You are fourteen. Your father is hitting you on the cheek, not hard enough to draw blood, but hard enough to leave a bright, shameful mark on your skin. Your hands are stained from the ink stick you just threw against the wall, and if you brought your fingers to your nose, you could pinpoint the smell of evergreen and bone and ash. But your hand is tired and cramped from holding the bamboo stem of a brush, and your father’s face is polished with the sheen of anger. Your father is saying, “Ah Qian, a man’s worth is only the measure of his endurance.” He is saying, “It is fire that burns away the impurity of soot, so that we can make beauty with ink.” He is saying, “The only true perfection is that which you produce yourself, and it can only come with hard work.” Yet at fourteen you know he is only ashamed to find out that his son is exactly like he is—rough, inelegant, a country bumpkin, not a scholar. He is finally realizing that you were both harvested from the dirt and will return to the dirt, that it is not in you to be anything more. You were built to be a man of hands, not heart, and the hands you have will never be enough for your heart.
You are eighteen. A boy is being pulled out of the swimming pool. You are standing with the rest of the class, watching him emerge—wet hair, shoulders, then elbows, like a baby being birthed by the water. The teacher is yelling at all of you to make way. After heaving all the water out of his lungs, the boy slumps against the side of the pool. He is barely breathing. His hair is matted against the side of his face, and he looks like a man who has slept his way to death. Your teacher tells you to accompany him to the hospital bay, and you do. In two hours, lying on a starched cot, he is going to blink, and you are going to be sitting on a chair next to him, reading your grammar textbook, waiting for him to wake up. You are going to ask him how he feels. He is going to tell you that he’s never felt as alive as he did at the bottom of the pool. He’s going to tell you that when he gave in to the struggle, he saw perfect fields of rice shoots in the spring, hundreds of li of them, stretched out before him like the sky turned green. He’s going to tell you, with a voice croaking like old leather and heartbreak, “I will never know peace like that again.”
You are twenty-five. You’re lying on the floor of another man’s apartment, propped up by your elbows. Wrapped up in one of his blankets, you are watching him as he watches his rain-sodden laundry drip onto his balcony. It is early morning, and outside Shanghai is laid out for both of you like a woman stretching, sweaty, on a bed of concrete and sidewalk. It will be monsoon season soon. You can smell the summer rain, like warm iron and car exhaust and oil being fried for a second time. His big toe slides against the cheaply varnished floor through the hole in his socks as he moves to open the balcony door, and you are holding your breath.
You are twenty-five. You’re just a stupid, uneducated boy with hands that will never be enough for your heart, but you know what perfection is.
You know you would achieve it if you could just hold your breath forever.
Xiao An’s apartment is home to seven people, which is four too many for the place, according to city building regulations, but if no one knows about it, Xiao An likes to say, then it’s no one’s business and we should all mind our own. That’s something Xiao An has always been good at—minding his business. He gets big money for running an illegal apartment rental business in the Puxi area, and you’re thankful he lets you pop a cot in the kitchen, cook the occasional pot of porridge or instant noodles, and take advantage of the bathroom facilities without charging you a cent. The other six in the apartment are university students, from the countryside like you, and some a little further. They’re good guys, and you like them, so you have to be careful when you get home in the evenings after work so you don’t wake them up. But other than the cold, the kitchen is fine if you don’t mind the smell of the gas from the furnace, and during the day, you’re almost never at home anyway.
It’s good to have a son living in the big city, your mother likes to say. It’s a better life for you than at home. You don’t tell her that some nights you wake up worried there’s frost building up between your eyelashes. The heat doesn’t always make it into the kitchen, and the window above the sink doesn’t close all the way. But you don’t want to complain. Xiao An’s like a brother, takes care of you even though he’s made it big in the gray market real estate business, and doesn’t forget you’re brothers from the same hometown. You don’t need much, anyway. You have a job, and a bed, and sometimes mahjong with Xiao An and a few of your fellow construction workers on the weekend. It passes the time. There are worse ways to live. You are almost twenty-five and you’re not trying to be someone you’re not. You’re not trying for art. You’re not even in school anymore. You haven’t written a character with a calligraphy brush for years. You’re done with all of that. You’ve moved on.
It is Friday evening, so you are at Lao Xu’s apartment, one of those old-fashioned ones with a hallway kitchen and dusty hardwood stairs so narrow you trip over the middle ones every time. It’s during the last North round when Lao Xu eyes you over his mahjong hand and says, “I have something to talk to you about, Ah Qian.” Instead of continuing, he methodically deals a tile, which gets snapped up by Xiao An. You’re not worried, though. You’re a tile away from a ready hand and you know Xiao An is at least three away. It’s a winning streak for you, the first time this month, so you don’t pay attention to Lao Xu until he says, “You know how my daughter is taking calligraphy lessons with someone in the neighborhood.”
“Trying for the next generation to rise to another class, are we?” Xiao An jokes. Lao Xu simply grunts and wins with a self-draw you weren’t expecting, putting an end to the game. Anyway, with your wins and losses, you get off easy this weekend with a tidy little profit, so you’re not too upset.
“He’s still a young guy, Chen-laoshi is,” Lao Xu says, scratching his stubble. It sits oddly with you that Lao Xu would call anyone young “laoshi“—”teacher”—so respectfully. “Maybe in his mid-thirties. You know he got some education in an American college?”
“What, so he can run a calligraphy school for kids out of his house?” Xiao An scoffs. “Ah Qian could do that right now, and he didn’t even finish college.” You throw a mute look of reproach in his direction, but he thumps you on the back with a chuckle and slings his arm around your shoulders. “Couldn’t you, Ah Qian?”
You throw his arm off, gathering the tiles together on the table to put them away. “Better than you can,” you shoot back. “Your handwriting looks like you never finished first grade.”
“Actually, that’s what I want to talk to you about,” Lao Xu says, and then hunkers down against the table, sipping his newly steeped tea. “Sit down, both of you.” Xiao An makes a face at you that you ignore, but both of you settle down. You figure that’s why Lao Xu’s been shift captain for over ten years—that voice, maybe, the slow way he would turn out each word as if he had thought about them all carefully, and the way he could handle his tightly formed body to maximum effect. You always thought of him as Lao Xu—Old Man Xu—though he wasn’t older than forty-five himself. Still, he sips tea like your grandfather did when he was still alive, with the cup lid held against the rim to keep the tea leaves away from his mouth, and he’s never been one to waste your time when it wasn’t for your own good.
