Translated by Shelly Bryant, and first published in English in Pathlight Magazine, 2012.
Read the Chinese here.
A dozen people surrounded a table piled with dozens of dishes. I raised my wine glass, making the rounds to toast each guest in turn. I felt like the lazy Susan rotating at the table’s center. To tell the truth, throughout the whole routine of toasting, my mind was on the platter of steamed fish. At first, it was still piping hot, shallots covering its white flesh. By the time I’d offered my respects to the third person, the other diners had already brutally swept the shallots aside. Or perhaps someone had taken a special interest in the shallots and, like an animal stuffing itself with grass, gobbled them up. Everyone’s chopsticks flashed chaotically, crossing like swords, frantically picking up bits of meat and stuffing them into their mouths and washing it all down with alcohol. In their bellies, the meat soaked in the wine, while the precious Mandarin fish lay on the plate riddled with gaping wounds. I was, painfully, left only with scraps. Bloodshot with the excess of alcohol, my eyes could only turn to the fish when I gulped down each cup. To be precise, they were glued to the curve of its fin, for that was my favorite part of a fish.
When I finally finished my dutiful toasting, I slumped heavily back into my chair. The others all seemed to be discussing the mayor’s affair with a woman at the local television station. They laughed knowingly. In the midst of their mirth, I reached out resolutely with my chopsticks, going straight for the plate of fish. I quickly transferred the back of the fish, abandoned by the rest but long coveted by me, to my own territory. As a show of courtesy, I turned it over in my bowl a few times, then brought it to my longing lips and popped it into my mouth at last. It was no longer hot, and the room-temperature of the fish allowed me to quickly satisfy my hunger. My teeth and tongue worked with meticulous care, anxious to send the meat along its journey down my throat. I devoted all of my energy to the eradication of meat from this ridge of bone. While my tongue and teeth were fully engaged, cooperating to remove a small bone from the meat, I heard my boss mention “Zhang Lixin.” Zhang Lixin. That’s me. I immediately stopped chewing. A smile filled my face as I looked at my boss. At the same moment, I felt a small bone slide down my throat, slipping away as lightly as a feather floating on the wind.
If I had immediately given a harsh cough, perhaps the fishbone would have been dislodged. But of course I could not cough. In the first place, I was too likely to spew the residue of fish meat from my mouth right onto my boss, practically spitting in his face. The embarrassing repercussions of such a circumstance would be humiliating and potentially disastrous. Furthermore, I really did not think the fishbone had slid too far down my throat, since I had not swallowed. And finally, I had experience with fishbones trapped in the throat, and knew that if I just swallowed a spoonful of rice all would be fine, as if nothing had happened.
I smiled at my boss, preparing to offer a flattering word, when I suddenly felt a prick, causing extreme pain in an area about the size of the point of a needle. I could not tell whether the feeling that followed was an impulse to cough or to vomit. I covered my mouth. The sight of a forty-year-old man with tightly pursed lips must have been quite comical. I covered the lower half of my thin face with one hand, and with the other waved an apology to the guests seated around the table as I walked quickly and calmly to the washroom.
No doubt, they thought I was drunk.
I closed the door to the men’s room, stuck out my tongue, and coughed. I gasped and gagged so hard that tears began to fill my eyes. Flushed, I faced the toilet. My stomach turned, and its warm contents rushed into my throat, gurgling into the toilet bowl. I pushed the button to flush. The toilet considerately swept away the first fruits of my retching. It was the fish I’d just eaten, along with several cups of rice wine, a couple of mouthfuls of rice, a few peanuts, and a chicken’s foot. When I’d finished vomiting, I put my fingertips into my throat, trying to locate the fishbone. I intended to squeeze it between my fingers and extract it. Bad idea. A new torrent of vomit began. My hands gripped the edges of the toilet bowl. My face must have looked like an elderly man’s withered backside. In the second round, I lost the lunch I’d had at Great White, one of the city’s most upscale restaurants. Delicacies such as shark’s fin soup and bird’s nest rushed out. As the flavor of the bird’s nest erupted from me, I regretted the loss. I had hoped to greet my wife and child with kisses that tasted of shark’s fin and bird’s nest, but I’d lost it before I’d even had a chance to go home. Now, if I announced to my wife that I’d had lunch at Great White, there was no way she’d believe me, and all my evidence was there in the toilet bowl. Dejected, I turned and sat on the commode. I swallowed desperately, but could get no relief from the spur stuck there. It responded warmly, reminding me of its presence with a sharp prick. I thought back to the unlit corridor in the office where, after hours, I’d embraced the office typist Zhao Yanling. Even the saliva sample I’d taken from her was in the toilet bowl now.
But my extensive efforts in the washroom only seemed to have lodged the fishbone all the more firmly in place.
