The Red Thread
I was in mid-sentence when someone rapped on the door. The Landscape Architecture students I was meeting for the first time in the new semester—in the new year of 1981—looked at me expectantly. I broke off to go over and peer through the door’s window.
On the other side was a well-dressed middle-aged Asian man with a mop of black hair like a Beatles cut of two decades earlier. His eyebrows were raised, his eyes were half closed, and he was smiling. Behind him ranged a group of students.
He politely asked if I was teaching a class. I thought the answer was obvious, so simply said Yes, I was. Oh, he said. How long would I be? I had been in the room for about an hour, but had another hour to go, and told him so. He said, Fine, fine. He asked a bit about what I was teaching, smiled approvingly, and mentioned finding another room.
As he turned to go, I uneasily suspected I was in his classroom. “Oh,” I called after him, “Am I in your room? The little classroom that was listed on my first-day sheet was too small to hold all my students, so we looked for a larger room that was empty.” I felt very guilty. He looked back with that smile and said, “No problem. We’ll find another room.” How polite! I thought.
This was an unfamiliar building, temporarily housing architecture and landscape architecture programmes, and I was teaching them for the first time.
“Who was that man?” I asked my new students. “Oh, that’s David,” they replied. “He teaches in architecture.” Oh dear; this meant I would need to apologise to him and to the administrators who allocate rooms and probably to unknown others.
“David Who?” This question to the class caused some consternation. “Um, David Chow? We just call him ‘David.’” I would have to find this David Chow. He was so pleasant, I didn’t really mind.
As it happened, my class finished before his did, wherever he had gone, and I didn’t see him again for almost four months. I had continued to meet my class in the room we had obtained by squatters’ rights. When I did see him, it was in a corridor outside the architecture departmental office, and I was hurriedly eating a cheese sandwich before supervising my students’ exam.
He was dressed with flair in a well-cut suit, and stopped when he recognised me. Through a full mouth I mumbled an apology for having snatched his classroom. He acted surprised, as if he was completely unaware I had done that, and I thought again how kind he was.
“Why don’t you eat in the staff lounge?” he suggested politely.
“Staff lounge?” I replied I had no idea there was a staff lounge. Most of my workload involved teaching business students who met in the building where my office was, a streetcar ride away from this temporary home of architecture programs. I was only in their domain once a week.
“Well, it isn’t much, but let me show you,” he said. I followed him to a dark and unimpressive room that held a few aged upholstered, not classroom, chairs. He gestured to a couch, so I sat and consumed the remains of my sandwich. “By the way, I’m David,” he said, holding out his hand and smiling. I wiped the crumbs off my fingers and murmured my name.
“What exactly do you teach?” he asked. He had a disarming directness that was wrapped in charm. He seemed to be genuinely interested in what I was doing there. I told him briefly that I was teaching Landscape Architecture students business writing.
“Oh, I’m interested in that,” he said in a tone that sounded sincere. “I have a small architecture firm and we could use some help in business communication.” He went on, “You know, English is not my first language. And my secretary is Portuguese. My partners are Canadian, but they aren’t great writers.” He paused, then wondered out loud, “Maybe someone in your department could possibly assist me?”
“Well…” I thought for a moment. “Perhaps I can see if Greta Grierson would do that.” Greta had been chair of the Business Communication department in years past. She was the sort of chairperson who counted all the pencils allocated to the department, and tried her best to ensure people used fewer each year. Her goal was to underspend the departmental budget, mistakenly assuming that it would earn her the praise and thanks of the senior administrators. She never realized that the result of her economy was a smaller budget for each new year.
David leaned forward and gave me a warm look. “What about you? Would you do it?”
I thought of the small job I had previously done for one corporate client. “I really have only limited consulting experience,” I began. Putting myself forward would certainly be bold; I would have to step into new territory and try to do a professional job of it.
“Oh, I’m sure you can help us,” he said. He was so pleasant and seemed to have confidence I could do it, and I was flattered. I agreed. I sensed I would enjoy working with him. I wrote my name and office phone number down for him, and we made a plan to meet the following week to discuss what his firm needed. I raced off with my armful of exams, and only later realized I still didn’t actually know what his last name was.
Our next meeting was after most exams were over. David had suggested we meet at a new wine bar that had opened near campus, called “Luv’s.” It was stylish but unthreatening. I was already invited to dinner with an English friend, Florence, a widow in her 70s, whose friendship I enjoyed, so I agreed to meet him early, at 4 pm.
