Chinese Stories in English
Nighttime Banquet (夜宴)
Liu Ting (刘汀)
There was a time when life presented Swallow Speaks Hu with its best side. It even let him see a hopeful and exciting future where he had his own wife and family and an income sufficient to live on – even if it wouldn’t be considered enviable. On weekends he could take his family to see a first-run movie (with the ticket price subsidized by his employer); on May Day and the National Day holidays, he could rent a car for a trip to the countryside, or spend a few days at a resort in Beidaihe near Beijing. And yes, he’d have four or five friends he could talk to, and with whom he could occasionally go out for lamb spine hotpot. They’d drink premium Erguotou before bidding each other a drunken adieu in the faint nighttime light.
At the time, of course, he wasn’t able to make his visions real. These movies, vacations and hotpot dinners just represented things his later life would include. He thought that his life would probably be like that, if it turned out as expected. Indeed, it could only be like that. He never was an ambitious sort, and even if you gave him an Aladdin's lamp, he wouldn’t be capable of wishing for anything more than his basic needs, a little bit of money and his own home.
That period turned out to be the only time in his life that he could construct such fantasies. It also turned out to be a cursed time: a time of opportunities that in the end couldn’t be grasped.
So, when exactly was it?
It was ten years previously. He’d taken the third round of the college entrance exam and had just called the public phone number to find out his score. He learned that the education department of a well-known and nationally renowned university in Beijing would be able to accept him. He received the acceptance letter by mail a few weeks later, and this small piece of paper finally confirmed the matter – he’d be freed completely from life in his hometown, like Immense Luo, the village’s first college student, had been freed ten years before. He’d be living a completely different life from then on.
It was that same autumn, a few days after he received the acceptance letter, that Immense Luo came back to the village with his wife and children to visit relatives. He arrived driving a Santana sedan. As soon as the car entered the village, Immense's father set off a ton of noisy firecrackers in their courtyard. Almost everyone along the road opened their front door so the entire family could stand there and watch his car pass slowly by.
Swallow was in the crowd, too, but he wasn’t watching the car’s wheels turn or its rear end belch smoke. He was looking at the back seat and the beautiful woman and equally beautiful little girl sitting there – Immense’s wife and daughter. Everyone in the village knew that Immense had done a few years of graduate work in geology and then got a job with a government organization. He was now the deputy mayor of a prefecture-level city, the most powerful official within miles.
Swallow had seen cars before and didn’t think there was anything unique about this one – it was the woman and her daughter that he found exceptional. He’d never seen anyone so white or so clean. The way he felt at the time, they were much more beautiful than the models on TV because they were less than two meters away when the car passed by him. Through the brown window glass, he saw the woman holding a small object and daubing something on her flame-like lips. It wasn’t until after he’d gone to college that he learned from a woman classmate that it was lip balm to prevent dry lips.
Immense's family slaughtered pigs and sheep. Cadres from the village, township and county came one after the other to see him, each bringing a pile of gifts. His father stowed the gifts in a shed in their courtyard which he secured with a large iron lock. The key hung clanging around his waist. Every day after dinner, he’d take a pack of filter cigarettes to the small village square and distribute smokes to the old people there. Sometimes his doll-like little granddaughter came with him, carrying a small stick with a piece of candy stuck on it.
One evening Immense’s father handed the first cigarette to Swallow. Swallow thought that was rather unusual because some of his older relatives were standing there, as well as some other men who were even older. “Did you get a look at my son Immense?” the old man asked as he gestured for Swallow to hurry up and take the cigarette. “Back in the day I used to go to town to dredge out people’s shit for fertilizer. I made up my mind I’d put him through college, and how’re things now?”
Swallow took the cigarette but didn't smoke it. Instead, he stuck it behind his ear like an adult would, planning to take it home for his father to smoke. His father had never smoked such a high-quality cigarette. “I’ve known for a long time that you’re OK, Swallow. You’ll be our village’s second college student after Immense. You’re going to have the opportunity to live the kind of life he does.”
Others echoed the thought. “Yes, yes,” they said, “the Hu family ancestors signaled their approval of you by sending up dark smoke from their tombs. Look at the name your father gave you – Swallow Speaks Hu – not like a farmer at all.” Immense's father spat out a thick gob of spit and mumbled, “One person picked both their names.” The crowd asked who it was, and the old man pointed to the west end of the village. Everyone was astonished. An eighty-nine-year-old Chinese medicine practitioner lived there. He was a former scholar and intellectual.
For a moment, Swallow was lost in a wonderful dream about his future. If anything about his imaginings could be considered more real than the rest, it was his conviction that he had the opportunity to marry a woman as beautiful as Immense's wife, and have a beautiful daughter, too. He’d drive home in a small car to see his parents, and the villagers would line up on both sides of the street to welcome him. And he’d have his father pass out high-end cigarettes to each of the villagers. To put it another way, the best future he could think of for himself was a repeat of the road that Immense Luo had already traveled.
