​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Sima's Strings
Ye Mi

      All men love to gamble – except the ones who love playing around with prostitutes. The whoremongers don’t love to gamble. A man told me that himself. It was a strange thing to say.
      As for the ways to gamble, the card games I know include: road fight rummy, sand crabs poker, twenty-eight, package points and some others. There are also many ways to gamble at mahjong. And different places in China each have their own rules.
      There are various types of gamblers as well, and various types of gambling devices. The key issue isn’t the outward appearance of the device, but rather the unique nature of the gambling game itself. As for the stakes, almost everything in the world can serve the purpose. For example, when two boys in the street had a competition to see which one could pee the farthest, the loser told the winner:
      "Okay, my front tooth is yours. It was gonna fall out anyway."
      That was a wager I saw. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it was interesting.
      The sophisticated wagers I saw were when I was nine years old. They were thoroughly marvelous wagers. They happened with the Chinese New Year, so they came with the flavor of rice dumplings and steamed bread, as well as the confused rush of the holiday season. This kind of confused rush is rather like a slow-moving whirlwind. It can make you dizzy, but generally speaking you can feel where it’s going.
      Because it was New Year’s – the so-called New Year’s, the Lunar New Year – the northwest wind outside our paper windows was as sharp as a knife. It couldn’t cut through the iced-over river or the frozen-hard ground, though. Inside the windows, people wearing new jackets rambled around under kerosene lamps on the earthen walls. Because of this, the wonderful wagers I saw at the age of nine are also associated with the smell of fresh fur and cotton. The aroma is reminiscent of a safe escape, of a shrunken world of warmth, of simple observation with no burdens of any kind, of motherly consolation.
      All those aromas make one feel quite joyful.
      There were only three gamblers: my father, Uncle Tang and Uncle Sima. They only played the game called "sand crabs", a card game. They’d smoke, full of life, while at least three thousand yuan made the rounds among them. The banknotes would pile up on the table like rice straw stacked on the threshing ground. The northwest wind might be blowing outside the window, but they were quiet. If there was a commotion sometimes, it was them figuring out who some of the banknotes on the table belonged to.
      After they got it straightened out, they’d have something to eat, pour more water in their teacups and step outside to relieve themselves. At those times I’d stick both hands out from my cotton-padded sleeves and hold the three piles of bills down, so the cold wind leaking into the house couldn’t blow them around. It was at such a time that I suddenly fell in love with my hands.
      This kind of gambling only took place from the evening of New Year's Day through eight o'clock the following day. Once a year.
      The three of them, my father, Uncle Tang and Uncle Sima, had to get together before dinner on New Year’s Day to get the game going. To get to our place, Uncle Tang had to ride his bike for an hour and a half. Uncle Sima had to take a three-hour ride on a long-distance bus.
      When they saw each other, their pockets full of banknotes they’d saved up during the year, they’d show all the sincere emotions of brothers who hadn’t seen each other in a long time. They’d be unable to control their excitement for at least half an hour, like children running around wildly inside a grass hut playhouse. After sitting down, they’d hit each other playfully, and tease each other, and even call each other names. Then they’d start to eat and would drink a little bit of rice wine.
      They had many years of friendship, these frequent gamblers, and a relatively stable circle of fellows. Strangers were taboo at their gaming table.
      Now I want to talk about before.
      Before, they’d all been natives of a wealthy city south of the Yangtze River; before, they’d all become gambling buddies at the same location, and for various reasons – or you could say because they’d all gone through a purposeful or inadvertent selection process, they’d all settled into their roles as gambling buddies; before, they’d all responded to Chairman Mao’s call to “
go up to the mountains and down to the countryside” and gone to remote and desolate places. The three of them put the Great Leader’s ideals into practice in different places.
      They couldn’t see each other very often, so their romantic gambling sessions came into being: My father would get busy making braised pork and tea eggs in the morning; Uncle Tang would brave the cold wind in desolate lands, riding his bike while his face turned red; and Uncle Sima would nap in the bus, with dust flying all around him, wrapped in a military coat that had never seen military duty.
      Uncle Tang was a middle-aged man already past his fortieth year. Of the three, my father's age was in the middle. Uncle Sima, at twenty-six, was the youngest – he’d only been twenty when they became gambling buddies.

