Pivot Point Short Story by Xujun
Eberlein (Published inAgni 62)
The first time Lanbo asked me to wait for him, it was Su
poem that flashed through my mind: “Wait for love to walk
the sun.” I want to travel with you to every
water, I told him, and he said, when the time comes, any place is a
Let’s wait for a pivot point, he said. He looked as
survive divorce as Rambo was to survive war.
the Chinese pronunciation of “Rambo.” Our mutual
Brother gave him this nickname when American movies gushed through the
newly opened gate of China, together with Rambo-style jackets and
sand-washed Lee jeans.
Meanwhile, ashamed of a daughter yet to be betrothed at age 26, my
mother begged all her acquaintances to match-make for me. I saw in her
eyes the fear that I would soon be joining the large crowd of
“aging youth,” a peculiar 1980s label for leftover
women unable to find mates. During the Cultural Revolution, an entire
generation had been sent to the countryside, and spent the best part of
their youth in alien fields, determined not to marry until allowed back
to the city. When they did finally return, the men went for younger
girls, while their female peers were left to age alone. It was like the
aftermath of war, except that the men were wed instead of dead.
But I never considered myself one of those women – after all,
had been in the countryside for only a couple of years, having been
caught in the epilogue of that movement.
As a result of my mother’s exertions, it was not uncommon for
stranger (usually with a college degree) to intrude upon my weekend
solitude. So on a Sunday morning, when an immaculately dressed young
man arrived with an old man, I dutifully pulled out chairs and offered
them tea in the living room, then politely excused myself and retreated
to my bedroom. But the young man followed me and held open my door as I
tried to shut it. “I came to see you, not your
said, clamping on. His boldness raised my
“What for?” I asked. He glanced at the
book in my
hand – the Chinese translation of Prigogine’s Exploring Complexity,
and said, “I’ve long heard of your overflowing
brilliance. I would like to have a chat with you.”
Fine then. I liked challenges from men. Our chat started easily but
soon our lips became spears and our tongues turned to swords. We argued
over whether Prigogine the Nobel laureate’s new theory
the famous debate between Einstein and Bohr – about
God played dice with the universe. When the young man left with his
uncle a few hours later, he looked impressed and I’d had good
I did not expect to hear from this man again, so when his remarks
filtered back through his uncle to my mother and then to me, I was not
at all pleased: “She is too high to reach.” Of
all knew too well this unwritten Chinese convention, implying that I
was a woman not worth dating. After all, “No talent is the
of a woman,” Confucius had said thousands of years ago, and
one had forgotten it since.
I was not as smart when I felt insulted. I looked up the address of his
institute in the phonebook, walked to a pay phone on the street below
his office building, and dialed his number. Since he had come to chat
with me out of curiosity the first time, I presumed he would come to
meet me this time as well. And he did come, but hardly looking as
relaxed as when we’d first met. We stood on the sidewalk
at each other, a bus passing by and bureaucratically throwing dirt on
us. “What is it?” he asked.
earth makes you look down at me?” I snapped back. That,
the opposite of my intended effect, cleared up his puzzlement as if I
had just granted him an advantage. “I am honestly
up at you,” he replied in an innocent and matter-of-fact
“but wouldn’t it be too tiring to look up to my
everyday?” The frankness in his answer muted me.
What was I
doing? Begging to be his wife? Or begging him to
a different kind of woman? Either way I was doomed to
In shame I turned and left. “You’ll make a worthy
though,” he said to my back.
At home, I looked around my simple bedroom for anything
white bedspread, black-white checkered quilt, a gray calligraphy
penholder and an untidy pile of books on a worn, nut-brown desk. There
was no hint of gender anywhere. I sat dazed on the edge of my bed. This
was the ironic side of being an educated Chinese woman. Your
learnedness scared most men away. They just wanted their
cute, obedient, and good at posing.
Fortunately – or unfortunately – Lanbo was not one
“I’ve never met a woman as real as you
are,” he said,
fixing a long look at me until I turned away with embarrassment.