When he handed the cigarette to his father that evening, he said, “Dad, I’ll have you smoking these cigarettes every day in the future.” His father wept loudly when he heard that. Swallow thought at the time that his father was moved by his promise, perhaps because he could finally see some hope after many years of bitter torment. Later, after his father died, he went back over that moment. His father had cried so loudly because he knew he didn’t have the time to wait for that fine day.
His father died during midterms in his first semester at college. He had an English test that day. His earphones broke during the listening comprehension part of the test and he couldn't hear anything. He raised his hand and called the teacher. The teacher took the earphones to try them out and they worked fine, but when Swallow took them back there was again no sound. They handed the earphones back and forth like that a few times before the teacher gave him another pair. Even then he could only hear static. By that time, the listening portion of the test was over and he had to fill in several answers randomly. Later, when the test papers were returned, he found that he’d scored higher in listening than he had in previous tests.
He wrote to his family to tell them that his midterm scores had gone up and he’d finally broken through to the top half of his class. There were seventy people in the class and he’d always placed in the bottom thirty-five, but this time he’d placed thirtieth. He also said he’d taken three tutoring jobs and was earning enough to cover his living expenses, so there was no need to send him money from home. He had a loan for his tuition, and he was quite proud that he could earn enough by himself to live on. Even though it was a part-time job in college, he earned more per month than his cousins did farming in the village.
When he came home for winter vacation, no one was home when he walked in the house. He called out for his father and mother, but the place was empty and he didn’t even get an echo in reply. Then a neighbor from the west side of the courtyard came in to return an axe and stopped in his tracks when he saw Swallow there. He asked the neighbor if he knew where his parents had gone. The neighbor hemmed and hawed for a long time, then dropped the axe and hurried away without saying anything.
Before long his mother came home with a basket of firewood on her back that she’d collected from an unplanted field. She burst into tears when she saw him.
“Where’s my dad?” He’d scrimped on food to save money from his tutoring fees to buy some good cigarettes for his father, the kind that Immense’s father had passed out. They’d cost him over two hundred yuan for a carton, enough for a month's living expenses. He took the cigarettes from his bag and said, “These are for my dad.”
“Your dad won’t be able to smoke them.”
“What is it?” Swallow asked, alarmed.
“Your dad ... isn’t here anymore.”
She told him that his father had left instructions before he died not to tell Swallow what was going on. He didn’t want to interrupt his studies and didn’t want him to waste the hundreds of yuan it would cost to come home. “In fact,” she continued, “your dad learned he was seriously ill while you were prepping for your freshman year but thought it would be useless to tell you. There was no point in worrying you. The doctors said it would cost tens of thousands of yuan to extend his life for a few years, but the family doesn’t have that much money, and even if we did, it wouldn’t be worth it. We asked and were told that a cure wasn’t certain even if we spent the money.” Now he understood why his father had cried that day.
It was getting late, but he insisted on going to the graveyard to visit his father. His mother wanted to go with him, but he said no. He didn't want her to see how hurt he was.
In fact he was overly distraught, at least a little. He walked for half an hour to get to the hillside where his father's grave was located. The sun had already set when he arrived, and everything was shrouded in darkness. Fortunately the moon was still bright that day, hanging in the night sky, trying its best to illuminate the earth with its borrowed light.
He wasn’t as sad as he’d thought he’d be as he knelt down in front of his father's grave. He opened the carton of cigarettes, then each pack, lighting every cigarette one by one and placing them in a circle around his father's grave. He left one out and squatted down to smoke it. He thought that would be all right. Having a smoke with his father was the only thing he could do. Paying his respects this time made him more resolute. “I’m determined to succeed,” he thought. I’ll become an Immense Luo. No, I’ll do even better than he has.”
That’s how he acquired his smoking habit.
Time seemed to speed up after that and it was soon time to graduate. He was able to stay in Beijing only through desperate effort, becoming a teacher in a middle school in Yanqing District northwest of the city. Although they were educated, he and his classmates had no specialized field of study, so not many of them became teachers. English, history or chemistry majors can teach those courses in middle school, but what is an education major going to teach? They can only go into school administration, or government positions working on educational affairs or logistics.
Truth is, he wasn’t very happy about it, because he’d wanted to go to graduate school. If Immense hadn’t done graduate work, he’d never have been assigned to the Land Resources Bureau and wouldn’t have become a mayor later on. But Swallow’s best performance in four years of college was the time he’d made thirtieth place, and his English wasn’t good, so there was no hope of getting into grad school.
And next semester he’d have to start paying the bank more than two hundred yuan a month on his ten-thousand-yuan undergraduate tuition loan. He seemed to have deviated from the path Immense had taken, he felt, or perhaps he’d never set foot on that path at all. But he still harbored a hope that, like the race cars he occasionally saw on television, he’d pick up speed going around a corner and eventually overtake the other cars to win the championship. Opportunities on this path had not been entirely sealed off.
Whenever he was in his office handling documents or forms late into the night, he’d go back over his life. He was increasingly certain that the best time in his life was after he’d received the acceptance letter and was waiting to go to college. He’d remain mired in his memories for a few minutes, then rub his eyes, make a glass of boiling water and light a cigarette before continuing to shuffle the documents and forms.
