In Denis Wong's short story "Second Chance," a teenaged boy struggles to cope with his girlfriend's untimely death. The detachment Andrew feels in the face of a life that continues on without her is mirrored in Wong's clean and quiet prose.
--Karissa Chen, Fiction & Poetry Editor
Andrew tries to think about other people who exist in the world. Like Mom, Dad, the Dalai Lama, and Obama. “Fuck Obama,” he writes into his English notebook, so that Mr. Wong could read it, because Mr. Wong is American and Hana died in America. Fuck Obama.
Andrew misses the smell of her clothes in the wintertime, soap and moss mingled in the dampness of Shanghai. When she would rest on his shoulder for the brief moments between classes. Two minutes slumped together in a stairwell of the Zhong Xing building, below fraying beige paint, away from teachers and friends, happy for now because they could at least pretend to be alone. In the international boarding students' building there were roommates and dorm mothers and fathers, and everywhere else in Shanghai there were gawking rubes, foreigners, party officials, retirees, businessmen: everyone staring at everyone. Nowhere for two fourteen year old kids to be alone.
At least for those two minutes, Andrew could imagine Hana needing him. She wasn't off wherever she was when she sat silently across from him in the dining hall. Gone like when she ran around the track of Shanghai International High School every morning before dawn.
He imagines Hana's voice when he masturbates but after he's done and wiping himself off he sees her face in the coffin, her face that wasn't her face, a waxen mask, bloated around the edges, not close to what it was when he caught her asleep sometimes, at the library or in the classroom during nightly mandatory cram sessions. He hadn't been able to talk to her family during the funeral, her crying middle-aged father. Andrew had worn a black hoodie and black jeans that day. He had avoided everyone's eyes, until he found Hana lying there in between white flowers. He stared at her for a second or two. He doesn't even remember running away.
Disgust surges through him, that his body could still want Hana. It's been only a month since she was thrown from an overturned bus in Arizona. He can't grasp all the details of her, and ends up killing her piece by desperate piece.
Hana vanishes. Her body shipped to a terraced mountainside in Aberdeen, Hong Kong. After the funeral, during the Lunar New Year holiday, Hana's friends went to parties, beaches on Jeju Island and Phuket. When they return in early February, the class jokes around as if nothing has happened. Andrew keeps his head on the table.
The following week, Mr. Wong changes the seating chart in English class. Andrew is front and center. Joyce and Leo and Kobari ask him about going to a bar for his birthday and Andrew says fine, he doesn't care, he'll drink. He knows they're worried about him, so he plays along. He's puppet Andrew, the leftovers, stale bread and cold rice. His parents call and say they want to transfer him to a school in London, or back to Taiwan, to a place just an hour outside Taipei. They could visit on the weekends. Wouldn't that be nice. Sure, Andrew says. In March, he begins to walk through the campus without his shirt, even though it's cold. The breeze holds him together. Andrew lets his skin darken in the sun and he grows thinner. People start mistaking him for an Indian. Andrew Dai, hahaha, my name is Andrew Dai. He laughs.
His birthday is soon, April 9th. They would've had sex by now if she wasn't dead. Then he swears that he'll never think another dirty thought about her again, if she just wasn't dead. It doesn't even make sense that people can die. What the hell. Andrew is not the kind of person that can kill himself. “Shanghai is shit. America is shit,” he writes in his English journal.
They had spent two months together. Andrew attempts to relive each day, but it doesn't work. That's because she's dead. Fucking dead. Her kitten pencil case is dead. Her hairpin is dead. Her curling letters are dead. Her half-smile is dead. Her missed-note voice is dead. The Christmas they almost shared is dead. The kisses are dead. The jokes from Joyce and Yoshiko are dead. Hengsheng Lu is dead. The jealousy is dead. The insecurity. Her legs. Her neck. Her wrists. Her tits. The sense that she was never there anyway.
On his birthday, Andrew borrows a razor from Leo and shaves the patches of mustache ringing his mouth. Less like a terrorist now. The razor is a cheap plastic one, not tempting at all. That night, he drinks like he said he would. The friends want to make a toast in memory of Hana, and Andrew laughs at them. In this bar in Tongren Lu filled with whores and shitty dance music. He drinks again and says, Whatever, dear Hana.
He writes a great goddamn essay for English, but Mr. Wong gives him a C and a note that says if you need to talk, let me know. But you have to try. You still have to try.
Try what? he writes back. Can't you see I'm here?
The next morning Andrew puts his head down on his desk. He's been better about not putting his head on his desk, but it's not something he can stop. There's a slight tap on the corner of his desk. Andrew imagines Mr. Wong crouching beside him, with an arm on the table, waiting for Andrew to open his eyes. They wait together.
