Don’t think so highly of friendships, I thought to myself. In vernacular, the love and caring you get is like a bank loan on emotions that should have probably been better invested elsewhere. I didn’t know why someone so ordinary would love me so wholeheartedly, as if falling in love with an eccentric fool had suddenly become something worth announcing over the PA to the whole school. Ordinary is normal; ordinary is good. Han became one of my few friends; she was my desk mate.
– From my diary 23-06-2021
Pudong Foreign Language School, the public school that I used to go to, was situated on the borderline between cities and suburbs. There was widespread apathy among the brick walls by which the school was surrounded, and bouquets of lights were smuggled through these antiquated fissures like a confession. This boarded-up area in which I had stayed for a good while was filled with repetition: wake-up calls at 6:15 in the morning, morning reading after the calls, breakfast time after reading, and the fact that P.E lessons, the only class that I somehow enjoyed, would always be replaced by either Chinese or Math–teachers bestowed them the name “main subjects” as if they were superior. Even seasons smelled like a rule here, with the regimented pattern of a quarter per season as well as some reluctant color changes on the stem of a plant, usually from steel-blue to brazen. In Chinese this rhythm of change was called a reincarnation, meaning that even the exact same object would embody itself in a new form each time it reappeared. Last year was a summer; this year is another summer; every summer was not the same and nobody could go back to the one that they cherished the most.
My seat in class was assigned next to a cracked window. It was wrapped by a corner formed by two other walls, where the mould and scum were in full bloom. I loved this seat because the window and its slits made it prettier; summer rain swept in every time and I tasted freedom. The rain took a part of me out into the world from which the silent walls tried to shield us, the world without rules. Sitting next to me was my friend Han, a complete antithesis of myself. She was a rule breaker. The one who would gain the
upper hand in every single argument with her teachers. The one who never tried to study and never wept. The one who needed me and made me feel needed. I was afraid of her but there was a part of me that wanted to be her. Part of the reason why I liked her was because her free spirit, which contrasted with my nervous prudence, always made me feel safe. Both Han and I
defended ourselves against this system of rules under which I carried out my own rule obstinately, one of them being not leaving the classroom until finishing all my homework.
“If I were you I would have sneaked out after class.” I whispered and saw Han making an odd face.
“It doesn’t even count as sneaking out. It’s just you who act weirdly and never want to go out.” Han often bit the pencil top if she got bored. She sounded like a mixture of pity and reproof.
The clouds in my hometown floated too fast through the underside of the sky. They were thin as a scroll of embroidery, soaking in steams and weren’t fully parched. I was the closest to them when I looked out of the broken windowsill: the wind held me like it was holding a baby, and the fragment of my pupil where the sun had touched became sandy beige. I saw the heatwaves flowing from my cheeks to the opposite side of the school where the playground was located, and they backflowed, inhabiting Han’s eyes. I saw my silhouettes. They were clamoring for liberation.
Rule I: Shhh…Listen
Listen. Wake up calls. The second wake up call after the first one. Toothbrushes jolted. Buzzed. Acrid smell of tea stains drifted. Flushes. Drips. Ticks of a clock. Someone yelled in the hallway “Ahhh…jeez! Bugs!” Footsteps. Footsteps. Footsteps surged. New ones covered old ones and there were more. Giggles. Someone pushed the door open. The smell of cooking slipped out of the red brick chimneys that rumbled with cold air. I gulped in cold air. Inhaled. Exhaled. School bell echoed. Second time. Third time. Footsteps. Footsteps. Footsteps surged. Outlets discharged forgotten air. Iron scoops jangled like a bell. Screams and laughter from far away. Voices droned on. My ears tingled. Heartbeats. Students stomped downstairs. Footsteps. Footsteps. Footsteps surged. School bell echoed. Second time. Third time. Gleams
and sparkles and rustles and swirls oozed out of pencil tops. Drips. Flushes. Acrid smell of tea stains rifted. Buzzed. Toothbrushes jolted. Lamps clicked. Second lamp after the first one. Listen.
