Forty-Nine Degrees, by Song Aman
A traffic jam, noxious fumes, sweltering heat, and tickets for a train that they may well miss. Our heroine is a is a post-grad who is still struggling to make ends meet. She loves her parents and wants to support them as they get older. But she also wants to find a partner that makes her happy, and Lei Fu, the guy sitting next to her, doesn’t seem to be the one. As they wait in the taxi, the heroine worries that her life isn’t going anywhere.
She sat in a taxi, stuck on the main road in the Old Town district. White lines of paint clearly marked six lanes of traffic, but none of them were going anywhere. The road signs reflected the harsh rays of the sun, glowing in every color of the spectrum. The trees on either side of the road offered scant circles of shade as the midday sun shone directly on their roots, their moisture-deprived leaves drooping like the lolling tongue of an over-heated dog. The constant noise condensed into a sweat that flowed from the pores of the earth and quickly evaporated, rising up to the sky.
Her ride-hailing app showed that it would take them twenty-eight minutes to reach the train station. The K1085 departed in twenty-five minutes.
As she looked in the rear view mirror, she saw hot air issuing from the tiny spaces between the cars, which were crammed together in a disorganized fashion. The fumes expanded and changed shape like oil flowing into water. Looking through the hot air distorted her vision—the whole world was enveloped in car fumes. The air was perfectly still. The leaves were still. The tiny flag stuck to the hood of the car was still. The heat collected in a heavy mass. Nothing stirred.
The ticket barrier would close five minutes before the train departed. She started to fidget. If they didn’t catch this train they would have to stay here another night. There was only one train a day that connected with a bus to her hometown. She was stuck in a cramped taxi, and the taxi was stuck on this road. Everyone struggled to make headway in this furnace of a city, watching helplessly as the lights turned red, then green, then red again, then green again. The driver had cranked up the AC and it was blowing right in her face. She felt the pores on her scalp rapidly opening and closing and goosebumps appeared on her arms and legs. Her sweat cooled but didn’t evaporate off of her skin, making her feel even colder. It was so cold as to be uncomfortable. She tried to get mentally prepared for missing the train. The map on her app showed that once they passed the bell tower they just needed to make a right hand turn and they would be there. She expected the traffic to clear up after they reached bell tower—maybe they would make it after all.
The driver wasn’t dawdling, but he wasn’t hurrying either—he had seen this all before. He changed the radio station from one playing music to one giving traffic information. The broadcaster giving the traffic update crammed as many syllables as she could into one breath. In her rushed, animated voice she announced that all of the major roads were completely blocked and that several accidents had occurred, so drivers should take alternate routes.
The sidewalks were practically empty. An older woman pushed a stroller slowly, sticking as close to the trees as possible. A pastel purple sun shade completely covered the stroller she was pushing. It was impossible to tell if there was a baby inside with the boxy contraption sealing off every part of the stroller. The taxi stopped and started again. A loud rumbling sound came from the exhaust of a large car nearby. The taxi’s engine stalled and the driver restarted it, while she watched the woman pushing the stroller at a slow pace. A few drivers leaned on their horns, and others responded in kind, until car horns up and down the line were blasting their impatience and despair.
She gazed out the window out of sheer boredom. Up ahead, a motorcycle inched along. The young rider was about the same age as she was. He had clearly gone through a lot of effort to style his spiky hair but it was starting to droop under the onslaught of sweat streaming from his temples. Riding pillion was a girl with waist-length hair, wearing a pale yellow jacket to protect her from the sun. She held onto the young man with one arm and held a sun umbrella as far forward as possible with the other.
