Perfection Sketches Easily for the Young
Young at the Time by Eileen Chang
When Pan Ruliang was studying, he had a bad habit: the pencil in his hand would not stay still—right there in the margins of his book, it was always sketching a little person. He’d never studied drawing and it didn’t interest him much, but the moment his pencil touched paper, a line would start bending around, all on its own, drawing a face in side-view profile. Always the same face, always facing left. He’d been drawing that profile since he was little, it was so familiar it flowed. He could draw it with his eyes closed, or draw it with his left—in which case there’d be one difference only: the profile drawn with the right hand was rounder and smoother, the one drawn with the left more jaggedy, the points sharper, the hollows deeper—a picture of the same person looking thin, after a serious illness of some sort.
No hair, no eyebrows, no eyes, just a line running from the top of the forehead to the underside of the jaw, a simple line really, but you could tell it wasn’t a Chinese—the nose pushed out a bit too much. Ruliang, like the good young man that he was, loved his country, but the people of his country didn’t impress him overmuch. All of the Westerners that he knew were movie stars, or the sparkling, debonair mo-te-er who graced cigarette or soap advertisements; the Chinese that he knew were his father, his mother, and his brothers and sisters. His father was not a bad man, and he was out all day long working at his business; Ruliang saw him so seldom, it couldn’t amount to actual repugnance. But his father, after dinner, would sit in the living room, drinking on his own, with a side of fried peanuts, and then his face would turn all red and shiny and oily, just like a typical small-shop boss. His father did run a shop that made and sold pickles and fermented sauces, and in that sense had to count as a shop boss; but still . . . seeing as the man was his father, he ought be an exception to that type.
It wasn’t the drinking—Ruliang had no problem with that. Someone who’s been dealt a great blow, be it in love or at work, can stumble into a liquor-lined bar, groping walls as he goes, then climb onto a stool and hoarsely call out: “Whiskey, hold the soda.” Bracing his head in his hands, he can fall into a daze, one lock of hair falling forward, dolefully, into eyes that stare straight ahead, unblinking, totally empty . . . all of that makes good sense and merits sympathy. Drinking too much isn’t good, of course, but when it’s done like that, it has to count as a classy kind of degeneracy.
His father, on the other hand, had this miserable way of pouring rice wine out of the tin can in which he’d warmed it and into a teacup with a broken-off handle, and then, sitting with Ruliang’s mother while she ran the day’s accounts, he’d drink his wine while they chattered, he going on about his things, she about hers, neither of them heeding the other. And if he noticed the kids hankering for something to eat, sometimes he’d dole out a few peanuts each.
His mother, as was usual in such a case, had no education and was a piteous woman who, crushed by the oppression of old social norms, had sacrificed her entire life’s happiness; and she loved her son dearly but had no way of understanding him; the only thing she knew how to do was cook for him, urge him to eat more, then sadly see him off at the door, where her thin, wispy white hair was ruffled by a bleak breeze.
Annoyingly enough, Ruliang’s mother’s hair was not white, at least not yet, and if she did get a white hair or two, she plucked it out. And you never saw her crying when she was frustrated; instead, you saw her turning on the children till they were the ones crying. Then, in her spare time, she’d listen to Shaoxing folk opera or clack away at mahjong.
Ruliang’s two older sisters, like him, were in college. They wore face powder and rouge and were not particularly good looking yet refused to accept the obvious. Ruliang rejected any woman of his sisters’ sort.
But it was his younger brothers and sisters who were the most annoying: all those dirty, useless, clueless, utterly childish children. It was their existence that made his parents and older sisters go on lumping him with them, forgetting that he’d already grown up; that, for him, was the most hurtful, distressing part.
He never opened his mouth at home. He was a sole, solitary observer, looking at them with cold eyes, and his eyes, owing to the immensity of his contempt and indifference, turned light blue: it was the greenish blue of a little stone, or of someone’s shadow, early in the morning, on frosty ground.
