By Wong Chun Ying
“…Is everything OK?”
He asked as she checked her phone for the fifth time. His voice grew shaky as he tried to repress his heavy breathing; it was an effort to speak passingly, which in turn gave away the concern in his tone as the both of them finally reached the top of a steep concrete slope that bent into a dimly lit street, their attention immediately captured by an abandoned storefront.
“It’s gone,” she whispered mindlessly, steeling her back. She did not return his gaze in the restaurant’s glass pane, which began to look like a floating bruise.
“Yeah, it’s gone,” was all he said. The bruise drifted away. She wasn’t sure if he was referring to his earlier question, or to the restaurant in front of them.
Now it was her turn to press her forehead against the cold, ghostly glass pane. She cupped the sides of her face, blocking out her peripheral vision. She saw sinks and pipes left behind in the dark, chalked and plastered, growing out of the bare walls like a monstrous assemblage of veiny plants, half submerged in a vertical concrete sea.
She tried very hard to picture the Taiwanese lady with voluptuous hair and a mole above the corner of her mouth swimming out of it, bringing to the tables overly sweet winter melon tea, a few extra buttered garlic chicken wings, and free popcorn in a porcelain bowl. It was by those tables that they used to sit, hungry, for food and for each other’s thoughts. But they were so young that hunger never lasted long enough to actually hurt them—they were as easily famished as they were easily full. Youth was to always want to take care of everything but themselves.
That had been the case with the man that now breathed heavily behind her. He used to be a busy young man, or more accurately, a busy 孩子. A busy child clothed by his roommate Edwin, who took the pile of shirts and trousers in the corner of their dorm room to the dry-cleaner every four days not out of love, but out of a conscientious nature that was destined to be taken advantage of by someone without it. A busy child hastily fed by Mrs. Chiang, the Taiwanese lady who now only provided food for their nostalgia.
After he was warm and full he would come to her, who would, at last, put him to bed at night in the student newspaper’s editorial room. She would hang his recent writings on the “ethics of violence,” still soaking wet from spilt coffee, on a nylon string next to the air-con, turning on her heels to get to the other side of the big, square wooden table, next to which was a five-year-old mattress with old period stains. She would snuggle in there and let him kiss her everywhere, sometimes only the corner of her eye, depending on how lonely he looked, as she began to hear water drops dripping, and later coffee rain.
On other days, when the coffee rain started to quiet down to a drizzle, she read his tabbed copy of The Monologues of a Doomsday’s Survivor on his dorm room bed, although she’d much rather be re-reading An Autobiographical Account at Forty by Hu Shih.
Hu had written his book at a time when “memoir” writing was an unpopular option amongst the intellectuals, most of whom were busy with composing mission-critical, patriotic pieces to call for reform and self-strengthening movements within the nation. It was through reading this “semi-memoir” that she, for the first time, felt like she could pinpoint herself alongside the boy she tucked into bed. The boy never stopped to think about where they were heading, as if an unknown destination, or some sort of higher command, was ingrained in his system, as if his very existence was a vehicle on autopilot. She, on the other hand, was no vehicle but only a hitchhiker, who, every once in a while, became anxious to know where they were.
Then she read about how Hu—also in his college dorm room, the lights dimmed due to power-saving concerns—would fervently read publications heralding revolutions against the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s, dreaming of killing off enemies when all he had was a pen, paper, and a fragile writer’s heart, easily touched and seared by notions such as how “non-destruction is a form of destruction.” She would look up from the book, glance at her surroundings, and finally land back into the present.
She had communicated her love for this book to him before, to which he had listened and expressed total comprehension. But still he couldn’t get through the prologue, which was her favourite part. Hu began his account with a detailed re-telling of his mother’s engagement story. This story did not exactly set the stage for his later life; it did not provide much background information or context. To others it might have seemed out of place, irrelevant. Yet, to her, there was a moment of sincere dedication deeply seated in the outlandish account, something stirring in the simple illustration of how, sometimes, a highly political life began in the most unpolitical setting.