Lao Xu slowly chews an errant tea leaf, then says, “Chen-laoshi wants to hire an assistant, and I remembered that Xiao An says your father taught you calligraphy.”
“Probably more accurate to say that Ah Qian’s father beat it into him from sunrise to sunset,” Xiao An says. “Ah Qian could probably write a door couplet in his sleep. I think he did the manager’s Spring Festival ones his first year in the city, don’t you remember?”
“Is that so?” Lao Xu asks, turning his head like a dog catching a whiff of an attractive scent. “Are you still good with a brush?”
“Ah, well,” Xiao An mumbles around a cigarette as he lights it, “That’s the thing, isn’t it? Ah Qian doesn’t do calligraphy anymore.”
“Lao Xu doesn’t need to hear about that,” you cut in, but Xiao An waves you off, exhaling a mouthful of smoke, his hand flapping like the last thumps of a dying fish’s tail.
“You see, Big Brother Xu, Ah Qian’s father instilled scholarly virtues into his son so well that Ah Qian now has no greater desire in life than to be a dumb boy from the country drilling holes for the rest of his life. He’s decided to fulfill his filial duty by giving up. Very humble of him, isn’t it?”
“It’s not like that,” you argue, your arms folded tightly around yourself. Xiao An, eyes narrowing in amusement, blows smoke into your face just because he can, and you swat at him, catching him on the ear. He laughs. “It’s more complicated than that, okay?”
“I asked because Chen-laoshi is looking for an assistant,” Lao Xu interrupts. He rests his teacup on the table, taking the neatly stacked mahjong tiles from under your restless hands and fitting them back in their yellowed boxes, careful of the tape binding the cardboard corners together. “He’s willing to pay you 50 kuai a session, cash on the spot. Just someone to keep an eye on the young ones, he said, and I told him I’d put the word out for him.”
Xiao An snickers. “Why does Chen-laoshi think that you know any calligraphy teachers?”
“I found Ah Qian, didn’t I?”
“Look, Lao Xu.” You lean forward with your elbows on the cold mahjong table. The air is acrid with Xiao An’s cigarette. It folds in on itself against the dry warmth of the space heater, and maybe that’s why your voice sounds like it’s been strained and shoved into the throat that’s way too small when you say, “I’m really grateful you thought of me, but I can’t. I don’t do calligraphy anymore. I just don’t anymore. This Chen-laoshi should find someone else.”
“You might as well go take a look anyway,” Lao Xu says. With one hand, he serenely refills his cup with hot water from an old metal thermos, and, with the other, he produces a wrinkled piece of paper with an address and time painstakingly copied out in Lao Xu’s blocky, artless hand. He lays it down on the table with the same methodical slowness as he did the mahjong tiles earlier. “No harm in looking,” he says. He closes his eyes, letting the steam from his cup wash over his prematurely sagging face. “You could do with more connections. Chen-laoshi is a good guy. A real good guy.” Lao Xu takes a sip of his tea, then winces. You know the tea hasn’t rested long enough, and anyway it’s the fourth steeping. There’d be almost no flavor left, but that’s Lao Xu for you. That was all of you actually—you can’t afford to throw the leaves out after the second steeping either. He puts the cup back down. “Beautiful handwriting, too. He taught my daughter to write her name like a real scholar.”
“Maybe he’ll like you enough to buy you dinner,” Xiao An chortles.
“You fucker, I’m not a beggar,” you snap.
The paper almost folds itself when you pick it up from the table, along edges it must have learned from Lao Xu’s pocket. It sits heavy in your own pocket on the way home, and you feel its texture with resentful fingers all the way back. When you get home, you undress and lie down on your cold, hard bed, absolutely still in the dark. The apartment is crowded and as silent as a columbarium after hours. A thought from your past, unwanted and unbidden, comes to you. “The art of calligraphy will last a lifetime, whether or not you want it to,” you whisper to yourself.
Your father used to say that all the time.
The bus you take from your apartment to the senior center is one of the old ones, with an elevated chair and a metal table in the back that used to seat a ticket checker. You sit in the row behind it, watching the reflection of buildings coast along the surface of the table, occasional glimpses of happy faces on billboards streaking across like daydreams of strangers. When you first came to this city, the ticket checkers were still around, shouting over the crush of bodies at the new passengers, the tickets printed with coarse ink on colored paper so thin it would dissolve with just the sweat on your palms. These days all you have to do is tap your bus pass. Some days you miss the noise. It once reminded you of home, of your cousins calling out for the chickens and your mother hollering for help in the kitchen. Sometimes you go to the market in the mornings to talk with the farmers as they unload their produce. Your city Shanghainese is pretty good now, but with them you don’t have to pretend. You can sound like you’re from the countryside, and they’ll love you better for it.
You miss the countryside, but to be honest, you feel like you know Shanghai better. Some of the buildings you know from the bones. You know them from the bottom up, each support pillar and ceiling beam. You’ve pissed and spat in more street corners than you can name, and you could map out by memory where all the best shengjian stands are, which ones make them juicy and fried on the outside and don’t skimp on the green onions. It’s not your city, though, not the same way your hometown is your hometown. It’s not a city that belongs to anyone, not even the fashionable young women who stroll Nanjing Road dressed in an uneasy marriage of Japanese street fashion and Parisian haute couture, or the businessmen in badly cut suits who hobnob with the local bureaucrats over expensive white spirits. You think the old men in the narrow streets of old Shanghai who eat sunflower seeds and drink tea out of glass jars while reading the paper get as close as anyone to owning the city, but more and more those roads have become littered with boutiques and art galleries and sleek, fashionable American coffee shops. Nothing remains anymore, Lao Xu would tell you. It’s all fast and chic and new.
It’s Saturday, so when you get off the bus in front of the senior center, all you see is a row of old women dancing while turning hot pink fans in their hands, like weathervanes with skirts. Normally you’d be sleeping off a late Friday shift and an even later night of mahjong with the guys, but yesterday Lao Xu had serenely taken you by the shoulders and said, “Chen-laoshi is teaching tomorrow. Have you thought about his offer?”
No, you had wanted to tell Lao Xu. You had in fact ignored it completely. It would be easier this way. You know that your hand has degraded with lack of practice, and you have no interest in starting it up again. Fifty bucks is a lot of money, but you’re sure Chen-laoshi doesn’t need someone like you, with calluses on the wrong parts of your palm to hold a brush, fingernails and skin clean of sticky black ink stains. You’ll show up, write a few words, fuck up a na stroke, and that’ll be the end of it. It’s not worth your time or his. You’ll tell Chen-laoshi the truth—that he can find a college student from a good family who needs the spending money. You’re just a farmer’s son.
