SIDE STORY 3
I hadn’t lived together with Li Chuan for such a long period of time in these past ten years. The days we lived together added up to no more than a month. The places we lived in were always well equipped luxurious hotels or high-end apartments.
We had never lived in such a dark, worn-out, and filthy old-fashion building before.
Li Chuan started cleaning the place the first day he arrived. He washed the dishes, pots, lids, and even the bottles containing the sauces every day. He would then wipe down the table, mop the floor, clean the toilet, and throw out the trash. I called him a “cleaning freak.” He said that there was really an equivalent of it in German called, “Putzteufel” (cleaning devil). Li Chuan even expanded his cleaning area to the whole first level corridors of the building; he was applauded by all the neighbors.
Li Chuan had surprisingly good balance. He could stand straight with his chest high and not budge for a long time. If you didn’t look, you wouldn’t even notice that he only had one leg. Li Chuan said that he was an expert in skiing in which his instructor urged him to participate in the Paralympic Games. But he only had the heart to become an architect, so he did not participate.
At this point, I asked him, “Weren’t you studying finance? Why did you change subjects?”
His response was not what I expected, “Because of my brother.”
“Because of your brother?”
“After the surgery, he was worried that I couldn’t take care of myself in college, so he decided to transfer to study at Chicago. Although there was also an architect program in Chicago, it just couldn’t compare to Harvard. So I thought, instead of him transferring schools, why not I transfer? So I went to Harvard.”
“Ah……Harvard!?” The popular movie, “Love Story,” immediately came into my mind, “Did you pursue any girls while you were there?”
“I didn’t participate in any social events in the first few years,” he said, “The school workload was very heavy. There was so much that I almost couldn’t breathe. I had to study every day until after midnight.”
“Did you have to work that hard?”
“My dad used to teach in the program, so I didn’t want to embarrass him.”
“Sigh, Li Chuan, your past experience is like an inspirational novel.”
He twisted my ear.
I opened a drawer of the one and only chest in the room and stuffed my clothes inside.
Li Chuan stopped me, “Sigh, it’s not what I meant.”
“Your clothes are very expensive, so you must store them carefully. My clothes are very cheap, so I can just stuff them anywhere.”
“No, we must share half and half. If not, I’ll buy another closet tomorrow.”
“Don’t bother, it won’t fit since the place is so small. Let’s just share.”
We sat on the bed and spent a little over an hour folding our clothes into small pieces and putting them into the drawers one by one. After a while, Li Chuan stood up to find his crutch. I went to the living room and fetched his usual pair of crutches for him. These titanium crutches were custom made for his height. They were in its natural titanium colour equipped with black handles; they were light yet durable. I weighed them in my hands and suddenly noticed a big problem.
“Hey, Li Chuan, take a look. Even Switzerland has poorly made imitation products! These crutches are not the same length!” I couldn’t help but feel bad for him, “You haven’t noticed even when you’ve used them for so long?”
Li Chuan actually had a few pairs of these crutches. When I first met him, he was already using this brand. I had fetched them for him many times, but had never paid attention to its length.
“Come, come, come, honey,” he took out a pen and a piece of paper, “let me educate you on some basic knowledge of people with disabilities.”
I sat beside him as he drew a small figure on the paper, “I’m missing my right leg, so when I stand up, my balance is shifted to the right, right?”
“My shoulders will also slant to the right.”
“In order to keep my balance and comfort in walking, my right crutch will be higher.” He tapped my head with his crutch lightly afterwards, “Therefore, this is not a poorly made imitation product.”
I was dumbstruck, “It has always been this way? Ever since the day I met you, you’ve been using crutches of different height?”
“And I never once noticed?” My face was full of embarrassment.
“It’s normal since you don’t use crutches,” he consoled me.
“But it shows that I’m a very careless person!”
“I didn’t say that…”
“No wonder you ignored me for so many years!”
“That’s not what happened…”
“I’m just a failure. I’m the poorly made imitation!”
I suddenly burst into tears; my face became a mess.
“(English) Honey——” He pulled me up from the bed and hugged me tightly, “No one is a better match for me than you.” Then he swore that he would be with me forever, live a long life, grow old with me, and never do we part.
Li Chuan wasn’t someone who liked to make promises, especially on things that he could not guarantee. But when he saw that my emotions were out of control, making promises became his ultimate method of comforting me. He started repeating all these never-ending sweet promises. He spoke in his deep and mesmerizing voice chattering endlessly like a Buddhist reciting scripture. I calmly fell asleep in his recital and returned to normal.