At the end of April there is a new student. Masami is pale and Japanese. She looks like a white doll and all the guys immediately want her, but they back off when she chooses Andrew in less than a day. I know, she says, you had a girlfriend who died right?
Later in the week, they're sitting on a stone bench on the far edge of campus, next to a pond filled with jumping insects and aimless goldfish. Andrew has been here before, when the pond was frozen over, before all this stuff was growing around him, broad leaves and grass and limp flowers. She's close, intimate. She bites him hard on the arm and he forces himself not to wince. She bites him again, in the same spot, so that her teeth fit perfectly into the fresh indentations.
Does it hurt too much? Andrew looks at his forearm, at the darkening semicircles, where at two of the edges, the incisors, his skin has frayed and beads of blood has escaped. He smears it with his hand, and the blood stains his arm in uneven circular patterns. It's ok.
Sorry, that was too hard wasn't it?
No, it's fine. Masami really does look like a cartoon character, a perfect Lolita goth.
Maybe she had plastic surgery, Joyce will say to Andrew later. Who gets plastic surgery at fifteen? He will reply. Joyce will flick Andrew on the side of the head and say, You don't know anything do you? Hana did care about you, Andrew. She really did. Andrew will walk away and Joyce will say, You always act like you're the only one.
I love biting into flesh, Masami says now. Andrew runs his finger around the collar she has fastened around his neck. It's black leather with spikes, like a dog's. On Masami, it had looked dangerous. On me, Andrew thinks, I'm just a dog, like a monkey in a zoo.
I love the feeling of biting into flesh, Masami says.
So I'm a chicken wing then? he says.
Of course not. It has to be a person.
You're a cannibal then?
They sit for another minute. There's enough left inside of Andrew to avert his gaze from Masami's fishnet covered legs. Andrew, who couldn't even bring himself to touch Hana's thigh.
Let's go to a hotel this weekend, Masami says. My parents pretty much own a room in the Sofitel.
Why? Andrew asks.
Why? You're so strange. What do you mean? Why do they own a hotel room or why should we go there?
Andrew's breath comes out in a long silent exhale. His careful balance. Don't lose it now, he thinks. Say something pointless. Forget it. I don't know what I mean, he says.
Don't you want to? Masami's expression is blank and sincere. We're off on holiday for May Day anyway, she says.
Andrew has known Masami for three days. Sure. I'll even mark the date in my calendar, and he takes out his planner and does exactly that, a penciled star on Saturday.
We've missed class again, Masami says.
You know, she says, there's nothing wrong with having fun when you're alive.
And Andrew says, That's fine, and walks away because he doesn't want to lose it.
On Saturday morning, Andrew wakes up in the dark and decides that he can't go back to sleep.
Outside his window is the track where Hana used to run. The track is large, a full four hundred meters around, encircling a large well-kept lawn. He's done his best to ignore its existence for the past five months, but it's impossible; the length of it confronts him each time he leaves the dorm. He puts on a pair of sweats and t-shirt. Ok fine. I'll do this, he thinks. I'll chase your ghost.
His teeth chatter. It's colder than he's prepared for. The sun is nowhere near. Another fucking ice age. Andrew hates running. Not even a shadow to keep him company. He begins anywhere, in the curve of the second hundred meters he guesses. And he plods, as much as his skinny frame can plod. He wasn't made for running, and his arms can't seem to synch with his legs. Arm alternate leg back, right? Andrew's exhausted before he's even halfway through a lap. He stops and leans forward, hands pulling on his pants, clenched over knees, trying not to fall.
Need to exercise more, son.
Andrew's heart stings, from surprise or from his own pulse. Who's that?
A man emerges from behind the fence surrounding the track. There was a shadow there after all. Andrew makes out his features in the fading moonlight. A laborer, the blue of his Mao suit just distinguishable from the night. His face is lined with odd raised ridges around his cheeks.
Watering the grass, the laborer says.
You got ringworm or something?
Suppose I do.
That's too bad. You can't get something for that, like an antibiotic?
The gardener doesn't response immediately.
Sorry, Andrew says.
You know where that girl went? The gardener asks.
Andrew doesn't want to talk anymore. He would run if he could. Sweat begins to build under his arms and at his temples, matting his hair down. What girl?
The one who used to run at this time. That little one. She was here every day until the winter.
What could Andrew say. He wipes his mouth. His throat is dry, his tongue a foreign object coated with a film of saliva. He coughs. I don't know, he says, she probably transferred.
