without a fight.
Part of me wanted to stay bitter, but I could sleep in on weekends and watch sports while drinking as much beer as my body could hold. I could cut the grass whenever I felt like it, ignore the doorbell when a solicitor showed up, and invest in my home without shame.
The next woman to enter my life was Irma on September 10th, 2017—a one-night stand and the first category three to score a direct hit on Clearwater since I’d moved down.
Irma had blown the lock off the gate to my backyard and left me without power for two days. Making use of that time, I bagged debris from the Cypress trees while taking breaks in the garage with the car on to charge my phone. My boss needed updates on my situation while the ancient ones in Cajun Country needed to know that I was doing okay.
Irma was mean, I’d told them, but she was no Katrina.
Even Nassira had called from New York to check on me.
“How are you holding up, George?”
“Why don’t you come down and see for yourself?” I’d said, joking, but Nassira ended up doing just that.
I’d surprised her with two yellow roses on a pillow in the guest bedroom and taken her to see Tom Brady defeat the Bucs on the windy night of October 5th. We always thought of ourselves as friends and didn’t try to impress each other, as we were all too familiar with each other’s farts and morning breath. Nassira had seen me in my boxers, after all, but we were older now and two friends had fallen in love before she was due to fly home.
“So, I’m moving back up north or what?” I asked.
“Are you dumb, George?”
Nassira had fallen for the same beach my ex-wife had and said no way was she staying in New York. We were married a year later in the local mosque on our agreed anniversary of October 5th, 2018.
A week into February of 2020 before Valentine’s Day, Vanessa reached out to Nassira on social media—scared shitless. This new coronavirus in Wuhan had spread, and Vanessa was living under a lockdown in Beijing. She had never seen anything like it and wanted to get the hell out. Would I mind if she escaped to our place for a week or two?
“I mean—I’m good with it if you are, Nee. Vanessa’s a friend.”
But she had no response, pretending to find interest in the repeating news cycle.
“What is it, babe?”
“The thought of another woman in our home,” she’d said.
As a Muslim born and raised in Algeria, Nassira believed in the Shaitan.
“Look, I get it, but we’re talking about Vanessa. Besides, she’s not all that cute. I mean—don’t tell her I said that. I love her to death, but—”
“Stop it, George. Don’t be mean.”
“I’m not, babe. I’m saying we should help her.”
“But why isn’t she going to her mother’s in Worcester?”
“Did you ask her?”
“Then ask her, Nee. Things sound bad overseas.”
“No, you’re right,” she said. “I just hope she can get out of there.”
Vanessa did, managing to find a flight to JFK a few days later and then a connect to Tampa landing past midnight our time.
“Feel free to sleep all day,” Nassira said in the car. “We know you’re exhausted.”
We didn’t adhere to a strict bedtime but were usually out by ten and expected Vanessa to crash when showing her the guest bedroom.
“You guys don’t want to get high and catch up?” she asked.
It was going on one in the morning, but what the hell? We hadn’t seen her in so long.
Nassira sparked a joint and passed to Vanessa. Reminiscing, the three of us cracking each other up again felt so surreal and great until I noticed that Vanessa wasn’t passing the joint back.
Whatever. I chalked it up to Vanessa being jetlagged and asked how life in Beijing was.
Sex. More Sex. Even more sex.
It’s all the three of us wanted in our twenties, but we were no longer in those days and Nassira was visibly turned off, watching the repeating news cycle while Vanessa either didn’t notice or care. She continued catching us up on her “casual sex” and I assumed her graphic descriptions of different dicks would subside for details about her daily routine—but there were none.
Even more puzzling: Vanessa never once asked about our life as Floridians.
“Sorry,” she said, passing the joint after I asked for it, “but seriously. You guys don’t mind me staying for a few weeks?”
She’d said a week or two when reaching out, but fine.
“Did you tell Vanessa we can’t have kids?” I asked Nassira in bed.
“No, why?” she asked, resting on my chest.
“She didn’t ask why we didn’t have any or even if we wanted a family. I mean—she didn’t ask about anything, really.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Nassira said. “We were all very tired. And high.”
Both true. Letting my wife fall asleep, I watched our ceiling fan spin, listening to her snore.
Vanessa slept past noon as expected, but her unfiltered volume kept us up that second night after she’s stolen some of our pot and settled on our back porch for a place to party on her phone.