But Chen-laoshi isn’t even in the classroom when you walk in. “Oh, if you’re looking for him, he stepped out to get us some more practice paper,” one of the kids sitting at the table in the front says. He’s a little boy, no older than ten or eleven. He gazes at you curiously before going back to grinding his ink. The boys at the table around him don’t even look up from the lines they’re copying out of books of sample calligraphy.
Li Li, Lao Xu’s daughter, is in the back seated with two other girls. She waves at you excitedly, calling you “big brother” instead of the “uncle” Lao Xu always instructs her to say. When you get to their table, you see that they’re only practicing simple downward strokes. Li Li’s strokes are steady, but she doesn’t have the aesthetic broad-narrow-broad line—the slanted knobs at the beginning and end—that a good downward stroke should have. You watch her hand as she starts on another one. It doesn’t wobble. She has good control. When she’s finished, she turns to you and asks, “What do you think?”
You hunch over her shoulder. “Not bad,” you whisper in her ear, and she giggles because your breath tickles.
“Help me write a perfect one,” she whispers back. “Don’t tell Chen-laoshi about it though. I want him to think I wrote it, ’cause then he’ll praise me.”
“No fair! I’ll tell!” one of the girls squeaks from across the table. Li Li grins hugely at her when you take her hand in yours, as if to say, get your own big brother then. Then she looks back up at you expectantly, her tongue poking out a little between the gaps of her front teeth, and you smile, trying not to show her your apprehension.
The last time you wrote calligraphy, it was for the manager’s Spring Festival door couplets. You had spread out the paper on the manager’s kitchen table while his wife looked on, anxious that a hooligan like you would drip ink all over the carpet or steal the silverware or maybe simply get rudeness all over her furniture. The manager’s kitchen, with its glass table and spotless couches, was nothing like the home you grew up in, or the living room table your father had you practice on when you still wrote regularly. It felt wrong, in a way, to write without the phantom presence of your father at your elbow, ready to yank the brush from you at a second’s sign of hesitation or mistake.
Li Li’s hand is warm and trusting in your palm. You guide the brush down, perfect pressure. Down, then up, then down again, then let the brush lag at the end before lifting to form a perfect diamond shape on the bottom. No hesitation, just the right size to fit in the red squares of the practice paper. It’s as if your father’s hand—so similar to, yet in your memory so much larger than, your own—is guiding you, crushing your fingers around Li Li’s knuckles. Li Li kicks her feet under the table excitedly. The other girls have stopped to watch you. One of them has left her brush on her paper, and the ink is bleeding through to the table. Your mind is empty. You are seventeen. Your mother is screaming at your father, Ah Qian isn’t a puppet for you to control. She is saying, you don’t get to use other people to fulfill your own desires.
“You must be the person Lao Xu sent over,” someone calls from the other end of the classroom. “Sorry I wasn’t here to meet you. Did you have problems finding the place?”
When you bothered to picture Chen-laoshi at all, you had seen him as effeminate, clean, maybe too clean, with glasses. In your mind he had only the barest hint of a face, and was very thin, and had hands that were, for some reason, reedy like an old man’s. He had been a figure refined to the point of fragility. You hadn’t imagined a man at all, only a ghost.
The Chen-laoshi standing behind you has glasses, but they aren’t the old-fashioned round frames of your imagination. Instead they are silver and light, almost so thin they don’t exist, so that you see instead his square jaw, the strong lines of his face, a nose that is too prominent and triangular to be truly attractive. Chen-laoshi is taller than you, and the bulk you carry on your arms and chest from your job is, on him, built around the shoulders and neck, so that he seems to you to peter out around the waist before the solidity of his legs anchor him back into being. He isn’t wearing a suit, only a dark blue button-up shirt that he has tucked into his pants, the sleeves rolled up so you can see his elbow and wrists, which are not at all thin. He tries to reach out for a handshake, but the rolls of practice paper almost tumble out of his arms, and he retracts his hand to steady them.
“I’d shake, but—” he grins sheepishly. Even his voice is nothing like you imagined, deeper and almost too old for the way he smiles, cheeks furrowed and eyebrows raised.
Your hand is still gripped around Li Li’s. She shakes you hard, whispering a little too loudly, “You’re hurting my hand, big brother,” and that shocks you into letting go.
“I—” you say, and then stop. The speech you’d practiced floats murkily to mind like a plastic bag momentarily surfacing in the muddy waters of the Yangtze. You can’t even remember what the point of it was. “Yes,” you manage, “I am.”
“I’m Chen Yong. But you know that already, Lao Xu probably already told you.”
“This is Big Brother Ah Qian,” Li Li pronounces. She grabs onto one of your fingers, claiming you. Chen-laoshi looks down and nods.
“It’s actually Yu Qian,” you say. “But everyone calls me—”
“Ah Qian,” he finishes.
“It’s a nickname,” you explain lamely. “From home. My folks call me ‘Ah Qian’.”
You can’t think of anything else to say. Chen-laoshi watches you as if waiting to make sure you’re completely finished, and then he puts the rolls of practice paper down on an empty desk, the thud of the paper hitting the desk like punctuation to your last sentence. He sits down to cut them into manageable pages for the children. After a while, you feel awkward just standing there. You can’t just bolt from the classroom after you’ve introduced yourself, so you pry yourself loose from Li Li’s grasp and go over to help him.
For the rest of the afternoon, Chen-laoshi has you oversee the younger kids and their clumsy, too-fat downward strokes while he corrects the older students’ scrawling, unruly characters. Li Li monopolizes you so that you can’t leave, but you’ve always liked children, so you don’t mind. All three tables of the younger kids crowd around Li Li’s table, watching you write Li Li’s full name—Xu Guang Li—on the bottom left-hand corner of her practice paper. “‘Guang’ as in light,” Li Li tells them proudly. “It’s a hard character to write, isn’t it, big brother?”
It is, you assure her. Because there’s a lingering shu stroke, and it’s hard to control that final flick. You do it perfectly, though, like you’re thirteen again and your father is watching you. You do it in one breath, the way you’re supposed to. Because each character has its own air, your father would say. “So it can linger on long after you’re done writing it,” you tell the kids when they ask. “That’s the power of your writing.” In the fading light of the senior center classroom, you are back home in the dining room you grew up in. But you are your father now. You are the one who says, and you harness that power with your breath.
