Chinese Stories in English
A Glass of Water
Yi Zhou (Zou Yizhou)
Before she got up, she flipped through the WeChat circle of friends on her mobile phone. She realized that doing so was just aimless procrastination, but whether it was nervous exhaustion or exhausted nervousness, it made her both excited and distracted. Things really should be at an end. Her eyelids were fighting to stay open, but her nerves were like fully wound clockwork springs getting ready to start moving.
The first thing she’d noticed before turning her attention to her friends page was the time, 00:12. Almost everyone was posting the same message – smog.
There was a short video: smog filmed with a macro lens, lighting at 4,000 lumens.
“What’s a macro lens? Or lighting at 4,000 lumens?” She didn't know, but she liked this kind of precise technical jargon. The snow that filled the darkness of her phone’s screen, particles rushing around soundlessly like transitory pathogens, frightened her. Was this how the world was at that moment? Or wasn’t it more like her mood at the moment? Roiling, turbulent, fragmented, but completely silent. If it hadn’t been captured by the "4,000 lumens lighting and macro lens," it would be nothing but hazy, primal chaos.
She was lying slightly on her side and her lower back felt rather sore. After long-term fitness training, she would’ve thought her body could tolerate a certain intensity of exercise, but that didn’t seem to be the case. She reached over and picked up her underwear from the nightstand and put it on under the blanket. She lifted her back to fasten the snaps and the soreness got worse. She really hadn’t moved much, but the intense physical sensation made her feel that she’d moved quite a lot, so she looked apprehensively at the boy sleeping soundly beside her.
The night light shone upward from the corner, hit the ceiling and reflected down. The faint illumination painted the boy’s face with an orange glow, so that the stubble on his jaw looked fluffy and extremely soft, although it was in fact bristly.
She looked at the window again. The curtains hadn't been pulled tight and she felt that the night scene showing through the opening was a bit washed out. The night light was on in the room, but it was dim; the smog covering the midnight darkness outside the window was just an expanse of gloominess.
"The gloom is darker than what's casting the light.... I need something with more light." She tried hard to make distinctions in her mind, but the feelings of primal chaos were difficult to sum up with precision.
Finally she looked at the bathroom door. Like the curtains, it was only open a bit – almost the width of her palm. The narrow beam of light from inside the bathroom shot straight into the room and split the darkness in two. That wasn't an accident, she knew. It had been calculated almost precisely. Even if the door seemed just to have been left ajar haphazardly, the extent to which it approached the doorjamb, and how many "lumens" of light were allowed to be released into the room, had all been kneaded through her subconscious.
She was quite calculating about the environment, and lighting is the most important environmental condition. Her husband had teased her and said she was a "Master of Lights" because she was always fiddling constantly with the lights at home.
But the boy beside her wouldn't know that. He wouldn't understand that the entire space he occupied at the moment had been created secretly by her. Were these things important? The opening deliberately left in the curtains; the beam of light deliberately allowed in from the bathroom; the night light rotated a few times until it was set accurately to a psychologically approved brightness – were they important? She felt they were. She was like a high jumper who couldn't help wanting to hurdle over every horizontal object she encountered.
It was just dusk when the boy had gone to shower and she'd set out to "distribute the light". The sense of time and space in a hotel room can be created artificially. While closing the curtains, she could sense the light coming in like a dream as the opening narrowed, the dusk seemingly dragged slowly into the night in the palm of her hand. She felt like she was pulling the curtain on a stage, completing the transition from reality to theater. She felt also that she was casting a huge net, but what this net covered, whether bliss or anguish, was difficult for her to say with clarity.
While she was pulling the curtain, she was also watching and mounting the stage. While she was casting the net, she was also being captured and bound.
The boy made a sound at that moment. It seemed he was calling her name, but of course he might just have been mumbling something in his sleep. She awoke from the stage and from the net and replied softly, "Stay asleep," as she pulled the corner of the blanket up for him. The boy's shoulder was bare outside the covers. It was nicely curved.
She got up and stepped barefoot on the carpet. She hadn't yet made any noise, but still wanted to avoid as much as possible any movement that might wake the boy. The bathroom door opened smoothly and she slipped inside. Surprisingly, she felt like sighing in relief when the door closed tightly behind her.
Her clothes were stacked on the bathtub's counter. She'd just taken a quick shower and hadn't used the bathtub. Every time, she'd undress in the bathroom and stack her outer garments neatly on the counter. After she showered, she'd put her underwear back on, wrap herself in a bath towel and walk into the space where she'd already adjusted the light like a stage. The boy would protest, lying there in the predetermined brightness as if he were locked in a cage that would brook no explanation. He'd complain that he almost never saw her body.
But she had seen his body clearly. Once, she'd filled the tub with water, sprinkled in some bath salts, and let the boy soak while she scrubbed him attentively.