Working remotely for a call center, I could roll out of bed and log in while still in my pajamas, but Nassira had to shower and wear a suit for an investment firm in downtown Tampa—almost an hour commute with morning traffic.
Vanessa announced that she had to pee and left the back porch. I made sure our paths crossed in the kitchen.
“Look, I know your clock is off,” I said, “but can you please keep it down out there?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize you guys could hear me.”
The back porch was adjacent to our bedroom, the patio furniture not four feet from our French doors.
I had to remind Vanessa of this fact on the third night.
“Oh, sorry. Sorry,” she said. “Guess it’s my culture.”
“Meaning what?” I asked.
“Puerto Ricans are naturally loud,” Vanessa said.
I relayed the message to Nassira.
“Norka’s not that loud,” she said. “None of my other Puerto Rican friends are that loud. No, Vanessa is selfish is all.”
We moved our stash from the freezer before Nassira left for work, but Vanessa still managed to find the back porch after midnight.
“I’m ready to buy a shotgun,” I said.
“Calm down,” Nassira said. “You’re extra cranky and so am I.”
“I mean—what do we have to do, Nee?”
“Shut the porch light off on her,” Nassira said, turning her back to me.
“Damn. Why didn’t we think of that before?”
“Why didn’t you?” she asked.
That was Nassira—always wanting me to read her mind and willing to endure any nightmare until I woke up and did something about it.
I flipped the switch and Vanessa got the message.
She slept past noon and took food from the fridge but left a dirty fork and plate in the sink for the first time since arriving.
I asked her not to do it again and didn’t say please.
“I must’ve forgot,” Vanessa said.
But she “forgot” a second time.
“You left your dishes again,” Nassira said when she came home from work.
“Sorry,” Vanessa said. “Sometimes I need a nudge, you know?”
“My husband gave you that nudge,” Nassira said, pointing to the sink where Vanessa huffed and puffed while getting to it.
She slammed our washer and dryer doors in the garage when doing laundry and the guest bathroom door before taking a shower.
“I’m punching that bitch if she slams one more thing in this house,” Nassira said.
“Guess it’s better than a shotgun,” I said.
I waited for Vanessa to finish up and knocked on the guest bedroom door.
“Come in,” she said.
She was on the bed in pink pajamas with a white towel around her hair while scrolling through social media.
“What’s the deal?” I asked, but she continued scrolling.
“I’m just a little jittery without pot,” she finally said.
“Then pitch in,” Nassira said, coming in behind me. “We’ll get more. And we’ll need some money for groceries, too.”
Vanessa claimed to have low funds in something called WeeChat and needed that money if she was booking a flight to see her mother in Worcester.
“What does she mean by if?” I asked Nassira in bed.
“Are you dumb, George?”
“What?” I asked.
“Bitch wants to milk us for all she can,” Nassira said. “She isn’t planning on leaving.”
“That’s ridiculous, Nee. She said a few weeks.”
“The sooner the better, George. I want my life back.”
“Jesus, babe. Me, too.”
“Watch your mouth,” she said.
Nassira was funny like that. Dropping F-bombs around her was fine, but holy figures of any kind were off limits.
Under no circumstance would we have left Vanessa in our home alone, and she always made a scene wherever we brought her.
“Oh, wow! This grocery store is amaze balls! I’ve never seen a store like this!”
We were in a Winn Dixie, the store nowhere near the size or as nice as the Stop & Shop where we all used to go up north.
We took Vanessa to see Honeymoon Island on a Sunday, and she stood in the sand scrolling through social media while Nassira set up the chairs. Having secured the umbrella, I reached into the cooler for a beer and sat next to my wife thinking Vanessa would join us.
She wandered off instead, introducing herself to the nearest beachgoers.
“What’s she doing?” I asked.
“Who cares?” Nassira asked. “Enjoy the peace.”
“What peace, Nee? The entire beach can hear her.”
“Yeah, it’s true,” Vanessa said to a disinterested but polite couple. “I’ve never seen the ocean before.”
At this point I suspected that Vanessa had been in an accident overseas and suffered brain damage, as the three of us had made a trip to Horseneck Beach in the summer before 9/11 to discuss living together.
“Lot of white people,” she said when returning.
“What? You don’t like white people?” I asked.
“Except for you, of course,” she said, and then she winked. A glimpse of the Vanessa I knew in college.
Smiling, I allowed myself to believe that we were going to have a good beach day until Vanessa blasted Wu-Tang on her portable speaker—music I enjoyed—but what about the folks next to us?
