One Wednesday evening, drunk as a skunk in a Beijing eatery, I got a call from an unknown number. While the call didn’t stun me into sobriety in the exaggerated way you might see on TV, it really did give me something of a shock. For this reason, I even left my drinking buddies to find what you might call a secluded place. The secluded place was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the squat toilet stall in the restaurant bathroom. Which is to say that my interlocutor could not only hear my voice through the speaker, but also hear the shouting, vomiting, and excreting of bathroom users, not to mention the watery roar of the toilet tank. However, precisely as the inventor of the squat toilet stall intended, it truly furnished a private space, offering everyone the impression at least of a little privacy.
On the other end of the phone was a woman’s flirty voice. That doesn’t mean that she was younger, quite the opposite (unless my memory is mistaken), for this woman who introduced herself as “Ms. Liu” was probably in her fifties. The coquetry was just in the timbre of her voice and in her way of speaking, and this, I recalled, had already been there a decade earlier. At the time Ms. Liu had been in her forties, already long divorced, but her daughter, Jiang Ting, had been raised by Ms. Liu. At that time Jiang Ting was in her twenties, attending university in Nanjing. I had run into Jiang Ting by chance at some banquet, and then we had become boyfriend and girlfriend. Like a lot of children raised in single-parent homes, Jiang Ting didn’t seem very attached to the city where her family lived and her residency was registered. By her own account, I treated her pretty well; she had wanted to stay in Nanjing, to find a job after graduating and to accept my offer of marriage. You should know that I was then at prime marriage age, and regardless of whether you considered the question from the perspective of public opinion, personal aspirations, or emotional intensity, every particle of me wanted to marry Jiang Ting. In consequence, in line with the standard order of operations and regulations for how marriages come to pass, Jiang Ting and I had gone to visit her mother, Ms. Liu. And at the end of that year, Ms. Liu had even been invited to Nanjing for Chinese New Year with my family, where she was warmly welcomed by all and sundry. However, not long after Ms. Liu left Nanjing, Jiang Ting and I broke up. Thereafter, we had no further contact. In a flash a decade passed.
Why she calls herself “Ms. Liu,” I have no clue.
Ms. Liu said she happened to be in Nanjing on business, she would be spending a couple of days there, and she would like to see me, to have a chat. I could only, in the intervals between the sounds of chatting, vomiting, excreting, not to mention the roaring flush of the toilet tank, tell her that I was in Beijing and would only get back the day after tomorrow. That wasn’t exactly a lie, even if I hadn’t yet bought the high-speed rail ticket to go back to Nanjing, and even if I didn’t really have any good reason to stay in Beijing until the day after tomorrow—but since she was only spending a couple of days in Nanjing, I selected the day after tomorrow, allowing me to just about miss her. I truly couldn’t conceive of any reason necessitating a meeting. I couldn’t even remember what she looked like. Was she that formally-dressed, bouffant, middle-aged woman I now pictured in my mind’s eye? Even her daughter—unexpectedly, it seemed that her features had blurred. It was really a shame, but now that a decade had passed, I very seldom thought about either the mother or the daughter.
My answer obviously caught her by surprise, and there was a touch of embarrassment when Ms. Liu answered. However, she quickly resolved to stay in Nanjing for an extra day. “I’ll go settle that at the hotel reception right now, then. I’ll add a day. OK?” That answer shamed me. Especially when I thought about what she had already told me about getting a hold of my cell number. It would have been almost impossible, after all, to hang on to a number from ten years earlier. The decade that had just passed was one of constant alterations and upgrades of phone numbers, so even if we still had them, the numbers would no longer be valid, and that’s without even considering the tech side of it. Not a lot of people had kept the same number for ten years. But, actually, I had bragging rights on this one: I was someone who had been using the same number for over a decade. Which meant that she hadn’t kept my number in her phone contact list. I suppose it had been no different with her daughter.
She got my number in the following way. She had been to my home ten years earlier, but later I had moved, so she couldn’t just show up at the door. But ten years earlier, I taught in a middle school in a very memorable location on the north side of the city, and since the location was so easy to remember, she had headed straight for it. In the last few years, that part of the city has really developed. The whole place is a construction site, and it’s in a bit of a rough part of town, so the air is always filled with dust. Her shiny, pointy little leather shoes must have trodden the local sludge, and her outfit and makeup would have guaranteed ogles from the old lechers clustered around cards and chess at the store. The plastic bags soaring through the air would surely have swooped down to plaster her slightly waxy, yellowish face, so carefully sculpted, with any puffiness under the eyes furiously gotten rid of with flicks of her fingertips. She easily found the school where I had worked, but because I had long since left it (eight years ago), the teaching roster no longer sported my name or contact info. Nor, as it turns out, had any of my former colleagues kept in touch with me. The worst of it was that even the guard at the gates was no longer the same fellow (the one back in my times might already be dead by now), and his successor was unwilling to let some middle-aged woman with a northern twang come crashing through the main gates. Besides, I don’t know how she would have explained to my former colleagues what relationship she could claim to me. Friends? Mother of ex-girlfriend? Relative? All these options were risible. The astonishing thing was that a middle-school classmate of mine just happened to be passing through the school gates. After graduating from middle school, he had bounced around, gotten hitched early, and his kid was already a student at this school, though, fortunately, I had already left that school, failing which my middle-school classmate would have become the dad of a kid in my class. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have had any contact with this classmate after middle school. But by pure chance we had held a classmates’ reunion not long before, which marked the only occasion I had ever gone to one. I remember that my appearance at the reunion caused tiny ripples in our community, and I was bombarded with accusations that I’d “forgotten where I came from” since I hadn’t attended any of the numerous reunions before. But now that I had come everything was all right. These ripples were rapidly replaced by stormy waves of formal toasts, which, in turn, led to competitive drinking. I suppose that while staggering off we had ritually exchanged our phone numbers. And thus, by the hand of fate, my number fell into Ms. Liu’s hands. Not in vain had she made the trip. She had returned to the hotel, rapidly changed out of her clothes, fouled and besmirched by the dust of the city’s north, taken a shower, applied a cleansing mask, and then, beneath the orange glow of the table lamp, dialed my number.
So, when I returned from the bathroom to the banquet table, I told my friend, Tomorrow I’m going back to Nanjing. What’s up? He asked, much surprised. I said, I’ve got to take care of a family matter. Then I threw myself back into imbibing. Here my memories of the day leave off. If there is any more to relate, then it is my recollection that after I had finished talking with Ms. Liu, I had, as a matter of habit, yanked the toilet cord, perhaps because I had been squatting above the toilet as I took the call—but I was just squatting, I hadn’t dropped my trousers. Furthermore, the doubtful accuracy of my utterance “take care of a family matter” caused me much misgiving and remorse. I overdid the drinking, and the following day I was wretched. But I gritted my teeth and dragged myself aboard the train back to Nanjing.
It was so long ago that I guess I don’t really remember my days with Jiang Ting, but then, on the other hand, I also didn’t forget them as completely as I had supposed. We had met at a banquet, and after it ended, I suggested, Should we get another drink? She did not, as was usual with college girls, explain how she had class tomorrow or whatever; she just went with me. We boozed at a street- side grill stand. We each ordered a finger of sorghum wine. I have no recollection at all of what we talked about. But I’m sure of one thing: we were both very happy, since we each ordered another finger of wine The following day, she was lying next to me. We hadn’t even taken our clothes off, didn’t get under the covers either; we were just lying next to each on the blanket, at my place. I brushed aside the hair that hid most of her face and kissed her, and when she woke up, she wasn’t alarmed, and she didn’t shout; she just smiled at me without a sound, revealing a row of neither very even nor very white teeth.
