Wang Guochen leaned his left shoulder into the windowpane and rested his forehead on its cool glass. In his right hand he held three sheets of paper, fragile and transparent. Their contents, he felt, had tilted the ground beneath him.
On the street below, two students cradled books to their chest and hurried to the library, a domed silence in the distance. An icy wind reddened their noses. One of them looked up and spoke to her friend. The wind danced dark hair about her face. She lifted woollen fingers and pulled strands from her mouth.
A pale afternoon light outlined maple trunks in charcoal and drew a net of branches where leaves caught and pushed, yielding to snappy winds, autumn flashes that sang of winter as they drifted to the ground. Beyond, the Charles River stretched a gleaming course. The sun burned off its surface, a molten silver ribbon wound through Boston’s copper mane.
Wang Guochen shivered.
Behind him the kettle shrieked. He tucked the pages under his armpit, turned and padded to the kitchenette. Steam billowed a soft veil. He switched off the gas, pulled his glasses off and wiped them with the bottom of his tee shirt.
He found his eyes were damp. He tipped dried green tea leaves into a glass and sloshed boiling water over them, making heated bitter gold with a film of wet leaves on top. He leaned and blew to clear space for sipping, a space for thinking.
He sat on the stool by the counter and smoothed the thin sheets. The paper was Beijing University notepad with a smudged seal stamped on the upper right corner. The inky Chinese writing stepped from a cultured hand. Each character leapt off the page, unfurled and wrapped his heart in blue silk.
“Guochen?” Marianne’s voice, edged with sleep curled from the bedroom. “Are you making tea?”
Guochen did not reply.
He looked up at the dull sky through the kitchen window.
Boston clouds dissolved into the blue of a Beijing summer. He and Ling Ling were at their wedding dinner in a small restaurant off the side of the Square, near the West Gate. Hot pork dumplings served in baskets. Beer dribbled into glasses from dark bottles. Toasts for longevity. The faces of Xiaohong, Liu Gaozhi. Ling Ling wore a bright silk qipao and a dab of lipstick. That mole on her upper lip. Alcohol painted her cheeks crimson.
Guochen flattened the sheets on the counter, side by side. The last line at the bottom of the middle page was crinkled with a damp stain, where the ink spread and dried.
“Qin ai de,” Ling Ling wrote. Dearest.
Guochen’s breath snagged on a past he could not change. The sentences unspooled.
“I have spoken to the American ambassador. They have finally approved my visa. A decade is a long time.”
And the line that cracked his lungs.
“Do you want me to come?”
The words melted before his eyes. He raised the glass to his lips, blew a soft sigh, sending the tea leaves skittering across to the other side.
He put down his glass. He opened the overhead cabinet and lifted a brown mug. He dangled a teabag and poured hot water over it. He added milk from a carton and dropped in a sugar cube. He stirred the liquid, carried it into the bedroom and bent to set it by the bed.
“Mmm. Thank you,” Marianne said. She opened her eyes. “Boy. You look cheerful.” Then, her gaze slid to the clock. “I’m late. Help.”
She made no move to get up. Guochen sat on the edge of the bed. Marianne turned on her side to face him.
“What is it, darling, you look like death.”
“It’s just the face I was born with.”
“Hey.” Marianne’s eyebrows crept up. “What’s wrong?”
“It just struck me, you have no idea what Beijing looks like when snow has dusted the streets.”
“Honey, for goodness sakes, that’s hardly fair. You’re not exactly au fait with life on a ranch in Texas. I thought we’d been through all this. That we’d decided to meet as ordinary humans, flung together by destiny.”
Guochen’s voice greyed with effort. “You don’t know the city that shaped me, the language I think in, the food I crave. And nothing, nothing can change that.”
Marianne rubbed her eyes with the back of one hand and yawned. “That’s quite a speech. I don’t know those things because you never speak of them. And you’ve never, not once, invited me to Beijing. It’s your very own forbidden city.”
“That wasn’t possible. You know perfectly well why.”
“You only speak of your past when I insist. And then you lapse into monosyllables.”
Guochen looked at Marianne. Her fair hair, her forthright green apple-and-hazel eyes. Her American directness.
He tried to imagine her jostling for train tickets at Beijing’s crowded railway station. Or circumnavigating the delicate rules of politeness and obligation, the unseen threads that held his country together.
“I wouldn’t know where to begin, you with your ordered world,” Guochen said. Just in time, he bit back a metaphor even he knew was cruel. Bull in a China shop.