When I got home, my son Dian Dian was already asleep, and my wife was watching soap operas alone. The words “Episode 33” appeared on the screen. My wife, once something of a beauty, had formerly worked as a salesperson in a department store owned by a textile company. After some corporate scandal, however, the store went bankrupt. As a result, my wife was now a stay-at-home mom. She was five years younger than me, and very energetic — particularly so since her dismissal. In the past, I would take the initiative to stir her up several nights a week. Now, she was the one who mercilessly tormented me every single night.
“You’re still up?” I asked casually. I knew any nonsense would invite even more nonsense from my wife.
“You still remember you have a home, do you? Just look at how miserable you are. Can’t you just come home early after work?” Sure enough, she was in a scolding mood. Reproof was how my wife chose to express her concern, love, and resentment, but I was often in some confusion as to which it was she wished to express. I was becoming more perplexed all the time, not knowing in such circumstances whether I should be pleased, happy, or angry with the reproof. In this particular case, for instance, my wife’s voice was a jumble of emotions, all mixed together.
My face must have reflected my bewilderment. My wife stood up and looked at me in surprise. She was a head shorter than me, a thirty-five-year-old matriarch. Her face was beginning to show signs of age spots, making her look dull even under the incandescent lightbulb’s glow.
“Yes. I was tortured all day at work, and then came straight home to be tormented by you too. My whole life is one huge frustration!” I wanted to voice all of these complaints to my wife, but the pain in my throat was excruciating. I swallowed carefully. The fishbone was still stuck. Zhao Yanling’s face, with all the purity of her twenty-two years, flashed before me. Frowning, I swept my gaze leisurely over my wife. After being laid off, she had become more sensitive. Not only was her sex drive operating in high gear, but she was also very alert to the slightest sign of disparagement from me. The expression I wore as I looked her over was the sort that was sure to provoke a fresh attack. I quickly changed it to a smile, reached up and pointed to my throat and said, “I swallowed a fishbone.”
My wife’s enthusiasm was completely unexpected. First, she cracked my mouth open then, standing on her toes, looked into it. There was not enough light, so she took out a small flashlight and put it practically into my mouth, but still she couldn’t see anything. She brought out the leftover cabbage she’d cooked for dinner and, handing me a pair of chopsticks, said, “Don’t chew. Just swallow!” Obedient as a dumb beast, I followed my wife’s directions. I formed the vegetables into a ball and stuffed it inside my mouth. Like a snake devouring a frog whole, I worked my jaw relentlessly, struggling to swallow. My eyes grew so wide I felt the eyeballs would pop right out. When I had it halfway down the throat, I began to regret the whole event. Why undertake such a dangerous, awkward endeavor, all for the sake of a tiny fishbone? I was in a dilemma. My wife was so eager to help me swallow it that as she watched, helplessly, her own inconspicuous Adam’s apple was pumping frantically up and down as well. Her concern moved me. Putting forth an extra measure of effort, I finally succeeded in getting that clump of vegetables down.
“How’s that? Any better?” my wife asked, bouncing up and down.
It seemed the spur was no longer there. I tried to swallow. Sure enough, it was gone. I gave my wife a smile of gratitude. Filled with pride, she said softly, “Get a shower and let’s go to bed.” I looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly midnight, later than I had realized.
This time, my wife’s attempts to pique my interest were unsuccessful. Or rather it was I who failed. As my breathing became heavier, I discovered that the fishbone was still in my throat, causing unbearable pain. It distracted me. I scrambled to one side and twisted my neck to see if I could detect the little thorn’s location. I was determined to cough it out, so I left the bed and walked to the balcony. Facing the hazy night sky, I opened my mouth wide, stuck out my tongue, and released an earth-shattering burst of strange sounds. My wife cried from the bedroom, “What are you doing? Do you want to wake the whole city up? Get to bed. Everything will be alright in the morning.” My wife, desires unsatisfied, was also frustrated, as if my issues with the bone were somehow her problem. Almost feeling that my wife were speaking to herself, I closed my mouth and stopped gagging. I couldn’t let my efforts to destroy the fishbone affect everyone else’s life. So I went to the washroom and contorted myself into all sorts of odd positions, but getting rid of that damned fishbone, like all my recent efforts to climax with my wife, just wasn’t happening.
I went to the kitchen and fixed some instant noodles, a hasty attempt to satisfy my appetite before washing up and trying once again to get to sleep. When I had gone back to bed, I could still feel the bone’s pressure against the flesh, blocking my throat like a huge stone. I tossed and turned, and found that only by lying on my right side could I get some relief and forget the bone for a moment. But lying on my right side meant my back was to my wife. Getting angry, she also rolled over with a hmph!, turning her back to me. I was too tired to bother about her, wanting a bit of peace so I could fall asleep, ensuring that I could go to work tomorrow refreshed and ready for whatever Zhao Yanling felt like getting up to. Recently, that girl had driven me to distraction. I wondered whether this feeling would fall to the same fate my wife had predicted for the fishbone: “Get to bed. Everything will be alright in the morning.”
