Writer Yang Fei captures the suffocating yet familiar patterns of domestic life in this enigmatic tale
Author: Yang Fei 杨斐
Born in 1994, Yang Fei has a BA in literature from Sichuan University. She started writing in college. Her short story “Van Gogh’s Ear” won second place in the fiction category at the Sixth Global Chinese Youth Literature Award in 2017. Her work has been published in Shanghai Literature, Youth, Young Writers, West, and other literary magazines, as well as on Douban.com.
The three of us ambled in the cold wind by the river, circling this unfinished residential complex.
Our minds were still in a trance, I knew that; we might all have known that. We talked aimlessly as we walked out of the sales office. Within a few minutes, we came across a gas station on the corner. Its red-and-yellow paint shocked us so that nobody spoke for a moment.
I lay awake almost all night, and thought of many things.
Ever since I’d seen the gas station that afternoon, I’d felt uncomfortable.
I couldn’t get rid of the feeling: It wasn’t good to have a gas station beside the house.
This was only an impression, and I did not know the reason behind it, but I had a vague sense that this was a serious matter.
A few years ago, when I was in high school, my mother and I, and L and her mother, took an illegal cab back to town after a parent-teacher conference. It was already dark, and we were all in a daze the whole way back. Or probably it was just me. Surrounded by the warm air inside the car, I dozed off, and caught scraps of their conversation, sometimes adding a word or two when I was lucid.
As we approached the town, a gas station suddenly appeared by the road, shining exceedingly bright in the all-enveloping darkness. As our cab roared past, only our four soft, feminine voices could be heard in the quiet country night.
Perhaps the driver had joined our conversation, but I don’t remember. Someone said that there were problems with this gas station. They said this area used to be a graveyard, and the staff at the gas station turned over frequently. A gas station had to have a night shift, and in the past, a young girl worked nights here. However, she resigned for some unknown reasons and now the night shift was covered by an old man.
I don’t know how they knew all these details. As we passed the gas station, I raised my head and looked at it carefully. I did not see the old man, only the dazzling white light from inside the shop. I didn’t feel scared, only sad, and regretful that I didn’t see the old man.
I read up information on my phone for a long time. It was indeed bad to have a gas station near one’s home; any way you looked at it, having a gas station was like being shrouded by an evil spirit.
I’m apt to believe these kinds of things.
Lying in my bed at night, I felt uncomfortable no matter which way I thought about it. I didn’t know which evil spirit it was, but I felt that I was wrapped in trouble and misfortune.
My parents were to blame for this, especially my mother, because she called the shots in this family.
In retrospect, everything had been done too hastily. At that time I had already felt that it was too hasty, but it felt like an overwhelming force was against me.
That afternoon, within half an hour of arriving at the sales office, my mother paid a 10,000 yuan deposit, which was not refundable.
The previous day, I’d fought with my mother, saying that she was careless about matters of real estate. That was what L had criticized me for. She said that I did not pay enough attention to business or property or anything. Of course, she was right.
I accused my mother of not being proactive, and I told her what steps she needed to follow in getting into real estate. Everything I told my mother was taught to me by L; L loved to teach me how to do things. She always gave the suggestions that would maximize your returns, but they depended on you being willing to follow her advice, and being proactive about it.
Neither I nor my mother was, let alone my father. None of my family was, and that was the issue.
My fight with my mother was unpleasant. The next day, she said, gently but firmly, “Let’s go view apartments.”
When she said that, I was reluctant, as I didn’t actually mean for her to act upon our fight immediately. I’d argued with her because she always spent time finding faults with irrelevant details, rather than facing problems head-on. If she had just said, “I will not bother with apartments; I won’t do it,” I would have gladly dropped the matter.
All three of us in this family had a strong sense of morality and responsibility; in fact, we repudiated all kinds of responsibilities.
In other words, the reason why I quarreled with my mother was not so much about trying to make her more proactive about buying an apartment, but to force her to abandon this plan, which had some benefits, but would also bring us trouble. I wanted to call her bluff. This sounds strange, but it made sense.
I lay awake almost the whole night.