Later, while you’re helping him clean up, Chen-laoshi scrutinizes Li Li’s practice sheet, holding it up to the light like he’s looking into a kaleidescope. Through the paper, the light looks mottled, as if patched through with interference, the shadows white noise. “That’s not half bad,” he says, pointing to where you’ve written her name. “Did you do that?”
“Chen-laoshi, I don’t want to make Lao Xu lose face,” you blurt out, “but I can’t help you. I don’t practice calligraphy anymore. I’d just be a bother to all the kids.”
“There’s a nice strength in this character,” he continues as if he hasn’t heard you. He taps at the paper where you’ve written 光—guang, like the light that’s on his face. “You’re a calligrapher’s son after all.” You don’t correct him. He puts the page down on today’s stack of practice papers and folds the stack neatly into his briefcase. The other calligraphy supplies, he says, pointing to a closet, stay here. He only takes his own brushes home with him, and the ink stones. “The kids like you,” he adds, tapping you lightly on the head with a scroll before tossing it into the closet. “But if you really don’t …”
As if distracted by something outside, he glances out the window. You stand at the table where Li Li had sat, very still. The room still smells of ink and water, of wet bamboo and goat hair. “Are you hungry?” Chen-laoshi finally says. “Come on, I’ll treat you to dinner.”
“It’s okay,” you say. “I don’t need you to—”
“Don’t be stupid,” he says. He makes a beckoning gesture from the doorway, like an old woman trying to convince a little child that she isn’t a demon. “It’s just that I want the company.”
Over beer and sanbei chicken, Chen-laoshi tells you that he’s an English teacher at a prep school, that he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with you working instead of finishing college, that his wife, Zhou Jing, is in America right now, so he lives alone. “Her dad’s kind of a big boss,” he says, almost as if he’s apologizing to you. “Overseas cosmetics and advertisements. So she’s very busy.”
“Good catch,” you say vaguely. “You should do a better job, keeping hold of that one.” You shut your mouth then, because that’s a rude thing to say to someone who’s your senior, someone who even wants to pay you like a boss. But you’ve never been a cautious person. You’ve always run your mouth at the worst of times.
“I know, right?” Chen-laoshi smiles. Like the Tsingtao beer you’re both drinking, it’s a little bitter and a little too transparent. “When I married her, her father said, ‘You’re fluent in English. You can come work for me, make enough money, keep my daughter happy.’ I told him no, that I liked teaching. But in a city this big, it’s hard work finding a job as a teacher. It’s funny. I’m more popular as a calligraphy teacher than at my actual job.”
“Which yong is it?” you ask him.
“In your name. Which yong is it?”
He laughs, finally understanding. “The yong in the Eight Principles of Yong, of course,” he says, tracing it—永—onto the tablecloth.
Of course, you think, gulping down your beer. Chen-laoshi waves for another one, and you try to remember what your father had taught you about yong. That it contained eight strokes. That if you wrote it often enough, you could ensure beauty in your future writing. Because, your old man would say, it’s the ‘yong’ in ‘yong yuan’—forever.
“With a name like that,” Chen-laoshi muses, “it’s really no wonder that I became a calligraphy teacher, is it?”
“You could change the class. Just teach the brats up in front, make it more elite, charge more. You know parents go for that kind of thing. Li Li and the rest, you can’t make money off of that.”
“Doesn’t seem right, though. Who would teach Li Li calligraphy then?”
“Does it matter if she knows calligraphy?” you snort, opening a new bottle of beer and pouring it between the two of you, even though his cup is still half full. “She’s just a construction worker’s daughter anyway.” You repeat what the other construction workers told you your first year there, saying, “Who’s she going to write fancy for—her husband when he gets to be the president?”
Chen-laoshi uses his chopsticks to push around the leftover salted peanuts in one of the appetizer dishes. You think you’ve made him uncomfortable, especially because he knows that’s your line of work, and you’re trying to think of the least awkward apology you can make when he says, “Somehow, there’s something more real about doing hard labor, isn’t there? Than being an English teacher.”
This time, his smile is small, but the bitterness is gone. He taps your glass lightly with his, murmurs, “Cheers!” and takes a long gulp. When he puts the glass down, you tell him you’ll take the job as long as he lets you pay for dinner. He doesn’t, but you show up the next week anyway. “As a thank you to Lao Xu,” you tell him, because you don’t know the real reason either.
“I like treating you,” Chen-laoshi says every time you both go out for an early dinner after calligraphy lessons. “I don’t have a lot of friends my age.” He grimaces, knocks his hands against a back that isn’t rheumatic or crooked, and amends, “Well, almost my age, anyway.”
“Take it out of my salary,” you argue, but it’s less convincing when you’re talking through a mouthful of fried stinky tofu, and you both know it.
“The kids like you. You’re a good teacher.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re polite,” you grumble, because you know he’ll chuckle.
Today you’re carrying a box of scrolls to his car with him. The afternoon’s lesson was large scroll-sized writing. “So they don’t get bored,” Chen-laoshi had said, and that was good enough reason for anyone. When you get to his car you find yourself getting in, the scrolls in the backseat, arguing with him about the effectiveness of a seatbelt. Chen-laoshi drives with one hand holding the cigarette out the window. It’s the coolest thing, like something out of the movies, so you worry about propriety only after you’re already at his apartment.
“I’ll drive you home,” he says, shrugging. “Do you want tea?”
Chen-laoshi’s apartment is on the 22nd floor, on a popular block for families and well-to-do couples. It’s large, with a balcony overlooking Puxi Shanghai (which is impressive, though not breathtaking); but for all that space, there’s very little furniture. In the wide sparseness of his apartment, Chen-laoshi, his couch, his tiny coffee table, his simple table with only two chairs, seem like they might be swallowed and never spat out. “It’s because when I bought it,” he explains, gesturing with a metal can of tea leaves, “I thought I was going to be living with Zhou Jing.”
You can sense an undercurrent of something you don’t want to touch hidden in that sentence. It’s as if Chen-laoshi has laid a trap for you, drawn his words back like an arrow so he can strike when you get too close. So you leave it alone, as far away from you as you can, and move to the only thing that’s dense and packed—the bookcase haphazardly stacked full of well-paged English books. You run your fingers up and down the spines, because you have no idea what the words mean. The creases are like little jolts of dull electricity. “You studied in America?” you ask him, letting one of the paperbacks fall into your lap. It opens to a page marked up in the margins, and those notes, at least, you can understand. It is not H. H. who is the lepidopterist. It is Nabakov himself.