The water treatment company where I worked was located on the outskirts of the city, about a thirty- or forty-minute bus journey away. Sleeping on my right side all night had left me achy. I got up late, and by the time I arrived at the office, numerous trivialities were awaiting my attention, like arrangements for the Party’s “July 1” activities, the benefits payments to be made this month, and a project report that needed the final touches applied. Working in administration was tiresome.
Zhao Yanling, having already been in front of her typewriter for some time, smiled gently when she saw me come in, then turned back to the rhythmic tapping of her work. She was not especially pretty. Aside from the fairness of her skin, she couldn’t compete with my wife. The fingers at the end of her porcelain-white hand leapt over the keyboard so quickly my eyes could barely keep up. Zhao Yanling was the lone soldier under my command in this company. I nurtured the illusion that we were dependent on one another. Her meekness made me want to hold her. Her long hair was as supple as her temperament, unlike my wife’s dry, wild crown.
Intermittently, I emitted strange coughs. Each time, Zhao Yanling looked back at me with an expression that was very gratifying to me. I thought she must also be reliving the taste of my saliva, looking forward to the time I would transfer some more of it into her own mouth. Being a girl of keen senses, however, she eventually picked up on the fact that my cough was a bit out of the ordinary. She said, “Mr. Director, sir, do you have a sore throat? I have some Golden Treasure lozenges. Would you like one?” Zhao Yanling was the only person who ever referred to me as the director. When she did so, it was the only time I realized I had any status at all. I shook my head uncomfortably. Zhao Yanling firmly placed the pack of Golden Treasure lozenges in my hand.
“There’s a fishbone in my throat. A lozenge won’t help.” I decided to tell her the truth. She was the second person after my wife to know about my dilemma.
“And you didn’t go immediately to the hospital? Be careful! It can lacerate the throat.” Her concern seemed a bit over the top. I figured she just wanted to frighten me.
“It’s nothing serious. It’s just uncomfortable. Don’t go around telling everyone in the office about it,” I requested. “It’s embarrassing.”
Zhao Yanling nodded uncertainly, then said, “I think you’re making a big fuss over nothing. You’ve just got a bone caught in your throat. You haven’t done anything to be ashamed of!”
After lunch, as I lounged on the sofa letting my food digest, I engaged in private battle with the bone, armed only with a toothpick and a glass of water. For now, the pain from the fishbone was a little milder. I sat pondering its existence. I wondered how deeply it had pierced the skin, how hard a bone it was, how persistent. I wondered why it had chosen to dwell in my throat, how long it intended to stay, and whether it planned to move down into my intestines and pierce them too. Or, perhaps it was like Zhao Yanling said, and the bone would rip my throat to shreds. I flipped through the newspaper and thought of taking a nap on the sofa. Zhao Yanling came in carrying a cup. The smell of vinegar came in with her.
“Sip this. If you can lean your head back and let it flow straight down, that’s best.” She handed me the cup, and the sour smell assaulted my nose.
“What is it? It stinks!” I twisted my head away. The fishbone pricked me again.
“It’s vinegar. It’s an old trick I learned from my mother. It can soften a bone,” she said firmly.
“Oh, I’ve never liked vinegar. If only your saliva could soften it up,” I said playfully. I was about to pull her into my arms but, in a panic, she pointed at the open door.
Calmly, she continued to urge me to take a sip, practically forcing me. If I didn’t take it, it would’ve been an insult to her earnestness. I took a tiny sip and inclined my head, looking up at the shiny white ceiling panels. The noxious sour flavor filled my nostrils. It was awful, worse than taking medicine. I’d never drunk so much vinegar in all my life. It set my teeth on edge, stinging my tongue until it turned numb. As the vinegar flowed over the spot where the fishbone was stuck, I felt the flesh tingling, and thought that the skin there must already be torn. Before the procedure was even halfway completed, I could stand the smell of vinegar no longer, nor could I swallow it. But to be honest it did seem to help. My throat relaxed for a moment. When I swallowed, the bone seemed softer. An appreciative smile spread across my face, and I turned to Zhao Yanling. She lowered her head and said, “Drink some more in a while. Get a good night’s sleep tonight, and everything will be alright in the morning.”
Everything will be alright in the morning. Zhao Yanling sounded just like my wife.
I felt like I was faced with a lazy Susan full of food, turning about. The dish that finally stopped before me was the one I least wanted: the weekend. But while I could do without the weekend altogether, my son and my wife loved its flavor. They started looking forward to the weekend on Monday, thinking of the zoo, the mall, the playground, the cinema, or McDonald’s. They felt compelled to fully enjoy modern life, and I would follow them here and there, endlessly twirling like a gyroscope from one activity to the next. After three good nights’ sleep, the fishbone — contrary to my wife and Zhao Yanling’s prognostications — was anything but alright. Now, it hurt even to speak. Of course, this could only be counted a minor disturbance. For many people, it would simply be something to joke about. Even my eight-year-old son laughed at me, wondering how such a big grown up could get a fishbone caught in the throat, showing just how greedily I’d gulped down my food as I ate.