I gradually believed that Li Chuan made the right decision to leave me nine years ago. My ability to cope with emotional crises was far worse than I had imagined even though my ability to neglect them was stronger than I thought.
“Tell me, Li Chuan, when you were diagnosed with cancer, did your dad ever hide the truth from you?”
“No,” he said, “he told me first thing, and even told me that there was only thirty to fifty percent chance of surviving the illness in five years.”
I sighed, “You were only seventeen then. Your dad was confident that you would be able to handle the truth?”
“Maybe because my dad thought that I was (English) tough enough. If it was my brother, he would have hid some part of it from him.”
I crossed my arms, “But you didn’t think that I could accept the truth?”
“……You’re at it again.”
“Because I’m a woman. Women are emotionally fragile creatures.”
“There are strong women too.”
“But I’m not strong?”
He looked at me and didn’t know how to respond.
“Where am I not strong?”
“Give me an example.”
“For example, I already bid you farewell, but you still wrote a hundred letters to me?”
“That proves I’m strong. Undying determination and perseverance is strong.”
“(English) Come on.”
“It shows that my mentality is strong. No matter how many times you try to get rid of me, you can’t.”
“Therefore, you were wrong. You should have told me the truth at the time.”
He patted my face, thought for a moment, and said, “If you really want to know the truth, let me tell you something then.”
“Someone called me yesterday. You picked up the phone, right?”
“Yes. He spoke in German, so I didn’t understand him.”
“He was my doctor.”
My face went pale.
“I took a chest x-ray before coming to Kunming. He found three small dots on my lungs. They suspect that my cancer has recurred, but they are not certain, so I have to get another chest x-ray again in six weeks……”
I stared at him with my mind going completely blank; I couldn’t breathe for a moment.
I then fell to the ground.
When I woke up, I found myself lying in Li Chuan’s arms. I felt a stinging taste in my mouth; it was alcohol, hard liquor.
I looked at him confused; he pointed at the Erguotou (Chinese white liquor) on the table, “I’m sure that your strong mentality hasn’t swayed, but your head fainted.”
My tears began flowing non-stop and my body shook as I looked at him, “Is it…true?”
“Of course not,” he sighed, fetched his cell phone, and dialed a number, “This is my primary doctor. He speaks English. If you don’t believe me, you can ask him.”
Li Chuan’s doctor was named Herman; he spoke in English with a very heavy German accent and explained Li Chuan’s condition to me. He said that although Li Chuan had not recovered his health to an ideal state, he had improved a lot since last year. There were no signs of his cancer recurring, but he also advised that for patients like him, it could recur at any time, so (English) just live with it.
I looked at him worriedly and didn’t say a word.
“(English) Honey, are you better now?” He held my face in his palms and smiled affectionately, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have joked about something so serious. You really fell to the floor with a sound of a ‘thump.’ I thought you would at least be able to stand for a few seconds. Does your head still feel dizzy? Do you want something to drink? I’ll get you a glass of juice.”
“Wang Li Chuan!…..You dared to joke with me!?”
He was afraid of hearing me yell at him, so he picked up his crutches and fled to the kitchen with a dash.
He brought me the juice in a vacuumed bottle. I took a big gulp to get rid of the alcohol taste in my mouth, and then I asked him casually, “Since the doctor says that you’re okay now, why were you in the bathroom for two hours this morning? Is there something else wrong?”
Li Chuan always woke up early and I didn’t like getting out of bed, so we never had problems with sharing a bathroom. Now that he was back, I wanted to spend more time together with him, so I started getting up early as well. That was when it became a problem.
“Okay, the following is my report. I woke up, took my medicine, and went to the washroom for 2 minutes. Then I shaved for 10 minutes, brushed my teeth for 2 minutes, and took a shower for 30 minutes. I came out and combed my hair for 5 minutes, then put on my clothes for 5 minutes. Let me think what else did I do…Oh, right, someone said that her earring broke. I took 30 minutes to fix your earring. I was too focused on fixing it and accidentally dropped it into the sink. In order to fetch the earring, I took……I’m not sure, I think I took 30 minutes——”
“……Li Chuan, you’re so long-winded.”
