Teng Yu-mei is a writer from a proletarian background who began to mature in the mid-1950s, but was nipped in the bud during the Anti-Rightist campaign, and further humiliated during the Cultural Révolution. Teng was born in Tientsin in 1931. His education lasted only five years. He joined the revolution at age fourteen and did “cultural work” in the army. In 1953, as a fledgling writer, he was sent to Ch’ang-hsintien to “experience life” There he became a Party branch secretary. He was a representative to the National Conference of Young Writers and Artists in 1956.
“At the Precipice” (Tsai hsüan-ai-shang), published in 1956, catapulted him to national fame. Although, as literature, the story is imperfect and somewhat immature, it immediately gained popularity at the time, especially among the young, and it elicited public praise from Teng’s mentor, Chang T’ien-yi. However, because of its frank and “decadent” view of love and marriage, the story became quite controversial within a few short months. By the end of 1957, “At the Precipice” was branded a “poisonous weed” and Teng a Rightist as a result. He fell into obscurity until the Cultural Revolution, when he was dredged up for further castigation for his alleged association with an antirevolutionary play about a madman presented in Tientsin. However, apparently the “drowning dog” was not beaten to death, for he has resurfaced as a writer in the era following the fall of the Gang of Four. An essay vin-dicating himself and Chou En-lai’s views on literature, and a short story about a hero in the Post-war civil war have appeared in People’s Literature Oen-min wen-hsüeh, 1979, no. 3, 1979, no. 7).
IT WAS A SUMMER night—hot and humid—with mosquitoes buzzing around. Since none of us could have gotten to sleep anyway, even with the lights turned off, we began to talk, each one taking a turn at narrating his love life, and all of us agreeing to be completely candid. A technician from the Design Institute was sitting at the far end of the room. He was generally a high-spirited person, but when it came his turn to speak he said nothing for a long time. Finally, what with all our prodding, he heaved a sigh and began his story.
My wife and I got married of our own free will.
It was year before last. I had just graduated from college and was going to go to work as a technician at a certain work site, but I messed up the very first day—I forgot to get the expense statement for the train trip. I was really upset because I knew for sure that they would not settle my account without that expense statement. Even if they did, there was just no way I was going to avoid being chewed out. I bit my lip as I went in to the accounting office.
Sitting there behind the desk was a trim-looking girl with bobbed hair; the blue blouse she had on was faded to almost white from repeated washings. She pulled up a chair and asked me to sit down.
“But how could you have forgotten to request the expense statement?” she asked seriously. “We’ve got to have it for our accounting system.”
Wiping off sweat, I answered, “Yes, well, I, uh, I’ve just graduated from college, and I’m still a bit new at . . .”
“I see.” She smiled. “Well, in that case I’ll write you a note and you take it to the train station and get the expense statement.”
I took the note and had just walked out the door when she came rushing out after me. “This is your first day—you must have a lot of things to attend to—so how about filling out a short application for the expense statement, and I will take care of all the rest for you?”
This was out first meeting—I was greatly impressed.
At that time I was applying for membership in the Chinese Communist Youth League, and she was the local secretary, so three days later she interviewed me. She had delicate features and a very attractive smile. I was glad to have such a secretary to guide me, but I never thought I would fall in love with her. I felt that we were of two different kinds—she was on a higher plane than I.
A few days later I learned something of her past—not much schooling, graduated from a junior high school, stayed home for a while. After Liberation she had gone to a vocational school and then started working. She had taught herself Russian and could now read the Soviet Communist Party history. She had joined the Party in the spring of the same year I arrived. Well, when I learned all this, I respected her all the more—as did everybody at the work site.
Then—and I have no idea how it happened—I fell in love with her. I would look for all sorts of opportunities to be with her. On Sundays when I would ask her to go out with me, and she would readily accept my invitation, I always felt greatly honored. And it seemed that when I was walking with her, even my character improved—after all, wasn’t she a leader of youth?
When I proposed to her, she thought it over, then said gently, “You might want to consider it some more. I am two or three years older than you. It might not work out too well.”
“How can you say that?” I shot back. “I love you, and what’s that got to do with our ages?”
From that time on she showed even more concern for me. Not only did she urge me to keep moving forward in my thinking, but she also took care of the many lesser details of my life. I had never learned to budget my money: the first few days of the month I would go out to eat, buy all sorts of things, and then by the fifteenth I couldn’t even afford cigarettes. So she volunteered to manage my accounts for me. Thereafter, not only did I make it quite comfortably through the whole month, but I even managed to put away some money regularly every month. Again, in the past I hardly washed my socks and handkerchiefs once a month. When a Sunday came and I was going out with her I would always have to rush out to the store and buy new ones. When she found out, she kidded me about it. “Do you really think that putting on new socks will make people like you more?” She then asked me to bring out all my old, worn-out things, and she proceeded to wash and mend them.
I was embarrassed, and I said, “Isn’t everyone going to laugh at you for doing this for me?”
She answered seriously, “Why should they laugh? Don’t you agree that it is better for two people to do some work together than to roam about the streets aimlessly?”
Sure enough, none of our comrades laughed at her. They only remarked about me, “The wild horse has been bridled.” When I heard this, I was secretly quite proud.
Several times she asked me what my opinion was of her. When I could find no answer to that question, she would say, “See, you never pay any attention to other people politically. You don’t even have an opinion of me, not to mention of the other comrades.” I would blush and promise to change, but I never did.
It was in the fall of that same year that we got married, and I suggested that we buy a spring bed. She replied, “But isn’t sleeping on a wooden bed the same?”
Then I wanted to get a decorative marble lamp, and she said, “Let’s just buy an ordinary lamp—it looks simpler, more attractive.”
“But you only get married once in a lifetime, and if there’s not enough money we can always borrow some.”
“But,” she answered, “getting married only marks the beginning of a new life—afterwards you’ve still got a long way to go.”
After we were married, we got along just fine. Mornings we would go to work together, and in the evening we would come home at the same time. We hardly ever took the bus. Instead we would walk, chatting all the while. We always had more than enough to talk about, and any everyday trifle we would discuss with the greatest interest. At home after work, we would study together. At first she studied Russian and I read my technical books, but later on, to correct my shortcoming of not being interested in reading political publications, she began to study Russian in the morning, then at night she would ask me to read something political aloud to her. Sometimes we would study separately, and I would keep looking up at her face, gazing intently at her dark eyebrows or her slightly pale cheeks, and the more I looked at her, the more I wanted to look at her—I just couldn’t believe she was now my wife and would live with me for ever and ever. Then she would notice me staring at her, but she wouldn’t raise her head—just keep on reading as before, but blushing, a smile appearing at the corners of her lips. Unable to restrain myself, I would jump up and hug her, kissing her with abandon and telling her she was all I’d ever need. “Now,” I would say, “the only thing I’ve got to do is work, work, work—diligently!”
She would laugh, and lean on me for a while, her eyes closed, then she would say, “Now, it’s time to study again. Let’s make a rule—we’ll take a break only every half hour, and whoever breaks the rule will be punished. Otherwise we’re just going to go down-hill.”
After I was transferred to the Design Institute, we were able to see each other only once a week, so Sunday became a festive day for us. We would go to exhibitions or movies, or go dancing. She bought a small charcoal stove, and on those days when we didn’t feel like going out we would invite some friends over for dinner. She knew how to cook just about anything, and on cold days she would pack the food she had prepared into glass jars so I could take it with me to the Institute. I was her kitchen and laundry assistant, and she would always accept my help even though it made more work for her.
We would always talk about our work, our thoughts, and the other events of the week, and it was from these talks that I gradually discovered her many unusual qualities, the most impressive of which were her truthfulness and simplicity—call it “down-to-earthness” if you will. Me, if I did not exaggerate some aspect of a certain matter, why, I could never even begin to describe it. Whenever I had finished designing something, for example, I’d always say something like, “By gosh, I worked like nine oxen and two tigers, and I finally finished it, and it sure wasn’t easy!” Her, she would always state it simply: “I’ve finished the monthly inventory,” perhaps adding, “I still have to doublecheck one item.”
And we would often talk about the future. Sometimes I would say, “During the next couple of five-year-plan periods, perhaps I can design us an ultra-modern home. There will have to be a balcony, a bathroom . . .” But she would counter, “From next month on we’ll have to be more thrifty; we ought to save up a little money. If we have a baby next year, then we won’t all be able to squeeze into this house.”