But nobody noticed. His disapproval did not cause a moment’s discomfort to anyone. He was not a very consequential person.
Ruliang spent almost no time at home. When his classes were over, he went to a language school to study German, partly because he was studying medicine, for which German would be helpful, but also to avoid having dinner with his family—night school classes ran from seven to eight-thirty. Today, for instance, it wasn’t yet six-thirty, and already he was in the student lounge, sitting close to the charcoal brazier and looking over his homework.
A handful of magazines and newspapers were strewn across a long countertop in the lounge, and on the other side, hidden by a newspaper, sat someone who surely was not a student—reading a newspaper in German had to be beyond the level of even the most advanced students. The red nail polish on the fingers holding the paper was cracked and splotchy. It must be the woman typist who worked in the school director’s office, he decided. The woman put the paper down, turned the page, folded it over, and leaned over the countertop to read it. A thick spill of curly yellow hair hung down; her coat, made of light wool in a narrow plaid, had a green pocket-handkerchief that went nicely with her green blouse.
A shadow fell across the newspaper, cast by her own upper body. Furrowing her eyebrows, she turned sideways to get better light. When she turned her face away, Ruliang felt a shock of surprise: she had the exact same profile he’d been sketching here, there, everywhere, ever since he was little, the only profile he knew how to draw—it was unmistakable, that line running from the top of the forehead to the underside of the jaw. No wonder he’d thought that the Russian woman he’d seen when he was registering for class looked somehow familiar. It had never occurred to him that the face he’d been drawing belonged to a woman—and a beautiful woman no less. The line that ran from the top edge of her upper lip to the base of her nose was a bit too short—a sign, people said, that a person wouldn’t live long. The winsome charm of a woman destined not to live long wasn’t something Ruliang had ever mused over, but he could feel right away how the brevity of that line suffused her face with childlike beauty. Her hair was not exuberantly yellow; sunbeams would be needed, probably, to make it the genuinely golden blonde of Mother Mary. But it was that very vagueness of her hair, at the temples and in the eyebrows, that made her profile stand out so clearly. A marvelous feeling of joy rose up high in his heart: it was as if he’d created, with his own hands, this entire person. She was his; whether or not he liked her couldn’t even be a question for him, because she was part of himself. It was as if he could just walk over and say, “Oh, it’s you! You are mine, didn’t you know?” Then gently pluck her head off and press it into his book.
She seemed to have noticed the dazed way he was looking at her. Ruliang hurriedly dropped his gaze and looked at his book. The upper margins of those pages, everywhere filled, on the left and on the right, with a face drawn in profile: he couldn’t let her see that, or surely she’d think it was her face he’d been drawing! Ruliang grabbed a pencil and started scribbling, urgently, over the faces, but the scritch-scratch he was making only drew her attention. She leaned over, took a good look, and smiled. “That looks right, it really does look like me.”
Ruliang mumbled something indistinct and the pencil in his hand went on storming across the page, scribbling and scribbling till a good half of it was blackened out.
She reached over and pulled the book towards her with a smile. “Let me have a look. I wouldn’t have known how I look from the side if I hadn’t had some photos taken the other day and one was a profile pose. That’s why I could see right away that it’s a sketch of me. It’s a nice sketch, but why aren’t the eyes and mouth drawn in?”
Ruliang couldn’t figure out how to tell her he couldn’t draw eyes and mouth, couldn’t draw anything except this one side-view profile. When she looked at him and saw how embarrassed he was, she thought it was because he wasn’t used to speaking English and couldn’t formulate a response. To keep things going, she changed the question: “It’s really cold today—did you come by bicycle?”
Ruliang nodded. “Yes. It will be even colder tonight, after class ends.”
“That’s right. Doesn’t sound fun at all. Who is your teacher here?”
“Is he a good teacher?”
Ruliang nodded again.
“But,” he said, “the class is too slow and I get bored.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t have much choice. The students are at different levels, and some can’t keep up.”
“That’s the trouble with group classes. It’s not as good as having a private tutor.”
