Yi-dan glanced at Little Sister Lin, the apple of her eye, who sat at a desk across the aisle. It was a little past eight on Monday morning, and they were in a geometry class. Most of the students, however, had not fully woken up. The boy sitting in front of LS Lin just yawned. Teacher Wei shot him a harsh stare from her dark-framed glasses, causing him to freeze in the middle of the yawn, his mouth hanging open.
“Attention!” Teacher Wei said, her voice cracking from the cold she’d been having since last week. “Do you all have the goal to get into the best universities? If you don’t, you shouldn’t be sitting here.”
Teacher Wei drew lines and triangles on the blackboard. Another boy turned around to make faces. Yi-dan didn’t hate geometry, but at this moment she couldn’t care less about it. It had been two weeks—which felt like an eternity—since she last saw LS Lin up close. To protect their eyesight with a method yet to be proven by science, all the students had to change seats every two weeks: Everyone moved to the right, and those next to the right-side wall moved across the room to the left. Yi-dan had been sitting next to the wall, and today was the first day she reunited with LS Lin. The forced separation was cruel, she thought. She couldn’t help staring at LS Lin, who looked especially pretty this morning. Her pink sweater outlined the gentle curves of her chest. Her hair was a silky, black waterfall. Her face had the color and texture of a ripe peach. She had long eyelashes.
She was nicknamed “Little Sister Lin” because she looked like the lead female character in the popular TV show, Dreams of the Red Mansion. Her personality, however, wasn’t exactly like that of the TV character, who was melancholy or chronically depressed because of unrequited love. On the contrary, LS Lin liked to smile. When she did, her eyes curved like a pair of new moons glowing softly in the clear morning sky. She was not the most popular girl in the class, but rather a mild-mannered, studious one, the kind most teachers favored and trusted. She had her own friend circle, to which Yi-dan didn’t belong. Nonetheless, Yi-dan was infatuated with her.
At thirteen, when the girls around her gossiped about boys in hushed voices and giggled nervously, Yi-dan didn’t feel she had anything to contribute. She wasn’t interested in boys but paid much attention to girls. She seemed a little odd among the “normal” girls. In fact, she had been eccentric since an early age, and she knew exactly why.
Yi-dan’s birth was a mistake, an immense disappointment to her family. As if she had, with full consciousness, witnessed her family’s melodrama at the maternity ward, she could envision her mother’s sallow face and teary eyes, amid her father’s and grandfather’s sighs and sneers. They had expected her father’s firstborn to be a boy, but discovered, to their chagrin, that the opposite was true. The communist government, they had learned, would soon implement a new law, which allowed each couple to have only one child. A few weeks later, Yi-dan was sent to live with her maternal great-grandmother, in a town that lay a full day’s train ride away. Thirteen months later, her father’s family celebrated the birth of her brother with loud firecrackers.
When Yi-dan was eight, her great-grandmother passed away, and she returned to live with her parents. By that time, according to her father, she had learned all the bad habits from her great-grandmother—an uneducated, illiterate countrywoman—and was beyond salvation. Yi-dan never dreamed of equality with her brother, nor did her brother allow for it. As the legitimate heir to their parents’ household, her brother was entitled to make rules for her. Her failure to observe them would quickly set off his temper. Her parents praised her brother for his strong “sense of responsibility.”
Yi-dan tried her best to stay out of her brother’s way. When she got a membership card from the local children’s library, books started to occupy a significant portion of her time. Besides school and housework, she was satisfied to remain in her fantasy world. She loved mythology.
Once she borrowed a collection of fairy tales, a book printed on thin, yellowish paper in big, black characters, with no drawings or pictures. One of the stories told the following: At the beginning of times, the land was covered by lush green forests and clear blue lakes. On a sunny spring day, a goddess stopped by a serene lake. Tempted to bathe, she undressed herself and saw her reflection in the water. Instead of bathing, she decided to copy her own image and make little figurines out of mud. The figurines became alive when she set them down. They were young women, singing, dancing, and disappearing into the forest. The goddess was delighted and made more of them. When the sun began to set, the goddess was tired and about to leave. She picked up her clothes and shook the mud off them. Then something more miraculous happened—the mud clusters fell onto the ground and became men!
