QIU MIAOJIN (1969â€“1995)â€”one of Taiwanâ€™s most innovative literary modernists,
and the countryâ€™s most renowned lesbian writerâ€”was born in Chuanghua
County in western Taiwan. She graduated with a degree in psychology from
National Taiwan University and pursued graduate studies in clinical psychology
at the University of Paris VIII. Her first published story, â€œPrisoner,â€ received the
Central Daily News Short Story Prize, and her novella Lonely Crowds won the
United Literature Association Award. While in Paris, she directed a thirty-minute
film called Ghost Carnival, and not long after this, at the age of twenty-six, she
committed suicide. The posthumous publications of her novels Last Words from
Montmartre and Notes of a Crocodile made her into one of the most revered
countercultural icons in Chinese letters. After her death in 1995, she was given
the China Times Honorary Prize for Literature. In 2007, a two-volume edition of
her Diaries was published, and in 2017 she became the subject of a featurelength documentary by Evans Chan titled Death in Montmartre.
BONNIE HUIE is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Her
rendition of MotojirÅ Kajiiâ€™s story â€œUnder the Cherry Blossomsâ€ was nominated
for a Pushcart Prize, and she has also translated the work of Tatsuhiro ÅŒshiro.
Her writings and translations appear in The Brooklyn Rail, Kyoto Journal, and
Afterimage. Huie lives in New York.
NOTES OF A CROCODILE
Translated from the Chinese by
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
THIS IS A NEW YORK REVIEW BOOK
PUBLISHED BY THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
Copyright Â© 1994 by Qiu Miaojin
Translation copyright Â© 2017 by Bonnie Huie All rights reserved.
Cover image: Nicola Bealing, Crocodiles Suspended, 2011; private
collection/Bridgeman Images Cover design: Katy Homans
Originally published as Eyu shouji by China Times Publishing Co.
This publication was made possible in part by a grant from the PEN/Heim
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Qiu, Miaojin,
1969â€“1995, author. | Huie, Bonnie, translator. Title: Notes of a crocodile / by
Qiu Miaojin ; translated by Bonnie Huie. Other titles: Eyu shouji. English
Description: New York : New York Review Books, 2017. | Series: New York
Review Books Classics Identifiers: LCCN 2017000237 (print) | LCCN
2017006563 (ebook) | ISBN 9781681370767 (paperback) | ISBN
9781681370774 (epub) Subjects: LCSH: Lesbiansâ€”Fiction. | Womenâ€”
Taiwanâ€”Fiction. | Gaysâ€”Taiwanâ€”Fiction. | Taipei (Taiwan)â€”Historyâ€”
20th centuryâ€”Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Lesbian. | FICTION / Coming of
Age. | GSAFD: Bildungsromans.
Classification: LCC PL2892.5.U65 E913 2017 (print) | LCC PL2892.5.U65
(ebook) | DDC 895.13/52â€”dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017000237
For a complete list of titles, visit www.nyrb.com or write to: Catalog Requests,
NYRB, 435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
Copyright and More Information
NOTES OF A CROCODILE
NOTES OF A CROCODILE
JULY 20, 1991. Picked up my college diploma at the service window of the
registrarâ€™s office. It was so big I had to carry it with both hands. I dropped it
twice while walking across campus. The first time it fell in the mud by the
sidewalk, and I wiped the mud off with my shirt. The second time the wind blew
it away. I chased after it ruefully. The corners were bent. In my heart, I held back
a pitiful laugh.
When you visit, will you bring me some presents? the Crocodile wanted to
Very well, Iâ€™ll bring you new hand-sewn lingerie, said Osamu Dazai.
Iâ€™ll give you the most beautiful picture frame on earth, would you like that?
asked Yukio Mishima.
Iâ€™ll plaster your bathroom walls with copies of my Waseda degree, said Haruki
And thatâ€™s how it all began. Enter cartoon music (insert Two Tigers closing
Forgot to return my student ID and library card but didnâ€™t realize it. At first Iâ€™d
actually lost them. Nineteen days later, they were returned to me anonymously in
an envelope, instantly transforming their loss into a lie. But I couldnâ€™t stop using
them anyway, out of sheer convenience. Also didnâ€™t take my driverâ€™s exam
seriously enough. Took it four times and failed, although two of those instances
were due to factors entirely beyond my control. Whatâ€™s even better is that I
publicly claim (and perhaps society buys it) to have failed only twice. Whatever,
I donâ€™t care. . . .
Locked the door. Shut the windows. Took the phone off the hook and sat
down. And thatâ€™s how I wrote. I wrote until I was exhausted, smoked two
cigarettes, and went into the bathroom and took a cold shower. Outside were the
torrential winds and rain of the typhoon season. Halfway undressed, I realized
there was no soap left. Got dressed again. Returned to the bathroom with a bar of
soap, undressed again, then climbed back into the shower. Thatâ€™s how it is,
writing a best seller.
Soap in hand, and the sounds of late-night TV in the background. Then a
sudden clatter, as if the power station had been rocked by an explosion. I was
enveloped in pitch-dark silence. The power had gone out. Nobody else was
around, so I ran out of the bathroom completely naked, searching for a candle
though I had no matches. Carried three tea lights with me into the kitchen,
bumping into an electric fan on the floor along the way. Tried to light them on
the gas burner, but the wax melted away. There was nothing else I could do. I
threw open the balcony door and stepped outside to cool off. I hoped to catch a
glimpse of other kindred souls standing naked out on their own balconies. Thatâ€™s
how it is, writing a serious literary work.
Even if this book is neither popular nor serious, at least itâ€™s sensational. Five
cents a word.
Itâ€™s about getting a diploma and writing.
IN THE PAST I believed that every man had his own innate prototype of a woman,
and that he would fall in love with the woman who most resembled his type.
Although Iâ€™m a woman, I have a female prototype too.
My type would appear in hallucinations just as you were freezing to death
atop an icy mountain, a legendary beauty from the furthest reaches of fantasy.
For four years, thatâ€™s what I believed. And I wasted all my college daysâ€”when I
had the most courage and honesty I would ever have towards lifeâ€”because of it.
I donâ€™t believe it anymore. Itâ€™s like the impromptu sketch of a street artist, a
little drawing taped to my wall. When I finally stopped believing in it and
learned to leave it behind, I wound up selling a collection of priceless treasures
for next to nothing. It was then that I realized I should leave behind some sort of
record before my memories evaporated. I feared that otherwise it would be like
waking from a dream, when the inventory of what had been bought and soldâ€”
and at what priceâ€”would be forever lost.
Itâ€™s like a series of roadside warning signs. The one behind me says: DONâ€™T
BELIEVE THE FANTASY. The one ahead of me says: WIELD THE AX OF CRUELTY. One
day it dawned on me as if I were writing my own name for the first time: Cruelty
and mercy are one and the same. Existence in this world relegates good and evil
to the exact same status. Cruelty and evil are only natural, and together they are
endowed with half the power and half the utility in this world. It seems Iâ€™m
going to have to learn to be crueler if Iâ€™m to become the master of my own fate.
Wielding the ax of cruelty against life, against myself, against others. Itâ€™s the
rule of animal instinct, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysicsâ€”and the axis of all four.
And the comma that punctuated being twenty-two.
SHUI LING. Wenzhou Street. The white bench in front of the French bakery. The
number 74 bus.
We sit at the back of the bus. Shui Ling and I occupy opposite window seats,
the aisle between us. The December fog is sealed off behind glass. Dusk starts to
set in around six, enshrouding Taipei. The traffic is creeping along Heping East
Road. At the outer edge of the Taipei Basin, where the sky meets the horizon, is
the last visible wedge of a bright orange sun whose radiance floods through the
windows and spills onto the vehicles behind us, like the blessing of some
Silent, exhausted passengers pack the aisle, heads hung, bodies propped
against the seats, oblivious. Through a gap in the curtain of their winter coats, I
catch Shui Lingâ€™s eye, trying to contain the enthusiasm in my voice.
â€œDid you look outside?â€ I ask, ingratiatingly.
â€œMmm,â€ comes her barely audible reply.
Then silence. For a still moment, Shui Ling and I are sitting together in the
hermetically sealed bus. Out the windows, dim silhouettes of human figures
wind through the streets. Itâ€™s a magnificent night scene, gorgeous and restrained.
The two of us are content. We look happy. But underneath, there is already a
strain of something dark, malignant. Just how bitter it would become, we didnâ€™t
IN 1987, I broke free from the draconian university entrance-exam system and
enrolled in college. People in this city are manufactured and canned, raised for
the sole purpose of taking tests and making money. The eighteen-year-old me
went through the high-grade production line and was processed in three years,
despite the fact that I was pure carrion inside.
That fall, in October, I moved into a second-floor apartment on Wenzhou
Street. The leaseholders were a married couple who had graduated a few years
earlier. They gave me a room with a huge window overlooking an alley. The two
rooms across from mine were rented by two sisters. The young married couple
was always in the living room watching TV. They spent a fair amount of time on
the coffee-colored sofa. â€œWe got married our senior year,â€ they told me, smiling.
But most of the time, they didnâ€™t say a word. The sisters would spend all night in
one of their rooms watching a different channel. Passing the door, youâ€™d hear
bits of lively conversation. I never saw my housemates unless I had to. Just came
and went on my own. Everyone kept to themselves.
So despite the five of us living together under one roof, it might as well have
been a home for the deaf.
I lived in solitude. Lived at night. Iâ€™d wake up at midnight and ride my bikeâ€”
a red Giantâ€”to a nearby store where Iâ€™d buy dried noodles, thick pork soup, and
spring rolls. Then Iâ€™d come home and read while I ate. Take a shower, do
laundry. In my room, there was neither the sound of another human being nor
light. Iâ€™d write in my journal all night, or just read. I became obsessed with
Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. I devoured all kinds of books for tortured souls.
Started collecting issues of the independence movementâ€™s weekly. Studied up on
political game theory, an antidote to my spiritual reading. It made me feel like an
outsider, which became my way of recharging. At the break of dawn, around six
or seven, like a nocturnal creature afraid of the light, Iâ€™d finally lay my headâ€”
which by then was spilling over with thoughtsâ€”down onto the comforter.
Thatâ€™s how it went when things were good. Most of the time, however, I
didnâ€™t eat a single thing all night. Didnâ€™t shower. Couldnâ€™t get out of bed. Didnâ€™t
write in my journal or talk. Didnâ€™t read a single page or register the sound of
another human being. All day long, Iâ€™d cry myself sick into my pillow. Sleep
was just another luxury.
Didnâ€™t want anyone around. People were useless to me. Didnâ€™t need anyone. I
started hurting myself and getting into all sorts of trouble.
Home was a credit-card bill footed by Nationalist Party voters. I didnâ€™t need to
go back. Being in college gave me a sense of vocation. It exempted me from an
oppressive system of social and personal responsibilityâ€”from going through the
motions like a cog, from being whipped and beaten by everyone for not having
worked hard enough and then having to put on a repentant face afterward. That
system had already molded me into a flimsy, worthless shell. It drove my body
to retreat into a self-loathing soul, and whatâ€™s even scarier is that nobody knew
or seemed to recognize it. My social identity was comprised of these two
distinct, co-existing constructs. Each writhed toward me with its incessant
demandsâ€”though when it came down to it, I spent more time getting to know
my way around the supermarket next door than I did getting comfortable in my
Didnâ€™t read the paper. Didnâ€™t watch TV. Didnâ€™t go to classâ€”except for gym,
because the teacher took attendance. Didnâ€™t go out and didnâ€™t talk to my
roommates. The only time I ever spoke at all was in the evenings or afternoons
at the Debate Society, where I would go to preen my feathers and practice social
intercourse. All too soon I realized that I was an innately beautiful peacock and
decided that I shouldnâ€™t let myself go. However lazy, a peacock still ought to
give its feathers a regular preening, and having been bestowed with such a
magnificent set, I couldnâ€™t help but seek the mainstream of society as a mirror.
With that peacock swagger, I found it hard to resist indulging in a little strutting,
but thatâ€™s how it went, and it was a fundamentally bad habit.
The fact is, most people go through life without ever living. They say you
have to learn how to construct a self who remains free in spite of the system.
And you have to get used to the idea that itâ€™s every man for himself in this world.
It requires a strange self-awareness, whereby everything down to the finest detail
must be performed before the eyes of the world.
Since thereâ€™s time to kill, you have to use boredom to get you to the other side.
In English, youâ€™d say: Break on through. Thatâ€™s more like it.
SO SHE did me wrong. If my old motto was Iâ€™m sentencing her to the guillotine,
my new motto contained a revelation: The power to construct oneself is destiny.
If only it werenâ€™t for you, Shui Ling. In spite of everything, the truth is I still
canâ€™t take it. I canâ€™t take it. Really, I canâ€™t. No matter how far Iâ€™ve come, itâ€™s
never far enough. The pattern was already in place.
It must have been around October 1987. I was biking down Royal Palm
Boulevard and passed somebody. I remembered it was their birthday. It was at
that precise moment that all of my pent-up grief and fear hit me at once. I knew
more or less that Iâ€™d been rejected and that was the bottom line. But somehow, I
was convinced I had to get even.
Sheâ€™d just turned twenty. Iâ€™d turned eighteen five months earlier. She and
some friends from high school walked past me, and I managed to glance at her.
But as for what significance that glance held, it was as if my whole life had
flashed before my eyes. Though they were off in the distance, I could still feel
the glow of her smile. It left me with the acute sense that she never failed to
elicit the adoration and affection of others, that she was someone who radiated a
pure, childlike contentment.
Even now Iâ€™m still in awe of her innate power to command such devotionâ€”
not only her charms but how it felt to be deprived of them. She maintained only
a handful of friendships. In the past, the people around her had clung dearly to
her, giving her their entire attention. She didnâ€™t need any more of that, but she
didnâ€™t have much of a choice. She was trapped and suffocating. Whenever I was
around her, Iâ€™d become clingy, too. If I wasnâ€™t by her side, I felt distant from
other people, when in fact she was the one who was distant. Thatâ€™s how it
worked. It was her natural gift.
I didnâ€™t see her my entire senior year of high school. I was careful to avoid
her. Didnâ€™t dare take the initiative, though I longed for her to notice me in the
crowd. An upperclassman and my senior, she was an ominous character, a black
spade. To shuffle and draw the same card again would be even more ominous.
THE LECTURE hall for Introduction to Chinese Literature was packed. I got there
late and had to sheepishly lift my chair up higher than the rostrum and carry it all
the way to the front row. The professor stopped lecturing, and all the other sheep
turned and gawked at me and my antics.
Toward the end of class, someone passed a note from behind:
Hey, can I talk to you after class?
She had sought me out. I knew it would happen. Even if I had switched to a
different section, she would have sought me out all the same. She who hid in the
crowd, who didnâ€™t want anyone to see her with her aloofness and averted eyes.
When I stepped forward, she stepped out, too. And she had pointed with a
childâ€™s wanton smile and said, â€œI want that one.â€ There was no way I could
refuse. And like a potted sunflower that had just been sold to a customer, I was
This, from a beautiful girl whom I was already deeply, viscerally attracted to.
Things were getting good. There she was, standing right in front of me. She
brushed the waves of hair away from her face with a seductiveness that painfully
seared my heart like a tattoo. Her feminine radiance was overpowering. I was
about to get knocked out of the ring. It was clear from that moment on, weâ€™d
never be equals. How could we, with me under the table, scrambling to summon
a different me, the one she would worship and put on a pedestal? No way was I
â€œWhat are you doing here?â€ I was so anxious that I had to blurt something out.
She didnâ€™t say a word or seem the least bit embarrassed.
â€œDid you switch to this section to make up a class?â€ She didnâ€™t look up at me.
She just stood there, dragging one foot behind her in the hallway, and didnâ€™t say
a thing, as if this one-sided conversation had nothing to do with her.
â€œHowâ€™d you know I switched?â€ Abruptly, she broke her silence. Her eyes
were shimmering with amazement, and I could finally meet them. She was now
looking right at me, wide-eyed.
â€œWell, of course Iâ€™d know!â€ I didnâ€™t want her to think Iâ€™d been noticing her.
â€œYou finally said something!â€ I said, heaving an exaggerated sigh of relief. She
smiled at me shyly, even teasingly, and I let out a huge laugh, relieved that Iâ€™d
made her smile. The glow on her face was like rays of sunshine along a golden
She told me that sheâ€™d started to feel nervous as soon as I walked into the
room. She wanted to talk to me, but didnâ€™t know what to say. I pointed to her
shoelaces. She gingerly leaned forward to tie them. She said when she saw me,
she couldnâ€™t bring herself to speak, and then she didnâ€™t want to say anything, so
then she just stood there. She threw her purple canvas backpack over her
shoulder and crouched on the floor. As she started talking, I felt the sudden urge
to reach over and touch her long hair, which looked so soft and supple. You
donâ€™t know a thing, but I figured it all out in an instant, I told her silently in my
heart. I reached over and held her backpack instead, and feeling mildly contented
by the closeness of its weight, wished that she would go on tying her shoes.
It was already six when class ended. Shadows had lengthened across the
campus, and the evening breeze lilted in the air. We grabbed our bikes and
headed off together. We took the main thoroughfare on campus, keeping with the
leisurely pace of the traffic on the wide open road. I didnâ€™t know if I was
following her, or if she was following me. Within a year, the two of us would
come to cherish our ambiguous rapport, at once intimate and unfamiliar, and
tempered by moments of silent confrontation.
â€œWhyâ€™d you come over and talk to me?â€ In my heart I already knew too much
but pretended to know nothing.
â€œWhy wouldnâ€™t I talk to you?â€ She sounded slightly irritated. The dusk
obscured her face, so I couldnâ€™t read her expression. But as soon as she spoke, I
could tell sheâ€™d had a tough freshman year. There was a curious note of dejection
in her answer. I already knew her all too well.
â€œIâ€™m just an underclassman youâ€™ve seen, like, three times!â€ I nearly exploded.
â€œNot even,â€ she said coolly to herself.
My eyes were fixed on her long skirt as it wafted in the breeze. â€œWerenâ€™t you
worried that I wouldnâ€™t remember you, or wouldnâ€™t want to talk to you?â€
â€œI knew you werenâ€™t like that.â€ Her reaction was perfectly composed, as if
everything to do with me was already set in stone.
We reached the school gates, not quite sure what to do next. She seemed to
want to see where I lived. The way she suggested it conveyed a touch of familial
kindness, like a tough but pliable cloth whose inner softness made my heart
ache. Besides, as they say, if the floodwaters are rushing straight toward you,
what are you going to do to stop them? This was how she treated me, for no
apparent reason. I took her toward Xinsheng South Road, back to Wenzhou
â€œHowâ€™s this year going?â€ I tried to break through her gloom.
â€œI donâ€™t want to talk about it.â€ She squeezed her eyes shut and grimaced
slightly, lifting her chin in a hopeless look.
â€œYou donâ€™t want to tell me?â€ I was practically edging her onto the road. I was
sure she was going to get hit by a car.
She shook her head. â€œI donâ€™t want to tell anyone.â€
â€œHow did you get this way?â€ It pained my heart to hear her speak such
â€œYeah, well, Iâ€™ve changed.â€ Her eyes flickered with haughtiness, underscoring
the boldness of her statement.
Her answer was so immature that I felt tempted to tease her. â€œInto what?â€
â€œIâ€™ve just changed, thatâ€™s all. Iâ€™m not the same person I was in high school.â€ I
could detect a note of self-hatred in the viciousness of her tone.
Hearing those words, â€œIâ€™ve changed,â€ made me truly sad. The traffic had
illuminated Xinsheng South Road in an opulent yellow. We followed the red
brick wall that enclosed the school grounds, pausing to lean against a railing. To
our left were the city streets, whose bright lights seemed to be calling. To our
right was the dimly lit campus, teeming with the splendors of solitude. Thereâ€™s
nothing that wonâ€™t change, do you understand? I said in my heart. â€œCan you
count the number of lights that are on in that building over there?â€ I pointed to a
brand-new high-rise at the intersection.
â€œUh, I see lights in five windows, so maybe, like, five?â€ she said brightly.
Just wait and see how many there are later on. Will you still remember? I
asked myself, answering with a nod.
THE FIRST semester she was my lifeline. It was a clandestine form of datingâ€”the
kind where the person youâ€™re going out with doesnâ€™t know itâ€™s a date. I denied
myself, and I denied the fact that she was part of my life, so much so that I
denied the dotted line that connected the two of us and our entire relationship to
a crime. But the eye of suspicion had been cast upon me from the very
beginning, and this extraordinary eye reached all the way back to my
adolescence. My hair started to go gray early. Life ahead was soon supplanted by
a miserable prison sentence. It was as if I never really had a youth. Nonetheless,
I was determined at all costs to become a person who would love without
boundaries. And so I locked myself and that eye together in a dark closet.
Every Sunday night, however, I was forced to think about her. It was like a
chore I dreaded. Iâ€™d resolve not to go to Intro to Chinese Lit, and every Monday
I would sleep in until almost three, waking up just in time to rush to class on my
bike. Every Monday after class, Shui Ling would follow me matter-of-factly
back to Wenzhou Street, as if she were merely passing by on her way home.
Afterward, Iâ€™d wait with her for the number 74 bus. There was a bench in front
of the French bakery. Our secret little rendezvous were tidy and simple. They
were executed with the casual deftness of a high-class burglary: bribing the
guards with one hand, feeding a criminal appetite with the other.
The rest of the week, we barely spoke. She was an apparition seen only on
Mondays. On Mondays, she would appear like the answer to a dying manâ€™s
prayersâ€”roses in hand, draped in white muslin, barefoot and floating, come to
grant me a reprieve. In a primal mating dance, eyes closed in rapture, she
scattered rose petals into the wilderness. Roses every week and she didnâ€™t even
know it, and it was amid roses that it seemed I might live after all. I reached for
those roses, and for a new life, only to discover a glass wall. When I extended
my hand, so did my reflection. When Monday ended, the glass that stood
between me and my reflection thickened.
The room on Wenzhou Street. Elegant maroon wallpaper and yellow curtains.
What did I even talk to her about in there? She sat on the floor, in the gap
between the foot of the wooden bed frame and the wardrobe, with her back to
me, almost silent. I talked non-stop. Most of the time it was just me talking.
Talking about whatever. Talking about my horrible, painful life experiences.
Talking about every person Iâ€™d ever gotten entangled with and couldnâ€™t let go of.
Talking about my own complexities, my own eccentricities. She was always
playing with something in her hands. She would look up at me in disbelief and
ask what was so hard to understand about this or what was so strange about that.
She accepted me, which amounted to negating my negation of myself. Those
sincere eyes, like a mirror, hurt me. But she accepted me. In my anguish, about
every third sentence out of my mouth was: You donâ€™t understand. Her eyes were
suffused with a profound and translucent light, like the ocean gazing at me in
silence, as if it were not necessary to speak at all. You donâ€™t understand. She
thought she understood. And she accepted me. Years later, I realized that had
been the whole point.
Those wrenching eyes, which could lift up the entire skeleton of my being.
How I longed for myself to be subsumed into the ocean of her eyes. How the
desire, once awakened, would come to scald me at every turn. The strength in
those eyes offered a bridge to the outside world. The scarlet mark of sin and my
deep-seated fear of abandonment had given way to the oceanâ€™s yearning.
I AM A woman who loves women. The tears I cry, they spring from a river and
drain across my face like yolk.
My time was gradually consumed by tears. The whole world loves me, but
what does it matter since I hate myself? Humanity stabs a bayonet into a babyâ€™s
chest, fathers produce daughters that they pull into the bathroom to rape,
handicapped midgets drag themselves onto highway overpasses to announce that
theyâ€™re about to end it all just to collect a little spare change, and mental patients
have irrepressible hallucinations and suicidal urges. How can the world be this
cruel? A human being has only so much in them, and yet you must learn through
experience, until you finally reach the maddening conclusion that the world
wrote you off a long time ago, or accept the prison sentence that your crime is
your existence. And the world keeps turning as if nothing had happened. The
forced smiles on the faces of the lucky ones say it all: Itâ€™s either this, or getting
stabbed in the chest with a bayonet, getting raped, dragging yourself onto the
highway overpass, or checking into a mental institution. No one will ever know
about your tragedy, and the world eluded its responsibility ages ago. All that you
know is that youâ€™ve been crucified for something, and youâ€™re going to spend the
rest of your life feeling like no one and nothing will help you, that youâ€™re in it
alone. Your individual circumstances, which separate you from everyone else,
will keep you behind bars for life. On top of it all, humanity tells me Iâ€™m lucky.
Privilege after privilege has been conferred upon me, and if I donâ€™t seem content
with my lot, theyâ€™ll be devastated.
Shui Ling, please donâ€™t knock on my door anymore. You donâ€™t know how
dark it is here in my heart. I donâ€™t know who I am at all. Whatâ€™s ahead of me is
unclear, yet I must move forward. I donâ€™t want to become myself. I know the
answer to the riddle, but I canâ€™t stand to have it revealed. The first time I saw
you, I knew I would fall in love with you. That my love would be wild, raging,
and passionate, but also illicit. That it could never develop into anything, and
instead, it would split apart like pieces of a landslide. As flesh and blood, I was
not distinct. You turned me into my own key, and when you did, my fears seized
me in a flood of tears that soon abated. I stopped hating myself and discovered
the corporeal me.
She didnâ€™t understand. Didnâ€™t understand she could love me, maybe that she
already did love me. Didnâ€™t understand that beneath the hide of a lamb was a
demonic beast that had to suppress the urge to rip her to shreds. Didnâ€™t
understand that love, every little bit of it, was about exchange. Didnâ€™t understand
that she caused me suffering. Didnâ€™t understand that love was like that.
She gave me a puzzle in a box. She put the pieces together patiently, one by
one, and completed the picture of me.
â€œIâ€™M NOT coming to Intro to Chinese Lit next week, but Iâ€™ll be there the week
after,â€ I said.
Shui Ling and I took the number 74 bus together at seven in the evening. She
was headed home and I was going to private tutoring on Changchun Road. We
sat together in a double seat; she had the window and I the aisle. She was
wearing a white scarf. With the window halfway open, she rested her head on the
ledge, her body tense, her eyes fixed on some far-off point in the dusk. Her
isolation was apparent. I felt the distance between us.
â€œOkay,â€ she answered in a tone that showed her waning enthusiasm. I wanted
to leave, and she knew it.
â€œYouâ€™re not going to ask me why?â€ I felt a twinge of regret. I was hesitant to
be on my own.
â€œFine. Why?â€ she asked me indignantly, with her head turned to conceal her
â€œI donâ€™t want to have a steady relationship with anyone. Iâ€™ve gotten used to
seeing you every week, and I canâ€™t handle being tied down like this. Itâ€™s a bad
pattern that I have to break,â€ I told her guiltily.
â€œOkay. Whatever suits you.â€ She turned away again.
â€œStill mad at me?â€ I felt sorry for her.
â€œYes. Youâ€™re selfish.â€ She had turned her back to me, but her reflection in the
glass revealed her loneliness and dejection.
â€œHow am I selfish?â€ I tried to make her say what was bothering her. It was so
hard to get her to talk.
Finally, after thinking for a long time, she aired her resentment. â€œYou donâ€™t
want to have this . . . bad pattern . . . but what I am supposed to do, now that Iâ€™m
used to it?â€ Emerging from her silence, she could be rash with words, though she
normally spared me.
â€œWhat are you used to?â€ I pretended not to know. â€œYou know what Iâ€™m
talking about.â€ Her fragile voice was especially attractive whenever she was
â€œNo, I donâ€™t know.â€ Whenever she divulged her overwhelming feelings for
me, it was always bittersweet.
â€œThatâ€™s a lie. Iâ€™m the same as you . . . Iâ€™ve gotten used to seeing you every
week, too.â€ She spoke timidly, not because she wasnâ€™t supposed to have such
feelings but because she was telling me about them. Because femininity meant
having to hide oneâ€™s true feelings.
â€œThat makes it even worse. You shouldnâ€™t get used to it. After Chinese Lit
ends, weâ€™re not going to see each other anymore.â€
â€œWhy canâ€™t we see each other?â€ she asked instantly, as if asking for the
solution to a math problem.
â€œBecause thereâ€™s no reason for us to see each other. Besides, Iâ€™ll run off one
day, and thatâ€™s when youâ€™ll really feel bad.â€ For the first time, I had spoken
aloud my true feelings toward her, and my words were a slap in the face.
â€œI still donâ€™t understand. Whatever suits you.â€ She gave up all resistance.
MAUVAIS SANG is a film. Not another Godard movie. A more youthful French film.
Its male protagonist is built like a lizard and clearly has traces of crocodile in his
blood. All the other men are short and stout and bald. Theyâ€™re all ugly old men
in this film, aside from this sight-for-sore-eyes of a young Adonis in the lead
role. The director is a contemporary master of aesthetics.
â€œI must ascend, not descend,â€ the protagonist declares. As he nears his final
moments, the female lead embraces him from behind, and he resists. Itâ€™s moving
beyond words. He closes his eyes with a dramatic flutter and utters his last
words: â€œItâ€™s hard being an honest child.â€ After he dies, a hideous old man
squeezes a single blue tear out of his closed eyes. Thereâ€™s essentially no way the
lizard can be honest. Even as it rolls over and turns its white belly up, it must
take its hidden tears for its lover to the grave. The lizard has a good name:
Betty Blue is another film. Itâ€™s relatively institutional fare. A French film made
for a young mainstream audience. Just how is it made for them? There are only
two colors, blue and yellow, which makes things easy to remember, and aside
from the two protagonistsâ€”a man and a womanâ€”thereâ€™s no one else on earth.
Time glides by in the film without so much as half a struggle or a long
conversation. Anyone with eyes, even if theyâ€™re color-blind, can sit with popcorn
in one hand and soda in the other, and leisurely watch the whole thing. Fair
The best thing about the entire film is when the main coupleâ€™s friend, upon
hearing news of his motherâ€™s death, lies in bed paralyzed, and other people have
to dress him for the funeral and tie his necktie, which is adorned with naked
ladies. The tears streaming down his face make you want to explode laughing.
The female protagonist, Betty, says, â€œLife always had it in for me.â€ She gouges
out her own eyes and is sent to a mental institution, where they strap her to a
bed. The male protagonist says, â€œNo one can keep the two of us apart.â€ He
disguises himself as a woman in order to sneak into the institution, and with a
pillow, smothers Betty to death. At that moment, his face, exquisitely white,
radiates a ghastly feminine beauty. The director uses a crazy love to curse the
hand of fate. Fair enough, though the last bit will make you gag on your popcorn
The first film is nauseating. So is the second film.
The difference is, the first film is sincere in its approach. From the beginning,
you know that itâ€™s nauseating. The second film is deceptive in its approach. It
tricks you into thinking that youâ€™re not on the road to nausea, until the very end,
when the truth becomes clear.
â€œNauseating is nauseating. Try to be the most honest child you possibly can,â€
says Mauvais Sang.
â€œWho says you canâ€™t get away with a naked-lady necktie?â€ says Betty Blue.
MENG SHENG. Did I ever truly love this man? I donâ€™t know the answer to that
question. I attended an arts camp in December 1987, in the town of Danshui.
After Iâ€™d introduced myself in a fiction workshop, he stood up in the front row,
walked back to where I was seated, and knelt down in the aisle next to me. The
frivolous grin on his face hinted at an unusual astuteness beneath the surface.
â€œIâ€™m a year older than you. I go to the affiliated high school. Next year Iâ€™ll be
at your school. Just hearing the few words you said, I felt as though you were the
only one worth listening to. All that other garbage makes me sick. Coming here
was a real waste of my time.â€
This pompous fool spoke as if no one else were around us. My heart was filled
with utter disdain. I felt like scoffing but managed to indulge him with a smile
nevertheless. After crouching for a while, he impulsively launched into a set of
squats, as if it were some form of self-amusement. Though he was an
archetypally beautiful boy back then, he was also not exactly what you would
call a boy. I sensed he had the power to lead others astray, and this power was in
part what kept him young. Apart from that supremely cheeky grin, there wasnâ€™t a
whiff of boyishness about him.
â€œWhat are you doing? Scurrying away like Iâ€™m a skunk. . . . Whatâ€™s so
important?â€ As I walked out, he followed right behind me. Even as other people
were trying to talk to me, he stood there impudently, blocking the way. I was
losing my patience.
â€œWhatâ€™s wrong with skunks?â€ he quipped. â€œAt least they can make annoying
â€œSo why donâ€™t you make yourself disappear, then? What are you doing here?â€
I said, letting my irritation show.
â€œWhat am I doing here?â€ he repeated. â€œGood question.â€ He slapped me on the
shoulder. â€œItâ€™s just thatâ€”I donâ€™t even know what Iâ€™m doing out here.â€ He pouted
â€œHow about if we have a talk, old pal?â€ I said, softening. I gestured for him to
sit beside me.
â€œWeâ€™re not old pals,â€ he protested politely, putting his arm around my
shoulder. I pushed it off.
â€œAll right . . . big brother. Stop following me around. Youâ€™re ruining my
chance at happiness.â€
â€œYouâ€™re the one with seniority here. What a jokeâ€”people like you have no
clue what happiness is. That word has been erased from your mind,â€ he said
contemptuously. Then he did a gleeful somersault, right there on the ground.
Instantly, I recognized that he and I were of the same ilk, each embracing our
own singular way of seeing things. Yet he seemed pure and whole compared to
me, and in that respect, he was more precocious and more exceptional. Were it
possible to love him, it would also mean loving his brand of exceptionalism. By
winter of that year, heâ€™d actually grown quite attractive. He was a tall, handsome
JUST ANOTHER day, right? The last day of Intro to Chinese Lit. Exactly as
planned, I went to class. In order to get there early, I sped down the road,
pedaling at full speed. My heart was pounding. A million different thoughts had
been swirling in my mind and now they were lodged there, unexpressed. Sheâ€™d
chosen a seat in the very back. Her purple backpack was on top of her desk.
Sheâ€™d put her head down, and her long locks hung over the edge of the desk. By
that point, she wasnâ€™t talking to anyone at school. I knew she was lonely.
Separated from her friends whoâ€™d looked after her, she had to try to be her own
person. She just sat there, not moving. I paused at her side, contemplating her
isolation. She looked miserable. I knew she didnâ€™t want to live this way. I was
upset, and so Iâ€™d treated her badly.
â€œIâ€™m here.â€ It was almost time for class to start. I called to her lightly.
â€œMmm,â€ she answered indifferently, without lifting her head.
â€œYou donâ€™t want to talk to me?â€ My guilt, and tenderness, were starting to
â€œOh, Iâ€™m really tired. I want to go to sleep,â€ she said softly. She still hadnâ€™t
given me so much as a glance. She was pushing me away.
â€œFine. You should rest for a while.â€ Unwanted by her, I felt like my heart was
being dragged around on a chain. I plodded over to the desk in front of her and
After class, I stood up front to observe her from a distance, but she wouldnâ€™t
look at me. Moving slowly, she quietly packed up her things. I glanced over
while chatting with an acquaintance. She was already gone. Wait. There are so
many things I want to tell you. I barreled out of the building toward the bikes,
searching frantically for a familiar one. Nothing. I sprinted toward the place
where weâ€™d always met before leaving together. No sight of purple anywhere. I
made a mad dash in the opposite direction. I knew it was too late. Iâ€™d already
gone down the wrong road too many times. Iâ€™d never catch up to her. After
checking the bus stop by the rear entrance, I turned around and started walking
home. Please, no. I just wanted to tell you: It doesnâ€™t have to be this way.
A dark nightâ€™s rain. The storm was intensifying. With my clothes clinging to
my skin, I was racing as fast as I could. But the faster I ran, the harder the rain
and wind seemed to fight me. My socks were encrusted with a layer of mud. I
could feel it. After wading through pools of standing water, my legs soon felt
like wet logs. I checked every bus stop before turning onto the next street. Iâ€™d
already run a long way. I sat down weakly inside a bus shelter. Iâ€™d never find her.
I waited wearily for the next half hour. . . .
Basically, what I wanted to tell you today was that we shouldnâ€™t stop seeing
each other. I couldnâ€™t find you, and so we still canâ€™t see each other. I also
brought you that book you wanted to borrow.
The rain turned to drizzle. My eyes stung as I finished writing the note and
tucked it into the rear rack of her bike, which Iâ€™d found parked across from the
Literature Department building. Whatever. Really. Itâ€™ll fall out by itself, which
will save a lot of trouble. With the slackening of a rope, Iâ€™d been sent tumbling
to the ground, and now that I was on my own again I was at a loss. I missed her.
I had gotten what I deserved.
The next day, around noon, I walked into class late, not even conscious of
where I was. Someone passed me a note.
Your book is missing. I had to go to gym class in the morning. As I was
walking over I noticed a whole bunch of bikes were missing. In my heart, I
prayed that my beloved bike wasnâ€™t one of them and got really worried. But
sure enough, it was lying there, on top of one bike and under another,
covered in mud. I hurried to stand it back up, wondering if I should wipe off
its frame with my handkerchief. I was crying inside. How could anyone
have knocked it over so carelessly? Then I saw that the rear rack had a pink
flyer stuck in it. I just hate those tacky flyers, and when I tossed it aside, I
saw your note. There was no book. Someone must have stolen it. So I had
to tell you: Your book is missing.
I donâ€™t understand your complicated reasoning, and I donâ€™t want to. You
said it was for my own good that you stopped having anything to do with
me, and that we should stop seeing each other so thereâ€™ll be less grieving. I
donâ€™t understand it at all, and I refuse to ever understand. Maybe you have
it in your head that things are better this way, but it doesnâ€™t address my
situation. Did you even consider me at all? Because my answer is: Itâ€™s not
good for me. I used to think that I could seek refuge in you. Those two
wordsâ€”seek refugeâ€”were what I really wanted to do. Youâ€™re the only
person at this school Iâ€™m close to. Itâ€™s happened three times now that Iâ€™ve
gotten depressed and needed to escape. Each time I ran from campus,
clutching my backpack and hoping I wouldnâ€™t bump into anyone I knew,
and I found my way to your apartment. As I rang the buzzer, all I knew was
that I needed to see you. But you were never there. The first time I was
tired, so I sat down on the steps and stayed there. I was already a little
closer to you. I could feel you there. Then I found the energy to go home.
After that, I stopped ringing your buzzer. I just had to hang out on the steps
for a while, and that was enough.
Did you know these things? If you donâ€™t want me to seek refuge in you,
sorry my skinâ€™s not thick enough to handle it. Whatâ€™s wrong with that?
I still recall it. When I received that messily scrawled letterâ€”messily scrawled
and yet elegantâ€”my hands wouldnâ€™t stop shaking. I read it several times and
still couldnâ€™t comprehend it, but I couldnâ€™t read it again. My eyes were fixed on
her name. I jumped to my feet and got on my bike and pedaled to the lecture hall
where she had her afternoon class. With the wind in my hair, words flooded my
mind. My heart swooned. That day I was wearing green jeans, and the color
sparkled in the light of the afternoon sun. I stood out on the lawn, waiting for her
to pass by. As any fool would tell you, there was never any book left on the rear
rack. She walked past me and asked what I was doing there. I said, Can we start
over? She turned around. The ocean wept. I knew it was mutual love.
THE SINGER Zhao Chuan has a new song out that goes: â€œA boy sees a rose in a
field. . . .â€ Working on this notebook, I stayed up from the wee hours of midnight
until nine a.m. listening to this song on repeat. Didnâ€™t listen to any other song on
the whole tape. And now for this sectionâ€™s tangent:
I cannot resist your wildness swaying in the wind. I cannot imagine you would
so much as shed a tear in the rain. In the early-morning wind, you are a rose
beyond compareâ€”ever dangerous, ever alluring. You are the rose of autumnâ€™s
final reverie, so distant and absolute. A boy sees a rose in a field, this rose that
grows in a wasteland. How full it is in bloom, this rose that grows in a
This notebook constitutes part one. It recounts the period from October 1987
to January 1988. Each eighty-page notebook is quickly fading, having been
filled out in pencil. Based on ten massive journalsâ€™ worth of material, I wrote
eight manuals that can be read as admonitions for young people. A clean
transcription was made using a ballpoint pen before each notebook was stuffed
into the bottom of a drawer. Whenever my memory failed me, I would take out a
notebook and look at it, and go over the events that made me who I am. They
illustrate a process.
The first two notebooks, though, are meager compared to the rest. They didnâ€™t
have journals to serve as a reference, so I had to rely on dwindling impressions,
which meant tinkering around until it sounded right. During my four years of
college, I left a lot of things behind. Sometimes writing was like finding a
parking spot: Just as I was about to give up, I managed to achieve a perfect fit,
thanks to a bit of skillful maneuvering. Other times it was like examining food
that had been left sitting out for so long that ants and cockroaches had gotten to
it. On other occasions it was like a major year-end cleaning where I was forced
to throw something away because I couldnâ€™t find anywhere to put it. And still
other times, it was like trading in a used car for a new one: I didnâ€™t give it a
Freshman year was a total blackout. I burned all her letters. I gave her an
exquisite beige journal as a gift. These were all things that happened later on.
She was subjected to my every which way of purging things, and in the end, I
was purged of her. Consequently, I discovered that I had no shortage of purging
methods. By then, I was a purgeaholic. Because she was mine and illness had set
in. And because purging her was the cure. What was gone was gone. There was
no looking back. I wouldnâ€™t purge anything else important, or so I vowed.
By the time Iâ€™d invented a glue powerful enough to stop my purge-happy hand
dead in its tracks, it was too late. No one was left in my inner circle. Since Meng
Sheng left behind scarcely an eyelash, these days I have no choice but to become
â€œA girl sees a rose in a fieldâ€ is how it should have gone. Thatâ€™s the kind of
song Meng Sheng wrote for me.
IMAGINE an overstuffed bag of tricks. Those who belong to the class known as
college students are given a free pass. Youâ€™re handed an empty bag at the start of
your education, and youâ€™re allowed to put anything you want inside of it. Then
adults give you a break for the next four years. (There are unfortunate exceptions
to this rule in certain departments. Adults have been chosen to uphold societal
values, after all.) Theyâ€™ll turn a blind eye for the most part and let you put
anything you want into that bag, as long as you hang on tight to that student ID
Collegeâ€”now thereâ€™s a system. Though itâ€™s not quite death, itâ€™s a pretty close
second. Itâ€™s the nexus of three major institutions (compulsory education,
compulsory labor, and compulsory marriage), and these three institutions happen
to be the greatest achievements of human civilization. Contrary to expectation,
when experienced in combination, they allow for an escape into a transient, selfabsorbed greatness. Like death, college serves as a kind of escape hatch. But
while death takes you straight to the morgue, college is a single rope dangling
loose from the inescapable net of society. While in death everyone receives equal
treatment, college is a place where certain people arrive covered in a layer of
muck, a nastiness that they, in turn, smear onto others.
