CAAMFest 36, May 10-24

Online Exclusive: The Guest by Fan Wu

2011 Asian American Short Story Contest Honorable Mention

May 16, 2012

By Fan Wu

The bus had just
closed its doors when the boy arrived at the station. He ran towards the
near-empty bus as it pulled away from the curb and shouted in his slightly
husky and unsteady voice, “Open the door! Please open the door!” In the gusty
wind, his voice sounded like laughter. Instead of stopping, the bus
accelerated. The driver, a twenty-five-year old woman with a round face, permed
long hair and white-washed jeans, didn’t look back until she was certain that
the boy couldn’t catch up. The three passengers also looked back at the boy,
only briefly. None spoke, though one, a retired middle-school teacher, frowned
and sighed, before telling himself that it was unwise to interfere: he didn’t
know the boy, after all, and he wanted to get home without delay. The driver
smiled, oddly pleased by what she had done, considering it a small revenge on
the uncaught thief who had stolen her wallet in a supermarket the night before.
She hummed ‘Rats Love Rice,’ the year’s most popular song, and removed a wisp
of stray hair from her face.

 

The boy rummaged
his shirt and pants pockets: all he could find was a small pile of coins. For a
moment he regretted that he had squandered more than two hundred yuan on beer
and cigarettes at the bar—famous for its chic and its scantily-clad waitresses.
How many of his classmates had showed up? Maybe twenty, maybe more. He had
drunk alcohol and smoked for the first time. But the money had been well spent,
hadn’t it? He’d had a great time and he’d deserved a party of his own, he
assured himself. He had even danced with a girl in his class whom he always
liked but never dared ask out; with a bit alcohol, it had been somehow easier
to approach her. He remembered her soft breasts pushing against his chest and
her crisp laughter. He felt a surge of blood in his face. Since the day he had
received the admittance letter from Qinghua
University with a full
scholarship, he had planned a celebration. Not a wild one, but one appropriate
for adults; after all, he was now eighteen. 

He decided to walk home, partly
because he wanted to make up for the money he had spent, partly because he
wanted to look sober when he saw his mother, who must be still awake, sitting
in front of the TV, waiting for his return. He wished he could call her to tell
her not to worry, and to tell her that he’d be home shortly, but they didn’t
have a phone at home.

It was midnight. Other than several
pedestrians the street was empty. He walked quickly on the sidewalk, almost
jogging. Once he tripped on a watermelon rind and fell heavily. After he stood,
he stared at the crescent moon between two half-built skyscrapers and imagined
his future in Beijing,
a city of nearly twenty million people. Would he get lost in this vast sea of
humanity? What should he do on his first day there? Should he visit the
Tiananmen or climb the Great Wall or just stroll around the campus to admire
its grandeur and long history? He smiled innocently, slightly puzzled by the
fact that he had never before ventured outside his hometown.

Familiar with this
area, he took a short cut. The alley he was traversing had no sidewalk and was
dark except for the moonlight—no house on either side had its lights on. The
alley once had several streetlamps but no sooner had they been installed than
they were broken by hooligans, the wires cut and sold to a dump yard to buy
drugs. He didn’t mind darkness nor the uneven cobblestones. Despite the wind,
he was perspiring, so he unbuttoned his shirt and bared his thin chest.

It was still
another mile or so to home. He glanced at his watch by the moonlight and began
to run, dreading that his mother would be so worried as to go out to look for
him; she had done that once when he had forgotten time and stayed at a friend’s
house too long.

He heard a car
coming from behind, fast. For an instant he wondered why its lights were off.
Dazed, he didn’t jump aside but looked back at the rapidly approaching object
as if it were just a weightless shadow. What a nightmare, he thought, as it hit
him, launching him into the air. He struck a lamppost and landed in the bushes
against the wall.