Her parents had gotten a divorce when she was eight. She stayed with mum. But actually her mum was away for years at a time, in Beijing, in Shijiazhuang, in Jinan, et cetera, taking jobs as a kindergarten lady, an insurance saleswoman, an office worker, et cetera. Jiang Ting was left in rural Shandong with her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother’s greatest wish for her grandchild was for her not to be like her own daughter, getting married only to divorce. Her grandmother had felt humiliated, but she also pitied the child, who was fatherless and who practically had no mum, either. The mere mention of it left rims of her eyes red, tears springing forth. Grandmother cooked all kinds of yummy things for Jiang Ting. Jiang Ting would always stress the degree of their yumminess. That was a recollection bias; it wasn’t real, Jiang Ting said so herself. She knew that much. Her maternal uncles didn’t like her, and Jiang Ting didn’t like her uncles. When she was fifteen, her grandmother died. Jiang Ting’s mother brought her to Jinan. Jiang Ting had also met her dad a few times. Dad was a dry, bony man who lived in Guangdong. He had remarried there and had a kid. She had stayed with her dad’s family one summer holiday, but she didn’t care for the hot, humid weather of Guangdong, and she didn’t like wearing skirts. But she did like her dad. He didn’t have much to say, and even when there was something wrong, he didn’t say anything. He would just look at her with those eyes of his. Her dad shouted at the new wife and hit their kid. Jiang Ting knew that he didn’t treat her like she was his own kid; he was just a stranger with an accidental blood tie. But she still liked her dad. She did as he said. It was her dad’s idea to apply for university in Nanjing. He’d applied when he was her age, but hadn’t gotten in.
And Jiang Ting didn’t dislike her mum. She had just never figured out how to get along with her. When her mom decided to be strict with her, the results were often terrifying. It was her fault that Jiang Ting hated dresses. Later, she got into the habit of buying cheap, fashionable dresses for Jiang Ting to wear. It was no big deal if she did wear them when she went out; she’d never heard anyone laugh. But because her mum made her wear them, she felt not only awkward but ugly in them. In high school, Jiang Ting had gone through two years of rebellion. She’d gone out with boys, started to smoke and drink, talked back to her teachers and her mum. One day her mum struck her and she actually returned the blow. For the first time she noticed that her mum was shorter than her and physically weaker than her. That scared the hell out of her, but there was no way she was going to apologize, so she just cried for a really long time in her own room. She was really gutted.
Mum also dated a lot in those years. There had been another brief marriage, to some “uncle” called Wang. That marriage had cast a shadow over Jiang Ting’s relationship with her mother, the shadow consisting of the fact that Uncle Wang had a eighteen- or nineteen-year-old son who had tried to rape Jiang Ting. Though the matter had ended decisively in the divorce of mum from Uncle Wang, Jiang Ting had been traumatized and there was no way to heal the break. The harm consisted neither in the fact that he had planned to rape her nor in the actual attempt. According to Jiang Ting, even if Uncle Wang’s son had actually managed to rape her, that wouldn’t have mattered. The problem was that the restlessness of mum’s life suddenly made her daughter feel like garbage. And then she reflected that all this misfortune had been brought into her life by her mum. The laughter of her classmates, the indifference of her uncles. All this, it seemed to Jiang Ting—even her grandmother’s death, too—could not be dissociated from her mother. Apparently, the death had come about because mum had been dating a married man, and the wife—unable to track down mum—had tracked down grandma instead. Grandma, mortified and infuriated, had filed protest against her disreputable old age in the form of a stroke, to which she had not long after succumbed.
After only half a month, Jiang Ting left her school dorm to move into my place. She had a lot more stuff than I expected, and I had to replace my two-drawer wardrobe with a four-drawer one. She also taught me that shampoo and body lotion and toothpaste came in other kinds than the ones you see in the supermarket. She redecorated my place, the tables were accustomed to the tablecloths, and the windowsills enjoyed a renaissance of green plants. More crucially, when I came home with heavy steps, I could see from some distance the smoke of my own hearth (if we pretend for a moment that our apartment had a chimney). Her previous experience of life had not prepared her to cook, but that was no great obstacle for her, with internet and books quickly transforming her into a clever housewife. Not because of poverty (although Jiang Ting was from a broken family, she had never lacked money) but out of consideration for my limited income, when she did the shopping, she always compared prices at various places before choosing the most economical. As the trips she had to take to campus for class decreased, she grew too lazy to go out, and when she went to class reunions, she would sometimes bring me along. When she was done cleaning and washing and cooking, she would play computer games or read on the balcony.
My relatives were obviously touched by Jiang Ting. On the one hand, they thought I had struck it lucky, and, on the other hand, there was a touch of envy in their attitude. What had a twerp like me done to deserve such good luck? In their eyes, those years of dating, of introducing me to girls—the failure of their every effort—were a huge black mark against me, highlighting me as a big old problem for my family and for my friends. The way Jiang Ting suddenly floated into my life had completely shattered their self-righteous assessment of me. It even caused them to take a break from talking stocks and real estate to discuss fate and destiny. The only thing that worried them was that Jiang Ting was still a student and almost a decade younger than me. Would Jiang Ting change once she had graduated and started working? No one could say. The only thing I could do, the thing I had to do, was to mitigate the impact of this change, and the most efficacious way of mitigation was by marriage. Although marriage is also fertile soil for affairs, cuckoldry, and infidelity, the commanding moral and legal flame of marriage also represents the virtuous beacon whose light blocks out such benighted acts. Obtaining the consent of Jiang Ting’s mum was a pressing matter, as was the effectuation of a timely meeting between both parental units.
Suffice it to say that I was back in Nanjing a day earlier than what I had told Ms. Liu on the phone. Ms. Liu didn’t know about that, but Li Yuan knew— Li Yuan is my wife. On the phone, she asked me, What’s your plan? I said, It’s not the kind of thing that has a plan. Ms. Liu has looked me up, she wants to meet me, so I guess I will. She said, Didn’t you say you wanted to stay a couple of days longer in Beijing? I said, Sure, but now I’ve changed my mind, OK? She said, Oh, I get it.
Those were the texts we exchanged on the train. The moment I got off, just as I had expected, she called me. I put that down to a kind of connubial instinct. This instinct firstly includes her wanting me to be within her “field of vision,” and, secondly, we’re a family; we’re diligent and frugal, so, to cut down on roaming, she doesn’t call until the moment I set foot in Nanjing, which to me seems quite justifiable.
Li Yuan: So?
Me: What, so?
Li Yuan: You’re going to see her now?
Me: Are you nuts? I’m coming home first.
Li Yuan: And tonight?
Me: And tonight I’m home too.
Li Yuan: You’re not meeting her?
Me: Probably tomorrow.
Li Yuan: Oh, ok, I get it.
It’s the kind of conversation that takes a lot out of you. It makes you ill at ease. I wanted to hang up the phone, but I couldn’t control my emotions, so I added: When are you coming home from work?
But she just asked me back: What do you think? And hung up.
Li Yuan’s rhetorical question represented of course also a kind of moodiness. It could be interpreted as her accusing me of asking useless questions when I knew the answer very well (of course, she’d come home once she got off work), but it also announced a certain element of uncertainty. Whether in a fit of pique she might not come home. She’s the kind of wife who likes to go home to mum, and that had happened before. Naturally, that had to do with the fact that our kid Johnjohn was living with grandma, Li Yuan’s mum. Li Yuan was quite busy at work, and since I worked from home—never mind taking care of Johnjohn—if anyone at home so much as stirred, it interrupted my train of thought. As it happened, Li Yuan’s mum had just retired and had nothing to do, and she liked her grandson and was happy to take care of him. But she demanded that he call her not Grandmother, but Nana, a name which should properly belong to my mother. Thus, Johnjohn had two Nanas, and the two Nanas had a rather competitive relationship as a result. If Johnjohn was picked up by the other Nana (my mum), this Nana would be ill at ease, and worried that the other Nana would get the jump on her in terms of her relationship with Johnjohn. This matter was a disappointment to my mother. She so much wanted to spend time with her own grandson, her own son’s son—and it goes without saying that Li Yuan took her own mother’s side. My wife and my mother’s relationship, never good to begin with, on this account deteriorated even further. As son and husband caught between wife and mother, I was utterly helpless. If I leaned to one side, the other side would launch a strike of tears, curses, and stormy departures. However, the matter at hand was probably not sufficient for Li Yuan to storm off. Besides, the way I knew her, she was bound to come home by evening to discuss the matter earnestly and repetitively, and I would receive personal instruction in all my various faults.
