​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Summer Li's Summer 
Shao Li

Page One

            Summer Li traipsed across the middle of the road wearing ten-centimeter platform sandals. People on the street who saw her suffered a temporary dizzy spell. She was a bit dizzy, too, and stepped cautiously like she was crossing a floating bridge. She could be considered beautiful, mainly because she was tall with long, vividly white legs. She presented to the world as a relaxed, level-headed and graceful woman, but her orderliness was only an appearance. In fact her mind had become muddled and as twisted as a ball of twine. She feared she’d step out onto nothingness fall back thirty years in the past.
            Thirty years ago, she’d been four years old.
            One day that year she’d been thrown into the middle of the road by an adult. At the time the streets in the ancient capital, Kaifeng, weren’t very wide and there weren’t many cars. Pedestrians and cyclists stopped to watch. All they could see was little Summer, a frail girl with pigtails. No one related to her was around. It seemed that the only people on the street were the ones, big and little alike, who’d stopped to watch the excitement.
            The people of Kaifeng were rather cold and indifferent back then. They didn't care about one little girl, except as an interesting anecdote. It was summer, and they were roasting in the sun. The sweat was rolling down from little Summer’s sparse hair, along with tears from her eyes. She was just too ashamed.
            Little Summer knew shame even at the age of four.
            She didn't have a clue why her parents had divorced, but her grandmother took all her worries and resentments and put them off on Summer's head, lock, stock and barrel. She chewed the girl out when she was eating, ragged on her when she was sleeping, harped on her when she took a bath and cursed at her when she pleated her pigtails. All the dirty words that the language had accumulated over thousands of years pelted down on the girl. She had nowhere to hide and endured it all silently. After a long time, she started to get a warm feeling from the curses and even enjoyed it.
            Kaifeng was the same as other cities of thirty or more years ago. Parents were apathetic towards their children. Parents were parents and kids were kids, a sharp division in the family. Grandparents had to make even more of a show of studied indifference, and they never let affection show on their faces. In short, children weren’t very dear.
            Summer spent six years being sworn at by her grandmother, and she grew healthy and strong under the sound of curses. Gradually she started to look like a girl, with clean clothes and neat, tidy hair. When she ate her fill, her little face would get smooth and flushed. In the winter, grandmother would warm her frigid hands and feet in the bedclothes, and she’d laugh as she brushed against the woman's sagging breasts. Then her grandmother would swear at her, “Damn girl, you have the gall to laugh!”
            Now Summer was going on a date at the Pure Culture Tea House across the road. She saw him when she went in the door. She’d known where he’d be sitting because they’d been seeing each other for almost five years. He was smaller than Summer, not too handsome, and didn’t have enough money. Otherwise he wouldn’t have waited for her for so many years. Summer always laughed at him for that.
            Summer had made the date to meet him that day because there was something she wanted to talk about with someone close to her. It was about her birth mother. Summer’s boyfriend, Wise Firm Chen, knew about her father and mother and knew the pain Summer had had in her life. He’d been rather surprised then he heard all the wrongs that had been done to her. He wouldn't have thought such a weak girl could've gone through that much evil and suffered so much early in her life. Later, when he and Summer started going out together, it was hard to say there wasn’t an element of pity in the relationship. Whatever, they’d been together for five years now, and there was no difference between them and an officially wedded couple. Except they weren’t married.
            Truth is, it wasn't Chen's fault that they hadn't married. He'd asked for her hand quite formally, and had promised her many times that he'd be good to her forever. It wasn't that she didn't believe him so much as that she lacked confidence in herself. Given her life experience, she didn't believe that happiness could come so easily.
            Once when they were joking around she'd asked, "Do you know just how long forever is?" He was a straightforward fellow and, since she'd asked, he thought it over before answering, "I don't know."
            She said, "You shouldn't say things when you don't know what they mean." She'd only asked the question to tease him, but he answered so seriously it made her serious, too. "Maybe you love me today, but maybe you won't tomorrow. People change, and a vow of eternal love doesn't prevent that." She sighed exaggeratedly. He looked at her hopelessly and didn't know what to say next.
            Summer had a long, long shadow over her heart. It was like a mound of ice that wouldn't melt until the end of her days. The gloominess she'd experienced growing up, in particular, made her unable to get hold of herself.