The car, a blue Lexus, squealed
to a stop and remained still for about ten seconds, the engine still running,
the boy’s smashed body not far behind. No one came out from the houses nearby
and no light came on. The two people in the car, the boy who was driving and
the girl in the passenger seat, both smelling alcohol, exchanged a few words
but didn’t get out. Then the girl said, Let’s go. The boy nodded silently,
suppressing the fear on his face. He revved up the engine and the car took off
like a frightened deer.

 

The fourth day
after her son was cremated and his ashes brought home in a white porcelain urn,
Yulan got out of bed and cooked herself a meal. It was noon. Since she was notified of her son’s
death, she hadn’t had any appetite. Watching the stove’s orange fire burning
and the boiling rice porridge in the aluminum pot, she was gripped by shame, as
if she had somehow betrayed her dead son by feeling hungry. She added water to
the pot repeatedly, doing it mechanically rather than willingly, and watched
the steam rising.

It was raining heavily. Though
she remained awake last night, she didn’t remember when the rain had begun. She
turned off the stove and listened to the noises seeping through the closed
windows and thin walls. A woman was singing karaoke, her voice on the verge of
screaming. Someone was playing the violin, most likely the little boy who lived
on the ground floor, who wore glasses and was said to have won in a talent
competition. She also heard electrical drills and sledgehammers banging against
walls—someone was always renovating in this complex. Then there was the garbage
collector’s drawling singing, “Newspapers and magazines…old fridges and TVs and
washing machines…furniture…” This garbage collector, whose name she didn’t
know, came by seven days a week, rain or shine. She wished she could find a way
to eradicate all the sounds, including her own footsteps and breathing, both
annoyingly audible. 

She carried her
bowl of porridge to the living room, separated into two areas by a light-green
curtain on a wire—the other side had been her son’s study and bedroom. The
curtain was now closed. She felt an urge to open it, to look at her son’s bed
and desk, which he had always kept clean and tidy, but she just stared at the
curtain before diverting her eyes. On the wall facing the front door hung a
color photo of her son, inside a black frame decorated with white ribbons,
which she had held in her hands as she waited at the funeral home for her son
to be cremated. She refrained from looking at the photo.

She sat on her
wicker chair and began to eat, aware that Doctor Wu, a neighbor, would stop by
to deliver the fabric for her daughter’s wedding gown around three o’clock. Yulan hadn’t been a seamstress
for long but she sewed well and had built a considerable reputation among the
neighbors who had all agreed that she was careful, skilled, responsible and
cheap. Of course, she wasn’t much a designer, they also said, but as long as
she was provided a sample picture of the desired style, she’d do a decent job.

Naturally, at a
time like this, Yulan wouldn’t want to take in any work, but Doctor Wu had
bought a small paper wreath for her son’s funeral, which made her feel that she
owed her. Also, Doctor Wu had pointed out that her daughter’s wedding was only
two months away—the original date had to be moved forward because the girl had
just found out about her pregnancy. “How embarrassing and disgraceful it would
be if my daughter had a bulging belly on her wedding day, don’t you think?”
Doctor Wu had said. “Please help me.”

Yulan heard a light knock on the
door after she finished the porridge, which was tasteless. So Doctor Wu has
come early, she thought. She put down the bowl and opened the door, surprised
to find a strange, middle-aged woman standing outside, her closed umbrella
dripping considerably and the bottom of her rolled pants legs wet and muddy.
Seeing Yulan, this woman seemed startled, as if she hadn’t expected the door to
be answered. She composed herself quickly, introducing herself as Zhao Meiyi,
an office administrator from Qinghua
University. She explained
that she had arrived the day before to attend a conference. “I learned about
your son’s death from the news,” she said. “I found your address through one of
your son’s teachers. I’m very sorry about your loss.”

Yulan invited the
guest in, seated her on the sofa in the living room, and placed her wet
umbrella in the kitchen—if left outside someone might steal it. It had happened
before. 

“It’s a long trip,
Beijing to
here,” Yulan said as she walked out of the kitchen. In the few minutes her
visitor had been there, she had combed her hair and washed her face with cold
water to reduce the swelling of her eyes. And she had also started the tea
kettle. She sat on the wicker chair where she had sat earlier.