“Can’t say you are really pretty,” he
“but you surely warrant a long look.”
My mother chose not to acknowledge that one hand can’t clap.
she began to view every bachelor as a suitable son-in-law, I finally
had to tell her I would rather be in love with a man I
marry than marry a man I didn’t love. As if I had a choice.
My sensitive mother was at once alarmed. She asked me if there in fact
was such a man; if so what man was he, a worker or a cadre? In Western
terms this was equivalent to asking “Blue collar or white
collar?” Until she asked, the question had never entered my
It wasn’t his fault that he did not have a middle-school
– no one in his generation did. It was the Cultural
for Mao’s sake! Despite my college education, he had read
more prohibited books than I, including the black market translation of
Once, before we became lovers, I visited the warehouse where he worked
and found his boss requesting that he attend an
“anti-illiteracy” class. He and I made fun of that
nonstop until it got boring.
I was afraid my mother’s next question would be why I loved
What could I tell her? That he could mimic Rambo as vividly as he
emulated Chairman Mao and made me laugh? That I enjoyed his coarse palm
stroking my bare skin in the dark?
But my mother had already wrapped her fist around the core: he was a
married man. She did not say much, for which I considered myself lucky.
Who’d have expected her stern face when he greeted her on his
first visit! Lanbo was so embarrassed that he lost all his wit; he just
lowered his head and left. I wept bitterly and refused to talk to my
mother for weeks, thinking a thousand times about leaving home, but
having nowhere to go. Houses were owned and assigned by the government,
and for many years there had been no extra houses to assign to anyone.
In the city it was not unusual for a young married couple to share a
single room with their parents, each listening to every squeak from the
other bed. I was the envy of many because I had my own bedroom in my
Thus I stayed, just not talking to my mother, while she, unable to bear
my silence, cooked my favorite dishes – her way of making
And Lanbo came again. There was no other safe place for us: the eyes of
China’s masses were nets above and snares below. He knocked
the front door, not greeting whoever opened it, and kept his eyes to
the floor as he sliced through the thistles and thorns of my
family’s gazes. As soon as he stepped into my bedroom, he
deadbolted the door. When his generous warm lips touched mine I forgot
all else. Tips of two tongues twirling and thrusting, we sucked each
other out of breath, letting go to take air then tightly wrapping onto
each other again. We could never have enough, as if our tongues were
doing the lovemaking that our bodies were not permitted.
I went to see Old Brother, one of the few friends who knew about our
predicament. It was in his house that I had first met Lanbo. But I
could not bring myself to say anything. How could I speak such
unspeakable things to a man friend?
You are being serious again, Old Brother said, I told you not to be so
serious. You won’t be suffering if you are not serious. No
how serious you are, it is nothing but an affair, a scandal.
But it is love, I mumbled.
No, it’s sexual desire, Old Brother said. Grow up, little
girl. Where is your intelligence when it comes to these matters?
I will prove to you it’s love, I thought. But I
didn’t say it. Instead came these words: Why can’t
Old Brother sighed. It’s not that he doesn’t want a
divorce. He can’t. Going through the divorce process is like
peeling a man’s skin alive. Look around – any woman
wants a divorce can get one. Have you ever heard of a man succeeding if
he wants a divorce? You think he likes to go home? After
marriage, men have not even a tiny bit of desire left toward their
wives. All are like this.
I didn’t like the word “desire”; it had a
sound that blasphemed love. I gaped at Old Brother, my fool’s
mouth hanging open. After a while I asked if what he said was
true. Yes, all husbands are like this, Old Brother confirmed. Then he
added in a teasing – or perhaps truthful –tone,
could’ve been me instead of him.”