            Chen was shocked by the thing Summer wanted to discuss. He wasn't the scholarly type and was nowhere near as "wise" or "firm" as his name would suggest. He swallowed some tea the wrong way and spilled it all over himself. When Summer pulled out a paper napkin to wipe him off, her movements were full of love, but like an older sister taking care of a child in every possible way.
            He'd always felt that Summer didn't love him enough and was really more like his big sister. Further, she was cool toward sex for a woman in the prime of her life, seeming to lack enthusiasm for him. She was more like a simmering stew and often told him, "Slow down. How many times have I told you? To be good for you, tea should be drunk slowly." She was into health and beauty and had a habit of using knowledge she'd acquired from health care studies to instruct the people around her.
           "Your mother, does she deserve to be a mother? What basis does she have for trying to get to know you now, after thirty years?" Chen wasn't usually an excitable person and took Summer at her word.
            "I don't get it, either," Summer said, speaking as slowly as ever. "And why would she get someone from over there to contact me?"
            "She abandoned her four-year-old daughter," he said. "She ran to somebody else to raise her daughter as their own, and now she thinks that that somebody's daughter ought to treat her like a mother!"
            "She supposedly had a stroke and is paralyzed on one side. People in their sixties should keep up their strength." She was talking to herself, immersed in her own thoughts.
            "Retribution for treating her own flesh and blood so heartlessly!"
            Summer smiled bitterly. "I haven't seen her for almost thirty years. I'm afraid neither of us would recognize the other if we met on the street."
            They talked about it over the first steep of a pot of
maojian tea. The bitter tea weakened and became sweet.
            "You absolutely can't be soft," Chen said. "If you are, you'll never be rid of her from now on."
            After they’d talked for a while, they made up their minds. Summer felt they’d cut through a lot of the dross and a feeling of how fortunate she was flooded through her. Being alone, she was gratified to have someone to talk with when she ran into a problem like this.
            When they parted, Chen said, “Come over to my place today, Honey. I want some soy sauce noodles.”
            Summer looked at her hand, then at Chen. “I can’t today,” she apologized. “There’re still customers waiting in the salon!”
            He was disappointed. “Well, okay then!”
            Chen had grown up in a single-parent family. He’d never seen his father. His mother said the man loved to drink and the wine had damaged his health. He’d ended up dying of liver disease. That might have been the reason Chen didn't drink. He was in quite good health.
            Although the two had decided to have a romantic relationship, Summer would never use her feminine wiles on Chen. Rather, it was Chen who coddled up to Summer to get her to do his hair and nails, or fix him food and drinks. Summer felt that Chen loved her, but was it because he longed for a mother? When they were being intimate, Chen always snuffled around on her body like he was a child looking to be held. This bit of clinging love did bring out feelings of maternal love in her. Sometimes she even felt she was more fortunate than he was because, no matter what else, she’d at least seen both her parents. Chen had been a fatherless child, a child whose father was no more than a photo in an album. Wasn’t he more piteous than she was?
            Neither Summer nor Chen returned to work after they parted. She called her salon and then drove directly to her condo, which she was paying for in installments. It wasn’t a big place, but it wasn’t small either, a little over 750 square feet. The interior decorating was well done. As someone concerned with health and beauty, she had relatively high requirements for maintaining the environment in the place, so it was clean as a whistle.
            In fact she was obsessed with cleanliness. She seldom had people over and didn’t even have house slippers for guests by the door, just a pair each for her and Chen, one pair big tigers and the other little tigers. The slippers were a Valentine's Day gift from Chen. Wearing the soft cloth tigers, one could step on the solid wood floor soundlessly. When she was changing into them, she thought that the two-bedroom condo was comfortable for one person or even two, but if she took her mother in, plus a nurse, the place would be too small. She was shocked at the thought. Why would she want to take her mother in?
            “I won’t!”
            She was in the bathroom facing the mirror and said that resolutely. She felt that the woman in the mirror was ice-cold from head to toe.
            She’d missed her mother when she was living with her grandmother. Even at that young age, she’d made plans for how they might meet again. She even went so far as to piece together her mother's new address from isolated things that grown-ups said.
            What had her mother ever given her? How much did she love her? Summer didn’t understand such things at the time. She just couldn’t help but think about her.
            Her mother remarried to a government official who’d lost his wife. Summer skipped school one day and hid in the corner of a wall on the road her mother would take to go home. It was so hot that mud formed from the dirt on her body mixing with her sweat, turning her into a clay figurine.
