Chinese Stories in English
One Summer at the Shore
One summer at the shore, Beautiful Cloud Heh and I met and fell in love at first sight.
We were colleagues, but not colleagues. We both worked in a large state-owned enterprise, and from that you could say we were colleagues. But the headquarters of the enterprise is in Beijing, and neither of us worked there – we worked in branch offices in different provinces – and in that respect you could say we weren’t colleagues. We’d never met each other at all before last summer at the shore, and weren’t even aware of each other's existence. But we did have one thing in common – we were both outstanding employees at the company, the cream of the crop. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the perks of a seaside vacation that headquarters allocated to each branch.
That’s why we could be at the shore last summer and meet.
The branch employees from other provinces obviously noticed what was going on between us, but they wouldn’t have gossiped about it. They were quality people, like us. Besides, they may have had something going on as well. After all, summertime, and being at the seaside, and being on vacation are undeniably all factors that can induce an extramarital affair.
We spent the vacation stuck together like glue, but we understood full well that we would only have those ten days together. After those ten days we would go our separate ways, each to our own part of the world, and would likely never meet again in our lifetimes. This was a prerequisite for our love, because we both had homes, with excellent spouses and children, and decent prospects for our family lives and careers. We wouldn’t let ephemeral passion ruin everything we had worked so hard to build up over the years.
But many things transpire in ways other than what people would want. We only realized on the eve of the day we were to part that we couldn’t leave each other. We were not robots that could be turned on and off with the flick of a switch. And even robots don’t always follow instructions.
That night, as we lay quietly, Cloud told me a story she’d heard from her mother. It was about a woman who, from the time she was young, had gone every autumn to a small hotel in a town far from her home. She spent three days there with her lover, after which they each returned to their own lives and had no contact for a year, until they returned to the hotel the following year. This continued as she grew old. When she was old, she still came to that town every year, as did he, until one year he didn’t come. She didn’t inquire into what had happened to him, but she still went to that town every year, just like before, to pass the three days per year that belonged completely to her.
She was silent when she finished the story, and so was I. Finally I asked if it was her mother's story. She said no, her mother had read it in a foreign novel.
That’s when we decided to develop our own story the way it had been set out in someone else’s novel.
We deleted all of each other’s contact information – personal phone numbers, business numbers, email addresses, mailing addresses and whatnot – so as to avoid affecting everything we had while we waited for that day next year. In other words, I would not be able to find her before that day next year, nor could she find me.
The day has finally come. Today is the day.
Everything went so smoothly today: I ordered a plane ticket and got a seventy percent discount. There were no delays on the trip to the airport; we hit green lights all the way and it seemed like all the red lights had been turned off. The flight went well, too: We didn’t encounter any turbulence, the plane didn’t bounce around, and the in-flight lunch was tastier than ever before. When I got off the plane I took a cab to the hotel, and the ride was both calm and fast. The driver said it only took half as much time as usual.
A year had passed, but I remembered it like yesterday. I walked through the familiar door and along the familiar passage to the front desk. I’d booked the room in advance so there wouldn’t be any hassles. I wanted room 517, and they gave me room 517.
I didn’t rush to the room when I got the key. After I'd stood at the desk for a moment, I couldn’t keep from asking whether there was a guest staying in room 515.
The clerk checked the computer, smiled and said there was.
My face got hot because she seemed to know where I was coming from, like she knew the story of rooms 515 and 517.
But that was impossible. It was a secret that had been buried at the bottom of my own heart for a year.
I didn’t ask any more about room 515.
I got on the elevator, walked down the corridor, went into my room, put down my simple luggage and went into the bathroom to shave. Actually I’d shaved before I left home that morning, but I shaved again. Then I washed my face and changed my clothes.
It was the same clothing I’d worn last summer when I came to the shore. I hadn’t worn it again during the year. I’d folded it carefully and stored it in the wardrobe until I left for the shore this year.