David was already at Luv’s when I arrived, seated in a bentwood chair at a wooden table, near an early 20th-century stained glass window and a leafy fern. He was dressed in a well-fitting suit and looked at ease. I accepted a glass of white wine, and we began to talk. The subject of his firm’s business communication took up surprisingly few minutes, and then we moved into that delicate and delightful footwork that comprises getting to know someone.
I asked many questions, including what his name really was.
“Davidzo” he said, or so it sounded to me. He went on, “My name is hard to pronounce, so the students just call me ‘David’.” I thought that said something interesting about his security about himself. All the rest of us teachers went by titles: Professor, Dr., Mr., Ms. He elaborated, “’Chow’ is the Cantonese pronunciation of my name, like that Chinese teacher in the English department. That’s what people use when they don’t call me ‘David’.” Aha, I thought approvingly: no insecurity, but no huge ego, either.
“I read somewhere there are only 100 surnames in China,” I said, “but I never heard that one before.”
“Yes! You are right!” he exclaimed. “But it’s a very old name. I think the records go back hundreds of years.” He said it with a modest note of surprise. He proceeded to tell me stories from his childhood in China, his parents and siblings, his education. He said he thought he would have been a poet, if China hadn’t had a revolution, and that he loved being an architect.
I asked about how he came to teach in a polytechnic, and he made me laugh with his answer. He said he had answered an ad for a consultant on programs of study in the School of Architecture, but when he showed up after being hired, he was told he had to teach instead. “They said, ‘Go down the hall and do the seminar this afternoon for new teachers.’ And that was all the training I had!” When I expressed disbelief, he protested it was absolutely true. He obviously was very good at teaching; within a few years they had made him a Professor.
David was entertaining and self-deprecating, yet also without false modesty about his achievements. When I asked how he could do two full-time jobs, he wryly said he did it by working all the time. But he didn’t seem tense or driven. He was compellingly interesting.
When he found out I’d studied literature, he astounded me with the breadth of his reading. He told me his favourite author wasn’t English, though; it was Nabokov. He had gone to an Anglican school in China and another one in Hong Kong. He had studied a year in Nova Scotia before getting admitted to the architecture program at the University of Toronto—filling the quota for that year for an Asian student. He had borrowed money from a friend of his father’s in the United States to get to Canada, and he had paid it back with interest 10 years later. He was obviously proud of that accomplishment.
He asked what had brought me to his students. I summarised my origins in the US, my graduate degree in Toronto, and my inability to find a university job in a market where each opening had about 600 applicants. I told him I was a singer, a cat-owner, lived in a small house I had bought recently, did theatre reviews for educational radio, and liked travel.
As we talked I was increasingly amazed at how similar we were, in spite of our very different cultural roots. His values were very like mine, from social issues and politics to personal morals, and from self-reliance to family connection. He was a parishioner at a small Anglican church near the university, and I was in the choir of a large Anglican church half a mile away.
I told him I was about to go on a 5-week trip to India, because a great-aunt had left me $5000, and I was spending it all on this trip. He approved of that. I told him after I returned, I was leaving the polytechnic and was going to work in corporate communications for a company. He was, perhaps, slightly taken aback by that. But he gamely said it was no problem, his firm could wait until I was back and settled in my new job.
We laughed and talked and found what seemed like amazing correspondences in our perceptions of things small and large. I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much for years. We had managed to intimate to one another that there was no romantic interest currently in either of our lives.
When David said, “So where shall we go for dinner?” I suddenly realized I would be late for Florence. I found myself saying, “Oh, sorry, but I’m busy for dinner tonight and in fact have to go right away! She’s 70!” Clumsy, yes, since it sounded even to my ears as if I didn’t want him to think a man was waiting for me. And I noted that with some surprise. I didn’t want him to think I was involved with someone.
When I reached Florence’s house a bit late, my first words to her were, “I’ve just met the most interesting man of my life!” I talked a good deal about him as we ate. “The thing that amazes me is that we seem to have such a lot in common!” Florence’s blue eyes twinkled. She had met her late, beloved husband, an Indian from Goa, in middle age. She had enjoyed two happy decades with him, and believed in true romance.
I thought about David later, when I was in India, and even bought a small gift for him: a silver and bone scimitar pendant. But after I got home and settled into my new job, I heard no more from David. Had he decided my help was not needed? Our meeting at Luv’s had been so pleasant and so promising, at least to me. Maybe he just didn’t know how to contact me at my new job.
