I had waited a long time at the door before the nanny came. She looked distracted as she led me to the study on the second floor, where the girl sat waiting. It was summer and I was glad to be in.
“You are my teacher,” the girl announced as soon as she saw me. She wore a yellow dress and could not be more than ten. I sat down next to her. On the desk was an impressive array of textbooks and stationary.
“Hello. What’s your name?”
“My name is Crystal,” she said in English.
“You can call me Mr. Li.”
I fumbled in my bag. It was hiding behind some newspapers but I finally found it.
“Here,” I said, showing Crystal the textbook I had brought. “We’ll start by using this since your mother told me you’re quite advanced in your English studies.”
The girl looked impressed. She had started to flip through the textbook when the nanny came in, balancing a paper cup of what looked like tea. Without warning the cup slipped, spilling pale green liquid over the wooden floor. The girl let out a cry. “Can’t you be more careful!” she scolded. The nanny apologized several times and went out. I wondered what was the matter with her.
“Her son’s sick,” said Crystal. She was looking at me closely. “She needs money.”
“Is it really bad?”
“No, but it’s her only son.” She fell silent for a while, as if to give weight to her words. She looked more than ten. “Besides, she’s getting old.”
I paid attention to the nanny’s face when she came in to clean up the spilt tea. It was very brown and dusty with wrinkles. I thought it gave her a certain solemnity. When I left, she was making a phone call and did not open the door for me. Outside, the setting sun did nothing to soften the heat. I took the metro to Meilin. It was cool in the metro with the air conditioning, but there were so many people it did not make much difference. The air felt pregnant with water when I got out of the metro, and I thought it must rain in the evening. I had to walk another fifteen minutes. It felt like moving through hot jelly.
I found Wang Lin in the living room. He was dozing sprawled out on the sofa. He woke when I closed the door.
“You look puzzled,” I said.
“I fell asleep.”
“It’s the weather. I think it will rain in the evening.”
“I don’t know.”
I sat down next to him in the sofa. The sofa was not big and I regretted it.
“So how was it?”
“The teaching—did the girl like you?”
“The entire family fell in love with me.”
Wang Lin smiled. His teeth shone in the semidarkness.
“Are you really friends with your boss?” I was curious. Wang had introduced me to the job through his boss, a friend of my new student’s father. It was only part-time. Tuesday through Saturday I went to the office, but it didn’t pay much.
“Oh, no—he likes me, though.”
He smiled again and stood up. “I better get back to work.”
“It’s Saturday.” I always thought Wang was a little crazy. He was very obstinate too. “Thank you anyways.”
“No problem.” He had one hand on the knob of his bedroom door. And then he disappeared.
I meant to go back to my room but dozed off instead on the sofa. There was no air conditioning in the living room, and I awoke choking on my own sweat. The air weighed on me, and I got up to knock on Wang Lin’s door. The sky loomed dark and close through the window. After a while, the door creaked open.
“Hey.” He had not pulled the door fully open, and I could only see part of his face. He was wearing black-rimmed glasses and his eyes looked older than before.
“Hey,” I said. “Would you like to grab some dinner? It’s getting late.”
Wang was caught off guard. “Outside?” he said, turning back into his room. When he came out again, he had taken off his glasses.
The apartment was on the sixth floor, and we went down several flights of stairs in darkness. Wang Lin had moved in two or three months ago. Earlier I had been living alone, and still earlier there had been another that occupied his room for nearly a year. That was the longest any of them ever stayed. They were always moving to this place and that, those migrants, all eyes and ears for cheaper rent and higher pay. I would have liked the place by myself, but it was a reasonable thing to do, more economic, and after all, you did not have to socialize with your lodger. Then once in a while you came across one like Wang Lin that was not at all dislikable, who walking down the stairs in silence and darkness with you knew would make a fine friend.
Outside it was dark for a summer night. Where we lived the apartment buildings were built almost shoulder-to-shoulder, leaving little space for passing through, and we walked with our shoulders hunched, feeling like house rats caught in a seam until the street’s clamor and smell of corrupted fish invaded our senses. Many cars went by even at this hour. Along the street there were a lot of trees and no lights. The trees provided shelter in summertime, making afternoon walks bearable, although I suspected the suffocating Shenzhen heat had nothing to do with the sun. In evenings we relied on stores along the banks of the streets for light. The incomplete darkness softened Meilin, and for all its ugliness it did not offend.
“Where do we go?” Wang Lin asked.
“What about Zhuoyue Hui?”
“Sure,” he said.
“It’s been months since I last went,” I said. “Don’t you like it there?”
He seemed to not know the way, and I walked a little faster so he could follow.