I completed all these preparations in a soundless hurry. Then I suppressed my impatience and walked out of room 517. I went over and rang the bell of room 515.
Silence, but then the door jerked open. The woman who opened the door showed surprise on her face, and so did I. At that moment both our faces changed color.
She wasn’t Beautiful Cloud Heh.
And, obviously, I wasn’t the man she was so anxiously waiting for. After she took in my appearance with a glance, the smile froze on her face and her eyes showed disappointment and loneliness.
To be honest, her expression hurt me, and I know that in fact my expression hurt her as well. I was a little embarrassed and stepped back in a hurry, saying, “Sorry! Sorry! I knocked on the wrong door.
The lady nodded politely and also took a step back, closing the door.
My thoughts were running wild as I returned to my room. A breeze came into the room through the balcony door, which was wide open. There was a rattan chair on the balcony and I would’ve liked to sit down out there, but my room and 515 had a single balcony separated only by a short railing. If the lady in 515 came onto the balcony, we would encounter one another.
I didn’t want to see her, so I didn’t go out on the balcony. I just sat down on the sofa near the balcony and lit a cigarette. I calmed down slowly as I gazed out at the sea in the distance.
The guest in 515 wasn’t Beautiful Cloud, but that didn’t mean Beautiful Cloud wasn’t coming. I had a week’s vacation and the patience to wait for her, as well as the confidence to wait.
We'd had no contact whatsoever during a year of difficult waiting. Many times I’d wanted to ask around for news of her, but I always held back in the end. And she did the same, sticking to her promise that she wouldn’t try to find me. We had each devoted ourselves to our jobs while we waited a year for this day.
This is our first year. I believe she'll come.
I go to the restaurant early, on purpose, to reserve the table where we often sat last year. The result was, I discovered the lady staying in room 515 had taken that table first. I hesitated a moment, not having the nerve to suggest that she change her seat. I picked a table for two next to her.
I could tell she was waiting for someone, too.
More and more people came in to eat, and soon the restaurant was full. Some people were standing there looking all over for a table, and the waiter was hustling around sizing up the situation. When he saw that the lady from 515 and I each occupied a table for two with an empty chair, he came over to discuss with us the idea of sitting together at one table.
Each of us, without knowing what the other would say, told the waiter no, the seat was occupied.
It was like we’d come to an agreement that we would each continue to wait. Also, as if there’d been some prior agreement, we each waited unsuccessfully. The waiter came and went, and came and went again, always polite, and never in the least impatient. Finally, feeling embarrassed, I had to call the waiter over and order.
I ordered Beautiful Cloud’s favorite set meal, the seafood meal. At this time I surreptitiously glanced at the lady from 515 and noticed that she was also ordering. She asked for the beef meal.
The beef meal was my favorite.
She was like me, waiting for someone. And the person she was waiting for was also like me, preferring the beef meal.
We had each ordered the other’s meal, but the person who liked to eat that meal had in the end not shown up.
I ate the food I’d ordered for Beautiful Cloud and, feeling lonely, went for a walk along the shore. I ran into the lady from 515 once again. She was also walking alone.
We were doing exactly the same thing.
Since I couldn’t avoid her, I went up and said hello. She smiled at me and, completely at ease, said, “We have adjacent rooms.”
I told her “My name is Zeng, Seen One Zeng.”
She said, “I’m Lin, Elegance Lin.”
We walked side by side, politely and amiably.
I passed the night dreamlessly, even though I felt abandoned, but I was a bit more depressed when I woke up in the morning. I thought, “How stingy of her, that she couldn’t even give me a dream.”
I ordered room service instead of going to the cafeteria for breakfast. It came in about twenty minutes. When I opened the door I saw that there was a second breakfast on the delivery cart parked there. It was marked “515”. I looked curiously at Elegance Lin’s breakfast: a bowl of hot cereal, a cup of steamed milk, an order of fried eggs, and a small dish of fruit. Beautiful Cloud had ordered exactly the same breakfast last year.
