Beijing had just recovered from a heavy local rainstorm. Weather reports showed clouds moving from Wangjing to Xizhimen, with heavy rain pouring from east to west, languidly leaving the city center behind. By evening, the city was clean—the nocturnal animals lurking but cautious of the moist streets.
Zhou Min slept through the entire afternoon, waking at 6pm to eat a bowl of instant noodles and play a few rounds of games online. Completely unaware of the grand spectacle of the rainstorm, he was shocked by the flood at his door when he attempted to leave home. He planned to take a taxi; police had been strict about drunk driving recently, and some drinking would be inevitable tonight. But, in such a mess, there was no way he could get a cab. Even crossing the water to reach the street seemed impossible, so he returned to his own car in the parking lot.
Inside Warm Stone Billiards Room, only a few tables were open. The largely vacant room felt like the cabin of a space shuttle. Every time he went, Zhou Min expected to see the door locked and a notice announcing the business was shut, but it never happened. Perpetually listless men shot billiards as if they had been doing it since the dawn of time—completely undisturbed by the outside world. Yangpi had already turned up, along with a few mates whose faces Zhou Min couldn’t put names to. Most of them were Yangpi’s “clients”, who occasionally hung out for a bit of a change. Without much small talk, the group went straight to the table. Zhou Min was on an unlucky streak and fast became impatient and irritable. He was just about to make a critical shot when his phone rang—causing him to miss. He ditched the cue, cursed, and picked up the phone. Tian Mei’s voice was as loud as be fore: “What’s up? Are we supposed to meet or something? Where are you?”
“I can’t leave the table. I just lost a game and have to win it back.” Zhou Min’s excuse was obviously far from acceptable. Tian Mei snapped: “You know how rarely Xia Wei comes to visit. We all have to be there! Pick you up in 30 min utes. We know where you are, don’t move!” She hung up. Zhou Min stuffed the phone in his pocket and went on with the next round. Still bad luck, no matter how hard he tried.
Yangpi leaned over and asked: “Trouble?”
“All crap,” he answered absently.
The other men stared stoically at the pool table, turning a deaf ear to everything else. A few rounds later, the room remained silent. Zhou Min lost again without surprise, and he threw the cue even further and swore. Yangpi passed him a lit cigarette, but his first puff was interrupted by a noise at the door. Tian Mei burst in and screamed his name: “Zhou Min!” She was followed by Guo Rui, who paced slowly, twiddling his car keys. Behind him was Xia Wei.
Xia Wei was on her tiptoes, gingerly holding her small shoulder bag. Her thin, long legs made her steps unstable. She was gone for two years but hadn’t changed very much except her hair—straight to curly. She politely greeted all the others who were buried in their games; they only occasionally lifted their eyes in response. Finally, she turned to Zhou Min and said: “Hi.”
Zhou Min replied: “Hi what? How are we ‘high’?”
But Xia Wei was unaffected, still smiling.
He remembered her crying on that fateful day two years ago— weeping as he drove her to the airport. They had had an accident and were delayed for a long time. It didn’t seem like she would catch her plane. When he pulled out his phone to check the time, her tears began to fall.
He grabbed a handful of tissues for her: “Easy there, just change your flight.”
But the tears still ran down her face.
He had to continue: “It’s only a wedding! A few hours late won’t change anything. The reception is tomorrow anyway. All you have to do today is some preparations. What’s the hurry?”
“I am not crying for that!” she was almost yelling. In that moment, Zhou Min became totally silent, almost like he was shot through the car window. He knew why she was crying but couldn’t quite figure out his own feelings. All he could do was keep his foot on the accelerator.
When they finally arrived, she pulled her giant suitcase with her and went in, her back shaking; he stood at the gate for a while and turned back.
This parting was deeply engraved on his memory, and Zhou Min never expected to see her again. But there she was, smiling, like they had just met—like they’d better shake hands and talk about the weather.
The four of them discussed where to grab a bite, and Tian Mei quickly started an argument with Guo Rui. She suggested Cantonese, and he wanted chuan’r instead. Xia Wei just stood there holding her bag while Zhou Min leaned on the wall, smoking.
