Author: Wu Shangwei 吴尚蔚
Born in 1992 in a small Sichuanese town, Wu Shangwei recently earned a doctorate from Erasmus University Rotterdam. Before this, he studied journalism and communication at Renmin University of China for seven years. Now pursuing an academic career, Wu writes short stories in his spare time, which have been published on Douban. His stories deal with the subtlety of emotions and feelings, while paying equal attention to the socio-cultural backdrop of people’s actions.
It was the 30th time Wang Yue looked diagonally across at the young man sitting by the window. How did she know that this was the 30th time? Wang Yue had kept herself busy after boarding the train in Shijiazhuang. She was either chewing on fish sausages, or shooting the breeze with the two girls who were traveling with her: about how she registered for the College Computer Test; how Shuanghui sausages didn’t taste as good as Meihao sausages from Sichuan province; how facial hair on girls symbolized good fortune—this made Wang Yue self-conscious about the fuzz at the corners of her mouth. She was always afraid it would grow back thicker if she trimmed it, so she decided to accept this superstition.
Although her mouth was kept busy, Wang Yue’s eyes were free to look around. Sitting on the lower berth, she happened to see a piece of dark chewing gum stuck fast to the side of the opposite berth, and this disgusted her. The heavy woman assigned to that berth was sitting on the folding seat diagonally across. Wearing a pair of glasses and a grim expression, she stared out at the North China Plain as it flashed past the window. Then Wang Yue’s eyes fell on the young man sitting beyond her.
Wang Yue and her friends were tired from eating and chatting, so they separated and went back to their own berth to rest. Now, Wang Yue had time to look carefully at the young man’s hands—his fingers were long and slender, and they rested quietly on his knees. Pressing his lips together, the young man bent slightly forward. He looked out the window while Wang Yue looked at him, their sight lines forming a right angle. His fair skin was like the snow on a roof, while his hair was as sleek and black as newly-mined coal.
“Thirty,” Wang Yue grumbled inwardly. It must be because she rolled dice in her subconscious that this number randomly flashed across her mind. It came so suddenly that it was like a smooth black stone, which fell by her feet with a plop when she stood in a white world of ice and snow. However, when she looked around, she only found a quiet world without any sign of human activity.
When Wang Yue had dragged her light green suitcase (three times wider than her waist) into the No. 5 hard sleeper carriage, her down coat was still enveloped with the cold air of the platform at Shijiazhuang. The plastic bag in her left hand was stuffed with snacks, her grail of sustenance for the next 25 hours of boredom. While she thought about the best way to toss the plastic bag onto her berth with a casual air, she saw the young man reading a book on her berth.
“Is this the Number 1 berth?” Wang Yue spoke Mandarin well, having practiced it in the past year-and-a-half since she left Sichuan.
The young man looked at her, and stood up.
“No, it’s OK; you can sit here,” Wang Yue answered, but he looked embarrassed. He continually lifted his book and put it down, not knowing what to do. When Wang Yue put down her bag, the young man sat down on the opposite berth, for the heavy woman had already moved to the seat by the window. The luggage rack was full of suitcases of different colors, and the space under her berth had been stuffed full by passengers who had gotten on at Beijing. When she and her friends looked for a space for their suitcases, the young man helped them. He didn’t end up being much help, but it crossed Wang Yue’s mind: This guy wasn’t bad.
In the end, Wang Yue and her schoolmates put their suitcases against the wall under the table between the berths. There was no space left under the table for their feet if they wanted to sit there to eat instant noodles. Wang Yue and one of her schoolmates sat on her berth, while the other sat opposite. As for the young man, he had voluntarily moved to the folding seat.
Involuntarily, Wang Yue glanced at the young man, and she found that he was somewhat chenzhan. This was Sichuanese for having fine features. Not handsome, because handsome could only be used to describe those men who were a little bad. From middle school to high school, all the handsome boys Wang Yue had known were like that. Instead of studying, they liked playing games, and they flirted with girls. Today, some of these boys studied at second or third-tier universities or vocational schools in Sichuan province, while some of them had moved across the country to earn a living. Some of them even stayed at home and had babies which they now fed with a feeding bottle.
