Two Years from Now
Someone not seen in a long time
“One whole month is missing. I mean one whole month of 2011 has disappeared, it’s gone, it can’t be found. Normally February follows January, March follows February, April follows March, and so on. But now after January it’s March, or after February it’s April . . . Do you understand what I’m saying—we’ve skipped a month!”
“Fang Caodi, just forget it,” I said. “Don’t go looking for it. It’s not worth it. Life’s too short; just look after yourself.”
No matter how clever I was, I could never change Fang Caodi. Then again, if you really wanted to search for a missing month, Fang Caodi would be the one to do it. In his life, he’d probably spent quite a few missing months just existing. He was always turning up unexpectedly in odd places like he had vanished for a million years and was being reborn just when you were least expecting him. Maybe someone like him really could accomplish such a politically unfashionable task as restoring a missing month.
The thing is, at first I didn’t really notice that a whole month was missing. Even if other people told me about it, I wasn’t ready to believe them. Every day I read the papers and checked the Internet news sites; every night I watched CCTV and the Phoenix Channel, and I hung around with intelligent people. I didn’t think that any major event had escaped my notice. I believed in myself—my knowledge, my wisdom, and my independent judgment.
* * *
On the afternoon of the eighth day of the first lunar month of this year, as I left my home in Happiness Village Number Two and set out on my usual walk to the Starbucks in the PCCW Tower Mall of Plenty, a jogger suddenly pulled up in front of me.
“Master Chen! Master Chen!” the jogger gasped while trying to regain his breath. “A whole month is missing! It’s been missing for two years today.”
The jogger was wearing a baseball cap, and I didn’t recognize him at first.
“Fang Caodi, Fang Caodi . . .” he said as he took off his cap to reveal a bald head sporting a short ponytail held at the back with a rubber band.
Suddenly, I knew who it was. “Fang Caodi. Why are you calling me master?”
He ignored me. “A whole month is missing! Master Chen, what can we do about it, what can we do?” he repeated rather desperately.
“It’s been more than a month since we last met, hasn’t it?” I said.
“Longer than that. Master Chen, you know, a whole month has disappeared! It’s terrifying. What should we do about it?” Fang said.
I tried to change the subject. “When did you get back to Beijing?”
He didn’t answer and then suddenly he sneezed. I handed him my card. “Don’t catch cold. You shouldn’t be running around. We can meet later. My phone number and e-mail are on the card.”
He put his cap back on and took my card. “We can look for it together,” he said.
As I watched him jog off toward the Dongzhi Menwai Embassy Row area, I realized he wasn’t just out for a jog, he was on a mission.
Another person not seen in a long time
A couple of days later, I found myself attending theReading JournalNew Year’s reception on the second floor of the Sanlian Bookstore on Art Museum East Road. The reception was an annual affair. In the 1990s I used to drop in off and on, but since I moved to Beijing permanently in 2004, I’ve come up every other year to shoot the breeze a while with the older writers and editors, just to let the cultural world know that I’m still alive. I never bother with the younger ones—I don’t know them and they don’t seem to feel any need to know me.
The atmosphere at the reception was somehow different from previous years; the guests seemed quite elated. For the past year, I’ve noticed that I, too, have often felt some sort of unaccountable cheerfulness, but the high spirits that day still took me aback. That day everybody was so euphoric it was as if they’d just knocked back a few shots of Jack Daniel’s.
The venerable founder of Reading,Zhuang Zizhong, hadn’t made an appearance at a reception for a while, but this time he turned up in his wheelchair. There was quite a crowd jostling around him, so I didn’t go over to say hello. Besides Old Zhuang, all the staff at the journal—those who were still alive, that is—had all showed up. That was no minor miracle. In all the years I’ve been associated with the Sanlian and its journal,Reading,I’ve never seen such a grand occasion. It left me pleasantly surprised. I’m quite cynical about human nature. I’ve never believed that the inner workings of any organization were completely harmonious, especially not any mainland-Chinese organization, and particularly not state-operated enterprises, including state-operated cultural units.
That day all the writers and editors whom I knew greeted me with excessive enthusiasm; but when I started to strike up a proper conversation, their attention had already shifted and they hurried off to someone else. This sort of treatment is pretty common at receptions and cocktail parties, especially when you’re not a star. After being greeted and then snubbed two or three times, I readjusted my attitude and returned to my usual one—that of an observer. I have to admit I was pretty moved by what I saw: so many celebrated and diverse members of the intellectual elite gathered together in one place looking genuinely happy, even euphoric . . . This really must be a true age of peace and prosperity, I thought to myself.