There were two choices in front of me: buy the apartment and pay no attention to the gas station, or give up the apartment and drive the gloom of the gas station away from my future, at the cost of the 10,000 yuan that had already been paid.
It was laughable, but also a little difficult.
Ten thousand yuan wasn’t chump change…whether feng shui was worth believing in was also a question…Buying early meant you actually made money, not to mention other obvious advantages of this apartment…
The matter really got under my skin. I didn’t understand why my family was never able to deal with simple everyday matters.
I also did not believe in human relations.
There are a few lengthy incidents that always play back in my memory. They were richly detailed, and played with no sound, so they seemed momentous, like reminders from the deepest part of my heart.
I remember the day after the announcement of the college entrance exam results. The sunlight was blistering, and the air was orange and gold and brilliant. My mother and I, L and her mother, again took an illegal cab together to the school. L’s scores almost met the admission requirements of Tsinghua and Peking University, but I did so terribly that my scores were only about 10 points above the minimum admission requirements to the first-tier universities. You must remember that I was in the ugly “advanced class,” with an ugly class supervisor.
My mother was wonderful. She didn’t make me feel that I’d done poorly at all; at least, she never expressed her feelings to anyone. Although she knew that my grades were much lower than L’s, she did not show any negative emotion in the car. I guess this prevented L’s mother from showing off.
I wasn’t as good as my mother; I was very unhappy. However, what I was unhappy about was not my grades. It was a more complicated feeling—that I could finally make a break with my old life, with high school, and all adolescent education. I felt liberated, but also empty. All I had in my heart was my disgust at the things I was about to escape. I only wanted to turn back, and spit.
We had arrived early. There weren’t many people at school. Now I remember that our whole class had been summoned there that day by the ugly class supervisor to talk about our grades and college applications.
Orange heat rose from the school grounds, and in my memory, I only stayed in the office for a very short time. That fat supervisor was extremely rude to my mother; I wanted to spit at him. However, my mother wore a naïve and guileless look, behaving respectfully and humbly. She was also a teacher; couldn’t she tell that this fatty was an idiot with an ugly heart?
L and her mother went somewhere else. Or maybe they stayed in the office and talked with Fatty for a long time. I don’t know.
I went downstairs after listening to a few words, because there was nothing important. The orange heat made me feel uncomfortable. It was too hot, and I didn’t know what my mother and I were waiting for. My mother walked over and asked me to go with her to buy food. I became angry. I didn’t want to do anything, but just stay in a room without moving, enjoying time away from the eyes of others.
Although my mother seldom asked much of me, at a time when I hated everything, she asked me to buy food with her. This irritated me. I made an angry retort, and she looked sad. It was then that I discovered how pale she was. I did not expect her condition to be as serious as she had said. She told me that if she got hungry, she felt like she could hardly breathe or support her body. I did not believe in such a condition; in my opinion, she was trying to provoke me.
She went alone to the little kiosk at my school and bought a loaf of bread. In my eyes, this kind of bread belonged only to students, since we bought and ate it out of its brightly colored plastic bag almost every day. It seemed a little embarrassing and weird to see an adult eating it.
My mother chewed the bread thoughtfully, while I stood in the field and watched her out of the corner of my eye. All the frustrations in my heart were mixed with sadness, and my world had no sound, only useless light that had filled my eye. Thus, I left behind my school life.
I don’t know when I developed my mother’s condition. It may have been a delayed genetic transmission, some characteristic not obvious at birth. My health became the same as that of my mother—as soon as I became hungry, my whole physique would collapse. My heart would palpitate, I’d feel short of breath, and unless I had something to eat immediately I felt I might fall down or even die. Sweat also continually oozed from my head.
After I developed this problem, when I thought about my earlier attitude toward my mother, I felt really ashamed.
I lay awake on my bed, worrying about the fate of my family. Our fate had never been outstanding, but this did not matter, because it couldn’t be changed. Most of all, I did not want us to suffer a bad fate. Thinking about it, I felt we simply couldn’t move into an apartment like that. It was bought for my parents to live in when they retire, so I didn’t want to see them living miserably and being unable to do anything about it.