To sum it up, the usual bag of tricks consists of: going to class + taking tests +
chasing the opposite sex + recreation + earning spending money + pretending to
be interested in joining clubs + observing society + hanging out. The first seven
constitute eighty percent of your waking hours. I donâ€™t even know how to
explain what goes on that eighty percent of the time. I could go on and on, and
still never get to the last one: hanging out. You just have to gather all the tools
you canâ€”as if in preparation to outsmart life itselfâ€”and keep them in that
overstuffed bag of tricks.
FEBRUARY 1988. I spent my first winter vacation alone at the place on Wenzhou
All week I holed up in my room. Ate instant noodles. Went for walks. Went to
the bathroom. In between those three activities, I worked on a story a lot more
disturbing than this one. Got a letter in the mail. On the white envelope was a
hand-drawn sketch in red marker. It was of a naked woman with her legs spreadeagle.
I want to see you. Reply, or else Iâ€™ll chop off a fingertip and send it to you.
â€”MENG SHENG, The Bridegroom from Hell
Meng Sheng. That annoying dude I met at arts camp. He was like a sinister
shadow that made me want to run away. The next day, Iâ€™d said I was sick and left
Danshui. As I was leaving, I could see him standing off in the distance with a
strange, innocent smile on his face. It was as if that smile could encroach upon
my mind, even if I was rid of him for the next few months and tried to console
myself with the thought that we had no contact. That smile suggested the powers
that heâ€™d flaunted around me, to show that he was capable of dominating me. So
when I got the letter, I was terrified. Iâ€™d never before feared being dominated in a
relationship. I could practically feel his eyes probing me, using me as he pleased.
I decided not to reply. I refused to enter the dynamic in that premonition, and I
also wanted to test his strength. Three days after the first letter, a second letter
arrived. On the envelope was a drawing of a knife, and in red ink like the first.
But this time, there was no mailing address. Evidently, it had been placed
directly in the mailbox. I opened it. Inside was a letter, along with a plastic bag
riddled with staples that, sure enough, contained a crimson, blood-soaked
withered fingertip. My entire body started to tremble. I got on my bike and
pedaled as fast as I could to a distant canal. When the coast was clear, I tossed
the plastic bag in the water and told myself Iâ€™d lost. The letter said:
Iâ€™m not in love with you. I just want to see you. If you donâ€™t reply, Iâ€™ll come
over in the middle of the night on Sunday and beat the crap out of you.
â€”MENG SHENG, Bridegroom among Bridegrooms
Ten p.m. on Sunday. Iâ€™d been scrambling to finish the story. I was completely
exhausted, but I had to wait for Meng Sheng. It was strange, to say the least, to
be waiting around for some guy Iâ€™d met only once to come over and beat me up,
but in fact, I felt like we were old friends. And so I started to look forward to it. I
didnâ€™t want him in my room, though. Shui Ling was the only one Iâ€™d let in. I
dragged me and my throbbing, overactive mind down to the front steps of the
building. The sound of passing scooters, big and small, grazed my ears.
Seemingly able to distinguish their individual sounds, I felt extraordinarily
sensitive. Focusing on my senses had forced my mind to stop thinking.
Suddenly, out of this tranquil state came an internal directive: I was free to look
him right in the eye and say whatever I wanted.
â€œSo youâ€™ve surrendered, eh? How long have you been sitting here waiting?â€
At exactly midnight, this dude Meng Sheng pulled up on a heavyweight
motorcycle with no muffler. The rumbling noise it made was downright
maddening. His bike had a white fairing and was fitted with a rear seat cowl that,
like the glint of a razorâ€™s edge, signaled danger. Coupled with sensitivity, that
ferociousness was echoed in his tone, which exhibited a manner that seemed all
â€œWhat do you really want?â€ I shot back at him. But it was obvious that I was
no match for him. In spite of the tenderness flowing between us, I had to
toughen up and push back.
â€œWhat do I want?â€ he asked himself, as if my question were so good he had to
mull it over. He took off his wraparound sunglasses, and a genuine smile flashed
across his face: â€œI want to die.â€
I hung out with him for a while. When we were together, my masculine and
feminine sides reached their highest state of dialectical tension. It was the same
for him, and he knew that it was his optimal state. His words had sparked
something in both of us.
â€œTake me somewhere,â€ I said. Though his words were hard, I softened. His
expression instantly changed, and he didnâ€™t say another word. Once he ditched
that tough exterior, his face was like a blank sheet of paper. For the first time
since weâ€™d met, I felt as if I could let my guard down. His motorcycle shot down
the overpass of Keelung Road. The streetlamps along the highway formed arcs
of yellow light. I was singing but the sound was broken up by the wind.
â€œDo you know why I decided to talk to you, out of everyone?â€ He parked the
bike underneath Fuhe Bridge and led me up a weed-covered path to an open area
on a hill. There were no houses nearby. I looked up at the wild grass, which grew
so tall that it towered over our heads.
â€œI read the story that you submitted to the writing workshop. Youâ€™re the kind
of person whoâ€™d die with me. You practically have horns growing out of your
head. I recognized it in an instant.â€ A sly grin escaped from the corners of his
â€œYouâ€™re wrong. I donâ€™t want to die, or anything like that.â€ My high hopes
were crushed. â€œWhy would you need another person to die with you? Thatâ€™s
horrible.â€ I started to feel Iâ€™d overestimated him.
â€œItâ€™s not my choice. Iâ€™ve never gotten an ounce of sympathy from anyone. Iâ€™ve
always hated being alone, and I refuse to die alone. I donâ€™t want my life to end
â€œSounds juvenile to me. You still have to die alone, and itâ€™s the most alone
youâ€™ll ever be. I never think about these things, but even I know that much.
Where do you get these ideas from?â€
â€œI talk about my fantasies too openly.â€ His face betrayed his arrogance. â€œItâ€™s
like being in the clutches of death and refusing the last breath of air with my
eyes wide open and a sneer on my face. To have paid such a high price to live,
only to die! Donâ€™t tell me I donâ€™t have the right to say no thanks?â€
â€œI donâ€™t want to talk about this anymore. I donâ€™t agree with you. It doesnâ€™t
matter what you say.â€ I had all kinds of deep reservations that inhibited me from
continuing this conversation.
â€œYou and I are birds of a feather.â€ He shot me the same strange smile as he did
when we first met at Tamkang University. â€œThe thing is, youâ€™re more strongly
inclined toward realism than I am, so itâ€™s easier for you to escape yourself. I
completely envy you. Thatâ€™s a commendable strength.â€ He seemed on the verge
of kissing my feet, which struck me as funny.
â€œThanks a lot,â€ I said, unable to restrain the loud guffaw that slipped out. My
laugh set him off, and his laugh was even more outrageous. We were both
cracking up so hard our stomachs hurt. I began slapping him on the cheek,
harder and harder, and he started stroking my hair, faster and faster. In a burst of
silliness, we released the tension that had built up from all the heaviness and
arrived at an understanding.
â€œTell me about yourself.â€ I was curious about him.
â€œPerfect, flawless human being. My family has loads of money. Iâ€™m also so
smart that itâ€™s easy for me to be the best at everything I do. Iâ€™m so bored that I
wish I were dead. Whatever I want to do, I can do, and no oneâ€™s going to stop
me. When I was twelve and still in grade school, I pulled the pants off the girl
next door and practiced putting my pee-pee inside of her body. Later on, I started
feeling like there was a special kind of boredom awaiting me. When I was
fourteen, I joined a gang. I left home for two whole years. I hunted to kill and
was hunted myself. Those were exciting times. But I realized Iâ€™d meet a
gruesome, senseless death before Iâ€™d even figured out what the hell was going
â€œI went home because I experienced a huge shock. One day I was in a hotel
room getting liquored up with this underage prostitute, and I spotted a big black
birthmark on the inside of her thigh. It was the same girl from when I was
twelve. I cried out her name just as I was about to enter her, and suddenly I
broke down sobbing. Pain was shooting through my heart and lungs. She started
to cry too and ran out of the room naked. Iâ€™d done a bad thing, and I was being
punished. I felt like I had it coming. And thatâ€™s when I went home. I forced
myself to live a normal life. Iâ€™d lost whatever right I had to object, so the best
punishment for me was to have my hands bound and tied, to let myself be
arrested by boredom.
â€œLater on, my story became one of a man in search of his destiny with a
certain goddess. By the time I was a junior, Iâ€™d already skipped two grades to
make up for the two years I spent on the streets. My life story is way too long.
Iâ€™m tired. Weâ€™ll talk more next time, okay?â€
His final words sounded weak, though I sensed an inkling of goodwill within
that weakness. I gave him my most gracious and sincere nod, and thanked him
for everything heâ€™d shared with me. It was a moving experience, one that I
certainly wanted to repay in kind. The stream of headlights on Fuhe Bridge
illuminated its arches to form what from a distance looked like a golden
â€œWhere did the fingertip come from?â€ I asked, my eyes widening.
â€œI told one of my old gang brothers to get it for me.â€ He seemed slightly
THE MOMENT I said to Shui Ling Can we start over?, the flood-gates of desire
were thrown open.
We didnâ€™t see each other the entire winter break. It was a buffer between us,
and the suspense built upâ€”as if for an even bigger clash. â€œIf I come out of
hiding and treat you however I want, youâ€™ll wish you could hide from me, but
you wonâ€™t be able toâ€”Iâ€™ll be cast deep down into the inferno,â€ I wrote to her.
â€œEven if you were in the inferno, Iâ€™d follow you down just to see you. Iâ€™m
capable of things you canâ€™t imagine.â€ That was her response. Nice. She wasnâ€™t
one to downplay her abilities. That last bit about being â€œcapable of thingsâ€
hinted at a strong feminine will.
â€œThe other day. . . Saturday, I think . . .yeah . . . I was in Hsinchu visiting Zi
Ming. I took the Zhongxing Line there by myself. . . .â€ The way she spoke, it
was as if she were teasing out a delicate thread. I didnâ€™t dare interrupt her. It was
the first time weâ€™d run into each other that semester. The two of us stood under
the portico of the Literature Department building. It felt like our past had been a
lifetime ago. Zi Ming was her best friend from high school.
â€œI went to watch her basketball game . . .yeah, it was fun. I hadnâ€™t had that
much fun in ages.â€ She turned and looked at me. I was listening, mesmerized.
â€œShe took me out for some good food. That night, when we went to bed, we
stayed up talking with the lights out.â€ She leaned back against a pillar, staring
excitedly off into the distance. â€œThe next day, she even helped me wash my hair .
. . and dry it. . . .â€ As she recounted the details, the enraptured look on her face
revealed how much she cherished every second. â€œYeah, part of me really didnâ€™t
want to come back.â€ I asked her why, and she sighed. â€œI told myself to have as
much fun as I could . . . because as soon as I came back and school started,
things would stop being so laid-back.â€ With a change of topic, a dimpled smile
spread across her face.
We wheeled our bikes to Drunken Moon Lake. I said, â€œI used to imagine what
youâ€™d look like when you get older.â€ She asked what I had imagined. I said,
more melancholy, and later on, tall and slender. Someday, youâ€™ll grow into a tall
and slender woman. Sitting there on that bench by the lake, she started to
ramble, telling me her entire life story.
â€œAll of a sudden, everyoneâ€™s gone. I go to school alone, walk alone, ride the
bus alone, eat alone, go home alone. . . . Itâ€™s not like before, when there was
always someone whoâ€™d let me copy their homework, or in Home Ec when
someone would help me knit a sweater, and Iâ€™d just stand to the side during
cooking lessons. Or in gym class, when someone would walk with me after
doing sprints. Not to mention Zi Ming taking me to the bus stop every day and
covering for me in everything. Even helping me tie my shoes, things like that.
During freshman year, sometimes Iâ€™d feel this tightness in my chest, and Iâ€™d go
to the pay phone by the Literature Department and call Zi Ming in Hsinchu, but I
could never get through on the dorm phone because no one would answer. . . .
Then I felt even worse, and Iâ€™d start crying. . . .â€ Her eyes, now red, began to
well over. She lay her head down on her purple backpack.
Afternoon. The sun came out, but then rain began to pitter-patter. Little by
little, it started raining with ever greater intensity and soon the sky was covered
by dark clouds. I tried to shield her with my umbrella, but she pushed it away,
saying she wanted to get drenched. I closed it, and the two of us sat on the white
enamel bench, getting drenched. The droplets were like a flurry of arrows, foiled
by the lakeâ€™s surface. The cold wind hit us, wave upon wave. I looked at her long
hair, flattened by the rain. Beads of water were trickling down her neck and off
the tips of the locks that were so perfectly framing her exquisite face.
We wandered through the pouring rain, our vision blurred and our eyes
aching. The two of us walked down the center of a deserted road. With all
human commotion at a standstill, we heard the scattered sounds of nature, the
passing cry of a bird overhead. Soaked from head to toe, we found our way to
the lush greenery of Wenzhou Street. The trees that lined the street appeared to
have been reborn in shades of emerald. No need to be silent. Are you sinking
into some corner of your melancholy? In my heart, I called out to you.
Didnâ€™t eat dinner, either. Said it was a waste of time. It was her idea to hang
out at my place. When I got a towel and tried to help her dry her hair, she said
she wanted to do it herself. She curled up in a corner of the bed, her legs tucked
against her chest. She wanted to talk. Said she didnâ€™t want to depend on other
people anymore, she didnâ€™t think she needed to. She was already independent.
She was taking care of things on her own. The corners of her mouth tightened
defiantly. I could see that this was the crux of the phase she was going through.
After all, in the past she had never gone to the movies by herself, never had a
chance to go for a walk by herself, this rare rose of a girl. She said I didnâ€™t have
to help her with anything and to let her do it herself unless I was always going to
be there. She was slower than other people in finding her own way, but I had to
respect her willingness to face adversity.
It was almost ten. What should I do, itâ€™s almost ten, she asked, flustered. Donâ€™t
worry about it, just go home, I said soothingly. What should I do, I have to go
home, she repeated, as if she hadnâ€™t heard me. It was like watching a drowning
man gasping for air. Her sudden panic startled me. What should I do, what
should I do. She sat down at my desk and looked at me with helpless eyes. If you
donâ€™t want to go, donâ€™t go. I wanted to make her calm down. I canâ€™t, I have to go
home, she said, crumpling onto the desk. I was at a loss. So donâ€™t go. I canâ€™t. I
canâ€™t. . . . She started crying softly. Impulsively, I walked over and wrapped my
arms tightly around her head. She grew quiet, letting in the warmth. The panic in
her heart was no match for it.
IF WEâ€™D been playing it cool like a pair of thieves, it was because our grand heist
was drawing near. I anticipated, I schemed, I fretted. I had to be prepared for a
She was used to relying on other people. I had a habit of protecting girls. If
she was in class at a set time for a set time, I was there to soak it up. In class, I
was a show-off. But as soon as class ended, I was out of there. Her long hair
trailed over her shoulders. Her elegant clothing gave her the appearance of being
around twenty-four or twenty-five. That entire year I went for a kind of misfit
look, wearing out-of-fashion jeans that made me look barely fifteen or sixteen.
She moved like a pendulum between school and home. Iâ€™d sleep until the sun
disappeared below the western horizon, then cut loose from my cave like a
charged particle and hit the town. I was a social butterfly. Hindered by shyness,
she had refused to socialize. Cunningly, I changed all of that.
Two very different types of people, mutual attraction. And for what reason?
Itâ€™s hard to believe, this something that exists beyond the imagination of the
chess game known as the human condition. Itâ€™s based on the gender binary,
which stems from the duality of yin and yang, or some unspeakable evil. But
humanity says itâ€™s a biological construct: penis vs. vagina, chest hair vs. breasts,
beard vs. long hair. Penis + chest hair + beard = masculine; vagina + breasts +
long hair = feminine. Male plugs into female like key into lock, and as a product
of that coupling, babies get punched out. This product is the only object that can
fill a square on the chessboard. All that is neither masculine nor feminine
becomes sexless and is cast into the freezing-cold waters outside the line of
demarcation, into an even wider demarcated zone. Manâ€™s greatest suffering is
born of mistreatment by his fellow man.
She agreed to stay over at my place. I was like a little girl finally able to buy a
long-coveted doll. At ten in the evening, heading home from private tutoring on
Changchun Road, I took the number 74 bus down Fuxing South Road, picking
her up along the way. She waved as she stood at the bus stop, an overcoat draped
across her shoulders, her spotless white rucksack by her side. A woman ready to
elope, was she? She was a vine extending one slender, delicate branch toward
my window, hoping I was the sky, not knowing that on the other side, there was
no shade, and not much sunshine, either.
Like two sparkling gemstones, we were shakily carried to campus by the
number 74 bus. Then I gave her a ride on my bike. She quietly sat sideways on
the back. I started singing a song that was popular back in high school, pedaling
to the rhythm. It streamed out to the flowers and trees that lined Yelin Avenue,
growing more abundant the farther we rode. I couldnâ€™t see her face. I was dying
to see if it was that of the Moon Goddess herself. â€œWaiting for the Sun, Waiting
for Youâ€ and â€œThe Wild Lily Has Its Spring, Too,â€ those were the songs that
defined my high-school days. My favorite Sylvia Chang songsâ€”â€œThe One I
Love Best,â€ â€œFlower on the Sea,â€ â€œStanding on Top of the World,â€ or â€œShe Goes
Walking by the Seaâ€â€”capture the mood of each of her major eras. â€œLove Song
1980,â€ â€œLove Proverbs,â€ and â€œLittle Sisterâ€ were Lo Ta-Yuâ€™s biggest hits. To my
seventeen-year-old self, Sylvia Chang and Lo Ta-Yu were like a dab of
concealer, a soundtrack applied to cover up teenage heartbreak. After high
school, I forgot the names of the songs and the singers, but I still knew the words
by heartâ€”do you?
She said that night sheâ€™d wanted to wrap her arms around my waist but didnâ€™t
dare to, and really regretted it afterward. She told me after a few days had
passed. Out of all the various little moments Iâ€™d cataloged, that one easily
became the core of my memories of her.
â€œWhat are you writing?â€ she asked.
â€œA journal,â€ I said.
â€œWhat are you writing about in your journal?â€
â€œIâ€™m writing about you coming over.â€
â€œWhy? What did I inspire?â€
â€œWant me to read it out loud to you?â€
â€œ â€˜Tonightâ€™s the big night. A certain someone came over for a romp in the
â€œThatâ€™s enough. I donâ€™t want to hear the rest.â€
â€œUh-huh. Scared of you.â€
We were in the room on Wenzhou Street. I put away the journal. Helped her
lay the bedding down. Made her sleep on the bed. I lay down on the hardwood
floor next to her.
â€œIf we were locked up in a mental hospital together, would it be any better?â€
â€œWould we be locked up in the same room?â€
â€œI donâ€™t want to be in the same room.â€
â€œIâ€™m scared of you.â€
â€œWhat are you scared of?â€
â€œIâ€™m just scared.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s so great about being locked up together?â€
â€œWe could live next door to each other. Our beds would be separated by a
wall. Iâ€™d sit on my bed and talk to you. Youâ€™d sit on your bed, too, and we could
talk all day long. . . . Thatâ€™d be so much fun with no one else around.â€
â€œWhat if we ran out of things to talk about?â€
â€œHow can we run out of things to talk about? Iâ€™d pound on the wall and say I
was tired. Then Iâ€™d go to sleep. When you wake up, you automatically have
things to talk about again.â€
â€œFine. You go to sleep, and Iâ€™ll write in my journal and wait for you to wake
â€œYouâ€™re not allowed. You canâ€™t keep a journal anymore. I donâ€™t have anything.
Youâ€™re only allowed to talk to me.â€
She leaned partway over the edge of the bed to talk, her face peering at me. I
wrapped the covers tightly around myself. When you sleep next to me, I suffer, I
said. So come sleep here on the bed, she said. Thatâ€™d be even more painful, I
thought. Mischievously and teasingly, she lowered her body onto my covers. Her
hair brushed against my face, and her scent filled my lungs. I pulled her head in
close, wrapping my arms around her neck. My lips were pressed up against her
eyelid. She was so tender. It was an awkward embrace, like black rain pelting
snow-covered ground. . . .
A HEADLINE in the China Times read: TAIWAN DROPS CROCODILE PROTECTION
MEASURES; EXTINCTION LOOMS. Numerous readers sent in letters asking what
crocodiles were. Never before in their lives had they seen a crocodile.
â€œHey, is this the Earth edition?â€ asked one reader who called up the paper with
an animal encyclopedia in hand.
â€œMmm, thatâ€™s right,â€ said the editor, taking a bite of a tuna sandwich while
answering the call.
â€œWhat does a crocodile actually look like?â€
â€œAbout this crocodile business, pleaseâ€”no more questions about the article.â€
â€œHello. Is this the Society Page? Are you in charge of crocodile-related
â€œYes, it is. Trying on my Crocodile brand clothing right now. Each piece
comes with a hefty price tag. Is it official business?â€
â€œOperator, could you connect me to Crocodile Affairs? Which page is
handling that now?â€
â€œYouâ€™re not the first to ask. Youâ€™re the one hundred ninety-ninth person to call
today with the exact same question. This newspaper has authorized a supplement
as an official response, since you people have nothing better to worry about
â€œSupplement Group. Are you also calling to ask where to go to see a
â€œNo, I still donâ€™t even know what a crocodile is.â€
â€œIâ€™m sick of you people who intentionally do not ask the exact same question.
You make it impossible for me to provide a recorded answer. I have to sit here
and have my twentieth serving of crocodile sandwich.â€
â€œHow am I supposed to know what the exact same question is?â€
â€œWhy donâ€™t you just start with, â€˜Can you tell me what the exact same question
â€œThat makes sense. So what are you going to say on the recording?â€
â€œItâ€™s very simple. Iâ€™ll just record myself saying one hundred ninety-nine times,
â€˜The exact same question is where can I go see a crocodile? Beep. United Daily
News Supplement Groupâ€™s phone number is 7-6-8-3-8-3-8. Beep.â€™ The end.â€
â€œHello, is this the United Daily News Supplement Group?â€
â€œBeep. Due to the overwhelming volume of calls to the Supplement Group, all
of our staff members are currently suffering from laryngitis. We offer you the
following recorded message instead. Beep. A crocodile is a human with reptile
characteristics, not a reptile with human characteristics. Beep.â€
Another article pointed out: â€œIf crocodiles do vanish, there will be no need to
protect them.â€ That might have been in the United Daily News.
IN THE scenario Iâ€™m about to describe, which emerged amid all the drama, I was
consumed by guilt and fear like never before. I felt like my skin was being
grated like a radishâ€”scraped raw, into a pulp. I knew I was capable of the
monstrous sin of lusting after a womanâ€™s body. That was before she came along,
back when it had been limited to a creeping feeling that I should carry my shoes
and tiptoe down the street so no one would notice. But then, as I turned a corner,
people started running past me, picking up stones and hurling them at a glass
house. I knew I had to get out of there before someone with a stone called out
my name and ordered me to freeze.
Iâ€™d swung around only partway. My shoes werenâ€™t even firmly planted on the
ground when I was cordoned off by Shui Ling. A stone hit my heart. Then
another one or two or three broke through. Their numbers kept growing until it
seemed like only a matter of time before every last rock on earth had hailed
down on me from the top of Mount Everest.
I donâ€™t know when it started, but I naturally began having what youâ€™d call a
sexual fantasy. It started back in junior high, after I saw Valley of the Dolls. My
fantasy didnâ€™t follow the original plot, which was replaced instead with one
about Shui Ling. Sexual fantasies about her invaded my thoughts, and I sensed
that, in due course, I would enter the narrative.
To this day, Iâ€™ve never understood my fear. Where does it come from? Iâ€™d
been keeping my deviant sexual desires in check for most of my adolescent and
college years. I reassured myself that Iâ€™d done nothing wrong. It felt like the fear
was coming from inside of me. I never did anything to attract it, nor did I choose
to be this way. I had no hand whatsoever in shaping the self that was crawling
with fear. Yet I grew into exactly that: a carnal being stirring the cement of fear
with every step toward adulthood. Since I feared my sexual desires and who I
fundamentally was, fear stirred up even deeper fears. My life was reduced to that
of some hideous beast. I felt as if I had to hide in a cave, lest anyone discover my
Ever since I asked Shui Ling Can we start over?, Iâ€™d become a refugee on the
ocean, and in due time, I was drinking seawater. So I decided to confront my
desires head on. I would renounce my resistance and hasten toward destruction. I
would indulge in reckless behavior until Iâ€™d completely exhausted all my past
My days were increasingly flooded with sexual fantasies about herâ€”as I was
riding my bike, walking, talking to other people. At night, I spent more and more
time masturbating. When I held her body for the first time, it was as if Iâ€™d
severed the very tendon of my fear, and it hurt so bad that I gnashed my teeth.
One form of pain had been brought to an end by another even more violent pain.
Like the big bad wolf, I harbored a ferocious desire to devour her body. And that
became my new vision.
Iâ€™D AGREED to meet her after the class on The Book of Songs, but in the end, I
didnâ€™t go. I locked myself in my room instead. She came to Wenzhou Street and
rang the buzzer, but I didnâ€™t answer. I wanted to be alone, to detach from that
part of me that was her and leave it outside, and to go live my own life locked
away in my room. At nightfall, I went downstairs and opened the door. There
she sat, on her bicycle, staring at me with heartbroken eyes. How did you know I
was home, I asked. Your bike was here, she replied. Her eyes were reddening.
Are you running away again, she asked me, choking back a sob. I said nothing.
Sheâ€™d hit the nail on the head. Instantly, to subdue her, I acted gruff. Donâ€™t get
carried away, I said. I overslept, thatâ€™s all. She said when she didnâ€™t see me
during The Book of Songs, she knew Iâ€™d run away again. Sheâ€™d cried the whole
â€œWhy are you running away again?â€ she asked me. Iâ€™d called her up late the
night before to reassure her Iâ€™d be there.
â€œIâ€™m supposed to trust your intuition here?â€ I dodged the question with a
â€œYes.â€ Her reply was stern and resentful.
â€œFine. Youâ€™re right. Your intuition is so scary. Since weâ€™ve been together, Iâ€™ve
been divided in two. One part wishes I could extricate myself from this. The
other part wants to help you make me stay. Iâ€™m being torn apart.â€
â€œWhen did this start? Does it hurt?â€ Though her words sounded affectionate
on the surface, she was only making accusations again.
â€œI knew it would be like this from the start, but I never said anything, okay?
Iâ€™ve known from the very beginning that we were going to break up eventually.
Thereâ€™s no such thing as eternal love,â€ I said hatefully.
â€œIf thatâ€™s what being with me is like for you, then we should just forget about
it.â€ She went for the jugular.
â€œUgh. You donâ€™t have to be such a drag, you know. Fine. Iâ€™m done.â€ For the
first time, I was up front about secretly wanting to get away from her. Deeply
hurt, she pushed me closer to the edge, grazing my heart. I squeezed my eyes
shut and leapt.
The following day. Like a morning lily blooming in a valley devoid of all
traces of human life, I locked myself alone in my stinking room, as if enjoying
the post-excision, prebleeding sense of liberation after having had a tumor
removed. At ten, the time I normally got home after tutoring, she called. Said she
was near the number 74 bus stop. Five or six buses had passed, but she didnâ€™t see
me. I remained silent. It was as if the weight of a gigantic mountain would crush
my skull the instant I opened my mouth. I hadnâ€™t said a peep when that mountain
had already pinned her to the ground and shoved her body deep down into the
earthâ€™s crust instead. I want to see you, she begged silently. Fine. I opened my
She sat in her old spot on the edge of the bed. I asked her how long sheâ€™d
waited for the number 74 bus. She closed her eyes. Tears fell from her eyelashes.
Every last fiber in my body felt as if it were being twisted and wrung. Iâ€™d
wrenched our relationship to the breaking point and watched it split apart. I
know I made you suffer. Iâ€™ll never cut you off again. I spit out the words that
were caught in my throat. She let out a laugh, and then, as if sheâ€™d finally been
torn open, a cry of pain. To paint a picture of our embrace, Iâ€™d almost have to use
her blood and guts.
TWO CROCODILES wearing shiny, black, long-haired mink coats walked into a
shop, outside of which hung a small hand-lettered pine placard that read LACOSTE
(THE CROCODILE LABEL) IMPORTED CLOTHING AND ACCESSORIES. They began
stroking a dark blond mink coat in the shop. They couldnâ€™t bear to let go of it, as
if they (since their genders remain unknown, crocodiles all take the same form of
address for the purpose of efficient communication) were the only ones whom
the coat flattered. But the crocodiles werenâ€™t eager to expose themselves. They
didnâ€™t have the audacity to walk up to the counter to ask the shopkeeper to show
them a coat, for then theyâ€™d have to remove their own coats, baring it all for
everyone to see. If such a thing were to occur indeed, what would the
â€œOh, youâ€™re a crocodile.â€ This shopkeeper has seen crocodiles before.
â€œRobbery, eh? Well, I already paid for security.â€ This shopkeeper only wants
to make a buck.
â€œYouâ€™re too small. It wonâ€™t work.â€ This shopkeeper is an expert, someone
with ideas and advice.
No one really knows what there is to see when crocodiles throw open their
coats. No crocodiles had ever entered the Lacoste store and actually tossed off
their coats. These two were simply stroking a mink coat, nothing more. Did they
do it because they liked the coat? Or were they stroking it over and over for
Who really knew? The average person wouldnâ€™t be able to spot a crocodile.
Junior and senior high-school students were a dependable audience for crocodile
news. After finishing cram school, they would watch the TTV World News
broadcast as they ate dinner. College students were the most indifferent age
group, having drifted away from newspapers and news programs so as not to be
associated with crocodiles. But according to public opinion polls, this
demographic had become the most infiltrated by them.
Those forty and up reacted to the storm of controversy surrounding crocodiles
like archaeologists to the discovery of a precursor to the Neanderthal man.
White-collar office workers claimed they only paid attention to legislative battles
and stock prices. Blue-collar workers swore off any of that garbage that wasnâ€™t a
TV show or a movie, but secretly, they stood at the newsstands perusing
magazines like Scoop Weekly and Inside, while white-collar workers simply
bought the magazines and took them home. Thus this demographic had
opportunities to supplement their archaeological research.
The crocodiles thought: What was everyone after, anyhow? If that many
people secretly liked them, thatâ€™d be totally embarrassing.
HAVE YOU seen Chronicle of a Death Foretold? I asked her. Itâ€™s a film. At the
time, there wasnâ€™t much sweetness between her and me. On top of that, she
wasnâ€™t exactly your basic pretty girl. Itâ€™d take a lifetime to dispel the lingering
specter of my wrongdoings. She nodded and said she had. Whatâ€™d you think? I
asked. Well, she said, it just so happens that I canâ€™t bring myself to recount this
one part that makes me so mad just thinking about it that I want to punch
something. She shook her head, saying she didnâ€™t want to talk about it. That
meant her emotions were so precious that she didnâ€™t want to ruin something by
trying to articulate her feelings about it. Because I had moved on with my life,
she offered me only the dregs of reconciliation, a cup of black coffee with no
sugar, just cream on the side. Iâ€™d taken a sip of each, and I have to say, I
preferred the coffee. The cream agreed with me about as much as she did.
I asked her to think about how to put it into words and tell me what she
thought the next day. The male protagonist searches everywhere for the woman
of his dreams. After â€œselectingâ€ the female protagonist with only a glance, he
racks his brain thinking of ways to lavish his riches on her before eventually
taking her as his bride. But on their wedding night, he discovers that his bride
isnâ€™t a virgin. That evening, the half-undressed, sobbing bride is â€œsent back.â€
And so the brideâ€™s family takes her in, and every day, she sends him a letter. In
the final scene, the male protagonist, carrying an enormous sack of letters, enters
the courtyard, where the female lead awaits him. â€œThe journey is littered with
letters. . . .â€ She wanted me to tell her the story from the very beginning, so that
she could enjoy the ride all over again.
This is a metaphor. I can drone on and on about my own love story, which
takes place in the short distance between Wenzhou Street and campus. Or I can
throw in a few samples Ã la hip-hop or reggae. These readymades serve as
interludes to keep you from getting sick of the monotonous commute back and
forth between these same two locations, again and again.
Shui Ling didnâ€™t know it, but when I saw Chronicle of a Death Foretold and
discovered that the bride wasnâ€™t a virgin, I followed in the groomâ€™s footsteps.
The next day, I slept for twenty hours straight, then got up and wrote her a
hateful breakup letter. It was around six in the evening. I wrote facing the
window, clouds racing across the open sky like a bay horse in full gallop. I was
halfway done when the door buzzer rang. I opened the red metal door. Shui Ling
was slumped right next to it. She just sat there, withered. I dragged her over to
the stairs and sat beside her, though there wasnâ€™t really room for two. She
insisted she didnâ€™t want to come in. I shut the door behind us. At the rehearsal
for the Chinese Lit Departmentâ€™s public reading, sheâ€™d made a complete fool of
herself and gotten scolded. For someone like her who avoided attention like the
plague, it was a major humiliation. She wasnâ€™t handling it so well. Didnâ€™t utter a
word about her feelings, even though I would have given my life to kiss those
downcast eyes and lick away those tears.
I canâ€™t recall what I said, but I eventually got her to smile. I just so happen to
have the gifts of a clown. I knew there was no way I could protect her from the
real world or from being yanked around by the tail. That said, Iâ€™d still step in and
save her regardless. I was such a shitty human being, why not take advantage of
her state of disgrace and kick her while she was down? No matter what kind of
trouble she was in, Iâ€™d run over in an instant to toss a rope down and pull her
back to safety. Now that Iâ€™d shown myself to be blindly at her beck and call, she
was beaming again. But my malice had already reignited. I could have put an
end to my ways that night, instead of treating her like I did. The serial killer in
me should have surrendered.
I walked her to the number 74 bus stop, cracking jokes the whole way. I
squinted, and the moment I caught sight of the number 74 bus in the distance, I
said nonchalantly: I was just in the middle of writing you the letter in which I
dump you, and in a little while, Iâ€™m going to go back and finish it, so I can run
over to your place in the middle of the night and drop it in your mailbox. A few
seconds passed, then she recovered. That wonâ€™t be necessary, she said. And she
boarded the bus as if nothing had happened. Later she said that she was ready to
turn around and storm off right then and there. As for her cool, collected display
of superhuman willpower, it was fueled by a desire for revenge.
It was already a day too late for her to tell me about Chronicle of a Death
FIRST thing in the morning, I put the letter in her mailbox. As if a burden had
been liftedâ€”and then dumped into the oceanâ€”my body felt lighter. The letter
said that our relationship was over. It was quickly returned unopened, along with
a messily scrawled letter that clearly displayed her bitter contempt, as it had
obviously been written in a shaky hand. These were the events of April 1988.
For about a month, I explored a new dimension of guilt, in which I was swiftly
liberated from her influence, and I passed my days alone, silently and
Two days before my birthday in May, I discovered a huge rose in the basket of
my Giant. No one was there. At eight that evening, Shui Ling was back again,
sitting on her bike downstairs. I said, Today just happens to be moving day for
me. She asked where I was moving to. I remained silent, saying nothing. In that
incriminating tone of hers, she said I should be allowed to see you in the future.
Because in the past, you told me that after we broke up, if could I take it for a
month, then Iâ€™d be able to deal with it. But Iâ€™ve already taken it for a month, and
Iâ€™m suffering all the same. Like a cheerful little blade of grass tossed about in the
wind and rain, she had explained the entire basis of our relationship. She asked if
she could help me move. I shook my head coldheartedly.
Sheâ€™d exhausted all her tricks and was slow to abandon her manipulative
ways. It was almost midnight when she tried to lure me back to her place. In the
darkness, I broke down into two selves: the real me, who was ready to sink my
teeth greedily into her, and another me who was plotting cunningly how and
when to make my escape. As if I could read her mind, I knew from her stickysweet demeanor, with its implication that she wanted to fully â€œgive herselfâ€ to
me, that sheâ€™d gained a bit of new wisdom about me during that month. Never
before had she used this kind of language. Its veneer was part of a veiled surprise
attack on me, one which she herself didnâ€™t fully comprehend. Her newfound
maturity allowed her to see my final ploy as a mere impasse. But to me, her
words had struck a fatal blow, not unlike shoving a red-hot piece of wire up a
monkeyâ€™s ass. It was as if she had ever so lightly brushed up against the edge of
a tooth of mine that had been aching unbearably. (What had once been a vague
yet screamingly sexual taboo was now my downfall.) In the end, I saw myself
with perfect clarity: I had been split in two by some otherworldly force. I was an
elusive, two-headed hydra, each head with its own mind. I heard the roar of the
beast within me. The question was, which of the two heads was it coming from?
Having come face to face with the real culprit behind my fear, I had a chance
to settle the score once and for all. At five in the morningâ€”as this woman was
on her knees, clinging to my legs, begging me not to leave herâ€”I shook myself
free. It was not unlike casually bundling up a severed limb. Then, with my tail
between my legs, I fled.
FLED AND forgotâ€”thatâ€™s how the story ends. I left Wenzhou Street at the end of
May 1988. That was my own Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The drama that was
my freshman year had concluded its final act.
So what can I say? Was I angry? Regretful? Filled with self-loathing? I had to
get over my feelings and move on already. It was like drowning in a vat of black
tar, the victim of a slow death by suffocation. Best not to let out so much as a
fart, since youâ€™re not only trapped with your own stink but the tar might
I donâ€™t know how other people endure the violence and cruelty they encounter
throughout their lives. Thereâ€™s no way to judge whether fate is playing favorites
when it doles out physical disability, murder, and rape, or youâ€™re hauled off to
the concentration camp. All I know is that I was forced into a corner, and so I
violated myself in order to ward off the threat of being violated. I had to sacrifice
the real, living, breathing her. To me, she represented beauty in its highest form.
And I went and treated her like a piece of meat. It was a mess of my own
making, the product of my own savagery and barbarism. But what else was I
supposed to do?
No matter what, Shui Ling, Iâ€™ll always feel your absence. From now on, for
the rest of my life, I have to change my ways and pay the price for the crimes I
committed as an eighteen-year-old. As long as Iâ€™m alive and able, I wonâ€™t stop
talking about humanity and all of its fears.
ONE NIGHT, the crocodile had a dream. It dreamed that it took a trip with a group
of humans. Maybe it was after secretly sending off a payment to a matchmaking
agency that organized coed mixers, or after joining the Jinsha Bay Lifeguard
Association, which allowed the crocodile to spend its Sundays saving lives while
at the same time searching for that someone special. The crocodile packed up
chocolate, shrimp chips, dried fruit, chewing gum, playing cards, a skate-board,
a Walkman, a point-and-shoot camera, its red lifeguard uniform, and a giant box
of saltines. The next day, toting a humongous bag, it went to the bus stop, where
it joined a group of young men and women, all of them dressed to the nines. The
sight alone made the crocodile euphoric. A grin formed on its snout, which was
hidden beneath a human suit, and out came a gurgle (or a snort, a gasp, or a
giggleâ€”it was not discernible which). Itâ€™d been a long time since the crocodile
was this close to humans.
The tour bus let them off on top of a mountain. Everyone pressured the
crocodile into buying a pudding pop (why the crocodile, and why a pudding pop,
was unclear). When the crocodile returned with the pudding pop, the main
attraction was now an array of ferocious creaturesâ€”lions, tigers, panthersâ€”at
the summit. A few had gotten into the crocodileâ€™s bag and were feeding on the
chocolate, shrimp chips, and saltines. Meanwhile, a little black panther tugged
the red lifeguard uniform out of the bag and scurried off with it. A lion, a tiger,
and a different panther, each roughly the size of a truck, stood blocking the
crocodileâ€™s path. Crouched together in a line, they watched the crocodile muster
its courage, every last hair on its body bristling. The crocodile suppressed the
tiny, selfsame ferocious creature within itself, and the one within that one, and
the one within the one within that one . . . and so on. The crocodile called it the
lion, tiger, panther propagation dream. But whoâ€™s to say it was only a dream?
FROM THAT point on, life became much simpler. I lived at a relativeâ€™s on Heping
East Road with two cousins, both boys who were around my age. The three of us
were locked in a competition to see who could stay out the latest and get up the
latest, leaving no time for small talk. One evening in early July 1988â€”the
summer after my freshman yearâ€”I was brought to a bustling teahouse by a
senior member of the Debate Society to attend a planning meeting for a new
student organization. The club charter theyâ€™d drafted contained thirty signatures,
but after waiting almost two hours, only three people had shown up, with me, an
observer, being the fourth. In the end, maybe because the charter was pitiful, or
maybe because I was a willing victim, the observer suddenly found herself
nodding, agreeing to serve as club president.
During the day, Iâ€™d run around attending to organizational duties. At night, Iâ€™d
go to McDonaldâ€™s, where Iâ€™d buy a small soda and sit and read until closing time
at eleven. Rode my bike home. Made about a dozen phone calls to people on the
clubâ€™s contact list. I avoided going home for fear of vaporizing in isolation.
During my stint on Heping East Road, I felt like a drop of water in the desert
whenever I was alone in my room for long periods of time. I toiled away writing
in my journal and breathing, if not much else. The rest of the time, I sought
comfort in sleep. My indulgence in sleep was like filling an empty cup until it
overflowed. The cup was then exchanged for a glass, which I filled with alcohol.
I needed the sleep psychologically, not physically, so I drank beer to force
myself back into a broken slumber.
I have vivid memories of reading PÃ¤r Lagerkvistâ€™s The Dwarf, Ma Senâ€™s Life
Inside a Jar, books like that. I also recall reading â€œToward a Solitary Fate,â€ a
story by a young Mu Shou San published in a magazine, and then thinking about
those three works together. I was living then in a sumptuous double room in a
twelve-story luxury high-rise. The room had enormous gold-framed windows,
cream-colored curtains, and an executive desk with a dark wood finish. My daily
necessities were laid out before me like cast bronzes. Here I was, an
impoverished student living in an upscale apartment complex in Taipei and
feeling like something straight out of Lagerkvist: a hideously deformed dwarf
stuffed into a jar, pressed up against the layer of glass cutting off my senses,
blinking (to borrow again from Mu Shou Sanâ€™s imagination) as I clutched my
copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude in one hand and Lust for Life in the
other. When a fire is lit beneath the jar, the dwarfâ€™s body contorts violently as the
flames heat the glass. . . .