Rule II: Tight your lip
My mom picked me up in the middle of my history class when I was dazing at an edge curling copy of Qing bronzeware from some random unknown age. I knew she sneaked out of her lab again when she knocked on the window frame because she smelled like disinfecting water. It was June in Shanghai, my favorite month, a sacred destination for nature as scabiouses withered and gardenias lost their scents. When they were seen again they became either those floral prints across the soft flesh of girls’ arms, or those sent to the church alongside with tributes. Summer that year seemed too mediocre. Flowers that smelled like mildew, herbal bug spray, and the buzzes of strangely shaped bugs outside the curtain cracks; the moist air clinging desperately to everything. Except for those nascent acacia trees; they just began to sprout. The burning heat embraced me at full tilt as I traversed the clearing between teaching buildings and parking lots. Closer to the horizon was a crowd of students who had just finished their 800-meter race, and were now shuffling along like nameless ants. The smell of seaweed and egg-drop soup wafted
through the air. Whenever I passed through that spot I remembered Han clutching my clammy scarred hands as though trying to squeeze numbers into an obsolete math formula, which made me say “I love you” and “we must carry on and not hurt ourselves.” When I rubbed my hands I remembered hers, finer, smoother, paler, the hands of stroking, the hands of fondling, not the hands of scribbling, or the hands of holding a piece of cigarette. She had beautiful hand-writing. Stunningly, beautiful, handwriting like tiny reflections of rose stems on a shivering lake. Perhaps that was the time when I began a frantic search for affection and indifference, but all I was capable of was to vomit into the toilet as quietly as possible so that no one would see. PE exams were painful. I remember so well the stench of the disinfectant they used.
None of us talked as my mom walked me to her white Volkswagen. She held my hands and maybe at one moment I would touch her palm prints, and they would fuse together. She should probably drive me to the People’s Hospital of Shanghai since it was closer, or Shuguang Hospital–she considered herself as having acquaintances there though they hadn’t talked for years, or somewhere with a better fragrance in waiting rooms that made it less unutterably repressed. I wondered. But I still stared at the ever-changing pavements as if something startling would happen.
We arrived at noon. My mom parked her car and vacillated quite a bit between the labels of neurology and that of psychology: I could not tell if she was trying to find the one that covered up more of my oddity or the one that suited me better. Then we entered a pallid room. A middle- age man with a white coat gazed at me with sympathy and I already wanted to cry. He gazed at me and I wanted to tear off all my secrets, hold them in my palms, and hand every piece to him. I had so much to say but I couldn’t. In China we only talked about good stuff. Auspicious stuff. Benevolent stuff. Stuff that made you feel blessed. We tightened our lips on these things: mental diseases, sexuality, identity, and sex. Girls loved pink and boys loved blue. Girls loved boys and boys loved girls. Me and my friends wrapped period pads in tiny embroidered parcels and sneaked them in toilettes during break time. We used the word “that” to replace the word menstruation even though there was nothing wrong with it. If you were sensitive it was your problem. If you were suicidal, keep it a secret. No sex education at school because that was inappropriate. Adults did it themselves but they never talked about it. My mom used to tell me that I flew out of her elbow and I believed it until I was ten and my deskmate showed me a book with pictures of genitals on it.
So I decided to shut up.
I only told him the most important part that something was wrong with my head. Recently I had been experiencing episodic dizziness followed by ecstasy as well as little memory loss and I was scared to go anywhere. He scribbled on a stack of paper and gave me the front piece with the word depersonalization on it. I didn’t like it. I was expecting something else, something more fragile and gentle that when it came out of my lips it sounded like a chant, and people would hug me with tenderness while their whispers choked me with pitiness, but not this–how would they even respond? Asking me what it was with an awkward smile? It made me less ordinary.
Something sputtered out in my stomach and I felt like I had changed. But ordinary is normal; ordinary is good.