I walked slowly out of Old Brother’s house and did not go
right away. Instead, I took the stone path down hundreds of steps to
the river. On the rocky beach where Lanbo and I once sat snuggling in
the dark, I sauntered back and forth. What did she
look like? How did she feel? From Lanbo’s occasional words
her, she must have been a kind and obedient wife. She was a mother who
loved her son more than her own life. Sometimes, with a long sigh,
Lanbo would wish she were a shrew. If so, things for us would be
easier, he’d said.
Perhaps she sensed something but kept silent, as a wise wife would.
Perhaps she convinced herself not to believe the rumors. She could
endure anything to keep her husband and her family, just as I endured
the pain of our love. It is not without reason that the Chinese
character for “endure” is a knife atop a heart.
At the gate of my parents’ apartment building, a figure stood
in the shadows.
“I have waited for two hours,” he said hoarsely.
I wanted to collapse into his arms but I had to restrain myself. There
were eyes peering from at least one window. Together we walked up the
stairs, and passed through the gloomy gazes of my parents. As I closed
my bedroom door behind us, my father loudly scolded my younger sister. You should have
morals! You should know shame! I turned my
stereo to the highest volume, but Lanbo turned it back to normal.
He sat there, stupefied. I don’t demand a divorce, I said,
putting a smile on my face. I want only your love. Marriage is just
paper, I don’t care. Look at the bright side – we
every weekday evening together.
I felt relieved, even a bit noble.
He grabbed me and held me so tight that I lost my breath. When he
finally looked up, his eyes were glistening with tears. Then his hoarse
“I must marry you in this life!”
When life began again in spring, he didn’t go home one
climbed up a wild hill in the Southern Mountains and sat in the meadow.
The blinding sunshine in this uninhabited place pleased Lanbo so much
that he lay facing the sky, four limbs spread on the grass. Eyes
closed, he told his “insert” stories: walking days
nights along a river to fish; lying naked on the beach under the sun
when he got tired. His voice intimate, warm, and far, as if in a dream.
I took out an issue of World
Science from my bag - there was no more perfect moment to
Just when I turned the page to an interesting article, he knocked the
magazine out of my hands, pulled me down on the grass, and yelled with
joy, “Damn you reading at such a moment!”
So we lay
shoulder to shoulder on the grass and narrowed our eyes to squint at
the blue sky, white clouds, and the golden sun spotting through the
leaves of a big banyan tree. He asked what I was reading. Karl Popper,
I said. What did that foreigner have to say? Oh why don’t you
read it too, I sat up and tried to reach the magazine. He pinned my arm
down. I want you to tell me, he said. Okay, the old man said science is
not truth, rather it’s the ever changing conjecture of human
rationality. Science advances by deductive falsification instead of
verification. He turned and eyed me for a moment. So, he said, what we
learned in school is all wrong? Our way of thinking is all wrong? I was
surprised by his question and gave it careful thought. He was right
– Popper’s theory was indeed different from the
materialism taught. How come I felt Popper to be so naturally logical
and did not even notice its anti-materialism?
Who cares about Popper or Pepper, he laughed, I’ll just think
way I do. Does philosophy serve any damn purpose? I’m better
without it! You’re sexier without it! Then with the
a thunderbolt, he sat up and kicked the magazine, which made several
somersaults rolling down the hill. I widened my eyes and
helplessly as it disappeared from sight. “It’s
annoying when a woman talks philosophy!” he added. I was
first, then all of a sudden felt ashamed at the redundancy of thought.
He placed his wide callused palm on my breast. The hand paused, then
tightened its grip. He glanced to the left, the right, the rear, then
began to unbuckle my jeans. I closed my eyes. Tree leaves prattled
garrulously, and a cool breeze gently stroked my belly.
A sound, heavy as
a rock falling, shook my eyes open. Lanbo was gazing at something
above, his face blanched, his fingers frozen on his zipper.
I propped my head up and turned to see a pair of big dirty bare feet on
“I am People’s Militia!” the dark-faced
announced, imposing his rifle on Lanbo. “Get up, go with me
Lanbo got up with effort, his pant legs trembling in the
said, “Listen, brother, I didn’t do
“Shut up, rapist! I have been watching you from up in the
tree for quite a while!”
