The woman bought the fan on their first date--an exhibit of art for sale by Li Xing-Bai, a visiting scholar at a nearby university, one of the Communist Republic of China's earliest gifts of cultural exchange with the United States in the 1980s. A mutual friend and coworker of the couple arranged the exhibit in a town hall of a tiny German settlement tucked within a diverse metropolis in the Midwest. Mr. Li was a good friend of the coworker, who was also an artist.
Could she even call this a date? The man had left his wife for her. They made plans both to attend the exhibit so they could spend time together in public before his divorce was final without arousing suspicion. The woman brought along her best girlfriend as additional cover, but also because she wanted her to meet the man. But the hierarchy of friendship was in flux. When the woman was out of earshot, the friend grilled the man about his intentions, for she felt the balance of relationship changing.
While the drama between the man and the friend unfolded, the woman gazed absently at the art and intently at the prices. Even the fan she chose was more than she could afford at the time. As she paid, the coworker introduced her to Mr. Li, who spoke to her in Chinese, which the coworker translated.
"He says you have chosen wisest among all here, for there is first the fan itself, which he made from 300-year-old rice paper, then there is the painting on one side, and finally, there is a poem, in calligraphy, on the other." The coworker turned the fan over to reveal elegant Han characters in swirling black paint and the personal stamps of the artist in red. Mr. Li continued in Chinese as the coworker first listened, then translated. "A loose rendering of the poem is, he says, The plum blossom is the bravest among flowers because it blooms first, sometimes before the snows end, and so it stands alone against the cold."
The coworker turned the fan back over to the landscape side, and the woman looked anew at the branches dotted with purple buds, some blossoms blood-red and others blush-white, only the suggestion of snow. Mr. Li and she exchanged smiles, and he bowed to her as the coworker collapsed the fan and placed it in a protective bag.
The friend passed out of the woman's life even before the wedding took place. The coworker came to the wedding but retired from the workplace the three shared, sick and bitter in his heart. And Mr. Li, when his visa expired, escaped north, at least for a while, with a Canadian graduate student who studied under him in his years at the nearby university, thus leaving his Chinese wife and children to tend his landscapes in Beijing.
The woman's purchase gathered dust and tears, first open on shelves and then folded away in cupboards, until, in the time of the couple's 20th year together, she mounted it on silk two shades darker than the rice paper had become and placed it in a display box.
It hangs now in their living room, where she and the man who ran away to her all those years before see it daily from a room away as they wait for their coffee to brew. Visitors to the home they made together see the landscape side, but the poem on the reverse remains their secret.