The distance in an intimate relationship—a short story from our issue “High Steaks”
Author: Li Wenwen 李稳稳
Born in 1990 and based in Hangzhou, Li Wenwen has a bachelor’s degree in history from Zhejiang University. Her short stories have been published in literary magazines such as Youth Literature and Changjiang Literature & Art. She also published three short story collections and one novella on Douban.com, the thriving online literary base of young Chinese writers. “The Empty Room” is part of her collection, Falling Asleep in Four Seasons (《四季入眠》).
They bought the apartment in April, but were waiting for the smell of fresh paint to wear off before moving in. There were three other families living on the same floor. Nianqi sidestepped the blue stroller in the hall; a few more steps, and she was at the door of her new home.
She could feel Zhang Yibai’s presence behind her. She took a moment to dig for the key in her bag. It wasn’t hesitation; she was just a little confused—about why she had invited her ex-boyfriend to visit the apartment that was bought for her marriage.
It didn’t start out that way; she had simply called to invite him out to eat. It was the best season for mitten crabs from Yangcheng Lake. They used to go to a restaurant located in an alley near Huzhou Street to eat them. The restaurant was bare-bones; when it was crowded, they would put some tables on the sidewalk. The pavement was always covered with a layer of grease, and a few red and yellow leaves poked out of the top of the trees by the road. The crabs were steamed, but the restaurant had a unique sauce: vinegar, oil, and spices perfectly mixed together, which set off the freshness of the crabs.
Nianqi hadn’t been to this restaurant in two years. After all, you have to go to new places with your new boyfriend. She always went to Japanese restaurants with Zhou Wenjun. They also served crabs in Japanese restaurants, but those were not mitten crabs and they were not steamed. One day, when the grilled snow crab legs were brought to her, and when she held the crab legs and played with the pincers, she suddenly remembered Zhang Yibai. After that, he became stuck in her mind like a chewing gum that she couldn’t get rid of. The whole week, while at work, she frequently thought of Zhang Yibai, and this made for a rather stressful and frustrating week. Her clients proposed more than thirty revisions in the teleconference on Thursday; when she hung up the phone, she suddenly wanted to cut loose her hold on everything. She felt dizzy when she walked into the corridor. Heading toward the window at the end of the hall, she dialed the number.
“Hello.” Zhang Yibai’s voice filtered slowly over the phone. He spoke in an even tone, rather than a questioning one. Her call was like a ball he had firmly caught in his hand. It felt strange to call each other by name, so they simply omitted it. Nianqi asked as she pushed open the window, “Have you been busy lately?”
“I just had a busy period,” he said, and waited.
The window was closed tight, so it took her some effort to push it open. The aluminum made a scraping noise. The fresh air came in and it was as cold as morning dew. She took a deep breath and asked, “How about having lunch together on Saturday?”
“Sure.” He answered perfectly naturally, as if they talked to each other every day, and hadn’t lost contact for two years. “The crab restaurant?”
After making the appointment with a few words, she hung up the phone. If someone had asked her why she invited her ex-boyfriend to dine together a month before getting married, and what she expected to happen, she might not have been able to answer. Fortunately, no one asked her, and Zhou Wenjun would never know. She told him that she had to work on Saturday and he had to order the wedding bouquet alone.
Unfortunately, on the way to the restaurant on Saturday, she really was called back to the office by a client. She sent a message to Zhang Yibai, but he had already arrived. Half an hour later, he asked for the address of her company.
“It’s going to be a while. Let’s do this another time, I’m so sorry.” She hesitated for a second before adding the last sentence.
He answered, “Wait there for me.”
The client insisted that the finished product was different from what they had ordered and threatened to report her. They argued until three in the afternoon, and didn’t agree on the redesign until both sides were tired. After following up with the editors, Nianqi put on her cream-colored trench coat, carefully fastened the belt, and exited the building.