But you jumped down a little too soon, I thought.
“He’s not a rapist,” I said.
boyfriend.” The word “boyfriend” came
from my lips
with euphoria. I had never had a chance to use it before.
The peasant blinked, apparently baffled by my ingratitude, and he
refused to address me. He shouted at Lanbo: “Then you are a
No good man will do this thing in the wild. Move, go with me
Lanbo fished a bill out of his pant pocket. “Brother, get
some cigarettes for yourself.”
“Don’t insult me with your stinky money!”
A slap hit
Lanbo’s face with a crisp sound. I waited for Lanbo to strike
back; instead he cupped his cheek. “I’ll go with
you let her go.” His voice came out with muffled heroism as
leered at the rifle’s black muzzle. He must have been
the torture and humiliation ahead, and himself holding my name unto his
“He’s my boyfriend! Are you deaf? He’s
not a thug!
I’m a government researcher!” I jumped up and
yelled at the
peasant. I took out my red work ID and pushed it into his face.
“Can you see? Can you see? You insult and beat a government
cadre! You are the thug!”
The peasant stared at me at a loss. I dragged Lanbo’s hand
said, “Let’s go! Who wants to talk to a
We sauntered away as casually as possible. After a hundred meters I
looked back, the peasant still standing there watching us. As soon as
we got out of his sight, though, Lanbo pulled his hand from mine.
“Don’t let others see us like this,” he
He did not visit me for several days after that. When he showed up
again neither of us mentioned the incident.
Now we spent all our time within walls. Each weeknight between 7 and
10, Lanbo and I rendezvoused behind my bedroom door. Then he went back
to sleep alone in his shabby dorm next to his warehouse while I tossed
and turned in my queen bed longing for him. Each Saturday he took the
long-distance bus back to his wife and son in a northern suburb,
returning to work on Monday morning. We hadn’t had a night
together since he broke my hymen over a year ago in a
home, and our welcome there was long worn out. We couldn’t
into a hotel either - a marriage certificate and matching photo IDs
So, more than anything else I wanted to have my own apartment. And as
the Economic Reform unfolded, this goal – once unreachable
– came within my grasp.
I worked for the Economics Research Center of the government, where I
was building a comprehensive simulation model for our city’s
development. Recently, for the first time in decades, our work unit had
constructed a new apartment building for employees. When the assignment
process for the new apartments began, a war also began. Each day a
surfeit of people in their early 20s to late 40s descended on the
housing office, and I found myself among them, abandoning my usual
disdain for crowds.
A woman who processed data in my office was always ahead of me in line.
A couple of years older and with more seniority, she too was single.
“Horse face,” she was nicknamed because of her long
Only by smiling could she shorten her face into something close to
normal, so she smiled a lot. In the housing office, though, she
quarreled and begged loudly and nonstop, her chin longer than ever.
When she didn’t get anywhere, she would look around to vent
frustration. This behavior became so predictable that I always managed
to escape before her vulgar remarks fell on me, but a new colleague was
less lucky. He had recently graduated from college, too new to have any
hope for an apartment; I suspected he was only there to gain
experiences for a future housing war. Horse Face jeered at him,
practically neighing, and called him a “warty toad lusting
a swan’s flesh.”
After failed efforts to settle numerous fights, the authorities decided
to score employees not by their age but by total working years plus
marital status. Fortunately, the time I had spent as an insert in the
countryside and as a student at the university counted, giving me six
additional years, and putting me last on the list of lucky employees,
the only one unmarried. Horse Face did not get in. It turned out that
years ago she had avoided the countryside with a fake diagnosis of some
strange disease, making her total working years fewer than mine. I was
so thrilled at the thought of my own apartment that I woke up in the
I told Lanbo the good news. He was skeptical. Happiness comes alone
while misfortune loves company, he said, citing an adage. His words
made me check back over years of my life, and I felt a bit easier when
I found nothing that could be called happiness.