The weather report claimed that today’s high would only be thirty-nine degrees Celsius, but the temperature gauge in the taxi read forty-nine. The concentration of engines caused steam to evaporate steadily from the pavement. She heard a commotion behind her, somewhere in the endless stream of cars. A few drivers left their cars and the chaos escalated as more and more people added to the racket. The sun beat down on them mercilessly. It was impossibly hot, and even the tiniest friction could cause sparks. As the front of the line slithered forward, the drivers who got out to watch the action returned to their cars. The chaos subsided as everyone moved forward. Less than a car length later, they were stopped yet again. The young motorcyclist turned around to stroke his girlfriend’s hair, then opened a water bottle. Without moving, he assessed the space around him. His gaze fell on a black car to his right. A girl with a head of straight black hair as long as his girlfriend’s was sitting in the front passenger seat; her legs were crossed and her bare feet were propped up on the dashboard.
Checking the rear view mirror, the taxi driver observed the anxious expression on his passenger’s face, even though her head was turned.
“Are you two locals?” the driver asked.
“No. We’re taking the train to go home,” she answered.
“When’s your train?”
“Two thirty,” she said, after a pause. She felt a little embarrassed.
The driver laughed, checked his watch, and laughed even louder. “I don’t think you’re going to make it.”
Nobody said anything after that.
A bird flitted past her window. It seemed out of place in the ridiculous summer heat.
Lei Fu played with his phone as he sat next to her, his head bent. He was staring intently at the map, clearly aware of the awkward situation. Nobody made eye contact.
“Do we even need to go to the station?” she asked, without bothering to turn her head to look at Lei Fu.
“I think so. I think we’ll make it.”
She laughed inwardly his optimism. The air was still. Looking at the towering buildings ahead, she was lost in thought.
She had recently extricated herself from a tricky situation. When she learned that her then boyfriend Zhao Jianting led a more complicated life than he had claimed, she quickly fabricated a fiancé to save face. She had believed that he respected her and that he didn’t want to talk about marriage yet and when Jianting asked if she would be his girlfriend, she thought he meant they would be in an exclusive relationship. It wasn’t until she saw him at the mall, his wife and daughter in tow, that she understood that in his world, having a wife didn’t prevent him from having a girlfriend on the side.
She would be turning thirty at the end of the summer.
When she thought about turning thirty, the whole world seemed to slow down. She remembered the time when Jianting took her to that fancy restaurant. She had never stepped inside a place like that, not until she had finished her Master’s degree. The revolving restaurant, located in the tallest building in the city, had floor-to-ceiling windows allowing the patrons to admire the city from above. The river, the buildings, the green belt and even the lights were distant but crystal clear, like a three dimensional map. She tried hard to focus on the meal rather than stare rapturously at the view. The real awkwardness came when she was given the menu. She had never ordered Western food from a chic restaurant like this and the list of exquisite dishes mystified her. The light coming from the chandeliers and the candles was soft, making everything in the restaurant pleasantly indistinct. But the exceptional kindness of the staff only made her feel uncomfortable. Beads of sweat collected on her back and her scalp felt warm. She could feel her face turning pink.
The car set off again as the road cleared up a little. “Give me a good rating when we arrive, OK? It’s not easy working on a day like this,” the driver said as he sped up.
She promised to give him a good rating and patted her flushed cheeks with her fingers. She still got embarrassed thinking about that night. She didn’t belong in that kind of environment. She felt more at ease when she was at home, facing nights of anxious study and looking at her parents’ dusty old clothes. Still, the panoramic view of that restaurant was enchanting. When she looked down at the city below, it felt like she was looking at an unfocused photograph. She had to admit that sitting among the expensive chandeliers and laughing with those terribly elegant people had its charm—she was floating above a city that was familiar and strange to her, she was soaring to new heights as the day melted into night.
She had already lived here for eight years, completing a Master’s degree and working part-time to make ends meet. Her shifts ended so late that the party scene was already revving up from the Bund all the way to 3rd Boulevard. The ride home was long—the bus stopped at nearly every other stop on the line before it finally reached hers. Late at night, she watched the gated communities, the enormous buildings with their blazing neon lights and countless luxury cars go by. She watched the people in their flashy clothes as they passed the business district. She leaned back in her seat, feeling like she only had enough energy to move her eyes. It was only when she caught herself blinking at her reflection in the bus window that she realized she hadn’t kicked the bucket yet. The bus was practically empty. This city belongs to them, she thought. Everything that is worth anything belongs to them. It has nothing to do with me at all. When these four years are up I’ll be back where I started. As the bus crossed the overpass, she looked down at the city, its faint lights twinkling like stars. The bus kept approaching the stars but never reached them.