            Her mother finally returned home after almost a whole day. Her clothes were flashier than before and she looked better off. Summer rushed over and hugged her mother’s legs, and shouted “Mama” several times. Her mother hesitated a moment and then covered Summer’s mouth. She pulled the girl into a store on the street, bought her a pack of fruit candy, hesitated a moment, and added a box of cookies. She gently rubbed the mud from her daughter’s face with her hand and said, "Be good and stay with your grandmother. Don't look for me anymore. If anyone sees you, things won’t go well for me!"
            Then she turned and walked away, without even looking back.
            Summer watched her walking off. Her back seemed to shake. Was she crying? Maybe it was Summer’s own heart that was trembling.
            When Summer got home carrying the candy and cookies, her grandmother beat her. “That slut doesn’t want you,” the old woman said cruelly. “If you dare go look for her again, I’ll throw you back out on the street. I won’t want you anymore, either!”
            Grandmother strewed the candy around the yard. That night Summer picked the pieces up one by one and hid them in a place where her grandmother couldn’t find them. Hiding the candy was like keeping a secret. When she thought about it, her heart felt so sweet it hurt. She was reluctant to eat the stuff. She didn’t even dare take it out to look at until one time, long afterward, when her grandmother wasn’t home. By then the candy had been nibbled up by mice, leaving only a pile of shredded paper. Summer squatted in front of the pile of candy wrappers, staring blankly, but she really wasn’t too sad about it.
            She snuck out a few times to go watch her mother from a hiding place. Her mother didn't know that there was a pair of eyes staring at her. There was one brief moment when she got flustered, perhaps because she knew her child was hiding there. Later her mother moved. Grandmother said, “She’s determined to get away. She’s afraid you’ll be the death of her if you go looking for her again!” Summer was seven years old the last time she snuck out to see her mother and had had no news of her since then.
            One night Summer had a dream. She was seven again and was meeting her mother. Her mother was crying but wouldn’t let Summer see her tears. Summer knew she was crying, though. It was wishful thinking, but she thought her mother’s tears were for her. She woke up with tears in her own eyes. She hadn’t shed tears for years.
            Over these many years, the phrase Summer heard most was “fatherless and motherless child”. The first time she’d gone to meet Chen’s mother, the woman had said, “You poor dear, a child without a father or mother!” Summer smiled and told her, “I had a father and mother. I just didn't live with them.”
            Back then grandmother often said, “Damn girl, do me a favor and remember something. You don’t have a mother! Your mother’s dead!” Summer's mother wasn’t dead, but her grandmother died when she was ten years old. She was in the kitchen cooking noodles for Summer. The water was boiling on the stove, and she dropped down dead on the floor. Summer had looked on helplessly as she fell, holding an almost full bag of pasta in her hand.
            Summer was still hungry after some adults carried grandmother out of the kitchen. While the adults were milling around in the other room, she put all the pasta grandmother had dropped into some boiling water to cook. When it was done, she ate half the pot in one sitting. Having a round, full belly made her feel safe. Grandmother's body had been put in the living room, but no one was there to keep watch beside her coffin. No one was there to watch Summer, either. She stared at her grandmother's body and didn't feel afraid.
            The night her grandmother died, Summer ate her fill, curled up in front of the body and slept like a log. The next day she went to live with her father and his second wife.
            Summer didn’t shed a tear when her grandmother was buried. Her black eyes were like a dry well. Her stepmother pointed at her and told someone, “Look how she’s like a wolf, a white-eyed wolf! Anyone raising her is feeding a stray dog. A waste of good food.” Her finger almost poked Summer in the eye.
            Summer’s father had had no choice but to take her in. He’d begged his second wife to add a bowl at the table. “Think of it as having a cat or a dog. Except she can do chores.”
            Her father wasn’t yet forty at the time. His second wife had brought a daughter with her when they married, and later they’d had another daughter together. The hardships of life had made him go bald early. He was always tired and always hard up for money. In Summer's eyes, he was not so much a father as a humble, poor man. She had no feelings for him, and he was also a man without feelings. All he wanted out of his daily life was two ounces of cheap booze in the evening. For that momentary joy, he was willing to play second fiddle to the women in his home. His eyes wouldn’t light up until he’d had a belt or two, and only then would he have a little desire for a woman.