She began to put on her clothes, trying as best she could to ignore the feeling they were dirty. But when all was said and done, the idea of "dressing in a hotel bathroom" was difficult for her to shake off. She was of course a woman with shame in her heart. The last few years, she'd had tools to help her when she had physiological needs, but when she used them, she first had to clear all the plush toys that had accompanied her for years out of the bedroom. She thought of them as living beings, and she'd be ashamed under their watchful eyes.
It was almost one in the morning. She knew she'd finally crossed the line that night.
It hadn't yet been four in the afternoon when she got home from the company. Her husband was one of the behind-the-scenes investors, so no one bothered her much if she came in late or left early. The house was empty as usual because the nanny who cooked dinners hadn't arrived yet. She called the nanny and told her not to bother coming. She wouldn't be dining at home that evening.
She'd been a little hungry. It was still early for her date and she had plenty of time to eat something, but she just took an apple and nibbled on it while she walked to the hotel. It was rather a long walk. Pedestrians scurried by wearing masks that looked like gas masks, but she walked exasperatingly slow, setting a leisurely pace. She swallowed bits of smog along with the apple. She was wearing a very thick wool coat and she was quite tall, and felt that when she walked down the street like that in winter, she looked like a clumsy bear punching through a thick fog.
"Little bear." That's what the boy called her.
Right then she felt hungry again. She seemed to remember she still had a cookie in her bag, which was hanging in the closet in the room. For a moment she almost couldn't resist the impulse to rush out and go through her bag for the cookie that might be there. But she only opened the bathroom door again to a gap meeting her "psychological scale” and stood on the inside looking through the gap into the room.
The light from the bathroom was magically superimposed over the light coming through the curtains. This gap in the world seemed momentarily to expand before her eyes, forming a proper canyon under her feet. The two distinct areas in the illusion were like two islands drifting separately. The boy, sound asleep in the bed, didn't realize he'd already drifted into the depths of tranquility; she, on the other hand, without thinking about it, had chosen to stand in the area moving the opposite direction. To this end, she'd even shifted her body so that she was completely hidden, in her imagination, in the darkness on her half of the area.
Imagining that she was standing on a floating island made her feel unexpectedly dizzy. She had to hold on to the door. The door moved slightly, adding to her dizziness.
It was like not being able to feel the rotation of the earth, but then, at some moment, suddenly comprehending the majestic movement that was carrying all things with it as it rolled along.
She'd had a similar sensation when she was a girl. Those days she used to ride on a bus that had the longest route across the city. She'd ride aimlessly, from the starting point to the end and then back. Time permitting, she'd do the circuit again. The bus moved noiselessly and her youthful self would imagine it was the earth itself that was moving, awakening some sensation of "eternity" in her. She liked the feeling and thought it was what she wanted – even though the feeling being awakened in her heart was eternal loneliness.
She closed her eyes briefly and restrained her imaginings of things without existence. When she opened her eyes again, she looked back at the bathroom mirror and watched herself standing there. Suddenly she felt a complete mess – a forty-year-old woman at midnight. "Why don't you stay home?"
She imagined the situation at home at that moment. The light in the entryway was left on for family members returning home late – this was a habit maintained for so many years it had become a ritual. Leave some light and you leave some space. It was an attitude, and even more a frame of mind. She turned the accent light on before going out even if it was still light outside. It left a message for her husband that she would be out late. At the same time, it was also preparation for her own return, should she get home first. Thus, she left the light on for herself.
If her husband had returned home first this time, he'd be lying on the sofa in his pajamas. The TV's sound would be turned up loud as usual. It seemed the only way to hypnotize him to sleep. They quarreled about it, but he did his own thing. He'd lay there for a while with the volume up loud, then turn over, get up and feel his way to bed like he was sleepwalking.
They'd slept in separate beds for a long time. She slept in the bedroom and he in the study. Sometimes he'd climb into her bed, and when that happened, her first reaction was that he'd fallen into a stupor in front of the TV and fumbled the wrong direction to bed.
By now, if he'd already climbed up from the sofa, he would've turned off the TV and the living room lights, so the lonely accent light in the entryway was the only one on in their entire condo. Maybe he'd wake up abruptly and stand in the dark, staring out at the suddenly bright accent light. A thought would come to him, and he might even mutter aloud, "What? She's not back yet?" And what would he do next? Would he look at the time? Would he push open the bedroom door to make sure?
Or would he stand there in awkward silence and begin a serious chain of thought to re-evaluate the meaning of the entryway light being on in the dark of night? He might turn the TV back on right away and let the sound fill the house again. If so, she'd see a familiar scene when she went in the door: the man who called himself her husband asleep on the sofa, a belly as swollen as a pregnant woman's rising and falling with his snores, one arm hanging off the edge of the sofa with the remote in his hand as if he were about to drop it. It was already almost completely down to the rug she'd brought back from India.
She'd prefer to see him like that, a sleeping husband.