The driver slammed on the brakes and her head hit the headrest in front of her. Forced to focus on the present, she noticed that they had passed the bell tower. The old woman with the stroller was somewhere behind them. The taxi picked up speed. In ten minutes the train staff would stop checking tickets. The anxiety that kept welling up inside of her gradually subsided. She was sure that they would miss their train so it didn’t matter if they arrived a few minutes faster or slower.
Lei Fu was, in her parents’ eyes, a real catch. He was the only son who had made something of himself in her parents’ circle of friends. Lei Fu’s parents left their village about thirty years ago. They took odd jobs and peddled wares, doing whatever they could until business finally picked up. After working diligently for thirty years, Lei Fu’s father gradually became one of the biggest bosses in the capital of their province. They bought a house, obtained a coveted city hukou registration for the family and they even managed to pay for their son to study abroad. They were the perfect urbanite family. Her parents steered her towards Lei Fu, in the hopes that she would get to know him better. Meanwhile Lei Fu’s parents thought that she was honest and unpretentious—they were interested in making a match.
Nine more minutes. The taxi driver parked at the northwest corner of the station to avoid any potential searches at the station. There was still time—a tiny flame of hope burned in her chest. She grabbed her bag and started to run. Sprinting in the heat that made everything else stand still, she ignored the rays beating down on her and ignored Lei Fu, who wasn’t following her. Wearing heels, she ran as if her life depended on it.
“OK you get the tickets and I’ll stand in line,” she called behind her.
Lei Fu finally started running.
Her black dress quickly became damp with sweat and stuck to her back. Seven minutes. She looked frantically for the ticket gate and spun around three times before she found it. The hectic station seemed devoid of sound to her. She spotted a sign up to the right that said “K1085 now boarding” and didn’t bother to look back to see if Lei Fu made it past security. She rushed to the ticket gate. People were everywhere, milling about, sitting on the floor. When she finally parted the waves of people, she discovered that the metal bar gate was being locked shut.
They still had exactly five minutes before departure. “Excuse me, can we board the K1085 now? We still have five minutes,” she asked.
The ticket taker stood behind the gate. “The doors have already closed and the train is about to depart. We aren’t taking any more tickets.”
Exhaustion engulfed her and the ticket taker watched her closely as she turned around to see Lei Fu making his way through the crowds.
Missing the train wasn’t the end of the world and there was nothing urgent that she needed to take care of at home, but she still felt agitated. There was no point in complaining, but she felt dissatisfied all the same.
“Wait here where it’s a little cooler. I’ll get a refund for our tickets,” Lei Fu said.
The counter for changing and refunding tickets was long. Lei Fu stood at the very back.
It was her parents’ idea for them to come back on the same train. She knew what they were up to. Lei Fu was in the army and he had the kind of solid family background that meant she could live the kind of life that she had wanted for a long time. She could even improve the lives of her parents. But her heart didn’t race when she looked at him—it didn’t even flutter. She couldn’t get rid of the feeling that she was trying to force something that wasn’t supposed to happen. In terms of marriage prospects, Lei Fu was an excellent choice, but in terms of love... every time she got close to him, she felt like she was going through some kind of transaction. But then the idea of breaking it off brought memories of her mother’s admonishments. They burned now just as much as they had when she first said them.
What is love? You can’t eat love, can you?
Honestly, how old are you now?
If she missed this opportunity she might never get another one.
She was turning thirty before the summer’s end. She didn’t know what she wanted. She didn’t act terrified, but that was just a show. Being unmarried at her age was unheard of in her hometown. She knew this, and she knew that her parents were under pressure as well.