            Summer took on almost all the household chores, cooking, washing dishes and doing the laundry. Washing her stepmother's panties, she noticed globs of muddy yellow, sticky gunk in the crotch. The nameless, disgusting stuff stank so much she couldn’t stop vomiting. It ruined her young appetite and she couldn't forget it for many years. Back then, Summer was never able to eat enough to gain weight and her bones were like matchsticks. Some foods always made her sick to her stomach.
            Her stepmother kept telling the neighbors, “Look, she’s Old Li's daughter. I have to treat her so well. I’ve never laid a finger on her. I can beat my own girls but not her.” Indeed, she never did beat her, not even once, but she did tell the girl’s father to beat her.
            Summer came home from school a little late once because she’d spent too much time talking to a classmate on the way. Her stepmother immediately called her father over. “Look for yourself. You don’t care if your own daughter doesn’t do well at school. Such a young age and she spends all her time blabbing away with the boys and doesn’t want to come home! And you don't even care. Sooner or later she’s bound to turn into riffraff, isn’t she?”
            Her father rushed over and, before Summer even had time to scream, without warning he grabbed her by the ears and threw her across the room. Summer was a small girl, thin as a nail, and her two big ears stuck out just enough for him to get a good grip. She was hard of hearing in one ear for many years after that.
            The thing her stepmother asked her most was, “Are you deaf?” She really was. No matter what she was doing, if her stepmother called her, she had to be standing in front of the woman within one minute. Summer had tried to avoid her, hiding herself away somewhere and delaying for a while. The result was, she for sure did have a reason to get beaten then.
            Summer rarely saw her other grandma, her mother's mother, even though she didn’t live too far away. Her grandma’s heart went out to the child. Sometimes when they met on the street, she’d buy Summer a popsicle or some candy. One year during the Spring Festival, the day before winter vacation, she came to the school to see Summer and gave her two yuan for a New Year’s present. Then she took an egg out of her pocket and gave it to Summer. When Summer reached out to take it, still warm from being close to her grandma's body, her grandma saw her hand and was shocked. Her hand really was ugly. It was chapped all over and the skin was cracked. Her grandma got her excused from school and took her home, where she gave her a hot bath in a large iron laundry basin.
            When Summer took off her clothes, her grandma asked her why she was wearing two pair of panties. Summer said that both pair had holes, but in different places. If she wore them both together her butt wouldn’t show. Her grandma cried, but there was nothing she could do other than that. She had three children at home and her life was already quite difficult.
            Summer's grandma and grandpa were still alive. Grandpa was an administrator at a hospital. They never came around to see her. She heard they'd objected adamantly when her mother married her father, and eventually they and her mother had become estranged.
            When Summer was in elementary school, she'd once gone to her grandma's courtyard with a classmate who lived in the same compound. The house was very big. Her classmate took Summer to her grandma and said, "This is Little Summer." Her grandma was a well-dressed woman who really couldn't be considered old. She looked at the girl and exclaimed, "Ah, Summer!" Summer stood there looking down at her feet. "You've gotten so tall!" She put a piece of candy in Summer's pocket, clapped her hands and said, "Hurry on home, now, the adults will get nervous if you get home late."
            Children really weren't cherished in those days. People might fight about everything else when a divorce split the family, but not about the kids.
            Summer had no respect for her father. The man hadn’t had a spine his whole life. Could he even claim to be a man? Once on the way home from school, Summer happened to see him hiding in the bushes on the side of the road, wolfing down a piece of pig's head meat. It was like he was afraid someone would come and snatch it away if he ate more slowly. When he finished, he picked a leaf from a tree to wipe the residue off his hands, and then rubbed his hands in the soil. He was a glutton sneaking food, and if his wife found out there would surely be a big fuss. She’d probably hung a bunch of that on him before. Summer hadn’t cried when her grandmother died, but the tears were rolling down her cheeks as she watched her father. She didn’t hate the man, she pitied him.
            Sometimes she thought her mother had divorced her father because he was grubby and slovenly. He’d worn messy clothes his whole life. They were often so dirty you couldn’t tell what color they were, and the whites were worn gray. Summer washed his clothes for a few years and put her heart into getting them clean, but they always turned gray again once he put them on. It wasn’t until later that she realized her father himself was really dirty, dirty right down to his bones.