A sleeping husband could rouse the softness in her heart. On the weekends, when their child was home from boarding school, she'd stop him from making a racket early in the morning. "Keep your voice down. Your papa's sleeping." She felt her whole being steeped in warmth when she said that, as if she were carefully maintaining a precious balance. The family was a real family only in this equilibrium, the child being a child, the wife being considerate of her husband's needs, and the husband asleep in the morning light.
"Keep your voice down. Your papa's sleeping." The sense of these words expressed her every desire for her family. By speaking them, she could fulfill all her imaginings about life. A husband awake would shatter everything, however. Arguments, lasting until you grew tired and no longer felt it was worth arguing, would have to be replayed once the husband was awake again. He disparaged her and said she was a "Master of Lights". He said that living with her was like acting in a TV soap opera every day, that she was always dreaming – if that was the way things really were, then she could explain precisely why she preferred a husband who was sound asleep. It was because they were only in the same space and only understood each other at such times. It was only then that neither of them felt that they weren’t themselves.
Of course it wasn’t that way at first. He was ten years older than her, but in the beginning he’d play the guitar and sing for her, and occasionally spoil her. In the beginning, he worried about having a condo that was only 325 square feet and asked her: "What can we do?" Back then he was comforted by the "act like it’s a TV soap opera" attitude she gave out and accepted it gladly.
He quit his government job and their home went from a 325 square foot condo to a 3,250 square foot one. They each knew the significance of that – the cost to her was handing over her license to dream. But did he really wake up with that? She didn't see it that way. She thought he’d just started another dream, one that was no longer tied in to hers, or that he was driving without a license down a different fork in the road. The evidence of that was, he was having an affair.
He’d been frank with her, though, and confessed to her seriously that he’d fallen in love with someone else, a flight attendant. If dreams have different levels, like Hell, then she felt at the time that her first-level dream had fallen to the eighteenth level. She’s just given birth to their child, and while she was lactating, she’d heard the whoosh in her ears as her dream fell into the abyss.
Like a “deep dreamer”, she urged everything to stay as it was. The baby in swaddling clothes used all her energy back then, and she grasped at her husband almost completely by instinctual inertia. There was never anything that could be called forgiveness, and no crying or pleading. She couldn’t discriminate precisely among the things she’d encountered and was just stubbornly averse to letting anything go.
Later, for a few years, they believed in God together. She’d known what was motivating her, of course, and the critical reason for his belief was simple – he wanted to quit smoking and prayed to God to end his fierce addiction to cigarettes. And a miracle did happen. He lost his voice suddenly and couldn’t speak at all. Every puff of smoke felt like a knife at his throat, so, surprisingly, he actually did quit the cigarettes. He switched to cigars, which were not so damaging.
They’d been very devout at first. They gathered at home every week with their brothers and sisters-in-God and tearfully expressed their never-ending gratitude. In the end, though, they didn’t become true believers and continued in their shameful ways. What she sought, God never showed her; and him, he gradually put God aside after he quit cigarettes. Things went on like that, and then their child was eight years old. By that time, he was sleeping soundly on the sofa until after midnight. Only the accent light was left on at the house, providing a negligible light for someone returning at night.
Until this time, she’d never allowed herself to stay out after midnight. Her husband didn’t explicitly restrain her at all. He didn’t care, or at least acted like he didn’t care. It was she who didn’t allow it, wouldn’t allow herself to stay out. When she was with the boy, when they were most entangled, she’d break through the limits of her innermost feelings until ten, ten-thirty, eleven, even eleven-thirty, but would never go past the "zero hour". Really, it was something she couldn’t explain precisely to herself, but it was a benchmark she felt in her heart.
She came out of the bathroom then, and stood beside the bed. She realized how much she liked to watch a man sleeping soundly, whether a husband or a lover. The boy was packaged in white, and the outline of his body under the covers was so beautiful. There was something stimulating about it, and she thought it might be the power of feeling young. She could hear his shallow breathing and knew it was just for that kind of moment that her soul had crossed the border that night. To that end she’d been extremely tender all night, to make the boy exhausted. She’d wanted to achieve just such a scene: in the glimmer of the night light, while the boy was asleep and dreaming, it would all be over.
She’d been mulling over this night for a long time. Everything should come to an end.
It had been two full years all told since the first time they’d exchanged greetings on WeChat, when they’d each used the “shake” function to come across each other. That is to say, it was an anniversary. The boy had remembered, too, although he’d never understand the logic of a "deep dreamer" – bidding farewell on an anniversary. For her, life was a linking of one ritual after another, and this way doing things, terminating a hopeless love affair on an anniversary, was the kind of ritual that she needed. She was afraid that, otherwise, everything would eventually turn ugly.
