THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


In the Mood for Love

by Emily Yang

Illustration by Alex Westfall

published March 27, 2020


He saw the first one when he caught its corner behind a dust-bound volume of textbooks. A wrinkled page torn from a datum notebook, surface gridded tightly by faded cyan squares. When he unfolded it, he found an unmistakably boyish scrawl fluttering inside, printed in a paled blue ink. At the end of every other phrase, the oily ink bled into the paper like a tiny, bursting blueberry, a disquieting idiosyncrasy that Wei couldn’t quite pin down as intentional or not. The letter was signed with one Chinese character: 無, as in “none.” Too unusual an iteration of the syllable for a family name—probably a pseudonym, maybe a homonym for his real surname.‮

The content was nothing out of the ordinary: a love letter addressed to Wei’s current lover, written by a former boyfriend of hers—perhaps from college, maybe even high school. She had told him about most of her ex-lovers, an assortment of sheepish Taiwanese boys she’d inadvertently charmed growing up, but he didn’t recall one whose surname was a “Wu.” Still, such a detail hardly mattered, he thought. Wei quickly put it behind him as he slipped the letter back in its hiding place, continuing his quest for her ragged, traditional Mandarin edition of Siddhartha that he’d wanted to borrow once more.

It wasn’t until the next day that the clumsy lettering of this “Wu” resurfaced somewhat rudely. Ling had tugged on his red tie, pulling him in for a welcome-home kiss. When Wei tucked a few strands of hair behind her ears, a blotch of blue split on the side of her pale neck, an inch below her jawline. Startled, he pulled back.

“What’s wrong?” Ling asked, frowning. Wei blinked a few times, and with every rapid blink the burst shrunk back down to the small mole on her neck.

“Nothing,” he said. “Just thought I saw something.”

 

+++

 

Ling:

Sometimes I dream of an almanac that contains all the answers to your existence. A calendar that divulges every single detail I need in order to demystify you in my mind. It’s handmade, two days a page, jotted in my own handwriting across pages and pages of those datum notebooks that people use for math class. Every day I flip to the next page, and crucial facts about you emerge in deep red ink.

At the beginning of these dreams, I rejoice. I feel myself becoming whole as I amass more and more fragments of who you are. The more words I collect, the more textures you take up, and the more you begin to take shape, like a slab of marble chiseled to life. And somewhere in this steady flow of words and images, your existence comes to fruition. I think to myself that if I go on like this, maybe one day you’ll become whole to me, too. Only then, I know, will I be able to touch you.

But whenever I try to turn back the days, to seek out an older note I’ve long forgotten, everything disappears. It always begins where my fingertips first land on the page. It’s ruthless—as soon as I brush it, a nothingness contracts and expands until it blots out the words I’ve placed carefully on your skin.

This happens whenever I turn my back on the present. And I do just that, without fail, every time I dream of this almanac of ours, or mine.

As this nothingness spreads, the blue notebook begins to fade away as well. When I reach out to stop it from disappearing, my fingers touch nothing.

 

Yours,

‮無

 

+++

 

A few days later, when Wei finished Siddhartha, he entered her study to return the book to its place. As always, it had moved him deeply, but over time it struck him as far too naïve. Somewhere within and across his words, Hesse suggested that all organic things had an essence, which neither preceded nor followed existence—it was existence, and in the fact of their existence-essence, all things, Dalai Lamas and rivers alike, were equal. Wei wasn’t the type to brood over these philosophical technicalities—he was a simple guy from Hsinchu County, really—so he didn’t question any of Hesse’s logic the first time around. By the third read, however, he knew that no society could function on this radically egalitarian notion. As idealistic as he was (he still thought Taiwan could one day attain independence from China), he acknowledged that it was only human to pigeonhole different existences in a way that privileged one or two over the rest.

He mulled this over as he slid the paperback into its former place, moseying around his non-conclusions. Eyes flitting around the room for his next read, he caught a glimpse of the letter once more.

Strangely, it was now jutting out from between the calculus textbooks. Wei was sure he had positioned the letter just as he had found it, lying in wait at the back of the shelf—but there it was, announcing itself from between two moldering college textbooks.