Thatâ€™s how I ended up throwing myself into extracurricular activities. Besides,
the club kept things colorful in the backdrop. As van Goghâ€™s The Potato Eaters
illustrates so well, itâ€™s all about having your fill and then some, feasting until the
last drumstick has been devoured, then wiping the grease off your lips.
â€œCAN YOU tell me when your new inductions are?â€ That was Zhi Rouâ€™s voice.
â€œYeah. The moment I saw you, I couldnâ€™t wait to join this club.â€ That was the
instant Tun Tun walked into my life. Tun Tun and Zhi Rou looked lovely in their
matching skirts, like sisters.
â€œHave you seen our flyer?â€ Soliciting like a street peddler, I sat on top of a
long table with the clubâ€™s name taped to it, facing the athletic fields. Tables
encircled the entire plaza. It was orientation time, and every club was vying for
new members, capitalizing on their veteransâ€™ talent for presenting a semblance of
respectability to hoodwink incoming students into joining, and ideally, forking
over the membership fees.
â€œOh, I read it just now, when I was standing over there.â€ There was a hypnotic
cadence to Zhi Rouâ€™s voice.
â€œGreat. Then let me tell you a little about our organization and its activities.
â€œWe already heard it. We were standing next to you, listening to the
conversation you just had with that last person. Youâ€™re not going to go through
the same exact spiel all over again, are you?â€ Tun Tun smiled cheerfully.
â€œHuh? How do you know Iâ€™d say the same thing again?â€ I refused to back
â€œFine, go ahead. Letâ€™s see if itâ€™s the same thing.â€ Tun Tun smiled even more
brightly, as if to disagree.
â€œHowâ€™s this? Weâ€™re an empty shell of an organization. Our club president
doesnâ€™t actually liaise with more than six people. Whatever you do, donâ€™t join!
The club president hasnâ€™t even paid the membership dues. Itâ€™s been a semester
since we officially founded the club, but in actual practice, we havenâ€™t even been
in operation a month. The club president is super ugly. And moody and strange,
too. Iâ€™ve known her a long time, and I think sheâ€™s some kind of freak,â€ I said.
â€œHave you heard this already?â€
â€œYouâ€™re bad-mouthing your own organization,â€ Tun Tun replied, holding back
a smirk. â€œDonâ€™t you care if the club president finds out?â€
â€œI am the club president.â€ I kept a straight face.
â€œOh my god!â€ Tun Tun and Zhi Rou cried out in unison.
Zhi Rou smiled shyly, as if this exchange between me and Tun Tun had left
her speechless. â€œAre you some kind of freak?â€ she finally ventured to ask.
â€œYeah, that seems about right, but what kind exactly?â€ Tun Tun said.
â€œThatâ€™s, of course, something youâ€™ll find out soon enough after you become a
member. As you can see, at my best Iâ€™m a freak with wit and substance,â€ I
â€œRight, the verbal talent of a smart-ass and the charm of a brown-noser, along
with a severe case of nearsightedness!â€ Zhi Rou broke out of her shyness and
joined the repartee.
â€œWell then, letâ€™s get down to business. Have you two ever considered joining a
cultural organization with someone like me as the president?â€ I was beginning to
like these two freshmen.
â€œNever thought about it. . . . Nope. Someone in a leadership role going rogue,
kicking their feet up on the table like a boss when they talk to other people, even
standing on top of the table, with a set of pipes that can drown out a vegetable
hawker?â€ Zhi Rou said, her own voice growing louder. She took my chin in the
palm of her hand. â€œYouâ€™ve got the baby face of someone in junior high. And
upon closer inspection you are, uh-huh, incredibly feminine.â€ Zhi Rou nudged
Tun Tunâ€™s elbow teasingly. â€œOkay, so what were you saying?â€
â€œBut think about what this baby face here just said about a college studentâ€™s
lifestyle, what it means to become educated, etc. Sounds like a senior with a few
tricks up her sleeve. Pretty impressive. Not only that, but she can take on the two
of us complex characters here single-handedly and still keep the bullshit going.
She seems qualified enough to be club president.â€ The way that Tun Tun
followed Zhi Rou suggested that this little routine of theirs was rehearsed.
Unless it was actually spontaneous, and the pieces had just fallen perfectly into
Completely captivated by these two girls, I put aside any pretense of niceties.
There was something about them, a kind of enviable pedigree. It was a quality I
knew all too well. During the three years I had spent at what was known as the
most prestigious all-girls high school in Taipei, I had learned to recognize traces
of a certain kind of breeding, whether on the athletic fields or in the corner of a
hallway, traces that I associated with social class.
â€œIâ€™m a sophomore. Looking at your info, one of you is studying international
business and the other zoology, and you both went to the same high school. Are
you two best friends? We share an alma mater,â€ I said warmly.
â€œOh! How wonderful. Our big sis-ter.â€ Tun Tun drew out the last syllable
mischievously, as if she were teasing me. If I had said those words myself, it
wouldnâ€™t have sounded the same. But the way she gave it an added stress, it was
like she was addressing the woman next to me. I realized these two were coaxing
me out of my shell. That guardedness was a by-product of my lifelong
socialization, of other people labeling me and putting me in a box. Tun Tun
revealed that itâ€™d taken them only a glance to figure me out.
â€œWhoâ€™s studying zoology? Maybe you were assigned to the same track I was.â€
â€œMake her guess.â€ Zhi Rou tugged Tun Tunâ€™s hand, interrupting her.
â€œI think sheâ€™s the more outgoing one, so sheâ€™s more likely to be studying
international business,â€ I remarked, pointing at Tun Tun.
â€œNope. Tun Tun got in through the honors recommendation system. She didnâ€™t
feel like taking the entrance exam, so she decided to enroll in Academia Sinicaâ€™s
gifted program, and from there, she went straight to the Zoology Department,â€
Zhi Rou explained, pleased that Iâ€™d guessed wrong.
â€œOh. . . . You werenâ€™t on the Providence or Ascension tracks, were you?â€ I
pointed at Tun Tun again.
â€œWait, you were in a gifted program, too?â€ Tun Tun asked me, astonished.
I nodded my head, embarrassed. It wasnâ€™t the sort of distinction that you wore
proudly. More than anything, it was a source of chagrin.
â€œWeâ€™re from Ascension. The gifted group for the sciences is in Ascension,â€
Zhi Rou said excitedly.
â€œWe? So you tested into international business, but studied humanities?â€ I
pointed at Zhi Rou.
â€œWeâ€™re from the same group, all right. Zhi Rou switched to the humanities in
her junior year. Didnâ€™t care what anyone thought. What other people took three
years to do, she did in one. Out of the top six examinees in all of Taiwan, sheâ€™s
the most self-directed one.â€ Tun Tun jabbed her finger at Zhi Rouâ€™s face,
beaming with pride. A faint dimple appeared on Zhi Rouâ€™s face. Her dimpled
smile was so endearing that the two of us couldnâ€™t help feeling a little weak in
â€œSo we were destined to meet. I like you two. Do you want to have lunch
together?â€ I hopped off the table. My butt was sore from sitting. With a jerk of
my thumb, I signaled letâ€™s go, and the two of them squealed. Without a word, we
leaned forward and exchanged high fives.
The October sun shimmered softly. The candy-striped umbrellas over the
tables were starting to slouch, like cadets forced to stand at attention too long.
The veteran club members clustered underneath carried on, zealously delivering
their hollow speeches. The dispersal of the freshmen, whoâ€™d just been let out of a
tedious orientation, unleashed waves of identical greetings throughout the plaza.
The scene was that of a chemical reaction, like a powdered beverage being
added to water: The new students were the powdered clumps floating on topâ€”
pure and whole, and on the brink of integration. It was a portrait of youth.
It was almost noon. Despite the scores of new recruits, joining a club meant
little until membership dues were paid. Most new members would at best show
up at a few events or drop by after class to help out. Handing over the reins, I
asked my fellow club member to man our booth. I pulled my bike out from the
shade, wheeling it over the brightly colored flyers littering the ground.
Meanwhile two little devils were scurrying around me, hissing that I was going
to get in trouble, and egging me on all the while.
â€œHow is it that one of you went to all the trouble of switching to the
humanities and is still studying international business, while the other is so smart
that she can pass every stage of the Academia Sinica admissions process, yet she
rushes straight into a lab where sheâ€™ll be trapped all day?â€ From the get-go, I
took advantage of my seniority and dispensed with formalities. We went to a
Western-style buffet. I chose a window seat so that I could do some people
watching, helping myself to a serving of macaroni and cheese. They sat across
from me. Tun Tun was having the honey-roasted chicken legs and on Zhi Rouâ€™s
huge plate was a small steak.
â€œItâ€™s not like that. Animals are fun. I love Mother Nature. Thereâ€™s nothing
wrong with wanting to study living things,â€ said Tun Tun with a drumstick in her
â€œTun Tun made the choice herself. I was forced. The last month before exams,
I didnâ€™t go near a book. I ran off on my own to a seaside monastery in Hualien. I
didnâ€™t read a single word the entire month. I totally forgot about this whole
entrance-exam business. The day before the exam, I was called in to see the head
monk. I was told that my mother had come and wanted me to return for the
entrance exam. So I did. When I took it, I placed sixth in the nation. I have a
knack for guessing to thank for that. I never thought Iâ€™d have such luck. But after
earning this distinction, I couldnâ€™t bring myself to fill out my application forms. I
lay in bed all day until eight, when Iâ€™d get up to watch a TV show. Whenever I
left my room, my whole family would stare at me dumbly, pleading with and
pitying me at the same time. Everyone except my father, who didnâ€™t bat an eye.
The night before I submitted my application forms, I played forty songs on the
guitar. I also made ten paper cutouts of the word happiness and ten of the word
Buddha. Then I put only one school on the application form and submitted it the
following day, just like that. No one said a word about me studying international
business. In my family, thatâ€™d be like singing the national anthem right before a
movie. Why would you need to do that? I wasnâ€™t going to make them
disappointed in me. Thereâ€™s no way I could ever live without them.â€ Though a
look of distress passed over Zhi Rouâ€™s face, her eyes contained a fierce,
hardened determination, and her winsome smile remained.
Tun Tun eagerly seized on Zhi Rouâ€™s words. â€œAh, well said. â€˜Like singing the
national anthem right before a movie. Why would you need to do that?â€™ â€
â€œThat isnâ€™t being forced to do something. Itâ€™s your own choice not to make
other people disappointed in you,â€ I said.
â€œSo youâ€™re saying that even though I donâ€™t really want to study this subject,
itâ€™s still a choice based on my own free will, since my goal is to not disappoint
anyone?â€ Zhi Rouâ€™s reply robbed me of any chance to explain further. Her
sharpness bordered on cunning. In fact, it revealed a defensiveness that made me
back off a little. Even so, I had to admire her flash of wit.
â€œWhat would happen if you did disappoint them?â€ I asked.
â€œGood question.â€ Tun Tun wiped the corners of her mouth, chiming in. I
asked if it was important to her, too.
â€œYouâ€™d be able to live with yourself if your family was disappointed in you?â€
She shot back, skillfully dodging the question.
â€œEver since I started to wise up, my familyâ€™s been perpetually disappointed in
me. Though it hurt them, I shattered their image of me little by little. If I didnâ€™t,
Iâ€™d have to sacrifice myself in order to maintain a false ideal. Iâ€™ve been trying
really hard to get over my resentment. Itâ€™s caused them no small amount of
pain,â€ I answered honestly.
â€œSo have you completely broken down that ideal?â€ Zhi Rou asked softly.
â€œItâ€™s been a challenge. It was hard enough to demolish just one little part. It
hurt everyone, including me. To make up for it, I let them form a new image of
me. Itâ€™s been a constant struggle. Iâ€™ll always feel love for them and have basic
needs to be met, so it takes courage to draw the line. But if I donâ€™t, my love for
them and my needs will become bargaining chips that I have to exchange for my
independence. And using those would be like retreating before the battleâ€™s even
begun.â€ I didnâ€™t feel the least bit inhibited telling them about my family. The
more I shared, the more open I felt.
â€œThatâ€™s what Iâ€™d call going down without a fight.â€ Zhi Rou let out a bitter,
self-deprecating laugh. â€œIt sounds like that mental disorder where youâ€™re afraid
that everyone will die if you move even an inch, so then you stay as stationary as
possible. Itâ€™s basically the same thing, no?â€ Zhi Rou twisted Tun Tunâ€™s straw in
her hands. I sensed a tinge of self-loathing. Her laugh reminded me of a
handsome older woman removing her makeup and revealing her wrinkles.
â€œItâ€™s not as bad as you make it sound,â€ said Tun Tun, shaking her head. She
reclaimed her straw and straightened it out. Replacing it in her iced tea, she tried
to take a sip. â€œWhat Lazi didnâ€™t say is that it would be hard to live with your
familyâ€™s disappointment. And weâ€™re not even talking about the whole idea of
making your kids study international business in the first place. Thatâ€™s actually a
tougher barrier than in most families!â€
Tun Tun raised her head, blinking. Her tone had darkened somewhat from its
gleefulness a moment earlier, but it still ended on the same rising pitch, as if she
wanted to offer a spirited response to Zhi Rouâ€™s words that sounded somewhere
between confident and hopeful. Sheâ€™d used my words to set up her partner, and
when it was her turn to speak, sheâ€™d tacked on my name to what she herself
wanted to say in an attempt to turn around Zhi Rouâ€™s bad mood. She struck me
as wholesome and pure on the outside, and optimistic on the inside, preferring
not to give away any signs of her true intelligence. There was a pure gentleness
about her, like clear waves washing over white sand.
â€œHey, whoâ€™s Lazi?â€ Despite knowing the answer perfectly well, I pretended
â€œWhy, itâ€™s you,â€ said Tun Tun, looking at me in astonishment, as though it
were my fault I didnâ€™t know who Lazi was.
â€œWhy am I being called this horrible name?â€ Trying not to laugh, I made a
â€œHuh?â€ Tun Tun stared at me, wide-eyed. â€œWell, I think it sounds good,â€ she
said primly, as if the nickname had been a compliment. I was baffled.
â€œWhy not Zhuozi as in table, Yizi as in chair, or Juzi as in saw? Anything
sounds better than Lazi,â€ I said.
â€œIt came to me when you were sitting at the booth earlier today, and I decided
your name was La.â€
â€œSo why did you add the zi part?â€ I was genuinely curious how she came up
with the idea.
â€œHuh? La is the verb to pull, so I had to add a suffix to it as a placeholder. I
wanted to coin its usage. Other people arenâ€™t allowed to use zi the way your
verbal name does. The suffix zi is an attachment, and if you take away the La, it
has a million different uses.â€ Tun Tun was like an entomologist explaining a new
insect sheâ€™d discovered.
â€œGee, thanks.â€ I gave her the evil eye. â€œSo can I also ask why La has to be a
â€œOh, good question.â€ She jabbed her right index finger in the air with a
humph. â€œChinese people always have all these awful-sounding nicknames like
Ah Bao or Ah Hua. But look at the root La. It sounds good as a verbâ€”as in to
pull noodles, to zip, to lend a helping hand, to pimpâ€”â€
â€œRight, and thereâ€™s also to take a piss!â€ I said.
â€œAtta girl, thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m talking about! Now you get it!â€ Tun Tun patted me.
Zhi Rou cackled. Sheâ€™d been watching our sparring and laughing so hard that
she was covering her mouth with her hands. The loyal audience whoâ€™d been
spurring us on, she was really losing it now.
â€œSo what do you call Zhi Rou?â€ With a straight face, I proceeded to drag her
â€œItâ€™s a name I gave her during sophomore year of high school. I call her. . . .â€
Tun Tunâ€™s mouth started to twitch as she gestured toward her belly.
â€œDuzi!â€ I yelled the word, accidentally spraying coffee out with a laugh.
â€œSo if we put our names together, we have Laduziâ€”diarrhea?â€ asked Zhi Rou
Then it was our turn to crack upâ€”Tun Tun most of all. Unable to handle any
more, she waved a hand in the air, as if to call a cease-fire.
Lazi. I liked this new name, just as I liked this sisterly twosome (as a unit,
they really ought to be â€œthis pairâ€). There was only one way to describe themâ€”
you never really knew whether to laugh or to cry.
THE CROCODILE opened the refrigerator. Inside were all kinds of canned goods.
According to experts, these canned goods were a staple of the crocodile diet.
When the crocodile got home at night, it liked to turn on the TV to see if there
was anything about crocodiles on the evening news. Meanwhile, it would sit in a
bathtub on casters, scrubbing itself with a sponge. It would reach over to grab a
can of food from the side table, then remove its retainer and use its canines to
puncture two holes in the top of the can. Shaped like turret shells, its canines
glistened in the light and were cool to the touch. Afterward, the crocodile
reinserted its retainer. It liked to eat with a sharpened straw that it plunged into
the top of the can and used to siphon food. In the water was a green plastic toy
crocodile. Leaning over, the crocodile squeezed the plastic belly with both
hands. The toy made a squeaking noise and squirted water onto the crocodileâ€™s
A newscaster in a green suit said, â€œBefore we take a look at tomorrowâ€™s
weather forecast, letâ€™s go to todayâ€™s report in our special series on crocodiles.â€
The earpiece that had been tucked discreetly in the newscasterâ€™s left ear fell onto
the desk with a thud. The camera hadnâ€™t cut yet to a close-up of the expert
appearing on the commentary segment when it paused momentarily on the
newscaster still facing straight ahead. The newscaster winked. It was unclear for
whom the wink was intended, but it was followed by an embarrassed smile, and
the voice of the expertâ€”
In accordance with best practices, and in order to preserve the very essence
of our nation, our news bureau has instituted a unified set of provisions
regarding the reporting of crocodile-related news, which must undergo a
special imaging-technology process so that the results appear in an
encrypted form. This is done to prevent foreign entities from intercepting
our satellite signals and duplicating our footage by means of current videorecording technology. Since the actual volume of domestic data on
crocodiles has grown and the nation has devised new measures to either
protect or eradicate crocodiles, this category of highly sensitive classified
information must not fall into the hands of foreign states. In this century, all
advanced nations have adopted the convention of implementing strategic
sanctions, and for this reason, our nation has been unable to access outside
signals of broadcasts related to the subject. In the past several years, a great
deal of importance has been attached to the issue of crocodiles and their
existence. However, each and every citizen, upon receiving news reports,
must agree to maintain confidentiality in the event that the domestic
crocodile situation reaches a critical state, as we as a nation could very well
find ourselves shunned by the international community. This type of
response may occur, in fact, at a time when the United Nations is selecting
popular tourist destinations for preservation under its UNESCO World
Heritage Site designation, whereupon tourists will flock to those locations
and a global media frenzy will ensue. Or perhaps our land may become a
void on the world map like the Bermuda Triangle, or what is seen as a dark,
mysterious place. All communications networks linking to our nation will
be severed. No foreigner will dare to set foot in our territory, nor will our
own citizens have any means of escape. Should our secrets be leaked one
day, it will be difficult to determine whether a diplomatic situation may
arise. In the final analysis, our knowledge and understanding of crocodiles
is but a microorganism on a fingernail. But in the customary practice of
advanced nations, we will safeguard information within the grip of our
metal jaws, holding on as if our lives depended on it. At this time, we ask
all citizens across the nation to join hands in facing the mystery of the
The crocodile sat in the bathtub and listened at length to the news
commentary, dozing off three times. Each time, its chin knocked against the side
of the bathtub, and the crocodile lifted its head and glanced around in confusion,
unable to bring itself to crane its neck to peer at the TV. Someone might see it
sleeping in the bathtub, which would be awfully embarrassing. The crocodile
blushed just thinking about it. The crocodile clutched the toy and rubbed it
against its cheek, pouting. It was deeply distressed. Would this blushing and
pouting ever come to an end? Now that it thought about it, things ought to be
different since it had been thrust into the national spotlight and made a public
figure. At the moment, the entire nation was saying: Why, my dear crocodile,
how are you?
SEPTEMBER. Iâ€™d been living on Heping East Road for two months. My cousins
needed to prepare for entrance exams, and I got the hint that I should get lost. I
found an attic bedroom on Tingzhou Road. The top floor was spacious, with
only a crude toilet, sink, and old-fashioned boiler, plus a narrow slit of a room in
which my roommate, a woman with a rather peculiar face, lived. She was
twenty-five or twenty-six and worked in a factory. My first impression of her
was that she was likely to borrow money from me and never pay me back. She
would often knock on my door, then grill me about college life or my romantic
history, among other private matters. Then there was this guy whoâ€™d come by in
the middle of the night and stay over. He was always broke, and heâ€™d walk
around naked with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Sometimes heâ€™d yank
her to the ground and beat her with a whip or a shoe, dragging her outside, all
the way down to the nearby plaza. But whenever she talked about him, her face
glowed with happiness. He was the only person who didnâ€™t hate her, she said.
Living on the top floor meant that it was hot as an oven until nightfall. Iâ€™d get
home around ten and lock the door behind me. The thought of them terrified me.
I envisioned the souls of two prisoners whoâ€™d died long, torturous deaths
breaking down the door of my room. That feeling of living under the same roof
as near-strangers, people who might disappear without ever saying goodbye, was
enough to make my home a solitary tomb.
Daytime. The instant the alarm went off, Iâ€™d leap out of bed and â€œgo to workâ€
for my club. Didnâ€™t wash my face, didnâ€™t brush my teeth. I practically flew to
campus on my bike as if Iâ€™d scheduled an appointment and had to get there
pronto to deliver documents or prepare for a noontime meeting. Designing
promotional flyers, sending out mailers, organizing the archives, or running an
errand could at any time become the most urgent among an endless list of tasks.
It was a monotonous game that you took seriously in preparation for the real
thing, a means of instilling a strong work ethic. It was a way of finding out what
itâ€™d be like one day, when you entered society and the workforce. No more
dithering: If you wanted to move up, you had to play the game on a sophisticated
level, and make it an exciting contest at that. Otherwise, your enthusiasm would
wane. Youâ€™d lose your mind. Sooner or later, the sea of utterly meaningless
obligations would swallow you alive.
I almost completely lost track of schoolwork. My gym teacher wanted to
murder me. I got wind that the drill instructor had been looking everywhere for
me and â€œwanted to see me in his office.â€ I was burying my head in the sand. I
was about to fail half or even two-thirds of my credits, which would flunk me
out of school. My shift to a value system in which I actually had a life had, in
fact, set me on a path to a bleak future: Now I was throwing my life away, just
spinning my wheels and keeping busy with no real direction or purpose. My
mind consumed with my organizationâ€™s affairs, I worked to my heartâ€™s content
until ten in the evening, when I went home. My life started to revolve around
work, and my habits gained momentum to the point where they became virtually
unstoppable. The minute I got home, Iâ€™d crack open a beer and drink myself into
a stupor, basically killing time until my alarm went off the next morning.
Chu Kuang. He could see the emptiness hidden beneath my excess energy and
enthusiasm. Three years my senior, he was the president of the neighboring
student organization. The two of us shared the same office, and his desk was
next to mine. His receding hairline revealed a shiny forehead, and the back and
the top of his head were similarly reflective. He was heavyset, with what you
might call a pear-shaped figure. He often wore the same pair of purple-and-green
denim pants with a thin gold belt, like something a nightclub host might wear.
Other times he looked like heâ€™d just emerged from the slums, his T-shirt as
rumpled as a wad of toilet paper. His baggy, knee-length pants exposed a pair of
hairy legs while his sunglasses concealed a pair of puffy eyes.
By eight or nine in the evening, it was just the two of us still â€œat the office.â€
For the most part, it was an act. Every once in a while, when nobody was
watching, Iâ€™d look up and glance over at him, and weâ€™d exchange knowing
smiles. Then, in unspoken agreement, weâ€™d turn back to our work. Gradually, a
camaraderie developed between the two of us nocturnal creatures.
â€œHey, what are you doing?â€ I asked, having just finished folding thirty copies
of a meeting announcement.
â€œSketching a layout.â€ His organization put out a weekly newsletter. His head
â€œHey, what are you doing now?â€ I said facetiously, bored silly. About a
second had passed since I asked him the first time.
â€œMaking an illustration.â€ He lowered his head even farther. The tip of his nose
was almost touching the paper.
â€œHello?! Whatâ€™s that youâ€™re still doing over there?â€ His unresponsiveness
made it even more hilarious.
â€œWhy you little!â€ He mustered the strength to set down his pen and peel his
eyes from the page, then stood up. He walked over to me, eyes flashing with
anger, and took my chin in his large hand. â€œNot afraid to die, are you? Gotta
disturb me, eh?â€
Iâ€™d been using him for entertainment. Whenever I stepped on him, some kind
of repartee would come of it. Having observed him at work for a while, I had
amassed a wealth of data about my counterpart, who had become a screen on
which I could project random thoughts. On the occasions we ventured beyond
that screen, our conversations were always regimented. The reality was, a taboo
had developed. Instead of getting to know each other, we were interacting
through caricatures of ourselves.
â€œYou look like shit today.â€ People were sitting between us, and the noontime
deliveries of documents were flooding in. â€œIs that a hole in those lovely skintight
jeans? Why donâ€™t you mind your own business?â€ I chatted with a colleague.
More documents were delivered.
â€œMaybe if you didnâ€™t rub your eyes when you crawled out of the sewer, they
wouldnâ€™t be so puffy.â€ Another document came in.
â€œPeople who have no eyeballs and lie in a sewer all day need to shut up.â€ I
glared at him, then resumed my conversation.
â€œKeep laughing. If you keep slithering out of the sewer and prying open those
bloodshot eyes, youâ€™re going to drop dead soon.â€ This time, the document was
thrown straight at me. Some people beside him had evidently been trying to talk
business as we bared our fangs at each other.
It was the anniversary of the schoolâ€™s founding. I was tied up with the
festivities all day long, running around and yelling. By dusk, the crowds were
beginning to scatter. I climbed the steps to the second floor of the recreation
center, wishing that someone would carry me. People were gathered outside the
office door, looking stumped as to what to do. At the foot of the door, his legs
stretched out in front of him, sat the vice president of Chu Kuangâ€™s club.
Sounding exhausted, he announced that we all needed to clear the area. Someone
inside was apparently having a meltdown and had shut everyone out.
I pushed to the front and pounded on the door.
â€œChu Kuang, open the door and let me in. I have to talk to you.â€ Those words.
I had no idea where they came from. Finding them within me was like striking
oil. I heard the door being unlocked. The vice president stared at me in disbelief.
I ducked through the narrow crack that appeared, locking the door behind me.
I fumbled around looking for a chair, then finally sat beside him on the desk,
crossing my legs. â€œWhat happened?â€ I asked gently. The shades were lowered so
that we could watch movies in the office, and there was a faint halo around his
â€œWill you go buy me a drink, Sis? And just listen. . . .â€ Covering his face with
his hands, he put his head on the desk and produced what sounded like a
â€œWhy do you want to talk to me?â€ I gazed at the soothing rays of the setting
sun that trickled in through the window behind him.
â€œMeng Sheng . . . itâ€™s because you know Meng Sheng, too. Heâ€™s the
connection we share,â€ I heard him say. I went out and returned with a twelvepack of beer and two packs of cigarettes, plus some hot snacks. I sent away the
vice president and the crowd loitering outside. The merrymaking still hadnâ€™t died
down, and the sound of someone practicing the piano pierced the air for an
instant before blending into the cacophony.
â€œThis afternoon Meng Sheng came by. . . . He was looking for you. . . . We got
into a fightâ€”â€
â€œYou and Meng Sheng had a spat?â€
â€œHad a spat? I feel like I could eat the guy alive, tear him to pieces.â€ Chu
Kuang lifted his head. A bloodstain ran all the way from the corner of his eye to
his nose, and one of his lower teeth had been knocked out. He downed an entire
can of beer in one gulp. â€œHave you ever seen love between two people turn as
ugly as this? Thatâ€™s what happens when thereâ€™s too much masculine energy. The
moment he came in and asked â€˜Where is she?â€™ I exploded. I snatched a metal
ruler off the table and started thrashing him with it, but heâ€™s not the type to back
down. He picked up a metal chair and started pummeling me with it. It was like
the whole thing was choreographed. . . . Man, Iâ€™ll never forget his lightning-fast
reflexes or the scent of his sweat.â€ He smiled contentedly.
â€œYou start to fight the second you see each other. Does that mean itâ€™s mutual
love or bitter hatred?â€
â€œDoesnâ€™t Hsia YÃ¼ have a poem called â€˜Sweet Revengeâ€™? I only mention it
because I thought you might know it. Itâ€™s like the title says. Because love goes
hand in hand with hatred, and because thereâ€™s hatred, youâ€™re going to fight, and
when you fight, you see that thereâ€™s love. The three become inseparable. Once
your sexual frustration reaches a certain point, if you donâ€™t either fulfill or rid
yourself of your desires, youâ€™re going to find yourself deep in the abyss of
meaninglessness. And thereâ€™s no easy way out. In fact, youâ€™ll cling even more
desperately to the object of your fixation, and when you do, your desires will
turn against themselves in full force. I was already self-destructive to begin with,
but then I developed a fixation and never found an outlet, which is when it really
got scary. One day something set it off, and I grabbed a pair of scissors and
stabbed myself. It was when Meng Sheng and I were about to break up. I
thought Iâ€™d learned to put down the scissors and give him some of my selfdestructiveness by then, but thereâ€™s no cure for it: I still want him. The love I was
saving is gone, and whatever passion was left, I gave it away trying to keep our
â€œMeng Sheng told me he saved some guyâ€™s life. Was it you?â€
â€œHa! Is that what he said? So did he tell you all about how he slept with that
guy?â€ He stopped abruptly and slumped his shoulders apologetically.
â€œListen, I donâ€™t want to step into your dogfight and be ripped to shreds. But if
you want to say it, say it. Iâ€™m not going to pry. Hearing about your bad
experiences wonâ€™t disgust me or make me think any less of you. Whateverâ€™s on
your mind, just spit it out. But I have to say, wowâ€”I had no idea you were like
this!â€ I tried to decipher the convoluted expression on his face.
â€œItâ€™s considered pretty unseemly to say these kinds of things to a girl.â€
â€œIf itâ€™s that unseemly, then donâ€™t say anything at all. I donâ€™t want to hear the
â€œAw, Sis, youâ€™re really something special. Really, thatâ€™s exactly what you are.
All the other people I know suddenly tune out or start squirming whenever I
bring up that part of our relationship. Most of them have been outright avoiding
me. Only one or two people have bothered to stay in touch with me after
cringing at my story, which I always thought was funny. Why keep pretending to
be a good person when itâ€™s obviously that painful for you to show compassion?
Anyway, youâ€™re a girl, and though youâ€™ve managed to stomach this much, I feel
like Iâ€™m making you listen to me describe the calluses on my feet.â€
â€œHow long have you been in love with Meng Sheng?â€
â€œIn all, about four years. Thatâ€™s on my part. For him, itâ€™s been off and on for
the past five years. Now that I realize he transferred his desire for women onto
me, Iâ€™m no longer sure if he loved me for more than half a year. Heâ€™s vile to the
core. A worthless sack of shit is what he is.â€
â€œChu Kuang, listen to me. When youâ€™re around me, just be your genuine self.
I know itâ€™s not easy. My feet have a few calluses, too, but Iâ€™m not ready to talk
about them with anyone yet. Is that okay?â€
We hadnâ€™t even noticed that it was almost ten oâ€™clock. Outside the recreation
center and all over campus, the festival raged on. A heavy metal band was
playing, and laser beams shot in all directions as drunken students bid farewell to
their desires. . . .
WHATâ€™S written here are fragments from the first semester of sophomore year,
the period from July 1988 to February 1989. After the wild boar barreled
through the pasture gates and returned to the wild, was it a boar whoâ€™d suffered a
concussion? With its boar hooves lifted over its boar head, it was a boar skipping
through the rain forest, and one that could do a mind-blowing jitterbug at that. It
took a merry bath in the river and leaned back against the riverbank, telling
itself, â€œWell, itâ€™s a good thing I lost myself crashing through that fence!â€ Its
amnesia was so severe that it struggled to remember what it had said just a
second earlier. Meanwhile, ants had covered the half of its body that was above
water and were pecking at its cheek.
So I didnâ€™t need Shui Ling, then? Sheâ€™d become the mythical goddess NÃ¼wa
â€”a snail of a woman curled up inside a shell somewhere beyond my
recollection. I dove down to a coral reef at the bottom of the sea, a long, grueling
journey to a place where all kinds of caves could be found. The reef was a
microcosm of deep-sea consciousness, from its pink bud-like tentacles to the
moist, black marrow of its skeleton. Whenever I ventured into the wrong cave,
the snail woman would emerge from her shell to temper my alcohol-hardened
brain, mending the membrane layer where freshly spawned desires were being
sundered by a death wish.
A winterâ€™s night. I had just finished a paper on Freud for a seminar and was
leaving a basement meeting with Tun Tun. The lights were out and a cold wind
blew as we biked across the dark campus. Tun Tun said, I donâ€™t know how to tell
you this, but I have a problem, and although Iâ€™m not completely sure what that
problem is, I do know that youâ€™re the kind of person I can talk to, someone who
might be able to help. Her voice was soft and quivering, like the rustling of a
lone maple tree in the wind, yet there she was, bravely forcing herself to smile.
This girl was so precious, it brought me to shame. What about Zhi Rou? I posed
the question with a cool detachment, working my way one step closer to Tun
Tunâ€™s fears in life. We had almost reached the campus gates. There was no time
to get into the details, but she was going through a tough spell, she told me. Is it
serious? Is it affecting your work and personal life? It was like this almost every
week, her accompanying me to these dingy basements. She was like quicksilver,
this kid. Itâ€™d been going on for a long time. How was it possible that I could
never get past that brave smile and find out what was behind it? My intense
affection for her came gushing out. Until that moment, I hadnâ€™t realized how
much of it was welled up inside of me.
Itâ€™s nothing. Itâ€™ll be fine. Donâ€™t worry. With overstated confidence, Tun Tun
tried to console me. It was just that sheâ€™d been at the so-called wall of absurdity
for two months and hadnâ€™t managed to make it far enough to figure out exactly
where it would end. She couldnâ€™t fall asleep. Sheâ€™d been gripped by paranoia.
Sheâ€™d suddenly become afraid of all kinds of things. She couldnâ€™t get herself out
of the house. She went to class or else she kept busy. The only time Iâ€™m happy is
on Fridays, when I can come here and see you. I canâ€™t stand being alone at night.
It was out of my affection for her that I started whistling. I said, Today is my exâ€™s
birthday, and after we broke up, I got a package with three little letters in it, but I
canâ€™t bring myself to open them. I stopped abruptly. So what if these were just
kidsâ€™ problems? Like hitting a patch of broken glass while biking, they could
leave you fragile, and unable to speak.
THE CROCODILE was a diligent worker. It was so diligent that it was drying a
whole bathtubâ€™s worth of still-usable one-cent postage stamps. Thatâ€™s the kind of
worker it was. It used to work at St. Maryâ€™s Bakery, where it stood next to the
cashier, wrapping and bagging pastries. After work, it strolled across the street to
a gift shop, where it bought exquisite wrapping paper and fancy ribbons. In fact,
that was the crocodileâ€™s favorite pastime. And courageously, it drew a crocodile
design, then stuffed it into the slot in the managerâ€™s office door, proposing that
the design be adopted on the bakeryâ€™s plastic bags and cake boxes.
â€œI heard that in addition to eating canned goods, crocodiles supplement their
diet with bread,â€ said customer A.
â€œThatâ€™s a minor bit of trivia. I didnâ€™t think youâ€™d have heard it, too. Maybe it
was in a housekeeping magazine.â€ Waiting in line behind customer A was
customer B, who held a cake box with baguettes inside and a wicker basket
filled with pastries.
â€œOh, does everyone know? I read more details in a cooking magazine.
Crocodiles only eat sugar-free bread. They wonâ€™t even touch salted bread. What
nonsense.â€ C was in line after B.
â€œHow could that be true? Their favorite pastry is cream puffs,â€ said the
crocodile, whoâ€™d been listening impassively to the conversation while wrapping
and bagging pastries.
â€œHow do you know?â€ the three customers, along with the girl tending the cash
register, all asked at the same time. A was surprised, B filled with admiration,
and C indignant. The cashier envied the sheer volume of knowledge the others
seemed to have at their disposal.
After finishing work that day, the crocodile didnâ€™t return to St. Maryâ€™s, nor did
it ever set foot in a bakery again.
Though the thought of cream puffs frequently entered its mind, the crocodile
could only afford to spend fifty cents on one, so it asked a child at the door of the
bakery to go inside and buy a thirty-cent cream puff. If the crocodile didnâ€™t
throw in a little extra cash, the kid would never do it.
The crocodile was filled with resignation. It didnâ€™t say a word to the manager.
It was convinced that the manager had long figured out that it was a crocodile
and had noted its baked-goods preferences and sold the information to all the
local rags. All the evidence was there: A magazine had just leaked the bit about
the cream puffs, modifying its earlier story about sugar-free bread. After all, the
latest report reflected the conversation that had transpired in the shop, didnâ€™t it?
Whenever the manager was around, the crocodile chose only sugar-free bread so
as not to blow its entire paycheck. After the manager left for the day, it secretly
devoured an entire box of cream puffs.
Whenever the crocodile thought about the manager, its skin turned a
monstrous shade of green. But now the crocodile was sashaying down the street
with its precious, thirty-cent cream puff, cravenly and delightfully taking a giant
lick of the filling. It spotted a sign posted on a door: BREAKING NEWS: CREAM
PUFFS ARE A CROCODILE FAVORITE! NEW CREAM PUFF STAND AND BAKERY COMING
Oh no! I canâ€™t resist cream puffs!
TUN TUN. After reaching the aforementioned wall of absurdity sheâ€™d told me
about the previous semester, she was nowhere to be found.
Zhi Rou. After we met at the clubâ€™s booth at orientation, she never followed
through. She said she was too busy with schoolwork. But really, she wasnâ€™t: I
knew she was slacking off. Once, she dropped by around noonâ€”basically when
the office was at its most bustlingâ€”and sat in the far corner, staring at me
without saying a word. When I asked how she was, she was all smiles. I raised
my voice, trying to show solicitude. A moment later, sheâ€™d put on her backpack
and wandered off, vanishing into thin air. The next time I ran into her, sheâ€™d
adopted a more mature hairstyle and there was a conspiratorial grin on her face.
She hadnâ€™t fooled me, though. I was on to her decadent ways.
I liked these two. And I knew that they liked me. There was no romantic
interest whatsoever in that like. As for how much I liked them, the two of them
were perhaps my very favorites out of all the people to whom that word applied.
I liked them as individuals. I liked them even more when they were together.
Were I a fanatical collector of figurines, these two would be my most prized pair.
Not only the people Iâ€™d forged close bonds with but almost everyone I knew
from college appeared or disappeared in the blink of an eye. No one could be
counted on to show up anywhere. Our relationships were about as tight as those
between one drifting nebula and another.
When I was twenty, these two entered my orbit, and like every other nebula
adrift, soon strayed from its center. Yet they came to represent something very
important to me. And what was that? The answer is simple: beauty.
The meaning they brought to my life could be condensed into a single image
that has stayed with me ever since. On the morning of our schoolâ€™s anniversary,
our club set up a concession stand with beverages and snacks to rake in some
extra dough. Everyone was doing their own little jig to attract attention, and me,
I was sitting there hollering. Out of nowhere appeared the shaggy-haired duo of
Tun Tun and Zhi Rou, who had a guitar on her back. Tun Tun had gone for a
retro look in baggy white capri pants, complete with suspenders. Zhi Rou was
wearing the skirt from her military uniform, which made me smile. She said it
was for an occasion that evening, and that sheâ€™d add a white blouse for a
seamless transition to a formal, elegant look. The two of them joked that they
should help drum up business while I was working the concession stand. They
sat on the edge of the table, Zhi Rou concentrating on her tuning and Tun Tun
riffling through the sheet music. As soon as they were ready, they exchanged a
quick glance, then launched into their set. The first song was â€œCherry Came
Too.â€ One of them strummed, while the other swayed and sang â€œOh cherry
honey. . . .â€ A light rain began to fall. After a spell, they stopped to wipe their
faces of the ethereal dew that had showered down from the sky like confetti.
Life, it seemed, was beautiful. I hadnâ€™t thought about it in ages, until one day the
sound of pattering rain, along with â€œCherry Came Too,â€ entered my dreams.
The Freud seminar ended that Friday evening at ten. Being the last one to
leave, I shut off the lights. Emerging from the gloomy classroom in the
basement, I was struck by acute waves of self-pity. I scrambled to find a pay
phone, then tossed in a coin and called Tun Tun. I hadnâ€™t seen a trace of her in
more than a month, and I missed her like she was family.
â€œTun Tun, is that you? Itâ€™s Lazi. How have you been?â€
â€œItâ€™s nice to hear your voice. Sorry I donâ€™t have the energy to go out tonight.â€
I couldnâ€™t bring myself to say anything about my troubles or how much I
missed her, as weâ€™d never gone so far as to reveal our feelings to each other. But
on that dark night, the two of us, by way of a single coin, were touched by a
mutual warmth. That was the moment when the dust settled. Everything was
going to be okay.
â€œHow about if I come visit you?â€
â€œOkay, come over then! What are you waiting for?â€
At nineteen years and eleven months old, Iâ€™d invested a single coin, and the
significance of this act was extraordinary. It was like the moment when a
crawling baby learned how to stand up and take that very first step. I was in
need, and so I called someone. The instant itself was a blur. Iâ€™d wrongly assumed
that I, having played the role of protector far too often, was overreacting the way
a parent frets over a child getting sick. But no, this was an important turning
point for me. For a long time, my hidden shame had made me push everyone
away. Iâ€™d rejected them before they could reject me. I ran away from close
relationships even with the people who loved me. I was a blind man fallen into
the ocean. Iâ€™d taken the mirror and smashed it to pieces, unable to stand the sight
of my hideous, disfigured self. Tun Tun was the first person Iâ€™d taken the
initiative to call on. She was the one mirror that I was willing to see my own
â€œDo you want something to eat?â€ Tun Tun asked.
â€œIâ€™m starving. What do you have?â€
â€œMilk. Bread. Fruit. Everything. How about if I make you a bowl of noodles?â€
â€œSure, Iâ€™d be up for that. But if I have to help you, forget it.â€ â€œHow on earth
did I end up with this terrible houseguest who canâ€™t feign the slightest manners?â€
It was eleven in the evening, and Tun Tun had let me in. Everyone else in the
house was fast asleep. She came out to meet me, humming under her breath, and
it made me feel at home.
â€œHave you ever hit the wall of absurdity?â€ She handed me a bowl of noodles
and sat down across from me.