            Summer liked a clean man; in fact, she had an obsession with cleanliness. Chen, the third man she’d had a relationship with, wasn’t like her father. He was the chief financial officer of a private enterprise, even if his salary was all the money he had. He washed his hair every morning, so it was always wind-blown and had a fresh fragrance, like grass growing thick in the sun. It was his hair that had first caught Summer’s eye, and the wind-blown look still made her heart flutter. His shirts were quite colorful with clearly delineated lights and darks. His shoes were always shiny and never scuffed.
            Summer said it’s okay for a man to be poor, but it’s not okay to be dirty. She also said that rich men are not necessarily clean, and she’d prefer a clean man like Chen for her boyfriend. Chen didn’t feel too good when he heard her say such things and would protest, half in jest and half seriously, “Don’t look down on me, Summer Li. I’m not poor, and I’ll definitely make big money for you in the future!”
            At such times, Summer would always come over and fondle his hair. She’d tell him, “If you made a lot of money, you wouldn’t give any woman a second look.” Of course, Chen couldn't be considered poor. Even if he wasn’t very rich, he could basically live a better than average life.
            Summer never finished high school. Before she was even sixteen, her stepmother pulled some strings to get her a job as an attendant in the City Guest House. She made five hundred yuan a month, plus meals. She was used to doing housework, hard working and clean, and she did everything properly, so the leaders were satisfied with her. She passed probation at the end of her first year.
            Counting on her fingers, Summer told Chen, “It was in the early 1990s, I guess. That’s when they started to tear down the older buildings for reconstruction. The building we lived in was going to be demolished, and they gave the residents money and a new home as well. They gave our family two storefronts and a single-family residence. My stepmother busied herself with moving our stuff and replacing the furniture.”
             Summer’d been afraid the family wouldn’t have enough money, so she gave her stepmother five thousand yuan she’d earned over the previous year. One of her classmates cussed at her and told her, right to her face, “You pig! Think about how she treated you. Didn’t you have enough crimes committed against you? For five thousand yuan, you could’ve rented a place of your own for two years!”
            Summer held back her tears until her eyes turned red, but in the end the tears flowed freely. “For better or worse,” she said, “I gave that money to my stepmother so she’d give me a bed and I’d still be considered a member of the family. I’d have people close to me in the world. If I’d gone out and rented a place, I really would’ve become an orphan.”
            When Summer turned seventeen, she still wasn’t the prettiest girl, but the sky of youth is something no kind of dark clouds can cover over. An accountant in the Guest House, five years older than she was, took a liking to her. One day he blocked her way in a place where no one else was around and said, “Be my girlfriend, little Summer Li.”
            She looked him over and couldn’t make up her mind. As far as having a friend went, the account would do well enough. His skin was fair and clear, and everything was where it should be. The main thing was his stable family situation – they had friends in high places, otherwise he couldn’t have become an accountant. While she was undecided, he bought her some clothes as a present. Summer wouldn’t accept them. She said, “I can't take things from people. My dad would kill me.”
            “Don't treat me like just anyone,” he said, “if you accept them you’ll be my girlfriend.” Who knows where she found the courage, but the Summer from back then said something that would become a common refrain twenty years later: “If you marry me, will we have a place of our own to live in?”
            That very day he took her to his condo. He was an only child, and his family had been given two units in the housing distribution that year. His parents lived in one and had given the other to him to help him find a bride. Summer really valued having her own home – she dreamed about it. This man had a home, and acted like he loved her to pieces, so she was willing to marry him and be his wife.
            After they looked around the condo, the accountant held her down on the bed and started kissing her and feeling her up. “Will I get pregnant?” she asked. He laughed, flashing his teeth. When you sleep with me here at night, then you’ll get pregnant.” So she didn’t dare sleep with him. She was afraid her father’d beat her to death.
            After she got home, she handed over several month’s salary to her stepmother. Then, while her parents were still elated about that, she took the opportunity to tell them about the accountant. As soon as her stepmother had finished counting the money, and before Summer’d finished speaking, her stepmother asked, "What kind expensive incense did you burn before the gods to be able to find such a family to marry into?" Summer brought the accountant home to meet them the following day.