I felt as though we were mutes who continued to feed ourselves bitter herbs we couldn’t complain about.
I remember that afternoon when we paid the deposit, the three of us said a lot on the way home. We talked about everything except the gas station. I was intentionally avoiding it, and so were my parents. I could tell that they were thinking about it as we talked, and for a moment or two, it would seem like one of us was going to bring it up, but in the end, nobody mentioned it.
I liked listening to my parents’ chitchat, whatever they talked about. I could accept anything said by others, as long as I was not forced to join their conversation.
I remembered that my mother again asked me about my romantic life, but this did not annoy me; perhaps I’d changed. Her attitude was relaxed, and she said that she believed in fate, and then she told the story of her and my father again.
Though she’d had already told the story many times, I didn’t stop her. I liked to see the bright and melancholy expressions people wore as they recalled the past.
What I remembered most clearly was a narrative related to the light on the road, which my mother described almost as a divine inspiration—my mother and father were from different towns. My mother said she saw a very unusual, bright scene by the road one evening in her town. It amazed her and made her feel that her fate would turn in a new direction. “After I had that vision, I met your dad, and your dad’s hometown was indeed in the direction of the light in my vision.”
My mother meant to ask me to believe in fate, and to show me how wonderful love and marriage could be, just like the light she had seen, or like the three of us chatting genially on the way home after buying an apartment.
On balance, she succeeded, but it was exactly because of this that I couldn’t sleep that night. It seemed that the new apartment, with its deposit paid, had already entered our harmonious and joyful new life. However, there was still the problem of the gas station.
My whole family believed in feng shui, or in other words, unpredictable things. My parents instilled those ideas in me, so I didn’t believe that they wouldn’t have hang-ups about the gas station.
After graduating from college, I decided to rent an apartment with my classmates, and did a few viewings within a limited time.
One of the apartments we viewed was in an old residential community. When I first entered the room, I realized that the floor plan was off, because I knew that a home should be square rather than a bizarre shape. Added to the fact that it was old, this apartment was quickly vetoed by me. But because we were too tired, and the agent said that we could discuss our requirements a bit more, the three of us sat down for a while.
There was a retro painting of the bodhisattva Guanyin hanging in one corner of the living room, but it was so big that it looked like a poster, which made me feel strange.
When I sat down on the sofa, I blurted out that I felt tired and uncomfortable, and my roommate agreed. As our conversation went on, we started to talk about feng shui. The more we talked, the more uncomfortable we felt, and my roommate even began to search for information on feng shui and floor plans online. After we left the apartment, we all said that we felt better, but I wasn’t sure whether this was psychological or something else.
Since then, I’ve believed in the feng shui of homes, and I thought that bad feng shui would have an immediate and obvious effect on my body, mind, and fate.
I told my parents these things, and my father said that he had read some books about feng shui when he was young.
Therefore, although none of us made direct reference to the gas station that day, I knew they both had it on their minds.
I don’t know how I fell asleep in the end, since I was still looking up information on feng shui at midnight. I couldn’t help weighing the pros and cons of buying versus not buying the apartment. The more I thought about it, the more frustrated and powerless I felt. I even wanted to go to my parents’ bedroom and wake them up to discuss it, because if we talked about it, then at least I could fall asleep. I didn’t do it, but I remember that the last thought I had before I fell asleep was to tell them what I thought the next morning, and then ask them to give up the apartment, give up the 10,000 yuan.
I got up early the next morning. My mother was cooking, while my father was on the roof tending to his plants. Unexpectedly, I hesitated, not knowing where to start. I wandered about the kitchen for a few moments, wanting to speak but failing, then returned to the living room and sat in silence.
My mother came over to rest, so I tentatively, casually asked, “Should we think about the apartment again?” My mother did not speak for a few moments, so I said again, “I think it’s bad to have a gas station there.” At last, my mother spoke, and she said that she had also considered this issue.
I continued, “Actually, I almost couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about the feng shui of the gas station.”