I waited two weeks, and then I phoned him at his office. “I was thinking about your firm’s correspondence and how I might begin to help,” I said. “And it dawned on me that you don’t have my new work phone number.” It sounded lame to my ears as I spoke. The truth was that I was hoping the reason David hadn’t called was that he didn’t know how to reach me. I was hoping he had not forgotten me.
To my relief, David was enthusiastic about our getting together again. He had not forgotten me. We quickly arranged that I would come to his office on my way home from work the next Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, I dressed with care in a dress and jacket that I thought looked good on me. After work I arrived at his office, a two-storey building that had once been a merchant’s home. We sat in the meeting room where he usually saw clients, and exchanged small talk and then discussed a bit about where I could start with his firm’s written documents. We agreed I would look at his company’s written proposals and make suggestions about how they could be improved. About half an hour later, he again suggested we have dinner. This time I was ready to agree.
He took me to a Russian restaurant. I don’t remember much about the food or the conversation, but I have a vivid memory of sitting at right angles to David, on his right side, while a balalaika player hovered near me. His music was romantic. I felt like I was in a “Doctor Zhivago” set. The player was happy to fill my song requests. David was not quite as enchanted as I was with the man, but we agreed, as he took me back to my car at his office, that the evening had been quite enjoyable. He suggested we might do it again. I was inordinately pleased.
I took home the work he had given me, and began on it that very night. Then I waited to hear from him again. After what seemed like a very long time, probably a bit over two weeks, he rang me at work and asked if I could come by his office again. I went, taking with me my suggestions and drafts for his use in proposals for jobs. We talked; and again we went out to dinner.
This pattern occurred three or four times more: I would prepare some drafts and bring them; we would discuss them; he would take me to dinner. Chinese, Greek, Italian. Each time, the meeting was initiated by David. I would wait to hear from him, and he would phone me at his pleasure—but only after an interval of about two weeks. He was the master of the timing of our interactions.
I felt competing emotions. What did he really want from me? Was it just a useful work connection with me that included having some company for dinner? Was he perhaps taking careful steps with me because he thought we could have more than a work relationship? I was stymied. He was so open and warm and interested, and at the same time so cautious. And yet, he didn’t seem like a person unwilling to involve himself in a woman’s life. These dinners weren’t dates, really. He wasn’t courting me. But I wished he would.
He revealed that before graduating as an architect, he had married. She was a Canadian who shared little in his life, and they had separated over a year ago. My own story had some similarities. I had married an Englishman in the early 1970s but that marriage failed about the same time as David’s.
I felt impatient with myself. I was an independent woman, accustomed to male company, not a hopeful teenager longing for a date. And yet here I was, waiting for my phone to ring, wishing to hear from him.
But I pressed my teeth together, curbed my impatience, and waited. I did it for one reason: he was different. I thought we might possibly be on the threshold of something tender and rare, and I didn’t want to ruin it. But at the same time, I didn’t know what he expected, a man in his late 40s, from me, a woman in her mid-30s. Neither of us was without experience of love and marriage. But exactly how to proceed at our age? I didn’t simply want romance, nor a passionate fling. Although I didn’t have much optimism that it actually might exist, I really wanted a lasting and profound relationship. Did he? He was Chinese; what cultural norms and expectations did he have? So far, we had not discovered any discordant assumptions, in spite of our different cultures. But was he holding back because I didn’t meet his idea of a woman with whom to share something deep? After all, we had met entirely by accident. No mutual friend or family member had introduced us.
I spite of my doubts, I became fonder of him. I enjoyed his company more than any man I had ever known. We never lacked topics of conversation, sometimes with a sweeping scope and sometimes with a very small focus. He increasingly revealed facts about his past and feelings about his life experiences. I never tired of hearing his stories from a culture so very different from mine. He trusted me with information about himself: the move to Hong Kong when the Communists liberated China, his adolescent search for meaning with an Enlightened Buddhist monk and a Roman Catholic priest, his Communist friends, his early work experiences, his university education in Canada, and his years of experience in architecture, the women in his life—and the fact there was nobody at present. And perhaps what I loved most of all: he made me laugh. His wry observations and deeply penetrating insights were surprising and accurate, and always delighting.