Meiyi said she had flown here.
“I wish I had known about your son earlier, so I could have helped out at the
funeral. If he hadn’t died, he’d have been a student in my university. I’m sure
his professors had been looking forward to meeting him.”

Yulan replied that
the funeral was simple and required little assistance. “When my husband passed away,
we held the funeral at the same place,” she added. “My son was only eight
then.”

“It must have been difficult for
you to raise him on your own.”

“I was lucky. He
was a nice kid, studying hard and helping with housework.” Unwittingly, Yulan
glanced at her son’s photo on the wall. Tears surged in her eyes and she used a
corner of her blouse to wipe them off.

Meiyi was silent,
then repeated that she was really sorry about Yulan’s son.

The tea kettle
whistled so Yulan went to the kitchen to fix the tea—the best tea she could
find, along with a plate of mandarin oranges she had bought the day before her
son’s death. The oranges still looked good, their skins smooth and shinny. A
guest was a guest, not to mention that she had come all the way from Beijing. How happy her son
would have been if he could have seen Beijing,
she thought, as she handed a filled tea cup to the guest. She also poured water
into her own cup.

Meiyi took the tea
cup, and after blowing at the small leaves on the surface, she drank, leaving a
faint print of lipstick on the rim.  She
then looked at Yulan’s son’s photo and commented that he was handsome and
appeared very mature and intelligent.

“He turned
eighteen just three weeks ago,” Yulan said. “I bought a birthday cake from the
most expensive bakery in town. I rarely spend money on such a thing, you know,
but I thought since he’d go to college soon...” her voice trailed off.

Though it was
daytime, the apartment was dim, with its limited space, small windows, a low ceiling,
and dark furniture. Meiyi saw the green curtain and guessed what it was for.
It’s common to use such a divider when a family has insufficient square
footage, she knew. She thought of her own three-bedroom house facing a
community park, where she lived alone. 
Now and then a man she had known on different occasions would stay for
the night, but nothing serious had developed, since she was not interested in a
committed relationship.

Meiyi asked Yulan
if she minded turning on the light. Yulan said that she didn’t mind and got up
to turn it on. In the unnatural florescent light, Yulan’s face resembled
parched paper, pale and wrinkled. She was forty-one. If grief and overwork
hadn’t precipitated the aging process, she would have looked pretty, with her big
eyes, arching eyebrows and small nose.

Only now, in the
changed lighting, did Yulan survey her guest, who had a youthful face and could
be anywhere between thirty and forty. Her shoulder-length hair, colored dark
copper and parted to the left, was straight and fashionably layered. She wore
warm brown eye shadow and cherry lipstick with a smooth gross. On her neck
dangled a gold necklace with a pearl pedant. Then Yulan noticed again the
guest’s wet pants legs and pumps. She stood up and offered a pair of slippers,
which her guest put on obligingly. As if knowing that Yulan was wondering about
her age, Meiyi said that she was forty three.

 “It’s very kind of you to stop by,” Yulan
said.

“It’s the least I
can do.” Meiyi picked up a book from the sofa. It was the biography of an
American Nobel winner in chemistry.

“My son’s book. He
loved reading.” 

Her son owned a bookshelf that
almost reached the ceiling. What to do with these books now? Yulan thought. Not
just the books, but also his clothes, his desk and his bed. She’d like to keep
them intact but wouldn’t seeing them all the time make her life more miserable?
Could she pretend that he was away on a long vacation and could return any
time?

 

A female factory
worker had discovered her son’s body on her way back from her night shift. The
police came and identified him by the resident ID in his wallet. After they
sent the body to a nearby hospital they fetched Yulan and drove her to the
hospital. She was calm all the way there, not believing what they had said to
her, thinking that it was a mistake. When she saw the body she fainted and when
she came to she burst into hysterical tears. The doctor said that if her son
had been treated immediately after the accident he could have been saved. The
police said that they’d look for witnesses and find the driver who had
committed the hit and run. But what they said meant nothing to her. When she
left the hospital she felt she was no better than a corpse herself; a corpse
felt better because it had no pain.