Lei Fu had reached the middle of the line. He wore his sky-blue backpack on the front so it looked like a heavy vest. His T-shirt was soaked with sweat. She walked back and forth in the ticket lobby, then stood near one of the walls. A group of women were sitting on the floor nearby, chatting and cracking watermelon seeds with their teeth. Two in the afternoon was the heat of the day and they all felt the gusts of hot wind coming into the lobby from the main entrance.
When Lei Fu finished refunding the tickets, he walked back to her with the delighted smile of a child. She was trying to think of a reason to leave him. She didn’t want to go to Lei Fu’s house, and being a guest at his parents’ house was just too much to bear.
“Well, this is awkward. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“You know, you don’t have to come back tomorrow. It’s been so hot.”
“It’s absolutely fine. My parents insisted that I accompany you on the ride home.”
“It’s been a long time since you’ve seen your family, hasn’t it?”
“Over a year now. My parents are pretty busy.”
They left the station. She carried a parasol, creating distance between herself and Lei Fu.
Two bright red, crushed cans were discarded next to an overturned trash can. The red and blue lights of the police car paled in comparison to the glaring sun. Loudspeakers invited travelers to take the VIP line, mixing with the sound of luggage wheels scraping on pavement.
Choosing her words carefully, she finally broke the news to Lei Fu at the entrance of the metro station. “I’ve decided that I’m not going to go back home with you. When you go home just tell your parents about what happened today.” She faltered before continuing, “I’m going to go back to my apartment. Let’s meet at the train station tomorrow and try to get here earlier.”
“Hey, how about we get a drink at the café? Or we could watch a movie and get some dinner.”
“That’s alright. I’m feeling really tired today, I just want to go back to my apartment and lie down.”
“OK, then, take care. Or how about I take you home?”
“No, it’s fine. It’s just so hot. I’ll message you when I get home.”
She took the same line as Lei Fu but in the opposite direction. She smiled at him from across the platform as the car doors closed. He looked especially tall in the cramped car. It was so busy that afternoon that she had to let two trains pass before she finally got on. With her right hand, she held her phone in front of her chest to give her space from the people around her. Her left hand gripped the handle tight. She could feel the heat coming off all of the men standing around her. She tried her best to keep her distance and not touch anyone in the cramped car.
After a brief consideration, she got off two stops early: Education and Science Park.
The developers had neglected to finish the village by the cluster of university campuses. The village and others like it festered like sores in the grimy parts of the city. Cheap apartments and tiny unlicensed restaurants opened their doors wide, taking everyone in. These villages could always be found one street away from universities, and the contrast between the villages and the campuses couldn’t be more stark. Her friend Gu Tang from the poetry writers group lived between the fine art campus and the teaching university. He and his friends all had nicknames and she wasn’t even sure she remembered his real name anymore.
A middle aged man stooped under a red umbrella as he tossed and stirred Yangzhou fried rice. The washcloth around his neck, used to absorb sweat, was once white but was now turning yellow. The gas tank for his wok burner was sitting on the ground, perilously close to the fried squid stand. The whole collection of street food stands seemed in danger of exploding at any minute. She stood at the edge of the village, listening to the cacophony of street vendors and the sounds of frying food. A sedan honked its horn as it tried to make its way down the alley. On a street that was only wide enough for three people side by side, everyone would have to make way for it to drive through. The heat of the village was different from the heat around the train station. One was hot because of all the engines, while the other was hot from the throngs of people. Every open mouth was exhaling hot air; every open pore was seeping beads of hot sweat. It seemed like everyone was talking loudly—their loud and spirited exchanges only served to crank up the temperature. A woman selling congee was serving herself bowl after chilled bowl from her rice cooker—they didn’t seem to make her feel any cooler. College students in shorts and flip flops gathered around the stands. The watched the vendors as they cooked the food, pressing together to try to get a sliver of shade over their heads. Groups came and went in waves.