On my return home, things were just as I had expected, the floor covered in a layer of dust, the fridge totally bare. The only thing that surprised me was that when I entered the apartment, where no one had been staying for a while, I could actually smell the odors emitted by the furniture and the walls. But that wasn’t important. I put down my luggage and got down to business. Since I worked from home, after we were married all the household chores were my department. When I left town, Li Yuan went home to her mum’s. Not that it bothered me. I have no complaint about Li Yuan doing this. Her résumé did not equip her for the necessity of doing housework, and her busy job had for some time stymied any ambition to give household chores a shot. You might say this was our contract. It also represented an eminently logical household division of labor.
After Jiang Ting moved out, I remember that I couldn’t get used to it for quite some time. The greenery on the balcony gradually withered with no one to look after it. In the end there was only a potted cactus. But when I moved out (I was already dating Li Yuan then) I deliberately abandoned it. And then there were a few stains on the wall, the traces of cups dashed casually against the wall when Jiang Ting and I had differences—if memory serves, she would have been drinking instant coffee. Furthermore, when Jiang Ting had just moved out, I was often unable to go to sleep, always listening despite myself for her step on the stairs. I could recognize Jiang Ting’s footsteps. Then she would open the door, stand for a moment on the shoe-changing mat, sigh, and only then put on her slippers and come into the room. If she found me asleep, she would squat down next to the bed and look at me for a moment, kiss my lips, and then I would wake up and kiss her back. But I really never did hear her footsteps again. Not only was all that long in the past, but I had long since moved house. The whole time that I was cleaning and cooking I didn’t think all that much about Ms. Liu or Jiang Ting. They had a bit to do with my old place, but there were no traces of them at all in this apartment.
Li Yuan didn’t bring up Jiang Ting and Ms. Liu as soon as she came home. In the years of our life together, she had become very familiar with my past. She knew who Jiang Ting was. If she wanted to find out why Ms. Liu wanted to look me up and have a chat, I could offer no information, since I hadn’t seen her or chatted with her yet. Perhaps that goes to show that Li Yuan was reasonable and possessed the necessary intelligence. She asked about how my visit had been in Beijing, and I answered truthfully. I was obliged to show some interest in our son, and she said that with Nana (a. k. a., Grandma) around, what did I have to worry about? True enough. In fact I never did worry about my own son. All in all, the atmosphere was a bit stilted. Only after we got into bed and had sex did the atmosphere slowly relax.
Li Yuan: What’s the plan to meet up with her tomorrow?
Me: She said she wanted to come to see me at home.
Li Yuan: And you said OK?
Me: If it’s not OK with you, I’ll tell her not to come.
Li Yuan: Why shouldn’t it be OK with me? I’d like to see what sort of person she is.
Me: She said she wanted to see my mum, too.
Li Yuan: You mean your mum’s coming too?
Me: Why don’t you invite your mum too?
Li Yuan: Go to hell.
Then Li Yuan thought about it a bit and said, In that case I’ll bring Johnjohn home tomorrow.
Jiang Ting had said many times that she didn’t like her mum, but out of some kind of complacency, the time I had gone with Jiang Ting to Jinan, I had—notexactly shrugged it off, which also just isn’t the kind of guy I am—but in truth I hadn’t prepared myself fully. The gifts I brought for our first meeting were just some Nanjing specialties from the department store, nougat or walnut cookies or whatever. Later, I was told that my clothing, too, had been a disappointment to Ms. Liu. All in all, my attitude did not come up to the enthusiasm with which Ms. Liu had long waited at the train station.
It was already late autumn, and late autumn in Jinan is much colder than in Nanjing. Miss Liu wore high heels with flowers on them and a rose-colored woolen coat, a bouffant hairdo, and constantly blew her nose on account of the cold wind outside the station. When, exiting the station, I caught sight of her, she happened to be wiping her nose with her handkerchief. Even ten years ago, few people were still using handkerchiefs. So, regardless of whether you considered her taste in clothing or her behavior, the first impression Ms. Liu made was of being out of date. She tilted her head back to give me the once-over, her gaze starting a good head’s breadth above me (actually, she wasn’t as tall as me), which lent me confidence in my powers of judgment. Simply put, she was a woman from some country town, very rustic. The only thing I admired about her was her husky voice, but later this proved to be on account of her having stood in the wind and caught cold. Her voice was more flirtatious than her daughter’s, coyer. Frankly, Ms. Liu was only ten years older than me. I couldn’t help being reminded of my English teacher, with whom I had been infatuated as a high school student, and who was about Ms. Liu’s age. She had been a sexy teacher, especially when you answered her question correctly and she answered you with a suite of expressions and movements accompanied by a smile and a YES. Now, many years after I had graduated, I really couldn’t imagine my English teacher having become something like Ms. Liu.
We settled into her place, a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen. I could sense that the apartment had just been cleaned, but the fundamental filth and disorder of the place were still visible. Like in the arc of dust left behind by a sloppy wipe of the coffee table. Or in the debris of peels and rinds heaped in the corner. Or in the dirty clothing that had perhaps initially been jumbled on the sofa and was now doubtless jumbled into the closet, which had just been packed by her into an unruly ball-shaped mass of clothing, and which, being about to fall out, meant the closet door wouldn’t shut all the way so that it seemed to contain a peeping tom or an adulterer. In her apartment, it was the kitchen that made people feel relaxed, and although it was heaped with more than a few cardboard boxes and flotsam and jetsam, and although the burner was covered in dust, at least there weren’t all sorts of bottles and cans, plus there was nary a trace of grease on the gas burner or on the range hoods. Instead, it was like an apartment that had been under renovation for years. We sat for a little bit before going out to find a place to eat. In the days that followed, the problem of meals was always disposed of in this fashion.
Perhaps it had something to do with some local custom, but in the three days we spent in Jinan, I always slept in the single bed in the little room, while mother and daughter slept in the big room’s double bed. That was interesting. Which is to say, Ms. Liu usually slept by herself on the double bed, that was “her bed,” so how could anyone expect her to surrender it? Secondly, although she was perfectly aware that her daughter and I were living together, she wasn’t willing to have to see with her own eyes that her daughter and I were sleeping in the same bed. Moreover, the arrangement was reasonable in that two people slept on the double and one person slept on the single, and this logic constituted an ancient and inalterable truth. Or perhaps you think Jiang Ting should have slept on the single, and me and Ms. Liu on the double? But every night before going to bed, Jiang Ting would sit for a moment on my single, though the door was kept open. Ms. Liu would periodically pop her head in to ask when her daughter would take her shower, when she would be going to bed. If Ms. Liu was in the shower or otherwise occupied, I might execute a caress or kiss or some such action upon her daughter, but due to the time limits, such campaigns could not advance any further. Actually, that made me feel pretty good. There really was one afternoon, I suppose on the third day, when Ms. Liu went out on some errand, and Jiang Ting and I did the dirty. We started on my folding single bed, but there wasn’t enough room and it was too noisy, and eventually Jiang Ting reluctantly agreed to move to Ms. Liu’s Simmons-mattress double bed. It was high- speed action. I refer both to the length of time elapsed as well as the intensity and rapidity of the climax. This surprised and also embarrassed us. We didn’t even trade glances. When the matter was done, we quickly made ourselves decent again, returned the double bed to its original state, and then sat respectably in the living room to watch TV. At which time, Ms. Liu also came back, just in time. High-speed action from her too.
In addition to all this were my tours of the city of Jinan under the guidance of mother and daughter so that Ms. Liu could fulfil her duty as hostess. Ms. Liu was a zealous comparatist. For instance, at Daming Lake, she would ask, Does Nanjing have a lake like this? I mentioned Xuanwu Lake and Mochou Lake in Nanjing, both quite renowned. Was there any place like Thousand-Buddha Mountain? I said there was not, but there was the Qixia Temple and there were cliffs behind the temple, into which Buddhas large and small had been carved. An old street like Water Lily Street—yes, of course Nanjing had some too, like around Confucius Temple— both sell low-end handcrafts plus fake antiques, I guess. As for the famous Baotu Spring, it was true that Nanjing could boast no equivalent, although it too had a tourist attraction called Pearl Spring. There were hot springs at Tangshan, although not as culturally important as those at Baotu Spring, though apparently Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong Mei-ling used to often go there to bathe. Ms. Liu was evidently none too pleased with my way of responding. She just had to get confirmation from her daughter: Is that true? Jiang Ting couldn’t care less and said she didn’t know. Did Jiang Ting truly know these famous sites and ancient spots, or not? I don’t know, either. We hadn’t visited these places together, for the reason that we didn’t like to go to such places. We liked to stay at home, tending the plants, doing the laundry, and cooking.