â€œYeah, a long time ago. When I was sixteen, seventeen. But back then I didnâ€™t
think of it in those terms.â€ The noodles looked delicious. I started wolfing them
â€œSo what happened? Can you tell me?â€
I gestured okay one-handedly. â€œNo problem. But first you have to sign a
contract saying that you owe Lazi a hundred bowls of noodles.â€ A long, white
trail of steam rose from the savory beef broth. There was still one large, tender
curl of beef remaining.
â€œHey, that beef was actually braised by my dad! Do my dad and I make a good
beef-maestro and noodle-chef team, or what?â€ Tun Tun asked excitedly after a
pause, unable to contain herself any longer.
â€œI donâ€™t care if this is processed beef noodle soup!â€ I responded. Then,
becoming solemn, I told her, â€œIt was one night about two or three years ago
when my world started to change. I wasnâ€™t really sure what exactly was
changing, but suddenly, there I was, in an unfamiliar place. I felt like I was being
pulled in so many different directions, to the point where I had no idea who I
was anymore. I was crying out for help, but no one seemed to hear me. I couldnâ€™t
imagine my future. I kept waiting for my old world to come back and lift me out
of this silent depression. Every morning Iâ€™d wake up and see the sun, and cry
knowing that today would be more of the same, that the old world was gone
forever. It was like, this is how things are now. Welcome to cold, hard reality.â€
â€œHowâ€™d you get out of it?â€
â€œThe wall of absurdity might be gone now, but that was only the prologue. If
you fast-forward a little, the relationship between me and the world gets even
uglier. The fact is, itâ€™s been a constant battle. I mean, absurdity? Thatâ€™s the least
of it! Youâ€™re trapped, so you force yourself to adapt after a while. Otherwise, if
you start thinking too much, youâ€™ll suffocate. But once you become stronger
than your surroundings, the absurdity will come to an end.â€
â€œIt sounds like the home of a married couple who quarrel non-stop, until
someone pulls out a kitchen knife or handgun, and the fighting comes to a halt.â€
She was laughing so hard that it looked like she was trying to swat a mosquito.
â€œThatâ€™s really how it is, at least for me. What about you?â€
â€œMy whole world wasnâ€™t turned upside down in one night, but itâ€™s like you
said, I feel this silent depression, and I donâ€™t know why things have to change.
Something is blocking my path, and I call it the wall of absurdity. Honestly, Iâ€™m
having a total breakdown. Ever since I was little, Iâ€™ve always been successful at
everything Iâ€™ve tried. Itâ€™s probably because my mom and dad let me pursue
whatever I wanted, so I had other things on my mind besides wanting to be at the
top of my class, or wanting to be the prettiest or most popular. Yet I was
naturally at the top of my class, and I got along with everyone, and you could
say Iâ€™ve turned out to be okay-looking. Succeeding at whatever I tried made me
into a happy, well-adjusted kid. I made it through all the dreadful parts, though
getting zits and my period were stressful. You might say I was like a little
sunflower in junior high. But back then, life was about jumping through hoops. I
always did my homework as soon as I got home from school. Classes were
really easy. All you had to do was pay attention in class, and youâ€™d do fine on
the tests. So then I had a load of free time. I liked reading The Big Book of Why
and other science books, and I built and painted my own furniture. The paint you
see on my bedroom walls is something I did in those days! It was so much fun,
always trying new things. In high school, I got kind of depressed. I was like,
how come all we do is study? So I decided to take it easy instead. I didnâ€™t want
to go home and do my homework like clockwork anymore, so I became captain
of all these sports teams. I started a volleyball team and led the basketball teamâ€™s
practices, and organized group outings with all-boys schools. I got into the gifted
program at Academia Sinica, and at the same time I was directing all these
brilliant performances in drama competitions. After I got into Academia Sinica, I
realized that this one guy had been trying to get with me the whole time.
Suddenly, doing well in school became less of a priority. Growing up, I felt so
different from the girls I knew, though I applied myself all the same. I remember
how my older brother had to escort me on his bike when I went out on those
chilly nights. Heâ€™d be on his bike, and Iâ€™d be on mine, and neither of us would
say much. I just focused on pushing the pedals, one foot after the other, until we
got home. Thatâ€™s what high school was like. It was such a great feeling. . . .â€ She
was smiling as she spoke.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t sound like there was any reason youâ€™d change. Do you have any
idea what happened?â€
â€œIt must have something to do with the college lifestyle, right? Itâ€™s scary. Itâ€™s
like all this bacteria was already there, but because it was microscopic, you let it
build up and form dust under the rug. The college lifestyle is about becoming
independent, with no one else around to force you to do anything. So thereâ€™s this
muck that hasnâ€™t been dealt with, and because all your arrangements are loose
now, you have no one to hold on to, which means you get sucked into the
vacuum cleaner and tossed around in it. Your automatic response is to grab hold
of something and pull yourself out. My first instinct was to cling to Zhi Rou. I
wanted her by my side all day, every day. I even made her sleep over. I was
scared of being alone in my room at night. Iâ€™d never been like that before. Time
crawled by, especially at night, and each second went on for an eternity. I felt
like I was struggling to break through the glass wall in front of me. It was
agonizing. Having another living, breathing person around made things easier.
But then she got frustrated because the homework was hard. She couldnâ€™t adjust
to college life at all. I couldnâ€™t explain what was wrong with me, and she didnâ€™t
believe me when I said I was a complete mess. I couldnâ€™t talk to her about it. I
insisted that she do things beyond her abilities and I hung out with her during
breaks. I told her she was the only person Iâ€™d ever help like that. But our
relationship went downhill. She was pessimistic to begin with. She was never,
ever happy. Before that, I used to joke around with her. Well, once I went on
strike, she became morose. She had no idea how to appease me. When I saw her
face, I couldnâ€™t take it, I wanted to cry. I had to hold it in, though. There was
nothing I could say. After a while, my silence really hurt her. She was tired of
bringing me down. One night, I asked her to try to smile a little. I said I couldnâ€™t
stand to see that gloomy look on her face. So she stood up with a gloomy look
on her face and left. She said she couldnâ€™t smile. She said she didnâ€™t want to see
me anymore. . . .â€ Tun Tun had been gazing at me the entire time, her eyes
glistening as she spoke.
â€œHow stupid is that, to hurt each other over nothing. Thatâ€™s so sad. Have you
tried talking to her since?â€
â€œShe was actually really hurt. I could see it on her face.â€ Tun Tun shrugged
helplessly. She squeezed her eyes shut, grimacing. â€œThe moment I saw her face,
I choked up. I knew I was wrong. Iâ€™d been too needy. I didnâ€™t have the strength
to make her come back, though. Once, I went all the way over to her house. I
walked for half an hour to apologize to her, and Iâ€™d even thought of some things
to say to make her laugh. When I got to her front door and rang the buzzer, she
sent her little sister down to tell me to go away. And thatâ€™s when I lost my
courage. I sat down on her front steps. I didnâ€™t know what to do, if I should get
up and go home. After summer vacation, I ran into her at school. We both looked
the other way and didnâ€™t say hi. Whenever I saw her coming, I tried to force
myself not to run away, but my feet wouldnâ€™t obey, and then my entire day
would be ruined. Nowadays I hardly ever think about her, but of course, sheâ€™s in
my dreams all the time. The dream goes on until I say, â€˜Letâ€™s not fight anymore.â€™
But she never responds. She just walks out, leaving me standing there.â€ There
was frustration in Tun Tunâ€™s eyes. I could tell that her dream had opened old
â€œFrom the look in her eyes in the dream, I know she doesnâ€™t blame me. She
resents me. Thereâ€™s a rift between us, but she has to learn not to lament for the
dead. Itâ€™s like being struck in the heart with an arrow. Itâ€™s not about the arrow.
The fact is, the damage is done.â€
I nodded. I could picture Zhi Rou in Tun Tunâ€™s dream, the resentment in her
eyes. I nodded again. I wanted more than anything to tell her â€œIt isnâ€™t so,â€ but it
seemed as if those words were intended for myself. I simply couldnâ€™t bring
myself to say them. All I did was whisper, â€œSheâ€™ll regret it.â€ I was caught up in
the moment, and the words crumbled inside of me.
IF THERE were an encyclopedia on the subject of humanity, the scientific
definition of a crocodile would be â€œa Hula-Hoop (or dead bolt, etc.) optimized
for secretly falling in love with other people.â€ Ideally, the encyclopediaâ€™s editor
would be adept at the use of figurative language, though of course one would
hope the same for the whole of humanity someday. Note on Hula-Hoop (or dead
bolt, etc.): Once functional, it will emit affirmative noises.
All its life, the crocodile had longed to meet its soul mate. Enough people had
gathered to fill a truck, and the crocodile, happy as a pig in mud, was to be the
truckâ€™s driver. The passengers included the classmates it saw from dawn to dusk,
the stinky-breathed manager of the manga shop, the saleslady from the toy
department, and the young man in a tank top who heaved the trash into the
garbage truck at night. There were only three dentists, while classmates
accounted for the vast majority. There was the one whom it fancied who cleaned
the blackboard and delivered bento boxes. There was another who would drool
while taking afternoon naps. The crowd was growing. When the crocodile pulled
up in its secret crushmobile, each of these people with their distinctive traits
boarded the truck.
The crocodile had a large wooden trunk, a kind of hope chest. The inside was
partitioned like a honeycomb, and each partition was labeled with a name, a list
of traits, and the date of first meeting. Inside each partition were the love letters
the crocodile had written to its love interests. When the crocodile got home from
work, it removed the sweat-soaked human suit clinging to its body and settled in
for the night. Usually, it hid in the bedroom (â€œhidâ€ because it feared the people
on the living-room TV might burst in at any moment and discover its forbidden
feelings for so many people). Upon opening the trunk, the crocodile kindled the
flame it carried for each of its love interests. Whenever it grew sentimental, it
blew its nose into a wad of toilet paper, then took out a note card and began
penning the next reply in the series of letters from its imaginary lover.
Kobo Abe. The name radiated through the curtains and into the crocodileâ€™s
bedroom. There was a slight change in the project. The crocodile reassigned all
its love interests the alias of Kobo Abe, re-cataloging them. Most likely it was
the crocodileâ€™s reading of The Face of Another that had given rise to its secret
crushes on human beings of all kinds. In the end, the crocodile had to pay its
dues to the book that started it all.
Dear Mr. Crocodile: Having received the tape of your first love letter to Kobo
Abe, I could thank you until my pubes damn near fall out. I am loath to be
included in that Pandoraâ€™s box of yours. To be desired ought to be a happy thing,
but could it be that you remain ignorant of the fact that the torch has been passed
to you? The suffering that we, a chorus of Kobo Abes, have undergone is
tremendous. Take a cue from the media, and show them where you draw the line.
SO IT WAS April 1st. April Foolsâ€™ Day. I waited all day for Meng Sheng to come
by, and he showed up at the last minute.
I was in my attic room on Tingzhou Road. He climbed the five flights and
crawled through the skylight, clambering over the barbed-wire fence around it.
He made it all the way into the attic and knocked on my bedroom door. It was
eleven p.m. This was about a year after heâ€™d gotten into the philosophy program
at my university. Heâ€™d scraped his hand on the barbed wire.
â€œHurry up. Come on. April 1st is almost over. If we donâ€™t make it by
midnight, weâ€™ll miss Chu Kuang. You know about our relationship, right? Come
with me to see him. Otherwise, if weâ€™re left alone, one of us will wind up dead
or injured.â€ Wiping off the dried blood with his other hand, he flashed a grim
smile, then bellowed, â€œCâ€™mon!â€
Every six months or so, Meng Sheng would appear out of nowhere. The way
he would show up, it was as if you were walking down a busy street, and without
warning, someone came up and gave you a friendly slap on the back. Ever since
Iâ€™d met him, I felt as if somewhere in the intricate workings of my subconscious,
some part of my psyche (possibly my ego) was constantly waiting for him to
arrive, to get the fix that only he could give me.
Meng Sheng led the way as we rushed to the dorm where Chu Kuang lived.
When we discovered he wasnâ€™t there, we pedaled at full speed to Zhongshan
North Road and searched for him along a bar-lined strip. Spotting a pair of legs
splayed out on the brick sidewalk, we found him underneath a bench. What
made it even sillier was the fact that heâ€™d worn a pristine white pair of jeans and
a matching shirt. Drunkenly, he smiled at us.
â€œHey, Iâ€™m not even late this year. Itâ€™s only six minutes to twelve,â€ Meng
Sheng blurted out. As we carried Chu Kuang back to his room, Meng Sheng said
they needed to have a talk and that I should join them. There was a menacing
look on his face as he slipped each of Chu Kuangâ€™s two roommates a modest
banknote, then told them to get out. It did the trick, and as if the message had
been imparted with the flick of a knife, they left quickly. Meng Sheng had an
imposing manner that implied he could break your neck if he wanted to, and
everyone knew it.
I scanned the wall of books at the far end of the room. Wooden shelves had
been built to accommodate the window, and the sections were neatly labeled.
Eighty percent of the books were in English, and among them were two giant
anthologies of fiction and poetry. Each volume had Chu Kuangâ€™s name written
on it. Though there were four beds in the room, Chu Kuang occupied the space
of two people. A three-shelf mahogany bookcase was used to divide the room in
half. Cassettes and CDs were placed everywhere except on the bed, which was
covered with a blanket. There was a separate shelf for the stereo, which had a
medium-size set of silver speakers, and underneath were three rows of vinyl
records stored in protective sleeves. Medical textbooks were piled on his desk,
on which copies of works by Byron, Keats, Yeats, and other English-language
poets were tossed. Books aside, music-related items filled more than half the
space of the room. He had hardly any other possessions.
Meng Sheng returned with the green tea heâ€™d made and lifted the cup to Chu
Kuangâ€™s lips. He rocked Chu Kuang in his arms, slapping his face lightly. Then,
kneeling and rolling up his sleeves, he started massaging him with a rhythmic,
circular motion that escalated into full-on pounding. Chu Kuang laughed
hysterically, pulling Meng Sheng toward him and pressing his forehead against
his own. They were like two stones being struck together, the sparks intensifying
with every blow. Finally, Meng Sheng pulled away. He sat in a chair and lit a
cigarette. Chu Kuang let loose, the tears streaming down his chest. It was a
grown manâ€™s howl loosed from a cave at the bottom of the ocean. I had never
witnessed such a thing before in my life, nor would I ever forget it. As he
abandoned himself to grief, the flood of tears seemed inexhaustible, too much
for his body to endure, but even so, his weeping persisted with the courage of
conviction. Though I was only a bystander, there was no way I could remain
detached. My eyes silently welled over. A tear formed in the corner of Meng
Shengâ€™s eye, and he coldly wiped it away. It was cathartic for me, and neither of
us felt pity for him. Tears, it seemed, had a life of their own. As dolphins hear
the call of their shared language and must turn back toward their origins, the
three of us found ourselves attuned to a common frequency. It was an experience
too profound for words.
â€œWell! Thatâ€™s enough for one day, isnâ€™t it?â€ Meng Sheng said to me as we all
breathed a sigh of relief.
â€œMy thoughts exactly!â€ I said. I felt as if the three of us were on the same
wavelength. Weâ€™d experienced a collective consciousness, if only for a fleeting
instant. Weâ€™d stormed the fortress gates and returned to a place where souls,
having no physical form, freely intermingled. In that moment of wonder, there
was no distance between us.
â€œWhat day is it today, anyway?â€ I asked, drying my eyes.
â€œItâ€™s April 1st. Chu Kuang and I met four years ago on this day. I broke up
with him three years ago, when he got into college. I still saw him after that, but
less often. When we split, he asked me to always meet him on the first of April.
He said if I missed a year or forgot, heâ€™d die.â€
â€œIs that a threat? What, is it ordained by some higher power?â€ I was skeptical.
â€œNo.â€ Meng Sheng shook his head, rubbing his eye. â€œMaybe youâ€™ve never
experienced it. To him, Iâ€™ve taken on too great a meaning in his life, though I
wouldnâ€™t say heâ€™s living for someone else. Itâ€™s not that simple. Heâ€™s been
carrying all this pain and sadness his whole life. He was already like that at
eighteen, when we met. One day he decided to take his own life, and I stopped
him.â€ He turned to look at Chu Kuang who, having cried himself into a stupor,
was now slumped against him. He stroked Chu Kuangâ€™s nose. â€œWhat a drama
that was. I didnâ€™t know him before that, Iâ€™d never even seen him. This was
during my first year of high school, right after I went back. Chu Kuang was in
his third year. It was the night of April 1st, and Iâ€™d just gotten out of school. I
was leaving when he walked past me. For a split second, I saw this young manâ€™s
face magnified, like in a close-up. There, in that single expression, were all the
feelings that had built up inside me that I couldnâ€™t express. The face of a
moribund man, its lines formed by a lifetime of anguish. Ah, he was the
quintessential victim. I followed him to the bus stop and got on the bus. Got to
the train station, transferred, took the train all the way to Keelung, and hopped
on another bus. I sat next to him, but he didnâ€™t notice me. He hung his head and
he was in a fog, completely oblivious. After we finally had to get off the bus, he
walked to a secluded beach. I wasnâ€™t consciously trailing him this whole time. It
was like sleepwalking. He had a magnetism, and I was drawn into his rite. I was
still far from the water, and a large rock was blocking my path. I moved it out of
the way, and the next thing I knew, I was wide awake. Something clicked, and I
instantly caught up to him thirty feet ahead. I grabbed his arm and told him:
â€˜Donâ€™t die.â€™ And that was the moment he was reborn.â€ He grinned and caressed
Chu Kuangâ€™s hair.
â€œIt was a stupid thing to say, though. At the end of the day, I have no right to
tell other people what to do. Especially after realizing what a head case he was, I
got sick of using my own will to control someone elseâ€™s. Grabbing him by the
arm was acting without thinking. Gut instinct. After everything heâ€™d gone
through, heâ€™d made the decision to assert his own will. I was the one who
wanted him to live, but it wasnâ€™t my choice to make. What connection did we
have, really, that would justify my saying those words? Iâ€™ve thought about it, and
Iâ€™d hate to but Iâ€™d do it all over again.â€ Meng Sheng put his head between his
knees and twisted his hair in his hands. Chu Kuang sat up, gazing at him
â€œMeng Sheng, I trust you regardless. You donâ€™t know what death is really like
and donâ€™t want to find out, so part of you is resisting death. And that part of you
spoke up, thatâ€™s all. You didnâ€™t want to let death in. Everyone has the same
response,â€ I said. â€œThereâ€™s nothing wrong with that!â€
â€œResisting death. Thatâ€™s what it comes down to. Itâ€™s like youâ€™re on autopilot:
No matter how much you hate life, your body doggedly resists death. Even other
people arenâ€™t allowed to die. You still try to stop them.â€ Meng Sheng scoffed.
â€œWhat a joke!â€
â€œSo then what happened?â€ I wanted to know how it had turned into this.
â€œHey, itâ€™s my turn to talk.â€ Chu Kuangâ€™s eyes were puffy and red, and he
sounded hoarse and congested. â€œWhen he grabbed me and said, â€˜Donâ€™t die,â€™ I
started bawling like I did just now. I was two grades ahead of him, but he was
more mature than I was, in every way. He told me to stop crying and called a cab
to take me home. In fact, he handled it like he was the older one. He made me
talk about what made me wish I was dead. He acts tough, all right, but he has a
sensitive side, too. He appeared at my darkest hour, when I wanted nothing more
than to feel exactly that kind of masculine warmth inside of me. Do you follow
me, Sis? In his presence, I was a helpless little baby. Iâ€™d prayed for him, and now
that he had come, I surrendered, willing to do anything he asked. I wished that
he would snatch my soul or that I could have his body. Back in his room, he
seemed to accept that he held this power over me, that Iâ€™d obey him. I couldnâ€™t
stop crying. After listening, he cried too. He had all kinds of pent-up desires, and
I could tell that they were boiling over. It was very real, and very intense. He
reached out to me in a way that neither of us had imagined. He reached over, and
in one swift yet tender motion, removed my shirt and pants. And without a word,
I submitted to him. That hand was shaking with emotion as it caressed me. So I
took his hand and wrapped it around my cock. I donâ€™t know where that idea
came from, but my will to live had found an outlet, which had materialized
before my very eyes. What is the human race, anyway, but a multitude of outlets
for desires? Thereâ€™s no suppressing the truths that arise from our experiences.
Desires teach us lessons, and we have to go forth into the new worlds that we
construct for ourselves.â€ Chu Kuangâ€™s voice trembled. â€œWhen you canâ€™t, thatâ€™s
when you die.â€
â€œThe new worlds that we construct.â€ I nodded. I knew exactly what he meant.
â€œBut some desires, once formed, are impossible to fulfill, so they become
frustrations instead. Thatâ€™s the problem with going forth into new worlds. By
having another man grip your cock, youâ€™ve gone beyond the perceived
boundaries of your former world and delved into your carnal desires. Youâ€™ve
retraced the roots of self-knowledge, experienced the primal frustrations, and
transgressed the perceived boundaries. And youâ€™ve managed to come back
alive.â€ I expounded on Chu Kuangâ€™s thoughts, which had stirred something
within me. â€œYouâ€™ve emerged from a primordial state with newly constructed
schemata, and lo and behold, youâ€™re experiencing a whole new world. Right?â€
â€œHey, I really like you, Sis. But why do you feel the same way, too?â€ Having
recovered his composure, Chu Kuang seemed embarrassed at his outburst just a
I didnâ€™t answer. â€œSo it was just a sudden impulse? It wasnâ€™t love?â€ I asked.
Meng Sheng had planted himself at the window and was staring out into the
â€œLater on, it really was love. The happiest time of my life was my final year of
high school. Weâ€™d go on endless walks at the edge of town. Other times weâ€™d go
to a deserted beach and watch the sunset, or make love on the hot sand. Iâ€™d recite
poetry or read plays out loud to him. Heâ€™d brazenly put his arm around me as we
walked home. It was an illicit loveâ€”a thing so dangerous it refused to be
contained, yet made of nothing but sweetness. But it had no future. Eventually
women entered the picture. At first, he hid the fact that heâ€™d been chasing
women. But his interest in me gradually waned, and I found out. He was
shameless, spending all his time with women. He told me straight up that he was
going on a date, that heâ€™d come see me when he needed a fix. I loved him too
much and let myself be treated badly. Once, he even taunted me by bringing a
girl over to my place and making me hide in the bathroom, watching him put the
moves on her. I stood on top of the toilet all night, peering through the window
over the door until my leg fell asleep and every last detail was burned into my
memory. I knew I was damaged goods. So I grabbed a pair of scissors and
stabbed myself in the thigh, left arm, and stomachâ€”not deep, though. I managed
to not cry out. I had to protect myself from the destructive side of his love. After
I took the college exams, he broke it off completely. I was never going to satisfy
him. The fact that he still needed a woman already adulterated our love, but
being forced to watch the two of them was humiliating. I was living for someone
else. Iâ€™ve given up hope that heâ€™ll ever love me again, that those dreams will
ever come true, and Iâ€™m not really saving my love for him. There was a line
between us. He was on one side, and as long as I wanted to be on the same side
as him, that line was blurred. Meng Sheng was my only reference point.â€ Chu
Kuang rubbed his nose. Beads of sweat had formed around his mustache.
Though he had stopped speaking, his mouth was twitching. His mannerisms
could be comical even when he was upset.
â€œChu Kuang, donâ€™t you think Iâ€™m right? You need Meng Sheng to see you
once a year. Youâ€™re still leaving the line between life and death blurred. All
youâ€™ve done is taken the decision-making responsibility and passed it to him.
Isnâ€™t that vindictive of you?â€ Just hearing about these two and their
entanglement was draining. Part of me wanted to get up and leave so that I could
shut out the panorama of hazardous terrain that had just opened before my eyes,
this world of embattled relationships. I wanted to retreat to the solitude of my
desert, which, though bleak, was tame compared to this.
Meng Sheng cackled loudly, as if in response to my question. It was two in the
morning. We heard the sound of slippers shuffling downstairs in the lobby of the
menâ€™s dormitory as the giant, broad-leaved trees swayed outside the window,
their silhouettes graced by nocturnal melancholy. Meng Sheng had stripped off
his clothes at some point and was now strutting around naked, making an ass of
himself. Every once in a while, heâ€™d swivel his hips in a womanly manner or,
alternately, swing his dick around. But there was more to his acting out than a
desire to break the rules or put on a display of vulgarity; it seemed defensive, as
if heâ€™d been hurt.
â€œWhoa! Youâ€™re not offended, are you? How about if the three of us agree to
have post-gender relations? Iâ€™m done talking about it. In the end, all three of us
have been seriously warped by gender labels. Everybody has, more or less. The
only difference is, weâ€™re the blessed children of Tripitaka. Weâ€™ll talk about it
later.â€ Blushing, Chu Kuang extended his hand in a gesture of solidarity.
â€œHey, we should found a gender-free society and monopolize all the public
restrooms!â€ I was elated at the idea. He didnâ€™t have to explain. He too could
envision the manual I was writing about my own experiences. I decided to stop
pressuring myself to state those experiences explicitly. If I couldnâ€™t, I wasnâ€™t
going to let it bother me. I would speak up when the time was right. With these
guys, it was about laying the foundations of trust.
â€œSo, about this problem, Sis. . . .â€ Chu Kuang, both inquisitive and protective,
took my hand. â€œMaking choices versus getting revenge, thatâ€™s a deeper issue I
havenâ€™t overcome. When I was eighteen and ready to hurl myself into the ocean,
I was in a bad place. Thatâ€™s how my therapist describes it. That ended after I
turned eighteen. . . . We still fight, though. Doesnâ€™t take much for us to start an
argument, heh. . . . But when our fights get too intense, I slide back into that bad
place . . . I lose control. For me, Meng Sheng is like this thing F. Scott Fitzgerald
described in The Great Gatsby: â€˜A single green light, minute and faraway, that
might have been the end of a dock.â€™ Every day, heâ€™d stare at the green light. If it
went out, that meant hope was gone. It was his only point of reference. Know
what I mean?â€
Chu Kuang smiled sweetly. I felt an overwhelming urge to stroke his hair. He
lowered his head into my lap, and Meng Sheng came over and curled up behind
him. The tiniest beads of moisture formed on the tip of his nose. . . .
PREFACE to The Secret Lives of Crocodiles Based on the research of a central
investigator who scaled mountains and forded rivers to locate the nearly
hundred-some crocodiles residing across the country, the lifestyle and
characteristics of the average specimen are compiled herein. Amid a recent
crocodile frenzy, one radical theologian has predicted that no prophet will
emerge from among the crocodiles, and that the gods will see to it that they are
all cast into a pit of flames. All things considered, it is indisputable that
crocodilesâ€”whether they are studied or scornedâ€”warrant closer attention.
Favorite TV shows: Hawaii Five-0, Variety 100, The 700 Club.
Likes: A houseful of lies, loversâ€™ talk, any housework that can be performed
with oneâ€™s tongue.
Toilet habits: HCG brand toilets (with Sujay brand toilet paper).
Wears: Only the finestâ€”Wacoal.
Hobbies: Knitting with wool yarn.
Mottoes: â€œThose who believe will find salvation.â€ â€œGod loves the common
Since it was unemployed, the crocodile went for a stroll. At the bus stop, by
the pay phone, was a stack of pamphlets with the words THE LIGHT OF JESUS
CHRIST on the cover, the mere sight of which frightened the crocodile out of its
wits. Could it be that even Jesus himself was a crocodile watcher? The crocodile
mischievously took out a red pen and ripped the first six pages from one copy.
On the last page, it drew a giant red X, and in one fluid stroke, inscribed the
following words: TRUEâ€”BUT DONâ€™T FEEL BAD, EVEN JESUS MADE A FEW MISTAKES!
The crocodile placed this pamphlet face-down on top of the stack so that it
would serve as the corrected edition. It merged into the crowd that was piling
onto the bus, and with a dimpled grin, watched in the rearview mirror as the bus
stop receded into the distance. . . .
Nostalghia. A burly man bundled in a heavy coat. He struggles to lift the
knitting needles in his right hand toward the ball of white yarn in his left. The
classroom is filled with the chattering of school-girls as they learn to knit. In
solitude the burly man, deeply engrossed in his stitches, wipes the sweat from
his brow. (The camera zooms out, and the depth of field expands.) On the second
floor are an aristocratic couple dressed in formal attire. The gentlemanâ€™s hands
are folded across his stomach, and the lady has put her arm through his. The
sound of the symphony swells, resplendent and exalted. The burly man has
grown thin. His coat now fits him loosely as he persists in knitting. Hunched
over, he mumbles to himself as the ball of yarn unravels, revealing a white wool
scarf in progress. (As the camera zooms out, the frame widens to capture the
ruins of an ancient faÃ§ade.) Built for the spectacle and pageantry of sports, the
three-story coliseum was at one time filled with the noise and clamor of crowds.
On the arena floor is the once burly man, now gaunt as a stick, who, in isolation,
has knitted a fluffy white dog. Snowflakes land on its fur coat. Thatâ€™s Tarkovsky.
I LIVED on Tingzhou Road during my second semester in 1989. It was right
before I turned twenty.
Twenty. I was stuck in a rut and feeling hopeless. I couldnâ€™t go on.
Life didnâ€™t feel real. My reality was the occasional call from family, the
twenty classes a week that kept me glued to a desk, the coming and going of
nameless faces in the classroom, taking tests between the ringing of bells, sitting
on a table in the student organization offices and goofing around, making plans
to hang out with people from my classes. I packed my evening schedule with
private tutoring and playwriting workshops. Every once in a while Iâ€™d meet
people who got me and weâ€™d hit it off. But even so, what good did it do me?
Joining the group meant Iâ€™d either be the one who mixed things up or Iâ€™d get lost
in the jumble. In reality Iâ€™d always be relegated to the margins. I forced myself
to put one foot in front of the other, reminding myself that there was a place for
me out there in those moments of happiness, even if I was a different person at
home, someone who went to bed shit-faced. It reminded me of a scene out of W.
Somerset Maughamâ€™s memoirs: My life was extraordinarily lacking in all sense
of reality, as if I were watching a different me playing various characters within
a mirage. I wanted to be kicked out into reality so badly. . . .
In May, the club president was relieved of her post. By then, van Goghâ€™s The
Potato Eaters had come to life. The painting shows four gloomy faces under a
dim light, figures with dark circles under their eyes, sitting around a table in a
cellar, divvying up the potatoes. At the changeover ceremony, Tun Tun and Chu
Kuang sat in the front row, grinning at me. Zhi Rou didnâ€™t go. Iâ€™d latched on to
the club for dear life in the year following my split from Shui Ling. Iâ€™d fled the
jaws of reality and become the paintingâ€™s central figureâ€”the fifth one, whose
back was turned. Whether I was delivering a rambling speech or serving
potatoes, I reeked of a degenerative disease of the spirit, the result of having
been sequestered for too long. The layer of glass had grown thicker and harder to
shatter. Life had drained me.
My twentieth birthday. I was in a bad place, and death was a speck on the
horizon. The night before my birthday, I took two yearsâ€™ worth of journals from
college and packed them with Shui Lingâ€™s letters, a copy of Haruki Murakamiâ€™s
Norwegian Wood, and Daddyâ€™s credit card, and I took the night train to
Kaohsiung. The white light of the station sign flooded my vision as I passed the
stop for my home. Inside the train, I felt as if I were being whisked away by the
wind, and tears filled my eyes. It was after one in the morning when I arrived in
Kaohsiung and lumbered over to the hotel, where I stayed in room 514. The
facilities were brand new, the bedsheets were clean, and the carpet was royal
blue. There were other amenitiesâ€”a white refrigerator, a TV, a stereo, a vanity
mirror, toilet-seat liners. Splayed out on the bed, I picked up and examined one
of the neatly arranged pieces of the ice queen (her name being two strokes shy of
being exactly that) and opened itâ€”
July 21, 1988
As you read this, you probably resent me and wonder why Iâ€™m writing to
you, why I wonâ€™t leave you alone. Or maybe youâ€™re sick of my being
evasive and immature. But that wonâ€™t be the case this time. Just listen. Iâ€™m
here to confess. Since you think we need to have a talk, it shouldnâ€™t be
asking too much for you to sit back and listen. In the end, it wonâ€™t affect
you. The only connection between us is the old you, and I can talk to her
whenever I want. All Iâ€™m asking you to do is open this letter and read it to
the end. Someday, when you meet someone whoâ€™s living in a prison, you
can remember how I was once imprisoned by you.
After you left, I was overflowing with love that nobody wanted. You left
me standing in the cold, with only you in my heart and nowhere else to
turn. I canâ€™t say I never thought of running off with whoever was
convenient. But I never did because everyone else seemed so inferior. I felt
that if I let anyone else into my heart for even a second, it would sully the
love weâ€™d shared. Iâ€™d never be able to live with myself. I couldnâ€™t hate you
or stop loving you, and that was only the beginning. It was impossible to
hate you, though I tried. I knew there was no hope of running away or
winning you back, but I still waited right where you left me. I imagined
there was a completely new you who met my needs, that my love was
requited. That way, I was never lonely in a crowd. I was just another
woman in love, lost in a daydream. My tragedy began when you left. I felt
like a child abandoned by her father, facing a hard road ahead.
My love has only grown stronger, leaving me helpless. Just like you
predicted, I didnâ€™t know what you were to me until it was too late. I wasnâ€™t
like you: I always knew it was love, that I should love while I could and
prepare myself to no longer be able to love. Only I was confused by my
attraction to you. The moment I experienced your tender side, I gave myself
completely. Thatâ€™s why it hurts so much that your cruel side took my love
and never returned it. Though I donâ€™t understand how thatâ€™s considered love
on your part, Iâ€™m not negating it either. I guess everyone has a different way
of expressing their love. No matter how it comes out, it always finds its way
to the person it was meant for. I just didnâ€™t knowâ€”or careâ€”if it would last.
Tell me, just this once, if you still think of me. And let me recklessly,
tenderly, tell you one more time: I love you.
Norwegian Wood: â€œIâ€™ve lost Naoko! Her beautiful flesh has vanished from this
world!â€ My leaden heart cracked open with sadness, and raging waves
submerged the embankment.
IN 1989, I entered my third year of college. Through the course of my postheartbreak purgatory, in those eighteen months of being cut off from the object
of my desire, I was a blind man fallen into the ocean. I spiraled downward,
deeper and deeper inside myself, until I sank to the seabed and slipped into a
sinister cave in which Shui Lingâ€™s beckoning was the only sound. Sometimes her
call grew distant, and other times it drew nearer. Finding myself at the border of
life and death, I followed her echo as it led me toward death.
Shui Ling was the only thing I had that was real. That year, my attic bedroom
on Tingzhou Road became like a coffin in which I lay awake at night, painfully
alone. She was the only one Iâ€™d been close to, and now there was no place where
my reality converged with the outside world. The look in her eyes, the sound of
her voice, snatches of our conversationsâ€”those sensory impressions formed a
leech that attached itself to me and started sucking my blood. I sealed the leech
in a plastic bag and kept it at a distance. But then I discovered white foam
spilling over my windowsill. The ocean was depositing its frothy residue, filling
my sanctum with wave after wave. To my horror, she insistently lived on inside
That was how I started to see things. Or maybe this was the product of the
schema that Iâ€™d long been usingâ€”unconsciouslyâ€”to block out the outside
world. That way of seeing had gotten me far in this world. But now everything
Iâ€™d achieved in my first twenty-one years of lifeâ€”connections Iâ€™d forged, status
Iâ€™d earned, talent Iâ€™d nurtured, possessions Iâ€™d acquired, and traits Iâ€™d developed
â€”were at the mercy of a death wish that negated it all. Iâ€™d always been
surrounded by people who cared for me, but no matter how much they loved me,
they couldnâ€™t save me: It just wasnâ€™t me. I never let others get too close and
simply paraded a fake me that resembled their image of me. Sweeping that other
me into their arms, they led me in a dance within societal norms, along a
trajectory based on a delusion. (Though I couldnâ€™t define what I was, I knew
what I wasnâ€™t.) I was shown the limits, and being confined within a set of walls
tormented me and drained me of life, for the real me spanned multitudes,
stretching far beyond the bounds of normality encircling ninety percent of the
There was no one I wanted to share my thoughts with. There was nothing I
could do to lessen the pain, no source that I could pinpoint. Secretly, though, I
did sort of enjoy being a fucked-up mess. Apart from that, I didnâ€™t have a whole
lot going on.
Who was the real me, then? It was an abstraction that hadnâ€™t yet taken shape
in my lifetime. Self-actualization became the fulcrum that my survival rested on.
Like a convict being hauled off to prison, I handed over my clothing and jewelry,
which were to remain locked away in storage, and in turn I was given the key. I
would wear the uniform of a prison convict for life, as that alone was permitted.
My greatest longing was to use that key, so I could steal a glance into Shui
Lingâ€™s eyes, which were so full of life.
Iâ€™ll tell you the kind of person I was. In the eyes of the average person, I was a
woman, but that vague semblance was an illusion, an easy category. In my own
mind, I was a beast straight out of Greek mythology: a centaur. Like that beast,
Iâ€™d willingly and madly fallen in love with a woman. Since Iâ€™d managed to shake
off this womanâ€™s affections, Iâ€™d succeeded in fleeing from all the desires and
fears that came with having someone special in my life. Over the course of
eighteen long months, a distant flame had been ignited and passed from one
candle to the next across a great distance until it would finally arrive at my
darkest hour, illuminating the candle I held before me. Until then, the
intermittent flicker of that flame was enough to console me. No matter who I
was, no matter how anyone else saw me, no matter whether I knew who I was,
somewhere on this planet there was someone whoâ€™d completely accept me,
whoâ€™d been trying to figure me out all along, who genuinely loved me.
And that, right there, was the truth. It hit me one night, under a cobalt sky. It
was during the summer vacation of my third year, on the cusp of late summer
and early autumn, and Iâ€™d just moved to Gongguan Road. The evening air was
cool. I was sitting at an intersection of Roosevelt Road and a brick road next to a
musical instrument shop. The piano melody of â€œThanksgivingâ€ played in my
head, putting me in a meditative mood as I took a few soft drags from a cigarette
and reflected on the five years that had passed since Iâ€™d left home for Taipei.
People had come into my life and left without a trace. Late at night, I sat in a
desolate corner of the city, dispatching lone smoke signals.
The gears of memory, now warmed, were set in motion: scenes of life with my
family when I was little; each of us children leaving home in succession until it
was my turn, and this scrawny kid lugged her bags all the way to Taipei; my high
school years, filled with secret crushes and the camaraderie of friends who
laughed and cried together, later torn apart in the process of growing up. Even if
we had prevented that estrangement, our former kindredness would be replaced
by a pained silence if we were to meet again. My college years were spent
among people who were like oil in water, unable to form bonds. A few friends
had broken through my shell and made me less alienated, but I didnâ€™t treat them
well, and it was my loss. My only salvationâ€”Shui Lingâ€”was as short-lived as a
rainbow. What the two of us had was an achievement on par with landing on the
moon, then floating in space with zero gravity. Images of all these people
flooded my mind. Some emotion of mineâ€”whether love, pain, or sorrowâ€”had
been preserved in each of their faces. But there was no escaping separation,
which was left to the mercy of fate. One by one, those dearest to me had
disappeared, and my memories, which I had so closely guarded, were ultimately
of little consolation.
My thoughts were awry. Separation awaited regardless of which way I turned,
ready to reduce me to a baby chick shivering in the rain. My eyes welled over to
the sounds of â€œThanksgiving,â€ and I set my bottle of beer down between my
legs. My tears were not those of pain, but of remorse and acceptance. Separation
was the thing Iâ€™d been dreading the most these past few years, and Iâ€™d been in
denial that it was a fact of life. Refusing to let go, Iâ€™d practically thrown a temper
tantrum. Whatâ€™s worse, my attempts to avoid separation had only hastened it. It
explained why Iâ€™d always been so quick to lash out at those I loved. My
realization was akin to discovering the lost city of Atlantis.
In my navy blue sweatpants, I strolled back to the main road. By day, the
streets of Taipei were noisy, congested, and putrid, but at night the scene was
tranquil. I sat down on the steps of the pedestrian bridge. Iâ€™d spent countless
lonely nights atop countless bridges, thinking about the people I loved, the
people who made me who I was. I knew Iâ€™d been here before, on this bridge
illuminated in purple. These bridges were all the same, and Iâ€™d sat like this
before, with my arms around my knees, watching the world below.
The beer tasted bitter. God knows how much Iâ€™d drunk in the two years I lived
alone, but it was clear Iâ€™d been having one long, silent cry. I simply hadnâ€™t
thought of it that way before. Then it hit me: If I died, what difference would it
make to the world? After all, no matter who I was, my death would be no more
significant, nor would I be spared from lonely nights. And really, what difference
did the world make to me, anyway? With that question, something stirred deep
inside me, making my body tremble. It did make a difference. I had needs like
anyone else, and sure, one of those needs was a little acknowledgment. But the
problem was the way I loved: It was the very cause of my pain.
A second later, I was leaning over the side of the bridge retching. My stomach
had purged itself, leaving a sour taste in my mouth. I had to let go of the people I
loved. The words came with a mouthful of vomitâ€”in one violent lurch, as if my
jaws were pried open and the contents of my stomach were ejected, leaving only
the whimpering mess that was me. The image of a tomb flashed in mind, and I
knew it contained all that was dear to me. It was shown to me like a geoglyph, a
giant symbol of my connections to the universe at large.
I wailed. No matter how loudly I sobbed, the sound was drowned out by the
noise of passing cars. Iâ€™d taken everyone I loved and killed them off in my heart,
one by one. Iâ€™d long been tending their gravesâ€”secretly visiting and mourning
during the day, going out and erecting a cross on starry nights, lying inside and
awaiting my own death on starless nights. That was my Atlantis, the kingdom
Iâ€™d built in the name of separation. Iâ€™d never before unearthed so much of
myself, and so suddenly at that. Inside the world of my tomb, everyone else was
dead, I alone survived, and that was the reason for my sorrow.
It didnâ€™t take long to spot the largest sarcophagus. It was the one in which
Shui Ling had been entombed, and across the front, it read: This woman is
madly in love with me. And then reality finally hit me. I had my old schema
(which offered a peephole, really) to blame for my decision to leave this woman,
to kill her and preserve her body in this sarcophagus, where sheâ€™d stay mine
forever. Iâ€™d evaded the perils of real relationships and robbed her of the ability to
change with time. These two prospects had given rise to my deep-rooted fear of
a real separation, which in turn yielded the avoidant mentality that had only
Thatâ€™s where I was after eighteen months. I didnâ€™t want to see or talk to her,
and Iâ€™d no longer allow her to set foot in my world. The paradox, of course, was
that my love for her would grow. Her corpse would remain in a sarcophagus
where I kept her closer than I could in reality. And I continued believing in that
unchanging world, which I was at peace with. It was as if Shui Ling simply went
on living her life, and it made no difference whatsoever to me.