It was three thirty. She realized she was thirsty and decided to join the long line at the drinks store to buy two cups of lemonade with ice. A small car honked impatiently as it tried to drive out of the alley. Rather than giving way, the line of customers stood their ground, forcing the car to give up hope. All of the little hotels pasted handwritten signs on red paper, advertising free wifi and air conditioning. She skipped around the fruit store and walked down the second alley. She knew the way by heart.
The little house where Gu Tang lived was built by local farmers. It was originally a two-story house but the owners decided to add a floor on top. Gu Tang had a room on the top floor. She made her way up the uneven stairs.
Gu Tang’s door was open. Dried lotus heads were scattered on the floor by the bookshelves, and large pieces of the ceiling were scattered about too. He was wearing a T-shirt that had been washed many times, giving it an extra softness. He sat facing the doorway, practicing his calligraphy. Every afternoon, without fail, he practiced his calligraphy. He had paintings mounted on the east-facing wall of his room. Some of them were spoken for, but many of them hung on the wall for months and years without a buyer. The room was cramped, long, and a little damp.
He looked up at her and smiled as she entered. The afternoon sun made it hard for her to see clearly. With his free hand, he gestured for her to sit down. His brush hovered on the paper: he wanted to finish these last few rows.
“I just missed the train so I’ll have to go home tomorrow.”
“That was careless. You have to leave plenty of time when you travel on a hot day.”
“It’s so hot up here; you’re right under the roof and everything. Why don’t you turn on the air conditioning?”
“That little guy sucks up a lot of electricity! I can’t afford to feed it, the electricity bill would be too high.” He pointed to the air conditioning unit with his brush and smiled. Gu Tang had a similar background to her—born in the countryside, studied painting in college, couldn’t go back because there wasn’t any work.
She had been friends with Gu Tang for almost two years. When they were still students it wasn’t so bad—he was busy and things always seemed to work out. But after they graduated, things changed. He gave up a nine-to-five job so he would have time to paint. He spent almost all of his time cooped up in the tiny room, making a meager income teaching part time at the fine arts school. Gu Tang admitted once that it wasn’t really a steady job and it would take a long time for him to get established as a painter, but if he painted well he was sure that it would be enough to support a family. He hoped that he could have a study with built-in bookshelves one day.
“You’re not going home to get married, are you? I don’t believe it! Uh, I mean, do you think it’s time for you to settle down now?”
She noticed every sparkling gem of sweat on his forehead in the twilight.
She smiled. “Just because I don’t want to get married doesn’t mean I don’t want to settle down.”
“It’s easy to get married, but it’s hard to stay married. Make sure you think it over.”
“I’m not going home to get married, OK? Let’s talk about something else.”
Gu Tang didn’t look at her—he was still focused on his calligraphy—but he couldn’t suppress a smile. She felt completely at peace and was determined to never forget this moment.
“Have you written any poems lately, Comrade Lady-Poet?”
“Lady-Poet? The way you put it, it sounds like poets are all over the place.”
“No, no, I only know one lady-poet. Lady-Poet, have you written any new poems?”
Gu Tang stood up and placed that day’s calligraphy on top of a folded stack of practice sheets. His handwriting was even and smooth.
“Turn around and grab that watermelon from under the table, would you? It should be cool enough to eat by now.”
She turned to look at the table full of engraving tools and seals. Sure enough, there was a watermelon sitting in a basin of cold water.
They faced each other as they ate, using the basin to hold the seeds and the rinds. The watermelon was still a little warm, but it was deliciously sweet. Their conversation moved from Sheng Jiao Xu to Huang Binhong to Jorge Luis Borges. They even exchanged views on feminism. She loosened the straps of her heels and let her feet rest. Her back was soaked with sweat again. By the time she remembered the lemonade, the ice cubes had already melted.
“It would be so great if you had a fridge up here,” she said.
“I just got started and I’m a freelancer. I don’t have a steady income so I can’t buy a fridge right now,” he answered.
They were quiet.
“But I’ll get one eventually,” he said. Then when you visit you can have cold watermelon, fresh milk and homemade popsicles.”