            The accountant was a solicitous fellow and never came to Summer’s home without a gift. As the days went by, Summer’s stepmother also became more polite to her. Summer was quite happy for a few months and felt that she loved the accountant very much – very, very much – and the accountant made a point of kissing and caressing her whenever they were alone. She’d grown to adulthood with no one except her grandma ever treating her so affectionately, and she physically needed the comforting. She was immersed in it and couldn’t let it go.
            Her stepmother had changed when the accountant came on the scene. She treated Summer as her natural-born daughter, regardless of her good or bad points. Summer finally felt that she’d found a home, and the feeling was quite moving. She knelt on bed in the middle of the night and kowtowed to her grandmother, hoping the old woman would bless her and share her happiness. She was looking forward to an even happier life after she came of age and married the accountant.
            Things suddenly changed that spring when her stepmother’s daughter, who’d been away serving in the military, came home for a visit.
      —— Whenever she got to this part of the story, Summer would moan and groan in pain. She seemed to be talking as much to herself as to her boyfriend Chen. “The two of them, mother and daughter, how could they do it?” After just a few short days, the accountant suddenly turned on Summer. He told her, “I like your sister now.”
            Summer slit her wrists with a paring knife while she was lying in the bed on a summer evening. She and her little sister slept in small wooden beds next to one another, and her sister discovered her when she smelled the strange, sweet smell of blood in the middle of the night. In the moonlight from the curtainless windows, she saw the blood dripping from Summer’s bed and forming a black-lacquer beach the floor. She screamed, so frightened that she almost fainted. Her stepmother ran in right away, picked Summer up and called emergency services.
            Summer didn’t die, of course. She remained emotionless when she told this story to Chen. She always got excited when she told stories about other people but was indifferent to her own. She never shed tears about it. She even laughed then she talked about her sister’s sharp cries that night. She said, “Fortunately, my little sister knew something about emergency medical treatment, otherwise I would’ve died even though a doctor got there. I tell you, she saved my life. Giving up a man to her was the right thing to do. I’m really grateful!"
            Chen took her in his arms. “Your stepmother’s right about you on one point, Summer,” he said. “You really can be tough as nails when you have to!”
            Summer and a girl from the same village named Whitey went in together to open a beauty salon. It did okay at first, but business had become more and more difficult in the past two years. When Summer was learning to be a beautician, many men of a certain status would take the time to go to a salon for skin care, and to flirt with the girls while they were at it. In the past few years, though, upper management had gotten more strict, and in order to avoid complicating their lives, those men didn’t dare come into a salon.
            Summer’s salon and the other places therefore all switched to special care for women. In the past two years, though, women’s patronage at beauty salons had also decreased. Even if they did come in, they generally didn’t buy membership cards for multiple sessions. That meant, if you got rushed one time and messed it up, you’d never see them again. Summer was a first-class beautician who had qualification certificates from both Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and she did good work. Regular customers flocked in because of her craft. There were other beauticians in the salon who did good work, too, but the regulars insisted on Summer.
            On most days Summer wasn’t really all that adroit, but she got control of her nerves as soon as she touched a customer’s skin. She seemed to have eyes growing on the pads of her fingers and used this capacity to feel out acupressure points accurately. Some of her women customers often joked with her. “Any man you massage one time,” they’d say, “is bound to be bewitched and take you home and marry you, even if it costs him his entire family fortune!”
            After Summer and Chen started going together, she really did give him several treatments at home. He told her, “With your technique, I won't ever be able escape your clutches, not for the rest of my life!” In fact she was never able to finish the massage. She’d get halfway through and Chen would carry her off to bed.
            Whitey, Summer’s partner, was fairly good looking but had an irascible temper. She had no patience and seemed not to be content with her lot in life. She was always arrogant and bossy with Summer. Some customers who were unfamiliar with their situation thought she was Summer’s boss. That’s why new customers would sometimes tell Whitey to have Summer serve them.
            Summer was busy all day, while Whitey would come in late and leave early. Sometimes she’d be sitting around and, seeing as she had nothing to do, she’d take off and go shopping. After things had gone on like that for a while, Chen got tired of it and asked Summer, “How does she get off treating you like that? Why do you want to be partners with her?”
            Summer smiled softly. “Things aren’t easy for everyone,” she said. “It’s fate that we got together to do business. I’ve had people say nasty things to me since I was a child and I’m used to it. I’d feel weird if I didn’t have someone cussing me out.”