But Shui Ling was living her life here in the same city as me, there was no
doubt about that. So then what?
1989. SHUI LING. Gongguan Road. My Romantic Tragedy, round two.
â€œThereâ€”itâ€™s for you!â€
It was a winter morning in a season identical to the year before. Iâ€™d just
finished a swimming lesson and was shivering from the cold. On that rare
occasion when Iâ€™d woken up early, the athletic fields were covered in a layer of
dew. I was riding down the sidewalk when a bicycle cut across my pathâ€”a letter
was tossed into my basket before the bicycle turned and sped off. I almost
squealed. It was Shui Ling.
â€œWhat are you doing here?â€ Pedaling fast to catch up to her, I managed to find
the warm and gracious tone Iâ€™d always reserved for her. Iâ€™d imagined this
scenario a million times before, and now it was happening. Over the past
eighteen months, Iâ€™d spotted her on campus from a distance from time to time.
Having been burned once, Iâ€™d decided to make a break for it if she actually
approached me. I was sure that if she started talking to me, I would die. I never
expected to stay so calm. It felt as if my tears were absorbed by a giant bath
towel before they could seep out, and there I was, as cheerful as ever.
She didnâ€™t notice me, and yet she didnâ€™t seem entirely focused on riding,
either. She stared at the road ahead, pedaling slowly, as if in a trance, oblivious
to the sights and sounds around her. Her purple scarf. I was supposed to be the
masculine one, and yet her elegance in a simple scarf and jeans left me weak at
the knees. I rode alongside her until we reached the intersection. No matter how
I tried to coax her, she continued straight ahead. As I waited for her to cross, my
now softened heart was wrung by the thought of being involved with her again. I
stopped and watched her ride into the distance.
I went home. After intense deliberation, I headed back to campus and sat
behind her in class. Unable to look away from her, I stared furtively instead. Her
expression hadnâ€™t changed. Engrossed in the lecture, she seemed to be off in
some faraway place, and it only stirred pangs of misery inside me. I squinted.
She was within armâ€™s reach, yet there was a canyon between us. I could
practically touch her, but every time I summoned all my strength to sidle up to
her, to reach out to her, I imagined myself backing away again and again. All I
could do was stare.
Sheâ€™d been silently resisting me for a while now. She wanted to avoid me, to
get away from me. Meanwhile I was trailing her like a spider gliding along a
thread. The purple envelope sheâ€™d dropped in my basket contained a vaguely sad
poem conveying the sentiment that it was meant to turn out this way. And with
that, the conflicting forces of attraction and repulsion were set off, desire was
piqued in a mix of rapture and painâ€”and I completely lost myself.
She walked with her head lowered, casting a glare my way a few times. Once
we reached the lakefront, she stopped and turned to face me. Her eyes widened.
A sudden boldness eclipsed her shyness. â€œWhat do you want?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ I replied, feeling at once innocent and prepared to show my
old brazenness. I knew I had her.
â€œWhat do you mean, you donâ€™t know?â€ she snapped.
One moment her temper flared, and the next sheâ€™d broken into a self-indulgent
smile. She turned toward the lake and sat down on the white metal bench, poking
a finger through the yarn of her red sweater. Her face slowly flushed.
â€œSorry, I lost control for a second. You pedaled right past me out of nowhere. I
wanted to see where you were going.â€
â€œYou lost control? Tell me, what do you expect me to do when you lose
â€œIf things have changed, fine. But if they havenâ€™t, then why canâ€™t they be like
they were before?â€
â€œNo. Not like before.â€ She shook her head forcefully. Her expression was
stern and unforgiving, as if Iâ€™d done something dreadfully wrong.
â€œIâ€™m with someone else now.â€
Those unexpected words came out as she shook her head frantically. For the
past three years, every fall had been the same. The wind had swept across the
surface of Drunken Moon Lake. The surrounding trees had swayed in a verdant
mass as the lake quivered lightly. The vivid sensations of the season had filled
my lungs, invigorating me. Last year, and the year before that, Iâ€™d stood alone in
the middle of an autumn field, a fleck of color, a minute consciousness within
the vastness of nature. Now that consciousness was jolted by her words, and it
widened in a blur, erasing me.
Like a pair of lovers whoâ€™d been exiled to opposite ends of the earth, weâ€™d
tearfully embraced each other. But in the end, I was left standing alone on that
Her resentment toward me hadnâ€™t been evident earlier, but now I understood
her pain. If I were to bemoan the fact that she had found someone else, she too
would understand my pain. It was the final standoff between two beasts. The
bare teeth of one tore into the flesh of the other in an expression of love
commingled with hatred. Incapable of licking each otherâ€™s wounds, the two of us
could only stand face-to-face and lament.
And as if that were not enough, the new someone was a woman. The words
cut into me, leaving me speechless.
Shui Ling said that just a few days ago, on her birthday, she had been given a
ring by that new someone. She had agreed to go out with her and even promised
to study abroad together. While I was secretly leaving roses on Shui Lingâ€™s
doorstep, she was returning home from a candlelit dinner wearing that other
personâ€™s ring, glowing with renewed desire. Before that, sheâ€™d been waiting day
and night for a sign. Once again, out of panic, sheâ€™d made an impetuous decision
and was tied down before she knew it.
Sheâ€™d waited for me for ten months, she said with a smirk. Her gaze was stiff.
After the two of us had been practically inseparable, and after the excruciating
heartbreak that had followed, sheâ€™d fled into someone elseâ€™s arms. They were
like daggers, her eyes. So she found someone who was better at intimacy than I
was. But she didnâ€™t want a man. That would only mar her pristine memories of
me, she said. Weâ€™d always be together in her heart, even if she was with
someone else. No one could take that away from her, especially not me here and
My heart ached. I felt guilty for having put her through such an ordeal. I felt
bad for driving her away with my latent self-destructive behavior. Yet out of this
morbid, deranged love of hers that pained me to the bone, out of fear of losing
the entire significance of our past, she was treating the present me with violent
God I wished I was dead. This woman had to be part of some hellish eternal
January 4, 1989
Now itâ€™s my turn to tell you something. I spent my twentieth birthday all
alone. I wanted to die, but that didnâ€™t happen. I didnâ€™t throw myself off the side
of a cliff. I vowed to do it but didnâ€™t have the will to follow through. As I stood
on the edge, you took hold of my heart, and suddenly I realized that somewhere
in this great big world, there really was a you that loved me. For a long time, you
and my family were the only ones who loved me, who would do anything for
me, but it wasnâ€™t the real me. No one loved the real me, and it caused me
suffering. Youâ€™re the only one who knows my pain. I once bared my soul to you.
Your love saw past the mess that I was. So in the end, I donâ€™t know why I only
remember your love hurting me. That notion backed me into a corner, told me
there was no place for me out there.
In the past I never understood. Then I had a devastating realization: Iâ€™d been
shown what was off-limits. I didnâ€™t have the strength to die, and the one thing I
was secretly living for was the very thing that I wouldnâ€™t let myself have. I was
headed astray as it was. The secret burned inside me, but because I failed to
understand it, I allowed the thing I wanted to elude reality.
So I found my way back. Thatâ€™s right: I came back. Iâ€™ve made a complete
turnaround since those days. I want to care for you. I want us to have a real
connection again. I used to be afraid of living, and now all I ever feel is the will
to live. But just like that, I was released from my mortal fear of what I truly
wanted. I wasnâ€™t trying to change anything by giving you roses on your birthday.
Maybe you think itâ€™s silly, but doing that kind of thing only proves that I donâ€™t
need to stop having feelings for you.
After eighteen months apart, I came back and stood at the wrought-iron gates
to your door, calm and collected. I knew you were out and about, that there was
no need to chase you down. You were a part of my world, behind its own gates.
Thatâ€™s how things were when we were together, when nothing could keep us
apart. I told myself that no matter what became of our relationship, I could
always return to that sacred place. The thought of it became like a guardian
angel by my side, and it seemed as if nothing could ever come between us.
You loved me. I couldnâ€™t grasp that, and this inability was at the core of my
death wish. I never believed that anyone could love the real meâ€”not even you.
Why didnâ€™t I get it? That has to do with my own issues. Ever since I was little
and started to learn what it meant to love, I never understood that I had to love
me tooâ€”otherwise, what was the point? If I wanted to join the rest of humanity,
the only solution was gradually to reveal my secret. I would begin to construct
what was in my internal blueprint. There was no other way I could go on. For
me, it was a matter of life and death, and of pain.
You know that I fall in love with women, that itâ€™s how I was designed. What
you donâ€™t know is how I suffered during that year with you. Thereâ€™s no way
youâ€™ll ever comprehend how painful it was for me to be alive. My selfactualization was forbidden. That was why I had to leave you.
I once said you were so happy that it made me feel lonely. But the truth is, I
was so hardened by pain that you couldnâ€™t touch me. Relying on only a loverâ€™s
intuition, the way a blind man reads a cluster of braille, you reached for me, but
your touch was painful, and it broke me down a little more every time. You were
like acid on my limestone, unaware of how hardened I was. My sense of self had
begun to disintegrate, and so I had to flee. Still, you know nothing of how it
transformed me, nor do you realize how I altered your destiny.
For you, being in love with a woman is natural, the same as being in love with
a man. You didnâ€™t believe in unhappy endings, much less admit that misfortune
lay ahead, awaiting you. So you took the agony in my eyes to be part of my
tragic disposition, and as in any lopsided romance, you partook of the happiness.
But Iâ€™m like a father to you, only younger. A lover with a beautiful soul,
nothing special about it. For you, it was an ordinary happiness. I was the one
who shouldered the burden when we experienced two discrete halves of the love
My world is one of tainted sustenance. I love my own kindâ€”womankind.
From the moment my consciousness of love was born, there was no hope of
cure. And those four wordsâ€”no hope of cureâ€”encapsulate my state of suffering
to this day. My condition is one that will keep me in shackles for life.
My desires led me to sample a cuisine known as woman, and I got hooked.
Confronted with my own inclination, I saw three possible courses of action: (1)
Undergo a change of diet; (2) Invent an antidote; (3) Try the old â€œsubstituteâ€
trick. Undergo a change of diet. With this approach, I try to find the will to
overturn my fate before even getting involved. I spent all spring in isolation,
basking in my desires, having realized it was futile to try to repress one
orientation and adopt another. I was able to contain my fears to a certain extent,
for a time.
Hereâ€™s a delusional and misguided hypothesis: If I could just fall in love with
a man, it would put an end to the anguish of having fallen in love with a woman
by somehow overwriting that earlier consciousness. Falling in love with a man
and falling in love with a woman are two completely different things. My
attraction to women has materialized, and regardless of whether it becomes a
thing of the past, itâ€™s a part of me. By the same token, the part of me battling that
attraction has been around even longer. Itâ€™s like taking a bucket of black dye and
adding other colors to it, hoping to change black into a different color. You can
try, but youâ€™ll never succeed.
Iâ€™ll never fall in love with a man, just as most men canâ€™t simply fall in love
with another man. Ultimately, a forced change of diet is demeaning. I discovered
who I was through not being readily accepted by society. My identity was fully
formed long before I was ever actualized, and it wasnâ€™t going to change even if I
kicked and screamed. When it reached the point where I couldnâ€™t take it
anymore, I entered a state of denial and started injuring myself. Do you
understand what Iâ€™ve been going through?
I was in love with you. I wanted to give myself to you. The benefit of
hindsight makes retracing this story even more painful. When Gide left his wife,
he told her in a parting letter, â€œAt your side, I have nearly rotted.â€ And then he
freed himself to love. It was too late to find a cure: Decay had already set in.
During those six short months when there were feelings between us, I became
a monster. That monster caressed you, its paws held you, and its maw pressed
against you in a kiss. With its monster desires, it lusted after your body. It took in
the adoration and admiration in your eyes, which reflected nothing of the
monsterâ€™s shadow. The experience, every bit of it, brutally scathed me.
Iâ€™m unworthy of loving you. Iâ€™ve struggled to find self-worth, but I canâ€™t expel
the monsterâ€™s consciousness still lurking beneath my skin. If my self-worth was
already wounded, my experience with you only put salt in that wound.
You opened a realm that exposed me. The deeper and harder I fell for you, the
more grotesque I felt. The shackles that had been holding me down were
removed. But in my mind, the monsterâ€™s face had taken over. Every night since
the birth of this monster, I lay in horror, unable to sleep. I groaned in agony, a
patient trapped in a slowly dying body.
I didnâ€™t know whether Iâ€™d arrived at a final self-discovery or just a bend in the
road, but my instinct was to retreat. Arrows were loaded onto a bow and fired
fast into the field called romantic love. In a violent, pent-up fury of self-hatred
and insecurity, Iâ€™d stretched the bow taut. Then, after an internal tussle, came a
state of perfect calm. The force applied to the bow was enough to shoot clean
through my target, and with a single arrow our fates intermingled in a pool of
blood. From there, I resorted to my nefarious ways, chopping you to pieces
despite your sobbing and pleading, and savagely tossing the parts in the woods.
Your eyes, which shed innocent tears in the wake of horror, never showed
anything but unyielding trust in me.
I didnâ€™t accept myself. There was no curing the me that had come forth. Iâ€™d
ingested the poison long ago, and its origins were in the whole of humanity,
whoâ€™d infected me with their collective chorus. Before I could ever reveal the
real me, first I had to remove the label on me that read NEGATED and tear it up.
Before my twentieth birthday, I never believed that you loved me, and as a
result, I made a huge mistake. Without a doubt, it was my own wrongdoing. My
self-loathing and defeatism made me see the world through shit-smeared eyes.
Having only known unfulfilled yearnings, I thought that love was a long shot,
that keeping my pride intact was a far safer bet. I didnâ€™t think I was worthy of
being loved. Though you showed me that you loved me, I assumed it was
because youâ€™d never experienced a manâ€™s love, that you didnâ€™t know the social
disapproval weâ€™d face, and that you couldnâ€™t tell I was seriously fucked in the
head. I thought that in the end, youâ€™d still need a man, that you were just going
through a confused phase, and that sooner or later, Iâ€™d be dumped so that you
could move on to the next shiny new thing.
The only thing left is to survive by means of the old substitute trick. Iâ€™ve tried
everything in my quest to replace that source of sustenance. I managed to hide
the void from myself, but as soon as my fast ended, I craved it anew. My aching
desires, born of a hunger for love, sent tremors through my badly starved body.
Having once tasted that sustenance, Iâ€™m reduced to a living death without it,
tainted or not.
Shui Ling, you probably have no idea that Iâ€™ve spent the past eighteen months
in full-on avoidance mode. I donâ€™t know how else to go on. Iâ€™ve been throwing
myself into busywork that surrounds me with people, then escaping into alcoholinduced numbness, among other diversions. Itâ€™s a cycle that helps me put one
foot in front of the other. Itâ€™s not much comfort, but itâ€™s all I have.
Iâ€™m doomed to my fate . . . and I canâ€™t resist the temptation to look back. The
moment you call, I turn around. Thatâ€™s the punishment fate has chosen for me.
You said Iâ€™d always be with you, even when you found someone new. How did
you not expect me to come back needing you? You spitefully told me the news
there was already someone new, that it was me who lost out, and it marked the
end of us. What a cruel joke. I left you, this woman, hoping Iâ€™d leave no trace of
me, this monster, that our connection would disintegrate and be buried in the
darkest recesses of your mind, that youâ€™d cross back over to normalityâ€”get
married, have kidsâ€”and live within the boundaries of ordinariness. All of
recorded human history, at least, seems to support that basic formula for
happiness. How I wish youâ€™d become part of that other world.
When all is said and done, you and I arenâ€™t quite cut from the same cloth.
Society still considers you a normal woman. Your love for me was a feminine,
maternal love that can just as easily be extended to any man. Basically, the only
difference between you and other women is that your heart is more open. But
me, our relationship left me fundamentally altered. You tore me open and
exposed the man inside. That new me has no rightful place within humanity. I
donâ€™t think youâ€™ve been cast out. You can still return to that place where Iâ€™m no
I came back, but for what? Your choice of someone new is hard to take, even
humiliating. In The Box Man, Kobo Abe wrote about a man who hid himself in a
box wherever he went. One day, this man peeped out and saw another man
peeping out from inside of his own box, which aroused the naked woman in
front of him. It made the box man feel angry and ashamed of himself. Even if
that isnâ€™t quite the case here, it should give you a sense of my shame and the
extremes Iâ€™ve been pushed to.
In the days that have passed since we saw each other, Iâ€™ve tried to recall the
details, but shame hinders me. As I have no image of your new loverâ€™s face, the
process has been a little like reconstructing the details of a mass shooting.
So I succumbed to the temptation to turn around. And in doing so, I was
ensnared in a new trap I never saw coming. My hand is growing cramped and is
shaking as I write this. Until that moment, I believed you were still in love with
me. It was the conviction that gave me strength when I was ready to die, when I
was lost during those eighteen months of separation after the cord was cut. Why
did you have to do this now? One of my oldest fearsâ€”being dumped for that
shinier, newer thingâ€”has come true. Iâ€™ll never be able to piece myself back
together. While I was taken to the altar as a sacrifice, back home a stick of
incense was already burning for someone else. Whatâ€™s left of the world I once
This dilemma leaves me with little recourse but to remove the box around me.
Itâ€™s time I shed my unworthiness, let my feelings of shame and doom die away,
and purge my self-hatred. I want to meet your pure embrace. Meaning that even
if you were to choose an ordinary life of marriage, Iâ€™d still come see you. Like
you were family to me. Is that will to love enough? Is it enough? Life is so much
more complicated than I ever imagined, and nothing is as easy as it seems. We
meet at the border of mutual attraction and repulsion, and between us is a row of
thorns. The two of us (or perhaps three) have been ravaged, yet no one can walk
away. Tell me, is loveâ€”along with honesty, patience, and determinationâ€”strong
enough? Is it?
LETâ€™S TALK for a moment about the relationship between Derek Jarman and Jean
Because this country is small and crowded, and life is monotonous, and each
day filled with a never-ending stream of media, so-called Crocodile Fever had
reached an all-time high. It was now the longest segment on the news,
illustrating the publicâ€™s appetite for information. A high-level alert had been
issued in the past few days (the government agency overseeing the hunt had
taken out a million-dollar bounty for the capture of the first specimen), so the
crocodile had no choice but to quit its job and hide out at home for the time
being, living off its savings. It thought about how it had catapulted to the top of
the nationâ€™s most popular celebrities. Even the president had concluded his
inauguration speech with the remark â€œI hope that one day all of you will love me
the way you love crocodiles,â€ calling on citizens everywhere to partake in the
chase. The crocodile licked its lips, suppressing its secret feelings of
unworthiness. It felt honored. In fact, it was seized with the urge to go on
national television and tell everyone in the country: â€œHey, here I am!â€
In 1991, after I got my college diploma, I started reading Hemingway and
Faulkner. Sensing that my gifts were yet to be realized, I hunkered down at home
to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. After three months, that dream was
shattered. I was kicked out of the house. I became a server at a teahouse (which,
if you think about it, isnâ€™t so badâ€”Faulkner said the best job for a writer is to
work at a brothel since you can write all day and enjoy a rich social life at night,
which pretty much describes a teahouse). One evening around closing time, just
as the last customer was leaving, an ad was discreetly posted on the bulletin
board across the bar:
NOTICE: Calling all crocodiles! The next gathering is at midnight on
December 24th in room 100 of the Crocodile Bar. Weâ€™re throwing a
Christmas Eve masquerade ball. . . .
The Crocodile Club
When the crocodile discovered the ad, it was so excited that it didnâ€™t sleep for
days. It had never occurred to the crocodile before that there were other
crocodiles, and whatâ€™s more, they had already formed a club! Could that possibly
mean there was a place to go and others to talk to? The thought of it made the
crocodile melt a little. As it sucked on the corners of its comforter, giant
teardrops welled up in its eyes.
On Christmas Eve, the crocodile showed up at midnight on the dot. At the
entrance of the bar, two attendants in white tuxedos were helping the guests
remove their coats. Unaccustomed to such amenities, the crocodile shrank back.
The attendants asked the crocodile to write down an alias. The crocodile wrote
Jean Genet, then whispered, â€œIs everyone here a crocodile?â€ The attendants
nodded. When the crocodile saw that the name next to Jean Genet was Derek
Jarman, it flushed. It wanted to crawl under the reception table and hide.
Inside, the bar was already packed. The space was enormous and the decor
sumptuous. The crocodile felt as if it were home at last. Why did everyone elseâ€™s
human suits fit so securely? it thought. It had never before dawned on the
crocodile that everyone else was just as shy as it was. Suddenly, it imagined a
scene: On that cold winter night, everyone was huddling together for a group
In the middle of the masquerade ball, the voice of someone on the sidelines
came through the loudspeakers: â€œWeâ€™d like to give a big thank you to the
Chemical Trust Corporation for supporting this tenth edition of the Crocodile
Club. For nearly half a year, the corporation has been carrying out top-secret
research on human suits to benefit humanityâ€™s keen and longtime interest in
crocodiles. Just a few days ago, it launched a new product, the Human Suitâ„¢ 3,
designed to meet the needs of those who exhibit latent crocodile tendencies. We
hope that each and every one of you will upgrade your current suit for a brandnew one. Now, since this next song is an uptempo dance number and we donâ€™t
want to see anyone overheat, when I yell one, two, three!, I want everyone to
strip off their suits.â€
At the count of one, two, three!, the light switch was thrown, and the entire
crowd shouted in unison: â€œCrocodiles!â€
A split second earlier, Iâ€™d distracted the stage manager and unplugged the
lighting console, hurried back over to where the crocodiles were, and darted out
the back exit, fleeing in a human suit. Moments later, everything came to a
complete halt. Panic broke out, and the crowd made a mad dash for the door.
With all the neighbors having crashed the party, it created a stampede. I was the
one whoâ€™d gone by the name of Jarman. From the moment the crocodiles set
foot in the room, Iâ€™d suspected that the guest of honor was none other than a
Jarman was a British film director who died young. I saw his film The Garden
at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei. Around that time, a crocodile had
arranged for me to hide out in a teahouse basement. The material that crocodile
provided and Jarmanâ€™s cinematic techniques prompted me to write this novel.
Upon receiving my degree, I had written: â€œWoe is me . . . I was so close to being
able to meet people without having to wear a human suit all the time. Whyâ€™d I
have to be dragged off?â€ The crocodile stretched out on some cushions from the
teahouse it had strewn across the wood floor. It lay on its back with its feet
propped defiantly against the wall.
â€œEveryone wants to get a good look at me . . . at you. . . .â€ Then the
crocodile added reluctantly, â€œDonâ€™t you understand that?â€ Realizing that it had
never before been in the company of one of its own, it stammered a little. â€œBut
how am I actually different?â€
I nodded. â€œRegarding Genet,â€ the crocodile began, â€œthere was no greater
luminary. Raised in a French penitentiary, he lived a dozen lives, always going in
and out of prison. In the end, beloved for his artistic genius, he was granted
amnesty by Saudi Arabia. . . .â€
Mounted in the corner of the room was an 8mm camera pointed at the
crocodile. Keeping one eye locked on the viewfinder, I devoured a bowl of handpulled egg noodles topped with vegetables. The miniature crocodile in the frame
was ecstatic as it delivered its soliloquy. Words streamed out of the crocodileâ€™s
mouth, faster and faster, like a high-speed film projection, until the very end,
when there was only the sound of the film strip flickering. . . . The crocodile had
talked nonstop for three straight days without sleeping. Though I was dog-tired
by then, I remembered its last words: â€œI gotta pee!â€
AFTER the storm, a rainbow appeared. We stood together on the pier and bid
farewell to our sorrows, which by then had sunk to the bottom of the sea. Weâ€™d
reached the end of the road. As the renewal of desires sent us each searching
elsewhere, we embraced the new-found freedom ahead, deeming the last
experience a novelty and leaving its messy details in the past. Our desires guided
us down a fogbound road marked by one sign after another: a triangle crossed
out a circle, which concealed an arrow, which pierced a triangle. Then a right
turn onto a one-way street led to a detour in unchartered territory. . . .
I found a black leather-bound notebook pinned to the bulletin board in the
Literature Department. The notebook was densely crammed with text, each page
packed with the same hasty scrawl. The personal info page revealed Meng
Shengâ€™s name, address, and telephone. Seeing his name, I couldnâ€™t hold back
tears, which dampened one of the pages. What was it about our bizarre
relationship that made me so sad?
â€œHey Meng Sheng, I found your black notebook. I thought Iâ€™d return it, so I
took a peek inside.â€
â€œWhat? You wanted to see me? Careful, or youâ€™ll fall in love with me.â€
Itâ€™d been almost half a year since Iâ€™d last seen him. He had a flat-top haircut
and was dressed in a wool suit, a cream-colored checked shirt, with a dark green
silk scarf draped around his neck, hanging to his knees. He looked stately,
aristocratic even. We met at an underground bar filled with smoke from floor to
ceiling. A foreign act, a band of long-haired metalheads, was performing
onstage. The barâ€™s ambience evoked the interior of a primordial cave.
â€œMeng Sheng, letâ€™s not play games tonight, okay? I thinkâ€”â€
â€œAm I becoming important to you?â€ He raised his right hand, signaling for me
to stop talking. Speaking in a low voice, he stared vacantly at the band.
Heâ€™d become mercurial. As I leaned in closer to him, one of my arms was
illuminated by the lasers that shone in all directions while the other retained its
natural hue. The tiny space was virtually light safe. Our surroundings, including
the customers sitting at the other tables, were as hazy as a charcoal sketch. We
were sealed inside the barâ€™s gritty atmosphere as the metal band pounded away.
â€œDo you see that? That big table with a dozen or so guys, all decked out in
those crazy costumes? And there . . . that other table with those two women with
their heads down? Those people are all genderless. Or maybe I should say,
theyâ€™re opposed to being bound by simplistic signifiers of gender. And see those
two other bald guys?â€ Meng Sheng pointed to the lead singer. â€œHeâ€™s the
proprietor of this place. I call him Nothing. Thatâ€™s the name of this place. See the
scar on his face? Thatâ€™s from twenty-some-odd stitches. He took a fruit knife to
himself when he was twenty and made a blood oath: He vowed to cut through
the other self that had been handed to him by other people. It wasnâ€™t the real
him. Then he traveled around the world with just a backpack and became his
â€œMeng Sheng, I donâ€™t want to hear about that. Thereâ€™s something I have to
talk to you about.â€ He was sitting on a barstool, hands gripping the edge of the
seat between his legs, which were twitching to the rhythm of the music. There
was an emptiness in his eyes as he stood up to join the crowd, which had been
worked into a frenzy and was now a collective organism throbbing violently.
The bald-headed Nothing was at center stage. Amid a wall of drumming that
appeared to be an interlude, he looked over at Meng Sheng temptingly, then
motioned with one finger for Meng Sheng to join him onstage. Taking his cue,
Meng Sheng slipped off his jacket and leapt onto the stage. The room greeted
him with a burst of applause. Then, in unison, the audience began pounding on
the tabletops, stomping and shouting: Bony. Bonyâ€”Bony. Bony.
Meng Sheng grabbed a microphone and unleashed a rapid string of words in
English. He remarked that he hadnâ€™t sung in a year and was surprised everyone
remembered him. Tonight, because heâ€™d come with a special friend, heâ€™d be
performing a special song.
The band launched into a ballad. Meng Sheng and Nothing came together in a
duet, a soul number. Meng Shengâ€™s scarf was draped across his chest, and he had
a seductive glow about him. Turning to face each other, Meng Sheng and
Nothing started grinding to the music. Their hips drew closer and closer, until
they were almost brushing, and the audience went wild. The two men flicked
their tongues at each other hypnotically. Just as the performance reached a
climax, the band abruptly ended the song.
â€œWhat, you canâ€™t handle seeing this kind of thing out in the open?â€ Meng
Sheng asked me through the door of the ladiesâ€™ room. While watching their
performance, I had downed both Meng Shengâ€™s brandy and my own in one gulp.
A second later, I bolted to the restroom, my stomach wrenching.
â€œNo, itâ€™s not that I canâ€™t take it. Itâ€™s just that my mind and my body are out of
sync. . . .â€ I struggled to get the words out between mouthfuls of vomit.
â€œAre you okay?â€ Meng Sheng lifted a hand, considering whether to open the
door. â€œThis place is lame. Itâ€™s totally gone downhill. Back when I was a fixture
here, Nothing and I would find girls who were willing to do it right then and
there. I even took a crap in the middle of a performance once. Youâ€™d have to be
nuts if it didnâ€™t make you want to puke!â€
â€œMeng Sheng, youâ€™ve known all along about my issues, havenâ€™t you?â€
Regaining my composure, I sat down on the toilet.
â€œI took one look and saw right through you.â€ He sat down too and peered at
me through the slits of the vent in the bathroom door that separated us.
â€œIâ€™m screwed, just like you and Chu Kuang. Iâ€™m trapped in a destructive cycle
and I canâ€™t break out of it.â€ Saying those words aloud, I felt, for the first time,
emancipated from the strictures of humanity. I whimpered.
â€œHoly fucking Mother of Jesus, is that a vote in favor of Godâ€™s existence!â€
Meng Sheng slammed his fist against the door. â€œWe come from a long line of
deviants throughout history, all with the same final destination in the celestial
order: death. But not every death is a life fully realized, nor is there any
guarantee youâ€™ll make it to the age of ninety. Any history that says I canâ€™t live
forever is bullshit. Since I was five and as far as I can remember, really, Iâ€™ve
hated every breath that Iâ€™ve ever taken. But gradually I started to understand. Do
you know what I hate most? Itâ€™s time. Heh. How can you defy time and space?
What does heaven hold for those who do? Hey, weâ€™re the chosen ones!â€
â€œIt hasnâ€™t gotten that bad for me, Meng Sheng. Thereâ€™s still something inside
me thatâ€™s pulling me back from death. Itâ€™s not just physical instinctâ€”itâ€™s a
â€œWhen I turned twenty, thatâ€™s when things got tough. But it forced me to fight
my way out. The universe has a plan for me. . . .â€ I paused. The weight of shame
had been lifted from my lips, and I had never been able to speak so openly
before. For so long, thereâ€™d been a wall between me and everyone else, and now
that it was gone, I felt like crying. â€œMeng Sheng, as long as thereâ€™s a woman for
me to love, Iâ€™ll know Iâ€™m headed somewhere!â€ I stopped, and in spite of my best
efforts to hold back, tears came pouring out. I couldnâ€™t find the words anymore. I
was just proud to have broken out of that strait-jacket, at least partway, though it
made me sad to think of how long I had struggled inside of it.
â€œCome out. You have my undying respect. Plus I want to give you a hug.â€
From the other side of the vent, Meng Sheng stuck his tongue out at me. â€œNow
itâ€™s time to take a celebratory piss.â€ There was the sound of a zipper being
yanked down. He relieved himself, whirling in a circle around the lavatory, and
sending a woman running out with a shriek.
â€œNothing really matters. You have to burrow deep down into the marrow of
death itself, beneath the thousands of layers of this mortal flesh that can be
peeled away, one after anotherâ€”your ancestors, your parents, your peers, all the
people who are extrinsic to you. And there, buried within, are bodily memories
that are at war with your spiritual being, and those memories have to be executed
at gunpoint one by one, until thereâ€™s nothing left except a worthless pile of tripe.
Thatâ€™s the abyss of deathâ€”and itâ€™ll make you relish being nothing but a pile of
tripe.â€ There was conviction in Meng Shengâ€™s voice.
â€œBut Meng Sheng, every time I fight my way out, the outside world just
blocks my path again. It never gets better. Iâ€™m constantly on the border of life
and death, waiting for something to come along and push me over the edge.â€
â€œDid I tell you the story of the goddess yet?â€ Meng Sheng sighed. â€œI was
secretly in love with someone you might call a goddess. This was before I met
Chu Kuang and around the time Iâ€™d just given up my career as a hoodlum and
gone back to school. I was in the choir, and she was the conductor. I didnâ€™t dare
approach her. I knew I wasnâ€™t in her league. For a while, I was all buttoned up,
and then suddenly, the seven or eight people in our circle were like family to me.
When I was with them, I got to experience what it was like to feel normal. They
didnâ€™t know the other side of me at all. I felt so innocent when I was with them.
Whenever one of them brought out that other side of me, Iâ€™d feel disgusted with
myself. Thatâ€™s how I ended up watching the goddess fall for this other guy,
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Meng Shengâ€™s face and slicked-back
hair, those dark, penetrating eyes that could be so gentle and soulful. His
forehead was broad and his cheeks angular. His features were so expressive, his
face so changeable. As a performer, he was blessed with versatility. I was always
taken by his charisma: It was fascinating to watch him be himself. But those
handsome looks also kept his despair well hidden.
â€œStupid, right? It was never love. Over time, my fixation with her got worse. I
never even talked to her, but the fantasy of her grew like a tumor. I looked for
her nose, her eyebrows, even the silhouette of her legs, on the face of women I
saw on the street. I started to have feelings for every woman. In the end, I
betrayed the goddess by sleeping with just about anything that moved.
â€œItâ€™s funny, though. I tried to think about the goddess when I was jerking off in
the shower. I tried a few times, but I couldnâ€™t do it. Every time, I just couldnâ€™t
maintain an erection. If I thought about her, this person whoâ€™d never thought
about me for even a second, I felt like some kind of slimy creature, slobbering
all over her image, which is like. . . .â€ Trailing off, Meng Sheng slid onto the
â€œI never wouldâ€™ve guessed that about you.â€ Standing beside him, I held the
door open for a long time. Courage swept over me, and I embraced him,
wrapping his head in my arms.
DURING the period when the crocodile lived in the teahouse basement, it
displayed an impressive adaptability. For that alone, it deserved a Golden Horse
Award (a Golden Horse because it was the only awards ceremony that wouldnâ€™t
make the crocodile wear a human suit and take a clear-cut stance) or a darlingof-eugenics award (it would surely inspire the development of a better diaper).
Due to its highly regimented lifestyle, the crocodile didnâ€™t need an alarm clock
to wake up in the morning. Though the basement got little sunlight, the crocodile
woke up at six a.m. like clockwork. It wore a fresh set of brown checked
pajamas belonging to the proprietressâ€™s son. The sleeves and pant legs were too
short. In its hand was a stuffed crocodile it had made from a dozen handkerchiefs
wound together and wrapped with one big handkerchief. Every night, the
crocodile clung to its toy as it slept.
The crocodile slept in a nook it had carved out among its possessions. When it
woke, it would groggily squeeze its eyes shut before scrambling for the toilet in
the corner, where it then sat. It took advantage of the hazy light at daybreak to
crawl up to the gutter, where it rolled over on its back. Those were the only times
the crocodile got any fresh air.
The crocodile had a pre-breakfast exercise regimen: It would leap up and
touch the ceiling a hundred times. Fearing the neighbors might detect the
presence of a crocodile, it developed a routine that could be performed in
virtually any living space. With no canned crocodile food, the crocodile found a
hot pot in the pantry and used it to cook up three wildly inventive meals a day.
In the morning, the crocodile would read. It read practically anything that had
letters printed on itâ€”the labels on the goods stored in the basement, the stock
listsâ€”but what it loved most of all was Wonders of the World magazine. In the
afternoon, it listened to a transistor radio as it worked on handicrafts. Sometimes
it knit wool sweaters, other times it practiced the art of Chinese knotting, and
still other times it assembled toy models. It sent me all these things, along with
an invoice. Even if I didnâ€™t want them, I couldnâ€™t refuse.
At night, it watched television (on my small TV set) until ten oâ€™clock, when it
crawled back into its sleeping nook. Whenever I told it a bedtime story, it gladly
tossed me a coin from its piggy bank.
â€œJarman, can I write a letter to the radio station and request a song? Iâ€™m a
â€œSure. What name are you going to use?â€
â€œOh, that wonâ€™t work. Everyone will track you down for an interview. What
song do you want to hear?â€
â€œI want to request my own â€˜The Ballad of the Crocodileâ€™ and dedicate it to
Jarman.â€ The crocodile had a peculiar habit: It never looked at me unless it was
wearing a human suit. Since it didnâ€™t usually wear one in the basement, it faced
the 8mm camera whenever it wanted to talk to me. In order to see its expression,
I had to look through the viewfinder until I got tired of conversing from behind a
screen, a partition that had been erected at the crocodileâ€™s request.
The crocodile was a natural-born performer. It simply turned to the camera
and said, â€œA medium of communication, eh? Well, Iâ€™ll be the first to have done
this.â€ When I wasnâ€™t around, it turned the camera on and talked to me all the
â€œHey crocodile, whereâ€™d you hear the name Genet?â€
â€œAh, a book called Baby and Mother. It said there was a Frenchman named
Genet who was an orphan. When he was little, he was locked up in prison, so
thatâ€™s where he was raised. The other prisoners became like parents to him. Later
on, when his biological mother came and sought him out, he refused to
acknowledge her. The prison had become his home. After completing his
sentence, he intentionally committed crimes just to get locked up again! Jarman,
are you allowed to watch TV in prison?â€
â€œYou can, but thereâ€™s no way to request songs. Crocodile, do you think youâ€™ll
â€œHow would I know? Iâ€™ve never met another crocodile before.â€
SENIOR year was the last time I ever saw Tun Tun and Zhi Rou together. The
entire club had gathered before the presidentâ€™s departure, and the location was
my fifth-floor attic residence on Tingzhou Road. More than a dozen people were
packed inside my little lair playing cards, munching, chatting, drinking,
snoozing. We were a lively bunch, carrying on into the wee hours. It was the
coziest winter night ever.
The whole time, I watched them at the stereo, deejaying. They were Western
music fanatics, these two. They huddled together on the floor, where, under the
cover of their spirited discussion of the eveningâ€™s set list, they seemed to
communicate with some kind of tacit understanding. Iâ€™ll never forget how
earnestly they introduced every song, going on and on about its contents and the
genre, or sharing little anecdotes. You could hear the excitement in their voices
and see a sparkle in their eyes. It was obvious that music had kindled a fierce
bond between them.
They didnâ€™t mean to ignore the others. It was just that theyâ€™d found a warm
and fuzzy place within that particular crowd. It was perhaps to be their final
musical collaboration, and the last time they got along like they did in the old
People were dozing off. Tun Tun was playing a keyboard softly. They hadnâ€™t
seen each other in some time, and there was a visible awkwardness. They didnâ€™t
know where things stood anymore. Zhi Rou looked at Tun Tun with those
intense, penetrating eyes, then turned to me. With her coat draped over her
shoulders, she walked to the window and gazed at the full moon, low and
Though the years have passed, I still cherish that moment from a bygone era.
Even if no one else has given it another thought, the memory is preserved inside
of me. Because I was able to witness the last time that things were good between
them, the picture I have of those two together heals the sorrow in my heart.
From that point on, my memories of them diverged. Whenever I ran into one
of them, she would avoid bringing up the otherâ€™s name. But in time, I saw that
deep down inside, each still harbored a flicker of longing for the other. And so I
let my separate conversations with them become entwined in my mind, so that
they lived on as a pair in my heart and continued growing up together, chatting
away just like old times.
Our natural affinity was profound. Weâ€™d hit it off from the start, and even after
they went their separate ways, each still gave me her pure, unadulterated trust.
No matter when or where, if I was alone and I ran into one of them, she would
manage to drag even the teensiest worries out of me, then weâ€™d sit together
laughing and joking around. Throughout our casual friendships, I hid how much
I cared about them, though their eyes reflected the utmost warmth and
tenderness, and their complete sincerity indicated that I could confide in them.
Iâ€™d only divulged my secrets to Meng Sheng and Chu Kuang, and so, after my
twentieth birthday, I decided that regardless of the consequences, I would
bravely approach these girls: I would drop the whole faÃ§ade of being a protector
and tell them how I really felt. So what if my worst nightmares came trueâ€”if
they spurned me, thought I was lying and didnâ€™t believe me, or stared at me
coldly as I grew embarrassed and defensive, desperately fumbling for the right
words. They had reached out to me and shown that I could trust them, forever
changing my world. Now that I was on my way to breaking free of the prison Iâ€™d
been living in, I was dying to be close to someone, and this was the same feeling
that the old me had once extinguished in myself. And so I made up my mind that
I would learn trust through a relationship in which lust had no part. First there
had to be love and equality, so that the relationship would be built on pure trust.
A lightbulb had gone on in my head: I had to take responsibility for my state
of misery. This was a major turning point, my first step in learning to open up.
This elementary move may have come intuitively to others, but I had to learn
how to get around in the world without the same sense of sight, and my white
cane had just found that first raised dome on the pavement.
These two girls matured into beautiful, loving women, each leaving her own
messy trail of complicated relationships with men along the way. Though they
never saw each other again, both remembered that the first person they had ever
fallen in love with was a girl. Emotions may have been pure and genuine in their
salad days, but even back then, theyâ€™d known that it would never work out. In
the years that followed, each started to gravitate toward men, never again
exhibiting an interest in women.
One night, I ran into Zhi Rou near the underground entrance to campus.
â€œHey, donâ€™t you recognize me, Lazi?â€ Holding a bouquet of flowers, she stood
blocking my route home.
â€œI was wondering who that was! You change your hairstyle at least once a
month. I thought, Whoâ€™s that standing in front of me, calling my name? How am
I supposed to recognize you?â€ I said, reeling from shock.
â€œOkay, enough chitchat. Iâ€™m about to run to the recreation center to deliver
some flowers. Itâ€™s for this guy who plays the cello.â€ She winked at me
mischievously. â€œQuickâ€”give me your phone number. Iâ€™m guessing that youâ€™ve
I nodded happily, reciting the string of digits.
â€œYou donâ€™t even have to think about it! Thereâ€™s an entire column of all of
Laziâ€™s numbers in my address book.â€ Chiding me, she jotted down my number.
â€œWhat do you want my number for, anyway? Youâ€™ve never called me before.â€
We stood there at the entrance as people came and went around us, like a couple
bickering in public. She leaned back against the fence along the road. Since Iâ€™d
last run into her, her hair was shorter and permed. Her dress, made from a coarse
khaki cloth, was loosely cut and hung to her knees, and underneath she had on a
pair of striped tights. Even with their flowing silhouettes, her ensembles exuded
a comfy, laid-back womanlinessâ€”though it also seemed as if she didnâ€™t want to
be seen as feminine.