He didn’t make that much money, but after making his loan payment and covering the living expenses for him and his mother, he was still able to save five hundred yuan a month. Luckily the school provided a dormitory for singles, otherwise that five hundred would have gone to pay rent. He seemed to be spending more and more on cigarettes, though. He didn’t smoke more than a few cigarettes a day to start, but now he was up to at least a pack a day, and he only smoked the brand of cigarettes that he’d bought for his father. After he started working, he learned that it wasn’t a particularly good brand, not even middling, but they weren’t cheap given his income. In his mind, he was smoking those cigarettes for his father. It was way of keeping the promise he’d made.
Another thing that bothered him was his colleague, Young Shrub, a girl who’d started work in the office the same year he had. He liked her a little because she looked a bit like Immense Luo's wife as he remembered her. Or maybe she really didn’t look much like her. It was just that she’d come on campus in her father’s car one morning and he happened to see her on his way to work. She’d been sitting in the back seat and happened to be putting balm on her lips. This action instantly carried him back to that time in his memory. He’d considered it a sign, reminding him not to forget the future life he’d imagined for himself back then.
He felt that Young Shrub liked him fairly well, too. After seeing her that time, he’d asked her what brand of lip balm she used and if it worked well. She’d reacted positively and took out her lip balm to let him try it. He didn’t quite know what to do and asked timidly how a man could use that stuff. She laughed at him and said that men all use it nowadays, and that they even used facial masks, too. Then she unscrewed the lip balm and smeared some on his lips. He smelled the cloyingly sweet aroma. Right away he remembered that this lip balm had been applied to Young Shrub's lips not long ago, and his heartbeat accelerated. He felt as if he’d kissed Young Shrub via the lip balm and his face turned completely red.
Also, when they went to eat together in the cafeteria, Young Shrub would use her chopsticks to give him the meat from her plate; and if she had any problems, she’d come to him first to ask for help. He wasn't sure she liked him, but was at least assured that she didn't detest him.
Gradually he found out the basic facts of her life. She was a native of Yanqing District. After graduating from a municipal college, she’d got her job at the middle school through her father’s connections. He was a deputy director of a bureau in Yanqing and, while he didn't have much real power, he was an official after all and did know some people. Her mother was also a civil servant but was on long-term medical leave and rarely went to work. All things considered it was a pretty good family.
He took a few months to think about it before deciding to give it a try and tell Young Shrub that he wanted the two of them to take their relationship to the next level, to become boyfriend and girlfriend. His skills in expressing himself in such matters were quite ordinary but not deficient, either. She’d invited her colleagues out for a hotpot dinner to celebrate her birthday, and he was taking her home. The streetlights along the way were dim and the evening breeze brushed by them lightly, so everything was as warm and soft as a lover’s whisper.
“I’d like to escort you home every day,” he told her when they were downstairs in her building.
“What?” She’d had a bit to drink and didn't quite understand what he meant.
He’d also drunk a bit. “I mean, I like you,” he finally said directly, “and I want to take you home every day.”
She wasn’t surprised. She even smiled and said, “Let’s do this,” and went upstairs.”
She just said those three words, “Let’s do this.” What exactly did she mean? Had she agreed to be his girlfriend or not?
She acted the same as always when they met in the office the next day, talking and laughing as if his confession that he liked her had never happened. He started to doubt it himself a little. Maybe it was all a drunken dream or just his imagination. When he looked at his diary for that day, the whole thing was written there in black and white – but followed by three big question marks.
Little Shrub didn’t give him any clear answer, nor did she indicate that anything was different. He didn’t know what to do. His unsettled state of mind affected the efficiency and quality of his work. He provided the school’s principal with a statistical form reporting the seniors’ grades, but the report included a huge error and the principal read him the riot act in the office in front of the entire staff.
He was extremely hurt, but he didn't resent the principal. He was mad at himself because it was only what he deserved. On the other hand, he did complain a little bit about Young Shrub, believing it was the ambiguity of her attitude that had messed him up. All he could do about it was avoid her as much as possible. He didn't know if she was slow-witted or what, but it was a week before she reacted to his giving her the silent treatment by making a point of sitting next to him at lunch.
“Are you deliberately hiding from me?” she asked. He didn't speak, just buried his head to work on his plate of three-fresh scrambled eggs.
“Ah, that can’t be it. Were you serious that day?” she asked.
He couldn't eat any more. He took his plate to the trash can, dumped his entire meal and walked out of the cafeteria.
Young Shrub chased after him. “Hey, Swallow Speaks,” she said loudly. “I thought you were joking. My friends joke like that all the time.”
He sneered to himself, but turned around and said, “Yeah, sure. I was just kidding.” But he turned his back to her and left.