As for the boys she met in her university…it was a polytechnic university, so the male population was frighteningly large, while their appearances were simply frightening. There were some attractive boys who were intellectual, but they didn’t like girls. Although Wang Yue liked to read boys’ love stories and was completely fascinated by their tragic plots, she was still a bit uncomfortable meeting gay men in real life. She felt that they took away something that should belong to her.
The good-looking young man read on quietly. He was careful when he turned over the page, just like the summer wind that gently blew over the rice seedlings in paddies. This scene gave Wang Yue goosebumps all over.
“Fruit! Fruit! Fifteen yuan a box! Fresh Fruit! Fifteen yuan a box!”
The white-uniformed steward pushed a trolley past her and blocked her view. On the train to Chengdu, all the crew members spoke the Sichuan dialect. Boarding on the train was like coming home early.
“So expensive! Last time it was only 10 yuan,” Wang Yue quipped.
“Well…it’s winter now, so fruit is more expensive,” the steward was embarrassed by Wang Yue’s staring. He didn’t know that she never bought any fruit on the train.
“Your strawberries are covered in dirt, and your oranges are so sour that my jaw almost dropped.” Wang Yue continued teasing. She took out a handful of oranges from her plastic bag. “My oranges are sweet. Here, these are for you. But don’t sell them!”
The steward smiled awkwardly and hurried off to the next carriage amid the girls’ laughter. The heavy woman turned around and glared at Wang Yue, but it didn’t spoil the jovial mood she was in, and she continued joking and horseplaying with her friends. As she chatted, she cast a quick glance at the young man. He was still reading quietly, without even changing his posture, just as if nothing had happened.
After the fish sausages came beef jerky, and after that, Wang Yue ripped open a bag of chips to share with her friends, giving their mouths no time to rest. Wang Yue stole another look at the young man and found that he was still in the same posture. She even started to wonder whether his pressure points had been attacked and that he’d been paralyzed. The only change was that his eyebrows had drawn closer to his nose.
“My roommate said that she wanted to travel to the ancient town of Shangli with her boyfriend, and she asked me whether I knew this place. Do you know this place?” Wang Yue’s friends continued laughing and eating.
“No, I’ve only been to Luodai…”
“I travelled to Pingle in the summer vacation…”
The young man sat motionless, as quiet as a cat. The carriage was warm, so he only wore a gray knitted cardigan with stripes on the arm. However, inside, he wore a red-and-white checkered shirt, which peeped out of the cardigan’s collar like a flag fluttering in the wind. It was strangely sensuous, capturing all Wang Yue’s attention.
When the steward pushed the food trolley down the narrow aisle, everyone around him withdrew their hands and feet, but he didn’t move. When a smarmy-looking guy on another berth began singing, and all of his friends jeered at him, the young man continued calmly turning the pages.
As time went on, this fossil-like behavior began to confuse Wang Yue. She didn’t know how he could sit there without saying a word for such a long time. The heavy woman was also quiet, but she didn’t arouse Wang Yue’s curiosity at all. This might have been because they were both females, and only opposites attract. Her two schoolmates got tired of talking and climbed back up to their berths.
Putting away her bag, Wang Yue opened the thin quilt and got ready to rest. However, the young man suddenly tensed. He jumped from the folding seat and hurried toward her. Wang Yue froze. The young man took some tissues from the berth above and softly wiped his book. As Wang Yue tried to process what had happened, he grabbed a few more tissues and walked back to his seat, and started to wipe the upper frame of the window. Apparently, it was the condensation on the window dripping onto his book that made him anxious.
The young man, who was obsessive about the cleanliness of his book, was going to sleep exactly above Wang Yue.
When Wang Yue woke up, she was a little dizzy, and she felt that there was someone sitting on her berth. It might be that she had stretched her feet too far and kicked him, for she heard, before she even opened her eyes, a man’s voice saying, “Sorry, sorry.”