Yi-dan loved that the Creator was a woman, and what she enjoyed most about the story was how differently men and women were created: Women were crafted like artworks, with care and full attention, while the creation of men was crude, careless, and purely accidental. Yi-dan felt a secret sense of revenge and compensation. There could be an entirely different world, she thought, where everything was reversed.
At the age of twelve, Yi-dan read a “virgin birth” story during the summer break. Although still not clear on the details of why, she was old enough to know the improbability of a virgin giving birth. She adored the story nonetheless. It told that in a country far away, there lived only women; nobody had ever seen a man. When a woman wanted to have a baby, she would go to the queen’s garden to ask for a fruit from a magic tree. The queen hired a maid to care for the tree and pick fruits from it. Because the tree produced only a limited number of fruits every year, the queen selected women, based on their beauty and intelligence, to grant them the opportunities to have babies. Needless to say, the chosen women only had baby girls.
The book, again, had no pictures. Yi-dan exhausted her imagination trying to figure out what the fruits looked like. The summer break was long and unoccupied. When her parents went to work, Yi-dan and her brother stayed in their family’s tiny one-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor. Without air conditioning, they had to shut all the curtains to keep out the heat. It was dark inside. Yi-dan sat in front of the desk with her book. Through the slit left by the window curtain, she could see the sun-drenched street. Her brother knelt in the middle of the floor, surrounded by wires and tools. He was obsessed with building radio antennas with empty aluminum cans.
Based on the virgin birth story, Yi-dan sketched the queen’s garden, the queen in an elaborate gown, the maid with white gloves, and the women vying to have babies. With a box of colored pencils, she gave life to a kaleidoscope of her subjects. Her flowers had sparkling rainbow colors. Her magic fruits had unearthly, intricate shapes. She added impossible, gravity-defying architectural design to the queen’s garden. In a misty background, beautiful women lined up in front of the queen, all in their translucent silk dresses, showing off their feminine beauty in order to convince the queen.
It was then that Yi-dan began to pay attention to the female body in reality. A convenient location was the communal shower house. On Sunday afternoons, when the shower house was crowded, Yi-dan spent hours there watching young women whose bodies were more developed than her own. She often forgot to shower until her mother came to look for her. She made up excuses—missing soap or lost shower shoes—so that nobody would find out her secret. Unaware of her clandestine endeavor, Yi-dan’s parents dismissed her as “dumb” or “antisocial,” and blamed that on her great-grandmother’s bad influence. In contrast, they believed her brother was the brilliant future engineer and inventor, destined to put Thomas Edison to shame.
Yi-dan ignored her parents’ comments. Her skills at drawing the female body improved dramatically. In the shower house, she scrutinized and memorized the nude female form: how the curves of the torso connected with each other, how they became accentuated and relaxed with movement, and how the skin enveloped and suggested underlying muscles in different postures. As soon as she got home, she transcribed the images in her mind onto paper. Her vocabulary to describe the female body in drawing grew slowly but steadily. She even studied the pregnant figure by stalking a pregnant woman for several months.
Yi-dan hid the drawings from her parents and brother. Fortunately, except for marking his territories to exclude Yi-dan, her brother was as indifferent to her business as she was to his. When no one was around, she stared at her own drawings with profound erotic feelings. If only she could join the women in the queen’s garden, and touch their lithe and impeccable bodies under the feather-light silk dresses... Since the story didn’t tell what the women did with the fruits in order to become pregnant—eating them would be the least imaginative—Yi-dan invented bizarre ceremonies involving the magic fruit and the female body. Yi-dan’s earliest erotic dreams included no man; the stories only consisted of the imaginary women and herself.
It was the springtime now. The school’s semiannual sports event was coming up. The students treated it like a holiday. Instead of studying in the dark, cold classroom, they could sit in the sun and eat snacks. Yi-dan usually represented her class for the 1,500-meter race. Her goal, however, was not to win. She was a good runner—the fastest girl in her class but not the best in the school. She would go with the flow, trailing behind some girls in the front, using ninety percent of her energy. She felt sorry for those who tried their best and ended up vomiting, fainting, or even having to go to the emergency room. She never quite understood the point of winning. Nonetheless, she sometimes won fifth or sixth in the race and was comforted with a box of chocolate. She shared it with the girls in her class, and that was when she felt a sense of belonging.