After two days of tourism, and without my saying a thing, Jiang Ting reached the end of her tether first. It might have been unrelated, too, but the two of them had an argument on the evening of the second day. From the guest room, I could hear a muffled but fierce conversation despite their efforts to keep themselves under control and avoid attracting my attention. I did try at one point to find out what they were arguing about, but Jiang Ting said it had nothing to do with me and so I would never find out. On the third day, we didn’t do any tourism. We just stayed home and watched TV and chatted. Or rather it was more of a Q (Ms. Liu) & A (me). In the afternoon, Ms. Liu went out on her aforementioned brief excursion. To my surprise, mother and daughter had an even fiercer argument that night. As I was stuck helplessly in the little room, Ms. Liu came in without any forewarning, her face streaked with tears, and plonked herself on my single bed. Then, on cue, her daughter, Jiang Ting, was standing at the door. The daughter looked at her mother, and the mother buried her face in her handkerchief and in her hands with the throbbing blue veins. Neither of them said a word. Inquiries proved fruitless. The silence made it impossible to figure out how to mollify them. So I watched the fighting from the ramparts.
Little Lin, Mis Liu said, finally drying her tears, lifting up a face swollen by weeping and reddened by wiping: Tonight, I’ll sleep here. You sleep in the big bed with her.
Oh... I had to hem and haw. That wouldn’t be right, mother and daughter should—
It’s not your business. Keep out of it, Jiang Ting interrupted me, even held me back with one hand, as though she was worried that I might, in obedience to her mother’s arrangements, flop down immediately on the big bed next door or something, and went on, We’ll pack our bags and leave right away. With that she turned back and went next door where she could be heard packing the suitcases.
Only then did Ms. Liu stand up, turning back at the door, saying to me: Little Lin, I’ve let you down. We’ve made you uncomfortable. She’s been disobedient ever since she was a kid. Ugh.
Of course we didn’t leave. But after that, Jiang Ting didn’t sleep with her mum in the same bed, instead crowding onto my little bed for the one night. Because space was tight, neither of us slept well, and so the next day we both looked a little green.
Our initial plan had included a trip also to Jiang Ting’s ancestral hometown, which she had mentioned more than once, a village on the northern border of Shandong, with Hebei across the river. That was a northern river, very different from those of the south. Not much vegetation on either side of the banks, just farmland, and no boats or fishermen on the water. Just a river, composed simply of riverbed and river-water, silently flowing day and night, apparently containing no other significance beyond that. Over this river was a big concrete bridge that could take her to her older girl cousin, who had married over on the other side. Her uncles hadn’t treated her very well, but this cousin had taken her on little trips ever since she was a kid and had always been nice to her. Besides the cornfields, which stretched as far as the eye could see, only her grandmother’s grave and this cousin could give her what you might call a hometown feeling. But in the end, these things couldn’t stand up to scrutiny. They were too theatrical, too cinematic; they weren’t the truth about life. The truth was that for two nights in a row she had fought with her mum, whom she hadn’t seen in a long time and that they (at least apparently) hated each other. Jiang Ting decided to go back to Nanjing directly.
It had been agreed that Ms. Liu didn’t need to see me off, but she came to the train station anyway. Not onto the platform, but into the station waiting room. She wasn’t allowed any further, she would have needed to buy a ticket for the platform. Across the glass wall of the waiting room, as we went through the security, the ticket check, we were always in her line of vision. If we turned to look at her, she was wreathed in smiles, making a whole-body wave, making exaggerated motions with her mouth, like she was mouthing words and signing at the same time. She was still wearing the same outfit she had had on three days earlier, when she picked us up at the station, except that the bouffant had collapsed a little. We (actually, mostly I) constantly waved in her direction with the backs of our hands, signaling her to head back home already. Although from another point of view, it was the same thing as telling her to scram. I noticed that Jiang Ting had finally shed two tears.
What I can be sure of now is that I didn’t really understand
Jiang Ting, or maybe we didn’t enter into each other’s hearts. For example, even today, I don’t know what the exact conflict was between mother and daughter. Jiang Ting didn’t like to talk about stuff like that. She was a taciturn girl. That our relationship lasted, I think, had something to do with the fact that I’m a man of few words myself. In this world, so far, Jiang Ting is the only person I’ve met who doesn’t need to talk, and then doesn’t feel depressed or stifled, but rather feels at ease and secure. We each did our own thing, not bothering yet recognizing each other, joined at the hip. Perhaps that’s putting things too strongly. Let’s put it this way: Ten years ago, we were a couple, quietly living in the world. When we finally broke up, it may have had something to do with the shattering of this quietness.
I gave Ms. Liu a call first thing in the morning. On behalf of my whole family, I invited her to dinner at our place. She accepted with pleasure, but what surprised me was that she didn’t ask what “my whole family” was meant to convey. Instead, she emitted a stream of speech reporting all the tourist spots and ancient places that she had visited in Nanjing. She had even gone back to some of the places she had visited ten years ago, when she spent Chinese New Year at my home. The places she hadn’t gone to before—like the Presidential Palace and the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum—she thought they were all fantastic. She said that Nanjing really deserved its reputation as an ancient capital of the Six Dynasties and that “it really isn’t less nice than Jinan by much” (a verbatim quote). So, it now being morning and we wouldn’t see each other until evening, and she had to rush off to Qixia Temple. “So that’s settled? OK?” she said. I could only okay back at her. Which is to say, on the phone, it didn’t seem like she was the one who wanted to come see me, and even less like she was the one who had stayed an extra day just to see me, but instead like she was really busy, very busy touring hill and dale, busy with her selfie stick at the entry gate in one tourist spot or another, searching for the best angle and her most gorgeous expression. And coming to my place for dinner did not seem to be her wish or her active project, but rather merely a response to an invitation. I had only made her busy schedule even busier. It wasn’t an occasion that concerned her much, nor would she go so far as to decline the invitation. In any case, that’s more or less the message she was putting out.
Nor was this the first time I experienced this. Ten years earlier, that is to say, when Jiang Ting and I went back to Nanjing from Jinan at the end of that year, Jiang Ting was constantly getting calls from Ms. Liu. Jiang Ting was, as usual, unwilling to relate the contents of these calls, and only later, when she really couldn’t bear her mother’s hectoring any longer, did she tell me the truth. Since Jiang Ting generally did not go home for Chinese New Year, Ms. Liu cleverly conjectured that her daughter would certainly be spending Chinese New Year with my family this year. As a mother who had not spent the New Year with her daughter for many years, Ms. Liu thought of coming to spend the New Year with my family. I didn’t immediately express a point of view on hearing this. I’ve never been very good at getting along with people, especially around the house. My relationship with my mother has never been that of the compassionate mother and filial son, and soon after I graduated from university I moved out and started living on my own. Before Jiang Ting, of course, there had also been previous girlfriends who had lived with me briefly, and it was probably because of having lived together, of my inability to bear what you might call “the couple world” that led to the inevitable breakup. As for the reason that Jiang Ting and I could get along peaceably, please see above. Without malice, I told Jiang Ting what I thought. Jiang Ting said that she understood, and remained silent for a long time. But Ms. Liu called again. Jiang Ting hung up without answering. The phone started ringing again, and she let it sing its silly song. I think it must have been a pop song—Jiang Ting’s cell-phone ring from ten years ago. This fragment of a pop song kept repeating between us, never able to finish its song, making us both very uncomfortable. In the end, I had to stand up like a man and tell Jiang Ting: Answer the phone, and tell your mother to come.