They’d arranged to meet at 7:03, the time they’d each shaken their phones two years before. At that exact time two years before, she’d been lying on a recliner in a beauty salon when she shook her cell phone the way Sister Liu had shown her. Sister Liu was a beautician she knew quite well, who had taught her how to use the phone's WeChat functions while giving her facials. It was something new for her. With one shake the boy's message had appeared on her screen, and her "deep dreamer" inclinations had already begun to work their mischief. She couldn't believe that there wasn’t some inexplicably precise, cosmic mystery behind two strangers shaking their phones at the same time.
They added each other to their circle of friends. The boy was well-mannered, just the type she’d been brought up to approve of. That day as she laid on the recliner in the beauty salon, looking through the boy’s friends page, a kind of long-lost vitality welled up inside her. He liked to climb and had even made it to the top of Mount Everest; he liked folk songs and there was a photo of him holding a guitar on the page. These were all things she liked – a big boy open to the world. She’d never acknowledged her physical age and felt that she was essentially as full of life as the boy.
The next step was intensive communication, and every day they had more to say to each other than they could finish. "Intensive" and "inexhaustible" were her only inner feelings, truth be told. The two conversed politely, with mutual caution befitting strangers in the real world getting to know one another, but she only felt "thoroughgoing" and "lots to talk about". What grabbed her was, she no longer felt afraid of feeling alone when she stood under the accent light on the entryway at night. If she was afraid of being alone at night, when no one was home, she’d sometimes go stay at that familiar beauty salon.
Their child hadn't yet started school back then. She'd often send texts on WeChat while she lulled the youngster to sleep, and thus one day the boy found out she was already the mother of a six-year-old. He asked her, not without some resentment, "In that case, jeez, how can you chat with me every night?"
"Jeez" could be regarded as a sharp rebuke. She knew that, and accepted both condemnation and the feeling of rejection that grew sluggishly inside her. But she indulged herself in this mixture of "sharpness" and "sluggishness".
She felt sufficiently wronged that she could wallow in the feeling as it grew. She knew she'd been victimized for many years, so "jeez" and feeling wronged both seemed like a fierce protest.
In the midst of this protesting frame of mind, she finally found the charm of being alone. It had become normal for her husband to come home late at night, or perhaps not come home at all. Even when he was around, there was little in the way of effective communication. He never treated her as an equal and proclaimed that she'd always be a simple-minded child even if she lived to be eighty – he didn't treat her with the understanding that one would show a child, however. Previously she'd only felt the loneliness of solitude, but now she began to look deeper into it, to concentrate on what was happening and what had already happened. This was the only way to be truly and clearly alive, she felt, the only way to know life in intimate terms.
As always, the boy had arrived at the hotel first that day. She’d booked the room online using his name. That’s the way it was every time. She was over ten years older than him, so it seemed appropriate for her to arrange things. She knew, though, that she would in fact have preferred for him to do the arranging, to look on her as someone his age or even younger. Sometimes he’d call her "Little Sis" and she felt lucky. She’d be crying alone after they split, however, her tears lost in the wind.
This hotel was where they always got together. She was the one who’d picked the place the first time, and afterwards they’d gotten into a routine: She booked the room, he arrived first and went to the front desk to go through the formalities, and then he waited for her to get there. Over time the hotel had started to feel like home to them because the rooms’ layout and furnishings didn’t change, gradually giving them a sense of familiarity. In fact they even started calling the hotel "home". When he made a date with her, he’d send her a text saying, "I want to go home." When she booked the room she’d tell him, "Wait for me at home," and when she entered the room, the first thing she said to him was often, "I’m back."
She always walked to their dates if she had the time. Over these two years, she’d walked in the spring breeze and the autumn rain, through the summer dew and the winter haze. In many levels of significance, the process of leaving one "home" and going to that other "home" was more important to her than the moments she and the boy were together. While she walked, she’d remember the Andersen’s fairy tales she’d read as a child. There was one sentence in "The Little Mermaid" she never forgotten: “She felt as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives; but she bore it willingly....”
This kind of feeling had accumulated in her breast from the time she was a girl. She’d imagined it in her mind many times, but it had never become a reality. That’s why she had to walk. It seemed that walking in that way, skirting the edge of willful opportunity there and back, she could eventually enter the cruel but beautiful world of fairy tales.
Last night she’d checked the time before entering the room. She stood by herself in the corridor for a few minutes, her fingers unconsciously tracing over the wallpaper in the hallway, and rang the doorbell only when the exact time came. They hugged and kissed, and her fingers traced over the back of his neck the same way she’d just been tracing over the wall. He held her face in both hands, and both hands were very warm. He had their dinner already set out, some simple food from a lunch box, chicken wings, a vegetable salad and sushi, all easy things to pack in a box. This pleased her, the more so because he’d also brought some wine.
The boy had no idea she’d already made her decision. He just wanted a solemn commemoration of their second anniversary. He helped her take off her coat and hung it over his arm, then continued to kiss her with his arms around her waist. He’d told her that he liked her full lower lip, and he sucked it greedily whenever they kissed. This always had such an effect on her that she was unable to restrain her passion.