But such subtlety was indiscernible to the busy young man who was perpetually not yet back from a lecture he hadn’t even registered for. She thought about the time they studied John Maynard Keynes together, and how he had religiously read The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the book that predicted the Second World War. Meanwhile she dedicatedly read up on Keynes’ circle of friends, most of who were in the Bloomsbury Group. These friends contributed to Keynes’ conflicted mindset; they criticized him: “How are you still working for the British Treasury in the midst of war? How can you think you’re going to save the entire fucking world?”
The fact that someone like Keynes had loved ones that knew how to hurt him so well surprised her. She had mistakenly thought that such intimacy was the privilege of common people. She thought about a lot of things that the man reading next to her would never have thought of. As she thought of all this, she continued to mindlessly flip through pages, occasionally thinking of her own tabbed copy of Hu Shih’s semi-memoir tucked away at the back of shelves, at the end of the bed.
It was on one of those days that Edwin barged in with an irritated look on his face, flinging his backpack and lacrosse stick forcefully onto the bed.
“This guy has issues,” he grumbled. She didn’t ask who he was referring to. She didn’t even react. “Seriously, we should all just leave him to die.”
“We are raising this fucking grown-ass man,” he continued. She guessed that it was possibly an ungrateful text message from that occupied, infantile friend of theirs. She remembered vividly how genuinely confused he looked the last time Edwin called him out for being a man-child. In his head, he was nursing them. In his own words and a weird-sounding analogies, he was trying to make something happen — a real theme park, a real thrill, while the rest of them were satisfied with running around on a dilapidated playground.
And on this dilapidated playground they ran, retrieving his clothes from the laundry before someone stole them, getting him food when he wondered why his headaches were getting worse, paying his cell phone bills when they couldn’t reach him.
All this quickly flashed before her eyes in a second. She finally closed her book and said, jokingly, “what if we die, if we leave him?”
“Oh, fuck off. What did he ever do for us? All he does is write shit that no one reads.”
But the very next day, after lacrosse training, Edwin was still the first to get a copy of the bimonthly student newspaper, even though it contained an image of a trampled CCP flag that he confessed made his stomach flip. This was a regular activity; sometimes, he would get three copies.
“I’m saving it for the dumbass,” Edwin explained in a low voice while toying with Gaylord, his white corn snake that he wasn’t supposed to keep in the dorm. “So that he can look back and see how terrible his writing was. And to remind him that it’s because of us that he even has the time to scribble all this nonsense.”
That was Edwin, with his sweet little vengeful words. And that was their revenged friend, mothered by all, a child of all. A child with his child ambition to mend all. All but her. And this was her: disappearing into her faith in him through subtle but no less passionate gestures, which went, as always, entirely unnoticed.
She was surprised to see that he still smoked the same cigarettes, after all these years. It was what she used to run to get for him, when he started getting jittery and started pacing in the editorial room. Marlboro Black Menthol “without legs,” ng jiu goek. It was what people said to the convenience store cashier staff if they preferred not to have an image of festered limbs, part of the government’s anti-smoking campaign, on their cigarette pack.
It’s not very auspicious, he once explained, and that amused her for a while, to think that a guy like him feared mortality, even if he had every reason to, until he added I gamble, in a matter-of-fact tone. With that comment, the vulnerability in him that she thought she discovered was gone in a puff of smoke.
This was also the tone in which he spoke to her now, asking questions as if they were orders, as they stood in a self-created thin fog in an alleyway. The silence swelled and burst when she coughed after a drag on the cigarette, only to loom again.
“How’s Sally?” She finally asked.
“She’s OK. The morning sickness is killing her.”
What he didn’t know was how many things were killing her. But he never knew. And she wouldn’t know where to begin. She anxiously dove into her pocket and pulled out her phone.
“Isn’t it your day off?” He asked.
She took a long drag and coughed hard.
