By Lijia Zhang, first published in Silkroad magazine, June 2017.
One evening in July 1986, a puzzling incident took place at the chemistry laboratory at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Lin, a freshman from the chemical engineering department, was found lying unconscious on the floor, next to an open bottle of chloroform. The classmate who had discovered him and called for help wasn’t sure if Lin, who had been strangely quiet lately, had accidentally sniffed too much of the sweet-smelling yet toxic solvent, or was experimenting to attain a hallucinatory thrill, or had simply attempted suicide. After emergency treatment, Lin, still in a coma, was placed on a breathing machine in an intensive care unit. He lay motionless in his bed, separated by curtains from other patients, oblivious to the coming and going of the nurses and doctors. What occupied his cloudy mind were vivid scenes from another hospital stay two months earlier.
Back in May, as Lin struggled to complete his first year at Tsinghua, one of the most prestigious universities in China, he came down with a mysterious respiratory virus. Delirious with a high fever, he was taken to a hospital by his roommates.
For two days, he drifted in and out of a dazed sleep. On the morning of the third day, Lin woke up, feeling much better. As he cast his eye over the ward, a young nurse walked in. She came to his bed and placed a hand on his forehead. ‘Your temperature has gone down a little, thank heaven for that,’ she said in standard Mandarin.
‘What’s wrong with me?’ Lin asked in a hoarse croak.
‘Dr Zhen said you caught a rare kind of flu,’ she replied. ‘Otherwise your temperature wouldn’t have stayed so high for so long.’ She wrote on a note pad as she spoke. ‘Dr Zhen is a great doctor. You were lucky to have him treating you.’ Glancing at him, she added: ‘And it’s lucky that you are strong.’
Strong? It was the first time someone had paid Lin such a compliment. He was just a man of average height and build. He smiled timidly at the nurse. ‘Well, this is certainly my first stay in a hospital.’
The nurse changed the bag of saline and put down a glass of water on his bedside table. ‘Drink as much liquid as possible,’ she said in a voice thick with authority. ‘Maybe your family can bring you some chicken or spare rib soup. You need to regain your strength.’
‘My family lives in Southern China. I am studying here on my own,’ Lin said, suddenly feeling a tinge of homesickness.
‘Are you a university student?’
‘Yes, at Tsinghua.’
She raised a thumb. ‘I’m Little Chen.’ As she introduced herself, she pulled the face mask off her left ear, briefly revealing her face, which was the shape of a perfect sunflower seed. Her lips were like ripe purple plums, bruised slightly. ‘Thank you, Little Chen.’
Now feeling quite awake, Lin could not take his eyes off the nurse as she checked on the other patients in the room and answered questions from the swarm of visitors and relatives. Her white starched uniform emphasised her willow-like figure. At one point she happened to glance in his direction, and Lin turned away quickly, his face reddening with a flush of embarrassment.
Lin decided to read. The day before, his roommates had paid him a visit and brought along two of his favourite books: a collection of ‘misty poems’ – a new type of poetry that talked about love and life in China in the reform era with more subtlety and ambiguity than the socialist-realism pap under Chairman Mao – and Nietzsche’s God is Dead. After China’s opening up, Western philosophical books had been translated into Chinese for the first time. Nietzsche’s works, with the radical idea of rejecting perceived value, particularly fascinated Lin, yet for once the words failed to register.
The next day Lin waited nervously for the nurse’s return to the ward, but she never appeared. When the night curtain had just fallen, however, Little Chen strode into the ward, her uniform replaced with a red cotton shirt and jeans, and her long hair tied back in a ponytail. In her hands was an enamel pot.
‘Chicken soup,’ she announced casually as she put the pot on his table, as if they had known each other for years.
Lin sat up. ‘Aiya, I, you…,’ he stammered, unable to process in his mind what was happening. Surely meat must be a luxury on her nurse’s salary, he thought. He looked up at her, then rested his eyes on the pot. The lid was chipped, showing the black metal beneath. Along its side, several painted goldfish happily chased each other.
‘Just drink up,’ she said.
As Lin began to sip the soup, Little Chen flipped through the collection of misty poems by his bed. ‘As a child I was able to recite many ancient poems. But I haven’t had time to explore the new poems yet.’
‘I think you’ll like them,’ Lin said, his mouth full of soup.