I went to the housing office as soon as they issued keys.
“You are not on the list,” the clerk said as he
checked for my name.
The last one.” I smiled.
He looked again carefully and shook his head. He showed me the list. In
place of my name was that of Horse Face.
“But her score was lower than mine!” I cried.
The man patiently took more papers from his drawer. Before he finished
checking the scores, to my astonishment, two people walked in
hand-in-hand: Horse Face dressed in bright pink, and Warty Toad in a
western suit. Horse Face grinned like a blooming flower as
generously stuffed a handful of Double Happiness candies in my pocket.
It turned out that the two had gotten their marriage certificate the
day before, raising Horse Face’s score above mine.
On their moving day, I stood in a far corner outside the new building,
watching Horse Face and Warty Toad quarrelling and transporting
furniture to the apartment that would have belonged to me, daydreaming
the freedom that my own space would have brought, while silently
cursing their dirty strategy. It would be too late when they found out
how difficult it was to get rid of a marriage certificate, and that
would be their punishment.
I angrily added a housing parameter to my simulation model.
I’d been alone, I would have chewed and swallowed the
myself, then forgotten about it. Now I turned to Lanbo for consolation,
calling and asking to meet him at my home right away. I had never
before asked to see him during the workday. He slipped out of
warehouse and came to me. What happened? he asked. Nothing, I
said, but could we have a night together? How about tonight?
haven’t been together for a long time, have we? My voice
I want to be with you too, he said, and held my face in his palms; but
we have no place. You know we have no place to go.
Could you please find a place? Please?
He sat down and his head slumped. You know I can’t find one,
he said. We can never have unrestrained sex in China.
My tears came without warning. I cried so hard that the sky darkened
and the floor sank. He sat with no words for me. When I had cried
myself out, he told me to take care, and went back to work.
Then came a pivot point.
My parents, who were always traveling on business when I was little but
never again after I grew up, went to visit my older sister, who lived
with her husband in a neighboring city. That gave us three full days.
Lanbo and I took sick leave from work, and we brought in plenty of food
so we wouldn’t need to set foot outside. We planned to ignore
knocks on the door.
The first night it took him several hours to overcome his humiliation
before he could undress in my parents’ house. Faint sounds
door and footsteps upstairs alarmed him even though the door was bolted
from the inside. All the while remaining dressed, he held my nude body
tightly in his arms. Vast heat from his chest penetrated his clothes
and enveloped me, his prickly chin pressing against my soft cheek. His
palms roamed my body, sometimes gentle, sometimes uneasy, until his
strokes lulled me to sleep. I curled like a kitten against his broad
chest. In the middle of the night he attacked me with colossal emotion.
Half asleep, half awake, I lifted my face to the almost unbearable
pleasure. Even with my eyes closed in the darkness I could feel his,
bright and shining. His male softness and rudeness poised in the rise
and fall of his body. I told him I wanted to die at that moment; in
such pleasure, death did not seem frightening. Don’t be
said, smiling. I murmured, then let us do it all night, and he laughed
The next day we stayed in bed except to fill our empty stomachs and to
go to the bathroom. The second night was just as joyful, and smoother,
but hard knocks on the door early in the morning scared us witless. We
were frozen until I recognized Old Brother’s voice and
reluctantly opened the door. He walked to Lanbo and said venomously,
“You really are here! I’ve looked for you
wife is in the hospital! In critical condition!” He threw
words at Lanbo without looking at me, as if to avoid something.
Lanbo quickly dressed and left with Old Brother, saying little,
shooting me a glance I could not decipher.
He disappeared for two weeks.
When he was not
with me I thought a lot – mostly about whether his wife would
all right or not, or rather, whether she might die. I could hardly tell
if I was hoping for or afraid of her death. It was a very long two
When he finally showed up again, he said simply,
better now.” He told me she had appendicitis,
hadn’t asked. Then he sat numb like a wooden log,
and no movement, for some while.