“Don’t start caring now,” she muttered in a warning voice. She wasn’t sure if he heard. She wished Edwin was here. He would have punched him in his face before she recognised there was a need to.
She never recognised there was a need to do anything.
She remembered when she first spotted Sally, the girl in his Latin American Economy class. She had seen them from afar outside the Délifrance on campus and was surprised to see the nocturnal creature who had often emphasized the importance of the night’s tranquility to writers. But there he was, sitting opposite to Sally, next to sunlit foliage rimming the outdoor areas of the restaurant, poking at his dry carbonara, not in a bored way, but in a way of attempting to contain something uncontainable. Both he and Sally fidgeted, spun their forks, caught each other’s eye for a millisecond and looked away.
The sun had been immeasurably hot. There was something continuously on the verge of vaporizing, tingling between the two people a few feet away from her. Something she could almost touch. But it touched her first—when whatever it was finally vaporized into something she understood. It sharpened, took a turn towards her, and grabbed her like a riptide. The sensation flushed her down the pavement and back into the editorial room.
There was no longer any coffee rain but only the after smell of a downpour. For the first time, she realised the editorial room was a damp and dark place.
And it was the perfect habitat for her. She was mold, especially when the deadline for the cultural column in the newspaper was coming up. She was grey dots on the windowsill, impotent but alive, always crawling in the form of radiance, bursting with words. She wrote about the Taiwanese punk band Wayne’s So Sad, explaining what exactly was so sad about Wayne, about being a thirty-something musician in an industry that was all about the prowess of youthful anger; about the sadness of failing to save an underground music scene against the “neighbourhood watch”, alongside it the park that used to home the many wandering souls that rocked the scene today; and about the many more it could have homed, now forever lost.
I don’t get it but you should write about it, was all he had said after hearing the pitch weeks ago before continuing to type away on his laptop. He would never understand, of course, for he began where sadness ended. But his aloofness, which worked as magically as his affirmation, always gave her the best reason to write anything. Then it was her turn to type away, in the blood-stained bed, sick and tired.
It was on one of these nights that Edwin came in with two bowls of steaming mixian. They ate the noodles in silence. Occasionally she freed a few fingers to tap on the keyboard, Edwin staring mindlessly at Naomi Campbell walking down the runway on his laptop screen. There was something both pallid and attentive in their expressions, as if they were watching something else happen through the back of their eyes.
Ding. Edwin got a text message. It startled the both of them. It’s over, the message read. No talk with Arthur Li. No talk with anyone. She leaned over and saw the text as Edwin started packing his things.
He slung the backpack over his shoulder and stood up. “Well, I guess I’m gonna go…do some damage control.”
She stared at him for a while, then closed the laptop. “I’m coming with you.”
“No.” There was an astounding firmness to his voice. “You should rest. You were too weak to go to the protest thing, you shouldn’t go now.”
They heard languid footsteps looming outside in the hallway. There was no chatter, only imploding exhaustion seeping through the doors. She immediately knew it was the protesting students returning to their quarters, some picking up clothes to steal a shower from a friend’s dormitory, some ready to fall asleep on the germ-infested couch in the common area that no one ever cleaned because it was owned by no one. Birds were chirping; the sky was going pale soon. The commotion that the students participated in was already going stale — the feeling of being in a crowd wore off as quickly as any trace of warmth on the cold winter night. The students walked away from the event; the thread that once tied them to it slowly stretched into a thin cord that choked each of them, slightly, on the neck when they tried to lay their heads to rest, hours away from waking up to another day of no czars being ousted. Another day of having been part of a “mob rule.” Another day of truth.