â€œI really did call you before, though. Once it was early in the morning when I
had nothing to do and thought of you. And one time recently, it was because my
older sister was suicidal right after a breakup. I did my best to keep an eye on her
the whole time, but she tried to hang herself twice. Really!â€ Her vulnerability
was so beguiling that she instantly won me over. There was even sadness in her
â€œFine. Iâ€™ll walk my bike and come with you to the rec center, and we can keep
talking.â€ Our encounters were always rushed, with each of us checking out the
other as we caught up on those odd occasions. This girl stirred the most intense
emotions in me. She was like family, and I felt like telling her that she could
overcome any challenge, that I completely understood her.
The two of us had a certain rapport. There was an unspoken understanding
that we would never cross over into the reality of each otherâ€™s lives, and our
friendship took on a profound weight because of it. Careful to limit our
interactions to chance encounters, we felt free to show affection and to speak
whatever was on our minds, and those moments contained the makings of a great
friendship. Never knowing when or where weâ€™d see each other again, I was
moved at our every parting. It wasnâ€™t because we found relationships
burdensome that we maintained this kind of distance; rather, it was a distinct
reserve on her part that guarded her from needing anyone else too much.
Because we often shared our most heartfelt emotions, I knew that she respected
me, that I was like an older brother to her. We saw eye to eye on the important
things in life, but she wouldnâ€™t get close to me out of a desire to avoid
â€œLazi, what did you say about how people have to change themselves?â€ Zhi
Rou asked me loudly. Sheâ€™d dragged me inside the recreation center, where she
presented her cellist friend with the bouquet, and now we sat under the portico at
the entrance to the Literature Department building.
â€œWell, it depends on what youâ€™re trying to change, if weâ€™re talking about
breast enlargement or liposuction here.â€
She glared at me as she searched my pockets for a cigarette, then offered me a
sip of her beer. Leaning against a column, she exhaled smoke and said coolly,
â€œLazi, can you believe that last night I broke up with a guy who didnâ€™t
understand me at all? Can you believe that I went out with this guy for a full
year in the first place? Every Sunday night at eight, heâ€™d turn on the TV, and sit
there and watch Diamond Stage. Not that it was because of that garbage, but I
couldnâ€™t stand it. He couldnâ€™t sit through anything for even an hour, except a
Jackie Chan movie. He thought about only one thing: his chemistry textbook.
â€œHe was smart. He was a fine writer with nice penmanship, and he was good
at the piano. But to him these parts of himself were trivial, things heâ€™d do once in
a while just to show off. He was not only utilitarian-minded but complacent.
Every second of his life was planned out, including the time he spent with me.
What he really needed was a wifey. In his mind, that was love. He cared about
me. He was never fickle when it came to practical things. After a long day of
studying or working, heâ€™d want me there to make love, and as soon as he
satisfied himself, heâ€™d fall asleep. I guess that part of him wasnâ€™t so developed.
â€œWhen I told him it was over, he thought I was crazy, and as usual he got his
way. It dragged on for a long time, Lazi. I didnâ€™t want to be alone. I was afraid
no one would want me. How desperate is that? Yesterday I saw my sister acting
suicidal, and it scared the hell out of me. I wondered if Iâ€™d become like that too. I
rushed to his house in the middle of the night, climbed over the fence, and took
back the letter Iâ€™d written him. I cried as I burned it. It was like chopping him to
pieces. I feel so much better now that I realize how much I resented him. How
did I get this way?â€ Her voice cracked, and her laugh revealed a mix of sadness
I shut my eyes and imagined Zhi Rou, ferocious and agile, scaling a fence. I
draped my jacket over her shoulders. Swallowing her breath, she seemed to be
weighing things over for a moment. In her two years at college, sheâ€™d already
been with three guys. Zhi Rou was a complex woman and a gifted artist. Within
music circles, sheâ€™d developed a reputation as the best female guitarist on
campus, while the theater crowd was enthralled by her acting. For her,
performing onstage was the opiate of university life. During her time in the
spotlight, sheâ€™d grown more sophisticated and womanly, and yet she seemed to
be eternally changing. No matter your sex, it was hard to resist those bewitching
eyes. I couldnâ€™t help recalling what Tun Tun had said:
Lazi, Zhi Rou is such a mystery. Sheâ€™ll get tripped up over the stupidest
little problem, but sheâ€™s in her own league in every other way. The depths of
her soul are unfathomable to me. Sheâ€™s like fire and ice at once. Back in
high school, I never wouldâ€™ve imagined that Iâ€™d ever be in a relationship
Neither of us seduced the other. It just happened at the time, and we fell
in love. Deep down, we both knew where things stood, that this was
different from a friendship. We didnâ€™t care what it was or see anything
wrong with it. Every day Iâ€™d get so excited about our next meeting. We
were just kids, curious. In the beginning, there was no chemistry. I was a
mediocre student. People thought I liked to have fun. She came across as
quiet and hardworking, always at the top of the class. I was intimidated. I
wanted to enter a biology contest, and I knew she was good at experiments.
Out of nowhere, I found the courage to ask her to enter the national
competition together. It was crazy of me. With the deadline fast
approaching, she said yes.
Then, one day, during our experiment, the two of us were reading the
scale together, and I said to her, â€œYou have beautiful eyes. The instant I
looked into them, I knew Iâ€™d been saved.â€ I always wondered if I would
ever fall in love, but after I looked into those eyes, I couldnâ€™t wait to see her
again. I practically skipped the whole way to school. Iâ€™m so grateful to her
for opening me up.
On the eve of the big competition, we stayed in the dorms at National
Cheng Kung University, down south. We squeezed into the same bed, and
both of us were really nervous at first. I was scrunched on my side. We
didnâ€™t dare to brush up against each other. Finally, I couldnâ€™t take it
anymore, and I asked her, â€œSo . . . exactly how far away are you?â€ We both
burst out laughing and slept peacefully after that.
The next day, sure enough, our experiment won first place. After this
long struggle, we were victorious. We jumped up and down, screaming, and
celebrated by uncorking a bottle of champagne that we drenched ourselves
with. . . .
Zhi Rou took a gulp of beer and puffed on her cigarette. She looked so tough
that I had to chuckle. Then she grew solemn. â€œLazi, thereâ€™s something you once
said that Iâ€™ve always remembered: â€˜Only healthy people are capable of being in
love. Using love to treat an illness just makes the illness even worse.â€™ I realize
thatâ€™s exactly what I did: I used love to fight illness, and it ruined me. I have to
change my ways. I canâ€™t be like that anymore.
â€œIt happens all the time. I donâ€™t think you know what Iâ€™m talking about. Guys,
girlsâ€”everyone wants something from me. I donâ€™t even have to try. No matter
who it is, sooner or later, I start wondering how long weâ€™ll be together. By the
time things get serious, itâ€™s already over in my mind. I made up and acted out the
whole thing from start to finish. It was actually my decision.
â€œI keep making myself fall in love so that I have someone to worry aboutâ€”
someone whoâ€™s mine, whoâ€™s real. I donâ€™t know how to live without it. Iâ€™d have
no will to go on. . . .
â€œDo you know what I mean? These past few years, Iâ€™ve been sleeping late and
rushing off to class. Iâ€™m stuck in a daze all day, so then I leave, taking a stroll
across Fuhe Bridge on my way home. But whenever I cross the bridge, my mind
is trapped in a fog, where I never meet a single soul.
â€œIt scares me, and I donâ€™t know where this is heading. Sometimes I imagine
myself walking over the edge of the bridge and into the river. Then I snap out of
it and hurry to the other end of the bridge so I can be with the special person in
my life at the moment.
â€œIf no one fills that role, Iâ€™ll keep drifting in that fog. â€œWhat problems have I
ever faced in my life? Thereâ€™s a void I canâ€™t get away from no matter how I try:
The void is inside me. Love has actually made me richer through the experience
of pain. But itâ€™s not even the kind of problem that takes center stageâ€”itâ€™s more
on the sidelines.
â€œI have a huge existential void, and no one can make me happy. When Iâ€™m
with a man, I see the beauty of a womanâ€™s soul, and I wish I were free all over
again. But I canâ€™t be with a woman, either, because then I fantasize to death
about menâ€™s bodies. Argh, this guy and I deserve each otherâ€”weâ€™re both
Zhi Rou couldnâ€™t hold her liquor very well. Her face had turned red and her
breathing was heavy. One moment her face conveyed such horror that my heart
ached and I was rendered speechless, and the next moment, it was lit with
innocence and joy. Her eyes were tantalizing. I wasnâ€™t put off, nor could I judge
her. My only fear was that she might strip off her clothes and try to seduce me. I
could imagine Tun Tun whispering in my ear:
Within a few months, sheâ€™d switched over to the humanities track. Weâ€™d try
to sit next to each other. Every day when I went home, Iâ€™d get some jokes
ready. I learned that she was into music, and I realized that she was
probably the only one in the whole class who knew much about it. In high
school, she didnâ€™t listen to pop. I started listening to U2 so I could talk to
her. Iâ€™d go home and translate the lyrics so I could learn them. Our breaks
together were the most magical times. Iâ€™d make her laugh, then sing the
songs sheâ€™d shown me. I spent afternoons staring endlessly into her eyes. . .
Once, when everyone had gone home and we were the only ones left in
the classroom, she told me she wanted to give me a haircut. The sun had
just gone down, and it was only a sliver of bright orange on the horizon. So
I sat there obediently and let her cut it, feeling the touch of her fingers. I can
still remember how it felt. We realized at once that we both wanted the
same thing. So I said, â€œHold on a second.â€ I shut the door and the windows
and turned off the lights, and then after that . . .we shared our first kiss.
I glanced over and lifted a strand of hair from Zhi Rouâ€™s rain-soaked head.
Her face was so beautiful when her hair was wet. Somberly, I told her, â€œZhi Rou,
thereâ€™s something Iâ€™ve been wanting to tell you. Itâ€™s something I told Tun Tun
not very long ago, but Iâ€™ve been hiding it from you this whole time. Back when I
told you I had my heart broken, that was actually about a girl. I lied to you. Iâ€™m
She froze for a moment, then turned to face me, regaining her sobriety. The
absolute tenderness in those eyes still melts my heart whenever I think back on
it. With hardly a second thought, she stroked my hair and said, â€œIt mustâ€™ve been
tough for you, huh? Do you feel better now that youâ€™ve said it?â€ Unable to lift
my chin, I nodded. â€œWhat is there to be sorry about? Itâ€™s like leaving out the
single stroke of a pen. All you have to do is change he to she, and itâ€™s the same.
Besides, after all the crazy shit that Tun Tun and I have done together, itâ€™s hard
for me to go around telling you what to do.â€
Crouching in front of me, she gazed straight into my hurt-filled eyes with a
sincerity that burned into my memory. â€œAfter I switched over to humanities, Tun
Tun and I fell head over heels in love and became inseparable. She was basically
living at my place, a big house in Taipei I shared with two of my siblings. We
were family, but with everybody doing their own thing, we acted like strangers.
Tun Tun and I would sleep, play guitar, listen to music, procrastinate, bathe
together. . . . She was with me before and after class, helping me with
homework. Ten minutes after class ended, weâ€™d huddle on the stairs. Back then,
she spent all her money on me. She was talented at illustration and gave me
cards sheâ€™d made herself. She was good at handicrafts and gave me a million
little knickknacks sheâ€™d made. And almost every day, she gave me a rose.
â€œThings were still going strong between us before the entrance exams. I really
loved her, but with her clinging to me, I was afraid of going insane. How do you
slow things down? Then I started to realize, we were two women! I couldnâ€™t
think clearly anymore. I was suffocating and needed to get away, so I didnâ€™t tell
her when I ran off to the temple in Hualien. I didnâ€™t even care about the entrance
exams anymore. When I closed my eyes every night in Hualien, I saw her eyes
burning with passion for me, and Iâ€™d try with all my might to extinguish them.
â€œBy the time I returned, we were already done for. I found out that Tun Tun
couldnâ€™t handle being without me, and sheâ€™d already found a guy to console her.
When I ran into them together, I was devastated. But weâ€™d still talk. Every so
often, weâ€™d call each other and sheâ€™d complain to me about how two different
guys were into her, and how stressful it was to have to decide between them.
Then Iâ€™d tell her about my current boyfriendâ€™s big, longâ€”â€
â€œThatâ€™s bullshit!â€ That ironic jab was directed at the last part. It was my way
of affectionately teasing her. My eyes welled over as I listened.
It was beginning to pour now. Zhi Rou and I joked around for a while,
shielding ourselves from the rain with my leather jacket. Roaring with laughter,
we sang in unison at the top of our lungs, and the sound carried into the dark,
wet night. We stumbled arm in arm as we left campus. I took her home on my
bike, crossing Fuhe Bridge along the way. Muttering nonsense, she lifted her
face to the soaking rain.
After everything, when we got to the door, she came on to me. â€œCan I give
you a kiss?â€ Her feelings seemed awfully genuine.
â€œThe privilege is mine,â€ I told her.
THERE are some sorrows so great they are unspeakable, taking hold in the body
and leaving a void after the fact. There are some depths that love can never again
reach. The mind anoints every fossil with significance in an attempt to preserve
itâ€”but in time, they all invariably turn to dust.
Manâ€™s greatest sorrow is the loss of what was once his greatest desire.
When Shui Ling and I saw each other again in 1989, she was histrionic. Iâ€™d
become a menace that might gobble her alive, hack her to pieces, or otherwise
mangle her if I came anywhere near her. Her body was apparently ready to
convulse and cry out â€œNo!â€ as it threw off my hands and dodged my stare. I
could tell she was repulsed by the thought of me. In order to deter the risk of my
encroachment, she spared no harsh words, criticizing my every word and deed,
and attacking without warning, without cause. But she saved the final blow for
her own feelings toward me. Beset with a disease in which I was the toxin, she
She was afraid that Iâ€™d leave again, that those wasted years would be like a
bridge rebuilt, only to collapse a second time. Neither of us had been willing to
face the fact of how little weight was required to trigger that collapse.
She had tied me up with wire and left me to die. But when all was said and
done, she wanted me to die in her arms. So before entering my dreams every
night, she yanked the wire tight to make sure I was still there. Vowing never to
let me go again, she made me promise over and over that no matter how bad
things became, I would never abandon her.
Yet I was not allowed to see her, nor was I allowed to be a part of her life. My
loitering outside the lecture hall was met with reproach. Any trace of me in her
everyday life was perceived as a threat. There was a murky chamber reserved for
me in her soul, where I waited and waited, for all of eternity. . . .
Late at night, her hands would dial my number. She didnâ€™t know whether I
was home or not, whether she was having a conversation with me in reality or in
her imagination. Her willpower had begun to wane. She claimed to be
sleepwalking, and so we were back in touch.
Sheâ€™d regressed. Lying in bed in her white pajamas, she lifted the receiver like
a woman possessed. Alternately cheerful and petulant, she wasnâ€™t aware of
having betrayed her own neediness. To her, things were the way they used to be
when it was just the two of us. She had convinced herself of thisâ€”as if no one
had been hurt in our breakup, as if she hadnâ€™t started a new life, as if she werenâ€™t
conflicted, as if she hadnâ€™t found someone new. The calls went on into the early
hours of the morning.
So I asked her why she resisted me, why she was afraid of me. I asked her to
make a choice. I wanted to know whether she still loved me. I told her not to
repress her desires. Choking back tears, she nearly had a breakdown. Dejected,
she told me she couldnâ€™t look at me. She couldnâ€™t see us together. She hated that
I thought she didnâ€™t love me. She didnâ€™t want me to know her reasons, God
forbid I run off again. . . .
Sheâ€™d always had a mad streak, but in her hour of weakness, it became an
affliction. She was unable to sleep. She couldnâ€™t wash her hands clean.
And I was powerless. I tried to remain level-headed about her state. But I
couldnâ€™t be near her. She was volatile. Driven by psychosis, she had come back
to haunt me, and I awaited the worst. Our sadomasochistic dynamic had given
rise to a host of new miseries, and I eagerly took a swig of loveâ€™s poison.
NOVEMBER. The harshest part of winter. It was our last happy memory, like a
condemned manâ€™s final shot of whiskey.
She agreed to see me just once, saying we should go to a bar and get smashed
together. We were at the front entrance when she bolted. I trailed her faint
silhouette down Heping East Road. Then, out of nowhere, she turned to face me.
In a flash of brilliance, she proposed that we write the final chapter of our history
at National Tsing Hua University.
We decided to camp out by the pond on campus. At the dormitory, I finally
met her best friend, Zi Ming, who had been at her side through the trials and
tribulations of the past few years. Zi Ming was earnest and forthright. I
immediately felt as if Iâ€™d known her forever and was grateful that this person
existed. I could sense the strong familial affection between them, and it
Viewed from the hillside, the waterâ€™s surface glistened. Next to the clear pond
was the new physics building. There were no signs of human life anywhere. The
scent of dew-kissed grass, pure and fresh, filled the mountain air.
The natural beauty cleansed our spirits, and our troubles back in the city faded
away. We were open with each other. It was then that the warmer, simpler Shui
Ling of the old days emerged like a dainty white bud, untouched on the
mountainsideâ€”if a bit puerile and wild. Tears of longing came to our eyes, and
she opened her arms to me.
I buttoned her up in a snug-fitting coat and spread out layers of clothing to
serve as makeshift blankets. I tucked her in. Her arms were wrapped around my
neck as she said to me, You know, we might die together like this. . . .
â€œTONIGHT I went to a salon near my house and had my long hair chopped off.â€
â€œWhat did you do that for?â€
â€œI just felt like it. But let me tell you a secret: Iâ€™m sick of myself. Heh heh. Itâ€™s
not like you two love my long hair and Iâ€™m disappointing you . . . right? Short
hair looks sharp. It makes me look capable and efficient . . . career-oriented (ha
ha). I just donâ€™t want you guys to think Iâ€™m some fragile â€˜hothouse flower.â€™ Yeah.
. . . Even my friends are mad and saying that I ruined it. None of them like you.â€
â€œSo what did she say about you chopping off all your hair?â€
â€œShe was upset. We fought for a while. She cares about little things like this.
She said sheâ€™s told me a million times, but I still do this . . . or I shouldnâ€™t do
that. What about you? What do you think?â€
â€œIâ€™m kind of sad, but if you want to cut it, cut it. I remember when you had
short hair in high school and you looked good. Like a little sailor. Itâ€™s been so
long since we last saw each other. I canâ€™t believe Iâ€™ll never see you with long
â€œHa! I was just messing with you. I still have my long hair.â€
The whistling sound of the ocean air in Penghu. Waves pounded against the
shore, washing everything away. Iâ€™d burned myself and then fled to Penghu,
where I sat in total isolation all night on the embankment, hearing all kinds of
My first phone call that evening was to Shui Lingâ€™s friendsâ€™ place. They said,
Sheâ€™s drunk, sheâ€™s been bawling and flipping out because of you. A crying mess.
They had to stay away from her. They said it was impossible to talk to her. She
was in a stupor. Shui Ling, Iâ€™m calling from the phone booth behind the seawall.
Iâ€™m right by the water. . . .
â€œLast night I had a dream, but it was a bad dream. I donâ€™t want to tell you.
Okay, if you help me write my final paper, Iâ€™ll tell you. . . .
â€œI dreamed there was a black dog approaching my house. I was scared, really
scared, so I hurried to lock the doors and shut the windows. I pushed a bookshelf
up against the front door and I heard the dog scratching against it. I was terrified,
so I ran to my bed and threw back the coversâ€”and oh my god, there it was, the
black dog, with its shiny black fur and huge eyes. I screamed. . . .
â€œI also wanted to tell you that I saw Hans the Hedgehog and the Princess of
Sweetness and Cherry Pie on public television. After the prince and princess
marry, they live in a castle in the woods. But every night as the princess sleeps,
the prince leaves the castle. He doesnâ€™t come back until dawn. He tells her that
he goes hunting. So the queen tells the princess to hide the princeâ€™s coat. The
next day, waking early, the princess discovers sheâ€™s been asleep in the woods.
Thereâ€™s a hedgehog by her side. The castle is nowhere to be seen, and the prince
has turned into the hedgehog. Because he doesnâ€™t want the princess to find out
that he becomes a hedgehog at night, he runs off into the woods and never
â€œThe princess is determined to track down the prince. Even if he never
changes back into a human, she still wants to spend the rest of her life with him,
so she roams the country for ten years searching for him. Then one day, in a rundown shack, she finds a hedgehog. She leans over and kisses the hedgehog, and
the hedgehog changes back into the prince. Then the prince and the princess live
happily ever after. . . .â€
â€œThatâ€™s not how it goes. Haruki Murakami says that in the end, the king and
the imperial guards all burst out laughing.â€
The murky seawater seemed bottomless. Two motorcycles veered down the
paved slope. Four members of a gang had pulled up beside me, only three feet
away. The roar of their bikes already fearsome enough, I turned pale. They
swung around and left.
Why didnâ€™t you tell me you were running off?
Shui Ling, I have burns in two places. They were blistering, so the doctor
scraped them off. . . .
You burned yourself, didnâ€™t you. . . .
Itâ€™s so cool and lovely in Penghu. . . .
You went too far.
Sobbing. The ocean was weeping, too. Our love was still mutual.
â€œTell me how you think Iâ€™m different from her.â€
â€œYouâ€™re better-looking. Sheâ€™s a little heavier, heh. But I feel comfortable with
her. I like it when she touches me. Itâ€™s like weâ€™re just having a little fun. . . .
â€œIâ€™m scared of you. If you did that, Iâ€™d be completely disgusted by you.
â€œOh, come on. We donâ€™t have to talk about it if you donâ€™t want to. I was
worried youâ€™d be like this. I donâ€™t know why I have to take jabs at you, either.
Iâ€™m afraid of stabbing you into a pulp, until thereâ€™s no more blood left. I could
stab you to death and not even know it.â€
â€œSo you have to take jabs at me to make yourself feel better?â€
â€œIâ€™m afraid Iâ€™ll open the door and let you in. But I know youâ€™re sleeping
outside, and I canâ€™t bear the thought of not letting you in, so I tell myself to open
the door so I can prod you with a long, sharp object.â€
â€œI donâ€™t care. I canâ€™t tell you not to be with someone else, so of course I have
to say that I donâ€™t care. Thereâ€™s really nothing I can do.â€
â€œYouâ€™re into someone else. Youâ€™re not into me.â€
â€œIâ€™m not into you, silly. I love you.â€
Out at sea, the cobalt blue lights of a distant patrol boat were flashing. Water
under the bridge, as they say. There was a growing cacophony inside my head.
â€œI feel so close to you right now because of our past together. But youâ€™re
acting strange and distant toward me,â€ Shui Ling said.
Blow after blow. She was messing with my head. Spare me, Shui Ling. Itâ€™s
killing me. How am I supposed to keep from falling apart?
So I burned myself. I burned me, and I burned her, and I burned the life I
hated so much. I could see the glow of warmth from a nearby log cabin.
â€œI feel bad for you.â€ She caressed my wounds. Her embrace was a farewell
songâ€”long, agonizing, and tearless.
OVER THE next two months, it happened again . . . and again.
I came back from Penghu, my strength already sapped by the grisly battle
between two wounded, dying beasts incapable of licking each otherâ€™s wounds.
There was no doubt that Shui Ling was avoiding me. It wasnâ€™t because she
didnâ€™t love me. It wasnâ€™t because she needed space. It was because she feared
that sheâ€™d smelled blood on me. Sheâ€™d been deluding herself, saying our love
hadnâ€™t turned into a hunk of maggot-infested flesh when really sheâ€™d been living
life to the fullest, taking this hunk of flesh that was me and kicking it out of the
field of vision of her reality. Sheâ€™d moved on to the next relationship, and with
greater exuberance. No phone calls, not a word from her, while I wrote her letter
after letter. Though I knew my love songâ€™s days were numbered, I was
determined to keep singing until my voice gave out. I was intent on starving
myself while I saved my rations for her.
Stupidly, so stupidly, I assumed that she no longer felt a thing for me, that she
refused to crumble, that there was nothing more to it. Clinging to the belief that
weâ€™d always be together in her heart, she began to rationalize her course of
Underlying that rationale were hysterical tendencies. I waited as Christmas
Day passed. I waited as the New Year passed. She acted even more detached,
declining my requests to meet until the chill of her indifference froze me to the
core. She was entirely unconscious of it, and there was nothing I could do.
â€œSorry for bothering you this late. I just wanted to give you this journal in
person. Like I said before, if you donâ€™t want me, Iâ€™ll give you my journal and go.
â€œThis journal from freshman year is the only thing I can give you. Iâ€™m not
your everything anymore, so even though I want to love you now, all I can do is
give you the old me, the one you once loved.â€ I was in her room, kneeling at her
bedside. I hadnâ€™t slept for days, and my voice was small and quivering. It was
the day after New Yearâ€™s.
â€œI donâ€™t want it. I donâ€™t want it.â€ There was a stunned look on her face at first.
Lying in bed, she shook her head vehemently, as if unable to endure this
unexpected shock. She twisted around to face the other way. Her voice was
hoarse. She didnâ€™t dare peer at me clutching my diary against my chest.
â€œI thought maybe the answer was in your heart this whole time, and you just
couldnâ€™t bring yourself to say it out loud. Youâ€™ve been silent toward me, and all
this waiting has taken its toll on me. You left me hanging with a question in my
heart. Whether or not you admit it, the answer is no, right?â€ I was indignant.
â€œOkay, okay, youâ€™re right! Youâ€™re completely right. Iâ€™ve left you hanging!â€
Rolling over, she glared at me. Her eyes glinted angrily. Tears ran down her face,
forming two jagged streams. â€œWhy donâ€™t you understand me at all anymore?â€
â€œI understand, all right. I understand that because you loved me too much,
youâ€™ve completely changed who you are. I understand that even if I started
beating you to death, you wouldnâ€™t tell me to go. If the facts were laid out, youâ€™d
still run. You can barely make it through the day. I understand all too well that
youâ€™re scared of me. Tell me itâ€™s not true.â€
She grudgingly nodded.
â€œBecause things were getting worse, you cut me off. Three people have had to
suffer, and one of us canâ€™t take it anymore. I donâ€™t want to keep injuring myself,
so now I have to make you reject me.â€ I spoke as if I were the one holding all the
cards, but in reality, I was the vulnerable one, the one who was begging for
â€œFine, I will. Iâ€™ve realized some things during this time, and itâ€™s because you
made me. But I had to refrain from saying too much. I was dying to talk to you,
but I was always afraid that the slightest peep could make you run away. So I
had to think long and hard about how to make sure youâ€™d understand
completely.â€ An expression wholly unfamiliar to meâ€”one of rigid determination
â€”spread across her face.
â€œAfter you came back, I thought I was treating you really, really badly, and at
the same time, I didnâ€™t know what I was doing. I took the love that I should have
given to you and turned around and gave it to someone else. I opened my heart
to other people, and meanwhile, I mistreated you. It was like I was debasing
myself. . . .â€ She began to bawl.
â€œYou donâ€™t know it, but I haveâ€â€”she paused, summoning her courageâ€”â€œI
have a lot of love for you! But not this youâ€”the you from freshman year. I donâ€™t
know the exact difference, either. Sometimes I just know my love is for you, and
thatâ€™s when I want to run back to you and give it all to you now. I want to love
you well. But weâ€™ve already become distant strangers. What else am I supposed
to do? I have to rely on old memories in order to get along with the new you. I
canâ€™t even tell you how much youâ€™ve changed.â€
Hunched over the covers, I choked back sobs.
â€œWhy did you have to come back? Iâ€™d already found the perfect spot for you
in my heart. Why did you have to ruin it? All I wanted was a way to love you for
the rest of my life!â€ Now that she was agitated, I knew the theatrics were under
â€œI have to jab you. I donâ€™t want to be close to you because youâ€™ll taint the
memory in my heart. . . .â€ Her stare, brimming with hatred, said that she no
longer knew me. â€œI wonâ€™t let you. No one can. Itâ€™s mine alone. You abandoned
me and left me out in the cold. All I have left now is the you that I created, and
itâ€™s the best you there is. . . .â€
She let out a condescending laugh, as if to say a prayer for me out of pity. â€œI
beseech you not to shatter it.â€ She sounded histrionic.
Sheâ€™d shared emotions I had no idea aboutâ€”so profoundly and lucidly, so
poignantly, so beguilingly even! This woman was like a nautilus in her
intricacies. Sheâ€™d been harboring her love for me like an oyster cultivating a
pearl. Yet none of that pleasure was to be mine. What was I supposed to say?
â€œHow would I taint it?â€ I asked timidly, my heart sinking.
â€œI donâ€™t want to see you. The two of us have to stay pure. We have to.â€ With
her patronizing tone, she took a subtle swipe at my pride and sliced off a piece of
â€œDonâ€™t be sad! Iâ€™ll always have your purity. I thought you left because that
wasnâ€™t what you wanted. Zi Ming said the only reason that someone dear to you
leaves you is because they love you and youâ€™ll always love them. Thatâ€™s how it
works. A long time ago, I decided I would always love you. My love is that
deep. Itâ€™s funny, because I completely changed who I was in order to be more
like you. You left your mark on me. Did you know that?
â€œBut then you came back. You faced the issue of sex and didnâ€™t want a
platonic relationship anymore. You werenâ€™t always like that, but not me. I just
didnâ€™t want to shatter the image of you that I hold dear in my heart. Then Iâ€™d
really be left with nothing, and Iâ€™d hate you!â€ Her eyes, her expression, her voice
all conveyed a rather tender form of cruelty. At last, I was meeting her
destructive side head-on.
â€œIâ€™ve grown up a lot. Iâ€™m not a little girl anymore. Iâ€™m talking about sex here!
I was never against the idea of doing it. Anyway, sheâ€™s really pretty. When Iâ€™m
with other people, a physical relationship just happens naturally. But it wasnâ€™t
like that with you. It wasnâ€™t because youâ€™re a girl. It wasnâ€™t because of sex itself.
And it wasnâ€™t because I didnâ€™t long to be intimate with you. It was you. . . .â€ Her
eyes hardened. This conversation may well have been her most audacious
â€œWe shouldnâ€™t talk about this anymore. Thereâ€™s no way I can make you
understand. You donâ€™t know how badly Iâ€™ve been wanting to talk to you.â€ This
was the final act in my humiliation, and it had unfolded to my surprise. It was
like the removal of a parasite that had been lodged in my flesh. Though the
experience would make me infinitely stronger, I also had to cry out in pain.
â€œI know I treated you mean. But you were so intense. Donâ€™t you know that?
You turned my world upside down. Iâ€™m where I am now because you led me
here. All of this is your doing. How could you have abandoned me and left me
out in the cold?â€ She was holding me. Consoling me.
â€œItâ€™s not that I didnâ€™t want to mend things with you. When you and I were
together, I told her three times that I didnâ€™t want to see her. If you hadnâ€™t been so
afraid of commitment, and if youâ€™d promised not to leave me, you and I would
have been together for the rest of our lives!â€ She wiped away my tears, and with
the piousness of a devotee, she planted kisses on my eyes.
â€œI love her too, and she treats me well. Itâ€™s a totally new relationship where I
can practice the things you taught me. Sheâ€™s always there for me. Thereâ€™s no
reason for me to hurt her. But thatâ€™s not what this is about. Itâ€™s about you.
Thereâ€™s no way I can imagine spending my life with you. You need to go out and
find that person in life whoâ€™s going to love you!â€
The grief that had been long dormant in her now awakened, her crying
descended into wailing. I could feel the pain sheâ€™d been going through.
â€œI canâ€™t find that person. I canâ€™t find that person youâ€™re talking about whoâ€™s
going to love me. I only have you.â€
â€œYou can. I know you can. Youâ€™re wonderful. . . .â€
Her voice softened. Her eyes were red and swollen, and she was exhausted
from crying. She wanted to listen to me talk as she lay there. I told her I was
going to Europe, that Iâ€™d be her shelter, waiting for her, and when that time
came, she could bring her children with her, since she always wanted to have a
child of every color in the rainbow, a perfect, happy family. . . . She fell asleep
with a sweet, innocent smile on her face. Every now and then, half asleep, sheâ€™d
take my hand, and make me tell her that I wasnâ€™t going anywhere.
It was the last time I saw her. Her long, soft locks spread underneath the
covers, her pale blue kimono pajamas, her slender, well-proportioned figure, her
mildly weathered skin, her distinctive light scent, her beautiful tear-stained face,
those two piercing eyes that were now shut, and those hands that couldnâ€™t bear to
part with my journal. Happy New Year.
Those were the things I took. I gently turned the doorknob and closed the door
behind me. Stepping into the light of dawn, I left once and for all. Realizing Iâ€™d
forgotten my glasses, I walked the streets like a blind man early that morning,
trying to feel my way back. I wanted to go home. Home. . . .
THERE are many important images in my mind that were captured at strange
twists and turns, during the passage from one stage to the next, accumulating a
weight I never expected. But I never did say goodbye or thank you to all the
people in those images. With a stiff upper lip, I stood back and watched as they
slipped out of my life.
THERE are three people I have to write about in this journal. These three are from
my final year in collegeâ€”a stage of my life I call the eruptive phaseâ€”and all of
them profoundly shaped who I am today. Each had distinguishing qualities that
influenced my lifeâ€™s direction, and I saw in each of them a certain majesty.
During that time of intense bonding, it was their influence which made me
realize that romantic love was not the only thing that brought an individual
closer to others, nor was it a matter decided by fate. There are other, essential
experiences that ought to come first, for one must be capable of being touched,
of embodying the innocence that forms the basis of compassion . . . and of
showing a heart that cries out in pain that genuine suffering deserves no less than
the dignity to go on living.
Meng Sheng. Half born of malice, half of goodwill. Half sincere, half put-on.
This freewheeling lunatic became a close friend of mine after Shui Ling and I
went our separate ways for the second time. To this day, Iâ€™ve never understood
what his true motive wasâ€”because while he saved me from my selfdestructiveness, he also pushed me toward total depravity.
I was determined to transform myself into a real girl. At Tun Tunâ€™s
encouragement, I made a big decision: I wasnâ€™t going to fall in love with another
woman. This time, I was going to make a clean break with the past and pursue a
For my entire life, I had been inherently attracted to women. That desire,
regardless of whether it was realized, had long tormented me. Desire and
torment were two opposing forces constantly chafing me, inside and out. I knew
full well that my change of diet was futile. I was a prisoner of my own nature,
and one with no recourse. This time, however, I was determined to liberate
myself. Convinced that it was possible to change, I went about it all rather
nonchalantly, and during that phase, I basically behaved as if I had sold my soul.
I felt no personal attachment to anyone. Nothing fazed me. Once I shed the
overwhelming burden of my sadness, I felt as light as a feather. In my mind, I
had been given a mandate: I would live as I pleased and let myself do whatever I
And so I became dissolute. In my total hedonism, I explored all possibilities,
however transitory. I went out every night and hung out at restaurants, clubs,
bars, a new friendâ€™s place. At the same time, I invited the advances of men,
resorting to the most blatant and dubious means to lure them.
Meng Sheng was among my partners. My feminine clothing, speech, manners,
and hair tossing were plainly intended to attract a man, and he was perceptive
enough to notice my transformation. Yet he didnâ€™t ask questions, and instead he
adopted a chivalrous attitude toward me. Every few days heâ€™d see me, and Iâ€™d be
waiting for him, as if we were dating. In my heart I was hoping Iâ€™d find a guy to
fall for soon, yet Meng Sheng treated it like a big joke, like we both knew it was
a charade. Only much later, when I recalled the look in his eyes and the words he
said, did I realize that no matter what his real motive was, he had tried to love
â€œHey, if you donâ€™t meet the right guy, you can always call me up,â€ Meng
Sheng said. He dragged me to campus on my birthday, saying that in honor of
the occasion, heâ€™d take me out for a celebratory round of drinks.
â€œMeng Sheng, do you think Iâ€™m changing in order to find a man?â€ It was the
first and only time in four years that Iâ€™d spent my birthday with someone. In fact,
when Meng Sheng suggested it, I felt grateful.
â€œI donâ€™t buy any of it. You people are ridiculous, wasting your energy trying
to improve yourselves. What good does it do? You all think I donâ€™t try hard
enough, and thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m such a failure. But what do you know? In order to
save my own life, I had to muster a hundred times the strength that any of you
have. Hell, I canâ€™t even exert myself anymore! Do you know how psychology
defines â€˜helplessnessâ€™? I like you the way you are right now, being like, Who
cares? and seeing how bad it gets. The best is when things get so bad that I
actually feel something. Thatâ€™s when I reach self-understanding,â€ Meng Sheng
said, laughing. Heâ€™d written me a song as a birthday present.
â€œSeriously, though, donâ€™t die before me. If you did, Iâ€™d be even more bored
than I already am. You have to go on living for me.â€ He solemnly placed his
hand on my shoulder, his emotions genuine, and we bonded in a profound
moment of mutual understanding. Then, he added, â€œReally, you should let me
make love to you just once. Itâ€™ll be your birthday present.â€
â€œOkay!â€ I merrily agreed. In that instant, we abandoned all inhibitions and
sentimentality, yet it was anything but an act of debauchery. He wanted to give
me a gift that was hard to come by, pure and simpleâ€”and what I got was the
experience of absolute trust.
A campus patrol car passed. We lay naked, hidden in a patch of tall grass, and
the entire time I felt wild and free, not self-conscious in the least. Suddenly
Meng Sheng let out a howl.
â€œYou have to stop hurting yourself! Youâ€™re not okay at all!â€ He practically
exploded. For the first time, I realized that he was in pain, that my tragedy had
become his own.
With that revelation, a hole was blown through the earthâ€™s crust. That reckless
lunatic felt sorry for me, and I truly loved him. Numb to my own feelings, I
never saw it coming. Faraway sounds drifted toward us. The charade was over. It
was no use.
TUN TUN. She was the first person I went to whenever I needed help. If I learned
anything about life during college, it was to turn away from my shattered ego
and move on, and I owed it all to her.
â€œTun Tun, is it okay if I come over to your place? Shui Ling and I had another
falling out, and I feel vulnerable right now. I donâ€™t want to be home alone!â€ My
cry for help came at eleven p.m.
â€œSure, hurry up! Iâ€™ll be waiting!â€ The sound of concern on her end came
through the line.
On the taxi ride over to her place, all kinds of memories drifted through my
mind. My bond with Tun Tun was a safety rope whose resilience had been
proven every time sheâ€™d been there for me over the past year. The countless latenight talks. The countless times Iâ€™d been feeling down. I remembered the
warmth of her room, and the sound of her voice and her laughter. Sheâ€™d been by
my side at so many crucial moments.
Iâ€™d been burning myself before I left for Penghu. Tun Tun unexpectedly rang
my doorbell as I was frantically packing my bags. As always, she listened
intently while I opened up about my feelings and experiences. With her sagacity,
she tried to guide me away from despair toward broader horizons, toward hope.
Sheâ€™d come over to tell me that she was taking a leave of absence from school to
cure her insomnia. In spite of her own troubles, her innate humor, optimism, and
wit were there to pull me through.
She accompanied me to Songshan Airport and told me to come back to Taipei
in one piece. I passed through the ticket gate, then turned to look at her. Her face
betrayed her heartfelt worry. She was the one person I could let into my sanctum,
and there she stood, urging me to cross over into her reality as she waved
goodbye. Shui Ling, Meng Sheng, Chu Kuang, Zhi Rouâ€”everyone else was a
mirage. They were on the same side as I was, while Tun Tun was on the other.
â€œTun Tun, Iâ€™ve been lost all these years. How come it never gets better for
me? No matter how hard I try to improve my life, everything falls apart. Thereâ€™s
a saying: â€˜By the time a man celebrates his creation, it has already half turned to
dust.â€™ I always end up back at square one. This is a hateful, dog-eat-dog world.â€
â€œYou must be tired. Why donâ€™t you lie down and rest for a while? When you
wake up tomorrow, the world will be different.â€ Tun Tunâ€™s room was downstairs,
and the rest of her family had already gone to bed. She tiptoed out to pour me a
glass of milk and slice some fruit.
â€œAre you going to move again?â€ she asked me.
â€œYeah, Iâ€™m going to look at places tomorrow. I really need to do it tomorrow.
If I keep living there, Iâ€™ll go insane. All I can think about is whether sheâ€™ll call or
write or knock on my door. Iâ€™ve had enough. I have to get a grip. I keep checking
my mailbox and picking up the phone. Itâ€™s the only way I can make myself
â€œYou should make me your real estate broker. Every few months, when you
move out of a place, I can bring in a new tenant and collect a commission.â€
â€œWhy donâ€™t you rent me out, too? On the ad you can write: Special lady to
keep you company at night. Available Sundays.â€
â€œThat wonâ€™t work because you wonâ€™t use protection,â€ she said, grinning.
â€œYouâ€™d better memorize your current phone number tonight. Last time you had
to get in touch with your old landlord about your deposit, you asked me what
your old number was, and it was only the day after you moved!â€
â€œHowâ€™s your insomnia? Are you up all night working on handicrafts? Or
chopping asparagus? Peeling oranges? Mending fish-netsâ€”â€
â€œRight, and embroidering satchels,â€ she finished. â€œTaking a leave of absence
was the right move. I keep a strict regimen. I get ready for bed around eleven,
and before I go to sleep, I do yoga. When I lie down, if I feel lonely or sad, Iâ€™ll
recite the Great Compassion Mantra. My mother taught it to me. Then my mind
winds down, and soon enough, Iâ€™m asleep. My dreams are weird and funny. I
take yoga classes by the teachersâ€™ college on Mondays, Wednesdays, and
Fridays. Yoga is awesome. I have to keep working my way up until I become a
â€œHow is yoga different from Buddhist practices?â€
â€œYoga is liberal. Itâ€™s not anti-sex. Sex is actually a technique in yoga! The
anti-sex aspect of Buddhism is just a slant that was adopted later on. The Buddha
was never anti-sex. Oh, itâ€™s so great, Lazi. I want to do yoga with A and set up a
learning center with experts who can teach people how to achieve orgasm. A true
orgasm is like being at one with the cosmos.â€
â€œNice! Youâ€™re going to be on TV one of these days. What about zoology,
â€œUgh, thatâ€™s a headache. Science is fun all right, but itâ€™s also boring. You
spend all your time reading incredibly dry material. I remember you said it was
like moving bricks. Science is about plowing through it all until you reach the
one interesting point. How is biology going to help us to understand manâ€™s
nature? But because I got in through the recommendation system, the department
chair loves me to death. The other day I went to the office to talk about my
return, and we had a talk about my insomnia. He turned into a bodhisattva. He
had such compassion in his eyes, like he was afraid I would start crying at any
moment. He was so fatherly toward me. Lazi, I could have seduced him in a
second. He totally likes me,â€ she said excitedly.