I assumed that we would have a long discussion, because it took so long to even get my mother to agree to view apartments. I thought we would spend a whole day at home arguing over what to do.
I didn’t expect that before I had time to go into the feng shui, my mother would say, “Then let’s not buy it.”
I was too surprised at such a straightforward response. I said, “Not buy what?”
She said, “The apartment.”
I said, “The 10,000 yuan is not refundable.”
She said, “It doesn’t matter. Of course we can’t buy a place that has problems.”
In my remembrance, my mother wasn’t like that, but I couldn’t easily define her either. While growing up, I had seen various unexpected displays of power from her. I think every mother had her own secret glories.
I had gone through a rebellious stage, but not an obvious one. I seldom rebelled against any particular person, so I almost did not act out at all.
If there was any one person I rebelled against, it was myself, and my mother. In hindsight, I’m not sure if my mother still had this impression of me, whether she even thought I’d ever been rebellious; I just know she’s satisfied with me now. We get along well, and found our so-called balance.
When I was in high school, I had many unhappy experiences of walking on the street with my mother. I don’t know why, but all of these memories involved us getting angry in the street and wanting to go in different directions.
There were two things that we often talked about: one was relationships and marriage, and the other was work. It seemed a little bit funny that my mother discussed those things with me when I was in high school, or that might be because I’m remembering it wrong. We probably talked about it in my first or second year of college.
Every time she brought up marriage, I would cut her off. I said I wasn’t going to get married; “How could you not get married?” She would ask. “I just won’t. How’s that’s not possible?” I would reply. Then she would start to tell me why I needed to get married. Of course I wouldn’t listen and just repeated, “I’m just not going to get married.” Finally, when she was out of retorts, she would call me a fool.
How did my mother explain why people needed to get married? She said, “You will not feel lonely if you get married.” I said, “I have friends.” She said, “Friends cannot stay with you for a lifetime.” I asked, “Why not?” (Now, I know that’s true.) She said, “If you don’t get married, there will be no one to take care of you when you are ill.” I said, “Then why do we have hospitals?” (Now I know the hospital is no place to go by yourself; an ill person really needs to be taken care of, or else they’ll be miserable, even if they only have a cold or a fever. Being alone is miserable, unspeakably miserable.) My mother said, “You can’t even eat if you’re alone. Look at me and your dad. I cook, we eat, and then he washes the dishes.” After I graduated from college and started to work, eating alone became a real problem for me. I did not like cooking, so I really wanted to have someone cook for me, and I could do the dishes.
My mother’s answers were like formulas; there was nothing new, and I had them memorized. The more she said, the more I was convinced that her reasons were invalid. Until later, when I really encountered these problems in my life, and my thought processes followed the formulas she’d prescribed, I suddenly realized that it’s no wonder she was my mother. She’d given birth to me, so in many respects, she knew me more thoroughly than myself. She knew me as perfectly as her old self knew her young self.
Genetics was a scary thing.
When I was about to graduate from college, I was quite depressed by the job-search. I never shared useless but comforting platitudes with others, except my mother. I swayed her arms and said that I did not want to work. Again she said that I was a fool. I repeated that I really didn’t want to work. She asked me what I was going to do if I did not work. I said that I wouldn’t do anything—just be.
She said I couldn’t do that, because how would a person spend all their time if they didn’t work?
She was really clever, as her words suddenly gave me a headache. I had just wanted to act like a spoiled child. Why would she tell me such a harsh truth? My mother was right. You would have nothing to spend your time on if you did not work. We had to follow rules in our whole life, not look for loopholes to serve our own benefit. Boredom was eternal.
I remember that not long after I started my first job, I had a fever. As my roommate was away on a business trip, I stayed at home alone. I was so uncomfortable, bored, and sad that I couldn’t stand it, so I gave up my sick days and went back to the office.
Going back to the office almost accelerated my recovery, because the commotion of everyday life could exorcize a lot of unexplainable moods.
Day by day, I became aware of how amazing my mother was. Many of her trivial sayings became gems. Then I gradually developed the habit of listening to my mother when I had questions. Although I seldom agreed with her, I chose to follow her, and I almost believed that everyone’s mother was their light and guardian angel.