“It’s about ten-minutes’ walk. Haven’t you ever been there?”
“Only once,” he said embarrassedly.
We walked down Meilin Road. It was not yet seven and very dark for a summer night.
“It’s so dark tonight.”
“But it won’t rain. Maybe during the night. But never when you’re awake.”
For a while, we were both silent. Then he said, “I have so much to learn about Shenzhen. The places. The people.”
“There’s not much to learn, really. You’d have learned enough about Shenzhen if you didn’t work all the time.”
Wang Lin said nothing. It was suddenly awkward, and I was glad when I saw the lights of the mall between black broken trees. To me it had always been a wonder, an oasis of sorts, cool and well lighted and naked in its infantile skin against the soiled and sagging seas of Meilin. The contrast especially touched me at night, as though it was through darkness we saw most clearly the old and the new, the solitary city rising steadily above the persistent relic of a village.
“It’s almost as new as you,” I said.
“Zhuoyue Hui’s been open scarcely a year.”
We went in through the main entrance. Inside it was cool and the light dazzling. In places like this there was no roughness and always a fresh smell of ice. I felt refreshed.
“Where would you like to eat?” I asked Wang Lin.
“Oh, I don’t mind.” He seemed embarrassed. “Where would you like to eat?”
“We should go to the Sichuan restaurant. It’s very good.”
The Sichuan restaurant was on the fifth floor and we took the escalator. As we ascended, I caught him eying the advertisement signs hanging off the ceiling.
“Are there many malls like that in Changsha?”
“There are a few.”
The restaurant was designed to resemble rural Sichuan. The walls were yellowish brown to imitate mud and the tables and benches were made of wood. I thought it was very fun and neat.
We sat down and looked at the menu. Wang Lin called the waitress.
“We would like sautéed bullfrog with pickled peppers,” I said, “and roasted cauliflower with chilli.”
The waitress wrote this down on a scrap of paper. She was very pale and young and looked like she should be at school. Her face was round and innocent.
“Is that all?” She had finished writing and looked evasively at our table.
“Add two bowls of rice. Do you have any drinks?”
“Yes,” she said and did not seem sure. “Here.”
“Do you want anything?” I asked Wang Lin. He shook his head.
“An apple juice, please.”
The waitress went away. Wang Lin gave me a smile. He looked tired.
“You like Sichuan food?”
“I try it once in a while,” I said. “I like it but it’s too spicy. But it wouldn’t be spicy to you.”
“No. We’re used to spicy.”
We sat not talking for a while. When it became too awkward, I looked at my phone. There was news about a schoolboy who jumped off the top of his apartment building. The case was still being investigated.
“Children these days are so spoilt. Another boy just committed suicide.”
“They don’t know yet.”
The waitress brought my apple juice and I took a sip. It felt cold down my stomach. “What is it like, working at Tencent?”
“It’s great. The environment’s very good.”
“You seem to work all the time.”
“I don’t mind it,” he said, and looking at him I believed he didn’t. “Most of it’s not difficult work. It’s like solving similar maths problems over and over again.”
“Doesn’t it get boring?”
“Most jobs are boring, I suppose.” Then he thought of something and added, “But yours isn’t. It must be interesting being a journalist.”
“It’s interesting when you forget about the salary.”
“Not at all,” I said. “It’s not so profitable a profession.”
The sautéed bullfrog was brought to us in a stew pan then, and we stopped talking. I watched the waitress place the stew pan over a stovetop. Her hands were very white and her nails clean-cut. They were rare for a country girl.
“Thank you,” I said. She was startled and went away. In a while she brought the cauliflower and rice too.
We ate our bullfrogs with rice and did not talk much. When we were done, I called the waitress.
“One hundred forty-four in total,” she said.
Wang Lin and I split the bill. As I fumbled for my wallet, I asked the girl where she was from.
“What?” she said.
“Your hometown. Where are you from?”
She had that startled look of a rodent and did not want to answer. I asked again and she said, “Guizhou.”
“Where in Guizhou?”
“A small town near Guiyang.”
“Listen.” I said. “I’m a journalist and I’m writing something about country people coming to work in Shenzhen. Can I interview you some time?”
The waitress looked scared now. She did not seem to understand.
“You just need to give me your number,” I said. “It’s one phone call to you but a great help to me.”
Poor girl, I thought. She wanted to say no but couldn’t. There was nobody around for help and her eyes became shaded with disappointment. “Here it is.” The numbers were scribbled crooked-looking on the scrap paper they used for orders. She seemed frustrated with herself for giving it.
“Please call after nine in the evening. I have to work during the day.”
“May I ask your name?”