â€œThatâ€™s great. Seducing the department chair sounds like a blast! Just donâ€™t get
pregnant,â€ I said with mock seriousness.
â€œDonâ€™t worry, I know of sixteen different types of contraception. I even taught
my mother a few!â€ she said proudly. â€œLazi, we donâ€™t need to study. Why donâ€™t
we start a business instead? My dad bought me a Singer sewing machine. Iâ€™ve
been sitting at it every day. I love sewing things. It builds character. I made a
purse for myself and a pencil case for a student that I tutorâ€”â€
â€œNo kidding. Sewing builds character?â€ I didnâ€™t know how to respond.
â€œLook. Arenâ€™t these pajamas nice? Lazi, I can make some sexy sleepwear for
you, how about it?â€ Tun Tun gestured toward the white silk pajamas she was
wearing. They were well made, thin, and form-fitting. On her slender figure,
they looked refined and elegant. Suffice it to say that Tun Tun had turned living
into an art form.
â€œForget it. Theyâ€™re too tight. My legs would look like pork hocks!â€
â€œSuit yourself. Last week I had a dream where Zhi Rou and I were sitting in a
classroom for military training. You were dressed in a green tailcoat, and you
entered our classroom and motioned for me to come out. You said, â€˜Hello,
tailcoat here! Let me give you this book as a gift.â€™ â€
â€œSee? Your dreams understand me. They even dressed me in a tailcoat!â€ I
â€œSo what do you say? I can sew some things on the machine or by hand, and
you can sell them. We can be creative entrepreneurs. Hey, I never told you this
before, but a fortune-teller told me that the DIY route would be my road to
riches. I just read in the paper about a cosmetics company thatâ€™s holding an open
call to offer training to the next generation of makeup artists. Part of me got
really excited and wanted to sign up. God, why did I hold back all these years,
when Iâ€™ve been free to do things that are fun?â€
â€œWorking is nice for a while, but in the long run, it turns you into a pile of
shit-covered garbage. Iâ€™m sure whatever we do will be a success, as long as
â€œYay! I feel the same way. Together we can achieve anything.â€
It was almost one in the morning. We were both starving. Her familyâ€™s house
was near the night market. We headed out for a bite to eat, walking side by side,
cutting through the dingy, desolate back alleys of the marketâ€™s scattered stalls.
â€œI remember back in high school, we were a bunch of misfits, always having
fun. There was something going on every day. We were part of a community.
Now lifeâ€™s all about being tied down by a man. Falling in love is all there is to
do, and thereâ€™s no going back. Itâ€™s all Zhi Rouâ€™s fault. She dragged me over to
the other side, and ever since, thereâ€™s been a constant stream of people coming
over. . . .â€
â€œDoesnâ€™t sound too cozy. Tun Tun, whatâ€™s going on with the guys in your
â€œWith guys?â€ Her voice squeaked as she glanced at me. â€œNot much. Thereâ€™s
maybe three or four, but itâ€™s mainly still A.â€
â€œThe rest are just there for reference?â€
â€œWhat am I supposed to do if they come to me? Itâ€™s like Luo Chih Chengâ€™s
poem: â€˜I never knew so many stars secretly adored me.â€™ â€ She couldnâ€™t resist a
â€œIâ€™m so proud to call you my little sister. Youâ€™re up there with the Li Tang
Hua Stunt Team. You can flip a man with your bare hands as you head-butt
â€œAnd with a kick of my leg, I can spin around a skinny one.â€ She struck a
pose to demonstrate. â€œAh, itâ€™s an age-old problem. Lazi, if I could take Aâ€™s
brains, Bâ€™s money and apartment, Câ€™s upper body, and Dâ€™s lower body, and put
them all together, I wouldnâ€™t be at the supermarket picking out fruit.â€
â€œSomeday youâ€™ll find someone whoâ€™s the total package. Right now youâ€™re
sowing your oats, and thatâ€™s not a bad thing. Life is a process of awakening by
degrees, in depth and in scope. At its most profound moments, you experience
wholeness. Thatâ€™s what this one philosopher wrote,â€ I said, comforting her.
â€œWhen I celebrate my twentieth birthday, thereâ€™s one thing I really want to do
â€”go swimming in Drunken Moon Lake!â€ she said.
Back in her bedroom, I started to feel lonely again. Tun Tun said she wanted
to play guitar and sing for me. Tun Tun, her guitar, and her singing. I never knew
what beautiful memories those three elements could evoke. . . .
The first image that comes to mind is the time Zhi Rou and Tun Tun sang and
played music together in the rain. To me, itâ€™s the most evocative memory, the
very definition of bliss. Itâ€™s followed by the first time Zhi Rou and Tun Tun
performed as a band. I presented them with a bouquet of flowers, hardly able to
contain myself. The show was at seven p.m. in the courtyard in front of the
cafeteria. There was no elevated stage, just an audience of students gathered
around them, their anticipation building. Tun Tun had a shirt tied around her
waist. In her slim-fitting jeans and tank top, she had the fierce air of an avantgardist. She was the lead singer, leaning over a keyboard as her high-pitched
vocals brought a song with English lyrics to a howling climax. I was exhilarated.
Only then did I understand the core of my friendship with Tun Tunâ€”that maybe
I wanted to be just like her, that maybe she was my favorite person in the whole
entire world. . . .
â€œTun Tun, I want Shui Ling. . . .â€ My mood sank.
â€œAnd I want Zhi Rou. . . .â€ She sounded childlike.
â€œTun Tun, will you play that song â€˜Cherry Came Tooâ€™ for me?â€
â€œI canâ€™t play that song, I canâ€™t stand it! Me and Zhi Rouâ€™s favorite band used
to be the Smiths. Theyâ€™re these five guys. The lead singer and the guitarist act
like a couple, where the guitarist is the father and the lead singer is the mother.
Their lyrics are ironic, like â€˜Iâ€™d like to smash every tooth in your head.â€™ Thereâ€™s
one that goes, â€˜Manchester, so much to answer forâ€™ in this callous, unfeeling
tone. They grew up there, and it made them who they are. In another song heâ€™s
walking on the beach and he meets this girl who only wants to hook up with
him, and he sings, â€˜But sheâ€™s too rough and Iâ€™m too delicate.â€™ Sheâ€™s the one
whoâ€™s rough, and heâ€™s the one whoâ€™s delicate. . . .â€ She hummed it for me,
â€œTun Tun, how could you possibly not go after her?â€ I mustered the courage
to ask that taboo question.
â€œDonâ€™t even start. How am I supposed to approach her? Lazi, in the past two
years, Iâ€™ve become a woman. Nothingâ€™s the same anymore. Iâ€™m not pure
anymore. I canâ€™t face her now. I just want our sweetest memories to stay in the
past. That was probably the one time when it was totally pure. Sheâ€™s the only one
who made me live fearlessly. . . .â€ Her voice grew weak. I patted her.
â€œLazi, I have complete confidence that youâ€™ll get through this rough patch.
Human beings are endowed with both yin and yang. When you become too
dependent on one, the other becomes inhibited. You have to let both sides
develop fully. That way, youâ€™ll have the ability to love anyone, as long as you
harness your yin and cultivate more yang when you need it. You give up too
easily. With a change of perspective, will things still be the same? You need to
develop your feminine side!â€
â€œI wish I could fall in love with a man, but there are too many beautiful
â€œYou can ride an ox all the way to Beijing, but itâ€™s still no horse, right?
Women are beautiful and mysterious, arenâ€™t they?â€ She clicked her tongue. The
two of us sounded like such pigs whenever we indulged in talk about women.
Once we got started, neither of us could stop the buffoonery.
â€œTun Tun, Iâ€™m hungry.â€ Shamelessly, I turned to her.
â€œI bet you are. I have to conduct photosynthesis just to feed you,â€ she said
â€œIâ€™ll have to write a story called â€˜My Sis: The Plant Who Nurtured Me.â€™ â€ We
were cracking up.
That night, she let me sleep in her bed while she slept on the floor. Her
comforter was soft. Iâ€™d never felt so safe in my entire life. On that occasion, I
avoided revealing to her the true depths of my pain. Though it was killing me, I
kept my heartbreak hidden. My will was broken, and I felt drained. There are
times when affection between family members is so deep that emotional burdens
become too much to share. When the boundaries are nearly nonexistent, who has
the heart to impinge on the other?
All I could do was lie there beside her and go to sleep. Things were looking
up for me as it was. I had to get up early the next day. There was an apartment
hunt for me to get excited about.
XIAO FAN. This woman, five years older than me, came into my life and took me
to an even more desolate place than Shui Ling had, tearing my youth apart
before suturing it back into one piece. From that point on, I had a face that was
whole again, a face covered in stitches. While she managed to reconstruct my
entire visage, I can only describe a few fragments of her. Yet those fragments
add up to an important chapter. And there, where the stitches were, the pain still
remained, lacerating my flesh. . . .
â€œYeah, when I was sixteen, I was tricked into leaving home. My mom took me
to the bus stop. Some friends and I had to take the Zhongxing Line to Taipei for
high school. My mom stood in the ticket line, smiling and waving. The bus
started to pull away, and my mom was caught in the crowd. Her eyes flooded
with tears as she was pushed to the front of the line. She was crying helplessly.
At the time, I didnâ€™t realize what was going on. I just felt bad for her. Only years
later did I finally understand.â€
I can still recall the first time we met. We were volunteering at the same
organization. In the evenings, between shifts, weâ€™d all get bento boxes and eat
together. Iâ€™d developed a reputation as something of a ham, so I had to inject a
little melodrama into my story. One of my female colleagues sat in a far-off
corner, eating in silence. She listened attentively, smiling at us. Once in a while
sheâ€™d chime in, and when she did, it was always with something witty that made
everyone laugh. Suddenly, she turned to me and said, â€œTricked is the word for it,
all right. I was about that age when I left home, and Iâ€™ve been in Taipei for ten
years now. I used to go back to Taoyuan every time I had a long break. Home
was where this squabbling old couple lived, and I was obligated to watch TV
with them every so often. Thatâ€™s all there was to it! In fact, after being tricked
into leaving, I eventually stopped going back.â€
And with those words, we had officially met. I sensed she was much older
than me but on the same wavelength. She knew what I was talking about. I
started to feel intimidated.
â€œIs your blood type A?â€ I unwittingly engaged in small talk.
â€œDo I look like I am? No one ever guesses Iâ€™m type A based on first
impressions. What makes you think so?â€ Iâ€™d taken the initiative, yet there were
no signs of awkwardness or aloofness on her face, and the way she answered me
was friendly and relaxed.
â€œNeediness? What about my appearance makes me seem needy? Hey, what
youâ€™re saying is kind of unusual. No one has ever told me before that Iâ€™m needy.
As far as I know, my friends really wish I were a little needier, especially my
fiancÃ©. Tell me more. Iâ€™m really interested.â€
â€œNo, no, thereâ€™s no basis for what I said. Itâ€™s just my gut feeling. You look like
youâ€™re independent. But did you know that first off, you come across as warm
and feminine? My next thought is that you seem neat and organized, like you do
everything thoroughly and methodically. On the outside, you act like you donâ€™t
need other people. You can get things done quickly and well on your own, but at
the same time, your mannerisms make you seem sensitive, like you pay strict
attention to every last detail.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right about that. I like to fight my own battles. Whenever I encounter
an obstacle or a setback, I turn to others to figure out the solution. You donâ€™t
have to comfort me or anything. Iâ€™ll listen calmly, then Iâ€™ll go and get the job
done on my own. Even with my fiancÃ©, I donâ€™t talk that much about my feelings.
. . .â€ Then, half jokingly, she added, â€œYou know how I talk to him on the phone?
He calls me and says, â€˜Itâ€™s me,â€™ and I say, â€˜I know.â€™ He asks me how everything
is going, and I say everythingâ€™s fine. He says, â€˜Iâ€™ll let you go then,â€™ and I say,
â€˜Okay.â€™ And thatâ€™s it.â€ There was a tinge of sadness in her words.
â€œMaybe because you project the opposite, you have a type-A kind of
neediness thatâ€™s hidden, since you rarely need to express it. It lies dormant and
stays intact. I have a friend Iâ€™ve known for years, and she puts all her needs out
in the open and doesnâ€™t spare any details, so Iâ€™ve come to recognize these things.
Your neediness comes out inadvertently. You never exercise that part of yourself,
so of course youâ€™re not conscious of it. Youâ€™re just overly independent. Why not
let yourself be needy once in a while?â€
â€œWhere do I go to find that part of me? I forgot how to rely on other people
ages ago!â€ she said.
XIAO FAN was the most desperate woman Iâ€™d ever seen. Despair was in her past
and in her present. Everything about her screamed despair. Because of her
despair, I loved her. Because of her despair, I was shaken. Because of her
despair, I was overwhelmed, and because of her despair, I left her. Her despair
was her beauty.
I secretly looked forward to seeing her during my weekly shift. By day, she
worked at the offices of the Youth Corps. By night, she and her fiancÃ© and a few
friends ran a bar. Every Saturday at six p.m., weâ€™d work together. The two of us
made a good team. By the time her shift began, sheâ€™d be overworked already.
She often arrived looking thin and pale. Naturally concerned, Iâ€™d stare at her out
of the corner of my eye. She smiled at me. It was a tired smile.
Sheâ€™d ask me why I was sitting next to her, and Iâ€™d say because youâ€™re smart.
Sheâ€™d also ask me why her. Iâ€™d say because youâ€™re so beautiful. She said maybe
you donâ€™t know that I have nothing to offer you. I said doesnâ€™t matter, other
women donâ€™t want me. She said you canâ€™t handle me. I said letâ€™s cross that
bridge when we get there.
She sat on my bike, waiting for her fiancÃ© to pick her up. I insisted on giving
her a lift home. She didnâ€™t think Iâ€™d be able to move with her on the back. I got
on the bike, and we went for a ride. She was so light. We ran a red light and
made a sudden turn. And with that, she became a little kid screaming in delight.
She said sheâ€™d never ridden so fast before. We rode up a giant bridge, taking the
steep lane for motorized vehicles. All around us, cars were zooming past. We
were on the only bicycle. I was drenched with sweat. It was a dangerous and
slow journey, and she was behind me, shouting go, go, go. . . .
Her capacity for happiness was limited, and yet she seemed happy. She always
seemed happy. Her happiness was natural, infectious. Having been endowed
with an intuitive understanding of others, she knew how to give and take. She
was the epitome of graciousness. The art of courtesy, as she so ably
demonstrated it, was a musical instrument in the hands of a virtuoso.
As I carried her on my bike, her weight became my own, and for a time, she
was a part of me. During my grueling ascent of the bridge, a cool breeze
encircled us. The surrounding riverbed was visible beneath the limpid waters,
and the twilight sky was a gentle pink. To our left was the sun, tiny and round,
its rays forming striations of color.
Xiao Fan and I inhaled deeply. All was peaceful. I let up on the pedals,
slowing down as much as I could. I wished the bridge would never end. With her
close behind me, I could tell that her breathing was irregular: Sheâ€™d gotten
overexcited. I had seen this day coming, when we would drop the faÃ§ade and
find ourselves at a loss for words. In a calm and matter-of-fact tone, she asked
whether Iâ€™d still see her if she quit her job. She was older and worldly-wise,
sober and heavy-hearted.
I could see into the depths of her soul. I knew her type. Insight was my natural
gift. Just go on managing your bar. Iâ€™ll come see you. Doesnâ€™t matter what time
you get off, I said. A flock of white pigeons flew overhead, and in that instant,
having been shown a glimpse of absolute freedom, I found courage. I wanted to
fall madly in love. I already knew I would take the love in me that no one else
wanted and give it all to this woman. All my memories of Xiao Fan and I
together were to be captured in this single bleak picture.
She knew I was secretly in love with her. She knew my demons. She knew I
was trying to figure out the inner workings of her soul. She knew that I
understood her, that she could trust me. She even knew that I would vanish; I
could hear it in those words on the bridge. I could tell that she was not one who
was easily moved, but that I had moved her. She hid too much. She begrudged
my absence before things even began. Her feelings for me were complicated.
During the lowest point following my split with Shui Ling, I disappeared for a
month. Didnâ€™t report for duty. Didnâ€™t get in touch with anyone. I was at home,
incapacitated. Out of the blue, I got a phone call. It was Xiao Fanâ€™s soft,
courteous voice on the line. I heard her say, â€œI donâ€™t know why Iâ€™m calling you,
and I really donâ€™t know if thereâ€™s any point in me calling you, but I just wanted
to make sure you were still alive.â€ (At this point, I was certain that she was
crying, and that she was stifling the sound.) â€œSo itâ€™s just for my benefit, okay?
You havenâ€™t shown up for work all month. I sense that somethingâ€™s going on
with you, but I know very well that I have no business telling you what to do.
You always have to have your way. Youâ€™re always looking after me, and
whatever it is I need, youâ€™re there to offer it. But you never tell me whatâ€™s going
on inside of you. Something bad happens, and you hide at home, alone,
wallowing in misery. So tell me, what can I actually do to help you? Or should I
wait for you to feel better on your own and show up for a shift with a smile
again? You make me feel so helpless.â€ Her voice betrayed a nasal congestion
from crying, and she seemed to be struggling to maintain her composure as she
On the most intense night of all, I finally went to the bar to find her. I was
already drunk, but she didnâ€™t ask questions. She just sat with me and kept me
company, telling me all kinds of anecdotes about what had happened while I was
away and what was going on in her life. I laughed as I listened. I laughed so hard
that my entire body shook violently. Tears of laughter streamed down my face
the whole time. With firmness as well as understanding, she looked me straight
in the eye. I stared back as she rattled on. Through my tears, I was laughing
hysterically, and I thought about how I had always longed to be loved like this. .
The alcohol kicked in. I vomited everything up in the bathroom. I told her not
to worry, that I didnâ€™t want her to see this disgusting side of me. After I threw
up, I came back and hid in a corner of the room. I lost control and burned
myself. I thought she wouldnâ€™t notice, but when I looked over, she was standing
at the bar, watching me as she poured a drink. There were tears welling in her
SIX MONTHS later, I moved into Xiao Fanâ€™s apartment. She took me in like a stray
dog. The months that I lived with her were, in all my four years, probably the
only time I was truly happy. They were like a dying manâ€™s final glimpses of the
I was haunted by despair, pain, confusion, and loneliness, which threatened to
drag me out of a world filled with the promise of the future and engulf me at any
moment. For the time being, I was wide awake and living each day to the fullest,
marking the dawn of a new era in which I was truly living the good life. This
newfound ardor was all Xiao Fanâ€™s doing, and like a moth to a flame, I reveled
in it, allowing the desires that had once been dammed to run recklessly wild. I
loved her ferociously. And in my total abandon, I relinquished all self-respect. I
stooped to a new low.
Xiao Fan was the only woman I ever made love to. Of all my memories, my
memory of her is the single most beautiful. It should be evident by now that I
canâ€™t conceivably depict this woman. In writing this much, Iâ€™ve already
condemned myself to failure and done her an injustice. It amounts to nothing
more than a sham, and Iâ€™ve gritted my teeth trying all the while. Thereâ€™s a raw
passion that still lives in my blood, still courses through my veins. The mere
thought of her fills me with enough desire to send me into a mad frenzy. Yet this
memory is also the saddest and most painful of all, for I never really knew this
womanâ€™s heart, and I never would.
â€œXIAO FAN, whatâ€™s wrong? What happened?â€
Iâ€™d been waiting for her in my room. The lights were out, and I was lying in
bed when I heard the sound of the key turning. I bolted out of bed. It was
midnight. She walked through the door, her face deathly pale. She went into her
room and changed her clothes. She came back out, emotionless. She went into
the kitchen and started to boil water. I followed her around anxiously, and every
now and then, she gave me a wan smile. She sat down at the dining room table
and stared ahead blankly. She looked haggard. Usually when she got home,
sheâ€™d knock on my door and weâ€™d chat. But that night, she was out of sorts,
zombie-like. I had the sinking feeling sheâ€™d been dealt a severe blow, and my
heart started pounding.
â€œWhat are you looking at?â€ she demanded, sounding amused and tired at the
same time. It was as if sheâ€™d suddenly realized she had an audience.
â€œIâ€™m looking at you, trying to figure out what happened.â€ There was a hint of
indignation in my voice.
She was silent. â€œStop looking at me,â€ she said sulkily.
She stood up, then shook her head and sighed, glaring at me. She poured
herself a glass of milk in the kitchen, then headed straight to her room, slamming
the door behind her. I heard the lock turn. Not another word.
This was her way of handling things, setting up a zone that I wasnâ€™t allowed to
enter. In the few months weâ€™d lived together, weâ€™d spent hundreds of hours
talking. Iâ€™d gotten to know her wellâ€”so well that I more or less knew how her
mind worked, and if I closed my eyes, I could imagine how she would respond
to a situation. She was generous that way, letting me analyze her. But there was
an off-limits zone where she hunkered down in need of solitude. She was like
someone who carried a gun everywhere she went, taking it to bed with her, even
when someone was sleeping beside her.
I pounded on her door impatiently. In that act of ignorance, I threw away my
self-respect. I barged in. Whenever I intruded on her privacy in this way, sheâ€™d
put up with it for a while before kicking me out. The absurdity of my logic
notwithstanding, I couldnâ€™t bear the thought of her suffering alone, so Iâ€™d go to
her door begging, and sit there waiting.
â€œWould you please leave me alone?â€ The door opened to reveal her sitting on
the bed. In the dimness, I could see her head hanging low and her hair dangling
over her eyes. Her voice hinted that she was trying desperately not to lose her
I watched her calmly and said nothing.
â€œWell?â€ She stared up at the ceiling, doing her best to keep her composure.
â€œDid you have a fight with him?â€ I had to ask. â€œYou should be used to me not
talking about it. When you donâ€™t say anything, thatâ€™s when itâ€™s time to worry.â€
She turned and looked squarely at me as I sat down at the foot of the bed.
â€œThis is a natural cycle. People have to slow down and do nothing for a while.
Thereâ€™s no point in being active. Thatâ€™s just how it works. You have to lie there
and do nothing for a while. You canâ€™t sleep because you have nightmares, and
you wake up feeling even more tired than before. I knew you were outside my
door. In the back of my mind, I knew that I should open the door, but I couldnâ€™t
get up. Whenever I think about the past, my head starts spinning, and I canâ€™t
focus or remember well. Then I start thinking about death. This hasnâ€™t happened
in a long time. God, I wish I were dead!â€ She ended with a cynical laugh.
â€œWhy donâ€™t you lie down and get some rest? Iâ€™ll sit beside you and keep you
company.â€ I helped her under the covers.
â€œJust now, in the car, the two of us went completely berserk. He wants me to
marry my boss. As soon as he said it, I tried to get out of the car, but he grabbed
my hand and wouldnâ€™t let go. He flew into a rage and slammed the car into the
median barrier. I clawed him with my nails and broke free from his grip, and got
out of the car and ran back here. Ah, itâ€™s been ten years of this. Iâ€™ve been trapped
for ten years. What have I done to deserve this? Though weâ€™ve been together this
long, he wonâ€™t marry me. I donâ€™t even know the real reason why. Isnâ€™t that
â€œHe was two years ahead of me when I got into junior college. We were in this
die-hard group of seven people from the same club. Weâ€™ve been together ever
since. The year we graduated, we decided to get engaged. Then, one day, he
went missing. Not even his widowed mother or his little brother knew where he
was. There was no news from him for a whole year. On the wedding date weâ€™d
set, I came down with hepatitis. It put me in the hospital for three months. I lost
about twenty pounds, which is why Iâ€™m this skinny. During that time, I bawled
my eyes out and didnâ€™t talk to anyone.
â€œThen I got a job at a company. It was because of my mother that I accepted
the bossâ€™s advances. She liked him. He was much older than me. He was a
mature, considerate manâ€”with a lot of money. He could help me provide for my
family. He was like a father, the way heâ€™d cook for me. He was so kind to me
that I felt guilty because I didnâ€™t love him one bit. Heâ€™s continued to pursue me
this whole time that Iâ€™ve been engaged.â€
Xiao Fan sighed as she took my hand and started playing with it. I ran my
fingers through her hair. By sharing her experiences, sheâ€™d brought the two of us
closer. And since I could apprehend her feelings at that very moment, I felt
â€œHe reemerged a year later, and I learned that heâ€™d gone to Mount Dongbu to
teach at an elementary school. After jilting me, he didnâ€™t say a word. He just met
up with me every day and went to grad school as usual, as if nothing had
happened. I couldnâ€™t reject him. Do you understand? That liver disease nearly
killed me. I was terrified. Then I realized how weighed down my heart had been.
But after that, even though heâ€™d come back, I didnâ€™t know how I felt anymore. I
felt empty. I thought if I just worked and worked, Iâ€™d save up enough money to
buy my parents a nice house. But I never imagined he would leave me again.
â€œOne night, when he was taking me home, he put a ring on my finger and
said, â€˜This is to make up for my past behaviorâ€”oh, and by the way, werenâ€™t we
planning to get married?â€™ Ever since that night, Iâ€™ve been living in a continuous
state of anticipation, waiting for the day to come. The past is repeating itself, but
even as I wait, I have faith. Is that great or what?â€ She stopped abruptly. Her
question was directed at me.
â€œAre you tired? Donâ€™t you want to rest for a while?â€ I couldnâ€™t refrain from
planting a kiss on her forehead.
She continued as if she hadnâ€™t heard me. Whenever she told stories, she
exuded an allure beyond her twenty-six years. Her beauty sent undulations
through me, riveting me, taking hold of me. It was not a sensual beauty but one
born of wisdom, perhaps a moral beauty. Her words showed that her fate was out
of her hands, that when karma began to flow, despair was only natural. She
understood the workings of destiny, the forces that had come to define her. She
had seen all the world had to offer and was entirely capable of playing the hand
sheâ€™d been dealt. And still she managed to retain a sensitivity that allowed her to
penetrate the deepest aspects of human nature. That was why she and I got along
so well. I was amazed at how she responded to me by treating me the way I
treated myself. It was due to her social maturity.
â€œJust look at us and tell me if weâ€™re a good match. We never tell each other
what weâ€™re thinking. Whenever we go out, we donâ€™t talk about anything except
our day-to-day needs. We have to be around friends whenever weâ€™re together.
That way, we can act wild and crazy and say stupid things. I doubt he really
thinks about anything. He isnâ€™t self-aware like you and I are. He just goes and
does things. Sometimes I donâ€™t know why weâ€™re together. Whenever I feel down,
I can talk to you, but I could never talk to him. . . .â€
I got under the covers and lay down beside her. She climbed out to put on a
movieâ€”a tearjerkerâ€”in the background.
â€œIâ€™ve always been a loser. For as long as I can remember, Iâ€™ve been hopeless
at everything. I envy people like you. You and him both. You guys are selfconfident and successful at everything you do. Youâ€™re both so free-spirited. You
can go anywhere and say to yourself, Now I want to go here or there. You guys
are amazing. In the past, I felt like I was amazing too because I was with him, so
then I hid behind him, where it was safe. I donâ€™t know when I started to accept
my place, my permanent inferiority. Wherever I go, itâ€™s never because I want to
go there, itâ€™s because Iâ€™m following the amazing people around me. Iâ€™m too
enamored of your amazingness!â€ The last part came with a bitter laugh.
She rolled over and timidly wiped her tears. Iâ€™d never seen her show such
grief before. The look of anguish on her face was unfamiliar to me. She almost
never cried. That gentle exterior concealed her true mettle. Despair was a fire
inside of her, steeling her, incapable of immolating her, and so she was neither
fragile nor self-pitying. She was resilient to the point of ruthlessness, toward
herself as well as others, so much so that the love I gave her was stepped on,
even trampled on.
Because of despair, she would never submit to anyone or anything.
Curiously enough, her grief caused me profound agonyâ€”physical agony. I felt
sharp pangs inside me. My entire body grew hot. My heart was palpitating. What
I experienced was not mere physical torment but full-on sexual arousal. What I
hungered for was her naked body. I was practically throbbing. . . .
I pulled her close and kissed her eyelids, her back, her neck and shoulders.
She was stunned, and her body tensed. Wordlessly, she yielded to it. The vibrant
sounds of music filtered through the shadows, and the curtain wafted gently. The
dusk light formed a layer of camouflage as the occasional car passed. There was
a palpable sensation in the air. Pulling herself free, she rolled over, sulkily telling
me not to get her worked up. She said no one could handle the burden. She said
it wouldnâ€™t be fair to me. I wrapped my arms around her from behind and turned
her over to face me. I held her tightly in my arms, and from there, plunged
headlong into the throes of passion. . . .
Her scent has been ingrained in me ever since, and I can still recall it at any
â€œLook at me. Now tell me, what do you want me to do?â€ she asked devotedly.
The reason Xiao Fan accepted me was because I didnâ€™t reject her. And
because it wasnâ€™t love.
AFTER the Crocodile Club incident, everyone caught Crocodile Fever. Once the
citizensâ€™ bureau confirmed a firsthand sighting, crocodile-related news went
from wild and wacky conjectures to the fruits of legitimate scholarship and
research. Crocodile coverage took the place of â€œDIANA JOINS BRITISH ROYAL
FAMILYâ€ as the lead story on the front page, bumping Diana to the full-page
special-feature slot previously occupied by â€œWILL HUMANS EVER EVOLVE?â€ On any
given day, individuals set out in every direction with one urgent mission: to hunt
down crocodiles. There was an un-spoken rule that crocodile-related information
was to be exchanged only in private. No one mentioned it in public, lest
crocodiles be frightened away. Everyone was on high alert as they searched for
the slightest evidence of a crocodile, remaining convinced that crocodiles had no
idea humans were on the lookout for them.
Various crocodile experts had begun to crop up. Every day in the papers there
was a new crocodile-related article written by a PhD. A tenured professor signed
on to host Focus on Crocodiles, a TV program that featured leading authorities
on genetic engineering, developmental psychologists, officials from the Ministry
of the Interior, and legal scholars. One such genetic-engineering expert, who had
obtained the cells of crocodiles for research purposes, argued that crocodiles and
humans were two distinct species that could, through the processes of evolution,
form a new type of human, forecasting an eighty percent chance of a hybrid
species through mating.
From the standpoint of the developmental psychologists, crocodiles were an
aberrant species. In accordance with their disciplineâ€™s understanding of crocodile
families, their research indicated distinct differences from humans at every stage
of development from birth to puberty as well as in maturity, though details had
yet to be ascertained. There was a general consensus, however, that up to the age
of fourteen, crocodiles adopted a homemade â€œhuman suitâ€ before running away
from home. While exact causes remained unknown, scholars cited societal
attitudes as a factor in crocodile mutation, suggesting that there was no means of
preventing an increase in the number of emergent crocodiles, which would
ultimately contribute to a broader societal trend toward a full-fledged crocodile
ecology and genetic mutation.
The legal scholars asserted that in order to protect the native civilization,
traditions, and social order of the past five thousand years, advance revisions of
labor laws, property laws, marriage laws, et cetera, were needed to restrict the
crocodile race to designated occupations in the tourism and service industries.
Additional taxes were also proposed lest crocodiles drain societal resources,
along with the enactment of explicit measures to prohibit marriage between
humans and crocodiles. An official of the Ministry of the Interior made a
televised announcement that the Alliance for the Protection of Crocodiles was
growing in popularity and holding daily demonstrations in Taipei to pressure the
federal legislature to meet its demands for crocodile protection statutes. The
alliance also advocated the legal creation of crocodile ecotourism zones to
prevent extinction. The ministry official reiterated that the constitution contained
a provision ensuring crocodiles the right to exist.
One month later, the Bureau of Health and Sanitation published the results of
a secret study. According to the bureau, which tracked a Crocodile Club event on
December 24th attended by sixty active members, within a month, five percent
of those in attendance had experienced a dermatological problemâ€”their skin had
turned red in places and sprouted dense patches of black specks. The body hair
of those subjects was examined under a high-power microscope, revealing the
presence of tiny ova-shaped specimens. A bureau spokesman issued the
following conclusions: The tiny spawns were the product of a toxin secreted by
the crocodiles; as an oviparous species, crocodiles produced spawns, which were
agents of reproduction; a new organism was produced not through sexual
intercourse per se but through the discharge of a spawn that entered the human
body and transformed the host into a new crocodile.
People were stunned. A huge uproar ensued.
The Alliance for the Protection of Crocodiles and the Anti-Crocodile
Coalition (known respectively as Pro-Croc and Anti-Croc) held a televised
national debate, with three networks providing joint prime-time coverage at six
â€œAs controversial as research on crocodiles may be, there is no doubt
whatsoever that crocodile spawns are not pure human beings. Because they are
99.9 percent different from humans, or those of us who constitute the majority,
they are abnormal. Is everyone here willing to accept the risk of mutation as a
product of social intercourse? Are you prepared for a future in which we, as a
society, are completely transformed into crocodiles?â€ Anti-Croc asked.
â€œBut Anti-Croc, youâ€™ve never even seen a crocodile before. How can you start
talking about what kind of influence crocodiles will have on the future of
society?â€ Pro-Croc said.
â€œOh, donâ€™t tell me that crocodiles donâ€™t have enough influence on society as it
is. Havenâ€™t there been eyewitness sightings of crocodiles? The phenomenon of
deviant crocodile spawns is an established fact. How else has society become
this unstable? I can just imagine how crocodiles look with their human suits on.
What horrifying creatures, with those specks growing all over their red skin. Just
the thought of something that looks like a human producing spawns makes me
sick,â€ Anti-Croc said.
â€œBut even if crocodiles emerge from human beings, that doesnâ€™t mean we all
harbor the same potential to become crocodiles. The actual chances are slim.
What makes you think otherwise?â€ Pro-Croc said.
â€œCrocodiles are not humans,â€ Anti-Croc said.
â€œAccording to you, all crocodiles should be preemptively thrown in jail, just
in case you have a child who might become a crocodile. What if you suddenly
woke up one day to find that youâ€™d turned into a crocodile, what would you do
then?â€ Pro-Croc said.
â€œThat would never happen. I would discipline my child or I would turn myself
in. And you?â€ Anti-Croc said.
â€œActually, we have a collective goal, which is to protect crocodiles and to
allow them to subsist naturally. But because society poses a threat to crocodiles,
we need to provide some safeguards for them, which is why weâ€™ve compiled a
registry of crocodiles so they can be gathered in designated tourism zones,
monitored and protected in the event of a large-scale disaster, and serve as
sample specimens, as a practical measure to prevent public interference,â€ said
The following day, the Bureau of Health and Sanitation and federal lawenforcement authorities issued a joint statement: â€œEffective today, we have
designated this month as National Crocodile Month in order to give crocodiles
nationwide an opportunity to turn themselves over to the registrars of the Bureau
of Health and Sanitation or the National Police Agency, to whom crocodiles
must provide their names, which will be made public. Scheduling of treatment
and a pledge of compliance will also be undertaken at that time. Any late
registrants who are discovered will be subject to penalties, which will be
ON HOW to love well: Instead of embracing a romantic ideal, you must confront
the meaning of every great love that has shattered, shard by shard.
SHUI LING lived on in my heart. Like a pendulum swinging toward me, memories
of her surfaced from the darkest recesses of my mind, blurring with reality one
moment and vanishing like a dream the next, leaving stillness in their wake. . . .
December 16, 1989
Shui Ling, itâ€™s my second day in Penghu. I waited until the most spectacular
moments of sunset were over, then headed to the balcony of my hotel room
with my journal and a clear, sober heart. I wanted to sit at a round white
table, inspired by the fast-fading colors as the darkness enveloped the sky.
With the last remaining sliver of orange light on the horizon beyond the
murky waters, I found myself unable to witness the end of a thing whose
beauty was never realized.
The sea shrouded in blackness, the stirring sounds of night, and the ocean
breezeâ€”elements of an all-too-familiar scene, arenâ€™t they? I saw the dimly
lit sea yesterday, and thatâ€™s when it sank in. But here I am, gazing
sentimentally at the green light reflected on the waterâ€™s surface, savoring
what time is left before it goes out.
Every time we spoke, I bungled the opportunity. My words ran amok.
My most volatile parts surfaced. I tried to tell you in a letter but gave up
trying to finish. I tossed and turned all night, unable to escape the awful din
inside my head. I couldnâ€™t get out of bed or make myself clean the house. I
couldnâ€™t put a pen to paper. Thatâ€™s the state I was in for two months. I didnâ€™t
tell you, but I was worried about myself.
I ran off to Penghu. My defenses weakened, I watched helplessly as my
brigade was decimated. But still I pushed forward with the flag raised high,
flapping in the wind, refusing to surrender.
December 28, 1989
You punished me by making me wait. What was I willing to wait so long
for? I waited for a breakthrough in honesty, for you to say that your love for
me had an ultimate meaning. I was in desperate search of some sort of
In the end, it wasnâ€™t love. We could love, and love would leave us, or we
couldnâ€™t love, and love wouldnâ€™t leave us. That was the ultimate meaning.
Blessing or curse, there was no escaping it. All I could do was learn to play
the hand Iâ€™d been dealt, knowing that the profundity of my life experiences
would rest on my ability to formulate a plot.
I waited for you though you werenâ€™t the one, and succeeded only in
hurting and debasing myself.
January 3, 1990
On holding grudges. According to the Dalai Lama, one pursues the noble
life not to depart from this world but to accept those who will depart from
it. And so I vow never to revisit my journals from those days.
This pain has left me feeling worn and emptyâ€”unable to refrain from
these effusions, unsure of how to mend the gaping hole in me, unable to
reach the place that Haruki Murakami described: â€œSix years during which
time Iâ€™d laid three cats to rest. Burned how many aspirations, bundled up
how much suffering in thick sweaters, and buried them in the ground. All in
this fathomlessly huge city Tokyo.â€ I donâ€™t know how to dig myself out of
the rut Iâ€™m in, and the pain, which comes in paroxysms, tears away at my
April 19, 1990
Shui Ling, this separation has to be. Four months later, Iâ€™m in a completely
different place. I thought long and hard about romantic fantasies and
shattered loves. I cried for days on end. I put all the time and energy I had
into finding closure, making sure that youâ€™d never again be a part of my
life. I wanted you to fade into the past so that I could mourn. So I gave
myself a bloodletting, replaying hurtful words from our time together over
and over in my heart. Our breakup was not the most beautiful memory, but
this time, it was the best.
Passion alone is never enough. That was my biggest lesson. As a first
year, as a third year, and even now, I could never give you stability. Love,
however beautiful, always comes at a great cost to the future, donâ€™t you
Unhealthy love is two people stoking a shared fantasy of desperate
beauty, weaponizing passion and desire. Real life is filled with twists and
turns, changes, recurrences. Before you even know it, youâ€™ve become a
deluded romantic who denies the consequences of time or destroys the very
thing that they love. Itâ€™s funny how the only time Iâ€™m not hypersensitive is
when Iâ€™m breaking up with someone. Then again, we brought out the
ugliness in each other, as if hatred was the seed of our love.
I donâ€™t want to be close to you again. Our fighting knows no end. I want
you to shatter the illusions I created, and go out and love someone else.
Donâ€™t love too much but donâ€™t fail to love, either. Love prudently. Love
realistically, just enough to treat someone well. Though you donâ€™t love me
anymore, relationship or not, I want you to be well now and always. I want
you to love someone else, even if it hurts me.
Part of me has been secretly hoping that good things do last forever, but
itâ€™s time to renounce that hope. I looked across the water, and as my tears
fell, I told myself: â€œYou canâ€™t hold on to a beautiful thing foreverâ€”not in
your memory, not even if you keep loving it. If you tried, it would only die
in your possession. Beauty must be free to run its course.â€ I decided to free
you from my heart in a gesture that is nothing short of poignant, for beauty
belongs to no one and must be relinquished to the eternal.
The deeper you love, the deeper your compassion grows and the more
you realize that the other suffers just as you do. When all is said and done,
human civilization is ugly and cruel, and the only thing to do is to raze it to
the ground, and thatâ€™s because kindredness is the one true constant between
you and anyone else. The best way for any relationship to end is with the
sentiment I wish the best for you, and I am grateful for what we once had
July 13, 1990
Shui Ling, tonight Iâ€™m moving in with Xiao Fan and starting a new life in
which reality comes first. I look forward to leaving fantasy behind and
keeping a grip on reality, with all my thoughts and feelings intact. Iâ€™ve
never been as close to or further from reality than I have in the past six
months of loneliness and misery. I learned the hard way when my ideals
collided with reality, but each exists for a reason, and at least I now know
In confronting my desires, I felt sorrow and regret over my former,
unrealistic ways of thinking, but I was also moved and inspired. After
having come so close to ending my life, I came back, my will to live
completely reawakened. I faced reality, where I would learn to live again,
this time boldly and fearlessly. My body was screaming at me, telling me
that life was a gift. The agony of the past few years, like the conflict
between the real me and the one everyone knew, is gone. I even feel a little
sorry for my old self, so feeble and self-pitying. It seems Iâ€™ve finally come
around to living the life Iâ€™ve always dreamed of.
AFTER that perilous night, I went on living in the room next to Xiao Fanâ€™s. She
always brought work home. Every morning, sheâ€™d drag herself out of bed,
exhausted, then open my door a crack and peek in. Iâ€™d open my eyes to greet her.
Sheâ€™d come in and sit on my bed, and weâ€™d goof around like little kids. Iâ€™d put
on a wake-up song (like Don McLeanâ€™s â€œAmerican Pieâ€ or Dan Fogelbergâ€™s
â€œLeader of the Bandâ€) and stretch, while sheâ€™d pour herself a glass of milk and
make me a cup of coffee. Then weâ€™d sit down at our little dining table and eat
breakfast. As she read the paper, Iâ€™d sit there and interrupt her, asking random
questions. She had to keep up with the news for her job, and Iâ€™d try to make her
laugh so she couldnâ€™t get any reading done.
She normally wore contact lenses, which made her look sober and aloof.
Breakfast was the only time she ever wore her thick-framed glasses. Behind the
lenses, her eyes were two tiny dots. She looked endearingly simple and honest.
The best was when I could tell that she found my teasing funny and annoying at
the same time. On those occasions, she lived purely in the moment, which made
me happier than words could ever describe.
Then sheâ€™d head to her room to get ready. She was like a freewheeling
bachelor who was being forced to masquerade as a woman, and her brilliant
execution of a feminine style didnâ€™t stop her from making fun of her own clothes
and makeup. Once, while wearing an evening gown to a cocktail party with her
boss, she stepped on the skirt and tripped as the two of them were dancing. She
laughed about it the whole way home, then boasted to me afterward. Like me,
she could be flippant about appearances. But she just didnâ€™t give a damn how she
looked, and in that respect, she was ballsier than I was.