      A lot of interesting things can be said about Uncle Sima. One was his marital status. Because he wasn’t yet married, the three men’s conversations basically concentrated on him. He was also a topic of conversation in my family and in Uncle Tang’s family. Over time he became the center of our group. The adults called him "Sima," and the children called him "Uncle Sima". He knew he was popular, so his face was always glowing with smiles.
      I’d arrange the interesting things about him as follows:
      Uncle Sima lost his father and mother when he was young. How did he grow up? At what stage in his life did that relaxed smile blossom on his face?
      He was a beautiful man. Countless women wanted to marry him and bear his children. Why didn't he want to get married? In all logic he should’ve been more eager to have a family than the average person.
      He loved to gamble. He was lucky and had a good head, so he always won more than he lost. But why did he look like he was sick of gambling after every session? Emotionally he seemed to be a different person than he’d been at the start.
      Later he still gambled, back at his old home. Or sometimes he went to Shanghai or Beijing to gamble, or even to Xinjiang Province. Everyone advised him like this: “Sima! Those faraway places aren’t for you. You don’t have much in the way of friendly relations with the people there. And when you lose it’s a complete waste.” He got a foolish smile on his face, like he never lost, anyway.
      Some people are natural-born kites. Some people are born needing strings to lead them through life.
      All the people said with one voice that Sima should find himself a string. He should have the right string to tie him down.

      One New Year's Day Uncle Sima appeared as agreed, but something wasn’t quite the same. The kite was dragging a string behind it. We all looked and decided his horoscope for the year must’ve been pretty good, to let him finally find a string.
      His string was beautiful and delicate: a big black braid as glossy as lacquer and soft white skin with a light blush under the cheekbones. When she laughed her features would pinch up slightly and the sound was like a shallow brook. She charmed us all. When that string came around, our playhouse was no longer a grass hut. I was nine years old and I vowed to be like her when I grew up.
      Uncle Sima laughed continuously and seemed quite satisfied with his girlfriend. Later we learned that her name was Unparalleled Xing. She was the eldest child in her family.
      Uncle Sima wasn’t quite the same as us. He was placed in a county town when he was sent down to the countryside. There was a textile factory in that town, and Unparalleled was an inspector there. She even had an apprentice. She helped her father support the family and helped her mother with all the housework. She was famous in that town, not only for her beautiful appearance, but also for her temperament. She rejected all the advances of the young men in that place. Besides that, she could say it all in one sentence, never talking too much.
      Beautiful women are not so neat, because they need more fertilizer than the average woman. A beauty as neat as this one is a rarity. No wonder Uncle Sima was continuously grinning.
      After a bit, it was time for them to tell us how they fell in love. Uncle Sima burst out laughing, and Unparalleled blushed. Everyone stopped what they were doing.
      Unparalleled stood up to take her leave from the men and women in our family. She had a relative living not far away and wanted to hurry off to see her.
      Uncle Sima didn’t go with her. I escorted her instead. I felt honored.
      Her relative was an old lady. She’d just been laughing, but for some reason she started crying miserably when she saw Unparalleled. She complained about things while she cried. As I saw it, the things she brought up weren’t worth complaining about. They were all things like the chicken died, the pig had a fever, her shovel was broken, her daughter-in-law quarreled with her, her man refused to buy fruit tree saplings, she’d fallen while she was walking....
      What was the big deal with any of this? When a fireball drops out of the sky on the grass hut by the river and the whole family is burned alive, and there’s nothing left, not a grass root or a tree root – that’s a big deal. As I saw it, the old woman was intentionally trying to make her complaints sound like that.
      Unparalleled, however, listened conscientiously. She kept nodding her head and shed tears along with the old woman. Towards the end I noticed a funny thing: the old woman and Unparalleled were crying, but the old woman's eyes are only a little red, while both of Unparalleled eyes were red and swollen.
    The old woman finished complaining and was silent for a while after that. Then she said, “You’ll stay for dinner.” As I saw it, she didn’t have any desire for us to stay. Unparalleled stood up right away and said, "I would like to stay and eat, but.... Don’t think me rude, I'm leaving. They’re waiting for me." She quickly put a banknote down on the table. The old woman looked at the bill as if it were too small. She didn’t escort us to the door.
      At that, we headed back. I was thinking I should let her know I wasn’t a dumb cluck, so I said: "That woman was faking it. She really didn't want us to stay and eat at all."
      Unparalleled turned to me slowly and erupted in anger. "How can a child like you say such a thing?" I was so scared I started to tremble. She took a few more steps and then seemed a bit regretful. She turned back to me and said, in a tone of voice like we were having a consultation, "She was faking. She has difficulties. We shouldn't let it bother us, though, should we?"
      I didn’t know if we should or not, but I did know that Unparalleled wanted me to be a good person, so I nodded my head.
      We got home, had dinner and set the table for the card game. This one time, Unparalleled and I stayed and watched the game for the evening. That is, I watched the game, while she watched Uncle Sima. Everyone could see that she didn’t understand the game at all. She didn’t even look at the cards. That evening, she only looked at Uncle Sima.