Marianne’s tone stayed even. “Why do you always shut me out?”
“How could you possibly understand?”
“Guochen don’t be ridiculous. People don’t have to have lived each
others’ lives to understand them.”
“I think it’s not that simple.”
“I think you need to try harder.”
“How can I speak of Beijing, when just saying the name of the city makes me sick with sorrow?”
Guochen sipped his tea, put his glass down and took a deep breath. He felt feverish. Images raced through his head.
Sooty cabbage piled in courtyard corners in preparation for winter, their rotting edges giving off a faint cadaverous whiff. A donkey pulling a cart through a sunlit Beijing summer, the vehicle’s creaking back end piled high with watermelons. A cigarette dangling from a roadside peasant’s mouth. A woman squatting, holding her baby under the knees so that the child’s dimpled bottom pushed through his padded split-pants. Candied hawthorn berries on sticks, frozen in a glassy syrup bubble, the tart fruit mingling with crunchy sugar fragments on the tongue.
He reached into the deepest wound, to show Marianne the thorn he felt each time he breathed.
“It was all such a long time ago. I was lying on my back in the Square. My body ached with hunger. I saw dawn creep into the sky over the city, the only city I had ever lived in.”
His voice punched the silence. “We were so fierce. We were adamant in our sense of right and wrong. We were so young.” He put his head in his hands.
Later, that hot Beijing evening, that summer, the darkness crept into his skin. They were crouched under a blanket in a vehicle of some sort. It jerked and stopped. He heard American voices. Gates clanged behind him. He heard shots far away in the city. His city. The blanket was sticky with blood. Ling Ling’s twisted face swung above him.
“You go,” she said. “You go. I’ll be fine.”
He turned around to stare at the mole on her upper lip. But someone was thrusting documents into his hand. He was pushed onto a plane. He wore a stranger’s jacket. And Beijing crumpled far below, a wad of paper his life was written on.
Guochen reached for a tissue and blew his nose. He looked at Marianne. “It’s not that I don’t like living in this country. America has been good to me. You have been good to me.”
“I’m in love with you.”
“How can I explain to you, to my students.”
Marianne sipped her tea. “Explain what.”
“The sadness of the things that happened. The loss of a past. This crack that runs through my life.”
How did you explain, Guochen wanted to shout, the smell of burning coal on an autumn evening, the ring of a bicycle bell in a quiet back street at dusk. The hush of bean sprouts, thrown and tossed in a heated wok.
How did you explain Ling Ling.
“I got a letter from my wife,” Guochen said.
“Oh yes. The other great wall you put up.”
“She’s got a passport. It looks as though she can leave China.”
Marianne threw the covers off and rolled to the other side of the bed. She leaned over and searched for her clothes. She pulled on jeans and tugged a sweater over her head.
“Jesus. So this is about us, not bloody Beijing,” she muttered. Then she slammed the bathroom door behind her. Guochen heard the water running. He closed his eyes.
He saw again that he was a man to whom things happened, a half-hearted participant in his own existence. Ling Ling had been his life’s only pursuit and, even in that, he’d lacked stamina.
Guochen was the younger of two children, born to sober Communist Party cadres who had married in a fit of patriotism, their eyes alight with idealism, clutching Mao’s Little Red Book at their wedding.
They despaired openly at their dreamy son who lounged in the city’s parks, smoking, playing Chinese chess with old men of rheumy eyes. He liked best to read poems of faraway Tang armies galloping across plains, raising dust.
His parents would have preferred Guochen to be an engineer, to build roads and bridges for the nation.
When he was accepted into Beijing University’s literature department, few were more surprised than him. He scraped in by the skin of his teeth, aided, he was sure, by his parents’ excellent political credentials.
Ling Ling embodied all the pert focus he himself lacked.
They met in the most banal of ways: Their shoulders bumped in a narrow corridor, Ling Ling dropped her books and papers, his own glasses slid askew. They stuttered simultaneous apologies, coughed out embarrassed laughs. He helped her pick up scattered things. He noticed—immediately and with disappointment—that her face was not the classic beauty’s melon-seed shape. Then, he saw that she had a bright quality that invited exploration, like moonlight off a creek. There was a mole above her upper lip; it became to him a beacon in stormy seas.
They met a few more times, surrounded by mutual friends.
The Spring Festival fell late in that year’s lunar calendar. By the time the campus willow trees threw out soft clouds of lime-green leaves, the two were meeting alone after class, sitting close together on a concealed stone bench. They were made rigid by their proximity. Guochen dared not move, for fear of scaring away this miraculous creature.