“I’m not done, let me finish. I went out to buy soy milk and Chinese fried pancakes. I forgot to bring your wallet, so I asked the store if they would accept Swiss Franc, but they were afraid that it was fake. Then he said he recognizes you so I could put it on the tab. He asked me what kind of pancakes I would like, so I asked for the regular kind. But he said Wu Da Lang pancakes were the best. I asked him who Wu Da Lang was, and he said Wu Da Lang was a character in ‘Water Margin.’ I said that I had heard of ‘Water Margin’ before, but had never heard of Wu Da Lang. He said if I had never heard of Wu Da Lang, it meant that I didn’t know ‘Water Margin.’ I said that I had heard of ‘Water Margin’ from my girlfriend and that she had never mentioned about Wu Da Lang. He got mad and said that either my girlfriend was a liar or was a foreigner. I said that my girlfriend was from Yunan and he didn’t believe me. He said the next time you go buy soy milk, he would definitely ask you about it……”
“Are you tired of talking yet?”
“……And then I came back and bumped into the grandma next door. She said that store adds water to their soy milk, so we should make soy milk ourselves. She recommended the soy milk maker from Joyang. I said I would definitely get one……”
“I beg you to stop talking. I’m going crazy!”
“Then can you tell me why I don’t know who Wu Da Lang is?”
“Alright, the story I told you about was not ‘Water Margin.’ It was ‘Jin Ping Mei.’”
“There is no Wu Da Lang in ‘Jin Ping Mei?’”
“There is, but I didn’t mention it. If I did, you would have thought that Pan Jin Lian was a bad woman.”
“Is she bad or not?”
“Hm, regarding that……Li Chuan, our Chinese culture is broad and sophisticated. You could write a thesis on it. Let’s not discuss this now. Let’s go get some groceries.” I patted his shoulders, “You can do whatever you want to do in the morning. Don’t ever report it to me again.”
Li Chuan was wearing a white t-shirt accompanied with a pair of blue jeans.
I locked the door carrying a shopping bag and left with him. The market wasn’t far; it was about a twenty-minute walk. I kind of missed when he used to walk with only a cane; we could hold hands like other couples who were passionately in love. Now that he was using two crutches, it felt like I would be in his way if I wrapped my hand around his arm. I couldn’t be too close to him either because people using crutches needed more room. Therefore, I had to (English) live with it; learn to get used to it. I was already happy to be able to live together with Li Chuan; I could not ask for more.
We walked East on a small street. After ten minutes, Li Chuan suddenly stopped in front of a fruit store. I thought he wanted to buy fruits, “Let’s get them when we come back. If we get them now, we’ll have to carry them to the supermarket and then carry them back with our other groceries. It’ll be troublesome.”
He didn’t answer. He freed one of his hands and grabbed my waist. He held my waist tightly and rested his chin on my forehead. He had always loved rubbing his chin on my forehead, especially when he had some stubble; as if he purposely wanted to tickle me.
I tilted my head upwards and looked at him. He slid his hand down, found my hand, and grabbed it tightly. He lowered his head to look at the fruits, “Are these Fuji apples?”
“Hm…I think so.”
I was enjoying the moment of happiness.
Li Chuan was back; I couldn’t believe that it was for real. I grabbed his hand subconsciously, leaned towards his chest subconsciously, and listened to his heartbeat subconsciously. Our palms were sweating together, and all of a sudden, my body swayed.
“What’s wrong?” he quickly held onto me, “Are you not feeling well?”
“I……I don’t know.” I leaned on him with my back covered in cold sweat, “I suddenly had a dream.”
“You?” He raised his eyebrows, “You had a daydream?”
“What was it about?”
“I dreamt that……we were standing together……buying apples.”
He looked at me in disappointment. After he was certain that I wasn’t joking with him, he sighed; he wanted to say something, but kept his silence and continued to hug me.
The store lady came and greeted us, “Morning! These Fuji apples have just arrived. They are big and fresh. If you want some, I’ll give you a discount.” The store lady was at least two heads taller than me and was wearing a vibrant sweater. She had rings on every finger and wore a big golden necklace.
Li Chuan picked the biggest one, “Can I buy just one apple?”
The store lady froze for a second, and then nodded, “Yes. That’s quite a big one. Okay, fine. You can just give me two dollars RMB for it.”
He took out a hundred-dollar bill from his wallet.
“Oh, it’s such a big bill, do you guys have change?”
We both answered, “No.”
“Please watch the store for me and I’ll go get some change.”
“No problem, we’re not in a hurry.”
She was gone for a long time. I didn’t speak and only continued to lean on Li Chuan while dazing off. After a moment, Li Chuan asked quietly, “(English) Honey, are you done dreaming?”
“That’s enough, Miss. That expression of yours from just now is good enough to film a trailer for a romance drama. Just like this.” He held his head in his palms like a girl with his eyes wide open.