      Everyone said Sima was blessed to have such a good young lady. When Sima was about to leave, he mumbled animatedly, “You all come to my place on the Lantern Festival for my wedding reception.” The couple looked great as they walked away, one like a flower and the other like a tree. They weren’t married yet, but they looked so completely together. She had it all together as a woman, and he had it all together as a man.
      Everyone was in the dark about their love story. It didn’t matter. As long as someone was interested, it would get around to us no matter how far it had to travel. The story that eventually got around was this:
      Unparalleled was the kind of woman who needs only love, not wealth or status. She was refined, steadfast and loyal, the kind of woman in the book “
Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio”. An immortal named Elegance appears in one story in the book. She sings to her husband, “I have an excellent son, he doesn’t envy nobles or officials; I have an excellent woman, she isn’t greedy for silks or brocades.” She uses the clouds outside their cave to make beautiful clothes for her husband to wear; she uses leaves off the mountain to make gourmet foods for her husband to eat. At the end of the story, her husband misses the life in the world of mortals and leaves her, taking their son with him.
      Sima knew Unparalleled’s father, and the old man had a foster brother that Sima gambled with. When Sima went to this family's home to gamble, he often saw an eye-catching girl walking into in the house. He’d see her walk in, but he never knew when she left. He’d never previously thought much about women.
      They’d never talked to each other, and they seemed like two people who had nothing to do with one another. But her father mumbled to himself, "She can marry anyone except a man who loves to gamble like this kid does.” Her mother likewise grumbled to herself: "She’s had porridge to eat right from the start, but if she marries this one, she’ll have nothing to eat but the northwest wind." Unparalleled heard their mutterings but didn’t say a word.
      That was the relationship between Sima and Unparalleled until….
      Once Sima was playing cards with a group of young men and listening to them talk about women. They were all ready and willing to talk about Unparalleled. They said how arrogant she was, how she’d turned away so many good opportunities for marriage and always given the same reason, that the guy wasn’t reliable. Moreover, that was all she ever said about it, never anything more.
      Sima’s eyes widened in surprise. He remembered the girl, the one who’d walked into the house. He felt vaguely that he and the girl seemed to have connected in some way, and that feeling gave him the courage to say, "You all say she’s difficult to get close to. Why do I think that’s not the case?"
      The others sneered. Sima took out a banknote from his pocket and threw it onto the table. With a smile, he said: "I’ll make a bet with you guys about this. Do you agree? If I win, Unparalleled Xing is mine and none of you guys’ll mess with her. If I lose, I won’t have anything to do with her."
      The result was, Sima won. He took back his own money and also stuffed the stakes the others had put down in his pocket. He was quite happy. Today he had himself a wife. He whistled as he swaggered away.
      At the time, Unparalleled had been down by the river washing clothes. A young man walked down from the bank and yelled to her, seeming to take delight in Sima’s foolishness. “Hey, Unparalleled, Sima’s betting the guys that he’ll win you for his wife. Stop washing your clothes. Go home and pack, and check how much money you have stashed away. Get ready to run away with him!”
      Unparalleled got up slowly and stood there crying. She thought about what she’d need to take with her. She’d have to have the appropriate bedding for all four seasons. And she’d have to have washbasins for her face and feet, and a thermos as well. Anything else would be the man's job to furnish. However, his parents were both dead, so she was afraid he wouldn’t be able to handle it properly. It wasn’t his fault.
      Unparalleled could have completely ignored such an untoward wager, but she didn’t even think about it. She just gave herself to Sima. No one had known how willing she’d be to have her fate determined by the power of karma.
      We all went when they got married. It was a lively scene with lots of people. We all thought that the bride and groom were a match made in heaven. The bride sat in an interior room with her back against a wall. A portrait of a big-eyed girl with a red cherub face was affixed to the wall. The bride’s face was red, too.
      Later one of the nails holding the portrait to the wall fell out. The groom, who’d had a lot to drink, picked up a book to nail it back in. He pounded hard several times without success. All the people gathered around to watch the show didn’t make him bashful, but the bride's face got redder and redder.
      Later I heard someone ask her, "How old are you?" She replied honestly, "Twenty-one."
      Someone else muttered, “Sima’s a lucky one! From then on I kept hearing people say how Sima was so, so lucky.