I watched while the server took the breakfast into 515. It seemed as if a germ of doubt had been sown in my heart and taken root there, and was gradually growing.
Mornings are the best time to swim in the sea. No sunburns. Elegance was already at the beach when I got there, but she hadn’t changed into a swimsuit. She was just sitting under an umbrella, not wearing sunglasses. Very few people come to the beach like that, not wearing sunglasses.
Beautiful Cloud hadn’t worn sunglasses, either. Last summer when I was walking here, I’d seen her sitting alone under an umbrella, quietly looking at the sea by herself.
Today, after I went into the water, I looked back toward the beach and saw that Elegance had been sitting there quietly watching the swimmers. Even the way she sat was similar to Beautiful Cloud’s.
But why wasn’t she Beautiful Cloud, the woman I’d been waiting anxiously for and yearning after for an entire year? Why was a strange woman here, instead?
I couldn’t resist sitting out on my balcony that afternoon. I thought Elegance would be outside, too, but she wasn’t there yet when I went out. She came out right after I’d sat down in the rattan chair. She wasn’t surprised when she saw me, as though she’d had a hunch I’d be there. We laughed together like two people in the same room, even though we were separated by the short railing.
I began to speak. An idea had started brewing in me after dinner the evening before, and now I finally wanted to put it in words. I told Elegance the story of Beautiful Cloud and I at the shore last summer, the whole story of she and I from beginning to end, leaving nothing out.
She listened quietly without interrupting me. Her expression didn’t change throughout, and she didn’t say anything throughout. She just kept sitting motionless until I finished.
“That’s it,” I thought.
But right at that instant, I suddenly noticed a change in her facial features. Her expression became exaggerated in a way that made me fearful. I got goosebumps all over my body.
She stood up with a “whoosh”. Her soft voice suddenly became sharp.
“Who are you?
“How did you know about this?
“Why do you want to pry into my private affairs?”
At first I was confused by her sudden interrogation. I felt helpless, but I reacted quickly. I sorted out my thoughts, but once my mind was clear I was immediately gripped by an even greater fear.
Elegance didn’t wait for my answer. “I know,” she said, “his wife sent you.”
There was no rhyme or reason to what she said, but I understood. The situation she found herself in, and the situation I found myself in, were exactly the same.
She began to speak, without giving me any more time to think.
She spoke in detail of her thoughts over the past year. She said that since her affair last summer at the shore, she’d spent the entire year waiting for this day. But in the end he didn’t come.
Elegance and I didn’t know each other at all. We’d met on a narrow road, two complete strangers, and together we’d finished the same story. I’d told the first part of the story, and she’d told the other part, and together they were a seamless whole.
I couldn’t sit there any longer. I went back into the room and immediately called Magnificent Guan’s cell. His voice was garbled and all I could hear was him saying loudly, “Wait, I’ll come and get the phone.”
I told Magnificent what was going on as briefly as possible, but before he’d heard the half of it, he cried "Ah ha!" He said, “You’re a fast mover. A brief vacation and you hooked one.”
I wasn’t in the mood to joke. “Help me out,” I said. “Ask around right away and find out where the heck Beautiful Cloud is.”
“What branch does this Beautiful Cloud of yours work for?” he asked.
“The Sichuan Province branch,” I answered. “Call them now.”
“Zeng, Bro’,” he said, “you’ve been enjoying yourself at the shore so long you’re out of touch. Today’s Sunday. How am I going to get ahold of anyone? You must think I’m the CIA.”
Although it was said lightly, he was my good buddy, after all, so how could he not see how agitated I was? Right away he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll look around for you as soon as I get to work tomorrow. Tonight you can enjoy the moonlight and the beach and the cacti in peace.”
Speaking to Magnificent really picked me up.
