So, you’ve never been there. One elbow on the sofa arm, he said in perfect Mandarin with a southern Fujian accent. A small glass table below knee-height stood in-between us, on which lay spread a plate of cantaloupe and watermelon cubes. I shrugged, looking across his slim shoulder to the bathroom that Manee had just gone into. Some dim light and the sound of running water came out through the door. I used to have a high school friend who was born and grew up there, he said, Though his parents were not locals—his mum was from Shanghai, if my memory is correct—they had lived in Hong Kong for many years. They decided to move to Kuala Lumpur when he was in the final year of primary school. His sister was only six by then. Adam suddenly paused, folded his hands on his lap, one thumb rubbing the knuckles of the other, as if he couldn’t recall more about that friend other than his hometown and his family. As his shoulder appeared slimmer and sharper, his upper body looked like a wedge stuck in the grey seat cushion.
I sat back a little, flexed my ankles under the table, trying to stretch my sore calves. A familiar cramp arose from the bottom of my stomach and then subsided. It’s British English you teach, right? he finally asked. Though it was not, or not exactly that anymore, I nodded. He too nodded, seemingly pleased, and said that had been the case in his high school where they taught them both English and Mandarin.
I should’ve followed his lead and told him more about the cram school I worked at, or that big artificial park at the back of his workplace, which was also near the neighbourhood I lived in, where R had once interviewed those elderly crowded in the corners who were busy finding a husband or a wife for their thirtyish kids. Or perhaps, I should’ve been keener on our small talk about Hong Kong as he’d anticipated from someone who had studied political science abroad. But that was years ago, and also, I was tired. After taking a one-and-a-half-hour subway from downtown to the campus accommodation and looking for the building among the others of the exact same appearance in the perpetual drizzle, I just wanted a sound sleep.
I don’t understand why they’re doing this, Adam later said when scrolling down the news on his phone. A question whose collective pronoun remained ambiguous, and I didn’t know why he was still asking.
Manee soon came out in a white cropped vest and florescent pink running shorts. She sat cross-legged across from me, using a big towel to dry her hair, while Adam took out his MacBook from the backpack lying on the floor and moved over to the other end of the sofa, facing me on a slant. Slightly leaning back, Manee ruffled her hair. Her tanned neck stretched long, her breasts, small and yet firm, pointed upwards, like the type of breasts an Aries girl would have, a little soldier. When she pulled her hair to her right shoulder, it formed into a piece of black shining armour, clinging to her collarbone.
She was beautiful, not at all like what she felt about herself when we first met outside the campus, and she told me she had gained ten kilograms in weight just over one winter at her parents’ place in Lampang. It was an evening in June; most of the students had gone back home. We walked around the empty campus aimlessly until we were both hungry and she took me to the food stalls where we shared a malatang hotpot. It was her students’ favourite spot, she said, and now it had become her favourite too. We waved goodbye at the subway station afterwards. I’ll see you next week, she texted me on my way home. I didn’t see it until I had gotten out of the underground, and the sky had darkened. I didn’t text back. Soon as R left for Hong Kong, the thought of crossing the city just to see someone seemed even more daunting for me. How all the distances you’ve crossed would prove in vain in the end.
I asked if I could have some more water when Manee pointed to the cubes on the table and told me to have some. Dāngrán kěyǐ la, she replied cheerfully, dragging the inflection in a similar way that her boyfriend would do, then switched to English, addressing both of us, Let’s do tea. That sounds nice, Adam raised his head from the screen and said, and I nodded, despite my reluctance to be energised.
I turned around and looked out to the balcony. The glass door ajar, the wind blew in the gap every now and then. The rain had stopped now, leaving a thin coating of water shimmering on the white tiles of the threshold. It still felt like a summer’s day in this city surrounded by mountains: clean, spring-like, lasting, like the day when R, standing with his silver compact luggage on the pavement spotted with the dark fruits of the camphor trees, said we would meet again. Be safe, I wanted to say. We hugged and he disappeared.
We had stopped talking about Hong Kong weeks before his departure. Partly because we didn’t know where to start and how, partly because we’d also stopped texting and seeing each other that often. Not knowing how to talk about it but still wanting to had made both of us feel lonely, and this feeling would only become unendurable when we were together. I remembered one Sunday night when we’d just finished Yang Dechang’s Yi Yi and were discussing if we should go on to watch his Terrorizers, a notification popped up on R’s laptop screen. The VPN was working slowly, so we skimmed through the text first and then came back to the picture at the top. When it was still blank, we refreshed the page, then again, until we could finally see it. A girl in black bulletproof vest curled up on the ground with her eyes pixelated. A red bandage lay beside her face. From the bottom of the picture peeked out several lenses. An Eye for an Eye—a new headline of the next day’s news about the students wearing an eye patch and protesting at the airport.