The funeral would
have been quiet if her son’s teachers and classmates hadn’t come, bringing
fresh white flowers, mostly lilies and chrysanthemums. Other than the paper
wreath from Doctor Wu, there were three other wreaths. Everyone spoke softly
and shook her hand. The teachers patted her back and told her to take a good
care of herself as they left. After the funeral, Yulan picked the petals from
the fresh flowers and dried them on the windowsill. She stored the dry petals
in a glass jar, now standing on the pine-wood dresser near her bed, next to a
lacquered jewel box her husband had made for her. She had seen a box of the
same style at a store and had expressed her admiration for it to her husband,
though she didn’t wear jewelry. A month later, her husband presented the box to
her on her birthday, having borrowed tools from friends to make it
surreptitiously.

“Do you have
family or relatives in town?” Meiyi asked, the book open on her lap.

Yulan said no. When asked how
she ended up here, she told the truth. She grew up in Mianyang, a mountainous
city in the west. Not long after she married her husband, a demobilized
soldier, she moved with him to this city where a friend of his had found him a
job as a welder in a car-parts factory. Before the move, they had agreed to
return to Mianyang in five years because she felt guilty being away from his
parents for too long. But before the fifth year approached, both her parents
had died in a 6.5-magnitude earthquake, their house having collapsed. Soon
afterwards, her brother and his fiancé took over the family business—a noodle
restaurant. She once asked her brother about their parents’ saving and was told
that every penny in their bank account belonged to him because he was the only
male heir in the family. She didn’t fight. What for? Her parents had left no
will and her brother was right about being the only son.

“So my husband and
I stayed here.” Why did she have to tell a stranger about her parents’ death
and her family dispute? she wondered. She had never been a talkative person,
though she wasn’t taciturn either. Maybe it was because the guest worked at the
university her son had been admitted to. That somehow made them close. Or maybe
because she hadn’t talked with anyone for a few days.

“Do you have a
job?” Meiyi leaned forward, looking concerned. Of course, she could tell from
the apartment’s shabbiness that Yulan barely had enough money to get by. The
sofa she was sitting on was sagging and the furniture looked second-hand.
Otherwise the apartment was clean and had been carefully decorated: the
colorful scenery posters on the walls, the white embroidered dust sheet
covering the TV, and next to the TV the display cabinet filled with pretty
trinkets such as figurines and vases.  

“I used to work at
a yarn and fabric factory but it moved to Nanchang
last year. I guess it’s much cheaper there. Now I’m a seamstress.” Yulan had
liked working in that factory, which was first founded in the 1920s by a
patriotic Chinese who had studied business and engineering in America. It survived the Japanese
invasion and the civil war but was shut down in the 1950s when its founder was
sentenced to death due to his familial connection with Taiwan. In the 1960s it was
revived, becoming a state-owned factory. When Yulan was hired to work at the
production line in the early 1990s, it was owned by the original owner’s son,
now a prominent businessman in Singapore,
who had founded multiple companies, all in fabrics and textiles, in China,
to resume his father’s legacy.

“A lot of
factories have moved to inland cities these few years. Yes, it’s much cheaper
there.” Meiyi closed the book that had been on her lap and placed it next to
her. “So, your son wanted to become a scientist?” 

 “His biggest dream was to be an astronaut.”
Yulan recalled how her son had told her about different constellations and
stars in the sky. Once, when a comet sailed by, he had said that it was his
father visiting them. 

“When my son was small,” Meiyi
said after a brief silence, “he also wanted to be an astronaut. My husband and
I used to buy a lot of spaceship models for him to play with. He was good at
building.”

“Is he at
college?”

“He didn’t like
school and after high school he just quit studying. He works at a travel agency
and lives by himself.”

“At least he’s
independent.”