“Thank you very much, Luo Mei. You have done me a great favor.” The waitress blushed profusely and saw us out.
Wang Lin and I were silent on the way home. But when I was about to go in my room he said, “There’s no interview, is there?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ll only break the girl’s heart.”
Wang Lin looked hurt, like he was the one broken-hearted instead of the girl. Then he pursed his lips and sighed. “But what’s the use of saying it? You won’t listen.” He went in the bathroom to shower and did not mention it again.
That night there was no rain. Sunday came with deceptive radiance, the sky cloudless and glowering with sun. But we smelled water in the air, water that was starting to reek from hiding so long. I drove to work to avoid staying out of conditioned air. On Monday it got worse. The weight of the entire atmosphere seemed to pile on you, and you had a hard time breathing. I was busy all day. It was not until Tuesday that I thought about the waitress again. I went home thinking about her and called after dinner.
“Can’t talk now. Call later.” She hung up.
I waited until it was nine thirty. Then I dialed again.
“Hello. Who is this?’
“The journalist who wants to interview you. I dined at your restaurant a couple of days ago. You haven’t forgotten, have you?”
“Oh,” she said. Her voice trembled. “What questions do you have?”
“Let me see,” I said. I could just picture her, pale and nervous over the phone, probably a Nokia, her knuckles pale from clutching. “I’ve quite a lot in fact. Is it possible to talk in person?”
“When do you have time?”
There was a long pause, and for a moment I worried she had gotten angry and left.
“I work until nine. I can’t meet you after that. It’s too late.”
“Surely you have resting time during the day.”
“Well…” I could just picture the silent maneuvering of her simple country girl’s mind. “Tomorrow I have time from two to four in the afternoon. But you’ll be at work then.”
“Interviewing is work.”
“Alright,” she said. “Where do we meet?”
“I’ll be at your restaurant at two.”
“No, no. They’ll see you.”
“Meet me at Starbucks then.”
“You are a fine girl, Luo Mei. A thousand thanks.”
“Goodbye,” she said. I could almost hear her blush.
When I walked out into the living room, Wang Lin was lying on the sofa with his eyes squeezed shut. His fingers were laced across his chest like a baby. He sat up when he heard me.
“What time is it?”
His eyes were alert and teary from sleep, and I felt an irresistible urge to tease him.
“What the hell are you doing, napping here at this hour?” I said. “What about work? Huh?”
“I do take a rest!”
Wang Lin eyed me. “You look elated. What happened?”
I thought of what he said the other day and did not want to tell him.
“I won’t tell you if you’re going to moralize about it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I thought we were friends.”
He was offended now and I decided I had better tell him.
“Well, my little waitress and I are having a drink together tomorrow.”
Wang Lin looked surprised. “Is that so?”
“Are you going to lecture me now?”
“Of course not,” he said. “You do you. There’s nothing to moralize about.”
“Thanks, man.” I said. I felt happy and in control and I had not felt like this in a long time.
The next morning I had a hard time focusing on work. In the office the air conditioner was very loud and disturbed me when I tried to write up a piece of news from yesterday afternoon, about a car crash in Longgang which had killed two men and wrecked public facilities. The air felt heavy and hotter by the minute despite the air conditioning, and I wondered what was the use of writing up news like this when nobody read them anyway. A day’s delay made any news old, and anyone who cared anything for news would have gotten them through their phones already. It was unfathomable why the government puts in big money for obsolete bastards like me to sit around and write articles to be materialized in hundreds of thousands just so they could go to waste in parlors and salons and the backs of the seats in airplanes. I remembered being told once that systematic wasting of resources was necessary for stimulating the economy. I could not remember who it was that told me, but it must be someone from the news industry, for nowhere else were the men and women so false and bitter from disillusionment. At noon I went down to eat in the canteen with two girls from my office. They enjoyed talking and misfortune shone through their glasses.
“He gave me three articles today,” one of them was saying. “Imagine.”
“Editor’s been pretty low lately. His son didn’t do so well in Gaokao.”
“Tough luck. I hope he goes on leave.”
“I believe he will,” said the first one. “Then Li Yun will take over temporarily.”
“I hope I won’t have to,” I said.
Then one of the girls started talking about her husband whom she was married to for two months and who worked at the Huaxin subdistrict administrative office. He was doing well and had hopes of a promotion. The other girl said she was forced to go on a blind date in the evening. That reminded me of my appointment with Luo Mei.
“I got to go,” I said standing up. “I have an interview at two.”