Over time, she had observed all the male figureheads in various student movements with an almost voyeuristic eye and came to understand that they were all similar in a way — enthusiastic, easily depressed, lacking in self-doubt, always hungry for recognition. Like children. Her boy, who had been bestowed with so much inner strength but still not enough to overturn all this, would also be depleted. His exhaustion found its roots in the unwavering belief of one’s own power to bend the world and thus, a deep sense of self-focus to sustain that power. Stop saying that truth doesn’t exist because it does, and it’s a privilege, he would say. It was in these convictions that he found both force and destruction. These thoughts gave him a polarized disposition — he slumped against the darkness harder than anyone else at night, but also stood higher than anyone else on a wood block again the very next day, giving speeches to passersby with only a megaphone in his hand, telling the nonchalant crowd how democracy in Hong Kong also meant sovereignty.
His aloofness to others’ emotions propped him up on only two extremes. People who cared would have to falter in between. But she still wanted to be with him before the dawn started to break, when it was still damp and dark, when he was still travelling from one extreme to another. Because she always had. So she grabbed her wallet and her phone and was ready to go. Edwin stood there, unsure of what to say, fiddling with an empty Hoegaarden beer can. He felt that there was something he must interrupt, although he was not sure if it was still there for him to do so.
“You don’t have to show up for him all the time, you know,” he mumbled.
She smiled. “Yeah. Like, ‘leave him to die’.”
“Only that he’ll barely feel anything even if we do leave him, let alone dying.”
“Yep. He wouldn’t even notice we’re gone.”
“That’s not what I mean.” She slowly walked to the door. “Someone else will look after him, eventually.”
“Trust me. You don’t have to.” Edwin was about to say something more, but then he stopped.
They headed to his dorm room together. Right before stepping in, they saw Sally lying next to their friend on the bed, her head in the crook of his neck, both half asleep.
She stood by the door for a long second, then turned around to walk away.
It wasn’t jealousy, or melancholy, or anger. It was instant recognition. Sally, sleeping in the place she used to sit, was not a replacement. She was the person who would mother him in a way that neither of them could: in the way of a lover.
Then, finally, she took Edwin’s advice, even though she should have taken it a month ago when she saw Sally hurriedly getting a pack of Black Menthol “without legs” in the store. But all she did was walk out of the premises, as if she was the one with festered limbs.
He suggested grabbing a bite after their pilgrimage. She and him dipped bread into olive oil and balsamic vinegar sauce by a French window in the street. She enjoyed being with him in a restaurant like this, even though they were old enough to know that this was a just meal and a meal never meant anything unless it happened in Bible stories, stories they never read because they already had faith, even if it was a bad one.
She wasn’t hungry after dinner, but when he asked, they went to get the sage soup with taro anyway. For old times’ sake. They continued down memory lane, and next thing she knew they were back in the damp and dark student newspaper room, pacing around, flipping through worn-out issues, knocking over expired snacks.
“Should we open this bag?” He picked up an extremely grubby black backpack sitting on a pile of outdated issues of the university newspapers, puffs of dust diffusing into the air as he did.
She stared at the bag, which seemed more bloated than she remembered.
“It should be OK, right? Since we graduated a long time ago,” he added, unnecessarily, already unzipping. The bag had already been there for ten years when they were on the editorial board, which made it twenty-one years old at this point. The rumor was that it had been left behind by a former editor whose GPA didn’t pass 2, and anyone who opened the bag to see what was inside would suffer from the same mishap.
She looked at him across the big wooden table, thinking that she would have been kind of curious, too, had she not opened the bag already, three years ago.
That day, it had been stuffy. It was the height of summer. She had just gotten off work after a press conference at the Central Government Offices and was about to meet him on campus. She had offered to go to Sheung Wan, or Causeway Bay, or any places nearby for dinner, but he refused, saying that he wanted to study in the library after their meet-up, so it’d be better if they met on campus. She hated the idea of seeing him on the campus, as if he was an NPC in a game that could only be seen in certain parts of the map; as if he was unreal, as if their entire relationship was only confined to the school ground and was non-existent anywhere else beyond.
“That lipstick looks great on you,” he complimented once they finished ordering.