He pulled the letter out and gave it a more thorough read. Upon closer inspection, he concluded, Wu’s writing was mediocre at best. Each ghostly burst of blue seemed compensatory, a Rorschach stammering an apology for the trite flourish just now penned and ostensibly read. He jumped from one thought onto the next without transitions, paying no mind to punctuation and spelling.

To top it all off, the text was an incoherent amalgam of English, simplified and traditional Chinese, and even Japanese. In English, he alternated between the pseudo-poetic (“You make me feel a deep maroon”) and the cliché (“I’m so lucky to call you mine”). In Chinese, he simply recycled truisms that he’d spell wrong, either by accident or to deliver a bad pun. For the adage 愛不是佔有,而是欣賞 (“Love is not possession, but veneration”), he used the 心 that meant “heart” instead of the correct 欣, which signified happiness or liking. The one line of Japanese was simply an elementary 愛してる, scribbled in messy hiragana to close out the letter.

Wei wondered what Wu would have written if Taiwanese had a corporeal form, one independent of Chinese characters for which the language was only one of many possible pronunciations. He wondered if Wu spoke Taiwanese fluently, or could only comprehend pinches of simple phrases like Ling. Maybe he couldn’t speak Taiwanese at all—he did remember her mentioning a Chinese ex or two. Again reaching no conclusions, he slipped the note back into the abyss between Multivariable Calculus and Differential Equations.

 

+++

 

Wei and Ling had been seeing each other for the past two years, but he only wrote her a real, hard-copy letter once, after a somewhat dramatic argument on a spring evening. They had been discussing their romantic histories that night, circling around信義 Plaza with cups of papaya milk in hand.

“I was super hung up on Janice when I first met you,” he said as they plopped onto a marble bench in the clearing.

“Janice, huh,” she said. “I used to have the biggest crush on Andy. On and off for maybe two years, a year before I met you.”

“Andy Lau?”

“No, not the singer, stupid. Andy Chiu.”

“Wait, Andy Andy?”

“Yeah. My Andy.”

Tides of people rearranged themselves before him, shifting and slipping through the interstices of towering department store buildings. A nameless and shapeless feeling sifted through his chest, as did a stray stirring he couldn’t quite articulate into a thought.

“Ling,” he said after a while. “If I didn’t exist—if there was no ‘Wei’ in your world, or any world, as stupid as that sounds—would you go for Andy, do you think?”

Ling furrowed her brows. “I don’t know. Maybe?”

For a long time, they sat on the bench without saying another word. Every now and then, a sound would wash over them, dipping toes into the capillaries of silence they’d gathered between them. But none reached either of them.

“What’s up?” she finally asked, not bothering to hide the exasperation in her voice.

Wei let it sit for a moment, unable to bring himself to speak. He felt like the male protagonist of a poorly written shoujo manga. “I thought you would say no,” he said. “I guess I wanted you to say no.”

Ling looked at him, face streaked with confusion. “But that was just a hypothetical situation.”

“I mean, you still talk to him almost every day,” he said. “Andy.” He stood up. “But it’s fine. I can take this.”

“Take what?” She bolted upward to meet his line of vision, blinking fast. Fighting off tears, as she tended to do after any hint of disagreement. Probably hoping that Wei wouldn’t notice, but he did.

“This. I mean, imagine if I said I’d probably go for Janice if you were gone. Someone I talk to all the time. I don’t know.”

“What? That’s not what I said,” she said, voice rising. “You asked a question; I just answered. It’s an alternate universe, too. Like, that was my answer for an alternate fucking universe—”

“I’ll take it, Ling. I’ll take it. You don’t have to explain yourself.”

“What am I explaining?” she yelled. “我在解釋屁啊!”

 

+++

 

In stilted steps, Wei walked Ling back to her apartment, feeling like a buoy in a sea of fluid concrete. The whole walk home, Ling rambled unforgivingly on, now and then swiping away tears of defiance. Her dark brown eyes, he noticed, looked almost golden as passing streetlights dappled over her.

“You don’t understand how it feels,” Ling said, “to have you invalidate how I feel about you like that. To have you be jealous and think you have to ‘take’ or ‘endure’ something, when it literally doesn’t have to be that way.”

“Literally?”