Traffic between work and where I lived was very convenient and there was a line straight to Meilin from a metro station near the Shenzhen Daily News Building. They were only three stations apart and took some ten to fifteen minutes. The only nuisance was walking to the station. In summer the sun hung high and proud like it was noon at any time of the day to roast and burn without mercy. You walked some time along the boulevard with trees to suddenly come to a treeless crossroad, where it assaulted you with all its vigor previously held back, and you could not even open your eyes to see the grey cement of the road chapped from the burn or feel the air bite and suck water out of your skin. During my years in England, I had tried to enjoy the sun when we had it, but back in Shenzhen it was not possible.
It was not yet two when I got to Starbucks and very empty with only the sound of music. I sat next to the window and waited. I had wanted a drink, but I wanted to wait for her. It was not until half past two that she came. I stood up and watched her pass awkwardly through the tangle of tables and chairs, blushing and not speaking in her waitress uniform.
“Good to see you,” I said as she seated herself across from me. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I’m so very sorry. They didn’t let me go until just now.”
“It’s alright. Would you like a drink?”
“Thank you very much. But no.”
“I’ll get you something,” I said. I went over to the counter and bought us each a matcha latte.
“Thank you very much,” she said.
“Now don’t try and be polite. We are friends, aren’t we?”
“Sorry,” she said. I could see she was trembling. Her hands were a translucent color and the veins showed.
“Are you cold?”
“It’s such a hot day and the air conditioning is so cold.”
“Where do you live?”
She blushed. I had never seen a girl who blushed like that at anything you said. It made me nervous. “Is this part of the interview?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Oh.” She fell quiet for a while. “I live here in Meilin.”
“Me too. We should visit each other.”
“Who do you live with?”
“How many of them?”
“Well,” she said. She was embarrassed. “Nine, maybe. Or eight.”
“Not that bad. How long have you been here?”
“Only three months.”
“You’re quite the new one, aren’t you? How do you like Shenzhen?”
“You don't like it?”
“I do. It’s just…”
“You’ll get used to it in no time.”
“I hope so.”
We fell silent for a while. I was waiting for her to speak but she didn’t. So I said, “Are you an only child?”
“No. I have two sisters and one younger brother.”
“How old is he? Your brother?”
“He’s turning seven this October.”
“You don’t mind my asking your age?”
“Well,” she said. “I’m turning nineteen pretty soon.”
Suddenly I did not feel so good about myself. The entire business seemed rotten and I wanted to leave.
“It’s not that young, really,” she said. “There are some girls that are just fourteen.”
“I know,” I said.
“Shouldn’t you be taking notes? For the interview.”
“I’ve a good memory.”
“It was nice talking to you.” I wanted to leave now.
Luo Mei bit her lips. She was looking at me reproachfully with black, hurt eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” I said. “Just a bit tired, I guess, from working so much.”
“It must be fun being a journalist.”
So this was how you do it, I thought. Stop talking and pretend to be sick. Stop talking and they start talking to you. Just like that.
“Yes,” I said. “It is fun.”
She was biting her lips again. “Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’m a local—born and raised in Shenzhen.”
“Does anyone in your family work in Shenzhen also?”
“My mom and sisters.”
“What do they do?”
“Well,” she said. She was blushing vehemently. “My sisters work in the factory.”
She was silent again. Then she said, “Well, I got to be going.” It was past three.
“Are you free this weekend?”
“I’m free Sunday. Why?”
“Will you go to the beach with me?”
“I’m going with a friend of mine.”
“You haven’t seen the beach, have you?”
“Do come, then. Don’t worry about my friend. He’s very nice.”
“I won’t be a bother?”
“Don’t be stupid. It’ll be lots of fun.”
“Wait for me by the crossroad just outside of Zhuoyue Hui, won’t you? Nine in the morning. I’ll pick you up.”
“Bring your bathing suit.”
Then I went home and forgot all about it. The week passed in the same bustling stagnation, without rain or progress. Saturday afternoon I was in Nanshan again to teach. I drove this time because it would take over an hour on the metro. The residence estate was big with trees and I almost couldn’t find it despite it being the second time. When I finally got there, it was a boy who opened the door for me. I had not seen him before and thought I came to the wrong place after all. But then the girl called from upstairs.
The boy had a cold face and no words. He looked very fashionable and young in his flowery shirt and went away as soon as I entered. When I sat down next to the girl, I asked if he was her brother.
“Yes,” she said proudly. “He’s in high school.”
I laid the textbook on the desk and we got started. She was a good student, eager to learn and to prove herself. After some time I looked at my watch. It was four. I told her we would take a short break.
“Which university did you go to?” the girl asked me as soon as her eyes left the textbook.
“One in England,” I said. “You wouldn’t know.”
“Where in England?”
“Oh.” she said. Then, “My brother’s going to England too.”
