Aura and I watched Wong Kar-wai’s wrenchingly beautiful movie “In the Mood for Love” before our trip to Hong Kong in June 2004. More than once, the protagonists – neighbours, played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, who are locked into an infernally unrealised adulterous love – separately descend their apartment building’s long, shadowy staircase to fill their containers with noodle soup from a street vendor pushing a steam-cart. That scene reminded us of Mexico City and the nightly mournful steam whistles of the camote (sweet-potato) vendors. Aura was from Mexico City and I also lived there much of the time, but that year, our first as lovers living together, we were in New York. Aura was studying for her PhD in Latin American literature at Columbia. Whenever I rode the subway to Columbia from Brooklyn for lunch, we went to Ollie’s, a Hong Kong-style franchise where I always ordered the roast pork wonton noodle soup, and Aura nearly the same, except with roast duck or soy-sauce chicken.
Neither of us had ever been to Asia. In June, a magazine sent me to Hong Kong to write about the physicist Mark Tilden, and Aura came. Tilden’s biomorphic robots were being produced by WowWee, a Hong Kong toy company. On our first morning we met Tilden and the WowWee team, including its co-founder Peter Yanofsky and several young robot engineers, for breakfast at the Peninsula, the colonial-age luxury hotel by the ferry piers. We had lunch together too, at another hotel serving an extraordinary buffet of dim sum and other delights. Then we met Tilden for dinner at a Thai restaurant, situated, as many restaurants there are, on the upper floor of an office building. So it went throughout that week.
Tilden, a towering man with broad shoulders, long arms and a smallish face – he modelled his RoboSapien on himself – addressed his mad-genius stentorian monologues almost exclusively to Aura. Juicy dumpling waiting between chopsticks, he’d say, “In another 50 years we won’t be able to tell humans and androids apart any more, and I don’t intend to miss that party.” Aura would giggle. It didn’t bother me that Tilden was obviously smitten; I got much of the material I needed just listening in.
During our free time Aura and I wandered the waterfronts and steep hills, the Dr Seuss cityscape of towering tubular skyscrapers and mini-mall hives. The people of Hong Kong seemed to be even more into their food than Mexicans, eating or snacking at all hours, outdoors, indoors, on sidewalks, at market stalls. In a packed lunchtime place where we were the only non-Chinese, we sat at a communal table and ordered two bowls of roast goose wonton noodle soup, unforgettably delicious. We considered ourselves competent with chopsticks, until the people at our table gaped in astonishment or horror and laughed. Maybe it was our slurping. I bet some of those people still remember us.
In a little second-hand store in Peel Street, Aura made friends with the owner. Well, she wanted to buy half his stock. It turned out that Wong Kar-wai had been an art-school classmate of his, and now he supplied props for his movies. He gave Aura a gift: a pale green cup and saucer. In “In the Mood for Love”, he said, the protagonists had sat together, in their frustrated passion, sipping tea from a pair of these same cups. He told us where to find the staircase they descended like hungry spirits to buy soup from the steam-cart vendor. We found it, but now it was totally ordinary, even decrepit, its steps littered with trash, and it didn’t look as long as it had in the movie.
This summer marks eight years since my wife Aura’s death, at the age of 30, in a swimming accident at a Oaxaca beach. My years of paralysing grief have at last passed; I’ve found happiness again. But there are losses that can never be filled. Mourners never stop searching for signs of presence. I cherish that pale green cup and saucer, but hadn’t watched “In the Mood for Love” again since 2004. When I finally did, two or three years after Aura’s death, I wondered if the cup and saucer would actually appear. In a scene between the thwarted lovers in a restaurant, there they were. Outside of dreams, it felt as close to a visitation, a supernatural wink, as one can receive, an instance of presence in absence that brought tears to my eyes; but it also made me smile as I remembered Aura that day in the little shop in Peel Street, excitedly holding up her cup and saucer.