“Do you want me to tell you the truth?” He lifted
stared at me, and, not waiting for my answer, said, “I must
you…Who else can I tell otherwise? I must tell you
Then he said:
“There was a moment, by her hospital bed, I wished her to
die…but only for a few seconds, I
grabbed his hair with one hand, crying out lowly like a wolf:
“My heavens, what man have I become.”
His words emptied a bottle of five spices in my stomach. I did not know
what woman I had become either. I did not know what was changing us.
That was how the pivot point passed. Life went on as usual
that: he still spent every weekday evening with me and went home every
And I gloomily added another parameter, the stableness of family, to my
A philosopher friend came to say goodbye to me after being accepted by
a small university in the U.S. to study for his Ph.D. He was the one
who’d once asked my motivation for living. His was
responsibility, he said, and I said mine was curiosity.
He’d warned, using a word that we mathematicians try hard to
avoid. You are longing for tomorrow, but you should be rejecting
tomorrow. You say you want to live and yet you are looking to
death? Doesn’t tomorrow mean one day closer to
During his visit he told me a true story that went like this:
A man stood managing his breathing in the exercise of qi
the half-ring of spectators surrounding him were white-bearded
scholars, government officials, newspaper reporters, authoritative
experts, and skeptical scientists.
Not far from the man was a solid brick wall.
The man started to walk toward it. Unblinking gazes followed
steps. He walked forward slowly and continued through the
"What did you feel when you went through?" an expert asked.
man said he saw tiny cracks that expanded wide enough to let him in.
My philosopher friend was a steady, taciturn scholar. He was there in
the half-ring of spectators. I asked him if he really believed what he
saw – an apparently redundant question.
He explained that in the “super-functional” man's
– a space overlapped with ours, the man’s thoughts
controlled material; in our space it was the opposite. “Our
is the prisoner of our body,” he said in his deep voice.
Later I would be bewitched reading a story about Wittgenstein. The
world-famous philosopher once asked his students, “What would
say if I walk through this wall?” The students
was really going to do it, but of course he didn’t. He
couldn’t. The question I had was, did my philosopher friend
this story about Wittgenstein before he witnessed a man going through a
wall? If so, did Wittgenstein’s words impact his
what he saw at a subconscious level?
I told Lanbo the story about the super-functional man, careful not to
use any philosophical terms. He said, “Nonsense. Walls just
can’t be walked through.”
It was that simple and factual.
What was I in? A crisis that was neither war nor earthquake but an
impasse where all was well and nothing could be done?
So we waited for another pivot point. Each evening we met, we kissed,
we quarreled, we chatted, we cried, like a true couple, except for the
one thing that couples do. Yet I was so accustomed to his presence in
my life that if he did not show up in the evening, I could not get any
work done the whole next day.
I waited with him from winter to spring, from spring to
Winter had long gone, spring no longer returned, fall was here again;
still he had not said anything to his wife.
One night in my bedroom we watched a movie on TV about a man living
with a wife and four concubines in the 1920s. Lanbo commented with
envy, “What a comfortable life!” “Not to
said. He quickly changed the topic, and that raised my suspicion.
I designed a simple psychological test in my mind, then tried it on
“If the two of us run into a natural disaster on a mountain,
an avalanche or mudslide, what would you think first?”
“That won’t happen.”
“What if it does?”
“Run. One gets away, good. Two get away, better,”
with no hesitation, then asked me with alarm, “What would you
“I want to be with you, alive or dead.”
“Woman,” he said.
“I am just a supplement in your spare time, right?”
He didn’t answer. Storm clouds accumulated on his face while
I asked again, spellbound.
“Ask such annoying things and you want me to come
he said, and took to his heels. His hand stopped on the
Then he turned to face me. “Am I really as bad as you
“Let’s run away,” I begged.
“Are you being impractical again?” he
“Where can we run? Besides, I don’t want to run. We
only wait, let time arrange everything.”