On the gasping summer’s day of their wedding, there had been shouts. Yes. The guests lowered their glasses and glanced to the window. Guochen was the first to knock his chair back and leap to look. Ling Ling came right behind him. He felt her slight body against him, her moist hand on his shoulder. On the street below, he saw students. Hundreds, thousands of them. A river.
He saw himself on each face, as though a mirror had shattered to make a crowd. Fists punched the air. Red banners lurched. His future was crumpling, he knew. They were watching the birth of uncertainty, and he was aware that he had played only the smallest of parts in it.
Marianne swung the bathroom door open and strode out, brush in hand.
“So, do you want her to come?” She yanked the brush through her hair. Guochen smelt a whiff of tea rose.
He could think of nothing to say.
Marianne walked to face him.
She slung her bag over her shoulder and tied her hair in a knot. She looked at her feet.
“Your silence is more hurtful than I can say,” she said.
Then she swung around and left.
Guochen heard the front door shut with a sharp click.
He got to his feet and walked to the middle of the room. He looked around the small flat. A bookshelf swollen with Chinese literature. A ragged couch. In the corner, a green fridge. On its door, supermarket coupons hung from a magnet shaped like a Coke bottle, a gift from his German landlady. On the top, a small glass world, the kind you shake to watch snow fall. It was the Boston skyline, a gift from Marianne.
He tried to imagine Ling Ling in the room.
Guochen went to the kitchen and picked up the three sheets of paper.
In the beginning, he wrote to Ling Ling every week. There was much to say, a whole brave world to describe. Words flew off his pen. American tomatoes were huge! At dinner, each person’s plate was piled higher than Mount Huang!
Americans asked him all kinds of questions about China—“Is it true that they eat their babies there?” He laughed out loud, thinking it a joke. His English improved daily. His hosts were unfailingly kind. He grew adept at eating with a fork and a knife. American food was bland, but he became a better cook, hunting down five-spice powder in Boston’s meagre Chinatown; he found sesame oil, yellow cooking-wine from Shaoxing, goji berries to add to his tea. Those supplies seemed out of place in a shopping bag that jiggled against his leg on the train home.
The University offered him a position as a junior lecturer in the Department of Literature. For the first time, he could design his own courses.
“I can teach Tang poetry to my heart’s content,” he wrote to Ling Ling. “I have a new appreciation for Li Bai. He too, was a foreigner, a traveller. Finally, I know what he meant in that poem. Raising my cup, I beckon the bright moon / For her, with my shadow, will make three people.
At first, in America, there had been keen interest in the summer’s events of the Square. Guochen was invited to speak at conferences in New York, at rallies in San Francisco. They mistook him for a leader, a revolutionary figure who would lead China to freedom from overseas. His audience thrilled to a faraway revolution—especially, Guochen saw, one that would not interfere with the afternoon TV soap operas.
Guochen clutched the podium.
Sipped his water.
Adjusted the microphone.
He tried to explain that it was a mistake, that he was caught in a net of events he had failed to fully comprehend, that he barely believed in revolution. He did not know whom to thank for his own escape. The words sounded hollow, even to him. Eager young college students hailed him with redoubled fervour.
He met others like him, refugees from the Square, but bolder, breezier, riding the waves of publicity, saying what everyone wanted to hear. They would regroup! They would change the world!
“Ling Ling, my love, in China’s current climate I will never be allowed to come home,” he wrote.
Thereafter, Ling Ling’s letters took on an odd, flat tone, which Guochen recognised as stony acceptance. Each sentence was haunted by what she left out. She avoided describing painful events in her life, for his sake, Guochen suspected. She spoke of their common friends, their families, but in vague generalities.
She did not mention a passport, a visa; it meant that she was still trying, standing in lines, attempting to get the necessary government approvals. There would certainly be a thick file on her in a submerged government ministry.
On him too.
Then, as the years tripped by, hope died a quiet death.
Guochen had less and less to say. He had few friends. His closest acquaintance was a young Indian professor, Dinesh, who taught in the Maths department and lived not far from Guochen. They met soon after Guochen arrived in America, on a balcony to which smokers were banished. In this no-man’s land, Dinesh offered Guochen a light for his cigarette. They puffed away in silence, until the wreaths of smoke were dense enough to create an illusion of distance and allow a tentative conversation between two stowaways.
They spoke of chess, for a long time.