His call came the next morning just after nine o’clock, but unfortunately, this time his news didn’t make me feel better. No person named Beautiful Cloud Heh was employed at the Sichuan branch. “That’s impossible,” I said. “I’m wondering whether you really asked them at all.”
“Zeng, Bro’, you’re questioning my character,” he said.
“Who did you ask?” I wanted to know. “Is that person reliable?”
“Unity Lu. I suppose he’s reliable.”
“What kind of contact does he have with the Sichuan branch?”
“Maybe you don’t know. He’s got a thing for some girl in the Branch Headquarters. Oh, right, they say the two of them also hooked up while they were on vacation at the shore one summer. With a close contact like that, he can’t be wrong.
I said, “Get ahold of Unity right away and have him tell me his girlfriend’s phone number.”
“I figured you’d want that,” he said, “so I already asked him. You can call her yourself.” He gave me the woman's name and number, and ended up by whispering something. “A summer at the seashore? Who are you kidding?”
“What’d you say,” I asked. “What’d’ya mean?”
“I didn’t mean anything,” he replied. “I didn’t mean anything. You’ve got the contact number, so now you have the means to ask around on your own.”
I dialed the number after I’d waited a moment to calm myself down. A bright, clear female voice answered. “Who’s calling, please?”
I’m Seen One Zeng, a colleague of Unity Lu’s,” I told her.
The woman laughed and said, “What’s going on today? Unity Lu and his colleagues are waiting in line to talk to me.”
I said, “If you mean Unity Lu or Magnificent Guan, I asked them to help me.”
“I know, you’re trying to find someone named Beautiful Cloud Heh, but there’s no one by that name at our branch.”
I said, “Last summer Headquarters gave a quota to each branch for people to send to the shore on vacation. Beautiful Cloud Heh went from your Sichuan office.”
The woman was doubtful. “That can’t be. I checked the roster of our company's staff for the last three years, and no Beautiful Cloud Heh.” – She was very kind, and knew I was upset, so she hurried to add, “Let me do this. Wait while I go to our Personnel Office again and get more details for you. I’ll call you back in a bit.”
The call ended abruptly, and everything was quiet around me. The seaside really is peaceful in the summer. I waited, and then I waited some more. In fact, I no longer had much hope. I was almost completely disappointed. That person from last summer at the shore, that Beautiful Cloud Heh, what in heaven’s name had she been doing? Was she a phony, or a liar? Or had she simply never existed, except in my own fantasies? No matter what was going on, I wanted to be done with it.
The call came all too soon. The woman told me that the Sichuan branch used to have a Beautiful Cloud Heh, but she’d died in a car accident three years previously.
I was stunned, stunned for a long time before I stammered, “She, that Heh, Beautiful Cloud Heh, before she passed, did the company ever arrange for her to take a vacation at the shore?”
“I asked about that, too,” she answered. “They did. The accident happened soon after she got back.”
She was very good at understanding what people were thinking. She knew what I would ask next, so she continued before I had to ask. “She went suddenly, without saying a word.”
I couldn’t say a word, either, just like her before she died. It was too sudden. I couldn't say anything.
I felt like I was about to go crazy. I wanted to contact Beautiful Cloud whether she was dead or alive. In either case I wanted to contact her. But I'd deleted all of her contact info. By my own self, I'd discarded all possible methods of finding her. Back then we'd believed in love, and believed in time, and handed everything over to time. But in the end time had ruthlessly abandoned us, mutilated us.
I ran out onto the balcony. Elegance wasn't there, so I called out across the balcony. She answered from inside her room and came out. We stood opposite each other, face to face. I said, "You know me."
She smiled and said, "You told me you're called Seen One Zeng. To be exact, I met you two days ago."
I was nervous. "Your name isn't Elegance Lin," I said. "You're Beautiful Cloud Heh."
"What do you mean?" she asked. "Who's Beautiful Cloud Heh?"