The dark and dim billiards room seemed like a movie set. For a moment, Zhou Min wanted to set up a camera and point to the crowd. Excepting Xia Wei, a Southerner who looked like a capable urban professional, the rest of them looked like a bunch of jobless floaters—which was not far from the truth: Tian Mei, Guo Rui, and Zhou Min were all in the photography business—working when there was work and idling when there wasn’t. Every now and then, they took jobs lik e documentaries, post-production of TV programs, movies, and web videos, whatever they could get. But, most of the time, they preferred being idle. Xia Wei, on the other hand, was an employee at a large advertising company in the South. She was a junior marketing specialist when they first met, now a mid-level manager in an international enterprise. Her smile was the same, but certainly, something in her had changed. She was definitely more confident than two years ago, Zhou Min observed, she even looked taller. He, on the other hand, had lost spirit and become less certain about what he wanted.
Finally, Tian Mei and Guo Rui reached an agreement on a famous chuan’r area, taking the group to the car. Rumor had it that pop star Faye Wong had once graced the place with her presence, so they hurried to get a spot. Tian Mei took the front passenger seat. Zhou Min and Xia Wei took the back seats and got in from different sides. Zhou Min told Yangpi to drive his car back to his apartment, and Yangpi waved back in acknowledgement.
“How’s Yangpi’s business lately?” asked Guo Rui.
“What do you think? It’s the business of gambling on soccer,” he grumbled, and sensed that Xia Wei had turned around to glare at him.
“You are not in on it, are you? It’s not much fun,” Guo Rui asked again. Zhou Min didn’t answer. He opened the window and lit a cigarette. Xia Wei opened her side of the window as well. The moist ground had begun to turn dry. Rainfall in the north seemed to penetrate the earth and go straight into the planet. On hearing Guo Rui’s question, Xia Wei unconsciously tensed up, like a cat suddenly ruffled. Zhou Min couldn’t bear to see her like that.
He gave in and replied: “No way, couldn’t even if I wanted to. Short of money lately.”
Tian Mei chipped in: “Good, all these years, you finally learned to turn from that wrong path.” Xia Wei seemed to be relieved, and closed the car window for no reason.
It had been a while since they were all together, but almost all his friends started lecturing him. Zhou Min was slightly annoyed, but he got used to it. Everyone wanted to harangue him, and everyone believed he was incorrigible. Only Xia Wei remained silent. He remembered that she once lent him money to repay his gambling debts. Both of them loved Arsenal, and he lost every penny betting on them. “Think of it as a gesture for Arsenal,” she said. Even when she handed the envelope to him, she smiled.
That summer two years ago seemed sweltering and hopeless. Xia Wei came to Beijing for an ad project and needed to hire local crew for post production. She used a friend to find Tian Mei—who then brought Guo Rui and Zhou Min into the mix; Tian Mei told the two, “We have a job! With pay! And a pretty girl to hang out with too!” Xia Wei treated them to a dinner in a Hunan restaurant and 15 beers. Gui Rui said: “It will be done in two weeks!” It turned out to be two months. During the latter half, everyone gathered in a rented studio surrounded by editing equipment. The group started to spout complaints and criticize each other—the only exception being Xia Wei, who actually had the most reason to complain. She smiled and bought them meals and drinks on her own dime. Though pressure kept coming from the company, she refused to blame the crew.
She was around 27, about 45kg and 160cm t all. What kind of power did she—a thin, southern girl—have to stay so calm? The answer was soon revealed by Tian Mei: she was about to get married. That was why she was always in high spirits. She just wanted to finish the project and go back home, and she didn’t want to spoil things by arguing with the crew.
Zhou Min, intuitively, didn’t buy it. He believed it to be her personality, not a simple wedding, but he kept silent.