He spent half the night drinking in a tavern and eating three plates of shelled peanuts. He thought things over and even considered resigning. He’d checked his passbook a few days before and he had 10,000 yuan on deposit, which wasn’t much, but would guarantee that he wouldn’t starve to death for several months. He wanted a change, wanted to leave that place, but in the end he didn't have the courage. He sent Young Shrub a text while he was on the way home drunk. “Sorry. I took a night of fun as the real thing, and you took the real thing as a night of fun.” She returned one word, “Yeah.”
He got up late with a headache the next day and went to the office without breakfast. Nothing was as serious as he’d thought. He had a sudden realization that, no matter what the problem was, it would pass if you kept plugging away the next day at the same pace as before. His relationship with Young Shrub started to get back to normal, as if nothing had happened. The only thing was that he began watching porn movies in the dorm and masturbating over and over. Sometimes he imagined that the naked, moaning women on the computer screen had turned into Young Shrub or other women he knew, even Immense Luo's wife. The picture of her in his mind had long ago grown fuzzy, though. The only clear memory was her hand holding lip balm to her rosy red lips, so in his obscene imagination, the women were giving him oral sex and his penis was a huge tube of lip balm, continually applying creamy liquid to their lips.
Sometimes his penis turned into a lit cigarette which they held in their lips. In this perverted pleasure, he felt a burning pain in his loins, and only this pain could call him back from madness. He printed out the photos of Young Shrub and other women stored in his mobile phone and bound them into a booklet. He could select one when he fantasized, and whenever he did, he felt a bit like an emperor in ancient times choosing a concubine upon whom he would bestow his special favor.
He maintained a strong sense of morality at first. The day after a fantasy session, when he saw the female colleague about whom he’d fantasized, he’d blush and feel that she knew his secret. He soon solved that problem, though. “They’re just phantoms,” he realized, “as am I, existing in an imaginary realm, and there’s no law stipulating that I can’t make use of my imagination.” He’d also feel a bit depressed that the only thing he could control was his own fantasies.
All this was shattered by mishap.
Young Shrub missed work three days that autumn. Swallow texted her but she didn't reply, and no one answered her phone. He thought she might’ve quit without telling anyone.
He was in the copy room copying some study materials for distribution to the teachers when the police came in and took him away. At the police station, they asked him about his comings and goings over the past few days. Finally he figured out that Young Shrub hadn't been to work because she’d been raped on her way home three nights previously. The police had searched his dorm room and found the pornographic discs and the photo album he’d made, confirming him as the prime suspect. After he was taken away, rumors went around the school that he was a pervert who raped his colleagues. The police let him go right away, though, because the DNA from the sperm sample they got from Young Shrub's underwear didn't match his.
He went back to the office and waited, but Young Shrub never returned. Six months later, he was fired on the ground that his negativity and slow work had caused incidents at the school. On one important exam, he’d forgotten test booklets that he should’ve brought to school at home. He packed his things and left Yanqing for the city without explaining himself to anyone.
Three years later.
Swallow was walking on the road outside the West Gate of the People's Congress, carrying a huge pack on his back. The backpack contained a pile of postgraduate research materials, but they weren’t his. He was on his way to see a student.
He was now a staff member at one of the major postgraduate training institutions in Zhongguancun. He’d become a stand-out drummer for the company by putting up flyers at several major schools, posting ads in the forums of various colleges, distributing leaflets at the entrances of school cafeterias and advertising in QQ groups. In the last half year alone, over five hundred people registered for postgraduate courses through him. His commissions were considerable, of course.
He’d rented a room in an older community in Shuangyushu because it was convenient to work. It was a small place meant for a couple, less than eight square meters, and the rent was 1,200 yuan per month excluding utilities. The landlord occupied the master bedroom with his wife and child, while Swallow had the smaller bedroom. When he signed the contract, the landlord told him it’d be better if he didn’t cook for himself. If he wanted to cook, he’d have to pay twenty or more yuan a month for gas, and he could only use the kitchen after the family finished their meal. He said, “There’s just me and I don't cook,” mainly because he was in a hurry to find a place to live.
Actually his agent had found him a better a room, but he ended up choosing this one because he’d had a glance of the owner's daughter through the crack of the door. She was little girl, not yet ten, about the same age as Immense Luo's daughter when he’d seen her back then. He’d decided to rent the room in that split second.
Both sides were quiet on his first day in the place. If someone wanted to go to the toilet, they walked on tiptoe as if they were afraid to disturb the others. Just outside his tiny window under the building’s eaves was the crown of a locust tree. With spring ending and summer starting, it was about to bloom and gave off a seductive fragrance. Occasionally, he could catch a glimpse of a star or part of the moon through the shadowy branches. The future he’d imagined for himself once again floated through his mind and he couldn't help sitting up and lighting a cigarette. He pushed the window open a little, letting the breeze blow in, and casually tapped the ashes out the window.
The sedan, the wife, the daughter, the sound of firecrackers echoing throughout the village.... These things didn’t seem to be what fascinated him anymore. Rather, he was fascinated by how he’d felt back then, the feeling that everything was full of hope, that everything was worth fighting for. At that moment he thought of Young Shrub. He felt guilty to some extent, a feeling that he seemed to be a shadow of the person who raped her.