“Independent? I
wish. He gets money from his father every month. He doesn’t ask me for money.
We aren’t very close.”

“Don’t be upset.
Maybe it just takes a bit longer for him to grow up.”

“It’s too late.”

Though Meiyi’s tea
cup was more than half full, Yulan added more hot water to it. “Have an orange,
please.”

Meiyi said that
the tea was enough and praised its quality, while in fact, having gotten used
to good tea, this tea made her tongue numb and bitter. “I’d trade anything for
a son like yours,” Meiyi suddenly said, to which Yulan murmured that her son
would have loved it if he could have met Meiyi, someone from his favorite
university.   

The rain
increased, attacking the windows, sounding like firecrackers exploding. The
karaoke was still going on, so was the noise from the remodeling, but the
violin player and the garbage collector had fallen silent. It was foggy
outside.

Yulan began to
talk about the weather, which had been unpredictable: one week the temperature
would shoot up to 34 or 35 degrees and the next week it would plummet to below
25. Meiyi said that it was like that too in Beijing. The weather is milder and more
consistent in her hometown, Yulan thought, but she didn’t say that. The last
time she had visited her hometown was five years ago, when she took her son to
see her parents’ grave on the Qing Ming Festival. They had bought paper money
and incense, along with several of her parents’ favorite dishes she had cooked
the night before. They stayed with her brother and his family—for two nights
only because the wife was hostile, thinking that they might want to borrow
money. 

Meiyi asked how
her husband had died.

“It was a
work-related accident,” said Yulan, being reminded again of how cheaply she had
been dealt with when all her husband’s company had offered, to compensate his
death, was to make her and her son permanent residents in the city. This
residency didn’t mean much to her but it had been important to her son—without
it, he wouldn’t have been accepted by a regular school.

Meiyi asked if she
could look at her family photos.

Of course, Yulan
replied immediately: she had been wanting to look at them herself but hadn’t
had the courage. She imagined that she’d be able to do it when she had a
company.

 “Your son looked very much like your husband,”
Meiyi said, examining each photo in the album Yulan brought from her bedroom.
Occasionally, Yulan explained where and which year the photos were taken, the
memories so fresh that for a while she almost forgot that neither her husband
nor her son was alive. Her eyes glittered and her voice lowered to a whisper
when she spoke, as if she were afraid to wake up the people in the photos.

When Meiyi
commented that Yulan and her husband must have been really in love, Yulan’s
face blushed, slightly embarrassed by the word ‘love.’ She wasn’t used to
hearing the word and only responded with a coy smile and “He was a caring and
generous man.” Yes, she’d had a good marriage, however brief, she said, the
delight on her face conveying both pride and pain. Her husband rarely
sweet-talked, being a straight-forward and practical man, but he helped with
housework and always surprised her at her birthdays and their anniversaries
with a special gift. And he was gentle in bed, kissing her before and after
love-making. It had been because her memory of him that she had remained
single, though quite a few match-makers had tried to hook her up with another
man.  

“My husband and I
divorced five years ago,” Meiyi said rather casually, looking away from the
album and Yulan’s face. “He had an affair.”

“Oh.” Yulan didn’t
continue, surprised to hear this volunteered information: Meiyi was too
beautiful and educated to be a divorced woman. She felt slightly uncomfortable
with such an intimate confession from someone who, in her opinion, was too
superior to her in social stratum. If not because of her son’s death, she and
Meiyi wouldn’t have sat in the same room. Meanwhile, she was seized by a sense
of responsibility: now it was her turn to listen, to console. At this moment
the ceiling began to leak, water dripping from a spot near a corner above the window,
slowly yet steadily. Yulan excused herself and went to the kitchen to get a
plastic bucket and placed it under the leak. She told Meiyi that that spot
always leaked. Then she sat in her chair silently so that Meiyi could resume
her story.