      After the marriage, Sima lived as he always had. He seemed more carefree than before, and more willful and rash. We also heard that he gambled using the pretty young Unparalleled as his stake. Once his luck was bad in the extreme and he lost her. It’s true. He managed to win his wife back, but then he managed to lose her again.
      And what was Unparalleled’s attitude about it?
      She didn’t say a word. She got a few changes of clothes together and moved into the other guy's home with her newborn son. She was shocked and surprised by the guy and the size of his family.
      Sima won her back the next day. She came back carrying her son, and bought a broom and a handful of garlic on the way.

      Things went like this for three or four years. The couple’s lives looked like other people's, with nothing disquieting. Sima still gambled as always, but apart from that incident, the family didn’t seem to have any problems. Everything was normal.

      After another three or four years, we were surprised by news that the unlucky devils who’d been sent “up to the mountains or down to the countryside” could return to their original places of residence. After a while, a huge number of people began to return to the cities. Our family headed back, but Uncle Tang was involved in a court case, so just his wife and kids went. Uncle Sima returned to his hometown alone. Unparalleled didn’t say whether she’d go with him or not – she just told him, “You go first, and we’ll talk about me after a while.” So he went by himself.
      Unparalleled's sisters told her it was risky to let Sima go back to the city without her. She said that if there was a risk, let it happen and then we’ll see if it passes. “And if it doesn’t pass?” they asked her.
      “Then that’s our fate,” she answered, “to be married just for these few years.”