The boy liked ceremony. He’d worn a beard when they met, a quite stylish one, but one day he’d called her and said it was his birthday and he hoped she’d shave the beard for him. She went, and it was the first time in her life that she’d used a razor. The feel of the shaving foam, and the stubble after she’d cut the beard off, was all new to her. The boy also looked fresh to her without the beard, like a new person but still familiar. “So handsome!" she’d said.
"No. Another birthday, and I’m getting older," he said. She had to laugh when he said he was “older”. She’d done what the boy wanted, and at the same time she’d greatly satisfied the inner desire for ceremony that she’d felt her whole life.
They’d been at the boy's home that time. He lived alone, but the community belonged to his parents’ employer. The neighbors were all his parents' colleagues, so she felt inhibited about going there, afraid to be seen by them. As far as outer appearances were concerned, she didn’t think she looked much older than the boy, but subconsciously she didn’t have the strength to face the test of meticulous examination.
Last night the boy poured the wine and raised his glass to touch hers in a toast.
His fingers slid over her chest, touching her breasts through her sweater. He eventually stopped at the brass clasps on her belt, snapping them open and shut, shut and open and then shut again. Her thoughts were still on memories left from that time on the boy’s birthday. That day, as she'd gone down the stairs leaving his condo, she'd looked back and seen him watching her through the window. After walking some distance away, she could still feel his gaze tying her to him like a leash. It was summer, and in the swaying shadows of the trees, she felt as though her heart was being reined in painfully by that leash.
Their anniversary ceremony began with the crisp sound of their glasses touching.
The boy brought to mind their first time. Three days after they’d added each other as friends on WeChat, he’d made a request. He said that they should delete each other and then add each other’s numbers to their cell phones. The reason was that he didn’t want them to be displayed as "nearby people" on the WeChat friends page. She readily accepted because being displayed like that made her uncomfortable as well, sort of an indelible mark of frivolity or flippancy. She liked the boy's thinking because it was like her own, that "every day was like acting in a TV soap opera.'
The first time they kissed, the boy had abruptly and sorrowfully pushed her away. He said that he "would have to rethink things." This "rethinking" really touched her. In her eyes, it was evidence that she was being taken seriously. She cried while she was leaving after they parted that day. Later she found a coffee shop and sat there. She cried for hours, struggling with her emotions.
She often cried incessantly. An old practitioner of Chinese medicine had said, the first time he prescribed a treatment especially for her, "You need to cry less, young lady." It was obvious at a glance that crying hurt her physically. When she got home that day, her child noticed and told her, "Mom, your eyes are puffy from crying." Her husband, on the other hand, was as indifferent as ever. It seemed he was used to living with a woman who spent her days playacting in a TV soap opera.
She'd eaten very little of the boy's box dinner.
"Have some more," he'd said. He picked up a piece of sushi and fed it to her.
She snuggled up close to him.
"You don't have to diet," he said." On the contrary, you should gain some weight. You're too thin."
"You don't like me thin?"
"I do. I like you however you are."
"But you said I should be fatter."
"Uh." The boy was a little embarrassed. "Well, I'd prefer you a little fatter."
"You like fat?"
"Let's say, fully rounded." He leered at her.
The farewell she planned for that evening would've totally met her wishes if everything had kept going in that mood, but the boy quickly began talking about his job – the competition in the workplace and the strife among his colleagues. She didn't like the worldly airs that the boy inadvertently revealed when he talked about those things. As they spent more time together, it was revelations like that that gradually made her feel dejected.
"We'll see how things go," the boy said angrily. "See who laughs last." He was talking about colleagues he had problems with.
"Go take a shower," she told him softly.
She drank a glass of wine quietly by herself after he went into the bathroom. Over the years, she'd gotten into the habit of drinking a glass alone. She'd like to buy a whole case when she ran across a wine with good texture, but her husband often wouldn't let her. He said people wouldn't think highly of her taste in wine. That dismayed her as well, of course. She knew what her husband said made sense – there were people with more specialized knowledge about wine than her – but he didn't even know enough to appreciate the wines she found to her liking.
The glass she was drinking right then, it certainly wouldn't be the kind of wine her husband's experience would consider good. The boy obviously couldn't afford that kind of luxury. He didn't have much money and was in the upward climb stage of life. But at that moment, as it was flowing into her body, she felt it wasn't a liquid fermented from grapes, but the essence of all her life experiences welling up as one in her heart. This essence could make her feel that she wasn't wasting her life away. Even if the tapestry of her life was bitter and filled with grief, everything was in full measure and brimming over. It was like a grand wedding and a ceremonious funeral.
She put down the glass and went to close the curtains. The scene outside the window made her pause momentarily: the sun had not yet set but the moon had risen, and the two dim orbs were juxtaposed in the bleak twilight like mirror images. The world was as tranquil as a fairyland.