Unconsciously I was influenced by this aspect of her character, so that when I was designing an office building, I would find, inexplicably, that I was disgusted with my former pursuit of superficial beauty and luxuriance, and I now had my eyes on practicality, on a kind of simple grace. As a result, my designs were commended, and in the antiformalism seminar the leadership even asked me to make a model report. In everyday life as well, I gradually changed my bad habits of exaggeration and ostentatiousness, and my comrades all agreed that I was now much more down-to-earth. It was under such circumstances, then, that I joined the Communist Youth League.
During this period I was happy with both my work and my life. I frequently thought that if I could continue to study, work, and live in this manner—continuously elevating myself, step by step—it would certainly not be difficult for me to become a good party member and a red expert.
But I never expected that halfway down the road, just like some participant in a marathon race, I would get distracted by an exotic wayside plant, would come to ignore the direction on my road sign, and would take up a deviant path.
A new sculptress, one Chialiya, a girl just graduated from the Arts Institute, joined the staff at the Design Institute. Her father was a professor of music, her mother was German. Chialiya spoke fluent Pekingese and Berlin German. It was a day in autumn when she came. That first day she had on a light gray skirt and a beige sweater; her hair was brown, but her eyes were black, with long, long lashes; and ever since that day, the three syllables “chia-li-ya” stuck to the lips of all the young men at the Institute. Whenever there was a meeting, there would always be someone to pull up a chair for her or to hand some tea over to her. During the work breaks, again, there was always someone to ask her out for a walk or to invite her to a ball game. She was always in good spirits and her happiness was contagious. Needless to say, I was not like all those bachelors—constantly flattering her, trying to ingratiate themselves with her—but quite frankly, I did very much admire her looks and bearing, and very much desired an opportunity to take a walk, or to chat a bit, with her.
It was the Mid-autumn Festival, and the Institute had organized a tour to the Summer Palace. When Chialiya declared that she was going along, many young fellows from the Institute rushed in to register. On the day of the tour, some carried her fruit for her, and others saved her a seat on the bus. That day my wife had to take part in the cultural activities at her unit, so I went on the trip alone, and as a bystander in the bus I observed the younger fellows and felt quite amused.
Then Chialiya got on the bus, pretending not to have noticed those beckoning her to sit down, and quite unexpectedly walked up to me. “Excuse me,” she said with a smile, “would you move over a bit, please?”
I moved over, watching her out of the corner of my eye. She looked straight ahead, feigning dead seriousness.
As the bus was passing the park in the western suburbs, it suddenly made a sharp turn, and she bumped into me. As she was settling herself back in her seat, she nodded to me and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, that’s quite all right,” I said. “No need to be so polite!”
“With you, I wouldn’t dare not to be.” She looked at me, then laughed. “You always look so solemn—it’s awful!”
“Oh?” I burst out laughing.
Immediately we started up an animated conversation, with me complimenting her on her outfit and figure. Not only did such talk fail to embarrass her but, on the contrary, she moved straight to the subject of the various aspects of a girl’s figure, and how to dress so as to complement it. I enjoyed this unpretentiousness, this straightforwardness, and candidly expressed my own opinions as well. After that we talked about college life, about our common interests, and . . . and the more we talked the more congenial we became, so that by the time we got off the bus, it seemed as if we had long been friends.
“How good are you at rowing?” She looked at me so coquettishly.
Well, now, what guy, when still in school, hasn’t felt the girls’ eyes on him? And who, when he is in a group of his peers, hasn’t hoped, to some degree or another, that he’d come out on top? Chialiya, it seemed, was pulling me right back in time to three years ago. So, looking proudly and nonchalantly at all the young fellows staring at me with envy, and taking Chialiya by the hand, I said to her, “Come on—let’s go get a boat!”
After that she and I became good friends. Whenever there was a good movie or concert we would always go together.
Once we went to see “Dubrovsky.” On our way home she commented to me that the two stars were really very beautiful.
“The two of them were well matched,” I said.
“They chose them on purpose,” she said, seriously. “With love—aside from considerations of a couple’s temperaments, ideas, and interests—there should also be a union of beauty. If both the man and the woman are beautiful, their love will then bring happiness not only to the couple themselves but also to those who look upon them.” Just then, a couple walked toward us from the opposite direction. The man, perhaps twenty-seven or twenty-eight, looked young and energetic; the woman was laughing at something just then, revealing deep wrinkles on her face, which made her look four or five years older than the man. At this, Chialiya nudged me with her elbow. “There, see. Maybe they get along just fine, but seeing them together makes others uncomfortable. Don’t you think there’s something regrettable about that?”
Glancing back at the retreating couple, I was quite pleased at first, for I took Chialiya’s comment to be a hint that we were “well matched,” but then I thought of my wife. She was two years older than I, and not as attractive as Chialiya. Were Chialiya to see us two walking together, what would she say? The thought was rather depressing.
It so happened that the very next Saturday there was a dance at the Institute, and I took my wife along. As we were sitting in one corner of the dance hall, I had a feeling that someone in the back was poking fun at us. I turned around and saw that it was none other than Chialiya. She noticed that I was looking at her and called out, “I was just talking about you.” Tossing back her hair, she walked over to us, winked at me, and said, “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
I blushed and introduced my wife to her. Good heavens! I simply couldn’t believe how awkward, homely, and pale my wife appeared beside Chialiya, and now I deeply regretted having brought her along and invited such embarrassment. When the music resumed, I just ignored her; instead I asked Chialiya, and some other comrades as well, to dance with me. “You’re letting your wife sit there all by herself?” asked Chialiya. “Won’t she be mad?”
“She doesn’t like to dance much—doesn’t really know how to,” I answered. When I finished a waltz and at last returned to my wife, she told me a bit angrily that she wanted to go home right then. “You go ahead and stay—dance some more.”
“Why?” I asked hurriedly. “It’s still early.”
“I’m tired,” she answered.
So of course I had to acquiesce and take her home. We didn’t say a word the whole way, but when we were almost home, I pretended to be joking. “I bet you’re mad because I didn’t dance with you.”
“Well, why did you drag me there—to be some sort of exhibit? Wouldn’t it have been much better if I had stayed at home and read?”
“Nobody had any ill intentions in wanting to meet you—and it was only polite for me to ask other people to dance,” I argued.
“I can’t stand that sort of contemptuousness. I respect others, and I’d like to be treated the same way,” she said.
Once home, we sat in silence for a while, then we went to bed. As I lay in bed the thought struck me that if only the person lying at my side were Chialiya rather than my wife, then this whole un-pleasant incident wouldn’t have happened. Yes—had my wife also had the looks, the bearing, the fine tastes of Chialiya, then how happy and content I would have been!
To avoid undue friction, I didn’t go to any dances for several weeks, but then one Saturday night, as I was getting my things ready to leave for home, Chialiya walked in. “Your wife must be quite a disciplinarian—we never see you at the dance any more,” she smiled.
“I’m the one who chose not to come dancing,” I said.
“Well, such a nice way to put it!” she said. “Oh yes—the famous dance expert! Except he is not allowed to move around as he wishes!”
I was miffed. “All right then—I’ll dance all night tonight and prove it to you!”
“If you get a scolding when you return home,” she said with a smile, “don’t expect any sympathy from anyone. There is a party tonight,” she added, “and they’ve been talking about selecting a few good dancers to be leads. What do you say?”
“Great!” I said. “We’re partners then—it’s all settled!”
“In that case,” Chialiya kept prodding me, laughing all the while, “you’d better hurry up and telephone for a leave of absence.”
“Who should I ask for a leave of absence?” I retorted. “I am a free man!”
But despite what I had said, I actually felt anxious, and was wondering whether my wife would be at home worrying. Nevertheless I was too embarrassed to telephone.
I hadn’t been to a dance hall for quite some time, so the moment I heard the music and saw the lights I got excited and forgot about everything else. Chialiya had changed into a beautiful outfit and as soon as the music started the two of us, like a whirlwind, went round and round over the entire dance floor, drawing admiring glances. Chialiya was proud and satisfied.
“It’s been a long time since I was as happy as I am now,” she said. “To dance is a pleasure; to be admired is also a pleasure. Let me tell you a secret: although young girls like to pretend in front of other people to be sacred and inviolable, in their hearts they never-theless want people to admire them.”
I laughed and asked her whether young men were any different.
“Are you that way too?” she asked. I laughed again.
“Unfortunately,” I said, “I am not good looking and draw no admiration.”
“Oh, come on, don’t be so modest, she said smiling, “I’m always your first admirer.”
We danced on, teasing each other this way, constantly bumping into others. “Don’t worry about that,” she shrugged. “When I am happy I pay no attention to the existence of anyone around me.”
“Nor do you pay any attention to your own existence, right?” I asked.
“Exactly. That is what ‘forgetting oneself’ really means!” Whirling round and round she laughed again.” I can reach the stage of ‘forgetting oneself,’ but you never can.”