The rain had stopped and a fog had come down, making the yellow leaves of the small row of ginkgo trees appear even brighter. She walked for a few more steps and saw Zhang Yibai, who stood at the door of the Starbucks behind the ginkgoes. He wore his old light gray nylon jacket, dark gray slacks, and white high-top canvas sneakers. He carried a takeout bag and a cup of coffee in one hand, and fiddled with his mobile phone with the other. He was frowning slightly, and his drooping mouth made two faint creases on the sides of his face.
Stepping over a puddle in her high heels, Nianqi walked toward him. He sensed someone coming, so he raised his head and lifted the bag in his hand.
“Crabs. I packed them.”
“Oh. How about the sauce?” Nianqi pulled the bag open and got close to him.
“Of course. The sauce is essential.” Zhang Yibai raised his hand and opened his fingers. “Five packs.”
Nianqi lifted her head and happened to meet his eyes, and quickly looked away. She loosened the takeout bag and stepped back. She didn’t know what to do with her hands, so she put them in her pockets.
“These few were all they had left today.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you wait,” Nianqi apologized.
“No, you meant to stand me up,” Zhang Yibai looked at her as if he was joking.
Nianqi was silent for a moment and smiled. “It was you who stood me up. You missed our last date.”
Zhang Yibai didn’t answer. Both of them were lost in memories. Water dripped from the leaves into the puddles and made some quiet ripples. Nianqi waited for a long time, but he didn’t explain. Zhang Yibai raised his arm and took a sip of his coffee.
“To my place to eat those crabs. We can’t eat them on the street,” Nianqi strode forward.
Her new apartment was not far from her work. Actually, the reason she and Zhou Wenjun bought it was its location. It only took her twenty minutes to walk to work from the apartment, and there was a school near the community. Zhou Wenjun made the down payment, but both of their names would be written on the deed. They would make the payments together after getting married.
It had rained, and some puddles were left on the road. The sidewalk was jerrybuilt, so the tiles were loose and splashed water when someone walked on them. It was difficult to walk side by side, so Nianqi walked in front of Zhang Yibai, and thought she felt a gaze fixed on her back.
She straightened her back, which was usually slightly bent. When she stopped at a light, she found that he was only looking at his phone. Thus, when the light turned green, she walked faster.
Zhang Yibai slowed down whenever he almost caught up with her, so he was always a step behind. Showered by the rain, the trees by the road seemed to develop richer colors. Big splashes of yellow and green were woven together. The light faded as they entered the building and walked upstairs.
“You’re wearing new shoes again.” Zhang Yibai said in a low voice, as the dim light made him feel like he had to speak quietly.
The hem of Nianqi’s light gray dress swayed lightly, and her left ankle had already turned red. Whenever she wore new shoes, her right foot would be fine, but her left foot would be chafed.
“You’ve moved?” Zhang Yibai asked, watching her ankle mount the steps.
“I still live at my old place,” Nianqi answered, and waited for him to put two and two together. At this moment, a feeling of perverse pleasure, as cold as metal, rose from her heart.
When the door was opened, the brand new three-bedroom apartment told Zhang Yibai what he needed to know. He was not surprised, but his brows were still knit in an involuntary frown.
“Next month after the wedding, we’ll move in,” Nianqi said with her back turned to him, shutting the door.
“Oh.” Zhang Yibai forced a smile, “This is a nice place.”
“This table is great for eating crabs. You can put them anywhere. The bedrooms are big. You can even walk sideways in them,” Nianqi spoke these words dispassionately, like she was commenting on someone else’s home.
Zhang Yibai was still carrying the bag of crabs, as he’d forgot to put it down. He stood in the foyer. The floor was brown, tiled in a herringbone pattern, and there was a long oak table at the end of the hallway.
Nianqi had already walked into the apartment. The sofa was a pure white that easily showed the dirt. A colorful handmade carpet with geometrical patterns was laid on the floor, and it was so soft that it seemed to ask to be sat on. There was no TV. Instead, a projector stood in its box quietly in the corner. Tatami mats were laid into the bay window in the living room. A redwood grew outside, and its brownish red leaves were swaying in the wind.