The last time I had tried to talk about it, I remembered, was on our way to a bookshop nestled in an old district of the downtown. It had long been there for the years I’d grown up in Kunming, I later learned from the polished bronze tablet at the storefront, and yet I didn’t know it until I met R. We went there on my day off—one only made possible by my sudden vomiting in the classroom (Don’t do this next time, my superior had said, holding a cup of coffee in his hand). The upper deck of the bus on the workday afternoon was as quiet as a dream. The sunlight poured in, the branches outside the window careened towards us and then strayed magically. I said I had once watched this documentary about that young boy leading the Umbrella Movement, three years my junior, when R was taking a photo of an array of run-down houses on whose balconies garish clothes fluttered. I forgot that boy’s name for a second, and R turned around and filled it in. He later told me he had received his working visa when the bus stopped at a busy crossing. That’s nice, I said, hearing my voice overwhelmed by the honks.
I had imagined what he’d looked like when he was opening the envelope that day on my way home, wondering if R, having waited for the opportunity for so long, was excited for his new journey—which, though, I knew would not make such a big difference in his eyes. It wouldn’t change what he liked to do with his time: meandering through old bookshops, meeting with new faces who would give him warm greetings next time, reading poems and watching movies with bottles of beer by the side, writing, translating. But without space, why would time still matter? Did he feel unreal that he was still able to start a new life in a city that was falling apart?
Standing in the corner of the counter behind me, the kettle whistled loudly. Once it clicked, Manee ripped open the gold foil bag, grabbed a handful of tea, and put them into the paper cup before me. As the steaming water poured down, the little balled-up leaves quietly rose from the bottom, dispersed, uncurled, thrashed up and down drastically and floated up again, motionless. Thank you, I said. Then she did the same to the two glasses for her and Adam, who, on hearing the clink, gave her a quiet thanks with a slight nod.
Manee hunched over the table and showed me the pictures of the barbecue she and her students—who’d just come back from the summer holidays—had had last week after the Pride Run. I couldn’t tell whether it was her hair or her skin that had a scent of gardenia. I carefully pulled myself back from her, and she leaned in more. The Korean restaurant they went was a newly opened one, she said. They had succulent pork glazed with a spicier sweet chilli sauce that, though not authentic, fit her tastes better. The price was reasonable, the interior design simple and cosy. They had a television hanging on the wall that played an old Korean TV series about a female cook and physician that she said she’d found quite engaging and recently started watching online, despite the annoying fact that not all the resources had a Thai subtitle and the English one could be difficult for her to understand when they were explaining certain herbs. Remember that malatang stall we went to last time? she asked. I nodded. It’s just across from it, she said, her index finger dancing in the air, her thick black eyebrows lifted. We should go next time.
I peered down at the screen as her finger rested on it and a selfie popped out. The big laughing face of hers was on the front, surrounded by the smaller faces of her students on the back. The orange light hitting either their foreheads or their cheeks made all of them seem to have lost a part of themselves in the overwhelming happiness they were experiencing. With a top knot tied with a rainbow-striped headband, Manee looked like a graduate who came to reunite with a group of younger friends whom she’d known for years. You should’ve come and joined us, Manee said with a pout, putting one hand on mine. I didn’t draw it back. I gave her a half-smile and said nothing, and she went on to tell me how she’d also learned to make a chocolate cake with her small rice cooker the other day.
The way she talked about her everyday life gave me a feeling of comfort, as if she didn’t care about how I suddenly showed up after so many messages she’d sent to me went unanswered, and she didn’t care about me. And maybe this was why I came here, I thought, to be not cared about, to be exhausted, so that I could let myself drift away effortlessly if I hadn’t been doing so. I thought of the news I’d shared to her one morning when I stayed in the bed not wanting to get out, and the sad-face emoji she’d sent back to me. She didn’t understand why I’d shared it—nor did I understand, and she might not have known it until I shared, which had saddened me.
A man’s face flitted through the back of my mind. The long square face with large, sad eyes always fixed on his little girl, who liked to run like a rocket from one end of the dim corridor to the other. For a time I’d lived in an old, tall building in Taipei, and I’d always meet him in front of the lift on the late nights after I’d finished translating and revising pages of paperwork. The man and I would have brief eye contact, and then he would lower his head, hunch his shoulders, eyes fixed again on his daughter, as if she would be launched to another universe in any minute. Sometimes the little girl would come to run around us. When she got too fast and too close to me, I would feel the urge to grip her arm and tell her that it hurts when you fall on the cold marble floor. She was always hungry, and I could see she wanted her father to open the plastic bag in his hand that emitted the smell of that type of food stir-fried with too much oil, the type of food that would remind me of the boxed meal left cold on my desk with an English name written on the lid. Sherry, a name my colleagues called me that I sometimes couldn’t recognise. My real name, the one my father gave me, was Yīmíng一明, meaning one as bright as both the sun and the moon. Even after I came back to Kunming, the name still felt distant to me. I’d never told R about it, nor to my other foreign friends whom mostly I wouldn’t meet a second time.
