Three years had passed.
I was working at a growing translation company located on the second floor of a commercial building. We had a total of ten full time employees, and the rest were all contracted employees. My pay was half of what I used to get in Beijing, but it was considered high in Kunming. I rented an apartment in a small residential area nearby. I donated five-hundred RMB to the disabled foundation and another five-hundred RMB to the cancer foundation; they were all anonymous, so even though my pay was considered to be high, I was living in a so-so life and far from luxury. The benefits from the translation company were incomparable to Jiu Tong or CGP, but the work was just as challenging. There was no complimentary lunch, so I brought my own lunch sometimes or ate instant noodles to save money, and rarely went to restaurants.
It was probably because I ate too many instant noodles and was working too hard such that my life had no schedule, that I had gastrointestinal bleeding and stayed in the hospital for twelve days. Xiao Dong, who was studying for his Ph.D at the medical university, came to visit and took care of me for five days before I kicked him out to send him back to Guangdong.
I kept my promise, and never took the initiative to call Li Chuan. Li Chuan on the other hand, would call me sometimes or send me emails once every two to three months. When it was my birthday, he sent me chocolate cookies. He would also give me a call during new years and on holidays. Nevertheless, we were still friends.
He didn’t speak much of his condition; it was probably good sometimes and bad sometimes.
Two years after Li Chuan returned to Switzerland, he finally found a match and went to America to complete the bone marrow transplant right away. But it caused a bunch of complications, and he couldn’t call me for seven months straight. When I asked how he was later, he said he was better, but his condition was not stable. After being ill for so long, he lost trust in his own body; no matter how well he felt, he could suddenly collapse. Other than accommodating to all kinds of treatments, he didn’t have much hope.
Li Chuan was like a balloon in my hand; even if it flew all the way up into the clouds, or so far away that I couldn’t make out its colour, it would return to my side with a slight tug. We could become distant one minute, and very close the next, or we could be lukewarm. But there was always a string attached to us that could never be broken.
Sometimes he would tease me, “How about you? Have you (English) moved on yet? Do you have a new boyfriend?”
I would answer vaguely, “Since I promised you that I would (English) move on, I will not back out on my words. Why are you asking so much? I’m not going to tell you just so that you can get a kick out of it.”
I loved this person for ten years. My heart was tossed over a cliff twice; I only wanted to live quietly for the rest of my life and never mention the word “love” again. Being single was quite nice; I was free and unrestrained.
I spent my birthday in the hospital this year. Xiao Dong bought me a big cake; we cut out a small portion for ourselves, and shared the rest with other patients.
Speaking of Xiao Dong, it was rather funny. When he visited me at the hospital, he was very dissatisfied with my current state. He bought me some stylish clothing the very next day and said, “Jie, you’re twenty-seven, so you should dress like a twenty-seven year old, okay? Don’t make yourself look like thirty-seven. You should also at least fix your hair and not leave it looking like a bird’s nest, as if you’re a guy. And…you’ve been smoking too much. You should really set your foot down on quitting.”
This was what you called family. Family members are cute yet naggy. Xiao Dong was also overbearing. He was as broke as he could be, but he still stuffed two-thousand RMB into my hands. His cooking was awful, but I still forced a smile and ate his rice porridge. After just five days, I wanted him to leave so badly.
When I left the hospital, I received a bunch of messages from Li Chuan. One of them said, “Xiao Qiu, happy birthday! I mailed you a present, have you received it yet? I hope you’ll like it.” There was another one that said, “Xiao Qiu, have you gone on a business trip? How come you haven’t answered my phone calls for seven days, or even replied my emails?”
My voice mailbox could only store twenty messages; it was full already.
I had just gotten better from being sick nonetheless, so I couldn’t control my emotions. I smiled bitterly as I deleted all of the messages.
I returned to work the day after I left the hospital. I worked diligently in the English department. A lot of our work was paid based on quantity; the more translations you did, the more bonuses you would receive at the end of the year; so I worked hard to make money.
I rode my bike home after a long day of work. It was raining outside and the building was dark inside. I saw someone standing there quietly; his silhouette looked familiar.
“Hi, Xiao Qiu!”
He gave me a fright. I clapped my hands and the lights turned on. I took a good look at him; Li Chuan was still as charming as he had always been. He was well shaved, a little skinny, but healthier than he was when he left Kunming. He looked much livelier. He was standing with a pair of crutches, and a medium sized suitcase sat beside him.