Rule III : Bye-bye
In Chinese the word “bye” is composed of two characters, of which the first meant “to meet” and the second meant “another time”, so it was rather a wish for reencounter than just a farewell remark. Despite this beautification I still couldn’t help feeling sad wherever I had to say it. So me and Han never used that word. We cracked a smile instead. Indeed, it appeared to us that we had seldom experienced separation–even if it came it would be ephemeral, since most of the time we were with each other; her
dorm bordered on mine. The longest parting took place in the height of summer when we had to pack our luggage and go back home, which normally seemed insignificant as we knew we would be back. There were often a few hours left after we finished packing so we sat on the bed plank and chatted. Han was the one that asked me questions and I always answered with reluctance. Today she asked me what my favorite Chinese idiom was and it didn’t actually take me a long time. I said “xu-jing-yi-chang.” There were four fragmentary characters in it, but when they were connected they symbolized “false alarms,” meaning to realize afterwards that it was an unnecessary panic. When the church bell cast a sprawling echo on the building it was time to leave. Han had a faster walking pace so she was always in front of me, but when she looked back over her shoulder I felt happy, and it was never bound up with the fear of losing that happiness.
Rule IV: IOU
IOU: Abbreviation for I owe you, receipt of a loan in ancient Chinese.
With the recent weather shifting from sun to clouds, my favorite food changed from roasted bran and soy braised pork to watered down porridge with thousand-year eggs. Timely, the mechanical change of seasons reminded me of something: there were certain things that cannot be helped. Like how Han loved me, like how I became diagnosed with mental diseases against my will and suddenly deemed worthy of public sympathy. The experience halved my soul, a tortuous phenomenon to which psychologists had given a lovely name: depersonalization. With this title looming over my head, I felt like a bear wearing furry gloves, caged in the zoo for people to see. The visitors teared up in pity but kept stuffing me with fish. Somehow sadness seemed to have become irrelevant, a bridge instead of destination, a canvas instead of painting. But most of the time I stayed just fine, except for the fact that I got more irritable. Han sometimes read poems to me during Chinese class. I would rather say that she sang them because they streamed down her lip line as winding lyrics. I liked the way her voice circulated around the classroom, it was so subtle that only two of us could capture it: it almost fleeted away. I caught it.
An Mirror Image by Zhang Zao
As long as something regrettable in life passed through my mind,
The blossoms of wintersweet would drift down instantly.
For instance I witnessed the scene of her swimming to the other waterside, Or of her staggering up on a pine tree step by step.
It was true that those dangerous acts looked impressive,
But it wasn’t so good as that she was returning on horseback,
With cheeks warmly cozy,
Bashfully. Her head lowered, in response to the very sovereign.
A mirror is forever expecting her
To sit where she used to be.
Looking out of the window, I’m thinking of the repentant thing all my life, And no doubt the fallen flowers shall have covered the South Hill
This was her favorite poem and it soon became mine. She always reminded me of rarely-used words–the ones from earlier Chinese dynasties that were vintage and elusive enough to describe her, and sometimes I couldn’t even recall the sounds of their pronounciations. Maybe I wanted to say the word “internalization”: my piano teacher used to say it all the time and I remembered clearly the glints of light in his eyes when he said to me “If you love a piece of music you will internalize it.” It was pronounced as “zhan-you” in my first language; when it slipped out of my tongue you would hear a state of profound melancholy; I saw dead colors, rotten leaves, departures. It meant to absorb an object, own it, to let it be yours. Only yours.
It made you special to someone.
I craved Han’s tolerance and wanted it to be my property.
Mandatory lights-off in the dorms started at 10pm. When I dreamed, I was amazed by the sheer number of bodies on the other end. One night I dreamed that I was taken to a closed laboratory, where a few
floating men shackled me up and tried to suffocate me, which I understood as the beginning of human experiences. With a cloud of consciousness, a gentle voice told me that it would all be fine, that I was just a bit tired. It was my mom, I thought. I woke to sweat under the thin blankets. In my ecstatic awakening I realized that I had grown up, because I no longer had tears for this sort of dream. I slept on, and ordered two toppings for my breakfast noodle bowl the next morning at the cafeteria. One was tomatoes and eggs, the other was minced pork.