She’d put aside all her usual procedures when she and the boy embraced this time. This was something she’d never done before. She’d taken her medicine beforehand, and started a vegetarian diet a week in advance, and drunk tea steeped in rose petals. She’d controlled her body for the sake of this last uncontrolled night.
Confusion. He put his finger into her mouth and she started crying – sobbing and sucking. She almost had an impulse to bite it. Sweat fell from him like rain and the sweat dripped on her face. She felt that she’d become a well, or an artesian spring. Feelings of brightness and dark, warmth and cold, spread throughout her body. It was like the moon and the sun juxtaposed in the sky, like a fantasy.
Her phone rang at eleven o'clock. It was her husband. She wrapped herself in a towel and hid in the bathroom to take the call. She was too nervous when she closed the door, and the door’s track was so smooth, she used too much force and it bounced back, leaving a gap. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the boy sitting straight up in bed.
Her husband was apparently at a lively get-together. She could hear loud talking and laughter over the phone. "Where are you?” he asked in a loud voice. “Are you at home? I might have to drink some and won't be able to drive. If you’re not home yet, can you pick me up on your way?"
She looked at herself in the mirror and, without thinking about it, her fingers began to trace over her reflection. "Oh, I’m not home,” she said, controlling her tone of voice. The company still has something that needs to get done. Why don’t you call your driver instead?"
"Yeah, tell him something."
"OK. Don’t stay out too late."
"I didn't drive either. But how about...."
But her husband had already hung up.
"How about,” she murmured, “you tell me where you are, and I’ll take a taxi to pick you up."
But her husband had already hung up.
This made her think that having a husband out drinking late at night was indeed loneliness. The same kind of loneliness clamored in him. It was like an empty abyss, where every tiny sound could provoke a continuous roaring. That’s why he returned home exhausted and set the TV volume loud enough to fill the bottom of his heart. Filling it up. It was just a kind of fill-up.
She remembered one night when she’d come home late and seen her husband in their community’s garden. He didn't notice her. He had a cigar hanging from his mouth and was playing with some stray dogs. He was taking pictures with his cell phone. He knelt down, put his face close to the dogs, stuck out his tongue and stretched his arm out to take selfies. The flash was turned on, and every time he took a picture, his face was illuminated squeezing between several dogs’ faces. She looked into the distance and felt an empty pain in her heart. Later he began to march at parade step in a circle around the garden, leading the pack of dogs in a column behind him. She didn't know whether he’d send those selfies to his WeChat circle of friends. They were screening themselves off from one another.
The bathroom door was pulled open and in the mirror she saw the boy standing naked behind her. His body was quite beautifully shaped, which was another reason she was so fond of him. She couldn't keep from wrapping the towel around herself more tightly. She still felt good about her figure, but it was difficult for her to display herself naked in front of the boy. She’d given birth by C-section and had a dreadful scar on her belly.
The boy didn’t say anything when she smiled at him in the mirror. He drew closer and hugged her from behind. His head was stretched forward toward her shoulder, and he buried it there deeply and began to kiss and gently nibble on her neck. She couldn't see his face but thought he was probably crying and didn't want her to see it. They edged into the room hugging like this, and he felt scorching hot pressed against her buttocks. When she closed the bathroom door with the back of her hand, she controlled it and left it open to a degree she could accept.
Neither of them said anything as they got back into the bed. She welcomed him urgently, but at the same time began trying desperately to remember the last thing he’d said to her that night. She wanted to remember it because she knew it would be the last thing she heard from him. She wouldn't see him again, she wouldn’t. She wouldn't even take his phone calls and would delete his number. But she couldn't remember it, the last thing the boy had said. She couldn’t remember it for anything.
The boy was silently trying with all his might to layer their lives together. Her body stretched taut again and again, as if she were doing serious exercise for health improvement. Her blood flowed faster when she was about to climax and she was conscious of nothing but whiteness.
Afterwards he fell into a deep sleep. She cleaned herself up a bit and went back to lie next to him. She dozed for a time. As she was drifting off, she recalled something she’d once said to him: "Find yourself a suitable girl and get married." He’d looked at her in the same way he might look at an unsophisticated child. "You’re being silly. Do you know how materialistic girls are these days? I’ll never meet a girl like you again." Thinking about what would happen after this night, the boy's life would be in a huge "never meet again" deficiency. She thought she was completely guilty and felt that her own heart had been shattered. Had she given him a present? If so, what reason did she have to take it away?
She straightened up the room quietly before she left. She put the toothbrush the boy had used in front of the mirror in a cup and threw the one she’d used into the trash can; she took the slippers they’d used from under the bed and placed them together neatly; she packed everything left on the table from their boxed lunch in a plastic bag; she picked up the boy's underwear from where he’d thrown it on the carpet and stacked it on the bedside table. She cried. She didn't want the boy to wake up and see the room in a mess.