‘I’ll give it a try. Tang poetry is my favourite.’ She recited the famous Spring Morning. Obviously pleased that she remembered it all, she let out a laugh, loud and clear like silver bell.
Lin watched her without blinking, as if she’d disappear once he closed his eyes. As quickly as she had walked in, she glided away with a cheery wave.
He lay back on his bed. Touching the sores around his mouth caused by the fever, he wondered what the nurse saw in him. He had never been popular with girls. At twenty, he had not dated anyone. Ballroom dancing had just been introduced on campus and had become a mainstay of the students’ social life. At weekend dance parties, it seemed the pretty girls only swirled around the good-looking boys or brilliant dancers. No one paid much attention to him, a shy boy from the countryside.
When Lin drifted to sleep, he dreamed of fox fairies. On the starry nights of his childhood, his mother used to tell him stories of beautiful fox fairies clad in embroidered silk gowns who visited lone scholars at night and could vanish like a plume of smoke.
The following evening, Little Chen popped into the ward again, bringing a handful of dried dates in a paper cone.
Lin picked one to eat, touched by her kindness. ‘Thank you.’
The nurse waved off his gratitude and looked at him up and down with satisfaction. ‘Good! You are going great,’ she said. ‘You know, we were all very worried about you. You are a lucky boy.’ She patted his hand as she uttered the words. When she left, Lin could still feel the soft warmth of her fingers on his hand.
Later on that evening, when Lin visited the restroom down the corridor, he heard Little Chen’s sonorous laughter as he passed a doctor’s room. When he returned, all was quiet. Did he hear her laugh or imagine it?
After a few days, Lin’s fever disappeared altogether, but the doctors advised him to stay a little longer for further observation. One early evening, to get some fresh air, he went outside to the garden downstairs, which was just a clearing with a few poorly kept flower beds and a lilac bush. Nestled against the hospital’s tall grey brick wall and half hidden by a brick moon gate, however, it provided a little world of its own. Lin took out his book of poetry to read.
Suddenly he saw in the corner of his eye the pastel white of a nurse’s uniform. It was Little Chen, on her way to her dormitory. He invited her to sit with him for a while.
They settled on a concrete bench, with a comfortable distance between them. In the quiet of the night, the lilacs radiated their powerful fragrance.
‘You’ve been so kind to me,’ Lin began. ‘Please tell me more about yourself.’
Away from the ward, the nurse seemed more willing to talk freely about herself. Little Chen, five years his senior, came from a working-class family in southern Beijing. At sixteen, her parents forced her to attend a vocational school, dragging her out of the race for university. The nurse went on talking about a course in medicine in Teach Yourself University, which meant she studied medicine on her own, following TYU’s curriculum. ‘I want to improve my life,’ she said firmly. Turning to him, she asked: ‘You study chemistry, right? Maybe you could help me with some chemistry questions. I find that subject the most difficult.’
She clasped her hands together in a gesture of gratitude. ‘You are so lucky, you know, a student from such a famous university.’
‘But the truth is, I’ve been miserable and lonely at university,’ he said slowly, shifting towards her.
Lin had failed to fit in with his classmates, who were mostly urban youths from affluent families. To cover up his feelings of inferiority, he became aloof and antisocial. And he hated chemical engineering, a subject forced upon him by his father.
‘I see,’ she murmured. ‘You know, you remind me so much of my little brother.’
‘You are the same age, and both of you are bookish, sensitive and smart,’ she said, darting another look at his face. ‘And you even look like him.’
Lin blushed. He cleared his throat. ‘Is he studying at some university?’
She looked up at the sky. ‘He’s gone.’
He starred at her in the semi-darkness.
‘He drowned one summer,’ she said in a soft, low voice. ‘He was thirteen.’
Lin mumbled sorry.
‘He would have been a university student, just like you,’ she said.
Lin tiptoed back to his ward. Curling up in the cramped hospital bed, he lay awake for a long time, his conversation with the nurse echoing in his head.
A week’s stay at the hospital came to an end. The night before his release, Lin invited her to the garden again. But their time together was short as Little Chen had to go out to dinner with a friend.
When they stood up, readying to leave, Lin slipped the collection of misty poems into her hand. ‘Thank you again… for everything,’ he said.
