In The Heart

My friend Alex Cai is alive and well despite the fact that he was shot in the heart.

Ever since the first time I taught in China, in 1984, I have had Chinese friends. My ability to speak Chinese is only fair; my reading and writing skills are lousy. Nevertheless, my experiences in China and my knowledge of the language, such as it is, have opened a vast new world to me.

In the summer of 1986, Alex told me that his fiancee was arriving from China. I agreed to drive to the airport with him to meet her. The day before her arrival, Alex called. "I'm in the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital. I've been shot. Come over and I'll write her name for you in Chinese characters. Then you can make a sign with her name on it, go to the airport, and pick her up."

"Where were you shot?" I asked.

"In the heart," he answered.

"You sound very healthy for a man who has been shot in the heart," I said.

"This is real. I've had an echocardiogram. I have a pellet in my pericardium. I will have open heart surgery very soon. Come right over."

I grabbed a cab and arrived at the emergency room a few minutes later. "I want to see Mr. Cai," I said.

"You can't see him. He's in surgery," I was told.

"But I have to see him. I have to find out the name of his fiancee. She's arriving in America tomorrow," I insisted.

"He's in the operating room," I was told.

I tried to think what to do about meeting Alex's fiancee. I remembered that a year or so earlier, Alex had lived with a cousin named Jackie. I decided to call her.

Jackie knew what to do. She told me, "Make a sign with Alex's name in Chinese characters. The girlfriend will see the sign. And make an extra sign for me. I'll go to the airport too, and I'll know you by your sign."

I knew that Alex's name in Chinese was Cai Junxiu, and I probably could could have written it with the help of a dictionary. But I felt insecure. I called another friend, Ting Ning, and told her the story. She agreed to make three signs, one for me, one for Jackie, and one for herself. She would come with me to the airport.

The next day, Ting Ning and I drove to Kennedy Airport. Jackie found us. She said, "I've learned the girl's name. It's Chen Lifen. Let's turn our signs over and write her name on the other side."

We decided to wait in different parts of the arrival area so that the fiancee would see one of us without having to hunt too long. People began to come off the plane. A young man walked up to me and said, "I think you may have a mistake on your sign."

"Why do you think so?" I asked.

"My name is Charles Chen. I'm traveling with a woman named Zhang Lifen. Maybe you have our names mixed up."

I didn't know that the fiancee was traveling with anybody. But I asked Charles Chen, "Does she have a boyfriend named Cai Junxiu?" I turned my sign around and showed him the name on the other side.

"Yes she does, and there she is now," said Charles Chen. I signaled Jackie and Ting Ning to join me. Zhang Lifen came up to us.

"I know all of you," she said, pointing to each of us in turn. "You're George. You're Jackie. You're Ting Ning. Alex sent me pictures of all of you. Where is Alex?"

"He's in the hospital. He's been shot," I said, very frightened about what her reaction would be.

"Where was he shot?" asked Lifen calmly.

"In the chest," I replied. It would have been too awful to say "in the heart."

We got into my car and drove to Manhattan, going directly to Bellevue Hospital. "We would like to visit Mr. Cai," I said.

"Nobody can visit him. He's in recovery," we were told.

"This is his fiancee," I said, indicating Lifen. "She just came from China this minute."

Lifen was shown the elevator and told to go up to the recovery room. The rest of us were to wait downstairs. It was her first time in an American elevator.

That was Lifen's welcome to America.

The next day there were stories in the Daily News and the New York Post about a 17-year-old man who had been driven through Chinatown and had been shooting at passersby. He was caught because someone had written down the license plate number of the car he was in. I don't know what ever became of him.

In the morning, we were allowed to visit Alex. He told us that despite the surgery, the pellet had not been removed. Apparently, it was in so deep that removing it would have been dangerous. The pellet is still in Alex's heart.

"When you go through a metal detector, you'll beep," I told Alex. I don't think he was amused by my remark.

Lifen stayed with my wife and me for a week. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Alex was discharged from the hospital on his 29th birthday. Lifen and Alex are now married and the parents of two lovely daughters.

This memoir appeared in And Then, Volume 12 (2004).