Really, the pain in my throat was not so severe as to require a trip to the hospital. The best way to deal with it was to avoid talking. Anyway, when I spoke less, I came across as more serious. As we walked along the road, my wife and son talked nonstop. In everything, they had the final say, with me only nodding occasionally to show that I was still present and attentive. My reticence to speak did not have much effect on my wife and son’s mood. This gave me some comfort, allowing me space to enjoy—if I may say so—the bone playing havoc with my throat. After drinking Zhao Yanling’s vinegar, it seemed the spur had changed positions, moving slightly lower as if even more determined to test my resolve. I coughed softly, and the bone pricked me. Though I no longer held out any hope of dealing with this bone just through coughing, I was sure it would eventually make its own way down my throat bit by bit as I swallowed, slowly eroding away. It was like having a piece of meat stuck between the teeth. You could use the tongue to keep poking at it, but no matter how much effort you put into it, it never budged. Then, somehow or other, you’d finish a meal and find it had suddenly disappeared.
The past few nights my wife had not disturbed me, nor did I take the initiative to start anything, and so we passed the days peacefully. But I felt that she was not her usual self, as if she had something on her mind. She secretly rifled through my briefcase, picked up the clothes I’d worn and smelled them, turned my pockets inside out, checked my cell phone’s address book, and asked me about all the newly added female names. Who were they? What did they do? How did I know them? I answered each question in turn. I said, “Your hubby’s not young anymore. He’s got neither power nor prestige. You can relax. Women look down on him. And as long as he has you, he is satisfied.” But mature women never give ear to such cajolery, and so I was constantly under her surveillance and subject to sudden interrogations. Thank God, Zhao Yanling was the one person she overlooked. So, in answer to my wife’s questioning, I could boldly swear, “There is absolutely nothing going on between me and any of those women.” To tell the truth, up until that point, I’d only exchanged kisses with Zhao Yanling. Whatever might happen next was a question best left for later.
On this particular weekend, my son needed to write a composition. My wife, however, decided we should first go to Sea World, then do a bit of shopping. I acquiesced. After all, she held the purse strings in the family, so who was I to argue? Sea World was located in the suburbs, and it took us over an hour to get there on the bus. It was crowded, even more packed with people than I had imagined it would be. We joined the flow of human traffic and bought our tickets, then made our rounds touring the park. Later, at my son’s request, we stopped at McDonald’s for lunch. My wife insisted on going for a bowl of noodles. My throat was in no condition for eating anything dry or hard, so my son relished his meal alone. As long as our boy was satisfied, my wife and I could not feel we hungered for anything. All the same, my wife couldn’t help thinking of the half kilo of pork and the bunch of vegetables she had in the refrigerator, and she had it in mind to prepare that for our evening meal, making up for any lack we might feel now. I mutely agreed. Faced with a wife so capable in handling all the household affairs, what was a man to say? But actually, I had an ulterior motive behind my ready acceptance of my wife’s plan: I was afraid that if I ate anything, whether hot or cold, it would cause further pain in my throat. If I suffered every time I swallowed, there would be no satisfying my hunger, so I might as well go without. Even though the restaurant was just a few steps away, I was determined to put up with a rumbling in my stomach as we walked along the sidewalk.
After lunch, we turned to shopping. My wife selected a sports shirt for my son, then began trying on clothes for herself. I could see that the marathon weekend was moving into the final sprint. As I sat on a small bench in the clothing store waiting patiently, I received a call from Zhao Yanling, and I’m sure you can guess what she called to ask. That’s right. “How’s the bone?” That’s what she said.
“Oh, it’s alright. Much better,” I answered, feeling an indescribable sensation of sweetness.
My wife tried on three blouses and had just about decided on the most expensive. Five hundred! She was reluctant to part with the money.
The shopkeeper was a woman, older than my wife. The smiles she’d worn up until this point faded, like a Sichuan opera performer changing masks. Her eyebrows, eyes, and mouth all began to droop suddenly. I felt her contemptuous stare turn toward me as she began to speak. “You have to buy this item now. It’s our high-end range. No trying on!” As soon as she spoke, her new mask came to life.
“Who says I have to buy it? What kind of crazy scam is this?” my wife retorted, not to be outdone.
“See for yourself! Can’t you read? No trying on of high-end clothing!” The shopkeeper pulled out a white card attached to the blouse, with black words clearly written on it.
“What does that prove?” my wife snapped. “I didn’t see it. When I went to try it on, why didn’t you speak up then?”
Now it was my wife glaring at me. I knew that she’d met with trouble and was hoping I would stand up for her. But this was women’s business… and with my throat… what could I say? I felt they both had valid points, I muttered, hoping to smooth things over, but ultimately I didn’t move a muscle. My throat throbbed, and I was hungry. Agitated, I looked to the street, waiting for them to finish their quarrel so I could go home for dinner.
