15 Endless Days…
With his eyebrows and his fingers, he attacked me. He was the house I built out of my fantasies.
Third year university was a very hectic time for me. It is reasonable to say that all the major changes in my life had their roots in that tragic period.
First, my mother was stricken with a fatal illness that year; then what could have been the first love of my life was aborted; after that, a serious fire took the life of my most beloved friend; and finally, I became an innocent victim in a serious incident…
On my way home on that particular day, for no discernible reason at all, I was struck by a stray bullet from somewhere. Luckily, the bullet had passed through the flesh of my left calf, and I was able to convalesce at home after only two days in the hospital.
I have never taken the time to describe my years at the university, since I always seek to avoid that aspect of my life because it so wearies me. You could say that for the longest time I have harbored a hostile, antagonistic attitude toward school, with a special hatred for compulsory examination questions of all types that do not allow me the right to answer, "I have nothing to say on that subject." However, because those years involved the occasional presence of a boy named Yin Nan in my life and his very real departure from it, I have no choice but to touch upon them.
The faculty that I was in formed a poetry club called "Frowners." My involvement with Yin Nan was connected with its name.
At that time there were a number of impetuous young male students and teachers in the faculty who had proposed the creation of a poetry society. They started by drafting a charter setting out their principles and naming the club "Subversives," and school authorities responded by banning it. So they watered down their principles considerably and renamed the club "Opportunists." The revised charter was approved, but the name was again shot down. It was just when the club was experiencing these bothersome birth pangs that Yin Nan, one of its members, caught my attention in the cafeteria one day at lunchtime.
He had delicate good looks, with a long, thin, pale face; a straight nose; big, dark, gentle eyes; and flashing white teeth. He was tall and impeccably dressed, and bore a fleeting resemblance to the Chinese-American movie star John Lone.
Carrying my lunchbox that day, without any hesitation at all, I took the empty seat next to him. To be quite honest, I struck up a conversation with him only because of his attractive appearance.
It seemed that when I left Ti, he had removed something beautiful and personal from my life, but that now, with this young man in front of me, this special feeling had reemerged, pristine and pure.
Before meeting Yin Nan I had always had a stubbornly warped view of good-looking boys, thinking that their depth and their accomplishments most often ran in inverse proportion to their good looks. During my adolescence there was only one man of whom I thought otherwise – the former American president Richard Nixon. My adolescent infatuation with this handsome, profound, and also highly successful man came about because, with his big nose, wide shoulders, and amiable manner, he accorded very closely with my conception of the ideal father. Judging my men by how they measured up against the ample intelligence and capability of my idealized father image has probably been the most destructive flaw in my life.
My infatuation with Nixon definitely had nothing to do with politics. In fact, I have no interest at all in getting involved in any kind of political activity. I hate things political because they are so often far removed from the idea of "honesty," which I have held so dear my entire life. In all my years as a student, my grades on political exams were always disastrous. On one occasion, in a second-year survey examination, I think, in answer to the question, "Would you say that you deeply love politics?" my response was, "Only if it is permissible to lie," which netted me a long talking to by the school authorities. The instability and sudden changes in politics make it impossible for me to distinguish what is genuine from what is false. In my mind, political events remain a heap of overblown, amorphous memories. They are very much like huge waves that meet over great depths. You have to wait until the opposing currents are finally absorbed into each other, until the frothing peaks finally subside, before you can again discern the depths. Much as it is with love, political instability can encourage the pursuit of blind passions, but as it is with love, I have a right to choose when I want to be involved and when I want to break it off.
My youthful fascination with Nixon was a very naive fantasy that stayed with me until his death in February 1995. I was flying to a city in the Asian tropics on a South China Airlines flight when I saw his photograph and the headline announcing his death, in that day's overseas edition of The People's Daily. I very seriously placed a kiss on that forehead that had borne the brunt of so many of the vicissitudes of life; then I stared out of the plane's window for a while, imagining that Nixon's soul had already risen from the earth and was floating in the air outside my window. He looked in at me as we waved a farewell to each other, and I said, "Good-bye, Mr. Nixon." Then I put the newspaper aside, discarding along with it all those childhood illusions that had involved him.