Wang Yue’s hair stood on end, and she answered, “No, no, you can sit there.” Though she felt wide awake, she was still unable to open her eyes. The more anxious she was, the weaker her eyelids became. She could only move her limbs. When her eyes finally opened, Wang Yue found that it was a man who wore a dark sweater and had the middle berth across from her. He was standing before her with a tablet in his hands.
The good-looking young man had already left the folding seat. Instead, there was a middle-aged woman with glasses sitting on it. The heavy woman was lying on her berth. Her figure was so bulky that there wasn’t enough space left for other people to sit. Wang Yue sat up and let the man sit down.
“Where do you get off?” The man asked.
“Oh, you’re from Chengdu as well? I live around Yulin Road.”
“I’m from Jianyang.”
The man in the dark sweater, whom Wang Yue had no interest in talking to, was quite big, and he blocked much of her view. Wang Yue grabbed a copy of Vista magazine beside her pillow and flipped through the pages. Then she found a pea-sized dark stain on her pillow. “Shit!” She didn’t know how many people had used the pillow and quilt before her, and how often these things were washed.
She tossed the pillow to the other end of her berth, behind the man in the dark sweater. Leaning against the wall, she started to read the celebrity gossip. She remembered that the good-looking young man had finally put down his book just as she was about to fall asleep. Putting his book on the table beside the window, he had started looking out of it with his hands on his knees.
Wang Yue suddenly sat up and shouted toward the roof, “Chuan! I want to watch The Big Bang Theory!” The girl in the upper berth answered drowsily, “Come up, then.” Wang Yue maneuvered around the man, climbed up the ladder and grabbed her friend’s tablet and headphones. On the way down, she glanced at the middle berth—it had not been slept in, and there were only a backpack and a box of tissues on it.
The man in the dark sweater went back to his own berth, so finally there was no one blocking her view. Sitting beside the aisle, Wang Yue put on her headphones. It was 4 p.m. and the carriage was quiet. Everyone seemed to be tired out by travel, so they were either sleeping or spacing out by the window.
Wang Yue didn’t want to go home. All she did at home was sleep and space out, too. She didn’t want to hang out, and couldn’t find anyone to hang out with. Her childhood friends had faded from her memory, and she had no common interests with her middle school classmates. Her high school was in another town and her classmates came from all over the province—Suining, Ziyang, Yibin, Ya’an, and Zigong…They were like sand that had been blown away by the wind, impossible to gather all in one place.
While Wang Yue was deep in thought, the good-looking man returned to the folding seat and started to read. Although Wang Yue was watching Sheldon on her screen, she stole several glances at him. He frowned most of the time, just as a student invested in a calculus problem. Seeing this, she thought perhaps he had a hard life and that’s why he always ignored worldly matters.
The serious expression on his face almost froze the air around him: The stumbling man in glasses who held a carton of instant noodles; the old woman leading a toddler on a leash; the crew member who aimlessly swept the floor—it seemed that everyone who passed him had tried hard to stir the frozen air but failed, like boats that had struck an iceberg.
Wang Yue grew uneasy as time went on. His silence was spreading like an epidemic. The smarmy man started humming rather than singing; the couple who were teasing each other became quiet, the man sinking to sleep in the woman’s arms; the man in glasses finished his instant noodles, leaned back on his folded-up quilt, and fell into a doze; the old woman staggered like a child, while the toddler stayed strangely quiet without crying or making any other noise; a crew member fetched a bucket of water to flush the toilet, without noticing that the water had splashed onto his trousers.
She suddenly felt angry, for she was affected as well. She was weak all over, and she could only lie on her berth like wet mud. She couldn’t stand it. She was bored and helpless. She even wanted to shout “Damn!” in a voice that was as shrill as nails on a chalkboard. She wanted to take the largest apple out of her plastic bag and throw it at the phantom-like head opposite her. But what would that accomplish? Just to let that self-absorbed bastard discover the rule of gravity?
But she soon got an opportunity to punish him. Chuan came down from her berth and took out a carton of instant noodles. Wang Yue prevented her from sitting on the berth and pointed at the folding seat opposite the young man, saying, “You can’t even put your feet down over here. Why don’t you sit there and eat your noodles?”