One evening, smoking on the rooftop alone, he heard someone approaching and turned. Xia Wei looked even more soft and serene in the fine night light, almost like a form of life he had never seen before. The four of them worked overtime for days and got less than 10 hours of sleep the whole time. His sense of time was in total disorder. He didn’t want to smoke in the studio because of the two girls and went to the rooftop for a cigarette now and then. In this, he was oddly considerate, but in larger matters, he always followed his own inclinations. His life was a mess back then; sleep deprivation only made the situation worse. She stood there on the rooftop with him, looking around. Beijing’s air pollution was dreadful; no stars were visible, and only a crescent moon hung pathetically near the skyline. She asked if something was troubling him. Her tone was like an elementary school teacher speaking to a pupil. For no reason, he was indignant : “What’s the point of telling you?”
She stared at him, speechless. He added loudly: “What do you know? A girl with an easy life! ”
“I just want to get to know you. What’s so strange about that? You are curious about other people, aren’t you? You want to learn things about them and how they become the person they are.”
“No! I couldn’t care less about other people!” Zhou Min said. He continued with his smoking but became oddly afraid. He could never figure out what women were thinking about or what on earth they wanted. The two stood under the crescent moon in silence. After a while, Zhou Min soft ened and said: “I read a comic when I was a child, and I’ve remembered it ever since. There were two goldfish living in separate bowls. Both envied the other bowl and often pressed against the glass, staring…”
He was half way through when he suddenly lost his point. He paused, threw away the cigarette and went downstairs.
The car pulled over at the chuan’r place which only had one table left. They had just sat down when the owner in front of the grill shouted gruffly: “Don’t bother sitting down! We’re sold out. What are you going to eat at that table?” Ill at ease, the four got back on their feet. Zhou Min snapped: “What kind of attitude is that? Are you high or something?” The owner took offense and began swearing. With a handful of half cooked chuan’r, he looked like he was about to charge at them. Customers who were anxiously waiting for their food hurried to take the owner’s side: “Hey, young man, don’t be so touchy!” Zhou Min became more agitated. He decided to teach the owner a lesson and prepared to face him down. At that moment, Xia Wei lightly tugged his shirt and whispered in his ear: “Give it a rest, let’s go.” Just like that, he turned around, following her footsteps without hesitation or a single look back.
The four of them got in a car and resumed their evening without a destination. The lights by the Third Ring Road were all lit. They clustered together like an alien space ship was about to touch down. Two years had passed, but as soon as they reunited, the clock seemed to turn back to those chaotic times. Then, they spent most of their evenings driving on a ring road for a random bite at night. Tian Mei was always energetic and optimistic; Guo Rui was mostly reticent; Zhou Min was often smoking with a gloomy expression; and Xia Wei always sounded gentle and peaceful. For countless nights, they were like the only surviving soldiers on a battlefield, waiting for the enemy’s next attack. Despair somehow turned to optimism.
The company headquarters urged them on with orders and threats. However, for a creative project like this, it was no use rushing them, and they needed to familiarize themselves with the project. Xia Wei often reassured HQ: “It will be finished soon!” But the project dragged on. Accidents abounded: glitches with the machine, storage problems—the project was overturned a few times and they had to start over again and again. Once, a single computer crash cost them a day of work. They sat there transfixed. Xia Wei said: “The four of us are all down on our luck, and we worked together, which made it worse; that must be it.” Tian Mei and Guo Rui all nodded in agreement. Zhou Min, on the other hand, was more than clear on how unlucky he had been lately and didn’t even bother to nod.
“How did we finish all that crap? I don’t even remember, only that the studio always came calling. They even held our tapes hostage. That was the most terrible year I ever had,” Tian Me i said, speaking just as fast as ever.
“Xia Wei paid them with her own money to get the tapes; she paid us for the project, too,” Guo Rui remembered.