Using one hand to prop up her head, she leafed through his book in a causal manner. “How much have you covered already?” She turned back to the first page and read his name aloud: “Pan Ruliang . . . my name is Cynthia Rubashov.” She picked up a pen to write it for him in a blank space somewhere, but there weren’t any left: each and every page of the book was filled up with faces drawn in profile—her profile. Ruliang, staring, was in a fix: he couldn’t just grab the book from her and yet his whole face had turned bright red and his cheeks were burning. Cynthia was blushing too—like a pink-winged moth resting on a lampshade, the faintest, most fleeting hue of rosiness touched her cheeks; she closed the book quickly, with a pretended show of nonchalance, and found a place on the cover where she could write out her name for him.
“Have you lived in Shanghai your whole life?” Ruliang asked.
“I lived in Harbin when I was little. I used to speak Chinese but now I’ve forgotten it all.”
“That’s a pity!”
“I’d like to start learning again, from the beginning. If you’d be willing to teach me, we could do a language exchange and I’ll teach you German.”
“I’d love that!”
The bell rang right then for the start of class. Ruliang stood up and reached for his book; Cynthia pushed down on it and slid it towards him. “How’s this?” she said with a smile. “If you’re free tomorrow at noon, we can try having class together. You can find me at Yih Tung Trading Company in Ssu-shêng Tower, on the ninth floor. That’s where I work during the day. No one’s there at lunchtime.”
Ruliang nodded and repeated, “Ssu-shêng Tower, Yih Tong Trading Company. I’ll be there.”
Then they parted. Ruliang couldn’t sleep that night, not till very late. This Cynthia . . . she had misunderstood, she thought he’d quietly fallen in love with her and was secretly drawing her face in his book, her face only, over and over again. She thought he’d fallen in love with her and yet she was, in a very obvious way, giving him a chance like this. Why was that? Could it be that she . . . .
She was a capable girl, worked in a trading company by day, then part time at a night school—but still she was, at most, his older sisters’ age? And yet she was utterly unlike them. A well-behaved girl, as everyone knows, should stay away from a person whom she is sure likes her, unless she plans to marry him. That’s how things are in China, and in other countries too. But . . . doesn’t everyone like spending time with someone who likes them? How could she be expected to spend time only with those who did not like her? And maybe, for Cynthia, there wasn’t anything more to it than that. He’d better not misunderstand; that’s what she’d already done. Best to avoid heaping even more misunderstanding onto this situation.
But was it really a misunderstanding?
Maybe he did love her but hadn’t even glimpsed that possibility. She’d seen it before he had—women, they say, are more intuitive. The whole thing was rather strange—he’d never been one to believe in foreordained encounters but really, this whole thing was quite strange . . . .
The next day, Ruliang put on his best Western suit then felt a bit of a fool, getting so smartly dressed to go see her; at the last moment, purposely sloppy and nonchalant, he threw on an old faded scarf.
As he headed to school in the early morning, all the little trees’ wintertime leaves seemed to have crystal-gelled into golden beads. He pedaled facing the sun, with his book bag swinging from the handlebar; strapped to the rear rack was a bare bone, T-shaped and chemically preserved. It had, at some point in the past, been the leg of a person—a leg that had once pedaled a bicycle, perhaps. Ruliang, facing the sun, pedaled on, and all around his warm body, the wintry wind blew. The sun that shines on the living doesn’t reach the bodies of the dead.
He grabbed hold of a tramcar that was speeding past and spun alongside it, almost flying. He could see, through the window of the tram, two women inside sitting face-to-face, chattering on about something, heads nodding after each sentence or so, their black eyelashes glazed white by the sunlight. Face-to-face they sat, wrapped up in some fascinating story they shared, and their lashes in the sunlight were blinking and white. The sun that shines on the living doesn’t reach the bodies of the dead.
Ruliang had a belly full of bubbling-hot breakfast and a heart full of happiness. He’d often felt it before—this happiness that had no particular reason—but today he thought: it must be because of Cynthia.