Iâ€™d sit on the carpet in my bedroom, smoking in silence as I waited for her to
leave her room, transformed into a woman who fit in. Suddenly, the chasm
between my reality and hers would become painfully apparent. Then, as if she
didnâ€™t want me to see her in such a state, sheâ€™d slip out the door.
My ear was constantly up against the wall of her room, listening for any
movementâ€”the phone ringing when she and her fiancÃ© made a date, her light
footsteps, the sound of her gingerly closing the door. Day after day, Iâ€™d hear the
door shut, and Iâ€™d be separated from her anew. She slipped into another
dimension that I had no connection to, one in which she belonged to this other
As I drifted off to sleep, Iâ€™d hear a key being inserted into the front door lock
and turned. The sound would trickle into my dreams, waking me. Like a
goalkeeper, I knew instantaneously if sheâ€™d made it into the entryway. From the
time she left the house to the end of the day, I sat in the dark, waiting for her.
Apart from the few classes I couldnâ€™t skip, or when I absolutely had to go out, I
spent most of my time at home. My once hectic social life ground to a halt. I
ended my complicated, dodgy relationships with various men. I didnâ€™t do
anything except sleep, then sleep more. I didnâ€™t even read books. The dormancy
made me restless, and I put all my energy into writing in my journal. Whether I
was sitting or running around or lying down, my mind was filled with things I
wanted to talk to Xiao Fan about. In my heart, I talked to her all day long. The
sheer volume of these conversations was too much to contain. They were
practically oozing out of me, incapacitating me. My body had entered
overproduction mode. Its mostly unsaleable products were piled in a warehouse,
and the warehouse soon had to be demolished.
My long slumber came to an end when the sound of the key rescued me. I sat
up straight in bed, then crept over to the door, peeping out through a crack. It
was easy to tell whether she was in a good or bad mood that day. When she was
in a bad mood, sheâ€™d stand at the shoe rack grimacing before forcing a vague
smile in my direction. That was her way of preparing to unleash the trials of her
day. Then, from behind that shrewd, capable exterior emerged a pure innocence.
She had the face of a ten-year-old girl, it was that adorable. Xiao Fan was so thin
that her cheeks were sunken, but whenever she smiled, her dimples would
appear. I often had an overwhelming urge to pick her up and give her a big
squeeze. She was so angelic that Iâ€™d forget she was five years older than me, and
Other times, before sheâ€™d even gotten dressed, sheâ€™d talk to me through the
crack of my door, animatedly and rapidly unloading a massive stream of
information. Sheâ€™d talk about her crotchety old colleagues at work, or how sheâ€™d
take advantage of the times when no one else was in the office to make longdistance phone calls to friends on three different lines at the same time. Or how
sheâ€™d managed to plow through a huge pile of work, or how in the middle of the
day, some shady madam had dragged her to a beauty salon to help settle a
dispute. Or sheâ€™d mention any good music theyâ€™d played at the bar, or interesting
customers sheâ€™d met, or even how her old boss K was hanging around the bar
one night, pestering her. . . .
She talked nonstop. Sheâ€™d talk while getting dressed, while getting ready for
bed, while straightening up her room. Iâ€™d listen enthusiastically and contentedly
before starting my day. Iâ€™d eat the breakfast sheâ€™d made, then take a shower.
Sometimes when I was in the shower, sheâ€™d pull a chair up to the door and sit
there, going into excruciating detail about a movie plot. In spite of being
completely captivated, I was impassive. Iâ€™d be silent for so long that sheâ€™d
jokingly threaten to break down the door. Listening to her talk about movies was
the greatest pleasure of all, not just because of her eloquence but because the
only time that she shed her self-consciousness and guardedness was when she
was wrapped up in her feelings about a movie. In those relaxed moments of
openness, I could observe and experience her as she authentically was, soaking
up her brilliance. But the occasions when she was uninhibited were few and far
between. Whenever her mind wasnâ€™t encumbered by some major problem, I felt
relieved, if only for the time being.
Before bedtime, she would read quietly in her room, and Iâ€™d sit nearby in the
living room to keep her company. Iâ€™d put on some background music in my
room. Occasionally sheâ€™d come out and sit beside me. Sheâ€™d watch me until she
was sleepy, then turn out her light and climb into bed. Her bedroom door was
directly across from my reading spot, and she left it open so I could check in on
her, since she had trouble sleeping. A little while later, Iâ€™d go over and see if
sheâ€™d fallen asleep, then tiptoe inside and tuck her in. Iâ€™d gaze at her before
leaving, gently closing the door behind me. Then Iâ€™d go back to my room and
get ready for bed, or Iâ€™d stay up all night reading in the living room, keeping
watch as she slept. On nights like this, it felt like we were best friends, or even
But alas. Alas, our conversations always avoided one part of her daily
regimen. She refused to discuss him. It was as if he didnâ€™t exist. She went to
increasingly greater pains to keep the two of us in separate worlds,
compartmentalizing her life into two distinct halves. It was her way of adapting
to the new instability that arose when I came into her life. Even as I watched her
from the living room while she slept, that other person known as her fiancÃ© was
likely waiting downstairs, and once the lights in her window went out, heâ€™d start
the engine of his motorcycle, then take off. But alas, these things Xiao Fan and I
EVER SINCE Shui Ling turned me away with a wave of the hand, I didnâ€™t know
what kind of affection I needed. All I knew was that I needed a woman who
wouldnâ€™t run away. Every time I fell in love with someone, they never met my
basic needsâ€”meaning, I never should have fallen in love with them in the first
place. Knowing this about myself, I didnâ€™t expect much from Xiao Fan. I simply
hoped to cherish our time together and to care for her. The most important and
only thing left for me to do was to concentrate on loving the one I was with.
Xiao Fan just happened to be there by my side, and that was why this privilege
had been bestowed on me. With the click and turn of a key, the happiness inside
her was mine to be had.
Or maybe, just maybe, she wanted to love me, but what she gave me was a
love with too much pride.
Thatâ€™s the kind of person she was. As far as intimacy went, she no longer had
any desires or fantasies. What she had instead were crippling fears. She not only
realized that she couldnâ€™t afford to pay the price but she refused to. All of her
energy went toward upholding the responsibilities of another intimate
relationship, and so she refused to take up the same kind of romantic
involvement elsewhere. In forgoing any further intimacy, she dispensed with
romantic involvements altogether. She had come to experience everyone as an
intractable burden. Her worst nightmare was to be loved. That was why, at the
core of her passion, there was fear. She had rejected love and taught herself to
live without intimacy.
It was too late for her to fend off my encroachments, which confounded her.
Even if she did accept my love, she didnâ€™t process it or know what to do with it.
Her only response was a passive guardedness that prompted me to commit more
severe encroachments. In the end, things fell apart and she withdrew from me.
As long as I treated her this way, she would remain impervious to me and
frustrate me whenever necessary. Our relationship entered a vicious cycle, and
living under the same roof, we were fast headed toward a standoff.
She let me give myself over completely, then prevented me from falling madly
in love with her by forcing me to love her in a rational, controlled way. She
didnâ€™t want the soul-baring embrace of intimacy. She wanted to admire me from
afar, and it was enough for her to know that Iâ€™d always be there. That distance
partly served to help her make sense of me. She was so impervious that she
couldnâ€™t tell how much I needed her. Even if she could tell, sheâ€™d never be able
to give me what I needed. Instead, sheâ€™d drop hints about how little she had to
give. To make matters worse, sheâ€™d sometimes give me the exact opposite of
what I needed, so that there was no point in expressing my needs. She constantly
had the upper hand. That was her way of protecting herself from meâ€”by giving
herself an outâ€”and protecting me from even greater pain.
It was plain to see that in needing her love, I was doomed. It didnâ€™t matter
how she saw herself or how she loved me: She was too proud. She was so set in
her ways that I stopped wanting her.
Because I couldnâ€™t stop loving her, a single directive took over me: Never,
ever let her hurt you. I had to lock up my love and leave it to die. I had to repress
my desire for intimacy, or else sheâ€™d never let me near her again. Our dynamic
was shameful, and it reflected the worst in us. I could lend her my ear, but that
was about all. Even though I wanted badly to listen to her endless chatter and
answer her every beck and call. And even though Iâ€™d come running if she needed
Weâ€™d signed a perverse unspoken contract. Due to some greater good, we
were each unwilling to part with the other. At some point, I developed the savage
conviction that she would never truly love me. Or perhaps it was the sheer
intensity of my love that caused me to fiercely resist her. At my weakest and
neediest moments, I avoided her. Otherwise, sheâ€™d start messing with me.
During those times, I told myself that the problem was in me. I could no longer
balance her out as I once had. I was backsliding. She cut me off completely to
punish me, and so I stopped craving intimacy. It was all based on a frightening
dysfunction: lack of trust.
In the end, our conflict erupted in an argument. â€œCan I come in?â€ She leaned
against my bedroom door, trying to feel out the situation.
â€œCome on in. Didnâ€™t I say my door was always open to you?â€ I replied calmly,
lying in bed.
The night before, she had come home and locked herself in her room without
saying a word, without knocking on my door or leaving hers open. Having
learned my lesson last time, I tried not to worry and instead left my door open all
night so she could talk to me if she felt like it. The note that I stuffed through the
crack under her door read:
Xiao Fan. If youâ€™re not in a good mood tonight, thatâ€™s fine. I just wanted to
say, no problem. If you need a little time out, donâ€™t worry about it. So if
youâ€™ve locked yourself in your room because youâ€™re going through a hard
time or just have stuff to deal with, I understand. At times like these, you
can handle it on your own. You say that if I approach you, itâ€™ll make you
pull away. Thereâ€™s no way I can give you the sense of security that you need
or make you open up to me, but maybe youâ€™ll come to me one day. I still
donâ€™t know if I should give you a hug, or ignore you and give you space.
I just wanted to tell you how I feel. I was worried that I wouldnâ€™t be able
to talk because I have a sore throat. For the rest of the night Iâ€™ll be with you
â€”over in my room, patiently waiting for you, waiting with a smile.
The next day was Sunday. At eight in the morning, I heard her door open. I
waited, but she didnâ€™t come to my door, so I went out there. She was in the
kitchen, boiling water for eggs. Her expression seemed normal, as if nothing had
happened, except for that strange veil of detachment. Cautiously, I asked her
what was going on, and right away, she replied coolly that it was nothing, that it
had nothing to do with me. Then she went about her business.
I didnâ€™t ask anything more. After hitting a brick wall, I felt dejected. I turned
and headed back to my room, where I fell asleep with the door open. I slept until
the sky turned dark. Iâ€™d inadvertently slept for more than ten hours.
â€œWhy did you sleep for so long?â€ She sat on the floor near my door.
â€œI donâ€™t know. It just happened. I probably needed to.â€
â€œDid you know that youâ€™ve never slept this much before when Iâ€™ve been at
home? Whenever Iâ€™m here, youâ€™re asleep. It must be because of me.â€ There was
some guilt in her voice. Her face looked even paler than usual.
â€œItâ€™s just me. Donâ€™t think about it too much. I solve problems by sleeping.â€
â€œWhat kinds of problems? Are you still thinking about what you should do
â€œNo, Iâ€™m over that. I donâ€™t need to do anything about you, I just need to deal
â€œDid you make up your mind? It worries me to see you this way.â€ She
â€œI couldnâ€™t make up my mind. If I could, Iâ€™d be fine. In the end, I canâ€™t leave
you. I want to be there for you, to take care of you, but I need to look out for
myself first. Otherwise Iâ€™ll become a burden to you.â€
â€œTake care of me? What do you mean, â€˜take careâ€™? How are you taking care of
me? I donâ€™t need your sage advice. You never even say what you want. You just
wait for other people to make up their minds, then you accept it and feel like
youâ€™ve been left empty-handed. Iâ€™ve watched you live aimlessly and grow more
dissatisfied by the day. I donâ€™t know what to do about you.â€
â€œIs it really that painful? Maybe itâ€™d be better if you didnâ€™t pay attention to my
aimless existence. That way you wouldnâ€™t have to watch me suffer.â€
â€œOh, is that your latest decision? What else am I supposed to do? Hold your
hand while you throw your life away?â€ Stone-faced, she stood up abruptly. Then
she turned on her heels and left. The door slammed behind her.
I froze in terror. My mind was spinning. The realization cut through me: Iâ€™d
hurt her feelings. A second later, I stumbled to her door and pounded on it,
hollering for her to open up.
â€œXiao Fan, open the door. I was wrong. I wonâ€™t say anything like that again.
You put me in my place. Please, open the door!â€
I heard the lock turning. I stormed in. Xiao Fan sat on the floor, looking
devastated. I noticed traces of tears on her face. She didnâ€™t see or hear me. There
was a faraway look in her eyes, which were almost black. Her hair was a mess.
Her appearance startled me. Gathering myself, I braced for the worst. This was
divine punishment; it was what I deserved. Strength was a part of her character,
but at that instant, sheâ€™d suffered a shattering blow, and she was letting it all
show. Because of my love for her, I was about to be shattered, too, if I didnâ€™t
â€œXiao Fan, listen to me. Iâ€™m not going to let you go, even if it kills me. Weâ€™re
friends for life!â€ I hugged her with all my might. She responded slightly,
touching my hair.
â€œYou dummy! You tossed aside what I had to give. I saw. You threw it away,â€
she said weakly, offering a pained smile.
â€œIt wasnâ€™t what I needed. Even if you werenâ€™t secretly trying to push me away
with it, Iâ€™d still have to say no. If I started to need or rely on you, and you didnâ€™t
reciprocate, Iâ€™d die from having this tenderness for you. Iâ€™d resent you. It would
change everything between us, and then Iâ€™d really be left out.
â€œI have to learn not to need or rely on you so that I can give you what you
think you need, but I havenâ€™t been doing a good job of it. Sometimes when I wait
for you to rely on me, you throw me this chilly look thatâ€™s devastating to me. It
feels like weâ€™re in a boxing match, and you just landed a knockout punch.â€
â€œWhatever it is you want, just tell me!â€ Her voice was filled with sadness. She
caressed my face.
â€œI finally understand what you meant when you said, â€˜You canâ€™t give me what
I want.â€™ It wasnâ€™t because you didnâ€™t want to give me anything. I told you the
best way to pay me back was to let me take care of you, but I realized you canâ€™t
give anybody anything. Iâ€™ve been trying in vain.â€ I glared at her.
â€œI understand, all right. You wouldnâ€™t take me as your lover if your life
depended on it. You ask too much. Your expectations are too different from how
I love, in that you have a lot of pride. You can only love someone whoâ€™s more
arrogant and difficult than you, though you probably donâ€™t see it that way. But
Iâ€™m the exact opposite. I can only love without holding back, and thatâ€™s not what
you need. Weâ€™re not well matched when it comes to give and take. You might
need me, but you donâ€™t understand why Iâ€™m in your life. Maybe someday it will
all make sense!â€ I managed to get it all out in a single breath.
There was a helpless look on her face. â€œI donâ€™t know why itâ€™s like this, either.
In the beginning, I didnâ€™t treat you this way! I feel like I have to reject you and
force myself not to feel anything, or else youâ€™ll just keep sliding further into the
abyss. But every time I check on you, youâ€™ve already slid further, and I canâ€™t
â€œI gave you a chance before, and this time, Iâ€™m trying my hardest. Just now I
felt like running away so I wouldnâ€™t have to see you all the time. Thatâ€™s my gut
feeling. When it gets like this, I end up denying that Iâ€™ve ever gotten anything
from you. I donâ€™t want to run away, though. Maybe I should give it another try
and see if I can still have you around somehow.â€ She sighed.
â€œThanks! Thanks a lot! You should just pretend Iâ€™m your building
superintendent,â€ I said.
â€œNo! I donâ€™t want you as a superintendent!â€ She shook her head. There was
tenderness in her eyes.
TRAGEDY lurked in our relationship. Xiao Fan and I had relied on our mutual
understanding, supporting each other and weathering crises. Yet things had
deteriorated and taken a turn for the worse.
The following week, Xiao Fanâ€™s fiancÃ© finished grad school and enlisted in
the military, based in the south. Xiao Fan grew visibly uneasy, fearing that
because of her fiancÃ©â€™s sinister, warped nature, anything could happen. She was
in a strange mood that week, and I knew it was because of her fiancÃ©. Realizing
how close she was to the grave sheâ€™d dug for herself, she was all nerves. Day
after day, I watched her, feeling the chasm between us. Living in the ancient
castle she shared only with him, she wouldnâ€™t be poking her head out anytime
soon. She didnâ€™t realize that she had sealed herself off. Though it hurt, I stayed
out of it and simply looked on. She didnâ€™t even notice me.
One night, I waited for the sound of the door until three a.m., but she still
didnâ€™t come home. That had never happened before. I went into her room and
opened the window facing the street, and a cool breeze entered. I stood there for
a few hours, counting the cars passing by, and every so often, Iâ€™d call one of her
friends. Then, out of nowhere, a car pulled up directly below. I just wanted her to
come home, and I was about to shut the window and return to my room when I
took one last glance at the car. I could barely make out two people huddled
inside. I sensed that they were locked in a long, passionate embrace: I knew that
her fiancÃ© had returned. I forced myself to keep watching and watching. Iâ€™d been
waiting for the ax to fall, and now a bloody limb hit the ground with a thud. I
knew it was over. My heart a lead weight, I quietly returned to my room and sat
down at my desk. Xiao Fan came up the stairs. She didnâ€™t say anything, and only
glanced guiltily at me as she passed. I tried my hardest to act normal. She had no
clue how I felt.
Itâ€™s hard to explain the horror I felt in the split second I witnessed them
together. In actuality, this man had always existed in my life and in my heart. He
was responsible for creating the close bond between me and Xiao Fan, and Iâ€™d
accepted his role a long time ago. Xiao Fan was never to be mine, and though Iâ€™d
accepted it, the circumstances that had once been far-flung and thus under
control were paraded before my very eyes. Iâ€™d had a rude awakening. From that
moment on, my world with Xiao Fan was fundamentally changed. Sheâ€™d left me
with a scar that revealed my sacrifice had been in vain, with the realization that
Iâ€™d become subservient.
I kept my mouth shut. Didnâ€™t say a thing, didnâ€™t try to argue. It was all
because of my festering wound, and I knew it. I just kept living under the same
roof as Xiao Fan, trying my best to smile when I saw her each day, and it felt
like I was treading along the ocean floor, expelling air bubbles in lieu of words
or emotions. It marked the beginning of the end for me, and I silently awaited
the day when my languishing body would breathe its last.
I spent every minute and every second of the day crying. As I was walking,
riding the bus, talking to other people, in class, during tests, in my room, in my
sleep, as I dreamed, every single moment, in my heart I was crying and no one
knew. At all hours, from inside of my chest came a sob, a distinct wail that only I
could hear. After two weeks of bawling like that, I didnâ€™t shed another tear. Life
returned to normal, but I was rarely at home, where Iâ€™d likely run into Xiao Fan.
Two months passed. The time had come for madness to beget a complete
unraveling, and it came precisely the day before my college commencement.
That evening was one of the rare occasions when I returned early to the
apartment. The phone suddenly rang. It was somebody I didnâ€™t know, telling me
to hurry to the hospital to see Xiao Fan. Sheâ€™d had an attack of acute hepatitis.
One of her colleagues, whoâ€™d taken her to the emergency room, said sheâ€™d
repeatedly asked for me.
Riding in the taxi, I felt a mix of bewilderment and cool detachment. My
heartâ€™s desires were about to meet their doom. A knife was held against my
throat. The moment of decision had arrived. If I had any residual feelings for her,
I would stay at her side until the bitter end, no matter how degrading it was.
I entered the emergency room. It was painted a cold, dreary shade of green
and filled with the overpowering stench of medicine. I immediately spotted Xiao
Fan. She was lying on a stretcher in the hall outside the internal medicine ward.
Her eyes, dark and puffy, flooded with tears at the sight of me. Before my eyes,
she had become feeble. She sobbed helplessly, her tears surging out from some
inexhaustible source. She had come undone. Then and there, I told myself never
to forget that image for as long as I lived.
That image. It took me to a more profound place than I had ever known. God,
how can I even explain? It dawned on me what Gabriel Marcel meant: I could
write an entire book based on a single moment of silence. This was that moment
of silence. In witnessing this womanâ€™s breakdown, I was pulled into her destiny,
and my fate became forcibly intertwined with hers. Observing her breakdown, I
broke down. I lost myself. Yet there was something to be learned from the bond
that was forged between us, though at the time, I didnâ€™t realize it.
With that breakdown came a total collapse. The weight of her sorrows came
down on me, crushing me. Having asked to be responsible for her, and having
ventured into her darkest depths, I finally shouldered the burden of my own
desires. Unceasing tremors of all kindsâ€”tremors of love, tremors of desire,
tremors of hate, tremors of painâ€”coalesced inside me. It became perfectly clear
that Iâ€™d always carried this image of the real Xiao Fan in my heart, and now it
had materialized before me.
So there I was, a complete outcast whoâ€™d had a collision with cold, hard
reality. It didnâ€™t matter what kind of person I was inside, how I yearned for a
bond with Xiao Fan, or if my desire to love her had been my undoing: The world
didnâ€™t care. It was nothing personal. Even the woman right in front of me was
telling me no. There was no right or wrong here. In the end, the world didnâ€™t owe
me anything, not even half a chance. That was the hand Iâ€™d been dealt in life,
and while detachment was enough for me to withstand hatred, extricating myself
from the jaws of suffering called for enough detachment to exercise cruelty.
â€œToday I got a letter from him. Iâ€™ve waited four years for this and now itâ€™s
happened. He sent it from training camp. He said heâ€™s decided not to marry me.
Another woman is already five months pregnant with his baby. . . one of our
schoolmates, younger than us. He said he was penniless and never worthy of me
in the first place.â€ Xiao Fan gripped my hand tightly. Her hair was soaked with
tears around her temples, and her cheeks were sunken. She was so emaciated
that she no longer looked like an adult. With those words, she turned away. â€œHe
did it on purpose. He got her pregnant on purpose. His mother just came to see
me. She said a few hours ago he was sent to a hospital . . . a firearms accident. It
was all deliberate. . . .â€ Turning her head back again, she buried her face in my
hands. â€œHeâ€™s still alive. Can you check on how heâ€™s doing for me?â€ She lifted
her head. Her eyes, full of trust, now locked with mine.
â€œSure, itâ€™s just that thereâ€™s something else I have to do before I can go.â€ I
â€œBut . . . arenâ€™t you going to go? Just when I really need you. . . . Isnâ€™t that
what you wanted more than anything?â€ She brushed away tears, her voice
innocent and frail.
â€œXiao Fan, listen to me. This has been going on for a while, but Iâ€™ve never had
the courage to tell you. I havenâ€™t been doing so well these past two months. Iâ€™m
barely getting by, and I canâ€™t go on like this. I canâ€™t play the same role that I
played in the past. Things have only gotten worse. I canâ€™t open up to you. I canâ€™t
even share the same space with you. I honestly feel like screaming at you. If I
have to endure this drama of yours, Iâ€™ll explode with resentment.
â€œThis isnâ€™t who I am. I donâ€™t want to suffer. Love should be a beautiful
experience. If it canâ€™t be saved, then I donâ€™t want to love anymore. I have to shut
down. Thatâ€™s how I am, and Iâ€™m not blaming anyone. I need to get away from
you and your drama. Iâ€™m sick and tired of it. Do you hear me? I need a break!â€ I
managed to keep my cool. I had no idea where those words came from.
â€œI know.â€ That was the only thing she said. A burden was lifted from me. And
it would always be, forever after.
AT ONE in the morning, Chu Kuang came to see me. He wheeled his bike so we
could walk down Roosevelt Road together.
Taipei in June. It was late at night, and while the bustle on the streets had died
down, a certain feeling still lingered in the air. The fiery red blossoms scattered
on the cotton trees had multiplied overnight. Illuminated by the streetlights, they
were almost radiant. This scene along Roosevelt Road had long become familiar
to me. Every year, I anticipated the first red blossom and counted the days until
the last had wilted. The tree-lined road was my earliest memory from freshman
year. It was where the upperclassmen greeted us when we first arrived, and
where heartwarming songs were sung in the darkness after the lights in the
classroom buildings had been shut off. To this day, I can still remember so many
faces. . . .
â€œGazing at the cotton trees?â€ Chu Kuang asked me thoughtfully. He was
wearing white wide-leg jeans with a turquoise short-sleeve shirt. His usual
stubble had been shaven off. Tonight, there was something different about him,
as if heâ€™d been transformed into this squeaky-clean new version of himself. Chu
Kuangâ€™s life was a constant drama. He seemed to have passed through a different
chamber of hell every time I saw him. His ever-changing mien and the stories he
told made it impossible to tell how he was really doing.
â€œChu Kuang, whenever I take the bus to campus and pass the cotton trees in
bloom, I get the chills. Itâ€™s like my heartâ€™s saying to my ex, â€˜Look, the cotton
trees are blooming again! Itâ€™s been four years.â€™ â€
â€œYou know what I think? Ever since that one night five years ago when Meng
Sheng took a dump under the cotton trees by the campus entrance, whenever I
see those cotton trees, I want to say, â€˜Hey Meng Sheng, look! Thereâ€™s your
â€œChu Kuang, whatâ€™s going on with Meng Sheng these days?â€ I asked as we
sat down by the campus entrance.
â€œThatâ€™s exactly what I came to talk to you about, Sis. Meng Sheng has
vanished from my world.â€ His face grew flush, and there was excitement in his
voice. â€œSeven years passed in the blink of an eye. You might say I had an
awakening. He was like a stain that washed out after a good rinse, and my
clothes are nice and clean again. I donâ€™t know why, but I felt like I should tell
you. The dramaâ€™s over.â€ Amid his newfound maturity, his old innocence
appeared to resurface for a second.
â€œWell, you donâ€™t have to convince me. Iâ€™m happy for you, Chu Kuang.â€ I
couldnâ€™t resist squeezing his hand. â€œHow did this happen?â€
â€œLast month, when I was riding my bike, I got hit by a taxi, so I was taken to
the hospital and my leg was put in a cast. I was bedridden for a week. During the
crash, I had an out-of-body experience. For a minute, I felt as if I was lifted out
of my body and looking straight down at myself. The past few years flashed
before my eyes like a movie, and everything became clear. Then I reentered my
body. The second I felt pain, I knew that Meng Sheng had been excised from me.
â€œI couldnâ€™t move for the entire week after I got my cast. It gave me a chance
to sort out the past, which is how I arrived at the conclusion that I wasnâ€™t in love
anymore. I used to be fickle, but now Iâ€™m ready to commit to someone. I realized
that love is the one thing Iâ€™ve been searching for all along.â€
â€œChu Kuang, do you think itâ€™s true that love never dies?â€
â€œSis, I think you and I have both been through a lot.â€ He placed his hands on
my head affectionately. â€œI honestly hope Iâ€™m experienced enough to impart a few
words of wisdom.â€ He contemplated this for a moment. â€œIâ€™m pretty sure itâ€™s not
true for you right now, or for me in the past, but I believe itâ€™s true for me today.â€
â€œBut when you decide to love someone, how do you keep thinking of
commitment as a choice, when youâ€™re closing yourself off to opportunities that
might lead to even greater happiness? And if you continually demolish your old
internal structures, then how can you preserve enough of yourself to keep the
same relationship alive day after day?â€
â€œRight now, I have a plan in my mind, and I can use that as a guide, but itâ€™s
not something I can describe.â€ He scribbled on the ground for a while, then
murmured, â€œIf itâ€™s really love, itâ€™ll work out.â€
â€œHave you ever really loved anyone?â€ I asked earnestly.
â€œSis, I love someone now!â€ His eyes lit up. â€œThereâ€™s an eighteen-year-old
sailor whoâ€™s been pursuing me for the past two years. Heâ€™s in the naval academy,
and heâ€™s always at sea, but we meet up every so often. I havenâ€™t seen him in a
while because Meng Sheng made it hard for me to love.
â€œI toyed with this little sailor, and he only fell harder. All of our arguments are
caused by jealousy. He gets mad if I donâ€™t need him. After my accident, he was
huffing and puffing on the outside, but I caught a few glimpses of true love
shining through. In the end, I was the one who was taken inâ€”by his sincerity.
â€œNow weâ€™re living together in a log cabin in Danshui and being supportive of
each other. I told him that from here on out, itâ€™s for real. If he doesnâ€™t grow up,
Iâ€™m gone. I told him there are only two things: equality and honesty. I understand
you, and you have to try your hardest to understand me. There are other people
in my life too, you know. Weâ€™re open about everything. If you donâ€™t love me
anymore, fine. Iâ€™d rather know than have it hidden from me, even if it kills me.
Thatâ€™s how it is. I feel like I could be with him for a long, long time.â€ We turned
onto Xinsheng South Road as he spoke. The streetlights cast a soft, gentle glow
on his face.
â€œChu Kuang, donâ€™t you think if you guys are both too masculine, thereâ€™ll be a
â€œItâ€™d be hard to live together if he were a different man. But with us, we each
have a husband and wife rolled into one!â€ He beamed with pride for a moment.
Then his expression quickly faded. â€œSis, I came all the way here to tell you
something I feel strongly about: You havenâ€™t been honest with yourself. Youâ€™re
not ready to love someone if you canâ€™t even admit your feelings and needs to
â€œLook at that big building over to the sideâ€”all the windows are lit now. When
I was a freshman, only five of them were!â€ I turned and faced Chu Kuang. â€œIâ€™ll
remember what you said, Chu Kuang. I appreciate you looking out for me all
this time. I hope you take good care of yourself in the future.â€ Chu Kuang
hopped on his bike, and I waved goodbye.
DEATH EXPERIENCE #1
A certain part of me has died as Iâ€™ve learned to leave behind the qualities of my
youthâ€”the overanxiousness, oversensitivity, and self-consciousness, not to
mention arrogance and idealism, that diminish with life experience. I was a late
bloomer, but at long last, I lost my innocence. Like anyone else when theyâ€™re
young, I harbored lofty expectations but lacked the self-knowledge to
comprehend my own passions and vices.
DEATH EXPERIENCE #2
I no longer think of myself as an unhappy personâ€”quite the opposite. Admitting
that I have problems is a mode of optimism, since every problem has a solution.
Unhappiness is a lot like bad weather: Itâ€™s out of your control. So if I encounter a
problem that even death canâ€™t solve, I shouldnâ€™t care whether Iâ€™m happy or
unhappy, thereby negating both the problem and the problem of a problem. And
that is where happiness begins.
(from Suicide Studies)
GRADUATION day. No one came to my commencement. I zigzagged through the
flocks of graduates in their black caps and gowns. There wasnâ€™t a single person
on that huge campus I wanted to see. I just ran around in circles, with no idea
where I was headed. There was a sudden downpour in the afternoon, and in the
panic that ensued, the crowd dispersed, going home or sheltering in nearby
buildings. Yelin Avenue grew deserted as the rain pelted down, leaving a
magnificent sheen on the surface of the road and not a soul to be seen under the
open sky. Freshly invigorated, the flowers, grass, and trees took center stage. I
walked down Royal Palm Boulevard alone, in full regalia. The wind and rain
were wild, and there I was, taking it all in, with hundreds of pairs of eyes staring
at me from indoors. I stood under the giant palm tree in the plaza at the campus
entrance, getting drenched until it was nightfall and my eyes were swollen and
aching from the rainwater.
I went home. I got a strange call from Shui Ling. Sheâ€™d graduated exactly a
â€œItâ€™s me!â€ Her voice was small and wavering.
â€œHey!â€ I replied.
â€œDo you have three minutes to talk to me?â€ she asked timidly.
â€œLet me tell you a secret. . . . Today I went berserk. This morning my mother,
father, and grandma were all telling me to wake up, but I stayed in bed and
ignored them. I didnâ€™t get up or go to work. Donâ€™t tell anyone, but I was going to
go to your commencement today. Hah. So finally my mom and dad got mad and
left, and only my grandma and I were home. So I got dressed and tried on
different outfits, but I couldnâ€™t find one nice enough. I wanted to look my best
for you. Suddenly the phone rang. It was her. She said, â€˜Why arenâ€™t you at
work?â€™ I thought about saying that I was going to see you, but I couldnâ€™t bring
myself to do it. And thatâ€™s when I lost control and screamed â€˜AHH!,â€™ and I hung
up the phone and started throwing a fit. I was yelling at the top of my lungs. My
grandma ran into my room and grabbed me. As I was screaming, she had a heart
attack. She fell to the floor and said she was dying.
â€œI was so scared, I ran and got her medication. Then the police came. They
said the neighbors had called. I tried to stay calm as I sent them away. My
grandma was on the floor, asking for a doctor. I said Iâ€™d wait for you to take me
to the hospital. Then I waited by the phone. I kept dialing your new number. For
half an hour, it rang and rang. You lied to me. You said I should call you before I
went crazy, but you werenâ€™t there. . . .â€
I hung up the phone and closed my eyes. All I wanted right that instant was to
find Meng Sheng.
Meng Sheng. Someone told me theyâ€™d seen him a lot recently in an abandoned
security booth near the rear entrance after sundown. I rode around campus all
night, searching for signs of him. When I found him, he was near a tall brick
building in that area, curled up in the corner of a phone booth by the door,
I immediately recognized two signs of a full-blown addiction. His eyes were
not only bulging but glassy and bloodshot. The skin on his face looked as if it
had been partially gnawed away. His shorts were wrinkled, and on his feet,
covered in mud, were a pair of canvas shoes that were falling apart. A gray coat
was draped over his shoulders, revealing his bare chest underneath. His torso
was wrapped in thick layers of bandages.
I took his left arm and examined it, tracing the length of his veins. The skin
was riddled with tiny needle-insertion marks. I took a few steps back and
squatted on the ground. I lit a cigarette and took a few slow drags. Silence filled
â€œHey, congratulations, you nabbed yourself a diploma! Me, I dropped out a
long time ago.â€ He forced a cackle. â€œSo, how about it? How does it feel, seeing
me looking like a coward right now? It doesnâ€™t matter what you say, I really am
a weak man. Iâ€™ve been reduced to making a mess of myself like a three-yearold!â€ There was a strange wickedness in his laugh. His entire body shook as he
â€œShut up!â€ I shot him a stern look. Sulkily, he reached over and motioned for
the cigarette. â€œHowâ€™d you get that wound on your chest? Tell the truth. I didnâ€™t
come to hear your bullshit.â€
â€œWhatâ€™d you come here for, then?â€ he sneered. â€œThis . . . this is from last
week when Chu Kuang stabbed me, that fucker. He used this beautiful dagger I
gave him. It cut through the skin, but didnâ€™t puncture deep. I had to see a
specialist. Why not send me to my maker once and for all, and save everyone the
trouble? I was sent to the hospital, and they operated on me and saved me. Look
at me nowâ€”Iâ€™m permanently scarred!â€ His laughter reverberated inside the
booth. â€œIf you want me dead, no problem. Just give Big Brother a ring and heâ€™ll
have me lying soundly in my grave in a matter of days. Itâ€™s that simple. If Iâ€™ve
got any brains, Iâ€™ll run. Then, when you receive word, you can be the starcrossed lover who rushes to my side, only to find me dead.â€
â€œNonsense. Last night Chu Kuang came to see me. He said he was just in a car
accident. Heâ€™s over you. He has a brand-new life now, and heâ€™s happy. I saw it
for myself. Heâ€™s a different person now,â€ I told him indignantly.
A sinister smile crossed Meng Shengâ€™s face. For a long time, he didnâ€™t reply.
â€œHe hasnâ€™t changed. There have always been a lot of different Chu Kuangs
inside of him. You canâ€™t tell because youâ€™ve only known the Chu Kuang thatâ€™s
more or less stable. Thereâ€™s a dominant Chu Kuang who can focus and interact
normally whenever he has to. This past year, he stopped going to his psychiatrist.
It was a gradual process, but one by one, each personality split off into its own
domain again. Now there isnâ€™t one that dominates anymore, and he switches
depending on who heâ€™s talking to.â€
He continued as if this were a funny anecdote. â€œI got to know his
transformations well. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with how heâ€™s been recently. This
way, he doesnâ€™t seesaw so much, since every part of him can come out and take
a breather. Everybody gets a turn at being king. Thatâ€™s where heâ€™s heading, and
heâ€™ll probably outlive us both. I was the only one who got along with all of them,
you know. I just find it fascinating.â€
I was quiet. â€œMeng Sheng, will you still die with me the way you asked me to
four years ago?â€
â€œNot anymore, my dearest bride. I wish I could, but itâ€™s impossible now. I
didnâ€™t love you at all then. Four years later, my masculine side loves you, and
my feminine side loves Chu Kuang. But how can I truly love anyone when in the
back of my mind, Iâ€™ve already given myself to a goddess? Isnâ€™t it incredible? It
was all in the master plan.â€ He closed his eyes as if he were imagining it. â€œNot
only that, but death no longer holds the same meaning for me. Iâ€™m stronger now.
Whether I live or die, Iâ€™m doomed all the same, so thereâ€™s no need for me to
court death. Thatâ€™s a weight no one can carry. Iâ€™ll just wait calmly, and whatever
â€œBut if thatâ€™s how you see it, Meng Sheng, then your world is perpetually
coming to an end. Love is dead, hope is dead, faith is dead. I would never stand
by and watch the people I love suffer. It would kill me. Every second of
existence would be painful. My mind would scream that Judgment Day was
near. Is that how you live? Iâ€™d be at my witâ€™s end if I didnâ€™t force myself to stop
or turn back. I have to save myself from myself. If thereâ€™s no need to court death,
like you said, why put yourself through all of this?â€
â€œYou have to get over this whole idea of me!â€ He stood up. Leaning against
the wall, he started to gag violently.
Leaping away, I hopped off the steps. Standing in the plaza, I looked up at the
sky and wailed until my throat hurt.
â€œMeng Sheng, you really want to die!â€ I hollered at him. Though I couldnâ€™t
help crying out, there were no tears in me. â€œYouâ€™re even more pathetic than I am.
Why donâ€™t you go love a little? Why donâ€™t you ever put yourself out there and
try to forge a real connection with anyone?
â€œYou just stand back at a safe distance and act like itâ€™s all a joke. Has it ever
occurred to you that maybe this goddess, in her heart, loves you? That maybe not
loving you is her way of loving you?â€ I shouted at him hoarsely. My words
seemed to come from an unfamiliar voice.
â€œJust shut up. I donâ€™t want to talk anymore. This is pointless. . . .â€ Gripping
his head in his hands, he thrashed around violently.
â€œYouâ€™re not a coward at all. Youâ€™re brave in a hundred ways, but youâ€™re a
coward in one, which is in love. Maybe itâ€™s true that pain is an unavoidable part
of existence, but some things are close enough to perfection, and theyâ€™re right in
front of us. Theyâ€™ve been there all along, youâ€™re just not willing to admit it.
â€œHave you ever thought about how much Chu Kuang needed your love, no
matter how badly you treated him? The smallest gesture meant the world to him.
You canâ€™t walk away from or deny all that. I think youâ€™re afraid of being truly
loved. . . .â€
Meng Sheng let out a sharp cry, cursing me as he banged his head wildly
against the blue pay phone.
I fished a small banknote out of his bag and ran to the rear entrance, but the
gate was locked. My head was spinning. I scrambled up the brick wall, scraping
my hands on the shards of glass littered on top of it. The full moon came into
view as I made it over, and just then, I was reminded of how in Truffautâ€™s The
400 Blows, the boy breaks out of prison and runs to the sea, and that final closeup of the expression on his face.
IT WAS the last hurrah of Crocodile Month. Starting at noon, TTV continuously
displayed a news ticker that read: EXCLUSIVE! FIRST-EVER ON-CAMERA PROFILE SENT
TO US BY A CROCODILE! TUNE IN FOR A SPECIAL BROADCAST AT SEVEN.
Seven oâ€™clock arrived. Each and every household turned on their television
sets. CTV and CTS showed animated films.
An announcer declared the start of the broadcast, then the title appeared: Last
Words of a Crocodile. The camera shook as a figure in a white paper mask leapt
out of the way of the shot, yelling at the crocodile to hurry up and get ready.
(Note: That was the director, and his name was Jarman.) The white paper mask
was gone, though a white-gloved finger remained in the corner of the frame.
(Note: The camera hadnâ€™t been turned on properly.) There was a shot of
someone carrying a piss bucket up the stairs, closing the door behind them.
The scene cut to the seaside. A bathtub was floating in shallow waters.
Someone wearing a white mask was reclining inside, their body cloaked in a
white robe. The bathtub was lined with holes into which bouquets were stuffed.
(Note: That part of the video had been lifted from The Garden.) It was followed
by footage of someone sitting on the toilet, then standing up and peeling off a
bodysuit. Then the monologue began. The camera panned across piles of goods
that had been packed into a basement.
â€œHo! How is everyone? Iâ€™m a crocodile. Iâ€™m probably the only real crocodile
out there. Iâ€™ve waited for this day to come. Youâ€™ve all been looking for me, and I
canâ€™t believe your warmth and enthusiasm, I really, really like you guys.
â€œTo start things off, I wanted to tell everyone about a variety show that held a
contest seeking the answer to a riddle. And the riddle was, â€˜What is friendship?â€™
Though I wrote a hundred postcards on friendship and sent them in, they still
didnâ€™t pick mine. Then I called the China Times with a tip, saying Iâ€™d discovered
a crocodile. The response has been so overwhelming that Iâ€™ve had to take a step
back. Iâ€™ve been lying low, wondering if it was just a passing fad. But the truth is,
I couldnâ€™t be happier!
â€œThis is a bodysuit that I sewed for myself because my skin has been green
ever since I was little. My mother said it would scare the other children. There
arenâ€™t any red patches on my skin though. Also, I have bad teeth. They grew in
jagged, so I have to wear braces. I think thatâ€™s it. Oh my goodness! And Iâ€™m
totally oviparous. I can show youâ€”â€ (Jump cut.) â€œI hope everyone will continue
to like me, even if I stay out of sight. Oh my goodness! I canâ€™t eat cream puffs
anymore, and Iâ€™m living in a prison like Genet. Oh, thatâ€™s rightâ€”I want to
perform a bit of â€˜The Ballad of the Crocodile.â€™ Do you all mind?â€
The camera cut back to the seaside. The crocodile sat in a wooden bathtub
with a burning torch mounted to its side. A finger abruptly entered the frame,
pointing at the bathtub as it drifted out to sea, and suddenly the entire bathtub
erupted into flames. As the camera zoomed in slowly, the image on the screen
dissolved into a sea of fire. . . .
Note: As Jarman said, â€œI have nothing more to say. . . . I wish you all the
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