Many years after my infatuation with Nixon, when as a mature young woman I attended an art symposium, a Chinese artist struck a similar emotional chord in me. Because he was actually physically present, his impact on me was much stronger. Once, during a banquet, the gods finally arranged that I sit beside him, but because of my innate reserve and my social awkwardness, I managed nothing in the way of real conversation. It wasn't so much that I didn't like to "converse," it was just that I didn't have much faith in "conversation." Conversation was fruitless. All I managed was the usual kind of toast to express my esteem. I was already quite aware that an easygoing, unaffected attitude was the best approach to life, a stance of indifference, but this could only be achieved through the exercise of extreme self-restraint.
On another occasion I saw him in a hotel lobby, holding a fluent conversation in English with a foreigner cinematographer. As he turned around, he caught sight of me and waved me over with a smile. I was amazed that someone of his age and prominence was able to converse so well in English. I stood beside him wanting very much to take his calm, confident hand, to bask in the security and comfort that his age made me feel. But my mind seemed to have stopped working and I had lost all ability to respond. I was slipping slowly into a state of bliss where I seemed to float unanchored in the sumptuous lobby, now steeped in sentimental tints of rose. When we said good-bye, as timid as an inexperienced little girl, I stuffed a letter that I had previously written into his hand. All my intelligence seemed to have drained from my head, leaving it an empty hole, and any remnants of my sensibility had retreated into my ice-cold fingertips. After I had given him the letter, I fled.
Regrettably, rather than being a letter expressing my affection for him, it was a request for his support in overcoming some difficulty, because he was the only person whose help I would accept. But as soon as I had left the hotel, I regretted what I had done. I was terribly afraid that he would see me as someone seeking his friendship because of his name. In fact, with my coolness and stubbornness bordering on arrogance, it would be rather difficult for me to show respect for someone just because of their fame.
Later on, he phoned me, and when I heard his voice, I felt as if I were talking to God.
I know myself. I wanted a man who was like a father to pour my love upon, a man whose views on humanity accorded with my own, of whom I would be a female extension, my thinking taking up where his male thinking stopped. I don't know if this qualifies as a question for the ethics of human relationships.
Actually, if you want to be modern, then all questions are both real and empty. One of the significant things about civilization, without doubt, is that it has given classifying names to the fantastic variety of human and natural phenomena. But this is simply one possible system of names.
At lunchtime that day, I sat beside Yin Nan.
Here was a person of a type totally different from the father figure that always won my affection. We struck up a casual, relaxed conversation. After we exchanged a few questions and answers, such as which department and grade we were in, he started talking about the poetry society.
I noted that he spoke very softly, with the easy grace that comes with a good education. When he talked about the name for the club being twice rejected, his brow furrowed slightly and he became very serious, not at all like those young men who are full of promises but empty on results. All you have to do is get them later on the telephone and you'll discover their insincerity.
I fixed my eyes on him, drinking in his brilliance.
Of everything about Yin Nan, it was his eyebrows that first moved me.
When I think about it, this was very strange, because the first things that I usually took note of in a person were the cheeks, the eyes, the lips, the body, and so forth – the big or conspicuous things. But now the things my attention gravitates to are the little or easily overlooked things such as the eyebrows, the nose, the teeth, or the hands or feet.
Yin Nan 's eyebrows glistened like flowing strokes of black lacquer below his cleanly chiseled forehead. His slightly furrowed brow made me think of the phrase "worry lines." I have a rather special feeling about people's hair. With women, if they do their hair in a fuzzy bouffant style, I assume that their minds are equally fuzzy. Only after that do I consider the woman herself behind the hairdo. But with men, the first thing that captures my attention is their eyebrows. Only after I've checked their eyebrows do I consider their hair, beard, and the various areas of body hair that signal their level of physical maturity. I carry this so far as to judge their life and their spirit through their hair.
Yin Nan 's eyebrows were long and very beautiful, severe yet soft, pliant yet unyielding. On that day his eyebrows gave him away in an instant, revealing his physical nature and his mentality.
Looking at his slightly furrowed, handsome brow, without giving it any further thought, I said, "Why don't you call your poetry club 'Frowners'? It's close in meaning to your original name, but it softens the violent tone. Really, they both convey the idea of negation, but mine does it in much more subtle way."
Yin Nan thought about it for a moment, the long, slim fingers of his scrawny right hand gripping his spoon; then he waved it excitedly as he exclaimed, "Perfect! That's perfect!"