Yes, it was her every time—every single time, solving a problem that had beaten the Beijing men. Zhou Min almost smashed the studio door, but it was Xia Wei who saved the day. In his city, a southern, young bride to-be fixed all the problems. Occasionally, he would hear Tian Mei ask Xia Wei: “What does your fiance do?” She seemed to be reluctant but replied lightly, “He works in a bank.” Tian Mei was curious and threw out another question: “How did you meet?” She answered tersely: “Blind date.” Tian Mei still wouldn’t let the topic slide: “How long have you been together?” Xia Wei seemed to miss the question; she turned to Zhou Min and asked: “Do you need some rest? The bags under your eyes are ink black. ”
Tian Mei and Guo Rui knew they were close but had no idea when it started. All of a sudden, people started to notice the affection between the two. Maybe it started when Xia Wei brought Zhou Min coffee in the morning. She even bought him a pair of jeans and a pair of shoes. It seemed normal at the time—it was his birthday and he had a hole on his old trousers. It still seemed intimate, which made Tian Mei and Guo Rui wary, withholding their jokes.
The car arrived at Guijie and they started to discuss what to eat once again. Guo Rui suggested Sichuan food and Tian Mei agreed, but Zhou Min shook his head and said, “too spicy.” “But you like spicy food,” as soon as she said it, Tian Mei recalled that it was Xia Wei who couldn’t hold her spice. Back in the day, even at a Hunan restaurant, she ordered bland noodles. When it came to Zhou Min’s turn to get takeout, all the dishes were bland and Tian Me i had to store a jar of spicy sauce in the studio.
Xia Wei made the final call, “I remember a 24-hour tea house, how about there?” So, they headed for Guomao. However, after they stopped at a red light, the engine broke down. Guo Rui cursed and managed to start the car, but as soon as they were off the ring road, the engine shut off and wouldn’t start again.
“Disaster strikes every time the four of us are together,” Guo Rui threw his hands in the air in frustration. With dismay, he and Tian Mei began to check on the car.
Zhou Min squatted near the car and pulled out a cigarette. Xia Wei got down as well and asked for one. Surprised, he asked, “When did you pick up smoking?” Xia Wei didn’t reply and lit the cigarette. In that moment, he felt that he no longer knew her. How long had she been smoking? It changed her into a stranger, as if the second she picked up a cigarette she summoned an alter ego—a woman smoking in a lonesome corner, with an unknown past behind her. Such a woman is at odds with the girl who coughed at the faintest scent of smoke in the past. He had an urge to grab her and get everything out of her—how she lived over the past two years, how she became what she was today, step by step, and how she could just stand there in front of him, smiling.
A year after their separation, the two made contact once more, something Tian Mei and Guo Rui were not aware of. One early morning, he got a phone call from Xia Wei. She was crying, long, slow sobs. He was not yet fully awake, lifting his eyes to the clock—a little past three. In the dark, only the illuminated second hand crawled lazily. The two bowls of goldfish suddenly returned to his mind There were several goldfish in each bowl. Under the sunshine, they stared at the other bowl, curious, mesmerized and full of yearning. She and he were two goldfish living in different bowls. When he came back to his senses, she had stopped crying.
“Good night,” she said.
“Good night,” he said.
Stuck, the four of them resorted to drinking beer, which Guo Rui had stored at his trunk, on the roadside. A party suitable for four unfortunate people—the thought surprisingly relaxed them and they began to drink as much as possible.
Guo Rui surprised everyone when he said, “You two, were you guys ever dating behind our backs?” He must have been very curious for a long time; too much alcohol didn’t help.
Neither replied. The silence lasted for about half a minute before Xia Wei suddenly slapped Zhou Min on the shoulder and asked: “Did we ever go out?
Zhou Min almost lost his balance and fell to the ground. He paused for a while and said: “Maybe.”
Tian Mei and Guo Rui jeered: “Maybe? What does that mean?”
Xia Wei was laughing hysterically. She couldn’t stop. Then she shook her head and said, “Maybe means no, right? Isn’t that what you mean?”
She gazed at Zhou Min, her eyes two bottomless lakes. This time, Zhou Min was completely clear about his feelings, but there was only heartbreak left, nothing else. If there was ever anything, it was gone.
Once, two years ago, he was driving her back to her hotel. She was too tired and fell asleep half way, a thread of hair dangling on her face. All the way, he wanted to brush it back. The idea was like a bug crawling in his mind, making him anxious and restless. He lifted his hand several times at red lights and put it down several times—as if such gesture meant something when in fact it meant nothing. At last, when he finally gathered the courage to extend his hand, she awoke. She brushed that thread of hair back behind her ear, her hair glowing under the golden sunshine, eyes still sleepy. She looked at him and raised her hand, lightly touched his chin and said, “a scratch, cut yourself shaving?”