“Even if you could forget yourself, there would still be someone who would not forget you.”
I’d already forgotten what had gone on at home, and now that she had reminded me my enthusiasm immediately sank. “Let’s not talk about other someones, OK?” I said to her.
Just then someone at the door called me. “Telephone! Your wife is calling!”
“Now what do you say?” and she pushed me away, laughing. “You know what they say: ‘Life indeed is valuable, and the price of love more so; but if for the sake of freedom . . .’”
I ran angrily to the communication room and picked up the receiver. “I’m leaving for home right away!” I roared into the phone. Nobody answered. I was surprised. “What’s the matter? Are you there?”
There was a dry cough, then a low voice: “I only wanted to ask you if you were coming home for supper, and whether I should wait—I wasn’t demanding that you rush right home.”
When I heard that injured tone of voice my zest for dancing disappeared altogether, and I felt that I had indeed lost my freedom. I went back into the hall to say goodbye to Chialiya. She was dancing with some young guy in a blue Western-style suit, face still glowing with happiness, talking animatedly about something, and when they danced past me, she just gave me a little nod. I was so irritated that I didn’t say a thing to her, but left for home immediately.
I found my wife sitting at the table, supper spread out, already cold. When she saw me walk in, she turned her head away.
“No wonder people say that women comrades are all petty-minded,” I said. “Yes, I am a bit late, but that shouldn’t make you act like that.”
“What did I say to make you shout at me like that as soon as you picked up the phone?” she asked angrily. “Was I interrupting something—bothering you somehow?”
I sensed that her words implied something more, and shot back, “All right, all right. Let’s forget about this—from now on I won’t ever leave you, not even a single step, OK?”
“I wasn’t suggesting that!” she cried out, but immediately closed her mouth; then glancing at me mournfully, she said in a low voice, “This is terrible. Now you don’t even want to come home on Saturdays, and we are starting to quarrel with each other.”
“Don’t go imagining things,” I interrupted her. “It’s inevitable that a couple should quarrel once in a while.”
“Well, but once it starts, who knows when or where it’s ever going to end?”
After this stormy dispute, she went to bed and fell asleep. Lying in bed, I again thought of the dance, of Chialiya, of the envious glances we got in the streets and at the dance. I involuntarily cast a look at our wedding picture and discovered for the first time that the age discrepancy between us was indeed striking. A bit apprehensively I wondered whether I might not have married some-what too hastily.
She rolled over, woke up and, seeing that I still had the light on, asked, “How come you are not asleep yet? Are you angry?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t be angry. Maybe we still haven’t learned how to handle all the problems in our life . . . but you really should have remembered to give me a call.” She kissed me. “You can’t imagine how long I waited, standing by the door . . . then when the food got cold, I went in and heated it up, and after that, when you still hadn’t come back . . .”
“It was my fault,” I said, stroking her hair, but then I started to think about Chialiya again, and I felt shamelessly hypocritical—yet I could not help myself.
The initial excitement aroused by Chialiya’s arrival quieted down considerably. The many young men who had flocked around her dispersed on their own; and now more and more, whenever her name was mentioned people were turning their earlier appreciation and praise into reproach, saying that she was “frivolous,” that in handling her emotional affairs she was “engaging in guerrilla warfare,” and so on. As for me, I’d observed that when a guy fails in pursuit of a girl, he frequently declares her to be sour grapes; hence, not only did I not change my opinion of her but, on the contrary, I felt indignant for her. It was clear that she was somewhat distressed by the talk, and therefore she became even more intimate with me. Every day after dinner we would go to Lake of the Ten Monasteries for a walk, or to ice-skate. Her head was so full of wonderful fancies—looking at the ice, she would imagine some day in the future when all the sidewalks would be paved with ice and all the pedestrians would wear skates. Then, she said, “On Sundays we could skate all the way to Tientsin.” Or looking at the water, she would imagine someday building a two-layered glass studio and filling the space between the two layers of glass with water.
I said, “One of these days I’m going to design a house for myself, and I’ll certainly prepare just such a crystal palace for you, put you inside it, and take care of you as if you were my gold fish.”
With that, I stole a glance at her, but she wasn’t angry—on the contrary, “You are indeed a person who understands me,” she said. “How wonderful it would be if I had an elder brother like you!”
“Well, why don’t you just be my younger sister then?” I said. Ever since then, whenever we were alone, we would address one another as brother and sister.
Once, we were strolling around the Lake of the Ten Monasteries, she holding a bough of plum blossoms in her hand, softly singing a tune as she pinned some of them in her hair. “Oh, young maiden . . .” She stopped short, saying to herself, “‘Maiden’—yes, what a tinkling sound it has, a word of gold! I will never let it leave me.”
I laughed. “According to what you just said, once a maiden marries, the gold depreciates … so I assume that you’re never going to marry?”
“Not necessarily.” She burst into laughter. “It’s possible that some day in the future there might be someone whose love I wouldn’t be able to resist, that I will have to trade this golden appellation for—but who knows where he might be now!”
I felt feverish inside, assuming that she meant me.
In winter Chialiya always wore a gray, sheepskin Cossack hat, the kind of fur hat that I liked very much and wanted for myself. At the hat store they had informed me that it would be a month before they would have one in for me, so there I was still waiting. Noticing me still hatless in such cold weather, my wife went out and bought me a thick knitted woolen hat. “Don’t be too frugal with yourself. When our circumstances allow, you ought to pay a little more attention to your own appearance,” she said.
On the second day I wore the woolen hat, Chialiya looked me up. “You like that fur hat I have, don’t you? Well, now the store has gotten in some more, so let’s go get one.” I had had no qualms about taking off with her, but halfway to the store I began to feel a bit uneasy about the way things were turning out, so somewhat hesitantly I said, “Just a minute—I may not have enough money . . .”
“Let me buy it for you,” Chialiya said unhesitatingly. “There is only this one of mine in the whole Institute, and it’s so lonely—it needs a friend.”
She really did buy me a hat, and she wouldn’t let me pay for it. Not only that, but she tried it on me right in front of all the shop clerks and customers, and examining me with my new hat on, she clapped her hands, saying, “Snappy! That’s really snappy! I’m going to carve a bust of you—you, wearing that hat!” And she gave no heed to other people’s laughter or to my blush.
I was careless and wore the fur hat home that Saturday night. As soon as my wife saw it, she asked in surprise, “Did you buy it?”
I blushed and mumbled, “If I didn’t, who would have given it to me?”
“But I just bought you a new hat, didn’t I?”
“I . . .”
“You never like anything I get you,” she grumbled. “I was really stupid—I thought that you weren’t buying a hat because you were trying to be thrifty! Now I see you just hadn’t yet found one good enough. Hmph! You’re getting more and more fashionable all the time, that’s for sure!”
Boy, what does she know about aesthetics, I thought to myself. Chialiya is different—she’s got artistic cultivation.
“How come you’re so quiet now?” she asked, eyes wide open. “Are you mad? Well, just think, wasn’t it wasteful? A person’s worth doesn’t lie in his appearance, but in his soul!”
“Just listen to you carry on!” I said to her. “You are the one who tells me to go buy a hat, and now it’s you who’s blaming me for buying it!” To arrest her suspicion I joked a bit more with her, then helped her set the table.
After supper, I sat on the bed and leaned back to rest. Unconsciously my thoughts wandered to Chialiya again. I went over in my mind all the things we had done together; I remembered every word we had spoken which could be interpreted in more than one way; and time slipped by, until gradually I sensed something was wrong. How come so quiet? I got up to look for my wife, and found her at the table, face buried in her arms, her shoulders heaving.
Of course she had been crying. Irritated, and growing more and more impatient, I walked over to her. “I didn’t do anything, so why all this crying?”
She didn’t say a thing.
“Well? What’s wrong?” I asked, exasperated. “Is there anything you can’t tell me? Is it because I bought that hat—is that what’s bothering you?”
“You are hiding something from me! Ever since you came home you’ve been absorbed in your own thoughts, paying no attention to me!”
“My gosh! I’m tired from working all day! You are not a child—I don’t have to humor you!”
She started crying again. “Neither of us is a child. We ought to know by now how to live together as man and wife. There must be some reason for you to act so cold.”
“Don’t talk such nonsense, OK?” I snapped.
“I’m not blind. You don’t even feel like coming home Saturdays now … I call you on the phone only once, and you blow up at me . . . Well, you’ve forgotten I even exist!” I tried various dodges, but my laughter and words sounded hollow even to myself.