And then it was much like ten years later. For a long time, Ms. Liu did not inform anyone of her departure date, claiming that she was in no hurry to get a train ticket during the Chinese New Year rush (this was before easy online ticket bookings). Jiang Ting thought that if she couldn’t make it so much the better. But as a matter of courtesy (especially after my relatives learned about the situation), I had to phone her personally and repeatedly invite her to come. After many such invites, Ms. Liu finally deigned to arrive in Nanjing on the afternoon before New Year’s Eve. Of course, Jiang Ting and I went to the station to pick her up, while my mother, sister, and brother-in-law cooked up a storm at home to welcome this guest from afar. In my mother’s opinion, entertaining the in-laws is the emblem and first necessary procedure for her to, through me, acquire a daughter-in-law, and she seemed to have been preparing for this her whole life.
How to broach with my mother the topic of Ms. Liu’s return visit after ten years was actually something of a headache. For her, Ms. Liu and her daughter really were the withered blooms of yesteryear, and there was no call to spare them a thought. What really kept her up at nights was the usurpation or attenuation of her “Nana rights” by her semi-in-law (Li Yuan’s mum); the struggles around this question, overt and concealed, formed the core matter of life, and perhaps also its principal entertainment. What she detested most was that her son couldn’t even help her get the upper hand in this battle. She was a solitary warrior and there could be no end, after line dancing with her friends on the public square, to her expositions of this tragedy. Considered in this way, I supposed that she might not refuse to meet this suddenly arrived pseudo-semi-in-law. A listener like her would be much more effective than her cronies on the square. It would at least allow her to make a comparison if only in her imagination: How nice it would be if Ms. Liu, faraway in Jinan, had been her grandson’s grandmother.
I clearly underestimated my mother’s capacity for insight.
Having, with difficulty, grasped the matter, she suddenly grew nervous on the phone, first asking me what I was up to, was I really that dumb or just pretending? You’re already married, you’ve got a kid, she said. You’re life is pretty normal. What’s this woman showing up for? You shouldn’t meet up with this woman at all, and bringing her home is even worse. What about Li Yuan? Does she know? Well, what if she does, you shouldn’t have done it. Do you know how irresponsible this kind of behavior is to your family? Besides, such an act meant not only that I was letting down my existing family but also that “you’ve given your wife and your mother-in-law more ammunition, do you realize that? You’ve given her the edge over me again, do you realize that? Son, you’ve really gone off the deep end.”
My mum’s dissatisfaction with me included my father’s early death and the fact that she had to be what’s called “both a father and a mother to me,” which is to say that she had sacrificed more for me (and for my elder sister) than most mothers. Now, my sister had married into someone else’s family, a logic that extended also to the way that my mother considered herself not a Chen (which had been her maiden name) but a Lin. However, my sister’s ability to garner approval even after marrying was because, in contravention of this logic, she still diligently returned to our mum’s home and helped and cared for my mum and me a good deal. If my sister had cut off all relations with her birth family in the way my mother had herself, I fear my mother’s speeches in the agora would have become even more abundant and majestic.
My mother’s resentment had concentrated itself on the period before and after my wedding. Before my wedding, my failure to get married had caused her deep anxiety. For instance, the Jiang Ting affair resulted in a blood pressure spike and bed rest. She couldn’t grasp how a girl who had already been to a man’s home, whose parents she had already met . . . How could the match then fizzle out? The matter confined her to her bed for a while. If she was suddenly to appear in the square again, how should she explain it to the other old cronies? And then, in the post-wedding period, she was unable to get along peacefully with Li Yuan, especially when her Nana-rights had been brazenly alienated and usurped—that had been a special disappointment. It was allegedly “too much trouble” to argue the matter with Li Yuan and her mother, but with her own son (me), it was necessary to denounce my own lack of filiality and to recount the hardship done to her amid much snot and tears, just as she had raised me through much piss and poo.
From another perspective, my mother really had no need to act this way. Just as her old cronies consolingly said, she could be glad of her leisure. The son with his own place, her life in her own three- bedroom apartment, a half-decent national pension every month. I’m told that, as a “rusticated youth” in the Cultural Revolution, she had been the cultural backbone of the production team, and besides singing and dancing, she could also play the piano and the flute. In earlier years, she had even hoped that my sister would succeed to this passionate hobby of hers and had spent a large sum on a piano. Sadly, my sister was not cut from such a cloth, and I obviously wasn’t either. In other words, if what she needed was time, she had loads of it to do all the things she enjoyed, she could slip the piano cloth off, rub the dust away, and strike the keys with her wrinkle-scored hands to her heart’s content, and I believe that at the moment she does her brain will play like a movie of her as a young woman on 1970s trains, among rice paddies, irrigational canals, with the production team secretary, the grey-blue high-pitched loudspeaker in the crotch of a tree, the sounds of dog barking in the villages at night . . . But she didn’t touch the piano. Of course, dancing in the public squares apparently also has the same effect, and it’s a collective activity, they’re accustomed to collective life. They’re not good at having to face themselves on their own. Their understanding of labor is still tied to agricultural production: You have to move, you have to sweat, you have to be tired as a dog, and, amid that misery, your sense of achievement will form. For someone of her particular age and status, taking care of her grandson is the most legitimate and natural way of acquiring this sense of achievement. Unfortunately, Li Yuan’s mum, my mother-in-law, has a similar background and takes a similar view of things. Perhaps the essence of their conflict was that they had only a single grandson to share.
As far as it goes, if Ms. Liu were Johnjohn’s grandmother, there really might not be this kind of standoff with my mother. She was still young, now only in her fifties. Ten years earlier, she had still been a divorced woman looking to remarry. The first time my mother met Ms. Liu, which is to say on New Year’s Eve ten years ago, she was shocked. At sixty, my mother was utterly incapable of imagining that a fortysomething woman could share the place of honor with her at the table, and, moreover, Ms. Liu’s desire to remarry was still undimmed, while the gaudiness of her northern country-town fashion made my mother, by her side, appear even dowdier. Ms. Liu was only a few years older than my sister, and the same age as my brother-in-law. He, without a particle of shame, addressed her as Auntie throughout the banquet. Meanwhile, my nephew, sitting next to Jiang Ting, was right smack in the middle of the voice-changing phase of puberty, and although he wouldn’t say much to us, to judge by my own experience, Jiang Ting was probably becoming the partner of one of his sexual fantasies.
It was a really weird New Year’s dinner. After eating, in obedience to some custom, Ms. Liu first got some money out and put it in a red envelope for my nephew, and then absurdly had to accept the “thank you, grandma” thathe uttered in response to his parents’ instructions. Not to be outdone, my mum followed up with a red envelope for Jiang Ting. In principle, being of the same generation, there was no need for anything, but my kind-hearted sister decided after much reflection that she couldn’t take advantage of Ms. Liu and so gave Jiang Ting a red envelope. The push and pull, the modest refusals, dazzled the eye and annoyed the brain. Then everybody actually sat down and watched the New Year’s Gala on TV, waiting for the skit with Zhao Benshan, and then, like in years past, we chortled with delight before dispersing. The following days afforded us no leisure, and if it wasn’t my sister and her husband inviting us over, then it was the uncles and aunts, big banquet tables of the annual family reunions, old and young together, always the same program, and all in all very exhausting for both me and Jiang Ting.
I don’t mean to say that these sorts of scenes haven’t recurred, or that, aftergetting married to Li Yuan, Iexperience quite the opposite. In fact, since she’s from Nanjing and has friends and relatives everywhere, the family reunions are an even greater kaleidoscope of scenes. I just mean to say that, back in the day, Jiang Ting and I really weren’t used to all the gatherings. They scared us, made us stare one another in the face without being able to see each other clearly. We tried to chat about these things, but we quickly found that we couldn’t approach the subject itself, leading us to question our own understanding and, at some level, begin to doubt one another. Life was a lot more boisterous than we had thought. Many years later, when Li Yuan and I encountered similar situations, I didn’t have this reaction. Li Yuan could handle all of the friends and relatives, and she didn’t have to be artificial to handle them; she could use sincere emotion. In this regard, she was not only adept but even industrious, and the fact that she was around calmed me, made me think of such things as an ordinary part of human life, part of the evidence that one was living in the world. And in the end, I realized that there wasn’t even anything wrong with all this. It was well and good.