I stared at him blankly as I couldn’t make out whether it was my imagination or reality. I felt my head go numb. He smiled at me, and I became completely lost. After Li Chuan left, my life was a mess, and I was living in a primal state.
Seeing how I was stunned and lost without words, Li Chuan said, “I’m sorry I didn’t contact you first. I couldn’t find you, so I thought something may have happened. When I called your translation company, they said you had gastrointestinal bleeding and was at the hospital.”
“Oh, I’ve recovered already,” I said.
“When did you get out of the hospital?”
“You went back to work after leaving the hospital? You worked the entire day?”
“Mm.” My raincoat was still dripping from the rain.
“Take off the raincoat,” he said softly while pulling the raincoat off from over my head.
The sound sensor light switched off again, so I had to stomp my feet to turn them back on.
I was more or less in a wreck; my hair was cut a bit too short and was messy. Li Chuan stared at me and said, “What? You don’t plan on inviting me to go inside?”
“Of course,” I said, “Hold on, I need to find my keys.” The keys were inside my crossbody bag, but I couldn’t fetch them no matter how hard I tried. I got annoyed, so I squatted and poured out everything in my bag. A bunch of stuff fell out from it including my wallet, coins, lipstick, lip balm, napkin, sticky notes, pads, half a bag of preserved plums, chewing gum, half a pack of cigarettes, lighter, a small mirror, a bottle of water, two ballpoint pens, a pencil, my cell phone……Just as I was about to start searching, the lights went off again. Li Chuan clapped his hands to turn the lights back on this time. I found my keys, opened the door, and turned on the lights in the living room.
“Please come in.”
Li Chuan came in dragging his suitcase. He stood in the middle of the room, looked around, and took a deep breath.
The truth was, I only cleaned my place once every one to two months; dust covered the floor, table, and book shelf. My furniture was mostly grey so that others could not tell how dusty they were at first glance. A few pieces of dirty clothing lay on top of the sofa, and it had been a long time since I had mopped the floor. There were a couple of non-matching pairs of slippers and a dirty sock. I reached over the sofa and swept the dirty clothes to the side to make some room. I said to Li Chuan, “Please sit.”
Li Chuan didn’t sit, instead he asked, “Do you mind if I take off my prosthetic leg?”
He went into my bedroom and came out with only one leg. I suddenly remembered that Li Chuan said that if his cancer recurred again, he would likely need another amputation; so I couldn’t help but ask, “Li Chuan, is your leg……real?”
He shook his head, “It’s not real.”
“How much of it is left?” My face turned pale from fright as I dashed over to touch it.
“I’m just joking.” He caressed my head, “Of course it’s real. I’m not that unlucky.”
I let out a breath of relief and dropped down to sit on the floor.
“Xiao Qiu, your place is too messy. I must clean it up for you. Where’s the mop? Where’s the cloth?” He pulled me up from the floor to sit on the sofa.
He went into the kitchen, but came back out quickly and almost screamed, “Xiao Qiu, there are cockroaches in the kitchen.”
“Do you have a bug killer spray?”
“No.” I then heard a bunch of thumping noise, “We’ll have to kill it ourselves.”
Li Chuan grew up in a German-speaking area, so his living habits were very strongly German-influenced, and he loved cleanliness. He spent an hour cleaning the living room; he used a cloth to wipe every corner. He mopped the floor three times; I offered to help as I was afraid of him slipping, but he refused. He sorted and threw my dirty clothes into two laundry baskets.
Two cockroaches crawled out when he fetched the mop, but he killed them with his crutch.
“What should I do then?”
He threw the remote at me, “Watch TV.”
He went to clean up the kitchen and washed the dishes that I had left behind after breakfast. Although the kitchen was small, it was the dirtiest. He spent two hours to finish cleaning it up.
“Xiao Qiu, every time you finish cooking with the pot, you should also wash the bottom of it, otherwise, it will turn black.”
I wanted to faint. The bottom of a pot was always black; there might even be ashes. I was too lazy to argue with him. Besides, he wasn’t going to be staying more than a couple of days anyway; everything would be returned to the way they were, so I brushed him off, “Okay, okay.”