“Ah, you found my copy of Lolita.” Chen-laoshi crouches down and takes the book from your lap, flipping through it absently, balancing both mugs of tea against his knee. “In America, I wrote a thesis on this book.”
“Well, not really this exact book.” He quirks his mouth in a half-smile when he comes to one page, but he doesn’t share it with you. Instead, he closes the book, tosses it back in your lap, and hands you your tea, a fragrant Taiwanese green. “The author, really. It was on the significance of butterflies and Nabakov’s writing.”
“Is that this author?”
The tea steams up Chen-laoshi‘s glasses when he nods. “My parents were against it, of course. ‘What’s the point of going to America to study English?’ They were right. There isn’t much point.”
“I think it’s cool of you,” you interject.
“You read much, Ah Qian?”
You shrug. “Almost not at all. Can’t read English.”
You squint at the first page of the book. “I can say things like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you.’ Learned them from TV. But this book, I’d just end up trying to read it like Chinese. ‘Luo—luo li—'”
“That’s the cover page,” he snorts, scooting closer and flipping the pages impatiently until he gets to a wall of straight text. “Here, I’ll teach you—’Foreward. Lolita, or the—'”
He doesn’t actually teach you much. You get bored with Lolita and when he tries to get you interested in some other book—”about a man named Gatsby, you’ll like it, it’s about getting rich and getting women,” he says with a wink—you accuse him of being addicted to teaching.
“Anyway, I don’t want to get rich and get lots of women,” you tell him, very stern. You want to set him straight. You don’t want him thinking you’re just some green young man lusting after Shanghai ladies with the stench of the country still on you. You’re not like those other guys.
“What do you want, then?” Chen-laoshi asks.
Both of you are sprawled out on the floor in front of the bookcase. As he speaks, Chen-laoshi reaches all the way over your torso for his cup of tea. For a brief moment, he is almost embracing your body, neatly balanced above your legs and stomach. You can smell winter on him, the sweat on his skin from moving from the cold of outside to the warmth of his apartment, the faintest tinges of something you assume to be his shampoo. The smell is sharp, distinct. You feel so nervous that you are almost sick, and when he asks you what’s wrong, you bolt up, almost smashing his face with your knee.
“I’m going home,” you say.
“Wait a minute, then. I’ll get my car keys.”
“No,” you say, stuffing your feet into your shoes without looking at him. “I’ll walk.”
In the winter dusk, Shanghai is aloof and unrelenting. You think you know the closest bus stop, but that doesn’t matter. You just needed out, needed to walk, to move, the sound of your feet hitting the streets a meaningless backdrop, like the endless sound of construction. When it gets like this, almost evening, you like to be outside, watching the glassy buildings reflect the flickering sunlight as if each were some large, flat light bulb, slowly burning out. It is now that you feel closest to them, closer than you are to other people. These are the buildings you made, with your hands that will never be enough. You brought them up like steel and glass daughters. You’ve given them away now, to apartments and offices and city people who won’t appreciate them. But that’s what you built them for, to give them away.
For New Year’s, you go home to the countryside as you do every year. You take an early train back instead of eating a New Year’s dinner with your shift mates and Lao Xu, but Lao Xu promises to put in a good word for you. “I’d rather my daughter do the same for me,” he says, and pries your hands open to force a little bag of oranges into them. “For the ride home,” he informs you, and refuses to take them back.
Your family isn’t particularly large, but crowded around the dinner table, watching the New Year’s broadcast on a small TV, it seems doubled in size. All your cousins are older and have brought their spouses, and you’re subjected to that circle of light ribbing and scolding again this year, about the excesses of big cities, girlfriends, how a good boy can go wrong when he isn’t surrounded by people from his hometown. After a while, you leave your uncles to their boozing and go outside for a smoke. Your father follows you, walking just a little bit behind, his bad leg, you know, aching in the cold.
“Your mother wants you to get married,” he says, after you light his cigarette for him.
“What? I don’t want to get married. Who would I even get married to?”
“Well, you don’t have to do it now. You know her, she just wants a grandson.”
You make a face and spit on the ground. “That has nothing to do with me. Why should I have to get married so that she can play with kids?”
“Just don’t find a city girl. You know those Shanghainese women—”
“Pop, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Don’t get a city girl. They’ll never understand you. You should find some nice girl, some quiet girl. Someone who will listen, won’t look down on you for being from the country.”
Your father doesn’t say anything. You know it’s a low blow, so you wince, acknowledging the pettiness of it, and go back to smoking. In both your minds, you are hearing your mother, teary, asking your father if he was possessed, if writing was some sort of demon she needed to kill herself to chase away. Your son hates you, she is shouting. Your son hates you because of calligraphy. Your mother, who didn’t want to betray her relief when you told her you were quitting college to get a job. It’s not that I don’t want you to get an education, she had said. It’s just that I don’t know if you want to get an education, or if—
But whoever knows these things, you wonder. You did hate it when you were a child, when you had dreams that your father would thrash you with one of those large brushes he kept in a rack by his desk, the ones almost the size of an arm. But there were moments of intense feeling, an emotion you can’t describe, when you would write a character well and he would stare at you as if you had descended into his house from the sky. Your father, who had no learning either, who had learned this from his father the same way. Your father, whom you were too afraid to talk to for a whole year, who came up all the way up to Shanghai with only a train ticket and a pack of cigarettes in his pocket to tell you simply, your stopping calligraphy doesn’t mean I stop loving you. You were twenty-two then, twenty-two, and convinced your father was going to disown you, that you could not go home again until he was dead. You were twenty-two then, so happy that you cried.
“I’m writing again,” you say, suddenly. “Calligraphy, I mean. I help this teacher with a class.”
“Yeah? And your writing? How is it now?”
“Chen-laoshi says it has good character. Whenever he says it though, I tell him he’s just too polite to say that it’s messy and unrefined.”
Your father turns his head stiffly, as if in surprise, and for a second, you think he is angry with you again, angry that you gave up on giving up. But it turns out your father is only laughing, a guttural, surprised laugh, one you haven’t heard in ages. “He sounds like quite a guy, this Chen-laoshi.”
“He is. I think—” you hesitate, glancing over at your father. You take in every wrinkle around his mouth, every line of the crow’s feet around his eyes, the sharp chin, the accentuated Adam’s apple, and the way he smokes like you, the cigarette drooped in his mouth, lit orange like a traffic cone thrown into the night sky. “He’s a real scholar,” you finally say. “You’d like him. You’d be proud if he were your son.”