“Which grade is he in?”
“He’s a senior. His grades aren’t really as good as mine.” She had said this matter-of-factly, with the objectivity of an outsider. I thought of what happened last week and asked, “Is your nanny not home today?”
“She went back to Guizhou to take care of her son. He’s got pneumonia.”
“She’s from Guizhou?”
“Yes. She won’t be back in a while. Mother wants to hire another nanny.”
“Wouldn’t that be a lot of trouble?”
“Mother never liked her very much. She was always so old and preoccupied.” The girl was disinterested. “What is England like?”
“It’s alright. It was smaller. I never went to London much.”
“I’d rather go to America,” she said.
I was thinking about the nanny when I got home. I didn't usually think about nannies, but this one got stuck in my head for some reason. Perhaps it was the wrinkles and the dust in them. Anyway, thinking about the nanny led me to thinking about Luo Mei dressed like a waitress and our rendezvous tomorrow. I walked over to Wang Lin’s door and knocked.
“Good afternoon,” he said as he opened the door.
“Hey,” I said. “Are you free tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” Wang Lin took on a guarded look. He was suddenly shy. “Why?”
“Let’s go to the beach. I’ll drive.”
“She’s also coming.”
“Who?” Then he realized. I could see he was disappointed. “Oh.”
“How about we leave eight fifty tomorrow? I have to pick her up at nine.”
He was silent for a while. Then he said, “Wanna get dinner?”
“I’ll order takeout for the two of us,” I said.
It was dark now outside. We could see it from the window of the living room. The window was reflective in the evening and occupied half of the wall. When the takeout finally arrived, it was seven thirty, and we ate at the coffee table. I ordered rice with chicken for both of us, and Wang Lin had a beer. We ate silently and dutifully until he decided to talk.
“So, about that girl,” he said. I continued to eat and he said, “Does she like you?”
“Sure she does.”
Wang Lin grinned shyly. He was finding it humorous. His lips glowed red from the chili. “But of course,” he said, still grinning, “a handsome promising young man like you.”
“Don’t kid me.”
“I’m not. You don’t know how lucky you are.”
“No, I don’t.”
“But seriously. What people wouldn’t give to be a local like you.”
“You have studied overseas, too.”
“A dirty investment.”
“And with your car.”
“Oh, shut up.”
Wang Lin shut up. He was red all over the face.
“My God. Are you drunk?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“From a beer?”
“No. Please forgive me.”
He was red to the forehead and I thought he would cry now.
“Of course. We are friends.”
We were both silent. I stared at him and he stared steadily back. Now in the dark and with the beer he looked disheveled and reckless and I pitied him.
“Are you okay?”
“Why not go to sleep? You look damn tired.”
“I’m not drunk,” he said indignantly.
So I gave up and ate my rice. It was hard and dry but good with the chicken. He did not eat and looked at me and said, “What’s she like?”
I thought a little. “Shy,” I said.
“I thought she was quite plain,” he said. “But I see you like it.”
“She’s quite pretty.”
“A little sister, nonetheless.”
“You like older women, then.” I said.
“You don’t like women at all, then.”
Wang Lin stared at me. His face swelled exuding heat, and he was excited. I did not feel like teasing him now. All I wanted was to shut my bedroom door in his red-swollen-hell of a face and go to sleep and tomorrow be with Luo Mei in my new Toyota. “I like old-looking young women,” he said.
“Whatever,” I said. “Go to bed, you drunkard.”
“Let me clean this up first.”
“Go to bed.”
“Alright,” he said. “I’ll go.”
He got up, his shoulders slumped as he dragged himself across the living room and out of my sight. I could see he was hurt. But that was his problem, and right then I did not give a damn about that.
I had a hard time falling asleep but when morning came, I saw it was a fine, clear summer day, the sun high and jaunty above the white clouds, but not too high as to make the heat unbearable. Wang Lin was waiting for me in the living room. “You don’t have to take me,” he said. He looked neat and lean in a pale shirt and basketball shorts. “Don’t be silly,” I replied. We went down and walked across the street to an opening where I had parked my car the day before. It was hard and mercurial in the sun, and as I put my hand on the wheel and felt the air-con fresh on my cheeks I knew the bitterness had passed.
“A fine day it is,” I said. Wang Lin’s face turned bright in the rearview mirror.
“A damned fine day,” he said.
I drove to the crossroad where Luo Mei was to be waiting. I could see her from a distance, her arms drooping and her feet embarrassed, looking younger than ever in a floral dress and braid. Later, I found the dress thin and cheap. But the yellow had brightened up her skin, and as she leaned in the front seat, the braid dangled, dark and pure against her ivory young neck.