He didn’t come out of the kitchen after a long while, so I asked, “What are you doing? Why are you still not coming out?”
“I’m scrubbing the tiles. Your tiles are not white enough.”
“That’s a painful job, but benefits many. Take your time.”
He used a knife to scrape and a stainless steel scourer to scrub. He was exhausted. When he seemed to have finished, he asked, “Have you eaten yet?”
“No. I waited for you outside for a long time.”
“Oh, have you booked a hotel room then?”
“Can I stay here?”
“What?” I jumped up and rushed to the kitchen to holler at him, “Wang Li Chuan, you think that you can come as you like and stay as you like at my place!?”
“Why are you being so mean?” He said, “Let me ask you, where did I let you stay when you came to Zurich last time? You should return the favour, right? I don’t mean anything else. You haven’t fully recovered yet, so I’m just here to take care of you for a while.”
“What does it have anything to do with you? Did I ask you to come take care of me?” I continued shouting, “I’ve already recovered!”
“Is it necessary to be this angry?” He pressed onto my shoulders, “Look at you, yet you say you’re well. Your face is pale and lifeless just from getting angry. Sit down, sit down.”
I sat down angrily while he continued, “You were always the one taking care of me in the past. Last time you had a bone fracture, that doctorate guarded you every day, so I didn’t have a chance. It’s finally my turn this time, right?”
Since he mentioned the bone fracture, it made me angrier, “How do you know that I don’t have any other men?”
He froze for a moment and realized that I was lying, so he smiled, “Your co-worker picked up when I called the translation company. She said you’ve been living a hard life and still don’t have a boyfriend yet. She said no one took care of you while you were sick. Your brother left after a few days.”
I was furious, “Who is the world gossiped about me? How come that person told you everything?” To be honest, I didn’t think I would be enrolled into the “leftovers” category so soon. Other than our boss, the translation company was made of all young people; everyone called me, “Qiu Jie (big sister Qiu).” Although it seemed like it was an honorific to show respect for an experienced person in the field, I couldn’t help but feel a tint of mockery. One of the main reasons why I came to Kunming was to avoid Eason. After he returned from California, he called me many times and even came to Kunming to see me, saying that he was here for a conference. After a long period of unreturned affection and being non-responsive, he finally gave up.
“I said that I was your uncle from abroad, and that both of your parents were deceased, so I was your most respected relative. Moreover, the half a box of condoms in your bathroom is from Zurich. It’s been three years, yet you still haven’t thrown it out.”
“I kept it to use them as rubber gloves. When I need to scrub out the grime, I use one on each finger.”
He burst out laughing. There was a loud clunk and a mug shattered on the floor.
After Li Chun finished cleaning up the living room and kitchen, the cleanliness of my place was comparable to a five-star hotel.
I was too busy in the afternoon and didn’t get to eat. When I finally felt hungry, it was already 4pm. I headed over to the street across from the translation company and bought lunch. The good dishes were already taken by others; there were only some pig’s ears, chickens, and stuff the like left. I gobbled everything down, but it was giving me heartburn even now.
The bathroom was the cleanest area of my place because I was more picky about it. Li Chuan only had to spend ten minutes cleaning it. He came out and asked me, “Do you have anything in your fridge? I’m hungry, so I want to cook something to eat.”
“Nope. I only have instant noodles in all kinds of brands. I even have Korean ones.”
Just as he was about to answer, someone knocked the door.
We opened the door together; it was Grandma Guan from across the hall. Grandma Guan was around sixty years old, and lived with her son and granddaughter. We were quite friendly. She was holding a big bowl, and was a little startled when she saw Li Chuan.
“Hi, Xiao Qiu, did you just come back from the hospital?”
“I heard your stomach was bleeding, are you okay?”
“I’m fine now, thank you for asking.”
“You must take care of your stomach and be careful of what you eat. You youngsters only know to do work and don’t take care of your bodies. Eat rice porridge for a couple of days first. After your stomach is better, you can eat rice then. Um……this is?”
I didn’t know how I should introduce Li Chuan, so I said, “Mm……he is Mr. Wang, a house cleaner that I hired.”
“Oh, oh, Mr. Wang, thanks for your hard work.”
We chatted a little, I accepted her rice porridge, thanked her, went back inside, shared a bowl with Li Chuan, and finished it all. Grandma Guan’s rice porridge was delicious!