“Literally. As I said, we’re talking about a fucking alternate universe here. This is one universe. The one where I might go for Andy ‘cause I’m bored and you don’t exist is another. It’s an alternate fucking uni—”

“Ling. I heard you the first time.” He thought his words would come out gentle, but they just sounded tired and harsh.

After he sent her home, he managed somehow to wade back to his own apartment, maybe via bus, maybe via the MRT. Maybe by foot. He couldn’t remember how he got there.

Rolling back and forth on his plain navy sheets, he tossed words around in his head to no particular end. 嫉妒。羨慕。 愛慕。No matter how many times he mouthed them, he couldn’t arrive at the right way to phrase the fundamental differences between these words. Accepting defeat, he drafted a quick apology text and sent it after one proofread.

It’s fine, she wrote back almost immediately. I understand where you’re coming from, of course. And I’m sorry, too—I never want you to feel that way again. But you have to give me the benefit of the doubt next time, seriously. If this happens again, you better apologize with a full-on letter, salutations and all. A text isn’t enough!!

You’re so old-fashioned, he replied, accompanying the text with a sticker of an old turtle with its spirit rising out of its body, though this was hardly true. In almost every respect Ling was more modern than Wei—born in Miaoli but raised in Taipei, she called東區 alleys her “backyard,” though her experience with actual backyards was limited to one study abroad experience in San Jose. And though educated at an American school masquerading as “international,” she assuredly passed as a local. At the KTV, she belted out the newest ballads by JJ Lin and Jay Chou without a trace of self-consciousness. She refused to eat Chinese yam, shark fin soup, or swallow nests—telltale symptoms of her membership in the strawberry generation.

Wei, on the other hand, never thought twice about whether he passed as local. At the American school he attended in Hsinchu, he unanimously won the senior superlative for “Most 台,” and he kept diligently in touch with friends from his local elementary school. Instead, he concerned himself more with taunts about how much he acted like an oji-san. His豆花 orders were always notably 養生, articles such as adlay millet and grass jelly crowding his bowl as if insisting belatedly against indulgence. He listened to A-mei strictly before she dyed her hair purple, and he often laced his speech with spells of Taiwanese jargon and four-character Chinese idioms. Rarely did he feel out of place, but was there such a thing as feeling out of time?

Wei thought about this as he glanced outside his window, where rain had begun to clap down in sheets. He fixed his gaze on the beads that pinned themselves against the glass, the reds, whites, and yellows of skyscraper light mottled into one hazy whole. As he watched the grains of light flicker in the distance, a scene emerged in his mind, and he began to understand. Standing under a summer downpour, he and Ling each held a stack of papers listing their grievances with one another in blue ink, angrily flinging demands at the other. Before they could get at the particularities of their differences, however, they needed to keep the rain from drumming their words to a place beyond recognition. They needed to construct a grammar out of their disparities, to stitch together a structure under which they could coexist, under which their words and feelings could remain legible. Then, and only then, could they sieve out a shared language that was at once beautiful and sustainable.

After a while, Wei checked his phone again, but there was no reply. He thought for a minute, then added a leftover我愛你我愛你我愛你!, half in jest, mostly not at all. No matter the language, he always had trouble saying those three words seriously, heavily, though he had never said them without meaning it. Each time he spelled out the phrase, he felt like someone was taking an ice cream dipper and carving out a piece of his chest.

 

+++

 

He couldn’t recall how he finally got around to writing it the next day, but he did. It was the first time he had bothered writing anything lengthy by hand outside of academic or professional endeavors. That night, she was busy attending a high school reunion. For two hours, as Ling downed Asahi beer at some izakaya, he labored dutifully away, legs crossed atop a pleather swivel chair. In the end, he managed to pen an entire six pages, a shamelessly sap-filled encomium to their love, just the way he knew she’d like it. Like most women in Wei’s life, Ling despised cheesiness only when she wasn’t on its receiving end.

Pleased with himself, he read the letter several more times and revised it with care, adding embellishments here and there. No matter how many praises he sung, however, he found that his words still fell short of how she actually made him feel.

Like Ling, he boasted plenty of ex-lovers, but none had made him want to fully possess another as badly, or feel as dispossessed as she made him on a daily basis. She constantly left him feeling unmoored, and yet she grounded him so. This back-and-forth drove him mad at times, but it also kept him on his toes; as a result, almost every drowsy conversation with her felt fresh, and almost every shared moment revealed something new about himself. He wanted to pin Ling onto his future horizons like a star in the sky.