He started to be filled with a strange fighting spirit. Except for the six hours that he slept every day, he was working all the time. The number of courses he pushed had skyrocketed, and after half a year he was promoted to project manager specializing in the company's admissions work for universities in Tianjin. He began to travel back and forth between Tianjin and Beijing frequently, three or four trips a week. He occasionally felt dizzy or nauseated and knew he was working too hard, but when he saw the amount in his bank account continually growing, he didn't want to stop. His goals had never been so clear – he wanted to make money, enough money, but he never thought about how much money was enough. He just liked to watch his deposit account grow by leaps and bounds.
He never watched porn videos anymore, and never masturbated. Every time he was about to start, Young Shrub’s face would float up before his eyes. “Was it you, Swallow?” she’d ask, “Was it you who hurt me that night?” and he’d lose interest. But his cigarette smoking got more frequent, and the price of cigarettes got ever higher. The increased smoking made his throat sore but he didn’t quit.
Although he spent every night in his rented room, he rarely saw the landlord's family. He returned late and ate a meal at Chengdu Snacks or Shaxian Delicacies before going upstairs. They all seemed to be asleep when he went upstairs. The TV in the living room was rarely turned on. The most he heard from this family was the sound of them pouring water or going to the toilet. The rare occasions when he came face to face with their little girl, she was wearing braces. It turned out that she had buck teeth which could be seen most clearly when she opened her mouth to speak and her front teeth and pink gums were exposed. She looked a bit like a horse, he thought, not very kindly. “Hello, there,” he’d say to her. This would surprise her a bit. She’d whisper hello and flee back to their room at once.
“When I’m not home,” he thought, “maybe they’re not so quiet. They could be just like other families, watching TV, chatting, playing games and having fun.” Once he came home a bit early and as soon as he took out his key to inserted it into the lock, the sounds in the room quieted immediately. This confirmed his guess.
He never expected that this family would save him.
Once when he came out of his room to go to the bathroom, he got dizzy and fell in the hallway. They called 120, the emergency number, and sent him off to the hospital. A doctor gave him an IV and the next day, after performing a bunch of tests, told him he seemed to have a slight hormonal problem and high blood sugar. He didn't take it seriously and bought a lot of fruit the next day to thank the family. The homeowner opened their bedroom door a crack to take the fruit and handed him a receipt for 120 yuan for hospital fees and medicines. He took out his wallet right away but the homeowner waved his hand and said, “Don't worry, pay it with next month’s rent.”
Their relationship began to warm up a little from then on. One day they left half a bowl of fried rice in the kitchen and he knew they’d left it for him. He lit a cigarette, ate the rice and returned to the kitchen to wash the bowl. When he came home the next day, he put half a watermelon in the refrigerator. In their comings and goings over the next few days, the atmosphere began to get casual, especially with the little girl. She occasionally ran into his room to ask a question. Her parents couldn't help her at all with her math homework.
He got dizzy and fell one other time. It wasn’t serious, but he did have to go to the hospital to get checked out. The homeowner suggested that he go to a doctor of Chinese medicine, so he took the subway to Xiyuan Hospital. The doctor prescribed some traditional herbal medicine and told him to take it for a month to see how it worked. He was given a large bag of packets containing herbs which had been boiled into a soup, and he couldn't help drinking a packet while walking along the road. He finished the stuff after stifling the urge to vomit, but he couldn’t find any water to rinse with, so he walked home with a mouth tasting like the dregs of herbal medicine.
The taste started out bitter and astringent, seeming to have the same flavor as the roots of many grasses. However, with continual secretion and dilution by saliva, some mysterious reaction seemed to take place and the stuff began to taste sweet. Yeah, it was a bit like the sweet grass roots he’d eaten as a child. Sweet grass root, another kind of Chinese medicine, grew in perfusion behind his village. The rhizomes of these things seemed to send roots straight down deep into the ground, so they were hard to pull out. Beside the fields, though, gullies dug out by torrents rushing down from the mountains cut through the loess, and many sweet grass roots were exposed on the walls of the gullies. All one had to do was give them a swift yank to get a meter of sweetness.
That kind of root was said to reduce fever. They carried a sweet, medicinal taste, so he and his little friends often chewed on them. Sugar was too scarce, and the only things worthy of being called sweet came from the mountainous wilds: sweet grass roots, corn stalks in late autumn, a kind of sour knotweed and various wild fruits. There seemed to be no pure sweetness in the natural world around there. All the sweetness was fused with bitterness, astringency or sourness.
“This is just a big joke.” But he took out his test results again and saw that his blood glucose level when fasting was 12.9, more than twice the normal level.
“No doubt about it,” the doctor at the hospital had told him, “Diabetes. No need for further testing.”
“But I'm only 25 years old.”
“Yes, you’re not supposed to get it when you’re still young. Does diabetes run in your family?”
