Liu Xiaomin had had a driving licence for three months. She had also had a brand new Honda sedan sitting in the garage for three months – her husband’s gift for her thirty-fifth birthday. He was the same age as her, but was getting so bald that he looked in his sixties. As the first winds of winter blew the leaves from the trees, she said, ‘How about taking me driving? Forget the match. I can see why people play football, but watching it on TV? What’s the point?’
Her husband rubbed his head, as though trying to bring the shine back to an old light bulb. ‘It looks like the driving school cheated you. They took your money, gave you a licence, but didn’t teach you how to drive.’
‘I can drive! It’s just that I get nervous driving the car on my own.’
‘And how do you think I’d feel if I had to go with you? After the day I’ve had, I’d be even more stressed if I had to sit in the car with you driving. I’d tell you to be careful, you’d hit something, then the whole thing would kick off… You know me, I’m a businessman, and we businessmen would sooner spend money than take risks.’
She was livid.
‘Do you know how many times I’ve asked you to do something for me? I’m telling you, I may be your wife, but from now on I’m going to start saying “No” too.’
He laughed, and watched her rush into the bedroom and lock the door, before turning back to the television. It was a match in the Italian Serie A, and he’d put some money on it. He’d watch the match now and make it up to her later.
Two days later, Xiaomin and her husband were in a restaurant. They had invited their old college friend, Zhou Dapeng, to dinner. He was unmarried, and lived on his own. But he was a good guy. You could see it in his face, in the chubbiness and the smile that said ‘happy to help, nothing is too much trouble, no need to make a fuss.’
After the meal, Xiaomin’s husband put the car key on the table, and said to Dapeng, ‘I’m putting the new car and the old wife in your hands. For the sake of our friendship, make sure you bring them both back.’
Dapeng was just about to take his last sip of beer, but put down his glass and patted the husband on the shoulder.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘she’s my twelfth student. I may not charge a fee, but she’ll learn more from me than from the driving school. I guarantee it.’
‘You won’t go putting your hand on top of my wife’s when you’re teaching her to change gear, will you?’ laughed the husband.
Dapeng winked at her.
‘Is that what they did at your driving school?’
Xiaomin patted him on the belly. ‘Hah, you’re not as innocent as you look.’
‘I’ll get a cab home,’ said the husband. On his way out, he called over his shoulder, ‘Avoid places with lots of traffic while you’re learning. If you lose your licence I’ll have to pay someone to get it back.’
‘I can’t believe how much trust my friends place in me. I mean, they hand me their wives and ask me to teach them to drive,’ said Dapeng, as he got into the car. It was more of a boast than a moan.
Xiaomin shot him a sideways glance and shut the door. ‘It must say something about you.’
‘Or perhaps it says something about them? When you think about it, putting their wives in my hands is like putting money in the bank. Guaranteed security. And then they’re free to go eyeing up someone else’s wife or another young lady… Ah, but your husband’s not like that, is he?’
He handed her the key.
‘Start the engine.’
‘If he was, then you’d have to help me get my own back. And we have the car for the night.’
‘You talk tough! But first you do need put the car into reverse. It may be an automatic but it still has gears. It's a good job the handbrake was on, or you’d have hit the wall when you put your foot on the accelerator.’
She put the car into reverse and started to back out, straining her neck as she looked over her shoulder, pressing down on the accelerator and turning the steering wheel. Dapeng gave steady instructions: ‘Mirror. Brake. Mirror. Brake.’
As always, Dapeng was patient and attentive. After four hours, Xiaomin was driving quite comfortably on the Second Ring Road. At one stage, they had stopped off at a restaurant to use the toilet. Driving out of the car park had been the most hair-raising moment so far. A car had come straight at them. Xiaomin had panicked, steered into the oncoming car, and accelerated. She had screamed, and in a split second Dapeng had slammed his foot down on hers – thank God her foot was on the brake pedal! – and yanked up the handbrake. He had moved like lightning, like a kungfu master leaping into action.
‘You were brilliant. Brilliant!'
‘Just remember, if you hit a car going at 60 like that, then we’re finished!’ His hands were shaking as he lit a cigarette, then wound down the window and apologised profusely to the bearded driver of the other car who had come charging over to them. Then, just as the driver began to walk off, he added, ‘My wife’s a learner driver.’
He turned to Xiaomin,
‘You’re not exactly a virgin driver though. And the engine wasn’t the only thing that was turned on. Good job I put my foot down, or my reputation would be ruined.’
‘My husband doesn’t turn me on,’ she said, cool as a poker player laying her cards on the table.
At two in the morning there were few cars on the Second Ring Road. Xiaomin, tired of driving fast, slowed down, turned on the radio, and found some relaxing music. Dapeng trusted her driving now, and he relaxed as well. He couldn’t stop yawning. It felt like a free ride in a cab.