From that time on shadows of grief and suspicion hid in her eyes. I became even more short-tempered, and it seemed that everything had changed. Before, when I came home, my heart would always fill with a blissful feeling at the distant sight of my wife waiting for me by the door, but now as soon as I saw her waiting, I’d get irritated. “Hmph! So she can’t stand to turn me loose for even a moment—look at her there, spying on me!” And when I got inside, if she hurried me to supper, I would answer in an angry voice, “Could you please just let me catch my breath first!”
She would give a cold, half-hearted smile, then, “Well, say what you please, but let me just say that when a person heads down the wrong between us, let’s pour it all out and talk it over, OK? Don’t torture me like this!”
Naturally I couldn’t “pour it all out,” so I would blame it all on her: “The problem is, you’re so petty. Why, you blow up and distort every little thing you hear, so how could anybody get along with you?”
She would give a cold, half-hearted smile, then, “Well, say what you please, but let me just say that when a person heads down the wrong path, he’s not always aware of it at first, and besides—it always starts with some trivial, insignificant matter.”
“Oh, you’re always right,” I would argue angrily, “and whoever doesn’t go along with you is then ‘heading down the wrong path’. That’s brilliant logic!”
So it was that hardly a week passed that we didn’t quarrel. Whenever I had a phone call from her, I immediately felt despondent, as if someone had hung a lead weight from my heart, and whenever I found out that she wasn’t going to be able to come home on Saturday, I would feel relieved—absolutely bouyant.
Going home came to be the thing most painful to me.
As my relationship with my wife deteriorated, my feeling for Chialiya increased, and as my feeling for Chialiya increased, my relationship with my wife deteriorated. Which was the cause, and which the effect, I had no idea.
One thing was clear: whenever I noticed something lovable about Chialiya, I would secretly contrast it with something loathsome in my wife. I’d even imagine Chialiya behaving like my wife, and then in my imagination all her loathsome words and acts turned into something lovable, so that the Chialiya of my imagination came to be even more lovable, more perfect, than was the real Chialiya—and the wife who lived in my imagination became even more difficult to get along with than the one in real life.
I couldn’t deny that my wife had some admirable qualities—in her character, in her thinking—and I felt that those qualities made her valuable as a revolutionary comrade, but they didn’t necessarily make her suitable as my wife. That being the case, why shouldn’t I have someone else?
So I began to think about divorce.
I made up my mind many times to mention it to her, but when the time came, I couldn’t open my mouth. I knew that she loved me, that it would be a terrible blow to her if I suggested that we divorce, and so I simply couldn’t bear to mention it to her. I racked my brain trying to find some way that would enable me to accomplish the goal of divorcing her, yet not cause her any pain. I would seize every opportunity to mention other people’s divorces to her, praising these people for their straightforwardness, for their matter-of-fact approach. In order to hint at my determination to leave her, I secretly even separated our clothes into different trunks. But, good lord! When she finally realized my intention, and her face turned terrible with grief, I panicked and tried frantically to soothe her, telling her not to be suspicious, that everything I had done was unintentional. Consequently, not only did the problem remain unsolved, but relations between us became even more strained, even more painful, so that I suffered from insomnia several nights running, while she clearly was losing weight. I swore at myself for being so hopelessly softhearted, yet I could never get my courage up to act decisively.
At the Institute I managed to get through each day only with difficulty, for people had now begun to gossip about Chialiya and me, and even criticized Chialiya in my presence, saying that she was a decadent, immoral person, or that she was behaving just like some “capitalist.” And there were those who pointed out, half-jokingly, half-seriously, that I was being “giddy-headed.”
But how could I give up being close to Chialiya? She was so extremely capricious. One day she would be painting an oil portrait for this person, another day collaborating on some cartoons with that person. And the man in the blue Western-style suit (but nowa-days he was wearing a fur-lined, hooded coat, also blue)—the one who always liked to dance with her—he was still constantly at her heels! If I were to lose Chialiya now, I’d be a loser on both ends, wouldn’t I?
My affairs eventually came to the attention of the Youth League. Advice was formally offered to me during a section meeting, and the branch secretary had a private session with me in which he indicated clearly that I had breached the discipline of the League. Now I had no choice but to rein myself in a bit.
And Chialiya? The little devil, she showed not even the slightest consideration for me, once inviting me right in front of everyone to accompany her on a shopping trip. Well, I mumbled something, at which she tossed back her hair, turned and walked away.
I caught up with her, tried to explain. But she said, “If you don’t want to go with me, someone else will. It’s no big deal!”
“I know we are close friends, but why show it in front of everybody?” I asked.
“Oh, is there something between us you think we can’t show others? I’m not afraid of loose talk, so if you don’t want to be involved, then simply keep away from me!”
“Chialiya, you don’t understand . . .”
Seeing that I really was upset, she burst out laughing. “Gee, you are so absorbed by what other people are saying that you can’t even pay a little attention to your own neck! Look at that scarf—it’s worn out! Can’t you even get yourself a new one?”
“Do you think I have time to worry about that kind of stuff?” I grinned helplessly.
“If you don’t even pay any attention to your own looks, then how can you talk about appreciating what other people look like?” She took off the camel-colored scarf she was wearing and wrapped it around my neck. It emitted the scent and warmth of her body, intoxicating. Still, it was more pain than joy. I had never before realized that a person’s brain could be so jumbled up, and I was desperately attempting to sort out everything that was on my mind, but I just couldn’t do it.
The Institute handed me the assignment of designing a hospital, and I was overjoyed, thinking that now, at least, I could forget—for the time being anyway—all things extraneous, inasmuch as I would have to be concentrating on my new assignment; but no sooner had I settled myself at my desk than my thoughts turned involuntarily to Chialiya and to my wife. When I was trying to design the psychiatric ward, I would imagine the unbearable pain my divorce proposal would bring upon my wife, and I would become fearful of my own cruelty; while I was attempting to sketch the sun-bathing room, I would think of Chialiya’s glass studio, of her loveliness, and I would ask myself whether I could ever give up this happiness which was practically within arm’s reach. No! If I could bear the pain of a guilty conscience for but a brief moment, then I could enjoy happiness for the rest of my life. With my mind wandering here and there the days passed by, and I hadn’t even finished the first draft of the hospital.
Suddenly I couldn’t delay anymore—they were pressing me from above for the blueprint. When I finally did complete the work, it became clear that I had actually done it all with Chialiya in mind! When I was designing the patient’s room, I had imagined Chialiya—Chialiya lying there wearing a soft nightgown; in designing the balcony, I again thought of Chialiya and imagined her painting some water-color in the sun. I was amazed to discover that I had paid too much attention to appearance, to comfort—that the whole design, in fact, looked too luxurious—but there was no time for revision.
Not long after I had handed in the design they sent it back to me with comments. They criticized me for being impractical, for being a “formalist.” On top of that, they wrote: “One’s design style is inseparable from his thinking process, from his emotional make-up. You are losing your simple, plain style—that is something you should think over seriously.”
That was quite a blow, and it aggravated my distress even more. So, I had been unfortunate in love; now if I were to be denied a future in my career, then what hope remained? I became extremely pessimistic, unable to pinpoint the cause of all my misfortune, nor able to put an end to it.
The League then held a special criticism-and-discussion meeting, to help me analyze everything. Some of them said that it was my “capitalist mentality” that had caused all my problems, while others maintained that I was “morally inferior,” and although their comments greatly irritated me, I hadn’t the courage to counter their arguments. I told them that there was nothing unusual going on between Chialiya and me, that at most we shared some common emotional inclinations. Then they began to criticize Chialiya for her emotional inclinations, saying that she exploited people emotionally. Those who leveled the sharpest, most severe criticisms turned out to be the very same young men who had constantly flocked around Chialiya in the past—just imagine, then, how could they convince me?
After the meeting there remained in my head but a single thought—all this had to be ended, now, and the longer I procrastinated the messier it was sure to become.
That day after supper, I secretly asked Chialiya to go to the lake for a walk and, as luck would have it, we bumped into my departmental supervisor—an old cadre, well-respected, very influential in the department. He scowled at the two of us, then turned to me. “Would you please drop by my place for a minute tonight?”
“Surely.” I could guess what he was going to talk to me about, and began to feel nervous. Clearly Chialiya guessed it too. She looked at me, and curled up the corners of her lips as if she were laughing at me, or perhaps at herself.
We were absorbed in our own thoughts as we walked for a long time beneath the straight poplars by the lake. At last she sighed softly, “It’s really hard to know how you’re supposed to behave around here, especially for unmarried girls.” She frowned, but her tone of voice carried no sorrow at all. On the contrary, she sounded as if she were rather pleased with the situation. “If you’re the least bit attractive, it will be turned against you: people will gather round you, chase after you, and if you are congenial or act the least bit intimate with them, they’ll say you are emotionally cheap; but if you pay no attention to them, they’ll feel hurt, and then they’ll accuse you of being unfeeling. So it’s not all my fault after all, is it?”