"Why are you lying to me?" I demanded. "You had plastic surgery, didn't you? Why did you have plastic surgery?"
She laughed and rubbed her face. "Me, plastic surgery. Where do you see evidence of plastic surgery?" When she saw I wasn't answering, she went into her room, brought back her ID card and waved it in my face. "This picture was taken many years ago. You can see I haven't had plastic surgery.
"There's a Korean movie," she continued. "A wife got plastic surgery to see if her husband really loved her. Her husband didn't recognize her when she came home. She told the truth, but her husband didn't love her anymore."
I escaped from the balcony, escaped from room 517, and ran straight for the beach. On the way I saw a photographer smiling at me. In my confusion I had an idea and quickly asked him, "Why are you smiling at me? Do you know me?"
I can't say that I know you," he said, "just that I've seen you. I took a photo of you and your wife last summer at the beach. – Neither of you knew it was being taken, of course."
"Me and my wife?"
"Maybe. If she wasn't your wife, she was your girlfriend. A graceful lady, anyway."
I asked for more information, like a man in the water grasping at the last straw. "And this was last summer? Are you sure it was last summer?"
"I want to say I'm sure. It was in the summer, anyway, at the beach. No mistake about that."
"The picture. Show it to me."
"I can't carry the old pictures around with me. I'll look for it when I get home."
But there was no way I could wait. Impatiently, I asked, "You said my wife, or my girlfriend, what did she look like?"
He laughed. "That's strange. A woman you had with you and you don't know what she looks like? Besides, how many people do I take pictures of in a year? How could I possibly remember what they all look like?"
"You remember me. Why can't you remember her?"
"I only have an extraordinary memory for relatively extraordinary things. For example, I only retain a memory of a person's looks if their looks are unusual."
I didn't understand. "Are my looks unusual?" I asked.
"Not really, but your eyes are different from other people's. Quite extraordinary. That's why I remember you."
I didn't know how my eyes were different from other people's, but right at that moment, all I could do was believe what he said. I had no choice. I wanted to get more information from him, even if came drop by drop. I asked, "Don't you ask people's permission before you take their picture?"
" I just take pictures," he said. "I don't put them on display or use them for commercial purposes. And I don't sell them –" He paused before continuing, "Truth is, I don't want to be that way. When I see a beautiful scene I want to take its picture. But most couples wouldn't agree to let me shoot them because, because –" He laughed. "Well, you should know why not."
Of course I knew.
The photographer heaved a long sigh. "And even more," he said, "from an artistic point of view, only a photo taken candidly will show that truth is the greatest beauty.
He was right, but from where I was, something was missing. The most beautiful of all things had disappeared, and now my only hope lay in the photo this fellow had taken.
"You needn't worry," he said. "I'll look for it when I get home. If I find it, I'll leave it at the front desk tomorrow morning."
"You know which hotel I'm staying in?"
"Hey, after such a long time at on the shore, I can tell. That hotel you're staying in, I've taken lots of pictures for people there. I leave them at the front desk and most people get them."
I went back to my room, drowsy and wanting to sleep. Professor Wu, my tutor, suddenly pushed open the door and came in. I was overjoyed to see him and quickly begged for his help. " Professor, Professor, help me."
He looked at me with indifference and said, "You've got a problem."
"I do," I said, "but I don't know how it came about."
"There's an error in your programming."
I couldn't wrap my mind around that. I asked him in astonishment, "My programming? What programming?
"The program I designed for you three years ago. I was overconfident in thinking it was a world-class program. I thought I'd considered all the angles thoroughly, but my inattentiveness in the area of extramarital affairs has caused a sudden problem. I only designed one extramarital affair for you. When you went beyond that, it deranged the program – it's not completely your fault, of course. It happened because I didn't have enough foresight three years ago. It now appears that the pace of development far exceeded our predictions.
