Fred Wu, Magic Fingers
Will a misunderstanding stand in the way of true love? (10/2009)
She studied the deep crevices in the face of the man sitting next to her. He was clearly much older, although he had a youthful sparkle in his eyes. Just as she was about to turn her head away, he smiled at her.
“Hello,” he said in heavily accented English. “My name is Fred. Fred Wu.” He bobbed his head earnestly.
“Annie. Annie McDonald. Nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too. I remember seeing you here last week. Have you belonged to the church for very long?”
“Going on four years now,” Annie replied. There was pride in her voice as she answered. “You?”
“Oh, I’m embarrassed to tell you, young lady,” Fred said. Then after looking up to the sky while doing the math in his head, he added, “This fall will be 32 years for me. But I have to work most Sunday’s, so I don’t come as regularly as I should.”
The second time they sat next to one another, Fred learned that Annie was a nurse. She told fascinating stories of her work at the hospital. Some full of pain and sorrow, some full of humor and joy.
The third time they sat next to one another, Sally learned that Fred had fled to the United States in the hold of a barge carrying rotting potatoes, and that his wife had died many years earlier after losing her battle with cancer.
By the sixth time the two sat next to each other during services, it was obvious to both Fred and Annie that they liked one another. They might look like an odd couple to the rest of the world, but somehow both knew that they’d met a kindred spirit.
Fred summoned his courage and finally asked, “Would you like to have dinner with me?”
“I’d like that very much,” Annie said. She had a warm smile on her face.
Fred flushed, relieved and excited at the same time.
They agreed that they would walk to Fred’s after church the following Saturday.
When the big day came, Fred walked four blocks to the neighborhood produce stand. The place looked like a postcard, Fred thought, with all of the different colored and textured fruits and vegetables lined up so neatly. He selected the finest bok choy, pea pods, bean spouts, yellow onions and mushrooms. Then he walked five more blocks to the grocery store and bought the rest of the meal he was preparing.
After church services, Fred and Annie walked back to Fred’s apartment. A few passersby wondered at the odd couple, but the two friends were unaware of the stares.
“Would you like some wine?” Fred asked when they walked into his kitchen.
“Sure. That would be great,” Annie said. She wasn’t sure how to act when a man treated her so nicely, with so much respect, but she forced herself to act like she expected a Hollywood movie star would act.
“Go ahead and have a seat at the table there,” Fred instructed. “I’m going to cook us dinner. I did all the prep work before services, so it shouldn’t take too long.”
In her 35 years, Annie had never had a man cook for her. It was a strange feeling. But a nice feeling. Still, her mother had instilled in her at least some sense of propriety, however screwed up their lives had been.
“Can I help with anything?” she asked.
“No, it’s okay. Just talk to me. Tell me more about your family.”
Since they’d met, Annie had been pretty vague about her past. She talked more about her life now, about how she was struggling to make ends meet working as a nurse while repaying her student loans. Nursing school was about as far back as she’d ever gone while talking with Fred, or anyone else for that matter.
Annie decided to trust Fred. He was such a kindhearted man, so gentle and sweet. He had been so open with her about his heartache after his wife had died years earlier. She decided to open her heart to him, too.
“I have some things to tell you about my life that I don’t think you’re going to like hearing,” she said.
Fred encouraged her to tell him anything and everything she was willing to share.
She blurted it out. “My mother was a prostitute. My dad ran off when I was born and I’ve never met him. How’s that for white trailer trash?”
Fred felt so sad for this troubled but good-hearted young lady. He took a long, deep breath. “Go on,” was all he said.
“It gets worse,” Annie said. “I was a prostitute too.” Annie paused to watch for Fred’s reaction.
Fred didn’t miss a beat. “It’s okay, Annie. I make no judgments. This is all in your past, is it not?”
“Yes. I haven’t tricked in over ten years.”
“Are you… um… healthy?”
“Yes. I was very careful. Always.”
“Then it is in the past,” Fred said. Annie had told him so much about her struggles to work through nursing school and her work as a nurse. If ever a woman had transformed her life, it was Annie.
“You’re not upset?”
“No. Why would I be upset? Who am I to judge what you did back then? You did what you had to do to survive. We all have. We all do.”
Annie could not believe that this dear man did not seem to judge her like so many others had done before. It had gotten to the point where she’d stopped trying to date. It was just easier not to have to go through the humiliation of having a man she liked lecture her on the immorality of what she had done. And here Fred did not seem to hold it against her at all.
“You are very understanding,” she said. “Not many men are.”
“As I said, you did what you had to do to survive. We all have and we all do.”
“What do you mean?” Annie asked.