“There are some things you just shouldn’t pay any attention to,” I said.
“I do have my shortcomings—I’m somewhat of a sentimentalist, and I like to have fun with the guys—but that’s no reason for them to say I ought to marry just anyone. If someone wants to get herself a husband, fine, go ahead and get one—but why meddle in my business?”
I smiled. She glanced at me, then whispered: “They also say I’ve ruined you and your wife’s relationship …”
“What nonsense!” I interjected nervously.
“I have been treating you just like an elder brother, and I have never had any other intention, so if you’re being criticized just for being seen with me, you know you can simply quit seeing me.”
“Chialiya, have I made you so mad that . . .” Suddenly it dawned on me that a girl might often say things which were the opposite of what she actually had in mind: say, if a girl were afraid of losing you, she might say instead that she was quite willing to see you no more, when actually, deep down, she really loved you but simply couldn’t express it directly, especially when everybody could see everything.
“Oh, my!” She tapped her trouser leg with the twig in her hand. “Of all the distressing things, nothing is worse than when no one understands you.”
“Chialiya.” I squeezed her hand and whispered, “Believe me, I understand you.”
We stood close together. Several times I had an impulse to kiss her, but I restrained myself. We stood there for quite a long time before turning around and heading back. At the thought of having to go see the supervisor shortly, I took each step more slowly than the one before.
The supervisor was sitting on the sofa in his office. He moved over a bit, inviting me to sit down. “Before, I asked you to consider the changes in your style of design. Have you done that?”
“Well, yes, I’ve given some thought to it, but I haven’t been able to think over everything thoroughly.”
“How did you do it? In isolation—considering your design ideas from the perspective of design ideas?”
I slurred an answer.
“One will never get anywhere by considering a problem that way!” he said to himself, raising his head. Then after a minute’s thought he became quite direct. “Tell me, what is it that’s been weighing on your mind recently?”
“It’s my everyday life.” I, too, was candid. “I’m not getting along very well with my wife.”
“Why are you not getting along well?”
I told him briefly of our situation and of my intention.
He was silent for a long time, then he sighed. “Some people say that the issue of love is a trivial thing in life, but I disagree. I feel that the issue of love is the best test of a person’s class consciousness and his morality.”
Then he went on to tell me in detail of an incident in his past, about how he had once intended to get a divorce, then changed his mind. He’d been married back home, before the War of Resistance against Japan. Once married they got along very well, until after the war, when he went to the city and began to have contact with intellectuals, as a consequence of which he developed the notion of divorcing his wife. After repeated petitions, the leadership granted him permission to return home in order to settle all the legal procedures entailed in divorcing his wife.
On the train going home, he noticed a pregnant woman in labor, on the verge of giving birth. All the passengers in that particular compartment hustled around: some unpacked their own baggage and got out their bed sheets to tear into strips for diapers, some hurried from one compartment to another looking for a doctor. And the conductor had such beads of perspiration on his forehead that one would have thought it was his own wife giving birth—all of which had deeply touched this old supervisor. In recalling his past he said, “I then thought to myself, isn’t all of this—the caring for others and the caring about the group—precisely the moral spirit that our society is striving for? Being responsible for others, being responsible for the group, everyone taking another’s pain as his own—quite frankly, isn’t this the core of the Communist spirit? As for my intended divorce—how much have I tried to see things from my wife’s perspective? After she’s waited for so many years, finally her husband is coming home—and he’s coming home to divorce her! It would not be hard to picture the effect that this would have on her thought, on her spirit. Is there anything more tragic than denying one’s own spiritual character? And even if I could find a beautiful and suitable new wife after the divorce, could that compensate for a loss which would be, in fact, irretrievable? In this keen struggle with my self, if I should submit to failure, I would never again be able to convince myself that I sincerely want to be a true Communist.”
His story and his choice of words moved me, and at several points in the story I had unconsciously thought of my wife’s painful situation, but I was more afraid that my will would weaken, that I might take the supervisor’s advice and give up this idea of divorce, and then nothing could be changed in the future should I come to regret having given Chialiya up. “Be tough!” I urged myself. “This will all be over in no time at all.” And in order to strengthen the ill feeling I had for the supervisor, I kept telling myself that what he was saying was nothing but grand, empty words—that he’d never been in a concrete situation like the one I was in now. If there were a Chialiya at his side, then what?
I therefore questioned him hesitantly: “If what you’re saying is true, then all the differences between a couple’s personalities and life-styles are not really the main factor determining whether or not the two can live happily together, right?”
“No, of course, they are important factors—that’s why we should all have the right to look around a bit before we become seriously involved and get married. Why was it that you loved your wife while you were going together, and even for a while just after you had gotten married, but now no longer do? Why did you change your mind after you were married?” He wouldn’t let up on this inquiry, and added immediately, “I’ve heard that you like Chialiya, right?”
I mumbled something or other.
“When Chialiya was at the Arts Institute, she had a record of bad conduct—so you find her style and character suit you well, huh? Have you ever considered that her conduct might be contrary to the healthy thought and emotions we advocate? Well, have you ever talked about this with her?”
I was shocked to hear this about Chialiya, but I immediately began to think up excuses for her. Sure, since she had spurned so many guys, how could you expect them to say anything nice about her? And as for her Arts Institute record, who knows? I simply couldn’t believe all that talk about Chialiya’s “bad conduct and in-ferior character.” After all, I reminded myself, if the supervisor’s intent was to change my mind about Chialiya, was he going to sing her praises to me? And besides, wasn’t I the only person who could really see Chialiya’s many good points?
The supervisor, seeing me hang my head in silence, assumed that he had convinced me. He told me to go on home and think it over carefully.
How was I supposed to “think it over”? To tell the truth, everything he said was right except for one thing—Chialiya was a living person, someone I loved, someone who I believed could love me too! I had imagined and pictured so many scenes of our living together in the future, and of the requisite one hundred steps I had already taken ninety-nine, so how could I bear to sever all our relations at a single stroke?
I knew that if I were to ruminate seriously upon the supervisor’s words, my conscience might begin to gnaw, and I might eventually wind up wavering back and forth, which would only postpone in-definitely my putting an end to the whole thing. And now that everybody from top to bottom was aware of my situation, I simply couldn’t put off making a decision any longer. I made up my mind to go home, tell my wife everything, then sever our relations once and for all.
The thought of an immediate confrontation, however, cowed me. And then my wife’s many lovable traits rose up before my eyes — our first meeting when she had impressed me so favorably, the tolerant attitude she had shown in our most recent quarrel—these things all began to flash through my mind, even more vivid, more clear than the one before, so that I couldn’t help asking myself whether I wasn’t in fact being reckless, perhaps, doing something I would regret once I had lost her.
“Be more decisive!” I told myself aloud. “If you go on wavering like this, you’ll never get anything accomplished!”
Yet I still couldn’t decide. Oh, Chialiya, Chialiya! Had you never come into my life, I would now be leading a quiet, peaceful existence, with never a dissatisfaction. Chialiya, you have ruined me!
But no! Good fortune strikes a person perhaps only once in his lifetime! Had I not met you, Chialiya, I might never had experienced the kind of pleasure I’ve had with you. Ah, Chialiya, it was fortunate you came!
Then I thought of something. Although Chialiya had been quite nice to me, she had never indicated unequivocally that she loved me. What if she had now changed her mind? I had better find out first.
I walked stealthily up to Chialiya’s dormitory and knocked timidly on her door. Footsteps inside, then the door opened. Her hair hanging loosely down, Chialiya stood before me, smiling. “It’s past midnight. Is something the matter?”
“No, nothing,” I answered. “I . . . I’ve never been in your room, so I just thought I’d come and …”
“Well, come on in!”
Two oil portraits of Chialiya—one from the waist up, the other a full view of her leaning against a great stone pillar—and a caricature hung on one wall. The artist’s initials appeared at the lower edge of each. On the opposite wall hung a photo of a group of people in skating costumes, with Chialiya standing in the middle surrounded by a flock of young men.
She pulled up a chair for me. I saw an unfinished clay bust standing before a lamp on her desk. “Is that mine?”
“No, but yours is done,” she said, turning around to take a cardboard box from the bookcase. She handed it to me. “Go ahead—admire yourself!”
I opened the box. It was I sure enough, in my fur hat, but so much more handsome than the real person that it didn’t resemble me. I couldn’t restrain myself. “It’s great! It’s really great!”
“That’s just because the model was so great—it has nothing to do with my skill,” she laughed. “If I’d been the model, then not even the best sculptor could have turned it into a piece of art.”