‘Is this what you do every evening?’ she asked.
‘Sometimes I go to a bar with friends, or I teach someone to drive, like today. Mostly I’m at home in front of the TV. I’ll have a couple of beers, feel tired, go to bed and fall asleep. End of story.’
‘What about you?’
‘Me? Sometimes I eat out with friends, though mostly I stay in and watch TV or a DVD with my husband. He’ll have a couple of drinks, then it’s off to bed, off to sleep.’
‘Not boring at all, then.’
‘Now I’ll be able to drive my husband places, and we can have some fun.’
‘And I’ll be able to find a girlfriend.’
The next day they chatted as they drove around. They talked about things that had nothing to do with driving, mostly about themselves. By one o’clock in the morning Xiaomin was tired, and she suggested they stop off somewhere. So they drove to Sanlitun, a street full of bars and bright lights. She wasn’t confident enough to try parking in one of the narrow spaces by the bars, so she found one at the end of the street. She and Dapeng walked the length of Sanlitun. They looked through the windows and saw bars full of lonely people looking for love. She stopped a couple of times to look through the windows, then turned to Dapeng and told him how sexy the girls inside looked. He said he’d been here almost every night for eight months last year. She asked if he’d met anyone interesting. There’d been a dancer, he said, a Heineken hostess, but it hadn’t lasted.
‘Actually I’d like to find a good woman and get married,’ he said.
‘Do you think I’m a good woman?’ asked Xiaomin.
‘I think so.’
‘I want a divorce. It’s either a divorce or a child.’
They walked the length of the street, chatting as they went. They arrived back at the car, got in, and started the engine, having completely forgotten why they had gone there.
At two in the morning on the third day, Xiaomin drove on to Chang’an Avenue. Dapeng was listening to music, and drinking cans of beer, one after another. They drove past the bright lights on both sides of the road, and sailed through the traffic lights. Miraculously, they were all green. Not a single red light.
‘So, what do you think of my driving?’ she asked.
‘Brilliant! Lane-driving, overtaking, parking, flyovers – no problems at all. And you’ll find it easier driving in daylight, because it’s just stop-start-straight-on all the way. There’s so much traffic that there’s not much else you can do.’ He stretched out in his seat. ‘Shall we call it a day? You could drop me home, then drive back to yours on your own. Just don’t forget who your instructor was, OK?’
‘It’s only two o’clock. I won’t be able to sleep if I go home now.’
‘Then drive around a bit more, anywhere you like. If I need to, I’ll just nod off.’
‘There’s one last thing I’d like to ask you to do. I hope you’ll say yes.’
‘Would you come with me to Beidaihe? I want to see the sunrise at the beach.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding.’
‘There’s a motorway now. It’ll only take a few hours, and it’s winter, so there’ll hardly be anyone there. It’ll be so beautiful. Tomorrow’s Saturday, you don’t have to go to work and you don’t have a girlfriend wanting your attention, so you could come and see the sunrise with me…’
‘Tell me, what did God give you a husband for?’
‘To test my patience, mainly. And to tell me I’m losing my looks.’
At four o’clock in the morning, one of the tyres blew. It was Dapeng who realised what had happened. He told her to pull over. When they got out to change the wheel, they felt the harsh northwest wind blowing. Dapeng, shivering in his thin leather jacket, blew on his hands to keep warm. Xiaomin, wearing only a sweater, stood beside him in the cold wind and handed him the tools. As soon as the wheel was changed, Dapeng got back in the car. She wiped their hands with a towel, first his, then hers.
‘If my husband were here he would phone for help, and tell me what a stupid idea this had been.’
‘Actually, I wanted to see the sunrise too,’ said Dapeng. ‘I’m a romantic at heart. If only you’d fallen for me instead, we’d have seen it years ago.
Like a red ball, the sun rose out of the dark clouds over the sea. The dirty yellow waves surged towards the shore. The cold flat sands stretched into the distance, empty and desolate but for two shivering figures.
‘Have you seen enough yet?’ Dapeng draped his leather jacket round her shoulders.
‘Yes. Thank you.’ She leaned into him. She was close enough to feel him shiver.
The two of them returned to the car. Xiaomin put her hands on the steering wheel.
‘I’m tired,’ she said. ‘Let’s find a hotel, have something to eat and get some sleep before we head back. It’s not like we have anything else to do today.’
Dapeng was hesitant. ‘Actually, I do have something to do tonight. Why don’t I drive? You can sleep in the back.’
‘You don’t regret coming here with me, do you?’ she asked.
‘No, but I think I might regret my reason for not staying with you.’
Dapeng did a U-turn, and took a last glance at the red sun still rising in the sky.