Beginning to see me in quite a different light, Yin Nan very solemnly shook my hand.
His hands were the second thing about him that attracted me.
It was as if his hand emitted a current of air that penetrated the palm of my own, or a unique sound, perhaps the secret sound of the blood hidden in his fingertips, flowing in smooth yet distinct pulsations. It was the kind of hand that the moment you touched it, made you think of phrases that reflect the special ways we use our hands, such as "breathing through one's fingers" or "tears following one's palm lines to slowly fall," to try to mask or hide whatever it is we are feeling; that made you think of the smoothness and weight of skin touching skin. It was impossible to treat it as just a hand. It was a mouth sucking the heat from your skin. It was an eager, attentive ear pressed to the walls of your veins to pick up the pulsations of your blood. It was a hungry nose fiercely seeking the unlimited hard or soft secrets it could gain from the hand it was touching. It was a kind of light, a voice, a rumination…
It seemed as if I had known that hand long ago, before I had ever seen Yin Nan. Long before his face ever entered my field of vision, I knew that hand.
His hand revealed him.
It was at that point that he earnestly invited me to join the poetry society.
I said, "I've never had any interest in joining any kind of group. I'm an 'individualist.' Right from when I was small, no matter what kind of group I became part of, I always numbered among the outside minority, because whenever the majority chorused 'Yes,' I couldn't help but counter with a tactless 'No.' I think that boldly standing up and saying no to the world is a powerful expression of personal responsibility."
Yin Nan said, "Our poetry society makes a point of saying no."
I said, "The unfortunate thing is when you give a chorus of no's, I'm afraid that I'll be inclined to say yes."
"Why? Just for the sake of being different? Not running with the crowd?" he asked.
"Of course not," I answered.
That same year I had begun reading Kierkegaard, so I trotted out his discussion of majority and minority groups. I said, "Members of a minority, or individuals, sometimes have more power than people in the majority, because the views embraced by members of minorities, or individuals, are genuinely their own, while the power of people in the majority is often spurious, because the group is made up of people of diverse views. When a minority or an individual produces a compelling point of view, then members of the majority take it as their own, but the diversity of their readings of the view reduces it to a confused welter of opinions, and the minority group or individual who first supported the view subsequently abandons it."
Yin Nan gave me a startled look, his limpid eyes unable to suppress a look of agitation and perplexity. His long, feminine eyelashes fluttered with excitement.
Then he nodded his head as if lost in thought as he muttered to himself, "I must introduce you to my friends." But after a moment he went on, "Right. I can't introduce you to them." His voice was almost inaudible.
I said, "What did you say?"
He said, "Nothing. I didn't say anything."
He seemed even handsomer than ever, radiating an uncommon inner clarity and authority. I realized right at that moment that in addition to my infatuation with father figures like Nixon, I also had an infatuation with young men like Yin Nan.
For at least an hour after we parted, for the first time in my life I was lost in a reverie over a young man, and his being real and within reach left my heart and my mind in a total mess. It was as if a cage had been stuffed into my breast, filled with birds gaily chattering and pecking away inside. I was pleasantly surprised, but perplexed and uneasy.
My first thought was to go and see Widow Ho immediately, as if I had come upon some kind of rare and wonderful treasure and wanted to share the pleasure with her. I had discovered that whenever anything happened, if I could face it together with her, whatever agitation or unpleasantness there might have been would dissipate like smoke. In my mind, we were lifelong fellow conspirators who understood each other without the need for words. For the past few weeks I had been unsettled because I hadn't had a chance to discuss Mr. Ti with her. But now I had no interest in discussing him at all. I wanted only to talk about Yin Nan. Just having his name flutter across my lips gave me a special feeling.
We were in the middle of icy January with its short days and long nights. On campus that afternoon my thoughts were elsewhere, and just before four o'clock I hurried away.
I wanted to sort out all the things that were on my mind. I find that the best thing to do at such times is to wander wherever my feet may carry me along some street where nobody knows me, with the brisk air in my face and the colors of twilight slowly descending. I enjoy wandering the streets as a stranger, and to make myself feel more the stranger or outsider, I often pretend that I am in a place far away from where I live, preferably in the street market of some isolated village. It has always pleased me, even when I was a child, to think that the people around me don't know me and that I don't know them.
Spring festival was just around the corner and the crowded, noisy streets and brilliantly lit shops put me in a carefree, relaxed mood.