From somewhere off in an empty field came the sound of a dog’s loud, repeated barking. From a school, the ringing of bells. The bell sounds were golden, floating aloft in a linked chain, a small, fine line drifting along in the clear sky. In just one lock of Cynthia’s yellow hair, up there, each curling tendril was a little bell. Cynthia, adorable Cynthia.
He skipped the last of his morning classes and raced home to change his scarf instead, the bright white, brand new one now deemed, through dint of much deliberation, the better fit.
On his way he passed, in the middle of some open, unmanaged land, a newly built Western-style house, quite fancy; much to his surprise, this radio too was playing Shaoxing folk opera. Flowing through the curtains of coral-pink lace, a broad, bland voice belted out “Eighteen Pull-Drawers.” The last gasp of a dying culture! Here in these gloriously elegant surroundings the woman of the house was exactly like his own mother. Ruliang did not want a woman who was like his mother. Cynthia, at the very least, was from a world entirely unlike that one. Ruliang put her in the same category as everything clean and lovely, like college scholarships, like football matches, like German-made bicycles, like the New Literature.
Although Ruliang’s studies were in the medical division, he was a lover of literature. He felt sure that if he weren’t so busy, and he drank more coffee, he could write poignant, powerful things. His total faith in coffee was inspired not by its aroma, but by that complexly constructed, scientific silver pot with a crystalline glass lid. In much the same way, it was the constantly bright, brand-new gleam of doctors’ medical devices, when taken out, one by one, from their leather cases—all that ice-cold metal in intricate little shapes that could do anything–that inspired at least half of his devotion to medical science. Most awe-inspiring of all was the electrotherapy machine—its exquisite, toothed gears spun tirelessly, making a spark-lit jazz tune that was crisp, clear, uplifting. Modern science was the only indisputably good thing in an otherwise defective world. Once a person had become a doctor and put on that clean white coat, a father who ate fried peanuts with his rice wine, a mother who liked Shaoxing folk opera, and snobby older sisters in tacky face powder—none of them could have a hold on him.
Ruliang’s sights were set on that future. And now a Cynthia was added to that future. Reaching his dream would require, he knew full well, a great deal of hard work over a long period of time. A medical degree took seven years and he still had far to go: getting into a relationship with a Russian girl while still in the midst of his studies—it didn’t make any kind of good sense, no matter how you looked at it.
He cycled past yet another fancy house where Shaoxing opera was spinning out from the radio, that wide, flat, quavering voice in which nothing could be bright as day or dark as night; it was like a room in broad daylight, with a lamp turned on—confounding, buzzy, not natural.
The Shaoxing opera damsel was singing “The more I pore over it, the more upset I fee-eel!” The beats were steady, entirely predictable. It suddenly struck Ruliang that the world of Shaoxing opera audiences is a steady, predictable world—and he himself was not steady at all.
His mind was a-whirl. When he got to Ssu-shêng Tower on the Bund, he was still fidgety, worried now about a different thing. If he arrived too early and any of her officemates were still there, wouldn’t that be embarrassing? But if all of them had left already, that would be embarrassing too. He loitered about for quite awhile, then finally took the elevator up. When he pushed the door open, there was Cynthia sitting alone at a desk by the window. He was caught off guard—she seemed different from the person he remembered, though it couldn’t count as a memory per se, since it’d only been one day since they’d met. Still, over this short while, he’d been thinking about her intensely and at great length, an over-thinking through which he’d lost touch with reality.
The person he saw now was an ordinary, somewhat pretty young woman whose hair was indeed yellow, but with layers of light and dark yellow and, at the roots, an oily chestnut color. Apparently she’d just finished a quick lunch; when she saw him coming, she crumpled the wrapping into a wad and tossed it in the waste basket. While talking to him, she kept dabbing at the corner of her mouth with a handkerchief, unsure about any breadcrumbs that might’ve gotten stuck in her lipstick. She dabbed carefully to avoid smearing lipstick over the edges of her lips. Her feet, hidden under the desk, were clad only in flesh-colored stockings; for the sake of comfort, she’d kicked off her high-heeled shoes. From where Ruliang sat, on the opposite side of the desk, his own feet kept hitting either her feet or the empty shoes; it was as if she’d grown an extra pair of feet.