She stood at the foot of the bed for fully two minutes putting on her coat. The light coming from the bathroom cast her shadow on the bed, and she thought once again that her figure looked like a clumsy bear. The bear’s shadow covered the boy, who was still sound asleep. She stepped lightly out of the room, using almost all her strength to reduce the sound of the door closing.
"Click". It sounded like thunder to her. She didn’t leave immediately, but stood quietly outside the door for a moment. If the boy came chasing after her right then, she knew, everything would be reversed, even if it turned her whole life upside down.
She walked toward the elevator, her fingers tracing the wallpaper in the corridor.
A taxi waited outside the hotel – there was always one there – but she wanted to walk. The night sky was almost milky white and visibility was quite low, just like the scene in her mind when she climaxed. She was walking in the world’s climax and thinking about the picture of smog taken under 4,000 lumens with a macro lens. The pathogen-like granules rushed at her, but it made her feel hungry again. Her hand reached into her bag and fumbled around, but the cookie she'd suspected she had didn’t appear. At that moment, the strong desire for food was all that controlled her. She wanted to eat, and her desire to eat couldn’t be denied.
She knew there was a McDonald's at the next intersection that stayed open twenty-four hours. She’d come early for several of their dates and had had mung bean pie and a cola there.
She walked quickly and when she got to the intersection, the light for the crosswalk was red. She waited mechanically for the green light even though no cars were going by, watching the time indicator on the crossing light tick down second by second. Inside she felt the competition between the traffic rules and her desires. The empty street seemed like it had been looted by aliens from outer space, or like the world before Christ, with almost all the buildings engulfed by the fog. Maybe Christ really would come again, but you’d have to watch the number on the time indicator flash as it counted down tens of thousands of years. And you’d have to put your hunger on simmer.
The clerk at the counter greeted her when she walked into McDonald's. The middle of the night and this clerk wasn’t tired, as if he’d been waiting for her. Did he recognize her? She thought that was unlikely because there were so many customers during the day, she couldn’t possibly have made any impression on him. She ordered a burger and a hot drink.
She downed the burger like a wolf or a tiger, so fast that she almost choked several times. The beverage was too hot and burned her when she picked it up to drink it. The clerk watched her with some concern through all this. She got embarrassed by his attention and forced herself to smile at him.
She alternated between the feeling of being choked and burned and a feeling of being fulfilled. Yes, that was what she wanted. What she craved wasn’t food, she just wanted to be filled by an intense feeling, even if that feeling was a sense that she’d injured herself.
This craving wasn’t strange to her. That time when she was breastfeeding, she’d taken her husband back and gone with him to the flight attendant’s place to retrieve his things. But the man’s soul had still wandered around outside the home. He was restless, and his soul seemed to have encountered a traffic jam on the way home.
Once she got up at night to nurse the baby and asked him to pour her a glass of water. He went to do it, but what he brought her was a disposable diaper. She just looked at him, standing beside the bed, his arms hanging out of his pajamas, smiling innocently and absent-mindedly, unaware of his own absurdity.
"Water, I want a glass of water," she told him one word at a time.
He didn't understand and looked at her doubtfully.
"I want a glass of water," she said again.
He looked incredulously at the diaper.
Finally she exploded. "I want a glass of water!" she shouted sharply.
The baby in her arms burst into tears, and the very air seemed to shatter into countless pieces. When he brought the water, she poured it down frantically. The water was boiling hot but she barely felt the burning pain. It was like someone had given her a lash with a whip. She just said "ah" and threw down the cup, her throat severely burned and her breathing completely blocked. At that moment she thought she was suffocating. She was taken to the hospital that night and, for two full months she couldn't drink any liquid hotter than lukewarm. Every time she swallowed food, it was like swallowing her own self, but she actually became dependent on it. This kind of extreme pain was so filling, so fulfilling, it completed her, so that she could believe she was still substantial, that she could get through a shot put being thrown at her.
She still felt a choking sensation as she left the McDonald's, almost like a whimper. A taxi pulled up beside her. The driver stuck his head out the window and called to her, "Get in, young lady, the smog’s really heavy."
She smiled and shook her head.
The driver wasn’t giving up. "I’m telling you, it’s not safe to walk alone this late at night."
He was a middle-aged man with a round head and a round face. He looked like an alien to her.
She hesitated before opening the door. She really wasn’t worried about the smog, nor was she afraid of danger, but she was a woman who couldn’t refuse people’s enthusiasm. She’d always had kindly feelings toward the world, even though she knew how many wrongs she’d suffered. She'd say "Happy New Year" to strangers on the street during the season; and she volunteered to take care of children with intellectual disabilities at the welfare home.
Sometimes she'd think how good it would be if her husband fell ill and became paralyzed, so he wouldn't be able to go out and get tangled up in the world anymore. Then she could forget everything else and devote herself to taking care of him. She also had that thought about the boy. It was like, if that happened, she'd have a full and sufficient reason supporting her being with him, one that couldn't be assailed by any moral persuasion.