“If you’d been the model, there would’ve been no need for anyone to sculpt a bust—you’re already a piece of art!”
We joked around for a while, and then just as I was about to lead the conversation to my intended subject, there came a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” Chialiya went to open the door, and who should come in but that fellow who’d been wearing the blue-hooded coat (except that he had changed again, and was now wearing a Chinese-style, padded satin jacket, but still blue). He nodded to me, and then sat down next to the desk.
I silently cursed him for having chosen to come at this hour, but thinking that he must have come for some reason, I decided to wait until he left before continuing my talk with Chialiya; so I picked up a book at random from the desk and flipped aimlessly through the pages.
But, good gracious! He too picked up a book and began turning the pages! I looked at Chialiya hoping she would somehow get rid of him.
She looked first at me, then at him, and burst out laughing. “It’s absurd! Surely you didn’t both come to my place just to put on a pantomime?”
I couldn’t keep from laughing, and neither could he.
To break the ice, Chialiya suggested that we play cards. “Who-ever loses serves tea for the winner,” she said.
My brain was in a whirl; playing cards was the last thing in the world I would have imagined myself doing at that moment, but I was unwilling to leave and let that jerk stay. I regretted not having thought of visiting Chialiya at her dormitory before. This fellow—why, he must have been visiting her here all along … so I began to play cards with them.
I must have been hexed, for no sooner had we started the game than I began to lose; I had to pour tea for him. On top of that, I couldn’t really see that Chialiya was any more friendly to me than to him; so when it came to the third game I finally pushed the cards away and said that I wasn’t going to play anymore, that I was too tired.
“Oh, come on! Don’t take it so hard,” Chialiya said to me half-jokingly. “You know what they say: unlucky at cards, lucky in love.”
I sensed that Chialiya’s words meant a great deal more than they seemed to on the surface, and immediately felt soothed all over. Glancing at the “blue-jacketer” triumphantly, I said, “Very well, let’s play some more.”
But just then the bell signaling lights out rang.
Carrying my clay bust, I walked reluctantly out of the room. Chialiya saw us out and on the way whispered to me, “When you get home, take a look inside the bust and see if you find anything.”
“You mischievous imp!” I said to her, and walking on air, I headed back to my dormitory. But I couldn’t wait until I got back to the dormitory, so I opened up the box as soon as I reached a street lamp. Feeling around inside the hollow bust, I fished out a note. It read: “This does resemble the real person somewhat, but I wonder what his heart is like. I’m going to North Lake Sunday afternoon, three o’clock. Want to come along?”
A warm current rushed up to my brain, making it difficult even to breathe. Elated, I took out a pen and on the spur of the moment, alongside Chialiya’s message, wrote, “Chialiya, Chialiya, soon you will see my heart!”
After painstakingly considering everything for several days, I deeided to test my wife for the last time to see if there was still any hope of separating without hard feelings; and if indeed there proved to be no such hope, then I would have no choice but to let her hate me. And perhaps this would actually be a better way out, for if she were forced to leave me while she still harbored some affection for me, the separation would almost certainly prove unbearable for her. My conscience probably wouldn’t come out un-scathed, either.
Saturday night rolled around—an exceptionally cold night—with a harsh north wind roaring through the all but deserted streets, forcing the few remaining pedestrians to pull their heads down into the collars of their overcoats, and causing the hanging street lights to shake crazily.
When I got home that night, my wife was already back, cooking something on the stove which made the whole room sweetly redolent. With a pair of chopsticks in one hand, she was staring straight into the fire.
“Is it cold outside?” she asked when she saw me come in.
I made some reply and put the bust down on the table. She went over to the table, opened the cardboard box, and immediately cried out, “Wonderful!” Then, after a closer examination of the bust, she said, “Unfortunately the sculptor is not first rate. The bust some-how doesn’t look quite like its model.”
Pulling a long face, I said to her: “Art needs a little highlighting. You don’t understand!”
“But why highlight just the fur hat and scarf? Look, the hat is even on crooked! He really is a decent person,” she laughed, “except that he now looks like a capitalist dandy.”
“Well, I beg your pardon. I don’t come from a proletarian family anyway.”
“Don’t get all worked up,” she said, still laughing, “I’m not going to quarrel with you any more from now on—I’ve made up my mind!”
I noticed that she did seem somewhat different, and this puzzled me. Meanwhile to escape my chagrin, I faked a laugh and said to her, “So you are not going to quarrel with me anymore, huh? But wouldn’t crying be an even better way to get under my skin?”
“Nor will I cry anymore. Only a fool would pick a fight or cry,” she said with a smile. “No, I’ve thought it all out. Can quarreling and crying solve any problems? No. It only shows one’s weakness and incompetence, and since we have to go on living together, why not find a way that will help us solve our problems? Emotional out-bursts are no use at all.”
Is she planning to cling to me all her life, I wondered to myself, feeling somewhat at a loss. I took off my coat, pulled a chair over to one side, and sat down. While talking and plotting to myself, I carried on a superficial conversation with my wife on some topic or other—I was afraid that she might otherwise notice my absent-mindedness and again break down.
“What are you cooking?” I asked her.
“Hawthornberry jam. Recently I . . .” she continued with a smile, “I’ve had a craving for it. You like it, right? After it’s done we can each take a jar to the office.”
I wasn’t interested. “We better not,” I told her. “The jars will be hard to wash clean.”
“I’ll clean them.”
I didn’t say anything more. Nor did she press me—as she usually would have—for an explanation of my silence. She just stared into the fire, absorbed in her own thoughts, all the while stirring the hawthorn berries in the pot. I thought she was acting a bit strange, but didn’t feel like pursuing it, so after sitting for a while longer, I told her I was tired and went to bed.
At midnight I turned over and felt the bed trembling slightly. Pricking up my ears, I noticed she was sobbing under the quilt.
“How disgusting!” I thought. “Living with someone like this would make even a deaf-mute burst out in anger!” I was in no mood to pay any attention to her, so I turned my back to her.
But a long while later she was still sobbing, so I turned over and shouted at her, “If you’ve got something to complain about, would you please speak up? All this crying! Do you think I came all the way home just to listen to you cry?”
She said nothing but started crying even louder. I felt that if I lay there any longer, I would explode from irritation, so I pushed aside the quilt, threw on my coat, and got out of bed. I pulled out a novel from the desk and sat down by the stove to read. My eyes were fixed on the characters in the book, but my mind was wandering somewhere else. I told myself, well, it looks like a divorce is the only way to release myself from this kind of misery. What kind of lousy life is this? And every Saturday is spent this way! The supervisor only knows how to preach high-sounding words. Ha, I would like to see him spend a couple of days in my shoes.
Much later I was cold and tired, and by then she had calmed down, so I went back to bed, covered myself up, and said to her angrily, “Just remember: there is more than one person here in this room, and if you throw your temper tantrums any old time, how is the other person going to bear it? We are supposed to be equals—it’s not as if I’ve been oppressing you.”
She said nothing. I lay there a while longer, then fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes the next morning, she was already up, sitting there sewing something. The underwear I had taken off the night before was now placed around the stove to be dried, and there were some clean clothes by my pillow. Contemptuously I thought to myself, what a phony! It’s quite clear that inside she is unhappy with me, yet outwardly, she’s still doing all this. Chialiya would never act this way.
Putting on my clothes, I asked her, indifferently, what she was sewing, and without even raising her head, she answered, “Gloves, yours.”
“Why don’t you stop, give yourself a rest—I’m planning to buy some anyway.”
“I know you’ll never wear them, but since I’ve already started, I might as well finish them up.” Then her tone of voice abruptly became sorrowful. “One should always finish everything one begins, right?”
I got out of bed and saw that her eyes were inflamed and swollen. “Just look at yourself!” I said. “Last night you were the one who said that you’d never cry any more—then you went and cried more than ever before!”
“Don’t worry about it—from now on I’ll never let you see my tears again.” She sighed softly.
I fumbled despondently about, trying to find anything to talk about, and she calmly kept up her end of the conversation. Now that she’s quieted down, maybe I’ll get a chance to lay my cards on the table, I thought.
At breakfast she said abruptly, “I’ve got to go back to my office this afternoon.”
“Fine, because I have a meeting this afternoon at three.”
“Oh, what a coincidence,” she remarked with a vaguely sarcastic smile. “But I may not come home next weekend.”
“In that case . . . shall I come visit you?”
“No, that’s not necessary,” she said—another sarcastic smile. “I have quite a few friends over there too, and this home of ours . . . it’s really depressing!” She began staring out the window, again wrapped up in her own thoughts.