David easily floated to the top of my recent pool of possible partners. Before I met him, a relationship with a French colleague had ended after nearly a year. A former classmate, now a Harvard lawyer in Chicago, had exchanged visits with me. And a young Mexican from a wealthy family had come from Mexico to stay with me, and came again for the second time while David was so cautiously taking me to dinner after discussing his firm’s communication. But I realised it was David I wanted. I told the Mexican it was over between us on the third day of his visit and he took an early flight home.
I was intrigued, amused, entertained, and flattered by David. We continued to discover connections and correspondences in our views like threads that went from one life to the other. I developed a deep admiration for his analytical intellect, his attractive personality, his generous heart. By mid-summer, I was ready to break out of our consultant-client perimeter and have a mature romantic relationship. But he continued to control our contact, and I continued to wait for my phone to ring.
Then late one Sunday afternoon in August, David’s careful routine was unexpectedly broken. He was working at his architecture firm, as he did every Sunday, but this time he suddenly picked up his phone and rang me at home. He had never done that before. I was surprised—and thrilled.
“What are you doing?” he asked politely.
I had often daydreamed that he’d call like this. A champagne magnum bubbled furiously inside me, and my heartbeat raced. I laughed as I answered that I had just bicycled home from an Indian take-way with big samosas, bhaajis, and sweets. If he could come to my house right away, I offered, he could share them with me while they were hot. He said he’d be there in a flash.
I had known, of course, it would have to be David who broke us out of our work-structured box. Maybe this was the chance! He hadn’t been to my little house before. I raced around to tidy it. He’d want to see it all, of course, which would take about 90 seconds. I also dashed to the bathroom mirror and put on some lipstick, combed my windblown hair, and pinched my cheeks. To my surprise, he arrived a mere 15 minutes later.
My little house was not an architectural gem, as he saw right away. But he seemed delighted to be sharing my Indian samosas on impulse. We talked and laughed into the warm evening, as usual. My consulting work did not once enter the conversation. The samosas ushered in a new phase of our relationship.
He offered to take me to see one of his architectural projects out of town one weekend. I said yes to that, with enthusiasm. But I had a plan, too. The “Rocky Horror Picture Show” was on again, and everyone was talking about it. I had never seen it. He suggested we go together. I was delighted. After that we saw each other more and more without the pretext of my work for his firm.
The following Friday as we walked across the plaza in front of City Hall to a cinema, I found I desperately wanted to hold his hand, to have a physical connection. I caused my hand to do a sort of flutter conveniently close to his, as if I was unaware of its tremors as I looked straight ahead. But instead of taking my hand, David offered the empty sleeve of his jacket which he had slung over his shoulders. I had never been offered a sleeve to hold before, but I grasped it anyway. How odd! I didn’t exactly feel rebuffed, but neither did I feel very encouraged. Was I being too forward for his Asian taste?
In fact, his physical distance puzzled me. I found myself thinking about it all the time. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with him? I knew he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. I was certain he was attracted to women, and had been for all his adult life. I wondered if it was a “social disease” like Herpes, which every women’s magazine was talking about at the time. He had mentioned there wasn’t any other woman in his life, and it was pretty clear to me that he didn’t really have any time for one. So why was he not more assertive?
One evening we had stopped in at his apartment downtown so he could pick up something he needed for work. I hadn’t been there before. It was small, furnished with Ikea. While David collected the item, I looked around. As I stood before a mirror in his bedroom, David came up behind me and put his arms around my waist. I immediately felt comfortable in his hug. I also felt a wave of desire. My mouth went dry, and I thought I would melt. I felt him respond; I assumed this intimacy marked a change between us. But before I could turn around, he had moved away. I was more confused than ever.
David proposed that on the Sunday of Labour Day weekend in early September he would drive me to see a project he had designed in an old potash factory for a female client, Marie. Marie had been married to a politician with whom she had had four children. When she discovered her husband was having an affair with his secretary, a much younger woman, she divorced him, extracting enough money from the proceedings to establish a school for weavers.
David designed the studio/school for her, on the edge of a lake. It had a frog pond in the foyer, open spaces on several levels, exposed brick walls, and two-storey skeins of wool in various colours hanging from large pegs. The building accommodated up to eight students in separate bedrooms. The most amazing part of the building was in the ceiling: a 19th century centre wood beam of immense length extended the length of the building and through the front wall to the outside.
I was deeply impressed by the design and the magical, beautiful spaces it created. More, I was thrilled to be his companion and to be introduced to Marie as his special friend.