Something was different about Manee, though, I thought, as I wrapped my hands around the cup and traced its corrugated warm bottom edge, taking a sip slowly. The still-hot tea, whose fragrant steam rose up to warm my eyelids, eased my stomach pain for a moment, though a stronger spasm followed, like a price I had to pay for the temporary relief. I remembered that evening, before we’d lost our last strength to walk, we walked and walked and went to sit on the wide concrete stairs, overlooking the boys throwing basketball to each other. There were some weeds coming out from the crevice in front of my feet. I twirled them as Manee told me how she’d liked the quietness here, the suburb, and how teaching Thai had allowed her to revisit some literary works she’d read when she herself was a student. She asked if my teaching was also like this that I’d have something precious to share, and I said no, I don’t think so, I don’t know. I looked up when the bang of the dropped ball echoed throughout the field. A cluster of birds flied off from the trees. Far away on the horizon, the setting sun tinted the clouds orange and violet, glowing redder and larger on the sky that had turned as blue as those seas I’d once seen. It was a moment that felt eternal that I’d remembered when I was going through my recent WeChat contact list and paused on Manee’s avatar—a cyan horse.
After asking how I had been recently (Good, I said), Manee sat back and started to do her daily Mandarin learning with her earphone on. I too took my phone out, which was long dead, and put it back. I took a gulp of the tea and another gulp until it was empty. Several leaves descended onto my tongue before the cup tilted back; they tasted astringent. When I was going to get up to the counter and pour myself a second cup, Adam shut his MacBook and lurched forward.
Have you ever heard 1MDB? he asked, taking up his glass carefully to not spill the light green tea. No, I shook my head, though I didn’t hear clearly. Well, he took a sip, It’s about a Prime Minister who had been stealing millions of dollars from his people over the years of his tenure, so they went out to the streets three years ago to have a big rally against him. I waited for him to continue, but instead, he repeated the name that sounded like a computer code to me and said it was a really big thing at that time, and Zoe, his friend’s sister—that friend from Hong Kong, was one of the student leaders at the University of Malaysia who later founded an organisation called the New Youth. You’ve never heard about it? Adam asked, eyes looking into mine. No, I shook my head again, not sure which one he was asking about. A disappointment was in his eyes for a moment, though he soon shook his head too, as if mimicking me. Doesn’t matter anyway, he shrugged, Things barely changed. Oh, I said. Yeah, he shrugged, Another one is seizing the power now, just as corrupt as his former and possibly even worse.
He drank up his tea and walked to the bedroom. When Manee finally put down her earphone, I told her I needed to have a shower. She nodded and went to the balcony to take down the clean towel for me. But before she turned back, I already ran inside and threw up in the yellow-stained porcelain. Are you okay? she knocked. I turned on the tap of the shower head, letting the water go down my throat and cleanse my body from inside out.
Later that night we had sex. It was not what I expected when I was sitting in the incandescent, empty subway car, watching the silhouettes of buildings thrusting through my reflection in the spotless glass, but then when Manee’s hand crawled from my back to my chest underneath the quilt, I didn’t say no. She pulled my shoulder backward gently and lay me down with her hands pushing my thighs wide apart so that she could kneel in between. As she groaned, I turned my head left, noticing Adam was putting on a condom. Our eyes met briefly in the dark. He waited for a while and entered Manee from behind. She clutched my waist, lowered her head more. Her continuous groan felt like many sighs from my pores. When Adam moved his body over mine, he placed his left forearm near my head and shifted much of his weight to my right side, pressing his left pelvis against my right one, so that Manee, who kneeled on my left and sucked my breast, wouldn’t get hurt under the little vault he created for her. The electric fan overhead whirred; the white curtain waved. There was some loud singing outside to which I listened attentively for a while, though it was vague, and I couldn’t hear what they were singing about. When Adam let out a growl and collapsed on me at length, his body felt like a layer of snow. Cold, light, melting away. Manee put one arm around his head and stroked his back with the other hand. It’s okay, baby, I heard her say.
Lu Feng is an emerging writer who has just finished her Literature MA in the UK. She was born in China and studied architecture there. She is currently preparing for her PhD study and working as an assistant editor at Short Fiction Journal.