Unlike in Jinan, Jiang Ting and I slept in the double bed in the big room, while Ms. Liu slept in the single bed in the small room. There was no central heating in Nanjing, so we moved a space heater into her room, but she still felt cold. Falling asleep was no trouble, but getting up was a struggle. She rose every day in the hot exhalations of the AC and the space heater’s roasting, so that when the door to her room opened, the smell of a sultry woman’s body would flood the chilly living room, fogging my glasses up. After the banquets were all over, my behavior and that of Ms. Liu were like in Jinan, insofar as we took her touring through Nanjing. She liked that, and anytime we got somewhere, she had to take a picture as a souvenir. The defining feature of these pictures was that she had to be by the main gates and that the name of the park or attraction inscribed on the plaque above the gate had to be in the picture, and in this way, set against these enormous gates or sculptures, she appeared very dainty. There were also detail shots and close-ups, like maybe she’s holding a plum blossom branch with one hand, as, among the riotous blossoms, she revealed that cheery but wideish (on account of her big cheeks) grinning face. Also, it was like she had made an agreement with the heavens, a few days after Chinese New Year, the weather broke, and with the return of spring, the earth brimmed with the myriad things coming back to life. Out in nature, she even took off her woolen overcoat and leapt about in her tight turtleneck. At this, I couldn’t suppress my heartfelt sentiments and told Jiang Ting: Not only is your mum young, she’s not even bad-looking.
Of course, my mum did come after all; actually, she came very early. The first thing she did upon coming in the door was to take a quick, cautious look at the shoe mat, but it was early afternoon, Li Yuan naturally hadn’t come home yet, and only then did she heave a big gasp and shout, I’m starving, starving. Without even eating lunch, she had gone to market to buy a huge heap of vegetables. Off to the kitchen. She didn’t start cooking those vegetables. She saw that I had no leftovers from lunch, pretended to be angry, and found half a package of wheat noodles and cooked a bowl of it, making ever angrier accusations (actually, they were delusive approaches directed at Li Yuan) about how dirty I had made the kitchen, and then she deftly tidied up the kitchen before the noodles were even done. Every time she came to my place, she not only acted as cleaner but also selflessly paid for a lot of groceries on her own dime. Although she would claim they were for her grandson, everybody knew that she was trying to get on Li Yuan’s good side. Li Yuan’s parents were hale and hearty, they got a better pension, and they helped us out more, too, and this made her ashamed and recalcitrant. This was also one reason that Li Yuan made more fuss over her mother than over her mother-in-law.
She finished the noodles. As she was preparing the vegetables, my mother started to complain about Ms. Liu.
What a woman, what’s she come from the back of beyond for, it’s not like we’re related, and after all these years. Nothing’s happened, has it?
I don’t know, I said. She didn’t say anything on the phone.
Exactly. Maybe I shouldn’t have come then. I don’t like that woman. It worries me.
What’s there to worry about?
I don’t know. My mum looked at me seriously. I’m supposed to be senile, not you. Have you forgotten the grief that woman and her daughter gave you?
I didn’t answer that one. If, just because a relationship doesn’t work out and a woman walks out on you, that’s grief, then they really did give me grief. But, obviously, that’s not how things work.
Where is she now? My mother said, since I didn’t answer. Went to visit Qixia Temple.
Ha, I knew it. She’s a real flashy woman. I still remember that gaudy outfit of hers.
Oh, I guess she was young.
Young? Unless my memory’s playing tricks, she was no spring chicken.
“No spring chicken” reminded me of the question of what Ms. Liu would look like after ten years. If I saw her on the street, or if I were at Qixia Temple right now, would I be able to pick her out of the crowd? I couldn’t help but try to bring to mind what she looked like, but I couldn’t remember anything. I just remembered her rather tacky clothing and her bouffant. Because we had to get dinner ready, my mother indicated that she couldn’t clean the apartment for me today. But she thought cleaning the apartment today was very important, because today there was a “guest,” even if the “guest” had already been critiqued before she had even got there. So I had to get moving and tidy everything up. I could only obey.
Usually, it was Li Yuan who cleaned and tidied, I was used to that, and she didn’t need me to do anything, as she always labeled my attempts to help as sabotage. But in the year I had lived with Jiang Ting, we always tidied and cleaned the place together. That’s of course not to say that Li Yuan isn’t clean, but Jiang Ting was more exacting— the dust on the light switch, the lint between the sofa pillows—even when it came to the toothpaste, she wouldn’t countenance my practice of squeezing from the middle of the tube but insisted that the squeeze always begin from the far end. Moreover, she was a zealot for rearranging the furniture. Like, if the bed was originally in the center of the bedroom, after a while she would think it ought to be against the wall or by the window, thereby necessitating the rearrangement of the other furniture in the room. So cleaning the house was always a big project with Jiang Ting, it would at least require some heavy lifting, and she really couldn’t do it all by herself. Every time we were done she would pace back and forth in the brand-new space of the room with an air of great satisfaction. I would say, Pretty good. Then wait for the next universal rearrangement.
That time Ms. Liu visited, our bed was by the window. Jiang Ting’s thinking was that, when she woke up after the siesta, she could open the curtain and the sun would be shining directly on her. But Ms. Liu took exception to this. She was very dissatisfied with the plight in which her daughter lived. She even attacked her daughter’s clothing as prematurely frumpy and had dragged Jiang Ting out to buy a flashy down jacket. We did live, Jiang Ting and I, in rather muted hues—she liked pure monochromes. Ms. Liu brought floral coloring into our home not only on her person but also in the form of a four-piece bedding set pocked with rose petals that she bought for the bed Jiang Ting and I shared. After Ms. Liu left, Jiang Ting and I lay amidst the rose petals in depthless misery. Because she told me she wasn’t going to stay in Nanjing, she was going back to Jinan.
What about us? I asked. What do you think?
Calling it quits? What else?
I got rid of the rose-petal set too. I had never done such a thorough clean-up. I eliminated anything that I might associate with Jiang Ting, especially articles that we had bought for our life together. The long hairs she left under the bed, the lingering aroma of her clothes in the closet, even the pack of condoms that we hadn’t finished. Ought I to say that even the reason I sold the apartment and bought the one I have now was to thoroughly rid myself of all traces of Jiang Ting in my life? That would be taking it a bit too far. I didn’t lose control that badly. I got a different apartment because I met Li Yuan, we decided to get married, and, in Li Yuan’s opinion, she would never fit inside an apartment I had lived for a year in with Jiang Ting, especially not with Li Yuan’s now already swelling womb.
When Li Yuan came in the door with Johnjohn, she clearly did a double take. She knew my mum was coming, but she evidently hadn’t imagined that her home would suddenly look the way it did, and in her eyes I discovered: my cleaning capacity and skills were sky-high. Everything had been scrubbed, every surface tranquilly gleaming, and even the shoes on the mat had been put in tidy order, their toes facing out. And my mum was busy cooking up a storm in the kitchen.
Wow, what an event this must be. She gave a caustic smile.
We thought for a while that Ms. Liu wouldn’t come. It was almost dark, but no matter how many times I called her cell, she didn’t pick up. I said we should just eat, but Li Yuan said nothing, while my mum looked at her daughter-in-law and asked her grandson: Johnjohn, are you hungry? If you’re hungry, you go ahead and eat. Just as my mum was chasing Johnjohn about, bowl in hand, in the effort to feed him, Ms. Liu called. She said she had already reached our housing estate, but didn’t know how to get to our place. So I had to go down and fetch her. I made sure not to put on my shoes or open the door or go downstairs too quickly.
And in fact I wasn’t in any hurry to see Ms. Liu, though I confess that I was a bit flustered. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to recognize her and didn’t know what on earth she had come for. On our housing estate, people were coming home late, one of whom even nodded at me. I remember that he had a big, even-tempered dog, and they would often appear in the estate’s park, and Johnjohn had once stuck his little hand in between its teeth in order then to safely retract it. Maybe I also made an answering nod, but then almost collided with an electric scooter when we both tried politely to yield.