He got annoyed, then quickly blamed himself for that: why this resentment towards her? Because she took her shoes off in front of people? Working all day at the typewriter, her feet must get numb from all that sitting, one could hardly blame her for relaxing a bit. She was an actual human being, a person made of flesh and blood, not some phantasmic dream he’d invented: there was a heartbeat in the rose-purple sweater she was wearing—he could see that heartbeat, and feel his own heart beating too.
He decided that from now on he wouldn’t talk to her in English. His pronunciation wasn’t good enough! He didn’t want to give her a bad impression. Once he’d become fluent in German and she in Chinese, they’d be able to talk freely. Right now, all he had at his disposal were phrases from the textbook: “Are horses more expensive than cows? Sheep are more useful than dogs. New things look better than old things. Mice are very small. Flies are even smaller. Birds and flies can fly. Birds are faster than people. Light is faster than anything. There is nothing faster than light. The sun is hotter than anything. There is nothing hotter than the sun. December is the coldest month.” All these solid, unshakeable maxims so sadly lacking in subtlety, wholly inadequate for conveying his meaning.
Will it be sunny tomorrow?
Perhaps it will be sunny.
Will it be rainy this evening?
Perhaps it will be rainy.
They all sounded old, these conversation textbook writers, each and every one of them solemnly droning along.
Do you smoke cigarettes?
Not a lot.
Do you drink alcohol?
Not every day.
Don’t you like to play cards?
No. I hate gambling.
Do you like to go hunting?
Yes, I love getting exercise.
Read. Read a textbook. Don’t read fiction.
See. See a newspaper. Don’t see a play.
Listen. Listen to instructions. Don’t listen to rumors.
All day long, and for all he was worth, Ruliang turned these phrases around, back and forth, this way and that, and the lamentable thing was that they couldn’t be made to imply even the barest hint of tenderness. Cynthia, however, was not constrained, the way he was, by textbook talk. Even though her Chinese wasn’t very good, she’d get the general gist and, with no fear of embarrassment, just let her mouth do the talking. If she ran out of things to talk about, she’d tell him about her family. Her mother was a widow who’d remarried, and Rubashov was her stepfather’s name. She had a younger sister named Lydia. Her stepfather worked in a trading company too; his salary wasn’t enough to support the family, so things were hard for them. Cynthia’s vocabulary was limited, her grammar clumsy and bold; this regularly made the things she said a harsh, utterly unvarnished reality.
One day, she started talking about her sister: “Lydia is very worry.”
“Why?” Ruliang asked.
“Because get marry.”
Ruliang was shocked. “Lydia is married already?”
“No, because no boyfriend. In Shanghai, not many good Russian man. British, American, also not have many. And all gone now. German can only get marry with German.”
Ruliang fell silent. After awhile, he finally said, “But Lydia is still young. She doesn’t need to worry.”
Cynthia, with a very slight shrug of her shoulders, said, “Is right. She still young.”
Ruliang was getting some understanding of Cynthia now. It was something he’d rather not be doing, really, because once he did understand her, he wouldn’t be able to go on dreaming.
Sometimes, when they still had time left after class, he’d invite her out for lunch. Dining together in a restaurant was not a big deal, the most anxious moment coming when it was time to pay the bill, because he wasn’t sure how much tip he should leave. Sometimes he bought a box of snacks and brought it to class: she’d spread her book flat and use it as a plate, and after the candy bits and walnut pieces had gotten scattered across the whole desk, she’d close her book with the crumbs still in it, not minding in the least. He didn’t like those sloppy manners of hers, but he forced himself to turn a blind eye to all that. He picked out only what was most poetic about her to notice, and to savor mentally. He knew that what he was in love with wasn’t Cynthia. He was in love with being in love.