"No, no," I cried indignantly, "I only had one, with Beautiful Cloud Heh, but, but she was –"
He interrupted me. "There's no use arguing. You're deranged, and that's enough to prove that you've broken out of the designed programming. And it's a relatively serious breakdown. This program has a self-repair capability. In a typical derangement, it's fully able to adjust itself."
The more I heard the less I could believe. I protested loudly, "Professor, you must be wrong! I'm not a robot, so how can I have programming?"
He smiled and said, "Go look at your eyes and you'll know."
I thought of the photographer's comment that my eyes are unusual. I to the mirror to look right away, and what I saw shocked me. My eyes were flashing in bright, shining colors.
The Professor sat down in front of the computer and started typing away to redesign the program. After a bit he asked me, "Your new three years will begin now. After the program restarts, would you like to have a new three years, or extend the previous three years with a another three?"
I thought it over and said, "Best not clear the first three years. I've got to think through those things that got messed up."
My instructor said, "Of course, each way has its own advantages and disadvantages. If you don't erase, you'll have to bear with all the last three years' pains and regrets and confusion and so on. Of course there will be joy, too – happiness, achievements and whatnot. If you start from scratch, it'll be relaxed, but you won't have anything built up. Have you made up your mind?"
I told him I had and he hit the return key decisively – "click" – A loud noise woke me up. There was thunder and lightning outside, and I knew I'd been daydreaming.
I couldn't keep from going next door to Room 515. Elegance opened the door when I knocked. I looked inside and saw she was packing her luggage. "You're leaving?" I asked as I stepped inside.
Before she had time to answer, the door to the room crashed open and a bunch of people wearing a white coats rushed in. They hurried over to Elegance and tied her up. She didn't struggle and calmly let them shove her around.
I, on the other hand, couldn't just stand there and watch. I went up to stop them. "What are you doing," I cried, "you've got the wrong person!"
They didn't even bother to look at me. One of them said, "We've got the right one. "No way she's not the one who escaped from the mental hospital."
Elegance smiled and said, "They're right. They caught me."
I was upset. "There's been a mistake, a mistake."
"No mistake," the doctor said. "I'd even recognize her ashes if she was cremated."
"She's not sick," I muttered. "She, she's, she's – " But what was she, really? In the final analysis, I couldn't say.
They turned to look at me when they heard me muttering. One of them said, "How come so many crazies come to the shore?" Another one said, "He didn't escape from our place. None of our business."
They took Elegance away.
I went back to my own room. I'd begun to pack when I happened to notice a badge with a number on it laying on the coffee table. I didn't know what it was, so I phoned for a room attendant.
The attendant was a young girl who loved to laugh. She picked up the badge, looked at it, and said with a smile, "Seems to be a worker's badge from the mental hospital near here."
"Why's it in my room?"
She just laughed at me and didn't answer. I said, "You misunderstand. I'm not an escaped patient from the mental hospital."
She laughed again. "Not everyone who comes from the mental hospital is a patient. Could be a doctor."
While I was checking out, I grasped at the last thread of hope and asked the duty manager whether a photo had been left for me. She said no.
"The photographer who works by the shore didn't come by?"
"Oh, he left a long time ago."
"The one who likes to take pictures of lovers?"
"Yes. A few years ago he took a picture of a girl and her lover. The lover's wife had followed him and found them out. She used the picture as evidence. The girl committed suicide by jumping into the sea, and we haven't seen the photographer since."
I was too scared for words. I got a cab right away and hightailed it to the airport.
On the plane, I was leafing through the pages of a picture magazine and saw an article. The title was: Does the Human Brain have Unlimited Potential? The article said that eighty to ninety percent of the human brain remains undeveloped. Chemicals can stimulate the brain's functions for memorizing and manipulating information and perhaps make thinking more agile. People who drink coffee and energy drinks know this.
I was drinking coffee, but I knew it couldn't tell me which summer it was that I'd been at the seaside.
The flight got bumpy as the plane hit some turbulence.
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