The pair began to meet in cafés for silent, smoky chess games that fulfilled a basic human need for contact but did not demand much else.
It was a stunted existence Guochen was inarticulately ashamed of.
That’s why, writing to Ling Ling, webs grew in his throat, between his lips and held his wrists when he tried to write. Their letters grew stiff and formal, and infrequent.
Then, one day, Dinesh introduced Guochen to Marianne. They were at an interdepartmental Christmas tea party, held in a stark conference room. A secretary had draped streamers of tinsel over a whiteboard and a strip of scotch tape held up a Santa cutout. Paper cups half-filled with wine littered the table. Somebody had popped in a Christmas carol CD into a portable music box. Outside, icicles hung from the eves.
That was the first thing Marianne ever said to him.
“Uh, I’m from China,” Guochen said.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Her hand flew to her mouth. “I suppose you think I’m a gauche, ill-informed American?”
“Yes,” Guochen said, before he could stop himself.
Because she began to laugh, he kept looking at her. He saw that to laugh she had to shut her eyes completely and that tiny drops of water had appeared at their outside corners when she opened them again. Her light eyes and pale hair, lit up from the back in the setting sun gave her complexion a washed-out, glassy look.
“I’m Marianne,” she said, and held out her hand. “I teach Literary Criticism to the first years. I’m in the office down the hall. That’s where they put the newest people who are least likely to complain.”
She paused. “Please forgive me my mistake, and allow me to buy you a coffee sometime. To make it up to you.”
So it was, that a few weeks later, over rising steam from mugs of coffee, Guochen tried to shake his benumbed self to life. He did not like coffee much, but he smiled and nodded at Marianne’s voice, rising and falling as it prodded him into friendship.
She seemed to require nothing from him, just an agreement to go along with her plans. These involved complicated expeditions to see obscure corners of Boston. The “real” Boston, she said, as though the city had erected false façades for the express purpose of misleading visitors and she, a blueblood Texan filled with southern winds, would reveal its falsities.
“We’re both foreigners here, we need to study native habits,” she said.
“But, you’re American,” he said, astonished.
“Texas is different,” she said simply. “I don’t quite fit in here either, you know. We have more in common than you think.”
“How will you know when you’ve found the real Boston?” Guochen asked.
“I’ll just know. It’ll be like when you hit the sweet spot on a tennis racquet.”
Guochen did not play tennis, but he could extend the analogy to ping pong. He nodded seriously.
“Tell me something about you,” Marianne said. They were walking by the river. But he shook his head and pointed to a lone man pulling rhythmically on the oars of his scull, skimming over the river, blanketed in grey that day, wind-eaten.
One night, Marianne walked him home after class. She walked into his flat with him. She eased off his glasses and leaned into his neck.
“Jesus, Guochen. How many years can you wait,” she whispered. It was not a question he dared ask. He stood in the dark, as she unbuttoned his shirt.
Her breath smelt of stale coffee. Their lovemaking was a clumsy, unsatisfactory tussle. His breath came in wheezing swags, from all the smoking. She gasped jumbled endearments that made no sense to him. Once, he opened his eyes, to find her clear light eyes gazing coolly up at him. Afterwards, neither spoke. Sometime before dawn, Marianne gathered up her things and left without saying goodbye. He pretended sleep.
After she was gone, he clenched his fists and wept, as though history had failed him.
In a sense, it had.
Guochen turned on the kitchen tap. He let the hot water run until steam snaked from the twisting liquid rope. Then he wrestled with the cold water and squeezed detergent into the debris. His mind floated with the suds.
“When I was a university student,” he said in Chinese, to the plates piled in the sink, “Every evening I wheeled my bicycle to the girls’ dormitory. I stood at the bottom of the building and shouted Ling Ling’s name. Her friends stuck their heads out and teased me. “Ling Ling bu zai!” Ling Ling’s not here.
He smiled and dried his hands.
He turned and touched the edges of the letter’s stained sheets, three stern sentries. He walked out to the window in the living room and shoved his hands into his pockets.
In his head, he uncapped a fountain pen.
“Qin ai de. I have not written in a long time. I do not know what to say. One country has torn me from you. Another one has torn me from myself.”
Below, a woman jogged on the path under the trees by the river. She held a dog on a leash. Steaming lungs left puffs of mist. Already the lamps glowed orange. Dusk stained the sky a sulky lilac and shadowed the river into a ghost.
This short story was published in the Jul-Sep 2015 issue.