Zhang Yibai walked to the table and looked around. Nianqi knew that he had seen, and might realize that some of the furniture and ornaments were exactly the ones that they themselves had wanted to buy. Sitting on the creaky bed in his bedroom, or by the handmade wooden table in her apartment, they had often imagined how they would furnish their future home when they bought one and moved in together. This was it; only the people were different.
Nianqi took the bag of crabs, put it on the table, and opened it.
“Congratulations.” Zhang Yibai looked at the grain of the table, as if he was examining a maze.
“Thanks. We have good relationship, and he is good to me. We’ve bought an apartment and we’re going to upgrade our car…” Nianqi realized that she was trying to prove something, so she told herself to stop. Regret, it seemed, was like the smell of the preservatives, occasionally emanating from the corners when one thought it was gone.
“Oh, there’s a way out,” said Zhang Yibai, and smiled.
“The grain.” Zhang Yibai traced his finger across the table a few times, from the center of the pattern to the edge.
“Boring,” Nianqi said. “You’re boring as always.”
Zhang Yibai stayed silent for a while, and decided against asking anything more. He walked to the door and turned the door knob, but the door didn’t open. “Come here.”
“What?” Nianqi touched the smooth knob, which was still a little warm from the sun.
“I’m going out for a smoke.” He had already taken out a cigarette and put it into his mouth.
Nianqi took out a key and tried it a few times, but it wouldn’t open. “The lock is broken. Maybe it can be opened from the outside.”
“Who else has a key?” They stood facing at each other in the long hallway. Then he joked, “How about calling him to come over to open the door?”
“Go away,” Nianqi ignored him and walked back to the table. She tore open a pack of sauce and poured it into the plastic container, but a third of it spilled out. With her other hand, she took out her mobile phone and searched for locksmiths in the area.
Zhang Yibai put away his cigarette and picked up a crab, and then he gripped Nianqi’s hand with the crab pincers. Nianqi couldn’t stay angry under such circumstances, so she also took a crab and started to fight back with the pincers. Nianqi was laughing out loud. That rubber band which had been stretched tight ever since they met each other again was suddenly slackened. When her hatred and accusations were dismissed from the surface, her real feelings, which she didn’t realize, were gradually exposed. She was no longer concerned with the lock or finding a locksmith.
He asked as they sat down, “How is work? Are you happy?”
“No. I’ve been making video ads for two years, and every month there will be two or three days when I think about quitting. But the salary is good. How should I put this? I used to think that making ads was making worthless things,” Nianqi shook her head, as if trying to shake advertisements out of the world, into outer space, from which they could never come back. “Well, I still think that. But there are so many meaningless jobs in the world, so I just choose one that pays me well. Where are the gloves?”
Zhang Yibai rummaged around in the bag. “I didn’t take any. Come on, you’ve already touched these crabs.”
Nianqi pulled off the top shell, exposing a lump of creamy roe. She pulled the crab apart, dipped it into the sauce, and put it into her mouth. Fishy and fragrant smells mixed together in her mouth.
“I’m hungry,” she said. She had only eaten a matcha red bean bun at noon, but her stomach felt even emptier now that it had been stimulated by the food.
Zhang Yibai opened his backpack, took out a pack of soda crackers, and pushed it across the table.
“Are you a refugee?” She was surprised.
“I’m going straight to the airport after. Water?” Zhang Yibai shook a white thermos. “I only have this.”
Nianqi recognized the thermos. She’d bought it. It had once been thrown onto the ground during an argument, so there was a dent on it. She took the bottle and drank from it directly, just as she used to do.
“Where are you going?” She tore open the packet of crackers.
“First to Hailar, to see the Great Khingan Mountains.” Zhang Yibai always ate the crab legs first.
After a few bites of crackers, Nianqi took another crab, so she had no time to talk. Both of their hands were glistening, and their chewing was the only sound in the air. All the unopened furniture in the apartment silently kept them company. Even without looking in the mirror, she knew that her lipstick was smudged and her low ponytail was loosened, but she was surprised to find that she was comfortable, nonetheless. The familiar fragrance of his laundry detergent overpowered the fishy smell on his clothes. As her stomach filled, she lazily leaned back in the chair.