Fred decided that if Annie could open up as she had, that he owed it to her to be as honest in return. “Annie, when I was in the war, I did some pretty terrible things. Things I’m not proud of. Things that keep me up at night, even now.”
Annie stood and walked over to Fred. She gently stroked his cheek with her hand. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really. Maybe. Someday.”
“You can tell me about it anytime you want,” Annie said. “But like you said, you did what you had to do to survive, yes?”
“Then the past is the past. For both of us,” Annie said.
Fred found his glass and raised it, and waited for Annie to raise hers. “Here’s to the present and the future, then,” Fred toasted.
Annie clinked her glass with Fred’s and the two sipped their wine. Annie then leaned in and gave Fred a quick peck on the cheek. It was their first kiss. Fred blushed. Annie used her thumb to wipe her lipstick off of Fred’s cheek, then sat back down at the table while Fred finished making their dinner.
After the most delicious stir-fry dinner she’d ever had, Annie cleared the dishes. Annie washed and Fred dried. Their hands touched often. Fred continued to blush.
“Come with me,” Annie said, emboldened by the openness and honesty they had shared, as well as the two glasses of wine she’d had with dinner. She led Fred by the hand to his couch.
Annie had never met such a gentle, kind-hearted man. Her johns had all been nameless and faceless. They were gone in a half an hour, tops. Few were repeat customers and she liked it this way, since she preferred it when they were complete strangers, when there was no familiarity. Her few boyfriends were all bikers, musicians and the like. Dangerous guys, just like the kind her mom had dated, and just like her father, based on the stories her mother had told her before she’d died of AIDS when Annie was 14.
The sense of warmth and trust she felt was like a miracle. She never knew it could be like this. She leaned over and kissed Fred again. This time, their kiss lasted a long time. Annie guided their kiss from tenderness to exploration to excitement to passion.
Fred held Annie close while they kissed. It had been so long for him. He was an old man now, but Annie brought out the teenager—or at least the thirty year old—within him. He felt alive for the first time since his wife passed so many years before.
Annie reached down and grabbed Fred’s right arm with her left hand. She guided his hand until it rested on her left breast. Then she pressed her hand on top of his, signaling him that it was okay for him to fondle her.
After a while of this, Annie murmured, “You can take off my sweater. It’s okay.”
“Are you sure?” Fred asked.
“Yes. I’m sure.”
Fred hesitated for a moment, and then proceeded to unbutton her sweater. Fred popped the six buttons effortlessly with just one hand.
Somewhere deep in her brain, an alarm went off in Annie’s brain. Fred had just unbuttoned her sweater with so much dexterity that a thought flashed in her mind: He must have practice doing that! His whole nice guy persona – it must be fake, a con!
Annie sat up quickly and pulled her sweater closed in front of her. After turning hundreds of tricks and doing all manner of things with her sexual partners, here she was feeling more exposed, more vulnerable than she’d ever felt. She knew it was because she’d opened herself up emotionally to this man, but it didn’t change the fact that he must have been putting on an act. He was some womanizing, lecherous old man that tricked trusting young women like her.
Fred was bewildered. He sensed something was wrong, that something had changed drastically, but he had no idea what had happened.
“Annie? What’s wrong? What happened?”
Annie said nothing. Instead she stood up, grabbed her handbag from the table and rushed out of his apartment.
“Talk to me, Annie!” he shouted to her just before she rushed out his front door.
For the rest of the evening, Fred sat alone at his kitchen table, wondering what he had done to offend Annie. He worried that she might never talk to him again.
Around midnight, Fred realized that Annie had left without even taking her coat or her umbrella. He fell asleep that night worrying that she might catch pneumonia without them.
Fred waited a week for Annie to call him and explain what had happened. The wait was unbearable. A week. Seven days. 168 hours. 10,080 minutes. She wasn’t at church, which worried him.
Then Fred could not stand it anymore. He had to know what he had done to offend his lotus flower, his Annie. On Friday at 5:00, Fred closed his shop three hours before normal closing time. Fred Wu was not a rich man, and the lost business would hurt him financially. But wondering what had gone wrong with Annie hurt him more.
He took the 57 bus to the 103 bus, and walked the remaining 14 blocks. He arrived at the hospital at ten minutes to 6:00. He remembered Annie telling him once that she worked until 6:00 most nights.
Fred shuffled into the hospital and hurried to the information desk as quickly as he could. He worried that Annie might leave without his being able to find her. The nice elderly woman in the red and white striped hospital outfit indicated that Annie worked on the fourth floor. Fred rushed to the elevators, fearing that she would come down one elevator while he was going up in another.
Fred found Annie just as she was putting on her coat while waiting for the elevator.
“Annie!” he cried.