Your father takes one last drag from his cigarette, then lets the air go, a tiny white cloud in the cold, chasing the moon. You watch that breath dissipate like frost on glass under the warmth of a fingertip. After shaking his head, your father drops his cigarette on the ground, crushing it out with his heel with slow, measured grinds that remind you of Lao Xu at the mahjong table. “I’m proud that you’re my son,” he says. “You know that.”
From inside the house, your mother is calling for the two of you to come in and have some tea and sweets and demanding, What are the two of you thinking, standing outside in the cold like that, are you just asking to get sick? Your aunts and uncles are laughing at something on the television, a skit about bicycles and insurance salesmen, but for you, all of these things are far away. Suddenly, the closest thing to you is the thought of Chen-laoshi in his Shanghai apartment, all alone, maybe eating restaurant take-out with one knee up on the chair. Chen-laoshi, watching the television, not laughing out loud at the stupid skits, the parade of pop stars. Chen-laoshi, shutting the television off and then going for a smoke on the balcony, wearing a heavy coat but no socks under his slippers. Chen-laoshi, watching the same moon as you and your father. Chen-laoshi, breathing in time with your father, each breath strong enough to contain your own.
“I can’t stand it anymore,” Xiao An says, a month later, his mouth full of beef and noodles. “I have to say it.”
“Say what?” you ask. Xiao An swallows hastily, and you reach for a bottle of hot sauce that you almost drop when he says, “You’re stalking Chen-laoshi.”
You narrow your eyes at him. “You’re insane.”
“I saw you, little brother. Last week. You were following him back from his prep school thing.” Xiao An points his chopsticks at you, a sliver of green onion still dangling from one wooden end, dripping soup, as he glares. “It was after the lunch shift, am I right?”
“Must be someone else you saw.”
“It wasn’t! Ah Qian, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of this, but—”
“You’re just imagining things!” you shout, slamming your chopsticks down furiously.
It wasn’t stalking, but you have sometimes followed Chen-laoshi during your time off. The first time was accidental—you’d finished eating lunch, it had been a day when you didn’t have to work, and you had realized that you were near Chen-laoshi‘s prep school. All you wanted was to see what he was like with people who weren’t you, and if you would recognize him from far away—of course you did. The broad length of his shoulders, the way he seemed to be only shoulders and legs and glasses and a smile. You recognized all of that from far away. And it had been all curiosity, that’s all, curiosity—following him as he walked along the streets, looking at the same window displays as he did, stopping at the same cigarette shop to buy a packet of cigarettes, almost all the way to the door of his apartment building. And then you ran all the way home instead of taking the bus, your heart pounding. You did it on and off, absently, without meaning to, memorizing the way he held his briefcase, imitating that with the plastic bags of steamed buns you bought for breakfast.
“He offered to let me stay with him,” you tell Xiao An. “He said he didn’t mind, that his apartment was too big for him anyway,” you continue, and Xiao An shakes his head violently, like he’s trying to get rid of some particularly noisome mosquitoes, and the image is funny enough to distract you from what Xiao An is saying.
When you both finish eating and step out of the restaurant, Xiao An puts his hands on your shoulders, staring you straight in the eye, breathing the smell of beef broth and cilantro into your face. “Ah Qian, are you—?” And you know what he wants to say. You know what he wants to accuse you of. But he can’t say it, can’t even bring himself to ask, much less try to talk you out of it. You want to sneer at him, such a coward, he can’t even call you out on it. As if the accusation were enough to make you, and him by association, dirty. As if it would color your friendship. As if he were asking, out of curiosity, if your mother were a whore.
But you can’t sneer. It’d be too hypocritical. You can’t bring yourself to say it either. Niang naing qiang—that’s what they say in Shanghainese, with a little derisive snort, calling those young, well-groomed pop-star boys who look like permed and primped girls “little empresses.”
Still, you’re delirious with the need to talk to someone about it, and you’re hopelessly wishing Xiao An would grow a pair of balls so you could confide in him. You don’t want to be alone with your disconsolate dreams of Chen-laoshi as a woman, in which you act out all these frustrated, unspeakable things you want to do to him, in which you devour him, because you know how these things work, between a man and a woman. Or the dreams in which you are his wife. You play with that one even when you’re awake, sculpting an image of her that reminds you of your initial delusions of Chen-laoshi. Would she have long hair, short hair, be slim, or compact? Would she wear perfume, or makeup, and if so, how much? Does she have long earlobes? Are her breasts well-shaped, can he fit one in each palm? Does she wear flashy clothing, does she paint her nails? You ask him probing, clumsy questions about the type of woman he likes. “But the funny thing is,” he says absently, “when I saw Zhou Jing for the first time, I wasn’t attracted to her”—throwing you into a week of morose contemplation.
“Let’s get really drunk,” you tell Xiao An, dragging him by the arm. “I don’t want to remember anything about this night tomorrow morning,” and Xiao An asks what the hell is wrong with you, did you get your heart broken, and you both laugh.
It’s not that your heart is broken, you tell Xiao An when you’re both gone on baijiu and high spirits. You’d know then what to do; you’ve had your heart broken. No, it’s not that at all—but Xiao An is too drunk to understand you, and you’re too drunk to explain properly. “You know what you need,” Xiao An says. “A woman.” He waggles his eyebrow at the waitress who comes to ask you if you need anything else, more peanuts maybe?
“No,” you tell Xiao An, almost shouting, and the girl backs away, thinking you’re talking to her. “No, that’s not it all, Xiao An, you’re dumb, dumb, dumb—” But when you leave, the two of you trip down the street arm in arm, singing old songs from your hometown at the top of your lungs. Touching Xiao An, you don’t feel anything. Your body is just the right size for your skin, and you breathe freely, without feeling like you’re burning inside.
But you’re hard when you stand in the shower that night. You put your hand on your cock, moving without thinking, and if you see that line of broad shoulder to waist, a smile, a blurred thought of the way his hands would feel, gripping you too tightly, as you come. You don’t remember it at all in the morning. Which is just as well. You don’t know how you would even phrase it to yourself.
A month later, your mother sends you a letter folded around a snapshot of a girl sitting stiffly at a dinner table. You make the mistake of opening it while you’re at Chen-laoshi’s apartment.
“Who’s that?” he asks, because he has eyes that are sharp enough to see every time a kid goes over a stroke twice, sharp enough to distinguish every one of his students’ writing. “A relative?”