Little Chen took the book and pressed it to her chest. ‘I’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.’
Lin breathed in the fragrant air and felt a little drunk. ‘Goodbye then.’ He awkwardly embraced her.
Little Chen stiffened in his arms and then gently pulled herself away. She smoothed her shirt and smiled. ‘I am so glad to have found a brother, a clever one I can learn things from.’
Lin bounced back to his ward on the fourth floor, singing a famous folk song all the way up. ‘My dear little sister, sit steady on my boat, beside my goat. Here we go.’ In his region, ‘little sister’ was often the euphemism for a lover.
Back in his bed, Lin practised kissing his hand. In a foreign film he had watched in Beijing, he had been so amazed to see a couple kissing in public. Recently a young couple kissing on a Beijing bus had courted controversy. Some accused them of bourgeois liberalism. He thought of the couple with envy.
As soon as Lin reached his university, he sat down to compose a letter to his parents. In the letter he detailed his illness, his hospital stay and how the nurse had taken such good care of him. He declared that he was in love and asked for their permission to pursue this chance at happiness. Being a filial son, he knew that he needed his parents’ approval first.
The negative reply came ten days later. He could hear his father’s voice in every sentence on the page: son, you ought to know the rule that undergraduates are not allowed to date. You mustn’t distract yourself from your studies now. Besides it is simply not appropriate to date a girl so much older than you.
As a final blow, his father threatened to stop his monthly allowance if Lin didn’t cut off all ties with the nurse right away.
At night, desperate thoughts deprived Lin of sleep. Perhaps he could just ignore his parents? But how could he survive without financial support? Once he had sold his blood in order to get enough money to buy a set of Shakespeare plays. But he couldn’t sell his blood every week.
Lin’s heart was filled with rage, confusion and desperate longing. He was horrified by his negative feelings towards his father, especially when he thought about how the old man had spent endless nights up late by his side to help with his homework, and how the whole family had scrimped and saved in order to send him to the best school in the country. How could he crush his parents’ dream of a bright future for their only son? Since he was little, his parents had taught him that ‘filial piety tops all human kindness under the heavens’. With all the new and old ideas cramming his head, he no longer knew what to believe.
‘What should I do?’ Lin asked himself. It occurred to him that all the important decisions in his life – which school to go to, which subject to study – were decided for him. He became obsessed with questioning the meaning of life. He spent hours at the library, devouring philosophy books. After Nietzsche, he read Schopenhauer’s works, which somehow offered a sad comfort.
Upon returning to Tsinghua, he had penned a letter to Little Chen, in which he expressed his thanks to her and hinted at his longing for her, but diluted it with ‘Your little brother, Lin’ at the closing of the letter. She had promptly replied, enquiring after his health and keenly asking many chemistry questions.
As the end of the term was approaching, he decided it was time to end this short chapter of his life with a face-to-face meeting. He owed her that, he reasoned.
On an oppressively hot afternoon, Lin showed up at the hospital to look for the nurse, in his hands holding a parcel containing the set of Shakespeare plays. But Little Chen was not at the nurses’ station. A colleague said she might be in the garden.
His sweaty hands clutching the parcel, Lin made his way downstairs. Once at the moon gate, he saw Little Chen first, her long hair down her back. A second later he noticed a broad-shouldered man next to her: it was Dr Zhen.
The surprised nurse got on her feet, her pretty face wreathed with a smile. ‘Hi, brother Lin!’ she greeted him. ‘What are you doing here?’
Lin was frozen in place, like an actor who had forgot his lines on stage.
‘This is my fiancé, Zhen Jiangzhong.’ She indicated the doctor. ‘Zhong, say hi to my adopted brother,’ she continued when Lin didn’t speak. ‘I’ve told you all about him.’
Zhen stepped forward and towered over Lin, smiling graciously and holding out a hand.
Lin couldn’t remember how he made his awkward exit, the gift parcel still in his hand. At Tsinghua, he went through the next weeks in a trance. On that gloomy day at the end of July, he spent the whole evening at the chemistry laboratory, staring at each bottle filled with chemicals, studying their colours and odours as if they offered clues to his future.
In his hospital bed, Lin was still immersed in his lilac-coloured dreams. He saw Little Chen, dressed in an embroidered silk gown, gazing lovingly at him. ‘Little brother,’ she said.