“I want to go,” she blurted out.
“What?” Zhang Yibai understood, but he still asked.
“The Great Khingans. Although, maybe even if I go, I’d still get dragged back by calls from clients.” She smiled, and flinched away from the topic she started. “How about you? What have you been doing recently?”
“Working from home, designing posters, book illustrations, and the like. I take whatever work is available. Then I draw in my spare time.” Zhang Yibai rolled up his sleeves.
“Still only painting portraits? Painting them as ugly as possible?” Nianqi looked at him. The appearance, the clothes, and mannerisms were almost the same as before. She took the bottle and drank from it again, looking at him across the top.
“Yeah. As long as I’m not tired with this theme, I’m going to continue painting. But I’m not painting them as ugly as possible.” Zhang Yibai retorted and he stayed silent for a moment. “It’s just that…”
“Those distorted lines magnify the unspeakable pain concealed in one’s heart.”
“Yes, you know.” She shut the lid with a snap, as if intentionally ruining the cozy atmosphere they had almost created. “Uh-huh. So, they are ugly. Don’t paint me in that way, or…”
“I remember. Or you’ll tear them all to pieces.”
“You have a bad memory. Or you’re exaggerating. I only tore one.”
“Well, better to tear my painting rather than to break your phone, right? You save both money and energy that way.” Zhang Yibai smiled. She smiled also—no matter how terrible their fights used to be, they looked like comedies in hindsight.
All six crabs were eaten up and the shells were left on the table. Nianqi walked to the kitchen to wash her hands, but there wasn’t any dish soap there, so her hands were still a little greasy afterward and the fishy smell hung around her fingers. When she went back to the table, Zhang Yibai had already cleared away the crab shells and was wiping the table with a tissue.
“You are not in a hurry.” Nianqi took out her phone.
“What?” Zhang Yibai put the dirty tissue into the garbage bag and fastened it.
“What time is your flight?”
“Ten.” He stood and leaned against the seat back. “So I still have time.”
What did he have time for? Nianqi didn’t ask. She turned around and called for a locksmith. He said he couldn’t come for another two or three hours.
“OK. I’ll wait for you.” She hung up the phone.
Without the sounds of chewing, the 89-square-meter space became strangely quiet. They couldn’t go out, for they were locked inside the newly furnished apartment, looking at each other within arm’s reach. Whether it rained, or a revolt broke out outside, it had nothing to do with them. Even if an earthquake occurred, they would have nowhere to flee and would die together. The outside world was temporarily irrelevant. They were in the same room, but they had nothing to do.
To prevent herself from thinking, she continued talking. “The autumn in the Great Khingans must be very beautiful, even though the autumn in Hangzhou is beautiful too.”
“The autumn in the north is still different. Maybe I’ll go to see the reindeer.”
“Will you paint ugly portraits of them?”
“If they don’t run away.”
“Are you going there alone?” she suddenly asked. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“My daughter is already one year old.”
Zhang Yibai winked, and she immediately realized that he was joking.
“No, there’s no way I would have a child,” he said, as if he suddenly remembered something. “I never thought that you’d be getting married.”
“Yes, I’m getting married,” she affirmed quietly.
“I had a girlfriend, but we broke up a few months ago.”
“It didn’t work out?”
He kept silent.
“The day you called me was the day I started my new job.” He walked to the living room and looked at the leaves outside of the window. “Find a steady job, get up in time and report for duty somewhere, have a child at an appropriate age and become responsible for other people. I wanted to try living this way. I thought if I had done that before, we might not have had so many fights.”
“That wasn’t the only problem.” Nianqi sat down on the sofa.
“After we broke up, I asked myself over and over again what the problem was.” From where she sat, Nianqi could only see his hands, which hung by his sides. His fingers were slightly crooked and his knuckles stuck out; there was a fleck of deep blue paint on his right index finger. They had endured a long period fighting, making up, and passive aggression before finally breaking up. It seemed that someone had tied a knot in their relationship, and they were unable to unravel it.