     As soon as Sima left his wife, he was like a kite whose string had broken. Unparalleled made no demands on him, just wrote him letters telling him what to wear in the winter and what to eat in the summer. Things like that. Sima always replied to these letters perfunctorily, one-page letters written in huge characters.
      Eventually one day Sima wrote her a serious and earnest letter. The general idea was that he apologized to her, such a good wife, but he couldn’t be at peace. He’d found another woman, one who was suitable for him. He hoped Unparalleled could forgive him and grant him a divorce.
      After Unparalleled read the letter, she sat on the edge of the bed in a daze. She told herself: “Cry! You’ll feel better if you cry.” But she didn’t cry.
      She and Sima's son made a terrible scene, shouting and yelling in their courtyard. He was a healthy child who, like his father, didn’t hide his emotions. Unparalleled chuckled as, after a momentary daze, he recovered enough that it was like she had a new son….
      OK, she sat down and wrote a serious and earnest letter to Sima. She told him that their affections as husband and wife having come to an end, there was nothing to be done for it. Although she was a small town woman, she knew that trying to force a relationship would not turn out well. Besides, she’d seen long ago that he wasn’t satisfied with her, and that’s why she hadn’t gone to south China with him. She’d been waiting and waiting for a turn of events, whether for the better or not. Now she was already mentally prepared, and they could initiate the divorce procedures at any time.
      She moved slowly to get under her quilt after finishing the letter and wrapped herself tightly from head to toe. There was one sentence that she hadn’t ventured to write: “The greatest thing I could do in my entire life would be to forgive you.”
      There is only one reason she hadn’t written it. She didn’t want to put pressure on Sima.

      Sima came back to town with his new string walking in front of him. The new string was a woman from Shanghai. She wore a red knit hat, a white rabbit skin scarf and a black woolen coat. Her two bare legs stuck out from under the coat.
      Old Wang, the gate guard at the station, shouted brusquely at her: "What’s this?" The Shanghai woman turned toward him and tittered, "What is it? It’s a person. Just like you. You thought I wouldn’t understand, didn’t you? I know several languages, and what you said was triflingly easy. You don’t believe me? Just say anything and let me translate. I guarantee your eyes will open wide and your jaw will drop."
      Sima laughed out loud. Then he took out a pack of cigarettes and handed them out to people in the station. He looked at his string from time to time, a look of both love and fear. As he smoked Sima's cigarette, Old Wang couldn’t help saying: "Great teaser, that one!"
      The Shanghai women didn’t respond – she hadn’t understood.

      That was a Sunday. The sun was warm and you could almost say it was a lovely day, something not often seen in the winter here. Unparalleled swept the house in the morning, since she knew a female guest was coming, and got out fresh towels. She went shopping at noon and a saleswoman who knew her asked, "Expecting guests?" She also asked, "How’re you feeling?"
       "It’s nice and warm today,” Unparalleled answered, “like spring. I feel fine."
      She was busy in the kitchen when a child appeared at the door and said, "Ma’am, my mom told me to tell you they’re here. They’re talking to people at the station."
      Unparalleled stood up hurriedly. She felt like something sharp had pierced her heart. She waived her arms. It was painful enough, but gave her the leeway to tolerate it. She tidied herself from head to foot and trod off to the station.
      She saw Sima, and also saw the Shanghai woman. The two of them were snuggled up against one another as they strolled casually out of the station. The sun was shining on a spot right behind them, but they were so close together that no sunlight got through between them. The light spilled around them like a layer of powdery frost, and looked as velvety as frost, too.
      She couldn’t keep the tears from her eyes.