That was silly, of course. All men are aggressive and pushy. Even the boy had told her about his ambitions. More often than not, what at first seemed on the surface to be a competitive spirit became a sinister plot when spoken about. She didn't like it. Her husband said she'd never grow up, but she wasn't convinced. She just rejected the kind of "growing up" that they recognized.
She sat in the front passenger seat and began to flip through the friends circle her phone: Someone had already debunked the smog video, saying it was just dust and you could only see a true image of smog with an electron scanning microscope magnifying 100,000 or even 200,000 times. An "electron scanning microscope" – that was really good. More precise technical jargon.
"Just dust," she murmured, trying to look out the window. The thick smog had closed in outside. There was nothing but a dim haze for a dozen yards in front of the cab's headlights. The cab itself didn't seem to be really moving. It was like simulated driving in a large video game.
"Can I smoke?" the driver asked.
"Being outside for ten minutes today is equivalent to smoking a cigarette." The driver was justifying himself.
“No problem,” she said. “Go ahead and smoke.”
She started crying silently again.
After a moment, the driver lowered the window and threw the cigarette out. He'd only taken a few puffs.
"You okay, young lady?"
She had a kind of "picked up and packaged" feeling, a feeling that her eyes were like an "electron scanning microscope" seeing the world the way it really was. The world was in climax, whited out.
She fell asleep briefly before getting home, just when tears were bubbling up in her eyes. She got out of the cab and looked at the time – it was already half past two in the morning. She didn't rush anxiously to the door, but stood below the stairs for a while. There was an acrid taste in the air. She stood there about ten minutes before going inside, effectively equivalent to smoking a cigarette.
It was already a new day. She realized it was the weekend and she'd be going to the school to pick up her child that afternoon. She'd promised the child they'd go indoor rock climbing this weekend.
In the elevator on the way up, she deleted all the boy's contact information.
She heard the TV while she was still outside the door to their condo. She opened the door and noted that the accent light in the entryway was still on. The living room light wasn’t on, but the room was illuminated by the TV.
Her husband was lying on the sofa and hadn’t changed into his pajamas. He hadn’t changed his shoes, either, but only one shoe was still on his foot. She couldn’t see where the other one had gone. Obviously, he was drunk.
She walked over and looked at him silently. His position was odd, curled up with his right arm stuck between his legs at a difficult angle like it was broken, or like he was performing a jujitsu move. He was drooling. His snoring sounded terrible, every breath like a drowning man with water in his lungs. She wanted to wake him up, or at least wipe his mouth for him, but immediately gave up the idea. She thought letting him stay on the sofa like that for now might be the best thing for him. “Don't wake him up. Don't.”
A ballgame was on the TV, the England Premier Soccer League, Chelsea vs. Southampton. She stood there and watched for a while. She liked soccer, too, but she was always supporting only teams that her husband didn't like. The volume may have been turned up as high as it would go, but the strange thing was, she didn't feel it was too loud. Rather, she felt she was descending into unexpected tranquility in the midst of the high-decibel sound. She thought she’d never been so calm.
She sat down on the sofa with him and stared blankly at the TV, so that she and her sleepy husband were both shrouded in the now-bright, now-dim light from the TV screen. The heating in the room was quite adequate. She felt hot, but when she touched her face with her hand, it felt cold as ice. Her lower back ached, a kind of vacuous weariness.
She’d been sitting like that for quite some time when her vacant mood was interrupted by the doorbell. The face in the intercom was the community security guard. "Sorry, can you turn the TV down a little? An owner complained." She apologized softly and went back to the living room to turn off the TV. The sudden silence turned out to be like thunder for her soundly sleeping husband – she heard his loud groan before she’d even turned around. The living room was dark with only a negligible glimmer from the accent light in the entryway. For a moment, she felt as though she were back in the hotel room.
Her husband kept groaning. He’d pause momentarily, then groan even more loudly. He was clearly asking for something. His groans were hoarse and urgent, and accompanied by sobs and animal-like wails.
Suddenly she understood. It was like she’d received an announcement from God.
He was suffering and praying for, "Water... water... water..."
She went to pour him some water from the kettle in the kitchen. She hadn’t yet taken off her coat, and she felt like a clumsy bear crossing the 3,250-square-foot condo in the dark. Her eyes were once again like an "electron scanning microscope" in the darkness, seeing the real image of the world with precision. She saw man’s pain, man’s hunger and thirst and hopes. She saw the moon and the sun juxtaposed, the dust and the smog, the countless lights waiting for those who returned home late at night. Then she remembered the last thing the boy had said to her. He’d just turned over and, still panting, said, "Give me a glass of water."
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 240
长江文艺出版社，责任编辑：刘程程，周阳; Translated from 刊参考网 at
To get Chinese text by return email, send name of story to email@example.com