“What did you discover?” He smiled.
“Why people fall in love, break up, and hurt each other? If I could figure that out, I could win the Nobel Prize.” Nianqi said these words in a light voice, as if wanting to get it over with as soon as possible. “This weather makes me want to drink some beer.”
“I only have this.” Zhang Yibai shook the thermos and sat down on the other side of the sofa. “It’s like playing Stranded Deep.”
She nodded, then shook her head. She didn’t know what she wanted to express; she just found that she was happier than she had been for a long time. Even without any beer to drink, she felt happy.
“Before hurting each other, you’d better stop hurting yourself. Stop wearing high heels so often.”
She hadn’t been aware of the pain coming from her ankle until he reminded her.
“We still have a while to wait. Relax. Make yourself at home.” Zhang Yibai joked.
“Make myself?” she demanded while removing her shoes. Then she curled up on the sofa, with her feet against the arm. Her shoulder touched his, but she didn’t move, and she suddenly felt this was the only part of her body that had any sensation at all. She was barely able to suppress an impulse to put her arms around him.
“You can rest if you are tired,” he said softly. She began to relax, and the sensation coming from her shoulder was so familiar. Her impulse receded like a tide, while drowsiness and tranquility descended over her limbs. Before falling into sleep, she thought, “Go with him and see the Great Khingan in autumn. Go with him.”
She was woken up by the knocking, and at the same time, her phone rang. Nianqi picked up the call as she sat up. She found that when she slept, her head had come to rest on Zhang Yibai’s shoulder. Zhang Yibai didn’t move, but stayed in the same posture while he played Honor of Kings on his phone.
It was the locksmith. After hanging up, she decided to prank call Zhang Yibai. She heard a howl of protest behind her as the sounds of a wrench came from the other side of the door. A moment later, the door opened, and Zhang Yibai lost the game.
“I should go.” He stood beside his backpack.
The air in the apartment started to circulate again, and a message came in from Zhou Wenjun. Nianqi watched as Zhang Yibai picked up his backpack, shifted its weight, and adjusted the straps. For some reason, those mundane actions gave her a feeling of love. She opened her mouth, but didn’t make any sound, and nodded. Some things that were left undone would never be done.
Zhang Yibai walked downstairs while she stayed rooted in the same spot. As his footsteps faded away, she closed the door and sat cross-legged on the sofa, looking at the new ceiling and the white walls. This was the apartment she would repay in time, and it would become her home, where she would return at the same time every day. She knew that she would no longer live a carefree life.
Even though the life she saw in her future would be a little boring—a child, those irritating clients, a trip aboard once a year—it also gave her a sense of inner peace.
“Done with work? Should I come pick you up?” Zhou Wenjun asked on WeChat.
“No, I’ll come over. Did you order the bouquet?” Nianqi pressed the Send button and sat on the sofa for a while, with her eyes closed.
The color of the sky soon turned from the dry rose to royal blue, and then completely dark. She walked out of the apartment and locked the door. The new key, which she held in her hand, still had a smell of metal. Leaving the building, she found that the outside world was still wet, but the signs of the shops beside the road were bright with neon.
She saw Zhou Wenjun standing at the crossing, and he was waving goodbye to a short-haired girl. The girl walked away, but he still stood in the same spot in a daze. Nianqi ducked into the convenience store by the road and randomly started picking things off the shelves. A few minutes later, a new message came in from Zhou Wenjun. “I didn’t go out today. Let’s order the bouquet together when we have time.”
Nianqi didn’t know when she’d picked up a pack of marshmallows, but she took it to the cash register. When she left the store, Zhou Wenjun was nowhere in sight. Numerous heart patterns were lit up on the skyscraper in the distance, dazzling her eyes. Behind her was the apartment in which they would live together.
– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: I am intrigued by the subtle moments in an intimate relationship, or the undercurrents in a peaceful life that has been broken. “The Empty Room” describes how we hurt and forgive each other in a relationship. Love has been worn down by reality; even though they are in the same room, no one is actually present. Our hearts are separated by ten thousand rivers and mountains.