But it was not a minor problem. One wanted to sell, and the other didn’t want to buy. The two women pulled and tugged at each other, finally breaking out into a real fight. They pushed and shoved until they ended up right in front of me. The shopkeeper’s words seemed to be especially for me, “If you don’t have money, don’t try on the expensive clothes. Don’t even lay a finger on them! Why bother coming into the shop at all?” The woman, intent on provoking me, carried on, “If people like you come in here and paw at my merchandise, and even try it on, how am I supposed to sell it to anyone else?” I could tell the shopkeeper’s anger was directed at me. She was clearly hoping to incite me so that she could pry five hundred yuan from my fingers, then force us to take a garment that might not be worth even half that.
“At first, I wanted to buy it, but with your attitude, forget it!” My wife moved to one side, becoming a bit unruly herself. The shopkeeper’s whole body was shaking, and their arms came so close to my head that their sleeves flapped against me. The women’s bellies pumped under their clothes as they puffed with the effort. I swallowed, stood up indifferently, and walked straight out of the shop, away from the two entangled women.
Outside the shop, at the corner about five meters away, I lit a cigarette. Before I’d had my third puff, my wife tore away from the other woman and came outside. She took the other woman’s hostility onto herself, and she aimed it right at me. She did not say a word to me, walking past without the slightest glance in my direction. I was like her cargo truck, following her wherever she went, gliding silently along in her wake.
Each time I met Zhao Yanling, the first words out of her mouth were questions about the fishbone. At those moments, having a fishbone caught in my throat seemed a stroke of good fortune. I, or at least my bone, was always on her mind. It was heartwarming. Because of the bone, things between Zhao Yanling and I rapidly heated up. She was no longer restrained. She boldly took the bone to heart, devoting herself energetically and lovingly to my problem. She even openly said that she was crazy about my pained, somber expression.
“Your home life is not very happy, is it?” she pressed. I had never actually thought about it. The way I saw it, it was just the way things were. Only after getting the fishbone caught in my throat did I realize that life could be so sweet and colorful.
Zhao Yanling and I had engaged in spit-swaps on several more occasions, the longest lasting about five minutes. I found that her body gradually responded to it, and she took more initiative. She seemed determined to bring this to a fairy tale end by softening the bone with her saliva. During our exchanges, my throat did not hurt at all.
My sudden taciturnity surprised my colleagues and led them to believe I had suffered some blow. I said I was unwell, but could not tell what exactly was wrong. I was in some discomfort, but it was not serious enough to be called an illness. Anyway, a forty-year-old man with a bone caught in the throat could only feel ashamed. This was to be a secret between Zhao Yanling and I, adding a new depth to the private joy and understanding we quietly shared.
Concerned about my unusual behavior, my manager Mr. Shi called me into his office under the pretext of talking about work. In the course of our talk, he mentioned that the basic problem was that my enthusiasm for the job had dropped off dramatically. My work was coming along slowly, and a few of the projects I had in hand were being neglected. Finally, Mr. Shi turned conspiratorially and asked in a low voice, “Having problems at home?”
I waved him off and, putting all my effort into answering in an equally soft voice, said, “Not at all.”
Mr. Shi was not pleased. Moving a little closer he said, “As your friend, I’m concerned.”
I nodded vigorously. I put my hand to my throat, as if I could pluck the words out from my vocal chords, but failed to utter a sound. This made me look arrogant.
Although Mr. Shi was younger than me, he occupied a higher post. He stood, back straight, and cleared his voice. In a serious tone, he added, “It’s not good to bring your personal problems to the work place.”
I continued to nod my head. Frowning, I said, “I won’t.” Mr. Shi’s face fell, and he politely asked me to leave his office.
I suddenly realized that the problem was becoming rather complicated. I couldn’t go on like this all because of a fishbone. I had to go to the hospital. There, I would queue in the waiting room, make payment, and solemnly tell the doctor about the tiny source of this crisis in my life.
On the afternoon of the sixth day, I went to a small clinic near my office. The main reason I went to a small clinic was that there would be less people and I’d save time. I randomly pulled a white-coated young fellow aside and said, “What department do I see for a bone?”
A strange look crossed the young man’s face. Then, my meaning dawning on him, he said, “We’ve only got a dental department here. Maybe they can help.” He pointed down the corridor. As I turned at the end of the cramped hallway, I realized that the clinic was composed of four consultation rooms and two waiting areas. The door was open, looking like the entrance to a bedroom. A white curtain hung across the doorway with huge red letters printed across it in an arc: Dentist. I lifted the curtain and stuck my head in. I saw another room inside. I stepped in tentatively, and there saw the dentist sticking something into a patient’s mouth and prodding about.
“What seems to be the problem?” The fat little woman asked, taking her eyes off her work to look at me, putting a stop to my snooping.
“Bone. Fishbone…” I said hoarsely, pinching my throat with two fingers.