“We’re not coming back,” Nassira said on our beach walk. “Not as long as she’s here.”
A huge deal as Nassira needed Honeymoon Island to help with mental preparation for Mondays.
We drank on Monday nights, and I made Vanessa come with me to the liquor store on my lunch break.
“My God!” she yelled inside. “I’ve never seen a liquor store before!”
Even though we’d gone to shitloads together in Framingham.
I refused to pay for her wine, reminding her that my mortgage payment was due on the 1st.
“Whatever,” she said.
She pulled a wad of hundreds from the front right pocket of her jeans when approaching the clerk.
“I’m an expat from Wuhan,” she said.
“Cool,” the clerk said, confused. “It’s ten for the wine.”
“Why did you tell him you’re from Wuhan?” I asked in the car. “You live in Beijing, no?”
“Wuhan’s trending right now,” Vanessa said. “Beijing doesn’t get as many likes.”
We were pulling into the garage when she asked for a “family meeting” after Nassira came home from work.
“Thank God,” I said to Nassira. She was changing into her pink and blue muumuu. “This means she’s leaving.”
“Alhamdullilah,” Nassira said.
We decided to be cool, bringing some pot out.
“So, what’s your plan?” Nassira asked, wasting no time.
“I’m thinking a job,” Vanessa said, taking the joint. “I’m thinking a school here in town, and I’ll stay until the summer.”
“No, you won’t,” Nassira said.
I sat up, clearing my throat. “What Nassira’s trying to say is, well, this isn’t easy, Vanessa, but my folks are coming to stay with us in March.”
A lie and the first one I could think of.
“I’ll sleep on the couch,” Vanessa said.
“Helllno,” Nassira said, wanting to punch her. I knew that dark squinted stare all too well.
“Vanessa,” I said. “You do remember where my folks live, don’t you?”
“Remind me,” she said.
“An hour south of New Orleans,” I said. “Meaning they’re as racist as they come.”
Another lie—not about New Orleans—I was born and raised in the bayou community of Terrebonne Parish, but my folks were lefties, and it was their idea for me to get out. Aside from education back home being shit, they wanted me to see the real America.
“You’re saying I have to leave because your parents are racist?”
“No, Vanessa. Not just that. They’re old and stubborn. Okay? And it would break my heart if they said something offensive.”
“I’ll call my mother,” she said, and I could hear Nassira’s sigh of relief, hoping Vanessa couldn’t—though why I even cared at this point was confusing.
Call it a fleeting moment of guilt.
We had agreed to a few weeks and kept our word giving Vanessa until March 4th to move on, but while figuring she could take a hint.
“Okay? It’s done,” she said, having booked a flight on her phone to Logan Airport for the morning of Wednesday, March 4th. “Can I have another hit or what?”
We left her with the joint, and I watched the ceiling fan spin while Nassira snored.
She woke up the next morning smiling—about her commute. Work had become her heaven away from the hell in our home.
Our own home. Of all places.
Right at five when my shift ended, Vanessa knocked on the door to my office and came in without waiting for a response.
“Do you know where Nassira hides the pot?”
“Feeling anxious,” she said. “I have an investment opportunity I was hoping to talk to you about. But without Nassira around.”
“And why would I do that?” I asked.
“She seems moody, lately,” Vanessa said. “Is she on her period?”
“Jesus, Vanessa. Really?”
“But you control the money,” she said. “I would hope so since you’re the man of the house.”
The moment when Vanessa helped me understand that after two decades of “knowing each other,” she didn’t know me at all—forgivable in my eyes—but she didn’t care to know me.
“Now’s not the time,” I said. “Like I told you, my folks are coming, and our mortgage is—”
“Yeah. Yeah,” she said. “Whatever.”
She headed to the back porch, still out there when Nassira came home.
“Want to watch Better Call Saul?” I asked. “We missed it last night.”
“Sure,” Nassira said. “Here in the bedroom.”
I waited until the first commercial to break my silence.
“Really, George? She asked you for money?”
“She did, Nee. I mean—after everything. I was like, son of a bitch.”
“Son of a gun,” Nassira said.
“What? Why?” I asked. “Bitch isn’t one of the holy figures.”
Nassira couldn’t help smiling. “I love you but can’t stand you, George.”
“There you go, Nee. Let it rip.”
“Shut up,” she said.