      We’d heard a bit about the Shanghai woman before that. First, that she was a loose woman, and there were some things about her that were hard to get used to. For example, she spoke too coquettishly, swung her hips when she walked, and was always casting glances at the things around her. She couldn’t keep house and ate out whenever she could. She drank, smoked, went dancing and could really spend money. She laughed loud – she’d hold her head back and let it loose, then quiet down abruptly and lean against whoever happened to be around her. After that she’d paw the person as she started laughing again.
      Second, she wasn’t well-bred and often hurt others.
      For example, when she came to Unparalleled’s home as a guest this time, as soon as she came in the door she said to Sima: "Oh, this must be your son, right? He looks just like you. She gave you one, and I’ll give you two. How about that?"
      Were those fighting words?
      She was jealous of Unparalleled, which was quite strange. Not just strange, unreasonable. So Unparalleled kept her face blank and tried to understand what was going on.
      She wasn’t able to understand.
      But she was charitable enough to tolerate the woman.
      At dinner. Four people: Unparalleled, the Shanghai woman, Sima, and Unparalleled and Sima's son. Unparalleled quietly served her guests and seemed OK with it, treating them like old friends.
      "Eat up!” she said politely, “I'm not a very good cook."
      Sima put down his chopsticks and said sincerely, “Every dish you cook is great, Unparalleled. I haven’t had such a delicious meal in a long time.”
      The Shanghai woman coughed a warning.
      "Well, then, the two of you should come to dinner here often," Unparalleled replied.
      Sima looked at Unparalleled, guilt ridden. He picked up a morsel of food in his chopsticks and put it in her bowl. The Shanghai woman coughed again.
      Sima looked at the food in Unparalleled’s bowl and smiled. The Shanghai women “plopped” down her bowl, turned and went to hide in Unparalleled’s bedroom. Everyone could see that she felt wronged and wasn’t happy. She went in the bedroom and closed the door.
      Sima smiled helplessly at Unparalleled and followed her. He tapped gently on the door, opened it a crack and looked inside. The Shanghai woman said from inside, "I don't want anything." Standing outside, Sima replied, "I do."
      The Shanghai woman stamped her foot. "Go die." Sima said, "I'm not gonna go die"
    Unparalleled wondered, “What's going on? This is my home. One’s so petty and the other takes such pity on her.” She ate slowly, listening to the pair of them making such a din through the door that she couldn’t very well enjoy the food.
      She turned her head and looked in a small mirror on the wall, not really thinking about it. Her son said, "You’re more beautiful than her."
      "Pretty or not, either one’s OK,” she replied.
      "You’re a nice person," the boy said.
      "Nice or not, either one’s OK."
      “So what’s wrong?”
      "Everything’s fine," she said.

      The moon rose. Sima felt cold sitting in the room. He’d succeeded in coaxing the Shanghai women out of the bedroom and everyone was continuing the meal. Unparalleled let her guests fend for themselves and she didn’t say anything. For the moment the atmosphere was cold.
      A constant “geh, geh” of earth freezing over came in from outside. Yes, cold is a tiny little animal, and that’s the sound it makes as it nibbles away at the land: geh, geh. Unparalleled remembered one New Year's when she’d sat beside Sima listening to that sound an entire night.
      When they finished eating, the Shanghai woman snatched up the dishes to wash them. Unparalleled didn’t object. She thought, “This woman isn’t so bad, at least not as bad as people have been saying. She’s even kind of likable.”
      Their son went out for a bit and when he came back, he said, “My three uncles asked if you’ve finished eating yet. If you have, they’re invited to stay in the hostel. Or they can stay at Old Wang Four’s place. He’s got an empty room in his house and will let them spend the night."
      The Shanghai woman said angrily, "You little scamp. Tell your three uncles that I’m staying with your mother. Tell your daddy to stay at the Wangs’."

      One thing’s for sure; there was no hostility between these two women. Our Unparalleled was an open-minded woman, and we knew what sort the Shanghai woman was, too. Now, with only the two of them around, they wouldn’t want to hide their curiosity about each other. It should be noted that the Shanghai woman had no intention of apologizing to Unparalleled, and Unparalleled had no intention of blaming her for anything.
      They began to speak.
      "He always says you’re a good one,” the Shanghai woman said. “That’s why I had come and see you. I wanted to see what a ‘good one’ is, exactly.”
      Unparalleled smiled to herself. She knew this Shanghai woman wouldn’t feed her a line.
      "He really let you come?" Unparalleled asked with something of a sigh. What she really meant was that she knew Sima wouldn’t have let her come if things were reversed, but she kept that thought to herself.
      "Let me come? I'd have never let him hear the end of it if he hadn’t! Anyway, the two of us, we have our fights and then we make up, and then we fight again. I'm not afraid of fighting to a stalemate. One time I really stuck it to him – I went back to my former husband for a month. He got so worried he almost jumped in the Huangpu River."
      Unparalleled "oh-ed" loudly. The Shanghai woman had a fragrance of perfume about her that made Unparalleled sleepy.