You stuff the letter in your pocket, crumpling the picture, your hand squeezing around it like you think it could disappear if you just put enough creases in it. “No,” you grunt, “it’s not.”
“What’s the matter, not popular enough in Shanghai?” Chen-laoshi asks, grinning. “Tell your mother that I see you sometimes with all these pretty Shanghai ladies. She doesn’t need to worry.”
“It was once! You saw me once! And I told you, they were just people my friend knew!”
Chen-laoshi slings an arm around your shoulders, forcing both of you to hunch over the railing of his balcony. His face is suddenly very serious, and he stubs out the cigarette in an ashtray, breathing the last of the smoke out into the mild spring air, the faint twang of asphalt and car smoke that you can still smell even this far above ground.
“It’s okay, that’s how it always starts,” he says. His voice is low. You strain to hear him, but you don’t want to move, because he might remember that his hand is dangling against your arm. He might remember that you’re touching. “It’s always like that, she’s just a friend, she’s just a friend. And one day, she’s not just a friend anymore. She’s doing your laundry and you’re eating dinner with her every night. You wait every day to see her smile. You know all her childhood stories and that’s still not enough. You need to know every one of her stories, from the moment she was born to the moment she dies.” Chen-laoshi tilts his head down a little and grins at you from below.
“Whatever, I’m just some punk kid,” you tell him. “Probably will get stuck with some country girl that I don’t even know. No one wants some guy with no education, can’t buy an apartment like you can, no car.”
“It’ll happen to you too, you’ll see. There’s some nice girl out there just waiting for you. Then I’ll be at your wedding, crying because you’ll be all grown up, not my Little Brother Ah Qian anymore,” he finishes. He puts his hand on your head, letting it rest there for a minute, before lightly moving his fingers back and forth, rustling your hair.
It occurs to you then that this is a gesture he would never make with a woman. The weight of that thought is heavier than the weight of his hand. Standing on the balcony, you are twelve again, copying down Li Bai: This August, all the butterflies are yellow. A pair flies over the western garden’s grass. I feel that hurt my heart. Your father has his hand on your shoulder and he is refusing to explain to you what this poem means. But it’s okay. It is May and you are twenty-five, and you understand now.
In class you write that poem out for the kids and have them practice the 双 in “pair.” It has a hengpie stroke—the same stroke on the left-hand half yong, and so after a while, you find yourself filling a whole page just writing yong over and over again. When Li Li looks over, she shouts, “That’s Chen-laoshi‘s name!”
“Oh, is it?” you say, feigning innocence.
“Yes, it is. He writes it better than you do,” she tells you, very decisively, and then, tongue poking out from the gap of her teeth, goes back to practicing.
You spend the rest of the afternoon writing side-by-side with the students, pages and pages of yong. In a way, you are like them, and you are like every great calligrapher that has ever lived. You are all trying to capture that fleeting shape—that character slipping away when you lift your brush too early or aren’t decisive enough, pressing down with your palm—and you are all failing.
We write the yong in forever because when you catch it, you’ll have it forever, your father would tell you. But no, you would tell him now, that’s not the reason at all. You write it because it slips away from you forever. You write it because you could hold your breath forever and still never get there.
You send that practice sheet to your father with a letter scrawled hastily in pencil. How are you? The weather here is getting very warm. Tell Ma I love her. This is for you. You think your father might understand. You make no mention of the girl in the photograph.
For his birthday, Chen-laoshi invites you to have dinner with him and some teacher friends of his, his wife’s family, some cousins. You lie and say that you’re hanging out with Xiao An that afternoon, and he’ll never speak to you again if you break the appointment. Except Xiao An finally has a date tonight, with a girl Lao Xu knows from a friend of a friend. The truth is you just don’t know what you’d do sitting there with all of Chen-laoshi‘s respectable acquaintances, what you would say to Chen-laoshi’s father-in-law.
“How’s this,” he says, punching you lightly on the shoulder. “I’ll pick you up afterwards and we can spend the night getting drunk at the apartment. Zhou Jing sent me a nice bottle of baijiu as a gift. You’ll like it.”
“Sure,” you say, though you’re not.
He meets you at the Bund, because it’s close to where he ate dinner. You haven’t seen the Bund since you first came to Shanghai. It’s too prosaic, really, he tells you, coming to see the Bund at night when you’re in Shanghai, and you agree. “Makes me feel like a tourist,” you say, when the two of you stop at a particularly scenic part to admire the lights of the Pudong buildings across the Huangpu River.
“You remember that scene in Shanghai Bund?” he turns to you, grinning. “Not the 1980 one. The remake version that aired last year.”
“I never watched it. Old or new.”
“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter.” He stands up against the iron railing, looking at the water, as if appraising whether or not he’s going to fall in. “I was obsessed with it when I was a boy. It’s about this guy Xu Wen Qiang—he was Chow Yun-Fat in the original—who comes to Shanghai, gets himself involved with the Triads, and then falls in love with the boss’s daughter. Anyway, Xu Wen Qiang, he’s the type that’s a shuai ge if there ever was one, you know? The kind that never says ‘I love you.’ There’s this scene when the girl has left; Xu Wen Qiang is standing right here, on the Bund, and he’s drunk, and he says, ‘Xu Wen Qiang, you big idiot! You can’t even say something so simple! Can you even consider yourself a man?’ Then he throws his bottle into the water and tells himself to go to hell.” Chen-laoshi even mimes the throwing of the bottle, and you have to laugh.
“Sounds kind of corny,” you admit, stepping up onto the railing with him. The evening air is cool, even though the weather has been steadily marching towards summer. The water seems to mist the wind a little, and it feels good against your face. Chen-laoshi’s cheeks are flushed, and you don’t know if it’s the alcohol they must have made him drink during dinner or the lights from the flashing neon advertisements all around you.
“It was. But you know what I thought was funny? Even then, he doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say, ‘I love you, Chen Chen.’ He just says, ‘I can’t say it.'” He puts all his weight on his arms, as if testing the ability of the railing to support him, leaning over a little at the waist, sticking his head out further, towards the Huangpu River. After a while he says, “It’s really not that difficult, is it?”
You swallow hard. You can’t think of anything to say. “Maybe it was for him,” you suggest.
Chen-laoshi laughs. “For a gangster, he had no balls.” He grabs onto the railing, sticking his body so far out over it that you’re afraid he’s going to fall. He shouts, “I love you, Chen Chen! I love you!”