Li Chuan looked at my expression of satisfaction and laughed bitterly, “Do you often accept free food from across?”
“Mm…..I tutored her granddaughter English a few times. It wasn’t that many times, definitely not as much as getting free food.”
Li Chuan washed the dishes after we finished. I sat in the living room and watched TV by myself. An uninteresting variety show was on, so I was yawning from boredom.
I felt that seeing Li Chuan again after so many years, I was not emotional or excited; I was already numb.
“I’ll help you take a bath,” Li Chuan said.
I was pulled into the bathroom and we were naked the next minute. I looked at him and sighed, “The bathtub is very slippery. You need to be careful.”
“Hold onto me then.”
I embraced him lightly and rested my head on his chest. He was still wearing the jade that I had given to him; it had become smoother than before. I put it into my mouth; it tasted salty.
Li Chuan washed my hair carefully, over and over again.
“How long has it been since you last washed it?” he asked.
“I don’t remember,” I continued yawning.
“Get some rest early.”
We went to the bedroom; the blanket was not neatly folded, it was exactly how I left it in the morning. Li Chuan sat on the bed, but quickly pulled me away, “The bed is not clean.”
“That can’t be, I just tidied it yesterday.”
“There are cookie crumbs and chips.” He went to find some new bed sheets.
“Why don’t you change the duvet cover and pillow cases while you’re at it?” I pointed to where I kept the bed sheets. He was such a pampered boy; he was so hard to please. He really did change everything to a set of white sheets. It was finally clean.
I slipped into the blanket; Li Chuan hugged me tightly and kissed my face. I didn’t move and looked at him blankly. After a while, I said, “Li Chuan, I need to sleep now.”
He caressed me lightly and said softly, “Xiao Qiu……don’t tell me you don’t even know how to do that now?”
“I don’t. After being with you for so many years, my IQ has declined to the same level as a fruit fly.”
In the middle of the night, Li Chuan cried in my embrace, “I’m sorry, Xiao Qiu, it’s my fault. I’ve held you back for so many years.”
When I woke up the next day, Li Chuan was already up. He went out to buy breakfast, but said he had to wait a while longer before he could eat anything; he still had to take medicine for Osteoporosis.
I worked at 8:30am; he accompanied me on my way to work all the way to the front entrance, and then handed me a small bag that had a couple of boxes inside, “Your (English) lunch.”
I took them over from him and asked, “There’s nothing in the fridge, so how did you make it?”
“The supermarket opens early, so I bought some groceries and even asked the grandma next door how to make rice porridge. Hope you like it.”
“Thanks.” I went to work and Li Chuan went home. He said he needed to continue cleaning the place. I really wanted to ask him exactly how long he would be staying, but Li Chuan always came and go as he liked; there was no point in asking, so I didn’t bother.
Li Chuan called me at noon, “Did you eat your (English) lunch?”
“Yep, I ate it long ago.”
“Did you microwave it?”
“No, did I need to?”
“How could you not microwave it? You are really a fruit fry!” He hung up the phone angrily.
When I had opened my lunch boxes at lunch time, my coworkers were shocked. There were rice porridge and two side dishes; one vegetables and one with meat; there were even fruits, salad, and other small treats. I was very surprised with Li Chuan’s cooking skills.
At 5:30pm, I walked out the door with my coworkers; Li Chuan was already waiting for me outside. He shook hands with my coworkers and introduced himself. He joked, “Hi, I am Wang Li Chuan, Miss Xie’s house cleaner. I’m responsible for cleaning her place, cooking, and sending her off to work and picking her up after.”
I was speechless. Li Chuan was all dressed up in a suit and was well groomed; everyone easily thought that he was standing there to film a movie.
Li Chuan drove me home. Dinner was already set on the table; there were three dishes and a soup, but I still had to eat rice porridge.
“You see, don’t you think life is so organized this way?”
“Yes,” I nodded my head quickly.
After we finished eating, he held my hands and took me for a walk, “How come you’re limping a bit?”
The stainless steel plates in my leg were not removed until a year later. The doctor said I recovered quite well. I still loved sports, and insisted on riding a bike to and from work.
“I don’t think so. Just a bit.”
“Only a bit. Really just a bit.”
“I’m disabled then.”
“I’ll take you to Switzerland for surgery.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”