“Hello,” I said. Her skin was bright and her eyes were young and dark. “This is Wang Lin. We share an apartment.”
Wang Lin smiled and said, “How do you do.”
“Hello,” she said.
Downtown where we were, the traffic was not bad, but as I turned onto the highway many cars appeared from nowhere and seemed to be speeding everywhere at once.
“Where exactly are we going?” Wang Lin asked.
“Xi Chong. It’s about an hour’s drive.”
“With this traffic?”
“An hour and a half, then. I’ve not been there in a long time.”
Wang Lin fell silent. And then Luo Mei said, “Is it a real beach?”
“Of course it’s a real beach, darling.”
I looked at her from the corner of my eyes. Her face was red and embarrassed. When she caught me looking, she turned and faced the window.
“Of course it’s a real beach.” I said. “A dream beach with all the sea in the world.”
When we got off the highway into the suburb, the traffic did not improve. But the clouds were high and few, and I felt no worries for the day. Wang Lin was talking about his family back in Guizhou, and my little waitress listened attentively with no embarrassment.
We saw the beach in a distance, big and yellow and crowded, the sea a faded blue lesser than the sky. What a disappointment despite the weather, I thought, but turning around I caught a teary Luo Mei. I put my arm around her shoulders.
“Oh, no.” she said moving away. “It’s the wind.”
I bought Luo Mei a one-piece, and after she changed, we walked barefoot on the sand. The sand was full of the sun and we dug our toes deep, feeling the warmth spread from limb to limb. After a while Wang Lin excused himself.
“I've got to go to the bathroom.”
“We will wait here,” I said.
“You go on. I’d like to grab a drink at the cafe over there.”
“We can go with you.”
“No, please. You have a fine time on the beach.”
When he was gone, I took Luo Mei’s hand. It was soft like a small animal’s. She did not pull away, but when I tried to look at her she turned facing the sea. We stood like that for a while, her still as a statue. When she looked back at me, I was scared.
“What’s the matter?”
Her face was a ghastly white and there was sadness in her thick brows and the turn of her lips.
“Please, let’s not be like this.” I said. I pulled her close. She smelled like the sun. “Will you tell me now?”
“It’s nothing,” she said. Her voice shook. “It’s nothing. It’s nothing. It’s only my brother.”
“What’s the matter?”
“He’s sick. Oh, but that’s nothing. He’s alright now and I know it.”
Her pupils were dark and biting between her lashes, hard and dark and like steel.
“Is that all?” I said.
She waited. “Yes.”
I leaned in and kissed her. She was still as a statue but her lips were liquid. When I broke away, the sadness was gone.
“Feel alright now?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve been so silly.”
I put my arm around her. “Can’t we go in the water?” she said.
“We will go now.”
When we got closer, she was disgusted at how big and opaque it was, and we stood at the edge, the sea biting our ankles and washing away land only to bring it back on top of us in fresh sticky surges, and we stood there statuesque without feet. Then she was tired of it and we went in the water. I tried to help her, and she said, “I swam a lot in the lake when I was small,” so I let go and watched as she cut blade-like through the water and after a while emerge translucent in the sun, skin silver above the alkaline ugly sea. When it was near noon, we went and bought lunch in the cafe. Wang Lin was not there and we returned to the sea. There seemed to be more people now in the afternoon, but the sea was bigger than any lake and we clung together tight. I tried to kiss her and she pushed me away.
“Not now,” she said. “I taste like salt.”
“Salt is good.”
The sun hung high and gloating above the sea.
“Oh, I’ll get so dark you won’t love me again.”
“I love you always,” I said. And when she blushed and swam away, I thought Hell, what a word to use. She was wrong to speak it in the first place, and I should not have echoed her even in a joke. But then she was back with glittering teeth, and as I looked at her I knew it was no joke. When she put her arms around me, I pulled away and said, “Listen, Darling.”
And then it started to rain. The water that had impregnated the Shenzhen air for weeks bled out of the sun and into the sea like flocks of little silver fishes and then like blades. I took Luo Mei’s hand and ran. When we were inside the café, the sky and sea had turned muddy.
Driving home in wind and rain and darkness at five, I asked Wang Lin about his day.
“We really couldn’t find you.”
“Oh, I had a marvelous time. I enjoyed the beach.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” I said.
On Wednesday I went to Central City for a blind date. I did not want to go, but Mother had arranged it months ago and I had no choice. I went after work and sat waiting a long time in the restaurant before the girl came.
Her name was Su Xinyi and she was twenty-six, thin and pale with powder. She sat down opposite me and I thought she had the look of a startled leopard. We shook hands.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said.