I took a long shower after he left, examining myself closely for the
first time. I carefully massaged every part of my body, knowing it was
as graceful and beautiful as ever. The body was still young; getting
old was my heart. At this moment I felt, not just thought, that human
life is such a rare thing, a treasure. But only if I could spend it in
a style of my own choosing could I say I was treasuring it. I saw such
a lifestyle like the horizon— the harder I walked toward it,
further it receded.
The latest parameter I added was for lifestyle choice.
As colorful lines folded and unfolded on my computer screen, forming
grotesque shapes, my tapping on the keyboard became nervous and errors
occurred more frequently. My heart pounded in anticipation.
Following my clicks, the curves changed; regular oscillations gradually
became irregular and unpredictable. At last, the entire screen was a
fantastic, unrecognizable chaos.
I found several parameters whose smallest changes were magnified by the
system to the extent that chaos ensued. My model revealed the
stochastic nature of a social economic system, as well as its causes.
For the first time in China, human behavioral factors were introduced
into an economic model. A myriad of choices, the number of people
making choices, and the coordination of these choices eventually led to
the system’s high unpredictability.
To my surprise, my simulation model was admired and loudly praised even
before its official review. What’s more, a few reformists in
city government who advocated complete open-market economy regarded my
model as scientific proof of their opinions, which showed how much the
politicians knew about science. The mayor, a relatively young
reformist leader in his early fifties, even received me in his office
and promised to help me obtain a significant scientific
asked my age, which reminded me I was one day short of thirty. Good,
good, the mayor said, the age of standing. His juggling of allusion did
not impress me. Everyone knew the saying from Confucius:
“Standing at thirty, unconfused at forty, knowing destiny at
“Young intellectuals are our Party’s treasure; we
care of them well.” After giving instructions to his male
secretary, who faithfully nodded while taking down his boss’s
words, the mayor turned to ask if I had any personal requests.
I said I wished that unmarried and married women had equal rights to an
“You don’t have an apartment?” The mayor
surprised. “My apologies,” he said seriously.
outstanding comrade like you deserves special consideration. We will
resolve the issue for you. Believe in the Party!”
I felt more detached than I would have expected. It was Saturday
morning. Lanbo wouldn’t come to me today.
I returned home to find a letter from my philosopher friend, urging me
to go west. Intelligent women like you have better lives here, he
wrote. There is this school called MIT, the best science school on
earth. You should try to get in at any cost.
That didn’t sound appealing to me. Restarting life
in a foreign country at thirty? And what about Lanbo?
Really, it was quite funny when I thought about it: “go
west” is a folk adage meaning “go to
Buddhists believe Paradise is in the west, which one can only reach in
the afterlife. I placed the letter under my table lamp.
I was tired; I wanted to take a nap. Then I remembered
I had forgot to tell Lanbo about my birthday. Men don’t
things like this. Maybe, just maybe, he would make an
and spend this weekend with me?
I rolled off the bed and threw on a jacket. I ran out the
door and down the stairs.
I hoped he was still in his office. At the public phone desk
small retail store I dialed once, twice, and again. The cold metal dial
was getting warm; still no one answered at the other end. The only
sound was the stubborn long “du--,
I dragged my legs home. So he had left in the morning. He was
already there by now, with his good-tempered wife and adorable young
son. Tonight, he would attend to her lovingly.
My room was empty and cold. I couldn’t bear it. I
down to the street again, hoping to absorb some warmth from the bustle
of the crowd.
Row upon row of retail clothing and merchandise stores were all piping
music into the street to attract customers. The reform and the
opening-up policy had made everyone thirsty for money. The entire city
seemed devoted to private business now. I idled away my time here and
there. Above a theater, a giant ad for the Russian movie
Doesn’t Believe in Tears” bore down on
me. Hanging on
the sides of many store doors were opposing couplets written on scrolls
of red paper, manufacturing a holiday atmosphere. It took me a few
moments to remember this was September, 1987, and the 66th birthday of
the Party was coming soon. What was there to celebrate?