He looked up “love” and “marry” in the German dictionary, and secretly taught himself to say, “Cynthia, I love you. Will you marry me?” He never said it aloud to her, but those two sentences were always on the tip of his tongue. If, for a single moment, his attention wavered, he wouldn’t be able to keep those fatal words from slipping out—fatal because, as was perfectly clear to him, it was his own fate at stake. A hasty, rushed marriage could easily ruin his whole life. But…just thinking about it was very exciting. If she heard those words, then no matter how she answered, she too would feel how exciting it was. If she accepted, he’d be provoking, for sure, an enormous uproar in his family; it’d be world-shaking even though he’d never counted for anything before.
Spring came. Even the textbook said: “Spring is the prettiest season in the year.”
One evening, as dusk fell, rain came drizzling down so he didn’t ride his bicycle home from school; he took a tram instead. While on the tram he once again leafed through that German language textbook he carried with him everywhere. It said:
I get up every day at five o’clock.
Then I get dressed and wash my face.
After I wash my face, I take a walk.
After I walk, I eat breakfast.
Then I read the newspaper.
Then I work.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, I stop work and go to exercise.
Every day, at around six o’clock, I take a shower. Then, at seven o’clock, I eat dinner.
In the evening, I visit friends.
At ten o’clock at the latest, I go to bed. I get a good rest so I can work hard the next day.
An entirely standard kind of day. Getting dressed and washing one’s face—that was for the sake of good form at a personal level. Reading the newspaper, absorbing governmental directives and crusades—that was for the sake of fulfilling one’s responsibility to the country. Work—that was for the sake of fulfilling one’s responsibility to family. Visiting friends—that was an “extracurricular activity,” worth a few points as well. Eating, taking walks, exercising, sleeping—all for the sake of maintaining efficiency in one’s work. Showering—that looked to be extraneous. Maybe, for those who had wives, showering was for the wife’s sake?
This schedule could appear to be theoretical, but the truth was that the vast majority of those who’d formed a family and built a career, even though they couldn’t match that pattern exactly, didn’t fall too far out of step with it. And this, Ruliang knew full well, was the root of his criticism of his father: it was because his old dad didn’t care much about good form and good taste. A son had the right to find fault, when his father was like that and, from higher up, so did the man’s wife; and, above that, society.
The textbooks put it this way: “Why are you so slow? Why are you rushing around? You were told to go, why didn’t you go? You were told to come, why didn’t you come right away? Why are you hitting people? Why are you scolding people? Why won’t you listen to me? Why won’t you do things the way we do them? What’s the reason why you do not follow rules? What’s the reason why you do not behave properly?”
After that, the textbooks gave submissive pleas: “I’d like to go out for two hours, would that be okay? I’d like to go home early today, would that be okay?”
And then the sorrowful, self-admonishing lines: “No matter what, don’t let yourself get reckless. No matter what, don’t expect to get everything you want.”
Ruliang put his hand down on the book and, the moment he looked up at the fine rain outside the tram window, saw a movie billboard advertisement that proclaimed in huge lettering: “The Soul of Freedom.”
He fell into a long trance. The tram ran along, shaking and rattling, all the way from Mohawk Road to Avenue Road. There were two willow trees on Avenue Road, their remaining leaves now golden beads, crystal-gelled. Dampness stretched along one great swathe of gray wall. The rain had stopped. The evening sky streamed up and away, into the expanse. Young people’s skies are boundless, young people’s hearts fly away to far-off places. But in the end, human beings are timid. The world is so big, they need to find something in which to get tangled up.
It’s only the young who are free. As people get older they slip, inch by inch, into the swamp of habitual life. Refusing to marry, refusing to have kids, avoiding a fixed way of life: that won’t work either. People who live all alone have their own kind of swamp.
It’s only the young who are free. Once they start learning about the world and the rarity of their freedom first dawns on them, they can’t keep it in their grasp. It’s the very preciousness of freedom that makes it seem to burn in one’s hands—a person who has freedom goes around knocking his head on the ground, submissively, to others, begging them to take it from him.