“How do you do. I’m Su Xinyi.”
“I’m Li Yun. Won’t you order? Here.”
“You order as well.”
When she was done, we called the waitress, a short ugly woman with undulating fat. The girl told her and she went away with the menu. Now we were alone I had nothing to say, and Su Xinyi smiled at me across the table.
“I hear you work at the news office.”
“What is it like, being a journalist?”
“It’s alright. There’s little stress. You meet a lot of people.”
“Do you get to meet famous ones?”
“Sometimes. I saw the mayor once.”
“That’s cool. I hope my job’s as interesting.”
Mother had told me about her job, but right then I could not remember.
“I’m sorry, what company do you work for again?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Teacher.” I said. “That’s right. What school?”
“Hong Lian Primary. It’s right here in Futian.”
“It’s a good school.”
“You’ve heard of it?”
“I teach English.”
“You’ve studied abroad, haven’t you?”
“For my master’s degree, yes. In England.”
“What was it like?”
“It was eye-opening.”
“Surely. You must speak better English than I, too. What was your major?”
“That’s right. The news industry interests me so. You know I always wanted to be a journalist.”
“I’d like to write in English, too. Are there any English newspapers in Shenzhen?”
“But you work for a Chinese one, don’t you?”
“There’s more space for development.”
“Yes. That's right.”
“Are you seriously thinking of becoming a journalist?”
“Not really. I don’t know anything about it.”
Later the dishes came and I tried to concentrate on eating. The girl was very talkative and intent on sharing her philosophies.
“Do you ever feel lonely? That nobody understands you? That this city and this life go round and round too fast and you are so alone and you do not know who you are and what you want? ”
“Sure,” I said.
“That’s the way I feel.”
Afterwards, I offered to pay and she did not object. Then I offered to drive her home, and she did not object either. Wang Lin was asleep on the couch when I got home.
The next day at work Su Xinyi texted me for a second date. I had wanted to tell her I wasn’t interested but didn’t know how to, so I said instead to wait, that I had some urgent matters at hand and that I would contact her once they were dealt with. Then I went down to the canteen for lunch. After a while the girls came and sat beside me.
“I have good news,” one announced.
“I’m no longer single.”
“It’s true. I’m no longer single. I have a boyfriend.”
“The guy from the blind date. I went on a blind date last week, remember?”
“It turned out he was rather eligible. His uncle owns a company and he is a civil servant. He’s quite tall and not bad looking at all.”
“Can I see a picture?”
The girl showed us.
“Our Song Xi has found her destiny at last,” said the other one. She looked at me suddenly. “What about you, Li Yun? When are you getting a girlfriend? You don’t want to stay single forever, do you?”
“Don’t you worry about that,” I said.
Later on my way home I called Luo Mei. She did not answer. I called again after nine.
“Oh.” Her voice was thick. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Can’t I call?”
She didn’t answer.
“You sound thick. Have you a cold?”
“Anyhow I wanted to see you.”
“Let’s not see each other again.”
“Why? What’s the matter?”
“Let’s please forget everything.”
“Darling,” I said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow after work.”
“I’ll be at your restaurant at nine.”
“Till tomorrow, then.”
“I love you.”
I hung up. I did not know what was the matter with her, but I knew tomorrow I would see her and it would be alright again.
It was a quarter to nine when I got there, and I waited outside the restaurant. The mall was full of people even at this hour. The air was artificial and new, and as I leaned by the rail watching them pass, I thought of how each was a cosmos of its own and what an unbreachable and obstinate thing it was and how the mind was built so it could not be another. Then I felt ashamed of myself for thinking such rot and went in the restaurant to look for Luo Mei.
She was standing by the counter looking meek and desolate. It was past nine and the restaurant was empty except for the waitresses. I started walking toward her, and one of them yelled at me across the room.
“Excuse me, sir. We’re closed for the day.”
I stopped and looked at her. Her eyes were steady and young and old at the same time and it scared me. I decided I had better wait outside. After a while, she came out alone and I took her by the arm.
“Hello, little one.”
She struggled and then gave up.
“I got to go home.”
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you love me anymore?”
She said nothing.
“Please, please, please let’s not be like this.” I took her hands. She said nothing but the corners of her mouth drooped, and she looked sad. Around us people were starting to notice. “Come on. This is no place to talk.”
We walked down and out into the night. The mall illuminated the entire square on which it sat, a blob of scattered intrusive Christmas light, the square large with artificial grass and cut out against the roads like a cruise ship lost at sea. After we crossed the road, the lights were too far to exert influence. The streets were dark and empty and I held Luo Mei close.