For a long time, scenes of city life have always generated in me a feeling of isolation. I have never felt that they belonged to me, and as time passes, my attachment to them becomes weaker and weaker. For some reason I can't fathom, although I am physically still very young, I frequently lose myself in quiet reflection like an old person. I feel like my life no longer has any real purpose.
But on that day I had a change of mood. I no longer felt that life was cold and hopeless, and an unbroken feeling of joy welled up from the soles of my feet, jarring me out of my moroseness. Once again I pretended that the streets beneath my feet were streets I did not know. I wanted to leave behind the world I knew, to submerge my mind in an exciting new experience. To live through loneliness and inner torment for so long, and surprisingly come out of it alive and still able to encounter such wonders, seemed inconceivable. So at that moment, without being aware of it, I had expanded by a hundredfold the importance of my knowing Yin Nan.
At the side of the road, I saw an old lady sitting on a straw mat, staring blankly as she begged. A male child with an enormous head was suckling at her wizened breast. He had no hands, and the two stumps of his arms had been rubbed so smooth that they shone. An icy shaft shot through my heart, and my beautiful dream was abruptly broken.
Averting my eyes, I dug a coin out of my pocket, dropped it at the old lady's feet, and left.
When I got home, I went to see my mother.
The moment I opened her door, I could hear her labored breathing. It sounded like the hiss of the impure liquified natural gas when we lit the burner to boil water every day.
I was astonished to see that the window was wide open so that it was as cold in the room as it was outside. She was at the window, leaning against the radiator, in a thick, padded cotton coat, struggling to breathe.
I said, "Mama, it's so cold today. How come you've got the window wide open?" As I was speaking, I closed it.
Mother said that she had been feeling uncomfortable for the past several days, as if there wasn't enough oxygen in the room, no air circulation.
I looked closely at her face for a while, and sure enough, her color wasn't very good – pale with a greenish tinge. There was a look of distraction in her eyes, and dark circles of exhaustion around them.
I suggested she lie down and get more rest and sleep.
Mother said that sitting was better than lying down, standing was better than sitting, and she didn't know why, but the room seemed to be so terribly stuffy that she found it difficult to breathe.
While she was talking, I quickly ran over any unusual things she had done or said recently.
She had said to me on several occasions that she didn't know what the problem was, but she often woke up unable to breathe and had to sit up straight for a while to get her breathing back to normal, and that she always slept badly because of her wheezing. Lately, it had been especially serious. Often in the middle of the night she had to prop up the upper half of her body or she wouldn't be able to breathe properly or get a decent sleep. And in the daytime she was always worn out and listless, and would often break out in a sweat for no reason at all. She wondered in frustration if her menopause would ever pause.
All this led me to think of the female leads in the Bergman films Cries and Whispers and Silence. They were always lying face up on their beds with their heads canted back, a tremendous wheezing noise like the sound of a pipe organ threatening to split their bosoms asunder. Their emaciated, gnarled hands stretching upward in supplication as they struggled to breathe, it seemed as if their empty, ruined internal organs were about to collapse, as if they were about to be swallowed up by the dark, suffocating air… They were locked forever in a cage, where they saw their isolation and individuality as something sacred. They were gathered together to lament their personal isolation, but not only did they not listen to each other, they were suffocating each other without knowing it. They stared into each other's eyes but denied each other's existence…
Like the approaching darkness of night, these scenes enveloped me completely, filling me with a fear and confusion that shot through my entire body.
But, stuffing my hands in my pockets, I forced myself to remain calm, and said with strained casualness, "I'll take you to the hospital tomorrow. I think maybe you're sick."
Mother said, "Let's wait a bit. Maybe it's something to do with my menopause, something that comes and goes, like the trouble I had with fever and perspiring a while ago."
But my instinct told me that this time Mother was really sick.