Some passersby throw the two of you funny looks. You’re embarrassed, but uncomfortably pleased that he’s out here being a fool with you, instead of drinking with his wife’s family. After a minute of silence, Chen-laoshi pulls you by the elbow, urging you forward. “Come on, you try it,” he says, grinning. “It’s really easy.” He cups his hands around his mouth, balancing with his feet. “I love you, Chen Chen!”
“I love you!” you shout. Your voice is thin, much higher than his. The voice of a boy.
“Too quiet. Louder!” He bellows, “Don’t leave me!”
“I’ll always love you!”
He falls away, laughing, and you put a hand on his arm because you’re afraid he really will pitch into the Huangpu. He puts his hand over yours, patting it, but his face is turned towards the dark water of the river, staring at something so far away you guess it must be on the other side of the world. “I’m a coward too,” he finally admits. “I can only say it when I’m pretending to be someone else. Otherwise, I can’t say it.”
“You’ve never—? Not even with—?” you blurt.
He doesn’t answer. His lips are pressed into a thin, flat line, and you think that if you were a woman, you would know how to kiss him, your hand flat against his chest, your feet arched on tiptoes. Instead you hold on tightly to his arm, saying nothing, and after a while, he gently pries your fingers away, and the two of you walk back to the train station in silence.
You spend the rest of the night drinking the alcohol his wife sent him. Shanghai rattles and chatters beneath you, but eventually it closes its many eyes, and it’s just the groaning sound of the city soothing its growing pains that fills the spacious, sparse apartment. The two of you finish off half of the bottle before you slump over the table, not quite asleep but trying on the pretense, and he drapes a blanket around your shoulders, tucking it around your stomach so you won’t get sick from the cold. There’s a fragile, tender moment of silence when he is simply sitting next to you, still for a long, long time. You try your best to regulate your breathing, not to flutter your eyelids and give yourself away. You don’t know what he’s looking at—you, or the black, impenetrable city-line outside. You want to know what he sees: if it’s the same bare, ugly bones of the city you see when you walk home after work, if he understands that you can strip this city down to planks and sweat and dirty fingernails, that it is the same bare ugliness on the faces of other people when they say something honest for the first time. You want to be honest for him. You want to tell him that you’re a coward too. You want him to touch you, because then you’d understand.
He doesn’t, and, waiting, you fall asleep.
In the morning, the rain wakes up before you do. It’s already sliding itself shamelessly against the windows, making unzipping sounds against the brick apartment walls. He’s standing at the glass balcony doors, arms folded, spine like a bent exclamation as he moves his neck in slow, languid circles to work out the stiffness.
“Your laundry’s getting wet,” you croak. He starts. You wonder if he’s forgotten that you’re even there. The thought makes you feel incredibly small. You hunch your shoulders, as if you might break through that smallness. He turns his face towards you. The way the light from outside is gray against his morning smile, the way his hair sticks up on one side of his head—it is all so new and precious to you. You want to hold this moment in your hands forever, make it small and keep it.
“I know. I always forget to bring it in. I’ve gotten too used to having Zhou Jing around. She never forgets.”
“I reminded you yesterday.”
He laughs. “Is that so?”
“And the day before.”
“Well,” he says very slowly, turning back to the window, “some girl will be lucky to have you”—and there it is again, coming between you, the ghost of Zhou Jing, hand in hand with the ghost of some girl who has no face and no name, who doesn’t exist yet except in the expectations of your mother and your father and him.
You have this fantasy sometimes. In it, the two of you are waiting for the end of the world. You know it’ll come like a nuclear explosion—silent, just light and heat, like the sun exploding and searing itself against your eyelids. The two of you are sitting in his apartment, at the kitchen table, drinking tea. For some reason, the apartment building is underwater. When you look out through the windows, everything is the pale, translucent blue of water deep under the surface—Shanghai submerged by a flood the size of China. Rice fields stretch out for hundreds of li in the distance. Neither of you speaks. He brings his teacup to his lips, which are curved in that slight smile of introspection. He says to you, “I have never known peace like this,” and for the first time in your life, you are completely happy. You know that when the world ends, this is where your ashes will rest—with him, and peacefully. Maybe for a few brief nanoseconds, you get to be alone with him, because everyone else is dead.
Ah Qian, why is it that you always destroy every perfect thing you are given? your father used to ask. And you don’t know. But this fantasy of yours, it’s not about destruction, anymore than calligraphy is about writing. It is about never being second-best. If there’s no one else in Chen-laoshi‘s life, you can only be number one.
Chen-laoshi is out on the balcony now, his slippers slapping against his heels as he gazes forlornly at his wet laundry. He reaches for a thin white undershirt on the line and says, “I think I’m going to go buy us some breakfast. Do you want anything, Ah Qian?” His hair is in his face and you can see the light change as it passes through his shirt, moving with his body, outlining his slim arms, his muscles. You know he isn’t beautiful, but you still clutch his blanket with both hands, to keep from reaching out for him. The fantasy comes back to you like the prickling of your skin after pleasure, spreading through your body from your fingers all the way up to the back of your neck.
“Ah Qian?” he calls out over his shoulder. “Can you hear me? Do you want food or not?”
You see it now in your mind, Chen-laoshi as the perfect character. You could write him down and keep him that way. You could trace his hands into a downward stroke, his shoulders into a line, his thighs, bare under his pajama shorts, into the branches of that hengpie stroke in yong. You could have all of that, and if you held your breath long enough, you’d never have to give him up—to the sea, or his wife, or his job, or that girl he’s so sure you’ll meet one day. You could have him forever as you painstakingly copy him down, one stroke, one breath, the passionate first line that you hold on to, the last whispered trace of your brush as you let go, your fingers moving with the sounds of wet ink caressing the page, a sound that belongs to that other world, the world of your father and him. A world where he can be alone with you, a world that dies with every exhalation.
You feel yourself filling up with a calm that is almost enlightenment. You see it now. You are fourteen, tensing your fingers against the ink stick, preparing to throw. You are eighteen, about to dive into the water, in search of those low, blue fields of oblivion. You are twenty-five and there are no butterflies, but you understand what Li Bai meant when he wrote, I wished to be with you as dust with ashes.
You are a brush poised above paper, the tip blackened. You are the calligrapher on the knife’s edge of the first stroke, holding your breath in and your elbow rigid. Soon you will have to let that breath go, but not now. Not yet. Not quite yet.
You say his name.
It is like the sound of ink spreading, and you’re ready.