“Where are we going?”
“To my place.”
“No.” She struggled. I tried to kiss her but it was dark and she broke away.
“Can’t we at least talk?”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Why are you doing this?” I tried to find her eyes. “Why do you have to do this to me?”
She said nothing. I held her hands that were cold and resigned and luminescent like a skinned rabbit. We stood there for a while staring into the darkness between us. Then I walked again and she followed.
Wang Lin was looking at his phone on the sofa. As we took off our shoes, he looked up at Luo Mei strangely. She stared at the floor and seemed not to notice.
“I’ll go inside,” he said, standing up.
“Oh, no. Stay where you are.”
I took Luo Mei to my room. We sat on my bed and I tried to kiss her. She pushed me away.
“Well? Will you tell me now?”
“Tell you what?”
“Why you gave up loving me.”
She looked and looked at me and seemed about to cry.
“It’s not true.”
“Then what is it?”
“Well,” she said. “Where were you Wednesday evening?”
“But you went on a blind date.”
“Who told you that?”
“Wang Lin did, didn’t he?”
Luo Mei bit her lips.
“Honey, you are so easy to read.”
“Don’t call me that.”
I leaned in to kiss her. She tensed up but did not push me away.
“Listen,” I said. “I only went on that date because my mother forced me to.”
She said nothing.
“It means nothing, and I feel no more for that girl than I would for a gorilla.”
Luo Mei looked down at the bed. I pulled her close.
“Don’t you trust me.”
“Oh, I do. You know I do. But you and I are so… We are so…And I…”
“That does not matter. Do you believe it matters? It makes no difference to me and I love you no matter what.”
“Oh, but your mother.”
Oh, but my mother. My mother had nothing to do with this, but I did not want to tell her that.
“We’ll worry about mothers later,” I said. “Now we worry about now.”
I kissed her and pulled her down. She was soft and modest and had no idea. Afterwards, we lay on the bed, and she cried silently into my shoulder.
I had an important interview on Saturday and felt rotten and worn when I got home. I lay on the sofa, and after a while Wang Lin came out and sat beside me. I had not seen him since yesterday.
“Hey,” he said.
“Where were you this morning?”
“How was it?”
“You look tired.”
He looked at me and looked away.
“You’re mad at me.”
“Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry I told the girl. But I had to.”
“It was the right thing to do and I had to.”
“You really are damn moral, aren’t you?”
“I said I was sorry.”
“No. I'm sorry for being such an immoral ass.”
“Will you forgive me?”
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
“Whatever you say. I’ve been called worse.”
I was suddenly tired. I felt bad for him, and I wanted to be alone and not argue.
“I forgive you.”
“God’s sake yes. Now go and leave me alone.”
He smiled shyly and sat up on the sofa. Then he said, “I do not think you are an immoral ass, Li Yun. You are a fine boy and I admire you much. It is the others that are immoral, and you cannot do anything about it.”
The next day Su Xinyi texted me again. I thought of mother, and how she would be threatening to take back the car and asked her to go to the theatre with me on Tuesday. She said that would be great, and did you know I love movies? I said I didn’t and she told me about her favorite ones. She had watched a lot of movies and knew much about directors and theatre. In the afternoon I sat in the Starbucks of Zhuoyue Hui to type up a draft for yesterday’s interview. I was almost done when my phone rang.
It was silent on the other side and I repeated. “Hello?”
“Hey,” I said. My heart was racing. “How d’you do?”
Then all of a sudden she broke down.
“Oh, Li Y-yun.”
“What is it?”
“What about your brother?”
“Rem-member when I t-told you he was s-sick?”
“Yes.” I did not remember it.
“He’s got pneum-monia. I did-n’t want to t-tell you but it’s got-ten worse. Oh, it’s got-ten so-o bad and t-they say it’s very dan-gerous and I d-do not know what to d-do.”
“He n-needs to be in the hos-pital but my sis-ter is having a bab-by and we d-don’t have much m-money.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
She whimpered and said nothing.
“Listen,” I said. “I’ll send you some money. Take your brother to a good hospital. Is he in Shenzhen? Take him to a good hospital, wherever he is. He’s going to be okay.”
“No, no,” she said. She was no longer whimpering.
“What’s your Alipay account?”
She was silent for a while. Then she told me.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m awfully sorry but there’s nothing more I can do.”
She said nothing.
I put down the phone and took another sip of the matcha latte. It was cold and sticky. Outside the sun hung high and cruel. Intact and encapsulated against it I sat, thinking about the interview yesterday and the interview the day before and the interviews in the days to come. What is a formal word for want? The clouds rolled on and on. It was a fine summer day.