Therefore, when my mother suggested giving up the apartment, I was struck dumb for a moment. Then, acting innocent, I nodded and agreed. It was my mother who had made the decision, which made me feel much better.
My father returned from the roof, and as we were just finishing our conversation, he asked what we were talking about. My mother told him that we were discussing whether to give up the apartment we viewed yesterday. My father asked why, and my mother said that it was due to the gas station.
I waited to see my father’s reaction.
My father said, “That’s not so good, having a gas station near the house.”
The only question was why, when we viewed the apartment, we were so careless as to pay the deposit without checking out the surroundings.
Actually, even at that time, I’d felt that the two of them were too hasty, signing the contract after just a few looks. I’d been quite panicked; I thought, was that too rushed, is that how you buy an apartment? My parents often gave off this feeling that they couldn’t be trusted. I thought, if only my friend L were here; L was the kind of person who knew how to do everything well.
My mother said that the apartment was pretty good, and my father agreed. They had no standards; they did not know what to look for. The saleswoman gave them fancy documents to look at, and it made them feel that they would have a pleasant life. I suggested that they go out and walk around first, and then we could carefully think it over while walking by the river. My mother refused. She said that many people wanted to buy during the New Year, so the price might go up at any time.
I don’t like to make decisions, so I went along with my mother’s. It was only after signing the contract, paying the deposit, and walking out of the sales office, when we all seemed a little dazed and tired, that my mother asked us to walk around the area. I’d had a strange feeling at that time, and within a few steps, we saw the gas station. My heart almost died.
None of us spoke, and I guessed it was because we were afraid of ruining the mood, blaming each other, and shifting the responsibility to one another.
But we still ended up talking about the gas station at home the next day. My father picked up our conversation and said that it was indeed bad to have a gas station around. He was the kind of person who always tried to smooth things over, hating to see us fight, especially during the New Year. So, with a smile on his face, he said timidly, “Actually, we forgot to check the surroundings; I don’t know why. The sales office was like magic, it got you all excited.”
My mother agreed. “How could we know that there would be a gas station?”
The answer made little sense.
We paused together for a moment, and then my mother said, “So let’s not buy it?”
I said, “That sounds good.”
My father asked, “How about the deposit?”
My mother said, “We’ll just give it up. What else can we do?”
I waited to see what my father would say.
He was calm. “Sure.”
I felt that the atmosphere among us was laughable.
Both of my parents were teachers, and they were thrifty as a rule. But when it came to money they should really be trying to get back, they were oddly generous.
I did not know what to say, so I said, “Last night when I thought about that apartment, I felt so uncomfortable, just like there was something stuck in my heart. I couldn’t sleep all night.”
My mother supplemented, “Let’s think of the money as a lost speculation.”
My father rejoined, “Yes, feng shui is very important.”
I really couldn’t help but laugh in my heart. Was my family rich? Yesterday afternoon we spent 10,000 yuan like it was nothing, and got nothing but confusion and trouble.
The problem was resolved so quickly that I didn’t even have time to come to terms with it.
It was as if the three of us decided to play a game together on a pleasant afternoon, so we spent a great deal of energy and money making preparations. The grass was bathed in sunshine, and we arranged everything, and took out the all-important candy. We ate happily together, but the candy tasted bitter, and we realized that this was not candy but a kind of bitter herb. After swallowing it, we packed up everything and left. In the evening we all had stomachache, and discovered that the candy was poison, so we might suffer some long-term consequences.
It was also like that when we made a mistake together. Even though nobody else knew of it, the mistake had been made, and we all felt great sadness and regret in our hearts.
So I added a condition, which even I thought was kind of funny, but I still said it.
I told my parents, “Let’s keep this between ourselves. Don’t tell grandma or my uncles. I won’t tell L or my other friends.”
My parents thought that this was a good idea, that all of us should keep this a secret. Since we decided not to buy this house, we could pretend none of this had ever happened, and the 10,000 yuan had just been lost.