This might sound like a lot to you, he scribbled in dark blue, but sometimes I think about losing you and it’s like all the stars in my horizon have been blotted out. If you’re not in my future, there’s nothing left up there for me. I know that I can physically live without you; but try as I might, I don’t think I can truly be happy without you in my life. I’m not saying this to create some sort of weird obligation in you to stay with me forever—I just want you to know that this is how I genuinely feel.

 

+++

 

Ling:

Today I followed a stray dog as he pissed over almost every utility pole in my neighborhood. Clearly an alpha male type, the black thing leapt from one pillar onto the next, questioning his own authority not a single time. By the time he hit his third pole, somehow not yet out of piss with which to mark his territory, I wondered at which point a word would begin to belong to me the way that piece of land now belonged to him. Whether seven uses of a word might do the trick, or whether I’d have to piss on it, too, to secure its place in my vocabulary. And then I thought about you. (Don’t worry, I won’t pee on you.)

There aren’t any real equivalents of possessive pronouns in Chinese—nothing like “yours” or “mine.” Just pronouns and nouns with the appendage dangling from their sides. I wonder which tongue I should use to best express my wish for you to be mine. I can never make up my mind: one moment, my limited Japanese seems to be the best fit; the next, it has to be my slightly less limited English.

Maybe no language is adequate enough to transmit what I feel to you. Maybe I’ll only ever know what I’m talking about when I talk about love when we’re just looking each other in the eye and feeling like we’re enough.

In any case, here I am, doing my best in every tongue possible, trying to tell you what should be the simplest thing in the world to convey. Let me know how I’m doing on that front.

Yours,

 

+++

 

“When I was little,” Ling said, “all I wanted to do was go to the movies. I wanted to abandon Taipei in all those foreign films they were screening. The glossy white women, waxed men in sleek suits, Japanese animation rolling around all restless. Whenever we passed by local theaters, I’d drop super blatant hints to my parents, like, ‘Sure could use some caramel popcorn right now!’ I’d even make stuff up, like,『 喔,小雨說那家電影院有賣水果糖誒。』You know those fruit candies they sell in tins? From Grave of the Fireflies?”

Wei nodded slowly, half as customary response, half as the go-ahead for her to continue.

“Anyway, my parents didn’t buy it. We had just moved to the city for a few years, so we needed to save up. Everything was so expensive compared to the run-down shacks they called cinemas back in Miaoli. That’s what my parents tell me, at least. I don’t really remember what Miaoli was like.”

They were sprawled across their modestly-sized bed, overlaid with a water mattress to quell the dense late-summer heat. City lights blinked outside, shuttered off by white venetian blinds. Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “I’m in the Mood for Love” twirled on the turntable, which had cost about five red envelopes from the two combined. Select pieces of music often put Ling in an unbelievably chatty mood, and this song topped her personal Hot 100.

Wei had heard this story at least three times before, usually at her parents’ prodding at some family banquet. Her parents were the kind who pulled the same five stories out of their sleeves at every grand gathering, which typically irritated Wei. But somehow, they’d knead each detail into shape with such unabashed affection, such guileless tenderness, that Wei would always find himself engrossed as if hearing the tale for the first time. Plus, they’d always subconsciously change crucial details here and there, as middle-aged Taiwanese people do. As a result, Wei would have a good time trying to keep track of the changes as the stories and small plates of braised peanuts rolled on out.

Without a doubt, Ling had inherited this penchant for repetition.  “I don’t remember when I started doing it,” she continued, “but one day, as I was biking by the theater near my house, I saw this oba-san in line for the next showing of some Hong Kong film. She was wearing this flowy, bright blue top, with tiny silver jewels on the front that spelled out CHANNEL in the font of Chanel. Classic local market find—60NT tops.”

As she spoke, Wei rubbed his thumb against the mole on her neck without looking.

“Anyway, I remember looking at the edges of that weird flowy top, and something just clicking inside of me. I braked and locked my bike to a utility pole, and then I grabbed the corner of her top. It was too flowy for her to feel my hold on her, so I marched right on in behind her, just like that, posing as her daughter.”