Her husband had
been seeing a woman, Meiyi said after drinking more tea, for a long while
before she found out about it. When he told her that he and that woman had a
two-year-old child together, she thought he was joking. She asked him if there
was anything she could do to save the marriage. No, nothing, her husband said,
the damage done has been done. Love, once lost, is lost forever. 

“But he was the
one who had an affair,” Yulan said.

 Meiyi continued, talking about the days when
she and her husband first arrived in Beijing.
They had only fifty yuan with them. The year before, their village was flooded.
The crop was gone, the houses destroyed. The government gave the villagers
money to restart but it wasn’t enough to make a living on. Many young people left
the village to work in the city. The first few months she and her husband were
in Beijing,
they slept at the train station. They took every job they could find and worked
long hours. When she worked at a salon as a helper, she washed so many clients’
hair every day that by the time she quit the skin on her hands was almost
ruined. The more Meiyi talked, the more eager she was to share her past with
her hostess. Her husband was once beaten by several security guards because he
was resting on the stairs outside a luxury hotel. She was robbed several times
and was once almost drugged and sold as a prostitute. 

Yulan listened,
surprised again by her guest’s deprived background, her suffering and her
honesty. She couldn’t help but glance at Meiyi’s gold necklace and pearl
pedant, both glistening in the fluorescent light. She then said that it must
have taken a lot for her guest to get to where she was right now.

“Yes, a lot. Too
much.”

Meiyi began to
talk about her son, whom they had left to her parents when they left the
village. They sent money home every month and it wasn’t until the boy was seven
years old did she and her husband have enough money to pick him up and send him
to a school in Beijing.
The first school her son attended was of poor quality, catering to migrant
workers’ children who couldn’t go to a regular school. The classrooms were in a
dilapidated house that could collapse any minute. The teachers had no formal
training. 

“So our sons went
through the same situation,” Yulan said.

The guest nodded. “Life is
unfair, isn’t it?” She then said that four years after she and her husband
arrived in Beijing,
they started an import-and-export business and made a lot of money. They bought
an apartment and sent their son to the most prestigious private school in the
city, where reportedly one third of the students went to college in Canada,
Europe, or the United States after high school.
Since they were busy with the business, her son stayed in school Monday to
Friday and only returned home on weekends—sometimes not even on weekends.

The truth was that
she and her husband had never owned an import-and-export business. But of
course, she had to lie. She couldn’t tell Yulan that the money she and her
husband had earned had come from selling pirated computer software and video
games, and porn magazines. It had been her idea—she knew someone who could get
such stuff cheap from the south. Her husband had been reluctant but was later
persuaded. Yes, they must send their son to a better school, he agreed with his
wife. And they must live a good life in the city so that they and their son
wouldn’t be looked down on by the arrogant city people.

Yulan shook her
head in wonder. She couldn’t imagine herself sending her son away. She had
liked to watch her son while he was doing his homework, and had liked to go out
for a walk after dinner with her husband, her arm in his. The family had been
what mattered the most to her. Tears stung her eyes as she remembered all these
things. Quietly, almost embarrassingly, she dabbed them dry with both hands,
hoping her guest hadn’t seen them.

Head lowered, her
guest was deep in her own thoughts. When she looked at Yulan again, she said,
“I wish we hadn’t sent our son to that private school. I wish we hadn’t left
the village.” In her mind’s eye, she saw her son’s face now, distorted by anger
and hatred. She sighed, staring at the bucket whose bottom had been
covered.  “Memories kill you, don’t
they?” she said, more to herself than to her hostess. Before Yulan could
console her, she suddenly raised her head, her voice urgent, “We did all these
things for our son. We love him. We do.”

“I believe you.” Yulan said,
picturing how Meiyi’s young son had fallen asleep in a white-walled dorm many a
night with tears in his eyes. But who can judge parental love, even if the love
is deeply flawed? “We stayed here for our son too. He had friends here and he
liked living here. The schools were also better. ”

“We ruined our
son, also our marriage,” Meiyi said.

“Maybe things will
change.”

“It’s too late.”