“Oh? When did it get stuck?”
“Five or six days ago.”
“Ah! Then it’s too late.”
“If you had come in right away we could have helped. But now that it’s moved deeper into your throat, you’ll have to go to a hospital’s ENT ward.”
“Oh. Then I don’t need an appointment. If I wait a few days, it will just take care of itself, right?”
“It’s your body. It’s up to you to take care of it,” she said, returning her attention to her work.
The doctor’s tone made me think the situation might be serious. Feeling unsettled, I went to the People’s Hospital. There were crowds everywhere, people standing in long queues at evaluation counters, payment counters, and pharmacy counters, as if the whole world had suddenly fallen ill. At the ENT ward, I waited impatiently for those who had arrived before me to vacate a seat. As soon as one was available, I pressed myself into the still-warm spot, where I sat devoutly facing an elderly man in scrubs. The old man asked me several questions about my struggles with the bone over the past few days. He seemed to me like a reporter, asking very detailed, critical questions. He mumbled as he recorded my answers, and after a moment, led me into a small room. He was holding a small strip of steel, and he wore a light on his forehead, like a coal miner. “Open wide,” he said. “Say aaaaaaaah.” The bulb was very bright. The old man’s eyes were cloudy. My teeth began to ache. I spread my lips as wide as I could, but made no sound. I felt the cold steel against my tongue, along with the warmth of the bulb.
“No bones. There are some slight lacerations. Looks like some anti-inflammatory drugs should do it. Get a good night’s sleep, and everything should be alright in the morning.” The old man enunciated his words and held his pen in an odd grip as he flourished it across the page, writing my prescription. Get a good night’s sleep and it would be alright in the morning. That’s what he’d said. He was a doctor. I shouldn’t doubt the doctor’s words. At the very least, they should be more reliable than the words of the two women in my life.
The doctor removed the steel strip from my mouth. I definitely felt better after hearing his diagnosis. I should have come to see the old man earlier.
As I sat on the bus on my way back to the office, I really was feeling much better. I hummed a popular tune called “The Dancing Girl.” I was enjoying the scenery outside. When the bus passed by a line of high-end boutiques, I saw a woman standing in the gap between two mannequins, one in a red dress and one in black. She was apparently waiting to try on some clothes. As the bus moved forward, the perspective changed. I looked back and I saw, standing behind the mannequin in black, a man in a brown jacket. His hand was on the woman’s face. The curve of the mannequin’s arm blocked the man’s face from my view, and I could not see him clearly. When I looked back again, I could not see the pair at all. But that woman, she really looked like my wife. On the other hand, my wife would never shop at such a high-end boutique.
I did not expect to find further trouble awaiting me at the office. But as soon as I entered, Zhao Yanling anxiously told me, “Mr. Shi’s looking for you. He’s been here several times!”
Only then did I realize that I’d been out for half a day. “What’s he looking for me for? Why didn’t he call my mobile?” I asked myself. After grabbing a quick drink of water, I went straight to the manager’s office. He was not there. After an hour, Mr. Shi finally came back and seated himself at his huge director’s chair, looking quite smart in his brown, well-pressed jacket. He looked at me languidly. Without saying why he’d been looking for me, he went over once again all the things that needed to be done at the office. He obliquely asked me my whereabouts in the morning.
“I went to the hospital.”
“I’m not feeling well.”
“What’s the problem?”
“The doctor said it’s nothing.”
“What do you mean? Do you take me for an idiot?” As Mr. Shi’s face fell, he rose from his seat.
“I’m telling the truth. Mr. Shi, don’t…get the wrong idea.” I quickly stood up too.
But it was too late. Mr. Shi already had it firmly in mind that I took him for an idiot. He would not accept any explanation I had to offer. Even if I opened up my mouth and let him look down my throat, telling him all about the fishbone, he would think I was trying to make an even bigger fool of him. Anyway, the old doctor had already concluded that I had no bone, making himself an accomplice in the whole affair. I very much wanted to make a clean breast of it with Mr. Shi, but I had always disliked him. He had never treated me like an office director, and I felt there was no reason to think of him as my leader. Now that there was no fishbone, an end should be made to the matter. Whatever I could say would be of no use anyway.
Our backsides rose from and fell to our seats in tandem. He was taking a phone call now. Bored, I began fidgeting with my fingers, bending them then straightening them out, looking about here and there. Mr. Shi’s bookcase was filled with antiques, stones, and other knickknacks. The clock in the shape of the Statue of Liberty standing by the window was at least as tall as I was. There were only about ten employees in the company, five of whom were temporary staff like Zhao Yanling. Anyway, for me it was a steady job and a steady income.
Mr. Shi spoke leisurely on the phone. The other party was trying to persuade him to have dinner, and he was carefully explaining why he could not go. I patiently endured his hypocrisy, doing finger exercises to alleviate the boredom.
“Something else on your mind?” he asked as soon as he’d finished his phone call and turned his attention to me.