“Hello Fred,” she replied quietly. Part of her wanted to jump up and shout, she was so happy he’d not given up on her after she’d burst out of his apartment the week before. And part of her was still worried that she’d misread the man so fully.
“Could we go somewhere and talk? Can I buy you dinner or a cup of coffee at least?”
“Yes, that’d be nice. A cup of coffee would be nice,” Annie said, letting her guard down just a bit.
“Okay, why don’t you suggest a place, then, since this is your neighborhood,” Fred said.
Annie, realizing just how far Fred had come to see her, flushed. “There’s a little sandwich shop just around the corner from the hospital. We could go there if that’s okay.”
“Sure, sure. That’d be great.” Fred was relieved she’d agreed to at least talk with him.
When they were finally seated, Fred couldn’t stand it any longer. “Why did you run out the other day?” he asked. “Was it something I said or did? If so, please give me a chance to apologize for however I offended you.”
“No, Fred, that’s not it. It wasn’t anything you said or did. I mean, not really. It’s just…”
“It’s just what, Annie? You can tell me.”
“It’s just… I’m kind of embarrassed by this…”
“Annie, please tell me.”
Annie wasn’t sure if she could trust this man, but she had to say something, confront him, find out the truth if she could.
“When you unbuttoned my blouse that night…”
“Yes?” Fred said with a tremble in his voice. He hadn’t been able to get the scene out of his mind for a week.
“Well, it’s just that you were so adept at, um, unbuttoning me that I panicked. I was worried that you’re not the man I thought you were. I was worried that you’re some kind of womanizer that sleeps with dozens of young women.”
Fred was quiet for a long time. He hadn’t been with a woman since his wife died almost ten years earlier. And he’d been a faithful husband for over thirty years until his wife’s cancer had torn their life to shreds.
Finally Fred said, “Annie, nothing could be further from the truth. My wife died almost ten years ago. I haven’t been with a woman since.”
Annie was shocked. She couldn’t comprehend something like that being true. “But you unbuttoned my buttons with one hand, like you’ve unbuttoned hundreds of women’s blouses.”
“I have,” Fred said.
Confusion showed on Annie’s face.
“Annie, do you know what I do for a living?” Fred knew that they’d never talked about it. He had been far too interested in Annie and her life. Her past, her now, her future.”
“Um, actually I don’t. Geez, I’m embarrassed to say that. After all the time we spent together, I can’t believe I don’t even know where you work.”
“It’s okay, really. My life isn’t very interesting. I like to talk about you and your life, Annie. You’re far more interesting.”
“We’ve done enough of that for a while,” Annie said. “Tell me now. What do you do?”
“I’m run a Laundromat, Annie.”
It took a moment to sink in, but Annie soon realized that Fred had just revealed the reason why he’d been so adept with her buttons. As he had just said, he’d probably unbuttoned hundreds, if not thousands, of blouses and shirts.
A bright, beaming smile lit across Annie’s face. “Oh my God, I’m an idiot! I am so sorry for running out on you that night. I thought…”
“I know what you thought. It’s okay. But trust me when I say nothing could be further from the truth.”
“Oh, I believe you, you wonderful man. Please forgive me. Please?”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Fred replied. Then after a pause he added, “I love you, Annie.” It was the first time either had said such a thing to the other, but he didn’t hesitate to say it.
Annie lunged at Fred and squeezed him with all of her might. She peppered his forehead, cheeks and mouth with kisses. “I love you too!” she said between her furious kisses.
Fred hugged this crazy, wonderful woman with all of his might. “I can’t believe I almost lost you,” Fred said, crying. “You’re only the second woman in the world I’ve ever loved, you know.”
Annie gently kissed Fred and the two sat, Annie in Fred’s lap, for several minutes. The tenderness of the moment enveloped them. Two lonely soles each finding a soul mate.
Finally Annie wiped the tears from her cheeks and from Fred’s too and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Fred nodded in agreement.
“Let’s go to my place,” Annie said.
Fred knew the significance of Annie’s invitation. In all the month’s they’d known each other, she’d never let him come into her world. She’d opened up about her past, but hadn’t let him into her present. Now she was about to allow him into her life.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m sure. I love you and I want to share my life with you. All of it. Even my crappy apartment in my even crappier neighborhood. Besides, you live too far away…”
Fred raised his eyebrows at Annie’s innuendo.
“That’s right, Fred Wu, Laundromat Man. I want to see what those magic fingers can do…”
Fred blushed, but took Annie by the hand and led her out to the street.
“Taxi!” Fred shouted, not caring how many shirts he’d have to dry clean to pay for the taxicab ride. At his side, Annie smiled a brilliant smile and hugged Fred’s arm even tighter.