It was the first time Ruliang had seen this far into things. He swore off, immediately, the idea he’d had of asking Cynthia to marry him. He wanted to go on being young for a few years yet.
He couldn’t go on studying German with her, it was too dangerous. He prepared a little speech to explain things to her. That day at noon, he went to her office as usual. When he opened the door, she was at that moment on her way out, hat on head, purse in arm, nearly running straight into his chest. She gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “What a memory I have! I meant to phone you and say not to come today, but I’m so mixed-up I forgot! I have to do some shopping during my lunch break so we’ll have to skip class today.”
Ruliang went out to the street with her. In a nearby dress shop, she looked at nightwear, morning gowns, and slippers, and asked about the prices. There was a three-tiered wedding cake in the display window of a coffee shop, with a price tag of 1500 yuan. She stopped and looked, bit her fingernails awhile, then kept going. After they’d covered a little more distance, she said to him, with a smile, “I’m getting married, you know.”
Ruliang could only stare at her, unable to speak.
“You should say ‘Congratulations to you,’” Cynthia smiled.
Ruliang could only stare at her—was it relief that he felt? or just shock?
“Glückwunsch zur Hochzeit,” Cynthia smiled. “It’s right there in the textbook, have you forgotten?”
“Glückwunsch zur Hochzeit,” Ruliang said, smiling weakly.
“I’m quitting my job at the trading company and at the night school. We’ll have to put our studies aside for now, and later on—”
“Oh, of course,” he said quickly. “We can see about that later on.”
“Anyway, you have my phone number.”
“That’s for your mother’s place. Where will you two live after you’re married?”
“He’ll move into my family’s place.” Cynthia spoke very quickly. “Just for now. It’s hard to find housing these days.”
Ruliang nodded in agreement. They were walking past a shop whose display window had been painted over in green, almost to the top. Cynthia was looking straight ahead, and that profile that he knew so well was cast into sharp relief by that theatrical backdrop of green; it seemed that her face was a little red, but it wasn’t the glow of happiness.
“Tell me, won’t you,” Ruliang said, “what kind of person he is.”
Cynthia’s large, pale eyes could not conceal a small edge of worry. Her reply came with something self-defensive, alert: “He works at a police station in the Ministry of Industry. We’ve been together since we were little.”
“Is he Russian?”
“He must be good-looking,” Ruliang said with a smile.
“Very,” Cynthia said with a small smile. “You’ll see him at the wedding. You have to come.”
It did seem like the most natural thing in the world—a young, good-looking Russian, a junior-rank policeman, someone she’d known since childhood. But Ruliang knew for a certainty that if something better had come along, she would not be marrying this man. Ruliang was himself sufficiently the fool, what with this falling in love just for the sake of falling in love. Could it be that the woman he’d loved was making a more irreparable mistake—getting married just for the sake of getting married?
A long while passed without an invitation arriving, and he thought she must have forgotten to send him one. But then it did come—for a date in late June. Why had they delayed all this while? Was it finances, or was she struggling with her decision?
He decided he’d go to her wedding feast and drink himself into stumbling stupor. It never occurred to him he’d have no chance to drink at all.
The pointed top of the Russian church dome, seen through the blurry mist of drizzling rain, was like a pale green garlic bulb in a glass jar, steeped in white vinegar. There weren’t many people in the church, but still it was full of rainy-day shoe-leather stink. The priest had thrown on a vestment made of satin that was heavy and gold-brocaded, like a tablecloth; his hair flowed down over his shoulders, long and profuse, intertwining with his gold-yellow beard, and the sweat poured out, making the damp hair stick, in layer after layer, to his face and scalp. He was a big, tall, handsome Russian man, but his face was red and bloated from drinking too much. He was a lover of drink, spoiled by women in bed—and at this moment so close to dozing that his eyes were barely open.