Her sad, painful expression made me feel very bad too. “To cut tangled hemp, use a sharp knife,” as they say—I’d better get this over with quickly, I thought. Softening my voice, I spoke deliberately. “Let me ask you a question—and please don’t get all emotional. After you’ve thought it over calmly and rationally, you can then give me your answer, OK?”
At this she gave a shudder, but she immediately composed herself, and with eyes fixed upon the floor she said, “OK, go ahead.”
“You are a good comrade, and I do love you, but do you think we are compatible, our personalities? Will we really be happy if we keep on living together? Now please don’t get mad, just think it over calmly, and …”
“I knew you were going to raise this question,” she said, as if prepared for it, “but first let me ask you a question, all right?”
“Tell me frankly what is it about me that you are most dissatisfied with, most unhappy with?”
My face got red and I stammered, “Well . . . well, our personalities, our temperaments are different—I mean, I often hurt your feelings, upset you . . . and I’m ashamed of . . .”
“Don’t beat around the bush!” Quite pale now, and looking me straight in the face, she continued, “After all, we’ve lived together for quite some time now; we certainly know each other pretty well. What do you mean, our ‘personalities’ are different? Didn’t we get along quite well in the beginning? Let me say it for you. I’m older than you are, I’m not so pretty …”
In an attempt to explain myself, I began, “You . . . you …”
“Don’t try to explain, and don’t be concerned about whether I can take it—I don’t need any sympathy or pity!”
“Now don’t misunderstand me,” I blurted out. “I’ve already told you that I was only raising a question, and that you shouldn’t get emotionally excited.”
“There isn’t any misunderstanding. I’m not a baby …” She stopped, blinked a couple of tears from her eyes, then whirled around so as not to face me and continued. “Let me just ask you one thing—before, when I mentioned that I was older than you, and when I asked you to think about this thoroughly, why did you say that you had thought it all out, and that you had made up your mind? Well … I guess there’s nothing more to say. It was all my fault—so weak, so useless …”
“Now don’t get all excited!” I told her. “I’m just asking you a question. Did I say anything about divorce?”
“You are afraid to shoulder your responsibility, afraid that I might resent you—so you don’t dare suggest it.” Then she turned around, facing me squarely, and said calmly, “It doesn’t matter. Let me suggest it to you, because I am not asking for just any old husband—what I want is real love. To keep on dragging it out like this won’t do either of us any good. Before, I kept hoping we could somehow come back together again, but now I gather that there’s no such hope, so I’m not going to keep dragging it out,” and with that she picked up her handbag from the chair and marched out of the room without turning her head. Then she turned around and closed the door lightly—just as she always did when she went back to her office—showing not the slightest trace of anger.
Staring numbly at the door, I was suddenly faced with a whole slew of questions. Now that my bridges had been burned—now that her heart was completely broken, now that there was no hope at all of our coming back together again—was the road in front of me really as beautiful as I had always imagined? Was it true that I could never again return to her, even if I should have regrets in the future? And what if Chialiya …? Oh, my God! And I had thought that as soon as I solved the problem of separating from my wife, then everything would be so simple, so easy—and I could settle down, relax. Who would ever have imagined that things could become even more tangled and confused than before!
The room was stifling, it was hard to breathe. I had to hurry out to meet Chialiya—she said she would wait for me at North Lake at three o’clock. But it’s only eleven now. “Eleven! Oh, you, watch—why aren’t you running?”
I threw on my overcoat, locked the door, and went out into the street, where the wind had now subsided and large flakes of snow were falling from the sky. I didn’t take a pedicab nor a streetcar but instead, in my confusion and giddiness, I set out walking, from the Lungfu Monastery to Tungan Market, and on to the south entrance of the Wangfuching district, everything in a blur. Several times I was shoved out of the way by pedicab drivers, who pointed their fingers at me, jeering, but I didn’t agrue or get angry with them, I simply moved on, along with the other pedestrians.
Finally it was two-thirty. I jumped in a pedicab, and pounding on the seat, shouted to the driver: “North Lake, please. Hurry!” He was going to put the cover up. “No, no,” I said, “it feels good—leave it open.”
The pedicab took off and flew over the snow-covered ground, but I felt like hopping off and running, running on my own. The snow was falling more and more heavily; the golden roofs of the Imperial Palace were all turning to silver; the palace river and its whitemarbled river banks became nearly indistinguishable. I kept wiping the melting snow from my face and gazing in the direction of the front gate of North Lake.
And then I saw her!
A splendid flower in full bloom, Chialiya stood amidst the white snow wearing a purplish-red woolen coat and white felt boots with red trim.
“Chialiya!” I yelled.
She raised a hand in a yellow and black glove and jumped up and down, calling my name. Before the cab had come to a full stop, I had jumped off. Holding her hands, I felt that I must at once pour out the hundreds and thousands of words I held for her in my heart.
“How do you like this place I chose?” Her eyelashes were fluttering; her face, red from the cold, glowed with smiles. “The snowcovered North Lake—how enchanting it is! Let’s go to the back hill—we’ll play around and build a snowman, all right? No, no — let’s not take the bridge—let’s slide over across the ice!”
So hand in hand we half walked, half slid across the ice, and as I pulled her this way and that, in my head I was drawing up my plan, intending to lay the whole thing out before her as aesthetically as possible.
And Chialiya? She was laughing loudly, talking to me about the snow, about the plum-blossoms, the birds . . . everything but the matter of my “heart.”
I couldn’t wait any longer. As we were climbing up the bank and I was carefully steadying Chialiya, I finally managed to say to her with a laugh, “Hey, didn’t you want to see my heart? I’ve brought it with me!”
“What?” she gave me a puzzled look but immediately burst into laughter. “Well, bring it out and let me take a look.”
“I’m divorcing my wife.” I suddenly shivered and nervously scrutinized her face.
“Really?” She halted, stockstill. After a minute’s thought, she said, “Well, since you’re going to divorce her, perhaps I can say something to you. I always felt that you got married too early. Just think, diapers, bottles, a stove, a family . . . Oh, my God! All this vulgarity can ruin the imagination of any genius. Love is poetry. But once you get tangled up with those things, then the poetry flies right out the window.”
I looked at her blankly, not knowing what to say.
“Furthermore, it takes time to discover an ideal mate.” She tossed her hair and continued, smiling. “Before you get married, you have the right to love all five hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety thousand people in China, and the right to be loved by any of them. Once you get married, that’s finished. Then you have to cling to that one person. If you tie yourself to a particular person too early, then when you meet the ideal person, it will be too late for regrets.”
“Chialiya, let’s not just talk about all that.” I drew near her. “If there’s no new love to compensate me, I’ll go crazy instantly!”
“You are free now. You can love anyone you like,” she laughed.
I plucked up all my courage. “Well, I love you, Chialiya.”
She turned her head to one side, picked up a damp rock from the ground, and threw it at some crows in a pine tree. The crows cried out, “Caw, caw!” Turning to face me again, she said, “I have no right to keep anybody from loving me. But remember, if you ever decide to change your mind, don’t go around telling on me, saying Chialiya has ruined me!”
I hurriedly interrupted her. “Chialiya, it’s true. Don’t you understand my situation?”
“Well?” She shut her mouth, glanced briefly at me and swallowed her smile. Biting her lower lip, she stared down at her boots. When she raised her head, she was once more wearing her usual expression, and said in a casual tone, “So you want me to marry you, huh?”
I was startled. I mean, how could she have failed to see that? “You should know my heart, Chialiya!” I said.
On her face there was an expression of satisfaction mixed with disdain, her cheeks even redder than before. “To tell the truth,” she said, “I’ve never even considered getting married yet. It’s still a long way off for me. I told you before that I wouldn’t give up the status of maidenhood so easily. I’m really sorry.”
“What!” It was as if I’d been stunned by a rock. I suddenly felt weak in the knees, and gasped out, “But Chialiya, it’s for you that I’m getting divorced . . . how could you? . . .”
“What?” She cried out. She thought for an instant, then pointing at herself and bursting into tears she began to stamp her feet. “For me? You’re trying to scare me. You are blaming me for the divorce and trying to blackmail me into marrying you! But I am not afraid. Oh, God! What am I going to do? Everyone picks on me!” She was crying and rocking herself against a tree, oblivious now of her fine clothes.
I walked up to her and, laying my hands on her shoulders, begged her, “Chialiya, Chia …”
“Go away, go away! I thought I’d got to know you, but I only knew your face, not your heart. I’ve treated you like my own brother, and you—you’ve been scheming against me! Have I ever asked you to get a divorce? And now you’ll spread the story, and everybody will use that to attack me. There’s just no way I can stay at the Design Institute any longer!”