I was feeling pretty good, but very quickly I got the feeling that it was time to leave. I walked out of the reception intending to browse around in the bookstore. I took a look at the art books on the second floor, and then glanced at the new bestsellers and the business and travel books on the first floor. The bookstore was teeming with browsers. So people are still reading books. Terrific! “The sweet smell of books in a literary society,” I thought. As I made my way downstairs toward the basement, students were crowding both sides of the stairs, sitting and reading, almost as though they didn’t want anyone else to go down there. Feeling cheerful, I picked my way down the stairs. The basement level is where the Sanlian keeps its extensive collection of books on literature, history, philosophy, politics, and the humanities, and that’s why it’s my number-one destination every time I visit. I’ve always believed that the generous display of these humanities books is one of the things that make Beijing a city worth living in. A city that reads books on literature, history, philosophy, and politics is definitely a special place.
The basement level was very quiet that day. No one was around, and strangely enough, when I got down there I didn’t really feel like browsing anymore. I just wanted to lay my hands on one particular book, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I walked into the room thinking that when I saw it I would know. As I walked past the philosophy section and moved on to the politics and history sections, I suddenly felt I couldn’t breathe. Was the basement air that bad?
So I decided to make a quick exit. I was walking up the stairs trying not to bump into any of the youngsters, when suddenly somebody grabbed the cuff of my trousers. I looked down in surprise, and that person looked up at me. It was not one of the young people.
“Lao Chen!” She seemed surprised to see me.
“Little Xi” is all I said, but I was thinking, Little Xi, where have you been all these years?
“I saw you go downstairs and I thought, that must be Lao Chen!” From the way she said it she seemed to imply that running into me was quite important.
“Didn’t you go up to the reception?” I asked.
“No . . . I didn’t know about it till I got here. Are you free now?” She leaned toward me conspiratorially.
“Sure,” I said, “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
She paused a minute before she said, “Let’s just walk and talk.” Then she let go of my trouser leg.
We started strolling toward the National Art Museum. I walked beside her, waiting for her to start a conversation, but she didn’t, so I asked her about her mother. “How’s Big Sister Song?”
“She must be over eighty now?”
“And how’s your son?”
“How old is he?”
“Is he at university or working?”
“He’s at university. Look,” she said, “can we change the subject?”
I remembered how much she doted on her son and was startled at her reaction. “Let’s go to the Prime Hotel and have a cup of coffee,” I offered.
She didn’t want to, so we walked instead into the small park next to the National Art Museum.
Little Xi stopped suddenly. “Lao Chen, have you noticed anything?” she said.
I didn’t know how I should respond, but I knew I couldn’t say, “Noticed what?” She seemed to be testing me. If I gave her the wrong answer, it was unlikely she’d open up to me. As a writer, I like people to tell me their innermost thoughts. As a man, I wanted this woman to tell me her innermost thoughts.
I paused, feeling a little awkward, and she asked, “Is it kind of hard for you to express your feelings?”
I gave a small nod. I’ve often felt nothing at all when people have asked how I feel about a work of art or a piece of music. I hate this feeling of feeling nothing, but I’m pretty good at faking an acceptable response.
“That’s great, I knew it,” she went on. “When I saw you going down the stairs, I thought to myself, Lao Chen will understand. Then I sat there waiting for you to come back up the stairs.”
In Little Xi’s mind I’m probably a reasonable, mature, and fairly knowledgeable person.
At least, that’s what I’d like people to think.
“Let’s sit down on this bench,” I suggested gently.
It seemed to work, because after we sat down she relaxed, closed her eyes, sighed deeply, and said, “At last.”
Little Xi was definitely my type. After so many years, her looks and figure hadn’t changed much, but wrinkles had begun to appear on her face from neglect. She also looked pretty depressed.
She kept her eyes closed, trying to regain her composure. I looked at her intently and I suddenly realized how much I still liked this woman. I like melancholy women.
“I don’t have anyone to talk to. I feel like there are fewer and fewer people like us . . . There are so few of us left that life hardly seems worth living anymore.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Everybody’s lonely, but no matter how lonely you are, life still goes on.”
She ignored my banal response. “No one remembers, except me. No one talks about it, except me. Does that mean I’m completely mad? There’s no trace of it, no evidence, so nobody can be bothered.”
I was enjoying the sound of her Beijing accent.
She briefly opened her eyes before closing them again. “Well, how about it? We were such good friends. Why haven’t I seen you for so many years? What happened?”
“I thought you’d gone abroad.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Well, it’s good that you didn’t. Now everybody’s saying there’s no country in the world as good as China.”