The choirmaster who stood next to the priest had the same look and attire although he was a smaller, shorter man. He had a big voice, though, and led the choral response with such force that his forehead was clenched and the sweat streamed down from a head stripped bald by heat.
An altar boy slipped out silently from behind the altar, bearing a platter. He was a dark, pockmarked Chinese, wearing a black cassock over white hemp-cloth pants, scuffing along in shoes worn without socks. He too had long hair, oily dark and draping down, half-curtaining his cheeks, like a ghost—not the kind of ghost in Tales of the Supernatural from Liaozhai Studio, but the kind in a pauper’s barely interred corpse, with pale grubs wriggling in and out.
After he’d brought the two wine goblets, the boy next brought out two wedding crowns. The crowns were borne aloft, as custom required, several inches above the heads of the bride and groom, by two tall men who’d been chosen from family and friends. There in the shadowy dimness of the odorous church sanctuary, the priest kept on reciting the litany, the choir kept on singing. The groom looked uneasy. He was an impetuous, yellow-haired young man, and while he did have a classically shaped straight nose, he didn’t look like someone with much promise. He’d thrown on an old white suit, faded and fairly ordinary, but the bride was in a magnificent white satin formal. One of the two old women sitting next to Ruliang said the bride’s dress was rented, the other was sure it was borrowed; huddled together, they argued it out for what seemed like hours.
Ruliang had to admire Cynthia—and by extension, had to admire women everywhere. Cynthia was the only beautiful person in that entire wedding ceremony. She seemed determined to make for herself something beautiful to remember. Holding in both hands a white candle, she bowed her head piously, the upper part of her face in shadow cast by the veil, the lower part in light cast by the candle: in the flickering of that shadow and light, a pale smile could be seen, just barely. She had made for herself the air that a bride should have, all that mystery and solemnity, even though the priest was sloppy and listless, even though the altar boy was unbelievably dirty, even though the groom was on edge, and even though the dress was rented or borrowed. This was her day, and she had to make something memorable out of it, something to reminisce about when she’d grown old. Ruliang’s heart ached and his eyes misted over.
When the ceremony was over, everyone rushed forward and, one after another, exchanged kisses with the groom and the bride; then they were gone. A tea was to be held at the home, for a small group of relatives only. Ruliang hung back, far in the back, lost in a trance. He could not kiss her, couldn’t just shake hands either—he was afraid he’d start crying. He slipped out on his own, quietly.
Two months later, Cynthia phoned him to ask if he’d help her find a little work teaching English, German, or Russian, or maybe typing, because she was getting bored from staying at home. He knew she needed money.
A little while later, he had a classmate who wanted a tutor in English so he called back to tell her, but she’d fallen ill, and it was serious.
He hesitated a day and a night, then decided to risk the forwardness of a visit to her place, just this once—knowing full well that a stranger wouldn’t be allowed into her bedroom, but feeling he had to make this attempt, had to do something. As it happened, the only other person home that day was her sister Lydia, a free-wheeling, romantic girl, pressed from the same mold, it seemed, but the dough this time was a little too yeasty; she was bulgy and billowy, not trim and tidy like her older sister. Lydia led him right into Cynthia’s room.
“Typhoid fever,” she said. “The doctor said, yesterday, she’s made it through the critical phase. It was a close call.”
At the head of her bed, on a little chest of drawers, was a photo of her with her husband. They were facing the camera, so the picture didn’t show his straight, classically shaped nose. The room smelled like Russian people. From where she lay on the pillow, Cynthia looked over at him, eyes dim and lethargic, barely open. A filmy indifference coated her gaze as she looked out at the world, turning her light blue eyes colorless. She closed her eyes and turned her head away. Her jaw and neck were extremely thin, like a jujube after it’s been sucked clean, with only a skim of fruit flesh still on the pit. But the line of that profile was still there, it had scarcely changed at all, the same line that he’d drawn till it flowed, all in one stroke, from the top of the brow to under the jaw.
After that, Ruliang no longer made sketches of little people in the margins of his books. His books now were always perfectly clean.