The guest’s cell
phone rang. She picked up the phone: it was her beautician reminding her of her
monthly appointment that had been scheduled at three-thirty this afternoon. She
told Yulan that she had to go. When asked about her return flight to Beijing, she was confused
at first but then said she’d go back to Beijing
after her conference ended.

After taking her
umbrella that Yulan fetched for her from the kitchen and changing into her own
shoes, still damp, the guest left. Before leaving, she expressed condolences
once again. Yulan stood at the door, waving goodbye, listening to her guest’s
shoes’ fast and forceful clicking on the cement stairs. She wondered why she
was in such a great hurry.    

 

The rain had stopped but the
dripping from the ceiling continued, filling the bucket, now half full. The
guest’s visit had left Yulan a strange feeling, making her restless—she
couldn’t mourn, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t do anything else. The air was
heavy and still from the rain, so she opened the window, letting the noises
from outside pour in like a river: the karaoke, the remodeling, the traffic,
the venders’ chanting and people talking. She walked back to where she had sat
earlier and picked up an orange, not realizing that it was dry inside until she
put a segment into her mouth; it was like cotton.

She decided to clean the house.
Memories kill you, don’t they? Her guest’s voice lingered in her mind as she swept
the floor and dusted the furniture. When she was cleaning the sofa she noticed
something under the book, the American scientist’s biography: a small white box
with her name written on it. She opened the box and saw a thick stack of
100-yuan bills. Her hands trembled and she dropped the box on the floor as if
it were something disgusting. She sat on the sofa slowly, telling herself what
she had suspected earlier—that her guest’s name wasn’t really Zhao Meiyi, that
she didn’t work at Qinghua
University, that she
wasn’t even from Beijing.
But who was she? Why had she come? Why had she described her failed marriage and
estranged son? Didn’t she know that her hostess had had enough sorrows and
grief in her life already?

A gentle breeze
blew in from the window, making the light-green curtain dance. Yulan sobbed for
a long time, then reached out towards the curtain as if it were her son’s
smiling face.

 

She got in a taxi.
She hadn’t driven for a while, ever since her son had told her about the
accident. Next day she washed the car inside and out and then had it
professionally cleaned, repaired and repainted white. The day before she came
to see Yulan she had sold the car cheaply to the first person who wanted it.
She had lived in this city for almost twenty years, had been repeatedly
humiliated, exploited, cheated, robbed and hurt. She knew about the evils in
the world and had learned to be calculating and vigilant. Though she’d never be
able to change her humble upbringing, she now resembled the steel-and-cement
city itself: calm, efficient, even cruel. 
You can make a deal on everything, anything, so she believed. Even
conscience, even dignity, even love. She had done what she had to do when it
concerned the boy who had been killed. The boy’s mother would never discover
her guest’s identity.

“The Futian Road is under construction right now. Should we
try the Tianshui Road?” The driver said in a
nasal voice, as if he had a cold. “What a fucking mess!” he cursed. “It’s under
construction everywhere. Impossible to be a taxi driver these days.”

She nodded
silently, not knowing that the driver had been taking detour to elongate the
trip in the past twenty minutes. Even if she had known, she wouldn’t have cared.
Why go home so early? No one would be waiting for her there. She didn’t want to
go to her office either, her company having long ceased to matter much to her.
She leaned her head against the window, exhausted. She hadn’t slept for days.
She was also jealous, jealous of the mother she had just visited. At least her
hostess could live in her memory, while for herself nothing was left but a
broken and tortured heart.

 “You’re a fucking bitch,” she heard her son
say. She looked around anxiously. But of course, her son wasn’t anywhere in
sight. He had said that to her right before reaching the security check point
at the airport twenty-four hours ago. He’s now in Hong
Kong, with his father and his new family.

“I did all these
things for you,” she heard herself say.

“What?” The driver
looked at her from the rearview mirror.

“Just keep
driving.”

The driver gave a
sly smile and turned onto the Tianshui Road
and just as the traffic light at the first intersection turned red, he sailed
through it.

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