“Thanks,” she mumbled. They hadn’t seen each other for a year but he wouldn’t have known that she started wearing lipstick either way, because she didn’t usually. But that day she did, along with a long-sleeved white chiffon blouse that went against the weather, despite having had several press conferences to rush to.
“So, should I fill out the papers?” He asked, shrugging in a casual way.
She took out the application forms for BNO passport countersigning and laid them out in front of him. He fished out a pen from an inside breast pocket and began scrawling.
“That’s a nice pen,” she complimented.
“Thanks,” he paused and smiled at her. “Sally bought it for me.”
She smiled back, nodding hard.
“Are you going anywhere soon?” He asked passingly as he continued to write.
“No. I just want to get this done as soon as possible,” she replied. “My mom has been nagging me for weeks.”
“I can imagine,” he snorted.
She looked down to see the ink gushing out of the tip of the pen. “Are you?”
“Going anywhere soon?” She asked, more tentatively this time.
“Um,” he frowned but didn’t stop writing. “Maybe next year. For my masters.”
“Oh. How long will that be?”
“A year for the masters. And,” he paused to double-check the information and began writing again. “Sally is coming with. So we might stay there for a few years to see how things go.”
He finally stopped to look at her. “How about you? How’s work?”
“Very tiring.” She smiled weakly.
“Must be,” he nodded. “Can’t imagine still being a journalist after graduating.”
“A lot of people have it harder,” she could only say.
He nodded again, understandingly. “But why not keep writing culture? It’s always been kind of surprising to me how you’re in the daily news department.”
An expression of genuine confusion spread over his face again. She had seen it so many times and still did not know whether she wanted to crack it open or kiss it.
She took a deep breath. “I graduated with a degree in politics, you know.”
“I know,” he said. “But you were so good at writing culture. And you love it so much more.”
“I don’t know. I just thought,” she swallowed. “It was going to make me care more.”
“I don’t get it,” he said, and started spinning his pen. “But I respect everything you do, so.”
Stop, she wanted to scream. The spinning pen was making her head spin.
Stop making this seem like it’s my choice.
“Don’t respect me,” she mumbled. “Tell me what to do.”
He looked at her nicely curled fringe. “What are you so lost about?”
She refused to look at him. “You convinced me that this place is important. That it’s worth staying.”
He understood what she meant now. “Did I?”
“I never liked this place, you know,” she murmured.
She felt abandoned. But he never owned her. It would be inappropriate to even think that. No one could or should have owned her. She was well-educated. She should know better.
“I never forced you into anything,” he calmly said.
She swallowed hard. That was true and untrue. For the first time, she felt like an obedient child at school with good grades that hadn’t turned out well in society. She followed orders and ended up suffering for it. She felt punished for something she thought every good student should do. Someone else had wished so much for her that she thought she wished it, too.
“OK,” she said. “Then can you start now? Start telling me what to do?”
He took a sip of water. “Get back to writing culture. But that’s only advice,” he added respectably, the courteous intellectual he was.
She didn’t say more. He completed the application forms, and handed them back to her after a minute, the tip of his pen accidentally touching her sleeve, drawing out a line.
“I’m sorry,” he said, more solemnly than he should have.
She shouldn’t have worn her white chiffon blouse that day.
It was after that dinner that she decided to visit their old student newspaper room. She was greeted by a current editor who was working late. She looked around for a bit, remembering everything in room by heart: every book, every crack on the wall, every broken stapler, every piece of leftover sticker used for masking errors on printed materials. The only unfamiliar item was a large, grubby bag in the corner, quietly waiting, bursting, watching. She went straight to it, her heart pounding in her chest.
The moment she unzipped it, an avalanche of things spilled and fell to the ground, like the stomach of a whale exploding. There were coins, pens, shoelaces, fuchikos, unopened gums, hairpins, t-shirts, C-graded papers, and other small objects. The current editor hurried over to help tidy up the mess.
“…I’m so sorry. I didn’t know —”
“It’s OK,” the girl smiled kindly. “Were you looking for your charm?”