            Chen only complained to Summer. When Whitey was around, he’d act unconcerned. He’d just say under his breath, “Wait’ll I have some money. I’ll open a great beauty parlor for you!” He’d been saying it for five years, and Summer just took it as a joke.
            She’d told Chen that, while she was in Shenzhen that year, someone had blurted out that he’d open a beauty shop for her.
            Back when she’d attempted suicide, they’d locked her in her room for a whole month. Her stepmother had a guilty conscience and had patiently served her good meals that month. When Summer got out of that room, Cinderella had suddenly become Snow White, and by the end of summer, she’d blossomed from a young girl into a young woman. She rarely spoke and her temperament had completely changed. Her eyes were dark and deep.
            When the accountant saw her, he was so surprised his eyes almost popped out. Summer ignored him, but not because she couldn’t let it go. For one thing, he was now her sister’s boyfriend, and even more, she took pity on him and looked down on him. This two-faced man was the one who was really being punished – her stepmother's daughter was even more barbaric than her stepmother, and both of them would scratch each other’s face when they fought. The daughter’s military uniform had caught the accountant’s eye and blinded him to what she was like.
            The accountant still came and went in their house as he had before. He still bought big and small packages of snacks and slices of meat. No one felt that anything was amiss, and no one thought anyone owed anything to anyone. Except that, from then on, Summer didn’t eat any of that garbage.
            Life quickly returned to normal. The disputes that ordinary families have never became big enough to amount to anything. Summer packed her bags and announced she was going to beautician’s school in Changsha. Many of the other girls who’d left the neighborhood had done that and were now getting along okay. Doing it was like completely changing one’s persona.
            Later on, her stepmother helped her. Summer being able to leave home and go out in the world let her breathe a sigh of relief. She had urged Summer not to go to Changsha, because it would cost a bunch, but then she gave in and contacted a distant relative, a woman who’d opened a beauty salon in Shenzhen and who needed a young girl. Summer bought a ticket to Shenzhen that very day.
            Her stepmother got up early on the day Summer left and fixed a lot of food for her to take with her. She took Summer to the train station, bringing her daughter along as well. Seeing that the train that was headed so far away, she sneered and told her daughter, “She was born to be a chicken and is desperate to become a phoenix!”
            Summer worked in Shenzhen for four years, including a year studying in Hong Kong. She saw a lot of customers and acquired a lot of real-world knowledge. Against expectations, she refined her appearance and mannerisms so that she stood out even more from the crowd. She didn’t much like to talk, and that increased her cool charm several degrees. She was only a junior beautician at the time, but there was one VIP among the customers who always requested her. Because of her, he also issued a special invitation to all the girls in the store to attend a lobster dinner at a five-star restaurant.
            One time, after he’d been drinking, the VIP called Summer into a private room and said, quite seriously, “Go with me.”
            “Go where?” Silly little Summer didn’t understand right away.
            “I’m from Hong Kong. I’ll buy you a condo on the mainland and you can bear my children." The VIP wasn’t good with words and got straight to the point.
            Summer’s face got red and there was a long pause before she answered, “But I want to work on my own.”
            “You want to work? That’s easy. I’ll open a beauty salon for you. You’ll be the boss, so you won't have to work too hard.”
            Summer’s heart skipped a beat. Her boss, her stepmother’s relative, that is, had worked her fingers to the bone her entire life, and wasn’t it just so she could open a beauty parlor?
            Summer thought for a long time. She couldn’t figure out why she should go with this guy, but couldn’t figure out why not to go with him, either. In the end she didn’t go. It wasn’t because she wanted to fight on her own to get ahead, of course, but because she didn’t think she’d need to fight all that hard.
            When she talked to Chen about it, she summed it up with a joke. “I didn’t understand life when I was young,” she said. “I should’ve gone with him. The worst that could’ve happened was that I’d have got myself a condo and a shop! Look at me now, a tiny condo and a rented shop. Lots of people muck around for a lifetime and never even luck into a condo.”
            “That’s easy,” he said. “Just wait!”
            Summer sighed seriously. She thought she’d been joking, but when she thought about it, it really was true!
            The two were intimate for a while after this talk, then Summer got up to make some noodles for him. Chen liked to watch her make him noodles. Truth be told, Summer didn’t feel that cooking was her strong point, but since he liked it, she thought up a variety of ways to cook his noodles. She filled a bowl and put it on the table. She was on a diet, so she just watched him eat and didn't have any herself.