A smile splayed across her lips. “And that’s how I went to the movies for the next three years, until I was too big to sneak in unnoticed. Posing as everyone’s daughter.” She directed a purposeful look at him.

“And what was that Hong Kong movie you watched?” Wei asked, playing his part.

She grinned. “花樣年華, or In the Mood for Love, as Westerners like to call it. Wong Kar-wai.”

“And what were your thoughts on the movie?”

“Didn’t understand one bit,” she reported. “Seven-year-olds and art cinema don’t really mesh. But I wanted one of Maggie Cheung’s dresses for months afterward.”

Wei imagined the way the bodice of the iconic cheongsam would hug Ling’s slight curves. He traced the winding paths of her body with a finger.

“Can I offer an unpopular opinion?” he asked.

“Try me.”

“Maggie Cheung isn’t that cute.”

Ling furrowed her brows. “Well, yeah. She’s not cute. She’s beautiful.”

“I don’t think she’s that beautiful, either,” Wei quipped. “You’re way cuter.”

Her lips parted slightly, breaths wafting unevenly within. She pursed them.

Wei’s eyes were plastered to the ceiling. As Louis Armstrong crooned, blue and maroon splattered above like the innards of cracked eggs. “Screw Maggie Cheung,” he said, half-serious. “You’re the most beautiful girl in the world.”

He thought she would be smiling or rolling her eyes when he turned over, but her expression remained blank, her gaze fixed above. A few moments later, she sighed.

“I’ve been meaning to say this for a while,” she murmured, “but I don’t know how to feel when you compliment me in superlatives. It makes me feel like a girl in the movies.” She pulled a thin blanket over her nose. “And, I mean, movies aren’t real.”

That night, as Wei dimmed the lampshade and slipped into the folds beside her, he thought about how people told their new lovers stories as if the act were somehow exceptional, as if they hadn’t already told past lovers and maybe even crushes the very same tales, a dozen times over.

 

+++

 

From that day on, the paper scraps made themselves known wherever he went. Under the computer in the study, or else lodged somewhere among their records. Even outside of the apartment, he could not escape the flecks of cyan-and-white: they peppered the tarmac he trod upon and threatened desks of cubicles wherever he went. They slipped into moments big and small, popped up at times expected and unexpected.

In this way, the letters went about terrorizing him rather indiscriminately.

 

+++

 

Ling had faded blue streaks in her cropped black hair when they first met at a cross-Strait relations conference.

They were both visibly older than other attendees, him in a pinstripe suit and her in a button-up blouse and pencil skirt, so they naturally struck up a conversation right before the opening speech. As they hit it off, they found themselves tuning out the speaker, trading notes and phone numbers by scribbling furiously, back and forth, in her small burgundy planner.

So I’m riding the escalator up from City Hall Station the other day, Ling wrote in her light stroke, and it strikes me that I’ve never tried to understand cross-Strait relations before. I wonder if I’m even really Taiwanese. Then, I glance at the row of flyers on the wall flanking the escalator, and—lo and behold—there’s a flyer for this conference at NTU. Sped here right after work. So glad there’s free food!

I know exactly how you feel, he wrote back, perhaps too eagerly. The same thing more or less happened to me as well. I think almost every Taiwanese kid goes through a phase like this, in which you neglect to understand this stuff on purpose.

After the conference, they ducked into a small ramen shop to talk over a more substantial dinner. She ordered a shoyu and he a shio. Conversation started off sluggish, but picked up as steam from the open kitchen thickened the air between them.

“What you wrote really stuck with me,” Wei said, breaking apart a soft-boiled egg with his chopsticks. “The fact that you’ve rarely looked into cross-Strait relations before.”

Ling slurped on her noodles. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I had the exact thought before coming. You know how it goes, growing up. At first, you try really hard to understand. You ask your parents about Taiwanese politics, but they just say it’s either pro-China or pro-status-quo. Somewhere along the line, it gets old. Their political statements start sounding like an air conditioner buzzing in the background. You just want to watch the NBA game or eat your 米線 without thinking about power structures and colonial histories. It’s normal.”

“I suppose so,” she replied. “But the thing is, no matter how well you tune it out, or how easily you find yourself ignoring it, it’ll always come back to haunt you, time and time again—whatever that ‘it’ is, anyway.” She spooned grated garlic from a small jar and dumped it unceremoniously into her ramen. “I dated this Chinese guy way back—just the son of some real recent 外省人—and all I could think about then was power structures and colonial histories. I barely knew a thing at the time, too.”