“Your charm,” the girl repeated. “Is it also in the bag?”
The girl then proceeded to describe a tradition that appeared to have been implemented recently: that whoever put a piece of personal belonging into the bag at the beginning of their term on the editorial board would be blessed to remain safe throughout, especially when they had to do reporting at the protests.
She thought about this now as she knelt beside him in the present, looking at the very same bag. The tradition must have altered according to people’s needs, so that over time no one knew what was really inside it. The two of them picked up the charms that might or might not have protected their former owners. She could feel heat emitting from the back of his hand, then his entire arm.
“That’s a great speech you gave today,” he said, without turning to look at her.
She felt his heat pressed against the pocket of her coat, which held a picture of the three of them. She thought about Edwin, about how she could have put a charm in for him, although he was not on the board, and there had been no such tradition in their time at the paper. Back then, the bag had just been a stupid curse. She thought also about how Edwin had appeared so strong, both at heart and physically, unlike the two of them, sickly and self-pitying.
Had she given a good speech? How had people reacted? She couldn’t recall. All she could remember was the silver-haired old man that walked up to her, staggeringly, by the end of the funeral. He asked if she was the author of a series on Chinese-Indonesians residing in Hong Kong, to which she hesitantly said yes. He thanked her for it and ventured into chronicling his life, of how he and his family was under racist attacks in Indonesia in the 1960s, how they gave up their nice bikes and gold watches to go “back” to China, just to be victimized again, this time by their “own people,” and how Hong Kong, then ruled by the British, the foreign enclave, turned out to be their final haven.
She had listened closely but didn’t say a word. When he finished his story, the both of them gazed at the photo of the young man placed at the centre of the venue. The man grinned at them.
“Edwin was my favourite caretaker in the nursing home,” said the old man, after a long pause. “He told me my story before I told him anything I just told you. I asked him how he knew. He said he had this amazing friend who wrote about people like me. I still think about him a lot, especially when my foot ulcer starts hurting in the night.”
It was difficult to dissociate Edwin from pain. He was always out there, sniffing out people’s worst wounds, unable to heal them, but restlessly scratching the itching skin nearby. He did this even with his own pain. She recalled a trip they took back from camping on one of the outlying islands, when it had been just them on a speedboat in the middle of the sea, the boat owner at the back blasting Jay Chou music, and Edwin’s gaze, fogged but sincere, darting back and forth between her eyes and lips. She tried to keep her eyes, which were swollen from crying the night before during her “therapy” session with him, open, and look at him through her hair flopping wildly in the wind.
She could smell the beer on his lips as he leaned in. She sensed him wielding an unknown force so hard that she could picture him gritting his teeth, and eventually, turning away. In his pain she also found relief and regret.
Some lived long enough to find closure, some wouldn’t.
She tried not to think about it. She was glad when her phone started buzzing again in her pocket, together with the picture that she kept so closely with her the whole time.
Be back by 12.
“I should go,” she said, looking at the phone and standing up.
I’ve bought a new pair of jeans for you. You should wear them on Thursday.
“I’ll write to Mrs. Chiang to tell her about Edwin. I’ve got her address in Tainan,” she said, gulping.
And you get to pick your toy for tonight.
“Thank you.” Turning away from the bag, he finally stood up, eyeing her buzzing pocket, frowning in confusion. “I thought you went back to writing culture?”
It was time to say goodbye. There was no more coffee rain. Not even the after smell. But she was still drenched in the humidity of the city’s summer, in the vast sadness suddenly welling up in his eyes. He smiled because of his good manners, because they were no longer close to the point where they didn’t need a smile to end a night. Then he extended an arm to pat her gently on the head.
And that was the most tender the night could be.
Wong Chun Ying is a writer from Hong Kong. She currently works as the Editorial Officer in the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. Her writings, predominantly in Chinese, can mostly be found in p-articles (《虛詞》), the major publication of Hong Kong House of Literature.