“I… me?” I stood up abruptly. I was not so much afraid as angry. I made a fist, straightened my fingers, and made a fist again. I really wanted to use that fist to strike his desk and shout, “Damn it!” But I suddenly felt the fishbone pressing at me from deep inside my throat, giving me a rude prick.
“Fuck you!” My fingers clutched my throat.
“What did you say to me?” Mr. Shi’s eyes narrowed.
“Me? I wasn’t talking to you,” I replied. Inside, I was cursing the old man from the hospital. The fishbone was clearly still there, even though he’d said “no bone.” I didn’t realize that I had cursed aloud.
Ever since the dispute with the shopkeeper from the women’s clothing store, my wife had completely ignored me. My son, having witnessed my weak behavior and escape tactics, also stood against me, full of contempt. Of course, my son was still only armed with a child’s logic. He felt I was indifferent toward him, as well as his mother. When we had come home after our outing that day, my wife failed to make the good dinner she’d promised. Instead, she made a big fuss over the whole incident. She felt I was lacking in manliness. Furthermore, I had behaved like a stranger. Seeing someone bully my wife, I had shown no concern, leaving her to fend for herself. She was furious, and seemed to write off all the effort I’d put into building this family.
I said, “After I left, wasn’t the problem settled more easily? I would’ve just caused more trouble if I’d stayed. And anyway, my throat hurt so much I couldn’t talk.”
My wife, rolling her eyes so that all I could see was the whites, said spitefully, “Don’t go using that bone as an excuse again. You’re useless!”
I knew what my wife was referring to. She meant that she could no longer stand to sleep next to a living man who seemed dead. If I were really dead, that would have been one thing, but I was still breathing, yet had been unable to pick myself up for days, proving myself completely impotent. Hearing my wife curse my impotence was as unbearable as having the bone caught in my throat. I gave her a slap, a ringing one. She came at me, roaring like a lion. As she clawed at me with her sharp nails, tears flowed fiercely down her face. “Don’t think I don’t know! Even a rabbit knows not to nibble the grass around its hole, but here you are messing around with your office staff. You are shameless!”
For a moment, my wife and I were in a deadlock, as if realizing that our quarrel had suddenly been injected with some real venom. Feeling I should take a stand of some sort, I caught both of her hands and, shaking her, cried, “What? What did you say?” I tossed her onto the bed like a sack of straw. There was a bang, and the bed collapsed. My wife, lying amidst the rubble, burst into tears. “Who’s been telling you this sort of nonsense? Huh? Tell me!” I hoisted her back up and turned her so that the light fell on her face, as if I could find an answer there. But then a wave of depression overcame me, and I released her. My throat hurt. I was done with this game. What my wife said was not wrong. I was nibbling at the edge of the grass with Zhao Yanling—even though I hadn’t succeeded in doing anything but exchange saliva so far. But it was a secret that only God knew, aside from me and, of course, Zhao Yanling. So how did my wife come to find out?
I jerked my wife away from the bed and said, “Go somewhere else and finish crying. I’ll fix the bed.” She pushed my hand away fiercely, went into my son’s room, and slammed the door shut. This had been our conjugal bed for many years, and just like that, it had collapsed. I felt a sudden urge to laugh. In fact, I was already laughing. Laughing so hard I shook, I pulled up the sheets and put them to one side, then pulled off the Simmons mattress. I discovered that the frame had been loose to begin with, and had completely given way under the force of my wife’s fall. I wondered whether the two of us had been too enthusiastic in our romps there, or if the frame was just of poor quality. There was an accumulation of rubbish beneath it. Besides a few dead mosquitoes and cockroaches, there were numerous condom wrappers, as well as one of my socks that had suddenly disappeared. I called to my wife, but she did not respond. I had to clean up the mess alone. Mixed in with the odds and ends I swept out from under the bed was a business card: Water Treatment Company – Manager – Shi Tong. I pondered. When had Mr. Shi given me his name card? I could not remember.
Because of the old doctor’s words, “Get a good night’s sleep and it should be alright in the morning,” I had an unusual night filled with anticipation. After taking the anti-inflammatory medication, I drank a bit of water and quietly watched TV. No one fought with me over what channel to watch. Since my wife had felt the full weight of my hand on her, it seemed she had finally found a reason to leave me. In what appeared to be a pain-free process for her, she packed up her things and left. I guessed she’d gone back to her parents’ home to rid herself of my very scent, so that she could move happily along her way. My son locked himself in his room and did not come out. I knocked on his door, but he did not respond. I was too tired to care. I thought that if we could just get through the night, things would be fine. At around ten, I went to bed, hoping to get an early start on the good night’s sleep, after which everything was supposed to be alright. To tell the truth, I could not be sure whether the bone was still there or not, whether I’d lost the ability to feel that delicate area with any accuracy, or whether it might have already grown soft. Sometimes, it seemed there was something there. But then, after careful inspection, it seemed there was nothing.