He could only shake his head. In fact, they didn’t have a history of any diseases being passed down. But it wasn’t really correct to say it that way. It wasn’t that there was no history. It was just that, to his knowledge, the people in his family didn’t know any names for their illnesses and pains, except for high blood pressure and colds. Diseases were just feelings specified by life: backache, headache, leg pain, stomach pain, fatigue, nausea, fuzzy eyes....
He thought back. His daily diet really didn’t seem to have too much added sugar, although now that he had a good salary, he could buy it whenever he wanted. The doctor told him that diabetic patients will show symptoms of hypoglycemia a little after ten in the morning. He remembered that the two times he fainted were indeed around ten a.m.
He got another check-up after taking the medicine religiously for a month. His blood sugar level was still high, so he continued the medicine for another month. He still tested high, but his “three energies” seemed to have recovered and he hadn’t fainted again. After a while he got busy at work and forgot about taking the medicine.
Around that time, government policy adjustments put an end to the mad growth in Beijing's housing prices. Prices even fell in some areas. He’d been paying taxes for five years and was thus qualified to buy a house, so he took stock of the money he had on hand. He had about 400,000 yuan and figured to get a 50,000 yuan bonus at the end of the year. As fast as a prairie fire, he found an agent and bought a studio condo three kilometers past the Tiantongyuan Station on the Number 13A subway line. He took out a 50,000 yuan loan with monthly payments somewhat more than 3,000 yuan.
He didn’t feel any false sense of excitement on the day the purchase closed, because he’d joined a QQ group for the community the previous evening. The chat group members were all homeowners and they were all complaining about the community’s property managers. A lot of them regretted buying a place there. He felt he’d been a little impulsive and should have looked around before making a decision. But the day was at hand and there was no room for remorse, so he thought, “I bought it and that’s it. Anyway, I’m going to keep renting the place in Shuangyushu, and it’s a sure thing I can rent out the house in Tiantongyuan. I’ll turn it over to an agent and won’t have to worry about it too much.”
But something else happened that did worry him. His mother had a heart attack back home and almost died. He had no choice but to bring her to Beijing, so the rented room where he lived was not enough anymore. He’d have to rent a bigger place where he’d be able to cook.
He knocked on the homeowner’s door one evening. When it opened, he saw the three of them using a desk as a table to eat dinner – a plate of broccoli, some ribs and three bowls of rice. “Have some dinner?”
“Excuse me, no thanks. I have a problem.”
The landowner seemed ill at ease. “Have you eaten?” he asked.
He hadn't eaten yet, but he hastened to say he had.
The landlord asked him what the problem was, and he told him about his mother. “I might have to move out ahead of schedule. That’ll violate the contract a little. I wanted to discuss whether you could reduce the liquidated damages.”
The landlord was taken aback. “You’re leaving?”
He nodded his head. “My mother’s coming. We can't live here.”
“Wait, we can discuss it later,” the landlord said and closed the door.
He went back to his room and smoked a cigarette leaning against the window sill, knocking the ashes outside. It would be November in a couple of weeks, autumn, but the temperature was still quite warm. Having the window open fortunately let out some air. If the landlord agreed, he was prepared to pay half a month's rent as liquidated damages and move out within a week. They might be able to find another tenant sooner than that. If the landlord insisted on nothing less than his full one-month deposit, he’d have to accept it.
Half an hour later, the landlord came to his door. “Pease come out here, Mr. Hu.”
He opened his door and was surprised to find all three family members in the living room. The landlord pointed to the sofa and asked him to sit. He sat on the small sofa with some trepidation, and they each sat on small stools.
We’ve talked it over and the full deposit will be returned to you. You won’t have to pay any liquidated damages.” The landlord glanced at his wife and daughter as he said that.
“Huh?” He hadn’t expected that at all. “That’s not right. I’m breaking the contract and I should have to pay something.”
“No need,” the landlord said. “Our family’s seen some tough times, otherwise we wouldn’t be renting out a room in such a small flat. You’re the best tenant we’ve had in five years, though, and have never given us any trouble, so we don’t want any damages.”
“It’s like, but.... I still want to....”
“Mr. Hu, it’s really not necessary,” the wife said. He’d hardly ever heard her speak.
“Well, OK, thank you. I'm really sorry. I’d definitely continue living here if my situation allowed it.”
The landlord got out two pieces of paper and wrote down a simple agreement to terminate the rental. They signed them, each person took one copy, and the deal was done.
That was his last night in the place. He was ready to move the next day.
He wanted to take his mother out for dinner the night she arrived, but she said she’d spent the night on a bus and was tired, so they should eat at home. He thought that was okay, too. He’d just go to the supermarket to buy a bass and some greens. He’d steam the bass, stir-fry the greens, and make egg-drop soup with tomato as well. That’d be enough for two people. He knew his mother had eaten simply all her life and, as for meat, she preferred fish. The fish had to be bought live. Bass is delicious but much more expensive than grass carp, common carp or whitefish, but this would be his mother’s first meal in Beijing, so it ought to be better than usual.