It’ll always come back to haunt you, Wei thought to himself. He had tossed the question around over the years, but maybe that was it. What it meant to be Taiwanese—it’ll always come back to haunt you.

 

+++

 

“I’ve never seen you wear that sweater before,” Wei said.

Ling stopped heaping chili sauce onto her egg pancakes and scanned her maroon sweater. She had tucked it into a pair of loose-fitting jeans, rolled up a few inches above her ankles.

“Gift from an old friend,” she said. “Found it in the back of my closet the other day.” She stuffed a slice of 蛋餅 into her mouth.

“It’s a nice color,” Wei said. “Who’s this friend of yours?” The matriarch of the breakfast joint set down a platter of radish cakes and scallion eggs on their cramped plastic-wrapped table, briefly disrupting the silence.

Ling said nothing.

“An old boyfriend?”

She frowned. “Something like that.”

“Tell me more.” He was surprised by the edge in his voice. The same edge seemed also to be chafing at his chest.

Ling narrowed her eyes, paused as if choosing her words carefully. “You’re being weird,” she finally said.

“Just tell me.” He took a bite of the steaming scallion eggs, a haphazard performance of nonchalance.

“I’m not going to tell you anything when you’re being weird, Wei.”

He tried to focus on the radish cakes instead of the unreasonable ache that swelled up inside of him. Glancing down at his plate, he saw a faded blue burst open where he had taken a bite. When he blinked and looked again, he was confronted with only a slab of glutinous white flesh.

 

+++

 

Ling:

The other day, I watched Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Afterwards, I had to jerk off. I don’t know why, but I did. I’ve never watched such a deeply unsatisfying film before. I guess you could say that I needed to literally take things into my own hands.

I know you watched the movie a long time ago, so I’ll give you a refresher just in case. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play these neighbors whose spouses are cheating on them with one another. Maggie Cheung wears these fantastic floral cheongsams throughout. They hug her slim figure very nicely. Anyway, both of them are often left alone by their business-tripping spouses, so they bump into each other when they go buy take-out sesame noodles and whatnot. They pick up on all these hints of infidelity, like Tony’s character wearing the same tie that Maggie’s character saw on her husband recently, so on. They start commiserating together, even acting out at one point how their spouses probably began their affair. They fall for each other. And then, of course, life gets in the way.

I think what really bothered me was that the spouses never make their way on screen. I don’t know what it was in me that needed so badly to see those two in the flesh, to put a face to what’s terrorizing them, Tony and Maggie. But I needed to know.

I’ve been thinking: maybe that part of me, the part of me that needs to know, is what makes me so protective of you. It’s like the certainty I want in my life is hinged completely upon you being mine.

The night after I watched In the Mood for Love, I saw you in my sleep. You were in a sheer, maroon cheongsam with faded blue streaks in your hair, which you had braided and hoisted up in a bun. Under the streetlight, your eyes were honey lemon cough drops glistening on either side of your face, but much more lemon than honey. I think you were Tony Leung’s wife, and I was Maggie Cheung’s husband. Their characters’ wife and husband, I mean. We’re sheltered under a red tong lau while a fine rain drapes itself over the city. Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, or even some Chinatown—I really couldn’t tell which. When the rain finally pulls away, we march arm in arm back to our apartment complex, unfazed by the eyes that befall us as we tear through the wet streets. Even as we bound up the narrow staircase, our hands are locked impossibly together. When we reach your door, you spin around to kiss me goodbye. But before you can do so, my doppelganger—your husband—swings the door open, grips you by the wrist, says “I’ll be taking over from here,” and before I know it the door is in my face and only your scent, thickened by the rain, remains.

It lasted a good second, but I knew that he looked exactly like me. Short black hair slicked back with wax. A resting, exasperated expression glued to his face. The same pinstripe suit you and I bought together last spring, and that red tie that you got me so that you could pull on it to kiss me. But somehow, to my chagrin, he was several degrees more handsome than I am. Was it just because he had you in his grasp? I don’t know.

I don’t know. But I hated it.