It was hard to define this kind of psychology. It might be like laying down a burden, or giving up.
We all believed that if we told anybody else, it would just add to our problems. They would either laugh at our stupidity, or make us revisit the pros and cons—maybe we should buy the apartment, or get the 10,000 yuan refunded to us…
It would be difficult to find another person with the same attitude toward this as we had. If L had known, she would definitely be more frustrated than I was. I frequently got myself into these kinds of situations—L would tell me how dumb I was, how I should have done this and that, instead of sitting back and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Compared to me and my parents, L and her mother were the complete opposite. Once a secret reached L or her mother’s ears, it would no longer be a secret, but the topic du jour. It was as if they both had huge warehouses in their heads, packed with tidbits big and small, so whenever L or her mother needed to make conversation, they would select something from their warehouses then broadcast it. In this process, they would pick up new information, and the cycle would go on. I realized all of these things gradually, because my parents and I had almost never circulated through their warehouse. Our personality barred us from being part of the cycle.
In a word, we were all afraid of trouble. If every day could be as calm and peaceful as the last, that was enough for us.
In order to avoid trouble, and go back to our peaceful lives, we quickly agreed to keep this secret. My father emphasized, “We cannot tell it even to your grandmother,” and aimed those words specifically at my mother.
My mother said, “No, no one.” She also reminded me not to tell L. I said, “OK, I won’t tell anyone. Only the three of us will know.” They both agreed.
Now I was satisfied. You see, among the right people, money didn’t mean anything. All three of us reached an agreement naturally. It was as if the 10,000 yuan had never existed, and we had not wasted it at all. The whole problem had just evaporated.
But that was not the end of the matter.
After reaching our agreement, we were happy for the rest of the day. At lunch, we even chattered excitedly about how terrible the feng shui of the gas station was. It was as if we were intentionally denigrating that apartment that only a few hours ago had been ours, chosen and paid for.
My mother said that she also didn’t sleep well last night.
We talked freely, but none of us blamed one another.
There was another question left—do we still want to buy an apartment? We weren’t buying that one, but how about others? Would we just give up?
I was a little upset, because after this whole ordeal, I thought it would be acceptable not to buy another apartment. I didn’t know about myself, but I fully understood why my mother was not as active as L and L’s mother in real estate matters. My mother was a woman who could easily be satisfied, and she avoided bother, including anything about money. Everyone in my family was like that. Happiness and comfort were the most important things for me. Some people only felt comfortable when they had money or things to bother about, but the comfort we pursued was the state of having nothing to deal with. In this light, my feelings became more reasonable.
However, this time my mother was more proactive than I was. It might have been because I was too emphatic when I fought with her a few days ago; I’m not sure. Anyway, my mother was not as hesitant and lazy as I’d imagined. She suggested we view other apartments.
We didn’t go that day. My mother went to play mahjong in the afternoon; the three of us did our own things as usual.
The next morning, my mother asked me whether I’d slept well. I said I had, and she said she did too, and concluded that it was right not to buy that apartment.
In the afternoon, we went to view apartments again. Unfortunately, it was drizzling. Due to the rain and the Lunar New Year, there were few people outside. We walked alone around the newly constructed residential communities by the river, looking strange and pitiful.
Days with bad weather are not good for viewing apartments. I thought that we all had this feeling, but again, nobody said anything.
There were almost no suitable apartments in the communities we planned to go to. Along with the bad weather, we were all feeling depressed. We didn’t bring an umbrella, but walked separately in the drizzle. Most of the time we were silent, and when we talked it was unpleasant.
The rain catalyzed some kind of mood, and we reached the residential community where we had almost bought an apartment. My mother said faintly, “In comparison, this community was indeed the best. During the Lunar New Year, the prices went up day by day. On balance, the apartment that we originally wanted to buy was pretty good. Both its quality and price were good; the only problem was the gas station, like a huge fishbone stuck in our throat.”
My mother said it slowly, her voice calm, firm, and indubitable. My father was persuaded. It seemed that he regretted the 10,000 yuan more than my mother had. He agreed that the house was good. We were getting closer and closer to that community in the rain, and the gas station had already appeared before us, which was really annoying.