He’d checked things out the day after he moved in and learned that the market across the street was the only one of the several nearby that had live fish for sale. He told his mother to rest for a while and went off to the market with a shopping bag.
The usual fishmongers were pulling fish from the aquarium tanks as he passed by. They’d jerk a fish from the tank and slam it to the floor to kill it, then dredge another one out and throw it down to its death. One fish suddenly flew out of the tank and "plopped" onto the floor. A fishmonger looked at it but didn’t stop what he was doing to catch it. He just continued to deal with the fish in the tanks, dredging them out, throwing them down.
The one fish kept flapping its tail on the floor, as if to escape its certain death. Its body moved with every flap of its tail, but the next flap it would send it back to the place it had just been. He smiled and thought of Sisyphus, whom he’d learned about from a philosophy professor in college. He was the guy who pushed a big rock up a mountain all day, but it rolled back down the mountain by itself. The unfortunate fellow would push it up again and the cycle would start all over, continuing endlessly. He’d felt that philosophy was boring at the time, but at that moment he suddenly understood that it was indeed useful, at least for a fish.
He asked a fishmonger to leave a live fish for him, but the man said they wouldn’t sell any live ones. If he wanted a fish, it would have to be a dead one.
“How should I know,” the man said with a shrug of his shoulders. “All I know is that the manager gave us a strict order. The live fish have to be killed and then frozen. He won’t let us sell even one.”
He ended up having to buy an even more expensive sea bass to take home, a dead one.
He hadn’t cooked for a long time. He’d let the landlord have complete use of the kitchen when he lived in Shuangyushu. When he brought the cleaned fish home, his mother said she’d cook it. He said he’d do it, but she said she had nothing to do and was still able to prepare a meal. There was nothing for it, he had to leave the small kitchen to her.
Later he scanned his circle of friends and saw the news that almost none of the supermarkets in Beijing had live fish to sell that day. Some people said it was because a certain kind of toxic chemical had been used to preserve fresh fish in transit; others said it was because the Food Inspection Department was going to conduct an inspection of aquatic products. The supermarkets weren’t confident about the fish they got in, so they removed them all from the shelves.
While they were eating, he mentioned what had happened at the market. His mother said that all the fish they ate where she lived were dead, so what was the worry. He told her they were eating sea bass. She paused and sighed. “I know,” she said, “I saw the label just now. Fifty yuan plus for one fish is quite expensive.”
“Don’t worry, mom. We can afford it.”
Then his mother asked him how much he paid for rent and how much the monthly payment on his loan was. She sighed after each question.
He took out five hundred-yuan bills while his mother was clearing the table. "Take this for living expenses, mom. I’ll come home to eat every day while you’re here."
“No need,” she said. “I have a little money with me.”
He stuffed the money into her hand. "How much money can you have? Hold on to it. And I'll take you to the hospital next week to check your heart."
She waved him off right away. “No need to go to the hospital. I got a check-up back home. It’s congenital heart disease, can’t be cured. Surgery’s really expensive and won’t necessarily do any good.
He didn't insist.
She said she’d just remembered something else....
He knew what it was. It was about him getting married. These days all parents worry about their kids getting married. They worry if the kids aren’t seeing anyone, and if they are seeing someone, they worry about why they haven’t married yet. If the kids are married but don’t have any children of their own, they worry, or if they do have children, they worry whether their family life has been disrupted.
He could never have imagined that this would turn out to be his last conversation with his mother. He knocked on her door the next day but she didn’t respond. He thought she might still be asleep, so he went out and bought youtiao and soy milk by himself. She still hadn’t made a sound when he finished eating, so he pushed open the door and went in. He saw her curled up in bed, not breathing. Later a doctor examined her and said she’d had a heart attack during the night and died within twenty minutes. She hadn't even cried out during those twenty painful minutes. She thought it would be the same as all other waist and leg pains she’d felt before and that she’d be all right if she just endured it for a while.
He didn’t know quite what to do. It was the hospital staff who told him to look for someone who specialized in funeral services and have them take care of it. At the funeral service, the person from the funeral company asked if he was the only one coming. He nodded and sent his mother off by himself.
Later he asked his employer for a few days off, and took his mother's ashes back to his hometown to be buried with his father.
It was almost nine o'clock in the evening when he walked into the restaurant and saw that the person he was meeting had already arrived. She was wearing a pink sweater and her hair looked a bit like a wig. She was sitting at table thirteen and it was already covered with dishes. He sat down and picked up the order list that the waiter had left on the side of the table. He took a look and saw it was more than two hundred yuan, a little expensive.
Pink Sweater said, rather apologetically, “Sorry, I ordered while I was waiting for you. The waiter would’ve come over and harped at me if I hadn’t.”
“No problem, it's fine,” he said.
“There was a lot of traffic, I guess.”
“Yeah. Sorry I'm late.”
“Hey, being late is quite normal in Beijing. Let’s talk while we eat. We arranged this in advance so there’s no need to wait for the other to go first or to be overly polite. The order of business will be to help ourselves, OK?”
“That’s fine. I totally agree. Eating isn’t our main purpose, anyway.