At 2:30 pm I called again from another public phone. The familiar voice
spoke after the first ring. For a moment all my misgivings gave way to
“The mayor promised me an apartment,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” he said.
I paused. “Could you stay here tonight?”
I asked softly. “Tomorrow is my birthday.”
He was quiet.
“Sorry. No. Don’t be too selfish. I try very hard
to please both…Hello? Are you there?”
I was quiet.
“You know I’ll be back Monday. All
“How about Sunday night?” I backed up a step.
“Can’t say. But don’t feel bad. Actually,
compute this for yourself – I have been spending far more
with you than with her.”
Slowly I put down the phone.
He wanted me to calculate the days? The store clerk stopped me as I was
walking out. “Four fen!”
she demanded. I dropped a handful of coins in her palm without counting.
So many people in the streets. From time to time a lone woman
my age or slightly older – an aged youth
– drifted toward me. More often I saw young couples with
little boys. My gaze followed the boys long after they passed.
Counting who had gotten more days? I thought my reeducation had ended
in the 70’s. I thought love was so different from politics.
I wandered around until after seven. It was getting dark. By the time I
got home, my parents were having supper. My younger sister was out with
her boyfriend. My mother said they had waited for me for quite a while
and she had kept my meal warm in the wok on the stove.
“Come on quick, have supper with us,” she called.
softened a bit. I said I had eaten, and walked into my bedroom without
another look at them. I bolted the door from the inside and
turned on my stereo: Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony,
music both uplifting and heavyhearted, as if he had written it just for
Next to the stereo, the neat pile of pages reminded me of the review
meeting next week. Somehow, thinking of my model made me feel a bit
reluctant to part from this world. But I quickly overcame this
The simplest way was to use the electrical outlet where my table lamp
was plugged in, though I had to be very gentle – avoid making
noise that might frighten my parents. Even over the sound of
stereo, I could hear their small talk at the dining table.
I unplugged the lamp and measured my two little fingers against the
holes in the outlet. Seemed the right size.
I stood and tried to think of anything I might need to take care of.
Nothing came to mind. All right, I said to myself.
As my fingers touched the black plastic shell of the bell-shaped
outlet, a thought floated into my mind. Since there was such
era as now, when stupid and pretentious women were the happiest, if
only by chance, there should be another era in which a woman like me
could have a good life. Yes, there would be such an era.
had to be one.
This thought delighted me so much that I withdrew my arms and grinned.
Immediately I saw my slightly open mouth and happily curved facial
lines in the mirror. My expression was inconsistent with the
seriousness of whatever I was trying to do. Like I would be able to
wait for that era to come! I closed my lips tight and knitted my
eyebrows together, remembering Lanbo’s comment that I looked
prettiest when I wept or frowned. But I had no desire to weep right
now. I was thinking only of how thrilling a motion it would
when my fingers, one from each hand, poked into the two black
holes. In one move, just one move, the disordered electrons
form an orderly current between the positive and negative ends, with
blue sparks starting from one finger, flowing through the heart, and
closing the loop at the other finger. Then the oblivion of the
west. The whole process probably would take less than a
although I didn’t know that for sure. Very simple,
it? Just that simple like my first night with him, a moment I had
regarded in the past as the most important, but hadn’t it
passed in a blink?
Right at this moment an uncontrollable desire throbbed from my lower
body and surged up. My nakedness coincided with a man’s so
tightly there was no layer of air separating us. His powerful male end
erected passionately in my unselfish and joyful containment –
wanted to go mad I wanted to cry I wanted to die. No moment ever
provides higher satisfaction than this. The simplest, most primitive
satisfaction. The man’s face was an unknown one. But did that
As I reached toward the outlet, my last worry was whether 220 volts
were enough. In a clumsy move I knocked the unplugged lamp from the
table and it clattered to the floor. My philosopher friend’s
letter was exposed where the lamp had been.