Ms. Liu was standing on the little bridge we have on the estate. I recognized her right away. She was still the same, still with the garishly colored coat, the scarf—the difference was that now she had a hat on, and the high-heeled boots she was wearing now looked expensive. Besides her purse, she also had a plastic bag of stuff in her hand. “Auntie,” I called to her, and she passed me the bag without even glancing at me.
All things I bought for your mum. It’s too heavy, she complained. I bet it’s left lines on my hand. As she said this, she took off her glove to take a look. No, it didn’t. Now that this was completed, she looked at me, wreathed in smiles.
Little Lin, she said, you’re still the same.
Uh-huh. I didn’t know how to answer that. Let’s go. We’ve been waiting forever.
Is your mum there? Yeah.
She still hadn’t asked if I was married or anything like that, and instead started talking about the layout of our housing estate. She complimented me on living in a much better environment than I had a decade earlier, and even took my arm in one fell swoop when a chihuahua darted at her leather boots, causing her to shriek. I noticed that people in the estate were giving me long looks.
Once we had gone in, and although she had obviously already seen Li Yuan, she still greeted my mum first, over Li Yuan’s shoulder. Big sister, how are you? Without even taking her boots off, she dashed in and gave my mother a hug. My mother mumbled awkwardly and administered a nominal pat or two on the back. Only when that was over did she smilingly make her address to Li Yuan.
Little Lin, your wife’s quite handsome, she said. To my surprise, I didn’t need to explain, or introduce—she had worked it all out.
Thanks, Li Yuan answered.
And then she discovered Johnjohn on the sofa. He was frightened either because of strangers generally or by the series of actions executed by Ms. Liu since she had gained entry. In any event, he concealed himself behind the sofa arm with only his two eyes showing, peering at her.
Aiya, what a cute little guy. She charged at him as she said this with the intention of embracing him, but he evaded her. Nimbly, he leapt from the sofa, skirted the coffee table and hastened to take cover behind Li Yuan’s legs.
It’s alright, Johnjohn, Li Yuan said. Go and say hi to Nana. Johnjohn evidently was going to do no such thing.
No need for that—Ms. Liu squatted on her haunches and tried to engage the child—so your name’s Johnjohn. No wonder you look so jaunty.
Then she turned her head reproachfully, saying, Little Lin, why didn’t you tell me before? Then she asked Johnjohn, How old are you?
Five years and four months, Li Yuan answered on his behalf.
Big sister, what good fortune. She tried to endear herself to my mum with compliments, but my mum smiled stiffly, and then immediately turned away to bring food out of the kitchen. It was probably only then that Ms. Liu realized that her boots had been traipsing all over the floor which I had only just scrubbed clean, and several prints—looking like the tracks of some hoofed animal— leapt to the eye. She delivered a stream of sorries before returning to the mat to change her shoes for slippers. Suddenly, she became a good deal shorter.
Would you like a drink? This was only a polite formula, because I remembered that Ms. Liu didn’t drink and was dead set against me and Jiang Ting drinking. But now she shouted, How nice, how nice, I sure do. That left me no choice but to pour some red wine for my mum and Li Yuan as well, neither of whom drank. The four of us, seemingly all greatly delighted, began clinking glasses. Johnjohn, since he had eaten, had apparently lost all interest in Ms. Liu and went back to the sofa to watch cartoons. Again and again, Ms. Liu raised her glass and had not only “toasted” with each of us, but even sentimentally toasted Johnjohn, who sat mesmerized by the cartoons. The dinner conversation was mostly a monologue delivered by Ms. Liu. And then she made fun of herself for having had too much to drink. In fact, by the time we had finished eating and were cleaning things up, Ms. Liu had barely touched her half- glass of red wine.
The miracle was that although Ms. Liu neither mentioned her daughter Jiang Ting nor liked to speak about herself, she could, with the density of her talk, dominate the whole dinner. She spoke at length about Nanjing’s tourist sites and housing prices, she talked about renovations,aboutafamousstuffed-bunstoreinJinan,aboutLiaocheng pickles, and also told any number of anecdotes and fascinating stories. It seemed not as though she were deliberately avoiding any particular topic, just that it was apparently unimportant. Evidently, her visit to our home was just to see me, my mum, and the wife and child she had never met. She was just like a friend or relative that one knows all that well and with whom there’s no need for courtesy but with whom one enjoys a chat, and she was also like a fantastic madwoman that you might pick up off the street and take home to give a good square meal. At various points my mum’s patience ran out and she tried to find out how Jiang Ting was, but Ms. Liu mostly let these questions pass as though she hadn’t heard them. But nor could she ignore them entirely and she did talk briefly about her own life. She said that now she was working for a health-mattress company, and her job was to pitch a certain kind of high-tech Simmons mattress to many people suffering from various illnesses and insomnia. Luckily, she wasn’t pressuring my mum to purchase this mattress; she was just stating what her job was now. As to whether she had reconstituted her family in some new way, she expressed the avant-garde and magnanimous view that the world was multipolar and that values were diverse and that people were not compelled to all live the same kind of life. Some people clung to a man-and-wife-at-home model while other people enjoyed the freedom of the single life. Despite this, we still didn’t know whether she was man-and-wife-at-homing or enjoying the single life, so we could only cleverly conjecture from her tone that it was the latter. But we were wrong.
With dinner over, we were suddenly plunged into awkwardness, not knowing whether we should now watch TV together or what. Li Yuan, clearing the table, gave me a look that meant “When is she leaving?” while I answered with a look that meant “How do I know?” These are the means by which we, and many other married couples, habitually converse. Indeed Ms. Liu had shown no signs of a swift departure now that the meal was done but rather was going to sit by Johnjohn in order to compare notes with him on human existence. Unfortunately, he had gone to sleep on the sofa.
Li Yuan wanted to take Johnjohn to bed.
May I have a look at him? Ms. Liu said, almost imploringly.
I really hadn’t expected that, and Li Yuan and I exchanged glances.
Ms. Liu took the blanket that Li Yuan passed her, covered Johnjohn with it, then, with professional skill, tucked in the corners, and as she did this, she was gazing all the while with deep feeling at Johnjohn’s little face. Johnjohn seemed a bit embarrassed by this gaze and buried half his face under the blanket. She got a little closer, still staring at him. When my mother, drying her hands, came out of the kitchen, she attempted to resume the conversation with some polite formula, but Ms. Liu immediately placed her index finger at her lips to indicate that my mum should speak quietly, not to wake the child. My mother just clammed up and the three of us surrounded Ms. Liu and Johnjohn.
Ms. Liu bent down to kiss Johnjohn gently on the cheek and then rose. We could see that the rims of her eyes were red. But she was smiling, and beneath the ceiling light her wrinkles made shadowy bands on her forehead.
Well, shall I be going? she whispered, as if consulting us. It’s not late, Li Yuan said. You could stay longer.
No. I’ll go. With that she went directly and fetched her purse.
My mother rushed up to try to detain her. The kind of you-could- just-stay-the-night speech. But Ms. Liu just smiled and couldn’t be moved. She put her coat on and tied her scarf. Then she waved at Li Yuan to come over and removed two hundred-kuai bills, which she made Li Yuan take. She was ashamed not to have known we had a kid, not “a kid,” Johnjohn, Johnjohn was a good boy, and now she had come empty-handed to see Johnjohn, and that just wasn’t right. The only way to remedy this failure was for Li Yuan to accept the two bills on the child’s behalf. She even said excitedly, Johnjohn’s still small, perhaps he’s forgotten that there’s such a person as Ms. Liu, and in future he would be certain never to think of her. But since she had come and met Johnjohn, that too signified some portion of destiny. It wasn’t that destiny could be represented by money, and besides it was peanuts. It was just symbolic, evidence of this tiny particle of fate.
To tell the truth, these were moving words, the kind that leave you at a loss as to how to respond. Ms. Liu hugged my mum again, and I noticed that this time my mum patted her back with both hands. Then I took her downstairs. As I went down, Li Yuan shot me a look. I knew what she meant.
There’s one thing neither my mum nor Li Yuan knows, because for a long time I was unable to put it into words.