“You would have homemade popsicles, you’re always doing creative things like that. With your talent, I know you’ll be making more money soon.”
They talked about their mothers. She was expecting him to ask what she did, and she was going to proudly tell him that her mother was a stay-at-home mom who cooked like a chef and did catering for weddings and other events to earn a little extra money for the family. But Gu Tang never asked. He took a sesame seed bun out of a bag and shared it with her. All of his stories were about his childhood, like the time he swimming in the reservoir with his friends and nearly got swept away by a big wave. His mother was so angry that she beat him. It seemed that his impression of her was formed by those early years. So they started talking about their childhood.
“If it weren’t for my mother I wouldn’t be painting,” he said. “When I was a kid our village didn’t have many educated people. People with a college education were exceedingly rare—not to mention people that studied painting.”
She could tell he was totally relaxed. She saw a little glisten in his eye.
“My mom had a friend who lived in the county seat. Apparently he was a painter and my mom and this painter went way back. Well, one day my mom came home and she was really excited. She told me I could study painting. She wanted me to become a painter, she said that would make her proud. So from the age of six, every weekend, winter break, and summer break, my mom took me to that city, rain or shine. She watched me learn how to paint. My master was named Fu; he lived alone after his divorce. Master Fu was strict but he rewarded me with art supplies. He told me that I had the talent and whether or not I would become a great artist depended on how hard I worked for it.”
“I can’t believe you started when you were six.”
“My mom woke me up at six every morning and made me paint before school. Every single day.”
“Wow. You have an amazing mom.”
His eyes brightened even more. He didn’t say anything.
“She must be really supportive of what you’re doing now,” she offered. “It’s not so bad if your family supports your decisions.”
The glistening pearl dropped down his face. “She passed. Almost ten years ago.”
She was struck dumb. The faucet in the cramped bathroom leaked, and she could hear each drop land in a plastic basin placed underneath.
“I—” she couldn’t finish her sentence. She moved her hand and placed it on top of his. “Thank goodness there are still things in life that help us get through dark nights,” she finally said.
“Everything will get better,” she added. She felt like she could see his hurt, his pretense, his hope and his loneliness. She opened her mouth to speak when her phone vibrated. She turned off the phone—Zhao Jianting’s third call since they broke up. She decided against saying, “It’s OK, you always have me if you need something” and said “It’s OK, you always have your friends if you need something.”
“That’s all in the past now. I should be looking toward the future.” He turned away and organized his bookshelf. He picked up the lotus heads off the floor and put them back where they belonged.
Two opposing forces were flowing inside her; she didn’t know which one would win out. The room was filled with a red glow from the setting sun. The temperature wasn’t as hot as before, but it still felt stuffy. She slipped her heels on and fastened the buckles. As she stood, she admired his paintings for the umpteenth time. Then the stamp vise and the precision knives on the table caught her interest. She randomly picked up a knife from the mess and carved a little mark. Even though he painted birds, animals and fish that were more intricate and had more depth, she still loved his paintings of lotus flowers the best. She loved his use of the mogu style, how it would make the lotus leap out of the blank page, inviting the viewer to enjoy the lotus. He used the colors to make a realistic image. It was purposeful and elegant, not trying to take from anyone and not following conventions. A long time ago, he gave her a paper fan with two lotuses painted on it. The pink-tipped lotuses grew in different directions while red koi fish swam in the background. She accepted it and locked it up in her desk drawer straightaway. She had never shown it to anyone.
She stood in front of the paining for a long time. She was staring fixedly as her emotions swirled out of control. Scattered pieces of thoughts came together without rhyme or reason. She thought of Lei Fu’s parents, Jianting’s phone calls, the lotus blooms, her trip back to her hometown, and she felt like she was going to go crazy.
She went to the village with Gu Tang and picked out a cheap restaurant that looked relatively clean. They both ordered fried hand-pulled noodles. When they finished, they went their separate ways. He went back to his calligraphy and she went back to the metro station to take the last two stops home. The heat was unrelenting.