      "Do you really want to have two sons with him?"
      "I was fooling him. I don't want to have kids. One would be trouble enough, let alone two. The best is not having any." The Shanghai woman speaking.
      "Are you always fooling him?" Unparalleled had never lied to Sima.
      "Yeah, all the time. I fool the heck outa him and do what I want. Men like that." The Shanghai woman speaking.
      Unparalleled thought back to that intentionally helpless-looking face of Sima's. His eyes had been filled with happiness. The two of them had been married for so many years, but she’d never seen such a look in his eyes. He’d won her for a while, then lost her for a while, but actually he’d only been performing in a one-person play, a sad one. He’d opened the performance by himself, and when it was finished, he’d left by himself. It wasn’t like that for him and the Shanghai woman. They played off each other, nourishing each other, polishing each other. You come and I go. They were entwined, and neither one could leave.

      “Put a cloth over his pillow when he goes to bed. In winter he gets nosebleeds all the time at night. When he gets up in the morning, have him drink a big glass of salty water with a little honey in it. In the evening, if he’s been drinking, heat up a big bowl of seaweed soup for him.” That was Unparalleled speaking.
      The Shanghai woman started yawning. "Too complicated. I don't do that kind of stuff, and it doesn’t make him unhappy, either."
      She sat up abruptly. "Is he asleep?"
      "No,” Unparalleled said confidently. “He’s definitely at Old Wang Four’s."
      "I want to go see him. How do I get there?"
      The Shanghai woman was rushing to put on her clothes as she asked for directions. In her hurry, she wooshed out the door before she’d even put on her socks. Unparalleled called from behind her, "It's cold. Be careful not to get chilled." But the woman was already long gone.
      "If the guy wants to gamble, let him,” Unparalleled said to herself. “He's had it tough ever since he was a child. Is living easy? He’s got himself a strong-willed woman, and it’s like he’s got a string tied around his neck. Would that be comfortable?"
      She thought it over, then said, "You never gave him any trouble, but was he happy?" She had to sit up and get dressed. In her rush to leave, the Shanghai woman had thrown Unparalleled's clothes all over the floor and she couldn’t find her socks. By the time she’d put on the Shanghai woman’s socks and run out, that woman was already at Old Wang Four’s making a fuss.
      Unparalleled stood some distance outside the house and watched how the Shanghai woman said something coyly, how she shed tears, how she rubbed up against Sima's body, how she apologized to Old Wang Four’s family, how she made like she was going to rush out and jump in the river to commit suicide. She also watched while Sima followed her out solicitously.
      This was a rapidly unfolding drama, a risky performance that left no room for a graceful exit if not done well. Thus the two of them played their parts with exaggerated but very careful motions. They walked past Unparalleled without a glance in her direction – they had no time for her.
      So she just watched, watched while the kite that was Sima was lead along by this woman. She pulled the string, and the kite followed.

      Sima and the Shanghai woman have always been a bit on edge since they got married, sometimes fighting and sometimes just making a fuss. The Shanghai women doesn’t cook and has occasionally done some scandalous things. Everyone says the two will split up sooner or later – How could Sima endure such a woman? He’s curbed his urges and doesn’t get involved in gambling now, and is completely different than when he was married to Unparalleled. You need to realize, he’d been used to doing what he wanted when he was with her.
      Unparalleled has never remarried and has raised her son alone. She’s obviously haggard. We’ve all speculated privately: How deep is her pain?
      As of the spring of 2001, Sima and the Shanghai women were still getting along famously and there were no signs of a separation. We watched helplessly at the final act of Unparalleled’s and Sima’s inability to pick up the shattered pieces of their marriage and get back together.
      Later we heard that the Shanghai woman was sick. She’d been in the hospital with an IV dripping in her for more than a week, and Sima was so worried he was foaming at the mouth. We had a cruel thought: Is she dying? It’ll be better if she dies.
      Then we learned that her illness was nothing more than a bad cold.
      All the judgments made in this world, they’re almost always wrong.


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