“Chialiya! Please! Calm down! Chialiya . . .”
“Go away, just go away! If you don’t, I will!” and she pushed me aside, turned around, and took off. I ran after her, calling out her name at the top of my voice.
Just then two people came over the hill and stopped short, seeing us the way we were. I turned crimson and shouted after Chialiya, “Take it easy—I’m not as base and mean as you think.” I turned away from Chialiya and walked off towards the hill.
My legs carried me forward mechanically. I walked and walked, with an urge to smash everything around me with my bare fists. I walked and walked until I felt the snow-covered ground under my feet was sinking, soon to pull me down into a deep hole.
What was happening to me? What had I done? Was all this real? Or was it all just a hallucination?
My legs were now so heavy that I couldn’t go another step, so I went into one of the pavilions and sat down. I leaned against a pillar, attempting to sort out the tangle in my head, but I couldn’t sort anything out. Only a few words flashed back and forth in my mind: “My wife has gone; Chialiya doesn’t really love me; I have been left all alone to myself.”
It was getting dark. Some fog was settling down silently. It was very quiet in the park, not a single soul to be seen. Coming from the top of a tall building to the west, I could see a thin curl of black smoke. I could vaguely hear the bustling sound in the streets outside the park, and I could see the sparks from the streetcars. It was cold, and I was shivering all over. Not knowing what else to do, I finally walked out of the park, called a pedicab, and went back home.
Our room was locked. I remembered then it was I who had locked it. Then, everything that had happened in this room—everything from the day we were married—rushed before my eyes. Somehow I began to reconsider it all from my wife’s standpoint. I imagined myself in her shoes. I would be thinking about her all day long, every day. When Saturday arrived I would come home as early as possible, get everything ready, then I’d be waiting for her outside in the wind. I would wait for a long time, and then I would call her on the phone. And what sort of answer would I get? Angry reproaches, cold indifference. Only then, for the first time, did I see my own cold, heartless face. So … I was just such a selfish, mean person—cruel, unfeeling. Yet she had put up with all that!
My eyes smarted. I yearned painfully to find her right away, to tell her everything, to ask her to punish me in whatever way she willed. I wouldn’t ask for her forgiveness. I had committed a moral crime—I had injured her.
The door was locked, and I didn’t want to open it, fearing that I couldn’t bear to see the inside. I staggered away and headed toward the Institute.
“It’s all because of Chialiya—she’s cruel, evil!” Staggering on I gritted my teeth. Then I heard a dissenting voice in my own head. “But there are so many other people in the Institute, some married, some not. How come it is only you that she has victimized?”
Then my first meeting with Chialiya, our subsequent conversa- tions and walks . . . everything was reenacted in my mind. Now for the first time I considered impartially every “poetic” expression we had uttered, saw again every “impassioned” encounter we’d had. My face was burning. How base, how mean! What was this “poetry”? Wasn’t it simply flirtation? And what sort of “passion” was it, if not mere self-intoxication? Clearly, those youthful “fancies” of mine, which had gradually, imperceptibly, faded away during my married life, had all been rekindled by Chialiya, and they had blinded me!
“Ah, you went all muddleheaded because of your indulgence in bourgeois emotional interests—even though you’ve been married for a long time, you’ve never appreciated your wife’s really valuable traits because it wasn’t for those worthy qualities that you fell in love with her.”
All the old criticisms casually offered by my comrades, all the old words spoken by the supervisor, again they all rained upon my heart like stones.
But why was I thinking of all this now? Nothing would help me any more—it was too late. How was I to spend the rest of my days? By sinking forever into loneliness and regret? I was only twenty-some years old! Ah! Hadn’t I been perfectly normal before? Hadn’t I also seen my future clearly? How did I ever throw myself off the track of a normal life?
I stumbled over a rock and was jolted out of my thoughts. Before me stood the gate of the Institute. When I saw the gate, I could see even more clearly what had happened today. So, everything was over. There remained now only this trivial, petty person whose true form lay completely exposed, to whom no one would offer sympathy.
In her total and painful disillusionment, my wife would certainly not come back to me; as for Chialiya, she was concerned only with the harm I might have brought or might yet bring to her, and she naturally would no longer pay any attention to me. And my comrades? Yes, my comrades . . . what about them? My eyes were blurred again.
“Comrade! Here’s something for you!” It was old Li, the gatekeeper, shouting to me as soon as he recognized me, still quite a distance away. I wiped away my tears and went up to him. He went inside, fetched a bundle wrapped in a piece of cloth, handed it to me, and said, “Your wife brought this some time past four o’clock. She said that she was in a hurry to catch the train and couldn’t wait until you returned.”
“Catch the train?” I shivered all over and began awkwardly to untie the bundle. A glass jar came tumbling out from the bundle, dropped on the ground, smashed to bits, and splattered jam everywhere. Inside the bundle I also found the clothes I’d taken off that morning and among them, an envelope. I opened it up, and the first thing I saw in the envelope was the note that Chialiya had earlier stuck inside the bust. Puzzled, I hurried on to the long letter. It was from my wife.
“… I felt very bad and quite confused. I can only hope that you’ll read patiently through this letter.
“Yesterday morning I went to the clinic to have a check-up. The doctor congratulated me, informing me that I was pregnant. At that moment I thought immediately of our recent life, because recently we hadn’t been getting along too well. If we let life go on in the same way, I thought, then we’ll be unable to live up to our original hopes; and also, it would be unfair to the baby, who’s not even born yet! I thought to myself that it was all partly my fault. I asked too much from you emotionally, but I didn’t pay you adequate attention ideologically.
“In the clinic then I made up my mind that from now on I would never cry or quarrel with you any more; I would discuss everything patiently with you, helping you to distinguish right from wrong.
“But before I had a chance to tell you all this, I inadvertently discovered this note while I was cleaning up the room. Previously I’d only heard some rumor about a rather unusual emotional entanglement between you and another girl. But I never dreamed that the relationship had already gone that far. It was indeed a tremendous blow to me. I was greatly hurt; I was also scared, completely at a loss. I agonized over the matter the whole night, and I felt sorry for the child—what crime had he committed that he should be born into such a difficult situation? It was all our fault; we were not fit to be parents.
“A while ago when you raised the question of divorce, I was determined to maintain a clean, “dry” approach, not asking for your pity. However, after I spoke out, I began to feel bad, and even regretted what I’d said. I just couldn’t stay in that room any longer—I didn’t want to appear weak before you — so I walked out.
“Starting tomorrow I will be on leave. But now I feel that it would be an unbearable torture to live in that room all by myself, so I have decided to leave for my home in Tientsin right away. Let’s separate for a period of time so that we can consider our problems more objectively, more rationally.
“I don’t know what the other person you love is like. Although I could never approve of her, I certainly won’t say anything bad about her. I only hope that you’ll consider this: Can a person who doesn’t respect other people’s happiness bring you happiness?
“Darling (please allow me to still call you this), I love you. I am really worried that you might get completely off track. This is the one part of you about which I never felt at ease; recently you have changed in almost every respect, and the change in your attitude towards love in part reflects the changes in your ideological consciousness. Before, I wasn’t vigilant enough in reminding you to pay special attention to this, and now I will have no chance to remind you of it any more. You really ought to be more aware of this yourself.
“Perhaps all these words of mine will just create in you more ill feelings for me. Don’t interpret what I say as a threat, intended to keep you with me. No. Although I love you (and even feel that now I need your love much more than ever before) and shudder like crazy at the very thought of being separated from you, I will never beg for your pity if you no longer love me and prefer not to rebuild our mutual affection.
“Ah, well, there’s no way to tell you all I want to say . . .”
I had read through the letter once, but somehow didn’t understand what she was saying; I hurriedly read it over once again and vaguely felt that she still loved me, that she would probably still forgive me. I rushed out of the gate of the Institute and jumped into a pedicab just passing by. “East Station! Hurry, hurry!”
Old Li, the gatekeeper, was shouting after me: “Comrade, your things, your . . .”
The technician had told his story and noticed that there hadn’t been a single stir in his audience. “What happened? Did everyone fall asleep?” he inquired.
“Please go on!”
“Umm.” He sighed with relief and satisfaction, and said after a moment of reflection, “I’m finished. As you all know, I didn’t get a divorce.”
“But was she there when you got to the station? What happened after you came back? There is still a lot more. What do you mean you’re finished?”
“After we came back,” the storyteller continued, “it took us both quite some time and effort to rebuild our love. But hey, this is going to turn out to be another long story! And we do have to get up for work tomorrow.”
After a brief silence, he laughed and said to us: “The best thing would be for all of you to come to my home for a visit next Sunday. You know what they say—it’s best to see for yourself!”