We walked around the community for a long time. The buildings were still under construction, so we peeked behind the walls, and then walked into the sales office.
I almost don’t want to go into what happened next, because my father was right. There really was something wrong with that sales office, because once you went inside, it muddled your mind.
We told the saleswoman our worries about the gas station, and after flipping through the brochures, we found a more suitable apartment that would not be affected by the station. We asked the saleswoman whether she could help us change to this apartment, and she said that she couldn’t, according to the rules. Then she called her manager, and after a bunch of nonsense, she agreed to let us change.
Now the three of us became extremely pleased with ourselves; we were right to have come, things were looking up. The 10,000 yuan was not wasted, and we were going to have an apartment in the best residential community in the city. There were a lot of people in the sales office, so we joined in their conversations. The saleswoman was too busy for us just then, but it didn’t matter; we could wait. The thing had taken such a favorable turn that we were willing to wait a little longer.
After a few minutes, the saleswoman returned with the new contract. She asked us to read it over and sign if there was no problem. Although we were eager to sign the contract, we read it carefully. However, what we had not expected was that the price of this apartment was much higher than the previous—unreasonably so. In our opinion, the price difference should not have been so big. Thus, our moods went up and down several times in just one day.
At dusk, we walked out of the sales office. We did not sign the new contract, as the price difference was too big. On our way home, we were all upset and didn’t want to say anything. We’d been so preoccupied these last few days that we didn’t accomplish anything, but put our emotions through a roller-coaster, and this made us fragile.
I knew we all felt like giving up the whole thing, letting everything go back to how it was, and pretending that nothing had happened.
I still remember that, on the day after the end of the college entrance exams, we had to take an English oral exam, which was a mere formality. That morning, my mother and I took an illegal cab to the testing site. The site was in a new school, located in an area many people were unfamiliar with. A lot of roads met there, and the white cement ground continually generated heat that made us want to die. In my memory, I was irritated by something trivial. I was so angry that I did something dramatic. I threw our umbrella into a construction site, and then I snatched a 100 yuan bill from my mother’s hand, tore it in two, and threw it away. After that, I was so demoralized that I wanted to sit down on the hot road and cry.
I don’t know whether my mother still remembers this, but in retrospect, everything from that time has a strange tenderness to it. I don’t know what was the matter with me that day, but I knew that my annoyance and anger were real.
In Lawrence Bullock’s detective series, there is a charming but reserved private detective, Matthew. In his middle age, Matthew developed the habit of tithing one-tenth of his income to the church.
This was not a specific, targeted act of charity. He probably didn’t care where the money ultimately went, and whether it could really help those who needed it.
In the end, we gave up the 10,000 yuan, and I thought of Matthew “unloading the fortune”—a benevolent relinquishment: letting go of oneself and all the flukes in one’s psychology, and forming a contract with the void.
In the end, we did not buy that apartment. I went back to work after the New Year, and my parents dealt with the aftermath. I laughed to myself, because although the whole thing was bungled, I was lucky to have avoided most of it. In the end, my parents bought an apartment in another residential community. In my opinion, this apartment also had its problems, but I didn’t look into it.
I didn’t tell anybody about the 10,000 yuan, including L. I also said nothing about the new apartment. Later, we sold our old house, but I never mentioned that either, even though it was L who taught me how to do all of that.
I don’t think that our willingness to tell depended on how much we trusted someone, because a lot of things don’t need to be told, such as my mother eating a loaf of bread when she accompanied me to my high school and experienced hypoglycemia, or me throwing my umbrella away and tearing a 100 yuan bill in two on a strange road. Almost no one knew of those things, and they would never be brought up again.
– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: I don’t know if others feel the same, but as I grow older, I realize more and more that I am deeply rooted in family as a “social field.” I like to write about family, the home environment, and family members. The topic is a personal one. When put into words, it directly expresses something about the individual. But at the same time, it is a societal, collective representation.
Fiction: Our Family Secret is a story from our issue, “Wild Rides.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.