Ten years ago, at Chinese New Year, when the firecrackers had stopped going off, Jiang Ting, Ms. Liu, and I were still living together like a family. Ms. Liu stayed with us longer than she initially intended. We didn’t have to go out to find places to eat anymore; we cooked at home. We watched TV together, we even went shopping together, and we went to see a movie together. Once when we were cleaning up the apartment, Ms. Liu even joined in. She vigorously advocated putting the bed back in the center of the bedroom, and we obeyed. She furthermore vigorously advocated that we make use of the four-piece bedding set with the rose petals and we smilingly accepted. She even enjoined us to drink a little less and go out and get more exercise. As she said this, she even opened the window, where spring was indeed profusely underway. There were a few kites floating about in our field of vision.
That was one side of it. The other side of it was, Ms. Liu was in her forties, she wasn’t leaving, and it created some embarrassments for me. For instance, when she had her period, the blood-soaked pads were just openly displayed in the basket by the toilet. Panties she wasn’t wearing were just hung on the balcony off the big room where Jiang Ting and I lived. We’d be sleeping and she would just barge in wearing only her thermal underwear to tell us this or that. At the mall or in the cinema she went so far as to take my other arm. And then there was the day when Jiang Ting had gone out for groceries, and she was taking a shower, and, wearing only a towel, she appeared asking me to adjust the water temperature. When I had adjusted it, I glanced at her, and I confess that in that look was an admixture of licentious desire, which she had the sensitivity to pick up on, as was revealed to me by the expression in her eyes, her eyes and expression mirrored my own. Nothing else happened, that was all, but that was enough.
According to the conjectures I had made for a decade, she must have told Jiang Ting about this, although in what way she told her I don’t know, and Jiang Ting never explained to me why she left. Even today I think that Jiang Ting’s departure had something to do with it. Jiang Ting said she wanted to go back to Jinan, and I sent her off. Before this, she had already packed a lot of cardboard boxes and packages, which she piled in the guest room. Before her departure, she still slept in the same bed, still had sex with me, and we still got groceries together and cooked together. This made me think for a time that, though angry, she wouldn’t really go. She said she had bought a train ticket, but I still didn’t think it was real. Then she went to the post office and sent off all her boxes and packages. She couldn’t carry them all, and I had to help. It was a lot of work to move all the boxes and packages, we were dripping in sweat, exchanging smiles, and I still didn’t think her departure was real. I took her to the train station. She still had a lot of luggage, I had to buy a ticket for the platform to help her with getting it on the train. Once she was settled on the train, I even told her where to stash all the instant noodles, ham sausages, fruits and snacks. She nodded and said Ok to everything. Then the train was about to leave and I got off. I raised my head to see her behind the glass of the train window, she smiled at me and waved. She was leaving, she really was leaving.
Her Nanjing cell number, out of service. No answer to online messages. She left the keys to my apartment on the coffee table, and I didn’t touch them for two months. Then I had to put them away and the keys left two black marks in the thick dust of the table. Deep into the night, I would listen for footsteps on the staircase, I could always recognize her footsteps, and they were never hers. She disappeared for ten whole years.
In those ten years, Jiang Ting got married once and divorced very quickly. Ms. Liu said it was because the guy would beat her up. She almost went blind in one eye. Now, Jiang Ting was living with a guy, and he was a bad sort, did nothing all day, was always asking Jiang Ting for money, which Jiang Ting always gave him. Jiang Ting only had an average salary, but she didn’t spend much, spent most of it on him. Jiang Ting didn’t have any kids, she wanted to have one, but she always miscarried.
I think our Tingting has such a hard life, Ms. Liu said, almost with tears in her voice.
Yeah, I said, that’s not easy.
But Jiang Ting herself thought she was doing great.
Ms. Liu and I sat for a while on a bench on a path of the estate’s gardens.
I guessed you’d be married already, she said, but I couldn’t be sure. I felt like you wouldn’t have gotten married.
Sorry, I did, I said.
You’ve got me wrong. I didn’t say you shouldn’t get married. Of course, you should, and I didn’t mean that you should get back with our Tingting.
True, no possibility of that at all. It’s just that I’m a bit upset.
Don’t be upset, Auntie. You’re footloose and fancy-free, aren’t you?
Hardly. Who the heck is footloose and fancy-free? It’s not like we’re fairy-tale people.
So why don’t you remarry?
Then she said that she had a boyfriend, and when she mentioned this boyfriend, she brightened up quite a bit. She referred to this boyfriend as Old Chen, about sixty years old, a doctor retired from some hospital, a widower, the children all out of the home and doing their own thing. Old Chen treated her really nicely, always spoiling her, solicitous and caring—no man had ever treated her so nicely, not in this life. What’s more, his kids really approved of her, respected her. Old Chen and his kids had given her a nice fiftieth-birthday party. Jiang Ting had no objection, but Jiang Ting didn’t attend the party, and she wasn’t in contact much with her mother, either. Ms. Liu wasn’t sure whether she should marry Old Chen or not.
Ms. Liu was silent for quite a while. Suddenly, she asked me, Do you think it’s still right for me to get married?
No problem. You’re not old, and besides it has nothing to do with age.
What about your mum?
My mum? If she wants to marry some old man, it’s no skin off my nose.
That’s what you say.
Really, I can’t imagine objecting to anything. Fine, I believe you.
Just then, the dog-walking guy showed up, and since he saw me sitting with a strange woman, he started making a detour in embarrassment, like he had happened across something really indecent. I was forced to wave him over and pet his dog. Even though he gave Ms. Liu a sinister look, I did not explain nor did I see any reason to explain to him what Ms. Liu was to me.
Little Lin, you’re an OK guy, Ms. Liu said solemnly once she had waited out the dog-walker and his dog.
I felt a bit guilty and said, I don’t really know myself. She said, Really, I’m quite fond of you.
Suddenly, I got nervous.
You got me wrong again. Ms. Liu even cracked a smile. You’re getting carried away.
No, no, no, I said, standing up, feeling at a loss. She giggled. Then she fell silent.
After quite a while, she said, Little Lin, you’re a good boy to spend life with. Oh, I guess you’re not a boy anymore.
I didn’t know what to say to that.
Little Lin! Ms. Liu suddenly became serious.
Did you know that I’ve always considered you my son-in-law, even though we haven’t been in touch for years, I still consider you my son-in-law?
Because I don’t like the men Jiang Ting found for herself afterwards.
Are you sure that’s the right way to think about it?
Ms. Liu went on without taking any notice of what I’d said, Jiang Ting’s father and I got divorced a long time ago, you know that. Now, she doesn’t have anyone on my side to visit. I don’t have any family. Sometimes I don’t even know if Jiang Ting counts as my family or not. I really looked you up just to come see you and your mum, oh, and now there’s your wife and Johnjohn.
Thanks for thinking of that. I’ll tell my family.
Ei—she sighed—but maybe you don’t feel the same way. You get it now?
Why I can’t make up my mind whether or not to marry Old Chen?
I really have no clue.
If what I wanted was to get married, I’ve had lots of chances. But I can’t stop worrying about my Ting, you get it?
You don’t have to worry about her.
I’m so exhausted.
At this point, she suddenly burst into tears.
I didn’t know how to console her, or maybe she didn’t need to be consoled. Maybe she needed to have a good cry. Only when she was done crying did she take out a tissue and wipe her face. She didn’t use a handkerchief anymore, which went to show that ten years was a length of time not to be taken lightly.
OK—she stood up—I guess that’s that. It’s late, I should be getting back to the hotel.
I got up, too, and took her back to the main gates of the estate. There were a couple of taxis waiting outside, and she started waving at them when she was still at quite a distance. That suddenly made me anxious.
Can I ask you something?
I could feel a pang in my back.
I posed my question, but my voice really was very low.
What? Repeat what you said.
I cleared my throat and said, enunciating with incomparable bitterness: Do you know why Jiang Ting decided to break up with me? It probably hadn’t crossed Ms. Liu’s mind that I would ask this question, or maybe in her eyes it was just no question at all, as her answer made clear.
She said, Oh, you don’t know?
I said, I really don’t know.
It was because she didn’t love you.