You're the first person to be out here at this time since her.
She's dead actually.
The gardener takes out a cigarette and lights it. That's too bad, he says. He hands his cigarette to Andrew.
Andrew takes the cigarette and looks at the glowing ember. He passes it back to the gardener. No thanks, he says, and walks back to the dorm to take a shower. It is the last day of class before the holiday.
Behind him the gardener unwinds a hose, and begins to splash the area where they had stood with water.
On Saturday, Andrew meets Masami in the center of Nanjing Xi Lu in the early evening. His hair has grown over his eyes by now, but today he has brushed it over to the side, so that the ends don't quite reach his chin.
You look good, Masami says. She is unusually restrained, nothing frilly or revealing. Just a white blouse and jeans, though still beautiful enough to attract attention. Around them, the large shopping malls and designer stores are beginning to fill up. The Sofitel is a pointed sliver of reflections.
I've never stayed in a hotel in Shanghai, Andrew says, which is true, because he has always gone straight to campus after flights from Taipei.
Let's go in. Masami leads Andrew by the hand. The automatic doors of the Sofitel open without any sound. Not a hiss.
Inside the décor is both simple and garish. Purple and black circles. Dark marble, a water fountain in the center. A group of German tourists are either waiting or leaving, but the lobby is otherwise empty.
We don't have to check in, Masami says, I already have the key. She produces a white card. It's room 524, a suite, she adds with a wink.
Andrew can't figure out why he feels nothing. No excitement. No sadness or anger or confusion. He's just existing. I'm about to lose my virginity, and to the prettiest girl in the grade. I'm going to go through with this, and it won't change me at all.
They get into the elevator, which moves without the slightest motion. They might as well be hovering in space.
Hey, Andrew says.
Yes? Masami says. Feeling nervous? I'm nervous too.
Really? The sudden crack in her confidence leaves Andrew uncertain for the first time. I thought you were fine with this, he says.
I mean, I am. But this will only be my second time, she says. And the first guy wasn't exactly nice. That's why I picked you. I knew you would be nice.
The elevator doors open, and Andrew finds that they have reached the fifth floor already. Wait, Masami. He doesn't touch her, but he stands about a foot away, close enough.
Why don't we promise to get married? Not really married, he says, because he's not an idiot, but when we're old enough, then get married.
What are you talking about? she says through a smile.
I haven't gone crazy, trust me. Why don't we make some kind of promise? Like in twenty years, if you aren't married, if we're both not married I mean, then we'll marry each other.
The smile's gone. That's completely meaningless.
Maybe, but at least we'll know we'll have something. We'll know that at least there's someone waiting.
Andrew, why are you doing this? Masami looks as if she is about to cry. I just wanted to help you, but you're making it all wrong.
Of course. She says the words too loudly; a maid in the hall turns around. I'm not a slut, but anyone could see that you needed help. If I could offer you something to help you then wouldn't it be worthwhile?
Forget the sex, he says. I don't care about that. Just the promise. I just want the promise. Twenty years from now, if we're both single and unmarried, we'll find each other and get married. Come on.
Masami is shaking her head, and now she is crying. But you're asking for even more Andrew. You want everything. You're selfish.
Selfish. He's selfish? He's the one who doesn't want to take advantage of her. Anyone else would've fucked her on the spot. He's the one who didn't cry and complain to his friends, or write suicide notes or listen to pitiful wallowing songs or look endlessly at old pictures. He's done everything people have asked of him. What else is there?
You don't even realize, Masami says. You're completely stuck in a single moment. I thought I could get you out.
Something within Andrew unfocuses. It's not even about her, he says. I don't even know if Hana loved me. What was she anyway? Every chance she got, she found a reason to stay away from me.
Andrew, please stop shouting. Please.
I'm not shouting.
I was wrong. This isn't a good thing.
Ok ok, Andrew says as he starts to pull her hand, her entire arm. Never mind, let's go in anyway. Do you still want to?
She leans away. Andrew lets go and sees a growing red impression on her arm. He can't tell how long they've been standing there.
All right, Masami finally says. She wipes her tears away, only smudging her mascara at the corners of her eyes.
What? Andrew doesn't know if she's consenting to sex or to his proposal.
It's not like we love each other, she says. That should matter right? You'll still be obsessed with your dead girlfriend.
In twenty years I won't be, he says. He starting to believe that Hana wasn't even real. Or that she never existed the way he wanted, or that maybe he didn't exist either, not like he does here, right here. He takes the keycard from Masami and slides it into the lock.
When they get into the room Masami turns the lights on, and then off.
Andrew holds her hand tighter than he should. It probably hurts.