“Seriously, babe. Did she really think I wouldn’t bring this up?”
“She doesn’t understand the strength of our bond,” Nassira said. “She’s never had this with someone.”
“Yeah, well. I can see why,” I said. “Jesus. I mean—Sorry, babe. No, really. Sorry.”
It rained through the night, still pouring when Nassira left for work. I was making coffee when Vanessa cornered me in the kitchen, having a meltdown. She cried and cried about missing Wuhan and Worcester, too, but said she couldn’t stay there since her mother was so mean—according to Vanessa.
“Beijing,” I said.
“What?” Vanessa asked, wiping her eyes.
“You said Wuhan, but you live in Beijing.”
“Right,” she said. “No, but I told you—”
“I know,” I said. “Wuhan’s trending, right now.”
I tried to log in for work.
“Hey, I think I know why Nassira wants me out so bad.”
“What are you talking about, Vanessa? Who said—”
“My portable speaker,” she said. “I haven’t seen it since that day at the beach.”
“Weren’t you using it that night?” I asked.
“Before I fell asleep,” she said.
“You look under the bed?”
“Not yet,” Vanessa said, and instead of doing that, she headed to the back porch.
I found the speaker where I told her to look.
“You went through my things?” she asked when I gave it to her.
“No, Vanessa. I went into my guest bedroom and found your speaker for you.”
She didn’t thank me, and Nassira wanted to throw her out before changing out of her work clothes.
“No, don’t, Nee. We’re almost there. Okay?”
And it was like Vanessa had overheard us. She made her smartest move since arriving, staying out of sight those next few evenings whenever Nassira came home.
The alarm on my phone went off at 6:55 a.m., and I wasn’t dreaming. The morning of March 4th was happening, my ceiling fan spinning, my wife still snoring.
Seeing the light on in the guest bedroom beneath the door, I hurried to the window in my office and waited for a car to pull up like a child waiting for Santa Clause. I couldn’t stop moving or pacing, having to pee so bad.
Seeing the Uber, I ran into the guest bathroom.
“Vanessa?” I asked, getting no response when I knocked.
I knocked again.
“What?!” she yelled.
“Can I come in?”
She didn’t answer, and I walked in on a frantic Vanessa digging her nails into her scalp while looking at her unfolded clothes on the bed, the floor, and end table.
It hadn’t occurred to her to pack the night before.
“Are you kidding me, Vanessa? The Uber’s here.”
“So, what!?” she yelled. “I’m paying him.”
I found my slippers, and the driver stepped out to greet me.
“She’s coming,” I said. “You know how women are.”
None my finest moment. What I should’ve said was you know how Vanessa is, but the guy didn’t know her from Adam, and I owed him an apology for the pending intro—assuming I could get her into his car.
“Okay, no problem,” he said, but he knocked on the front door at the fifteen-minute mark while Vanessa was shoving clothes into her suitcases.
“She’s almost ready,” I said. “I swear. She’s a big tipper, too.”
The guy was going to hate me when finding out she wasn’t, but I had to stall him, about to have a full-on panic attack until Vanessa managed to put a suitcase together.
The driver popped the trunk.
“One more coming,” I said.
Vanessa had left her second piece of luggage on the welcome mat.
“Told you,” I said, smiling now. “She’s coming.”
“Hey, I’m not worried,” the guy said.
“That’s because you haven’t spent five minutes with her,” I said, and Vanessa was standing behind me but pretended not to hear, giving me the biggest hug.
“Thanks for hosting me,” she said.
“Text when you land,” I said.
“Of course,” she said, and then she got into the backseat, letting me close the door for her.
The Uber drove away, and I almost couldn’t believe it.
It had been fifteen years since I’d smoked a cigarette, but I found myself buying a pack of Marlboros at the liquor store before my shift started and savored every drag on the back porch, admiring my purple day bloomers.
Greeting Nassira at the door that night, I rocked her in my arms, refusing to let go. I kissed her lips, and then her neck until she stopped me.
“Take care of the house first,” she said.
I made sure the lights were out, the doors locked while Nassira had slipped into her black and gold muumuu.
Online, Vanessa was still our friend, but couldn’t name a single family member of ours in real life, and we were good with that.
We never wanted to see her again.
“I just hope this coronavirus doesn’t spread through the States,” I said.
“Are you dumb, George?”
“What?” I asked.
“Vanessa,” Nassira said. “She was the coronavirus.”