The young man didn’t notice Chuan at first. But when Chuan came back with a carton full of boiled water, he looked up at her, worried. The table by the window was small, so they were side by side. A snigger tugged at the corner of Wang Yue’s mouth, for she was wondering what would happen if a few drops of oil splashed onto the young man’s book while Chuan ate.
The young man seemed to be wondering the same, for he turned around in order to keep his book as far from Chuan’s noodles as possible. This put him face-to-face with the smarmy guy wearing stud earrings, who had been singing songs a few hours ago. That guy jiggled his leg continuously, and picked his nose while looking at his phone. The couple opposite him also started flirting as if there was no one else around, now and then making embarrassing sounds. Closing his book, the young man was ready to stand up, but he fell down on the seat before straightening his knees.
Chuan was a messy eater—the oil splashed onto not only the table, but also the window.
Putting the book on his knees, the young man adjusted his collar and smoothed the creases from his cardigan. He looked out the window nervously, and at the dirty carpet, which was dark and “decorated” with fruit peel and scraps of paper.
Seeing how embarrassed he was, Wang Yue let out a sigh of relief.
He might plead with Chuan, “Could you please be more careful when you eat?” Or he might leave the folding seat. If so, she would be very willing to let him fill the extra space on her berth.
It took him longer to react than she had expected. He seemed to be at his wits’ end. Eventually, he switched to standing up and looking out the window. The rivers were frozen and the farmhouses covered in snow. The bleak winter scenery was flowing before his long-lashed eyes.
His face was red, possibly from the setting sun blazing down on it. Wang Yue took a breath. The gray sky outside seemed to disapprove of her intentions, and this made her feel ashamed. At that moment, the train abruptly braked, and the young man lost his balance and almost fell down.
Seeing this, Wang Yue felt even more nervous than he did. She watched as he looked around and tried to hide his embarrassment.
At that moment, they happened to meet each other’s eyes.
Wang Yue would always be proud of the acting talent she showed at that moment. She shuffled toward him in her khaki boots and said in her calmest voice, “Excuse me, would you mind changing seats with me? I want to eat noodles.”
Wang Yue stayed up late by the window that night. It was 10 p.m. The lights were turned off in the carriage, and the crew had drawn the curtains. Everyone was on their berths, either sleeping or playing on their phones. Pulling up a corner of the curtain, Wang Yue peeped at the earth in darkness.
As snores gradually filled the carriage, Wang Yue walked back to the No. 1 berth. She looked at the young man on the middle berth—he lay flat on his back with his hands folded on his chest, as if he was praying.
Wang Yue crawled into bed and lay down, and then she started to think about the way the young man had read his book while she had dinner. He still wore a blank expression most of the time, but there was a moment when he suddenly smiled. His mouth turned up, revealing white teeth, while his bright eyes crinkled up. The bright beams shining from his eyes illuminated every corner of the carriage.
At this moment, an arm gently dropped and hung from the middle berth. It seemed that the young man was waving to thank her for saving him from embarrassment. A few minutes later, the arm was drawn back up. Wang Yue smiled and said to herself, “There’s nothing in it.”
Now and then, shadows crossed the carriage, and Wang Yue was gradually lost in illusions. She felt that she was in a white world of ice and snow, and a smooth black stone suddenly dropped beside her feet with a plop. But, when she looked around, she just found a quiet world without any sign of human activity. She took out her heart, which was crumpled up like a piece of wastepaper, and carefully smoothed out any creases, making it crisp again. Putting back her heart, she walked ahead in a brave and determined way.
“Goodnight.” Saying this, she closed her eyes.
– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: During my university years in Beijing, I always took the train back to my hometown in Sichuan during school breaks. Back then, there wasn’t a high-speed railway between Beijing and Chengdu. The fastest train trip was still over 20 hours. I usually traveled alone, and though I seldom chatted with other passengers, I often observed their behavior. This story is based on the details I gathered from my trips, enhanced with what I imagined was passing through my fellow travelers’ minds.
Illustration by Cai Tao, Xi Dahe
“The Stranger on the Train” is a story from our issue, “Dawn of the Debt.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.