Yours,

 

+++

 

After breakfast, the two fast-walked home in silence. With every hurried step they took, the cloud of quiet between them grew denser. Snatches of green slipped by as they stole past a small park, and then the flickering financial district. Warm light splintered through the foliage and scattered bokeh across their somber faces. Car honks and schoolchildren’s banter picked at the membrane of stillness between them.

Wei wanted to explain himself, but he didn’t know how to without sounding irrational. It wasn’t the first time he had felt jealousy, of course, but never before did it grip him so viscerally. He knew he was likely seeing blue or maroon where there was none; and yet, the possibility alone stabbed at his temples and chest without reprieve. He hated knowing that his diagnosis—paranoid or rightfully jealous—rested entirely upon an ungraspable truth.

He tried to focus on Ling through his peripheral vision, his head aching from the exertion. She seemed lost in thought, eyes buried elsewhere. Whenever he became “weird,” as she put it, she would withdraw from him. How strange it was that she always chose to close herself up rather than reassure him. Usually, he respected it—he would even reason to himself that she was different, that she didn’t engage with his jealousy precisely because there was no reason for him to worry in the first place. This time, however, he lost hold of all precedents.

“愛不是佔有, 而是欣賞,” Wei said when they entered the apartment.

“What?” Ling braked, her bare feet squeaking against the hardwood floor.

“That’s what you said last week.” He looked her in the eye. “That’s what you said after we watched that chick flick last week. I want to know where you got that phrase.”

Ling frowned. In the lines burrowed between her brows he read either genuine confusion or a sliver of guilt. “Wei, please don’t do this.”

“Do what?”

“This,” she said. “Whatever this is.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” she snapped. “I’ve seen you snooping around my study. Going through my old letters, giving my phone long looks when I get messages. Not to mention that weird interrogation earlier.” She held his gaze. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“I can’t believe,” she continued, “that you’re throwing out that phrase without at all detecting the irony here. 愛不是佔有,而是欣賞, my ass. Look, if you want to ask me something, you can just ask. I’m not some callous bitch who’s out to deceive you, Wei. But I’m also not something that you own.

“You want to know where I got the fucking phrase? I don’t know! Maybe from my friends who told me to stay away from guys like you. Maybe from you. Maybe from a book of idioms, or maybe somewhere up my ass.” She shook her head. “I don’t know, Wei.” Her voice came undone as she said his name.

A hotness began to permeate Wei’s entire being, but a strange numbness plugged this heat from oozing past the surface. He strode into the study, emerged with several cyan-and-white letters, and slammed them against the coffee table.

“I don’t believe you,” he said.

“I can’t believe you!” she yelled. “What the hell do you mean by this?”

「『無』是什麼人?」 he asked in Taiwanese, taking care to intonate each word.  “Who the hell is ‘Wu’?”

Her silence seared holes in his chest. Before he knew it, he had her pinned against the wall, his nails chipping into white paint. The veins on his hand bulged out, as if any moment now they would give out and dark red would dash the walls. Wei thought he saw blue bleeding out of her eyes, but it might have just been her tears.

 

+++

 

He sat on the steps for a while and submitted to his own wavering. He slicked back his hair, adjusted his red tie. Grabbing the lapels of his pinstripe suit jacket, he gave both sides two quick tugs. He practiced what he had to say in English, and then in Chinese—he wasn’t sure which sounded better.

A streetlight wrapped a soft yellow over his shoulders, and a fine rain sliced through the glow like falling stars in the starless night. His eyes glossed over the darkness, lingering on an absence only he could see. He was outside the man’s apartment complex. He was going to trek up the stairs, knock on the door, kick it down, and give him a piece of his mind and more than a piece of his fist. He only needed the courage to reach out and touch.

While summoning this courage, he tried to conjure up her presence in his mind, as wholly and true to life as possible. But her body always washed up stilled into fragments—honeyed eyes in the golden light, figure carved by a deep maroon. He thought about how he wanted to possess her and how he wanted to venerate her, and how she probably didn’t want either of those things. Most of all, he thought about what this man would look like. He tried to imagine it, but all he could see was his own face. When he finally knocked, he found himself hoping that nobody would open the door.

 

 

EMILY YANG B’20 usually has oatmeal, taro balls, and tapioca pearls with her 豆花.