From the day that Mother moved into her apartment, I had had a vague premonition that something was not right. Just after we had moved into this building, I heard that construction had been started on an inauspicious day, offending Tai Sui, one of the figures from traditional Chinese folklore. Tai Sui holds a rather special position in our folk mythology. He has something to do with the worship of celestial bodies but doesn't represent any particular one of them. Nor is he a symbol for some heavenly phenomenon. Some people say that Tai Sui is associated with the "Year Star," or Jupiter, one of God's year deities. He resides underground and is the counterforce to the Year Star in heaven. If you disturb the soil over Tai Sui's head, you may dig into some moving flesh, which is one of Tai Sui's transformations. Afterward, as long as the people who move into the building are vigorous and thriving, nothing much will happen, but if they are in ill health and their star is on the wane, they may encounter some fatal misfortune. I had long before heard the expression "to dare to disturb the soil over Tai Sui's head," but I had always believed it was nonsense, that Tai Sui was imaginary, invented by people to fulfill a need, nothing more than an esoteric term used in geomancy but sneered at by modern science. So I had never given it any credence.
But now, when I saw how my mother looked, it did seem as if she had been touched by some intangible thing.
I walked everywhere in her apartment, searching for whatever it was that was amiss. Then I said without much conviction, "Mama, I think the orientation of your apartment is bad."
Mother said, "Don't be stupid."
I continued to think about it but said no more.
I pulled her over to the bed and made her sit down. It seemed like the worst was over. Her breathing was back to normal and the color was returning to her face. Moving her hands over the bedstead and the mattress, she sighed. "It was such a struggle to change our lives, and now – such a nice apartment, such a nice bed – and now only the two of us, and we don't have to put up with anybody's angry outbursts. But… ai…" The way she spoke, it sounded as if all of this was going to be lost forever.
An unaccountable sadness flooded over me.
To take her mind off her difficulty with breathing, I told her about Yin Nan, the boy I had met in the cafeteria.
Mother was an educated woman with a lifetime of reading behind her and had certainly had her share of hardships as well, but she had never lost her romantic, innocent nature. Her mind could be diverted as easily as a little girl's. Now, when for the first time from my lips she heard news of a handsome young boy, there was an abrupt about turn in her focus of attention. At the same time she was asking me questions about his circumstances, she was blindly immersing herself in fantasies of the future.
I didn't tell Mother about my fears over her physical condition, because I had realized that it would be unfortunate if she had the same fears. My mind was a blank, without a single trace of the noon-hour events in the school cafeteria. I stood motionless in the center of the room, staring at the shadow cast on the bare wall by the white hanging lamp.
Eventually I left her apartment, to have my feet carry me directly to Widow Ho's.
She was reading, the smoke from her pipe twining upward like embryonic galaxies.
There was something wrong with her refrigerator, and as soon as I entered the room I heard its noisy whir. This sound and the swirling wisps of smoke made the room look like a laboratory scene from a science fiction movie, or an obscure, miniaturized universe.
Once inside, I stood there rooted to the floor. As if in a dream, one after another, all the things that had happened that day swept past my eyes, filling my head, but I stood there blankly, not knowing what to say.
"What's wrong?" Ho asked.
I didn't respond. There was so much packed into my head that even the whirring of her refrigerator bothered my ears and my nerves. It was as if it too wanted to invade my brain. Trying to resist the sound, I said, "Your refrigerator's broken."
"I know." She asked me again, "What's wrong?"
Again I said, "Your refrigerator's broken."
"I know. Surely you didn't come over just to tell me about my refrigerator."
Again, I didn't respond.
I tried to ignore the whirring noise and spill out, like garbage, all the things that were on my mind. But, strangely, the noise curled around my ears like smoke and dominated my thoughts, even clinging to the skin of my entire body, trying insistently to bore into my brain. Standing there rigidly, I felt dizzy for a moment, and helplessly alone and unable to utter a word.
Putting out her pipe, Ho came over and took me in her arms. At last, I relaxed against her shoulder.
She said gently, "We'll have supper together, then we can have a nice chat."
I knew this shoulder very well. I had been enchanted by its fragrance ever since I was a tiny girl. It seemed as if these soft but strong shoulders had always been the keepers of my body, giving me support as I grew toward maturity. I clasped my arms tightly around her neck, afraid that my inner turmoil might turn them into a pair of flapping wings to carry me away from her, out of her embrace.
"I can't…" I said, "live without you."
"I know, I know."
After a pause, I added, "But I can't have dinner with you tonight. Mama's sick. I have to take care of her."
"Well then, you'll have to go." She patted me lightly on the back. "Don't forget, whatever happens, I'll always be here to help you. There's no need to worry. Okay?"
I felt my anxiety slipping away.
We embraced each other again, then I left her apartment.