We had driven two hours to reach the building, and by the time we began our return trip, it was evening. David took me to a well-known restaurant he had booked, in a small town with a beautiful river and waterfall the restaurant overlooked. We enjoyed a long meal. Finally, it felt as if we were on an actual date. We both relaxed into that mode. He made me feel attractive, and that he was excited to be with me. We were the last to leave the restaurant.
When we got back to my house after midnight, we sat comfortably together on my couch and talked and talked. At some point several hours later, David began a long explanation of his theories of architecture, and I knew instinctively that this was the most important thing in his life. He was trusting me with his most deeply cherished ideas. I felt honoured and grateful. This was a new plane in our relationship, one I hadn’t experienced before with anyone else. His disclosure of what mattered most to him was a precious gift, and I wanted to handle it with respect and care, not risk damaging it. And then, at almost 4 am, David kissed me.
At last! I was ecstatic. It was a long and tender kiss, to which I responded fully. It seemed David was signalling that he wanted a full relationship with me, beyond friendship and way beyond client and consultant. I was swept away and in a daze.
Then he went home. I honestly admitted to myself that that wasn’t what I had expected. But I perceived that our intimacy was set to increase. It was sealed.
I slept. Next morning, Labour Day Monday, David woke me by ringing my doorbell at 10 am. His arms were full of gifts. He hadn’t had much sleep. He had woken early and had looked for stores that were open on that holiday. He brought flowers, an LP of the choir I sang with, some chocolates, and a couple of warm cardboard boxes of Chinese dim sum. I felt he wanted to bury me in gifts.
I was in a daze, partly out of sleep deprivation and partly from delight. I got dressed quickly, and then we took the food down to the lake to have a late-morning picnic. The early September weather was warm, still, and golden. The lake was peaceful. After eating, we sat on a bench watching the waves roll in, comfortably letting our thoughts find words of their own accord.
I stopped talking then, thinking of how this slowly developing friendship was turning into something as significant as I could ever have imagined. The fact it had been platonic so far seemed to set it apart as special. It was different from any previous relationships I’d had. I thought how it had developed by our finding connections and weaving a fabric of integrated threads. We had learned about what mattered to each other first, before physical involvement.
As for physical compatibility, our mutual attraction was clearly strong. The worries I had felt on that score no longer existed.
I wasn’t dreaming of marriage. That wasn’t my goal. I had tried it and it hadn’t worked. I had no confidence in my ability to be someone’s beloved spouse. But I realised the goal I had wanted all along was the development into a firm fabric of this many-threaded friendship, this shared work, this intimate relationship.
I remember I said, thinking out loud, “I am not looking for a long-term relationship. But…” David didn’t say anything just then. I thought probably he was at the same point I was; marriage seemed something for other people. I continued, my eyes on the waves, “…I might miss you if you weren’t in my life.” I felt at that moment I understood what a soulmate was. It was a term I had never had a use for until now.
As I spoke the words, I was overwhelmed with the utter randomness of this joy. How arbitrary life was! How haphazard. I thought back nine months to the classroom I had unrightfully occupied, entirely by chance. What if I had simply gone to the small room I had been assigned? That would have been the normal thing. Or even if I had found another room, what if it had not been David’s? Either way, I would never have met him. If I had never met him, I would simply have passed him unaware in the corridor that April day when I was eating a cheese sandwich. And yet, now it felt as if all my life had been a prelude to knowing him.
As I was watching a wave progress to the shore, a revelation formed like a swirling new planet and took shape in my mind. The words came as the thought solidified: “Maybe this is really IT.”
David replied, “Of course this is IT.”
After a while, he told me about the Chinese belief, captured in a legend of separated lovers, that between two eternal life-partners runs an invisible red thread. It goes from one heart to another, wherever in the world they are. It is the connection, decreed by fate, that cannot be broken, and that lasts forever. I knew it was simply an old tale. But I also knew as he told it that we were feeling the same amazement at this miraculous sense of belonging to each other.
A few months after Labour Day, after David and my parents had met and my father had offered aloud to give his blessing if anyone were to ask, David proposed to me in formal style on one knee. Two years later, after we had shared our lives together, we married. We continued to nurture a stable, loving, fulfilling relationship for the next 35 years. Beginning with the chance meeting at a classroom door—so arbitrary, so accidental—the relationship was, actually, IT.