“You didn’t wear a face mask when you came?”
“I didn’t. I’m not used to wearing one. Too much of a pain.”
“You have to wear one. The pollution index is off the charts today. It’s better to wear one than not.”
“Heck with it. I think that if we Chinese want to survive, we’ll have to rely on self-improvement. Everything else is useless.”
“Ha, ha, you sure do have your ideas.”
He was quite satisfied with the meeting up to that point. The other party looked sincere and relaxed. “This is good,” he thought. “Neither of us has to serve the other. We each do our own thing.”
Pink Sweater picked up a piece of sweet and sour pork ribs with her chopsticks, put it in her mouth and chewed, "The man in my family, he’s so quiet you could kick him three times and never even hear a fart from him. If you kicked him one more time, he’d just keel over. That doesn’t cut it for me. He treats me OK, though. Doesn’t forget to buy me a little something for Valentine's Day or Christmas or our wedding anniversary. Nothing expensive, but it’s a comfort he remembers.
“Yeah, it’s great if he treats you right.”
Pink Sweater continued to eat the sweet and sour ribs. He was a little surprised to find that she seemed to like sweet and sour so much. In addition to the sweet and sour ribs, they had pork aged with pineapple, kung pao chicken, lotus root filled with sweet rice and meat balls marinated in wine. The only non-sweet dish on the table was peanuts.
She stopped abruptly and asked, "You don't you like what I ordered, do you?" You can order some more things you like. Money’s no problem. Oh, right, order some beer, too. Don’t you men always want a drink with your dinner?”
He really couldn't eat any of these dishes because he couldn’t lower his blood sugar no matter what. He had to control eating sweets. He asked the waiter for a menu and ordered only a steamed sea bass and beer. He lingered over the menu for a long time but didn't order anything else. He didn't feel the need to drink, and eating was secondary. He’d come there just to talk to her.
She was telling him about her childhood when the bass came. “In our hometown,” she said, “every time someone gets married, they have to set up a nighttime banquet. Back then that’s what I liked the most. We kids got to stay up late and could eat all kinds of delicious food. Oh, I also liked watching the adults sitting around the table, the men playing the finger-guessing game and drinking. I’ve never had such a feast since I moved away.”
“Where’s your hometown,” he asked.
“In the south. Where else?”
He thought, “She might be reluctant to tell me too much specific information. What she said about her husband just now might not be accurate, either. It doesn't matter, we didn't come here to investigate each other.”
Next he told her in some detail about seeing Immense Luo's wife and daughter, as well as the incident with Young Shrub. She joked with him at first and said he was too naïve, but she stopped laughing when she heard that Young Shrub was raped. She slapped the table angrily. “Castration. That kind of bad guy should be castrated, and not by a doctor. Just go to the vet in my hometown who fixes pigs.”
Suddenly realizing that her anger was a bit over the top, she pointed at the bass and said, "Let’s turn it over. The other side hasn’t been eaten yet."
The two of them together turned the fish over with their chopsticks.
They continued to talk about a lot of things. When the bill came, it turned out to be exactly two hundred and fifty yuan. They both laughed at that and felt that there was no better way to wind things up. Each payed half and they left the restaurant.
He lay in bed after he got home and deleted the Let’s Have Dinner app from his mobile phone.
He didn't know Pink Sweater at all and had made the date with her through this software. Someone in one of his groups had recommended it one day. They said you could make a date with a “dinner friend” right after you registered, and the system would randomly choose a restaurant and make the reservation. The two strangers would share a meal and conversation, Dutch treat. After the meal, the system would automatically log off each person’s ID – that is, they’d have no more contact with each other unless they’d exchanged contact information.
He’d actually downloaded the software and registered a long time ago, but he got cold feet and cancelled at the last minute the first two times the system had arranged a date and place for him. Each state-issued ID was limited to three dates, so the third time, he’d hurried off to the restaurant so as not to waste the opportunity.
He was living in his own home in Tiantongyuan now. It was a small place but still looked empty. He hadn't bought a TV or a refrigerator. He even had only one set of tableware in the kitchen, and one pot which he occasionally used to cook instant noodles late at night. He was no longer in postgraduate training – now he was a course manager at a private school in the Tiantongyuan area. The school was very close to his home, a five-minute walk. He often lost his way among the myriad look-alike buildings in the area, though, and walked in circles, unable to find the gate to his own community. On several occasions, he’d called up a map on his mobile phone and followed the directions, but still didn’t get home.
Later, he spent all four weekends in one month walking around all the communities in the area. He drew himself a simple map and never got lost again.
He fell asleep and had a strange dream right after he got home from the date with Pink Sweater. He dreamed he was like the fish that’d escaped from the tank at the supermarket. Of course he couldn’t run away, but he had to escape. He flapped his tail on the concrete floor for all he was worth. The sound he heard was like a sorrowful, self-blaming person slapping himself with all his might, whap, whap, whap....
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 268
长江文艺出版社，责任编辑：刘程程，周阳；Translated from中国作家网 at
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