The woman, easily a decade younger than her aged companion, outpaces him as they navigate the sidewalk home. Bent against the westerly wind, she grasps in each hand a plastic grocery bag stuffed with provisions. When she gains a half-block lead, she stops to sit on a bench and wait. Her legs are not long enough to reach the ground. She swings them in short, tight bounces, staring ahead with a faraway smile.
He, a weathered and frail man wearing one of those military hats of the Cultural Revolution shuffles along, making footsteps so small it seems he’s only lifting his feet up and down. Each baby step jostles the plastic bags tied to his walker. He stops and stares down, out of the wind. She waits.
Some days the pair slow dances their way to the senior center for a hot lunch, or the library to sit in its quiet warmth. Some days, when the errand demands swift attention, she walks alone, leaving him blocks behind, a man abandoned. He waits.
They are not married, I’m told by a woman at the community center who speaks a smattering of their dialect. They are from southern China. One of them has an adult son living somewhere nearby.
These two are as recognizable and predictable as the church bells sounding the hour and the yellow school buses roaring by.
We call them YeYe and NaiNai, grandfather and grandmother, because they have reached out to Girl from the East over the years, speaking to her in broken English and a dialect we do not know. We pass on the street, wave and shout, “Ni hao. Ni hao.” Sometimes she stops, strokes girl from the East’s cheeks and whispers, “Tā hěn piàoliang.” (She is very pretty.)
Her patience has preserved her youthful beauty of almond eyes, high cheekbones and full lips. Only the hair streaked with gray, the weathered planes of her cheeks, etched with the fine lines of cracked porcelain, suggest her true age.
“Xigua, xigua,” she used to say, offering a slice of watermelon to my baby Girl from the East, who cowered behind me, uncertain of this elderly pair who looked and sounded like a place she knew but could not name.
Each day they go walking. She marches ahead. He plods along.
But always, always, she waits.