The first thing I thought of when I woke up in the morning was the bone. I cleared my throat, swallowed, then swallowed again. It was still there! Plain as day, and part of it seemed to be lodged in the flesh. Despairing, I turned over, sat up, and swallowed a couple of times in quick succession. The impression was not as clear this time. I could only say that my throat was sore in a certain area, but I could not locate the bone. It had been another scam! My anger boiling, I put in an appearance at the office, then hastily made my way to the hospital’s ENT ward to find the elderly doctor again, as if the bone stuck in my throat was a responsibility that old man couldn’t shirk.
The elderly doctor took twice as long to check this time as the previous day, then gave me his brand new diagnosis: No bone.
“Can’t be. I know it’s in my throat.”
“When you come to a hospital for a consultation, you should trust the doctors. Have some faith in modern medicine.” The elderly doctor was quite patient.
“I only know that the fishbone is stuck in my throat. You really can’t see it?” I couldn’t stand the lifeless, mechanical manner this old man had used when he said, “No bone.” He sounded like a computer recording. “I think you’re going blind. You ought to retire.” I tried to suppress my fury.
“Perhaps you need to be checked for other types of illness?” the sinister old doctor suggested.
“What did you say?”
“There’s no fishbone. I recommend you check for other illnesses.”
Stubborn old fool. Unable to control myself, I brought my fist to the doctor’s face, surprising even myself. I saw the old man, chair and all, topple over, blood flowing from the corner of his mouth. Slowly, he pulled himself up as I stormed out.
All the way back to the office, my fist was tightly clenched. My rage must have been written all over my face, judging by the strange gazes I saw turned on me by those I passed. But I didn’t care about that. If I continued to be ruled by the bone, I was done for. I didn’t know what to do.
When I got back to the office, Zhao Yanling said that Mr. Shi was waiting for me. Silently, I passed by the fair Zhao Yanling, then resolutely turned and walked into Mr. Shi’s office at a quick pace.
“You’re looking for me?” I put on a sober face and approached the manager. His imposing air was as empty a refrain as, “Get a good night’s sleep and everything will be alright in the morning.” I’d slept many nights, and I was still carrying on as before. The fishbone was still there, my wife was still leaving me, and I was still only swapping saliva with Zhao Yanling. I decided to take a stand there and then, against Mr. Shi, and against the bone.
“You know about the meeting this afternoon?” Mr. Shi lit a cigarette.
“No, I don’t,” I said severely.
“Oh. You weren’t in the office. Here’s the situation. The meeting is to determine who will take your place as director. Be at the meeting. That’s all.” He pinched out his cigarette.
I’m standing inside my throat. It’s like an empty tunnel, or a natural cave. I hear water flowing in the dark. I can see the fishbone, like a tree, rooted firmly in the soil of my throat’s flesh. I yank it out. Its roots are as lush as Zhao Yanling’s hair. Then, I imagine putting my hand down my throat and very skillfully extracting the fishbone. I’m thrilled to see the root of the little rascal that’s been torturing me. It must be fine as a hair. Just a little saliva is all it takes to stick it in place. Like a mosquito’s sting, it can pierce the pores and suck out the very lifeblood. When it’s soft, no one knows where it’s hiding. When it’s hard, it makes me want to tear out my own throat. This insignificant thing, sometimes hard sometimes soft, made a mess of my life. I was soft, and after getting the fishbone caught in my throat, I couldn’t even imagine becoming hard again. I was always a little limp with my wife, as with Mr. Shi, and I didn’t dare be hard with Zhao Yanling. So I went quietly along, hoping a good night’s sleep would make everything alright. But now I knew it was all a load of crap. Ever since I got the bone caught in my throat, I’d had no desire to eat fish. I was no longer a fish-eater. If I didn’t want to eat fish, that was fine. The trouble was that not eating fish wouldn’t solve the problem of the bone already caught in my throat. And, even if I never again sampled other fish in the sea, I couldn’t stop others from doing so.
When I got home after work, my wife was already there, hanging around. It seemed she’d just gotten home. She was taking the clothes out of her bag. She was calm and casual, and seemed to be in good spirits.
“The fishbone’s gone now?” she said coldly. Not waiting for an answer, she pointed to the sofa and said, “Let’s talk.”
“You… where did you go?” I wasn’t certain she’d gone back to her parents’ after all.
“I want a divorce. I’ve thought it over.” My wife ignored my confusion, as if there was already nothing between us.
“Why are you making such a fuss? You’re scaring me,” I said, laughing. So, my wife wanted a divorce. Where did she get the nerve?
“Who’s making any fuss?” She pulled out a piece of paper and slapped it onto the coffee table. I picked it up and had a look. It was the divorce papers. There were only two stipulations. One, she got custody of our son. Two, the house was hers. She did not want anything else.
I was stunned. Aside from my son and my house, what else did I have? My hand went to my throat, and a soft cooing sound like that of a dove escaped from me.