I chuckled, “Really? No way! Am I that hopeless?”
Li Chuan looked at me, then the sky, and let out a deep breath, “(English) God, what have I done to this woman——”
I pretended to be angry.
He quickly said, “I’ll serve you tonight.”
The store lady gave us a bunch of change.
“By any chance, do you have a sink here? I want to wash the apple,” Li Chuan asked.
“There’s one inside. It’s not convenient for you, so let her go wash it,” the store lady said honestly while staring at his leg.
“No, no, I will go wash it.”
Li Chuan left me to go inside and wash the apple. The store lady smirked as she looked at me from head to toe, “Your boyfriend takes care of you so well.”
“He’s quite good-looking,” she added.
“Are you going to marry him?” she asked suddenly.
“Your parents approve?”
It was a rather complicated answer, but to put it simply, “Yes.”
She suddenly pulled out a handkerchief and started crying, “There was a man who treated me very well before, but I married someone else for money. Sniff……sniff……I’ve never regretted it so much until today!”
I hugged her tightly. She cried in my arms for ten minutes, and her tears damped my shirt.
Li Chuan stood on the side with the apple that he just washed. He didn’t know what to do so he made some hand gestures toward me and asked in English, “What happened?”
I looked at him helplessly as I comforted the store lady softly.
She calmed down eventually, and we shook hands with her and said our goodbyes. Li Chuan stuffed the apple into my hands, “Where there is two women together, it’ll always be like a romance drama, regardless of whether you know each other or not—–Kunming, you sure are a city full of emotions!”
“Don’t say that, she just happened to have remembered something sad.”
“Eat your apple.”
“Why am I suddenly eating an apple?”
“Isn’t it so that you have something to do while we walk?” he laughed, “Otherwise, you’ll continue daydreaming, and you’ll end up falling into the gutter before we know it.”
I went to the supermarket on East street often before Li Chuan came back; I mainly went there to buy instant noodles. After Li Chuan came back, I didn’t go again because he liked buying groceries in the morning, saying that the vegetables were fresher in the morning. He also learned how to make food containing wheat, and looked up a bunch of recipes on the web; he made pan-fried pork bun for me once.
We bought some fruits and vegetables. Li Chuan ate very light meals, and kept his diet under strict control. I on the other hand, liked bold tasting dishes and loved adding spices. In order to avoid needing him to specially make a dish for me every day, I also got used to eating light-tasting meals. But he insisted on buying some chili peppers, the kind that Szechuan people liked.
Li Chuan was stopped by a fifty year-old woman when he was trying to buy some chili. She stood and observed Li Chuan for a minute, and then walked towards us with a serious expression. She looked a bit familiar to me; I thought I must have seen her from somewhere, but I couldn’t figure out who she was.
We were stunned by her sorrowful expression. Her lips trembled as she asked, “Young man, how is it over there? Is everyone okay?”
Li Chuan looked at her puzzled while holding a pack of chili, “Auntie, you’re asking….about where?”
“Wenchuan. You must have just come back from the disaster area, right? How is the reconstruction going? Our neighborhood committee has donated a truck full of winter clothes. An old lady like me isn’t much help, so I’ve only donated five hundred RMB. My home is also in Szechuan, and one of my nephews has also become disabled, it’s so unfortunate……He’s about the same age as you, and hasn’t gotten married yet. Young man, you seem quite lively. You’ve recovered quite well, haven’t you!?”
What was going on!?
I was frozen like a rock.
Li Chuan, oh, Li Chuan, why did you have to buy chili and cause others to mistaken you for a Szechuan person.
Li Chuan obviously knew about the earthquake; we both donated our money. I finally remembered that the lady worked at the neighborhood committee. My registered residence was still Beijing, so I had to ask her for a temporary residence permit.
I took a peek at Li Chuan. He had a weird expression on his face; the kind that you would only see on a foreigner who felt awkward and embarrassed. Li Chuan looked at me for help. I held out my hands and shrugged to show that there was nothing that I could do.
What could I say? Should I have told the lady that she got the wrong person, and that this young man was not disabled due to the earthquake, but because of cancer? Saying that would definitely not scare her, but it would scare me because I was very sensitive to the word, “cancer.” If I could, I would rather not mention it again for the rest of my life.
After a moment of silence, Li Chuan cleared his throat, and then held out his hand unabashedly to shake hands with her. He said sincerely, “Auntie, thank you for your thoughtfulness. I would like to thank you on behalf of all the people in the disaster area.”