She opened her eyes once more and gave me a look. I didn’t really understand what she was getting at, so I didn’t react. She broke into a smile and said, “It’s unbelievable that you can still make jokes.”
I hadn’t been joking, but I immediately went along with her and smiled, too.
“You sound just like my son,” she added.
“Your son? You seem not to want to talk about him. What’s up between the two of you?”
“He’s doing really well,” she said in an ironic tone. “He’s studying law at Peking University and he’s joined the Communist Party.”
“That’s good,” I said vaguely. “It will be useful when he tries to find a job.”
“He wants to go into the Chinese Communist Party Central Propaganda Department!”
At first I thought I hadn’t heard her clearly.
“The Central Propaganda Department?” I ventured.
Little Xi nodded. “He says it’s his life’s ambition. He’s got big ideas! If you ever meet him, you’ll know what I mean.”
I was enjoying a feeling of happiness sitting there next to Little Xi. It was such a beautiful spring afternoon; the sun was so bright and warm that many elderly couples were strolling around the park. There were also a few smokers . . . smokers? Two of them were standing close by chain-smoking. I like to read detective stories and I’ve even written a few myself, and so this situation left plenty of room for the imagination. It could have been a surveillance scene, but as I was nothing more than a self-indulgent writer of very ordinary bestsellers, why would anyone want to spy on me? Wherever there are people in China there are smokers.
I listened as Little Xi continued to pour her heart out to me. “Am I causing trouble, making a fuss? I know it’s none of my business, but I can’t act just like nothing’s happened. How can things change just like that? I don’t get it and I can’t stand it.”
I was still wondering what had made her so upset. Her son, or the after-effects of her own nightmarish experiences?
“One day in a small restaurant in Lanqiying,” she said, looking directly at me, “I went on a blind date with one of you Taiwanese men—he was a businessman. He was a terrific talker, there was nothing he didn’t know: astronomy, geography, medicine, divination and horoscopes, finance, investments, and world politics, you name it, he just wouldn’t stop and I was bored to death. When I managed to get a word in edgeways about our government’s failings, he called me ungrateful and said I didn’t know just how good I had it. He made me furious. I really felt like giving him a good slap.”
“Taiwanese men are not necessarily all like him,” I said. I felt I had to stick up for us Taiwanese men. But I was also curious. “So what happened?”
She smiled broadly. “He was so busy leaning over to tell me off that his butt was barely on the edge of his chair. When a tall, muscular young guy from the table next to us walked by, he deliberately bumped into his chair and knocked him off onto the floor.”
“What about this young guy?” I asked, still curious.
“He was just a strong young man.”
“But did he say anything?”
“He just walked out. And I felt delighted.”
“Did you know him?”
“No, but I’d like to.”
I felt a twinge of jealousy. “You can’t go around being violent like that.”
“Well, I thought it was great. I seem to feel like slapping people in the face all the time these days.”
Little Xi had seen a great deal of violence in her life, and some of it must have rubbed off on her. I remembered then why I hadn’t dared get too close to her. “What did that Taiwanese guy do after that?”
“He got up, absolutely livid, and looked around for someone to swear at, but he couldn’t see anyone, so he just muttered ‘philistine’ under his breath. You see, you Taiwanese still look down on us.”
“Not anymore, we don’t.” I know there used to be a certain amount of mutual contempt between people from the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, but I think all that has changed now.
I said, “So how are things for you now, Xi?”
She knit her brows and pursed her lips. “Things are okay, but the people around me have changed and I feel pretty low. I feel a lot better now talking with you. I haven’t had anyone to talk to for a long time . . .”
She suddenly turned her gaze into the distance, her expression quite blank. Her behavior puzzled me. What on earth was she looking at? The scattered shadows of the leaves on the ground as the slanting sun filtered through the branches? Or had she suddenly thought of something that threw her into a daydream? After a minute or so she abruptly said, “Oh, I’ve got to go, the rush-hour buses will be packed.”
I quickly got to my feet and gave her my card. “Let’s have dinner sometime, with your mother and your son.”
“We’ll see,” she said rather noncommittally. Then, “I’m off,” and away she went.
Little Xi still walked quite fast. I took a good look at her from behind—she could definitely turn heads. Her figure and swinging stride were still youthful. Xi left by the south side of the park while I happily ambled along toward the east-side exit. I suddenly remembered those two smokers, and looking back, I saw that they were already at the south-side exit. Little Xi turned right toward the National Art Museum and walked out of my line of sight. The two smokers waited a couple of seconds and then followed her in the direction of the museum.