That wound seemed to still be there, the very place she touched him.
The four sat there immersed in their memories. The night in Beijing is never dark enough, as if it could wake up at any moment. Reunited with friends unimportant to daily life and light-headed under the effect of alcohol, it was as if any question could be asked. Tian Mei asked Xia Wei: “How’s married life? Happy?”
Xia Wei remained silent, and the time between the question and answer seemed endless. Finally, she spread her hands as if throwing away something and said: “Okay, to tell you the truth, I got divorced more than six months ago.”
The three of them exchanged confused glances. How on earth could Xia Wei get a divorce? Xia Wei, undoubtedly, would be a good wife. She seemed to be born a good wife, always far from any self indulgences— albeit the small dalliance of falling for a debauched idler in Beijing. Everyone could see it on her face, but nothing happened.
Tian Mei and Guo Rui turned to Zhou Min, as if expecting him to save them from the dead silence.
But Zhou Min couldn’t utter a sentence, not a single word.
In the early morning, they decided to put an end to the torment. Everyone sensed that their conversation could lead to a disastrous end, so they hurried to flee. The two audience members didn’t want to fuel the fire, even Xia Wei and Zhou Min themselves were eager to leave. It was a crime scene where one of them had revealed too much and found their backs against the wall. The mist that provided a sense of safety dispersed and was exposed by the night where inhibitions do not exist—where people become their own obstacles.
They slowly rose to say their goodbyes. As they each tried to get a taxi, they knew in their hearts this parting would be for a very long time; the more time passes, the less relevant any reunion becomes. To Zhou Min, it seemed as though there was no one in the world he cared to see.
Hungry again, Zhou Min made himself another bowl of instant noodles and swallowed the tasteless food when Yangpi called: “There’s a soccer game later, wanna come?”
“Pass,” he said and hung up.
A few minutes later the phone rang again. He picked up and said, “I said pass, it’s not much fun.”
He heard a gentle sigh and realized it wasn’t Yangpi. He pulled the phone away and checked the screen, it was Xia Wei.
“What is not much fun?” She asked.
He wanted to explain but didn’t know what to say. Over the past two years, he contemplated what kind of man he really was, what kind of life he was living—all with no answers. Gradually, he became tame, ordinary, and safe.
He recalled the two bowls of goldfish once again— two bowls of goldfish envying one another’s lives. One day, they finally leapt up in the air and threw themselves into the other bowl. The result? They just exchanged bowls and ended up in the exact same situation, staring at the other party in envy; nothing changed, everything an illusion. The fish were not wrong, neither were the two people. Two layers of thin glass stymied them; that was how vulnerable they were.
“Goldfish,” he heard himself mumble. The hour hand coldly pointed to three o’ clock, just like last time—a predicament without obstacles, a giant unknown number, or it was himself, hanging there, blocking and isolating everything from everything. He couldn’t figure out what Xia Wei said on the other end of the phone, or, perhaps, she said nothing.
Then the phone disconnected, leaving only the empty pips.
Translated by Liu Jue
Qiao Mai worked as a journalist before becoming a professional writer. Based in Nanjing, the 33-year-old writer mainly concentrates on metropolitan love stories from a female perspective. Her characters are mostly loners or outsiders, often deeply sensitive. Some critics have dismissed her work as “not serious enough” and overly sentimental, but Qiao Mai is still one of the most popular writers on Douban—a content sharing social media website with an extensive film, book, and music database. She has published five short story collections and novels since 2006.
Author’s Note: “The Goldfish” is about a man and a woman in different circumstances. They developed subtle feelings and were drawn to each other. A few years later, when they were reunited, it seems that they had somehow switched circumstances, but they still belong to two different “fish bowls”. This is one of my early pieces. It’s naïve, but I still like it for its pure and simple emotions.