Rule V: Wait
The hottest days every summer belonged to PE exams. Usually we underclassmen were demanded to do a 800-meter race but this year we did 1000-meter ones instead. I kept preventing the neckline of my shirt from scaling onto my jaw so that it didn’t stay: our uniforms were usually made out of linen, making them fusty and old-fashioned. The track was 400 meters long so we had to run two times around it. Boys first and girls second. When we were waiting on the
lawn Han read me poems: something about her voice made me feel pretty and cherished. This time she read a new one, but still from the same poet.
by Zhang Zao
It seemed that the past overlapped and overlapped and only remained
Yesterday, the moon was always so round The old attire had never been a city clean it out and put it on your warm body Then the sky changed,
the wet rainy morning fell,
There was no umbrella, no number and phone in our place
only in us, a forgotten camphor curled up, unable to restrain myself, sniffing
smelling the air I set up early
We seemed to be divided into many
Let the air gave us a profile and good and evil gave us the disasters and the actions that followed But one day camphor paled with excitement Like boiling water, I felt an inexplicable suspense
The room full of camellia stood upright, Juan, Juan,
Your hands were in mine
Our palm prints were changing rapidly
The poem usually ended in silence and sometimes in a groan of dismay. Both of us wallowed in mediocrity when its echoes stopped because we wanted more. So we waited. Didn’t we wait all the time? We waited for the first bold figure to hit the line and waves of applause bursted like fireworks. We waited for the bell tower across the street to strike twelve and we knew it was noon. We waited for catalogues of misfortune long before their occurrence in lives: jeopardies were charismatic so even if they tore me I thanked them. Our teacher whistled at the start of the race. It was our turn. Girls always made promises running together but as soon as the whistle fell they would flutter like early snow. They scattered as clusters of pressing steps trembled in hot air. Only me and Han were at the back. She was a bit ahead of me so I saw her reflection entwining with mine, which didn’t necessarily make us closer. Our teacher told us to wheeze out with mouths and wheeze in with noses so that we ran faster, but we did the opposite. I soon passed a field of Chinese rose blossoms and I realized that it was half the way. The first round seemed easy but the second time when we stepped on the same path, the heat engulfed us with fatigue.
We hove ourselves towards the last 200 meters like stranded whales washed up on the beach. And then we collided onto the ground. It was the best moment, and I swear to god it would be even better if we were
not alone. We breathed heavily. Only at that instant it occurred to me that I was fourteen and I was breathtakingly beautiful.
Rule VI: Altruism
I had a fight with Han in PE. It started because she caressed my waist. It had been such a long time since anyone nurtured this desire of mine that when she did, her naked, unadorned sincerity pierced through me. I accused her out loud on the crimson running track, hoping the tides of sound waves could rinse me of my deep-seated guilt. Funny enough, she swallowed the thorny words and accepted me back as always. For the first time in my trudging journey in muddled feelings, I felt acute pain: It was like rosebuds spouting on either side of my ribs, a long-overdue execution. And I realized with shame and regret later that my anger rose from my desire to be loved openly and passionately.
By that time it was already the end of summer and suddenly all those delicate things started to fade. Only the sky looked alive with a reddened sunset. Before the drop scene of flowering, evening glows usually blended with the declining sun by which the top of my head would be gilded, almost like a hot bath. And I knew Han would tell me that my eyes had turned softer and lighter under dappled lights, and she would ask in a placatory tone if they were my natural colors. I did not want to admit or deny; they returned to dark brown when the night fell. I used to look at the clouds all the time because they were broken in the mornings, but now they had the shapes of hyacinth buds, some were transparent and some weren’t. Han and I grew accustomed to this state of ambiguity. She became my ozone and shielded me from the accusatory sun, and I became a micro-particle swimming in her empathetic love. Then came my departure for America to continue my studies of music, a breaking point at which Han stayed behind in the dust of the school and drifted into the crowd. I never asked if she cried because of my leaving without saying goodbye, but I know that the most tender blossom of my youth was already past prime. With a shudder, I suddenly realized that the love I owed her was thick enough to fill an entire summer; that at the age of fourteen, with a daybreak that punctured myself into countless pieces of iron thorns, l got lost in her intricacy, and reminiscences lost their meaning at the moment.
My summer has gone away.