LS Lin’s specialty was the high jump. Yi-dan yearned to watch LS Lin in action: her nymph figure flying over the horizontal bar, her red sport jersey leaving a curved line in the sky. This year, unfortunately, the girls’ 1,500-meter race and high jump were scheduled to begin at the same time. From the finishing line of the race to the high-jump field, Yi-dan calculated, it would take at least five minutes to run at her top speed, not to mention right after the race. She thought about feigning a sudden stomach ache, but seriously doubted her own acting ability.
The race began, and Yi-dan followed a few girls as usual. Halfway into it, she counted four of them in front of her. When she passed the 1,000-meter mark, the girl right ahead of her sprained her ankle and fell. Yi-dan sped up, feeling that she had an opportunity to gain time and get to LS Lin’s side soon enough. With LS Lin’s face in her mind’s eye, Yi-dan went faster and faster, as if she were driven by a motor. She passed number three, then number two. “I must not disappoint LS Lin,” she told herself, even though she didn’t think LS Lin was even aware of her effort. At the finishing line, Yi-dan was only half a step behind the fastest girl. She won second, which her class had never seen before. Suddenly, the sky went dark, and Yi-dan’s legs turned into soft rubber. Several girls from her class ran up to her and yelled, “Are you OK?” Yi- dan realized that she had fainted for a few seconds, but regained consciousness immediately. “I’m fine,” she told them and ran off towards the high-jump field.
LS Lin was preparing for her jump. Her long hair was wrapped into a tight bun. She threw her arms around and kicked her legs into the air while chatting with a fellow competitor. She didn’t notice Yi-dan, nor did Yi-dan want to get her attention. Yi-dan sat on the lawn among the spectators. This was the second round, and it was finally LS Lin’s turn. Yi-dan saw her walk to the white line and turn around to smile to the audience. What a beautiful smile! Under the bright sunlight, her eyes curved, and her long lashes cast shadows on her rosy cheeks. Yi-dan relished the moment. She had earned it, she thought.
The judge blew the whistle. LS Lin ran to the bar and leapt into the air. The red jersey flew onto the mat, and the bar took a similar trajectory. On her second try, the bar shook a few times and fell again. The third try wasn’t a success, either. LS Lin was eliminated from the competition. She picked up her water bottle, let down her hair, and sat on the lawn. Yi-dan moved over to sit next to her. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’ll get better. I’m sure you’ll win next time.” This was, in fact, the first time Yi-dan spoke complete sentences to LS Lin. She was usually too nervous to talk to her.
“It doesn’t bother me,” LS Lin said, smiling. “I didn’t really count on winning.”
“What a coincidence,” Yi-dan said. “I thought the same thing.”
She wanted to tell LS Lin that she liked her radiant, confident smile and her nimble, elegant leap, regardless of the result, but she couldn’t find the right words. In the meantime, the loudspeaker announced the winners of the girls’ 1,500-meter race, and told them to pick up their prizes.
“You liar,” LS Lin laughed. “You just lied to me a minute ago! Should I ever trust you again?” She threw an arm around Yi-dan’s neck. An electrical current rushed through Yi-dan’s entire body. She felt her heart pounding and her hands sweating. All of a sudden they were like best friends.
They went together to pick up the prize: a red banner, which would go on the wall of their classroom, along with a box of chocolate. Yi-dan’s mind raced for excuses to spend more time with LS Lin. Spotting a blooming cherry tree by the field, she suggested that they sit down over there. LS Lin agreed cheerfully, hooking her hand on Yi-dan’s arm. For a moment, Yi-dan felt like LS Lin’s protector. She loved playing this role. She would get in a fist fight with any boy for LS Lin, no matter how much bigger or stronger he might be.
They sat side by side on the grass, the opened box of chocolate in front of them. The afternoon sun shone brightly. The breeze caressed their faces. The air smelled of newly-thawed earth and cherry blossoms. Pink flower petals fell like snow, some making a transient stop on their hair—Yi-dan’s short, boyish hair and LS Lin’s long, smooth waterfall. The loudspeaker announced winners from yet another category, about which neither of them cared. They held hands, as many good friends would do, though it might mean different things to the two of them: Yi-dan’s feelings were complicated; for LS Lin, it was most likely just pure, unalloyed friendship. Together they recited The Burial of Flowers, a poem supposedly written by the Little Sister Lin in Dreams of the Red Mansion: “Flowers fall/ Flowers fly/ Flowers fill the sky/Their colors fade/ Their scents dissipate/ Nobody pities their fate...” Years later, Yi-dan would remember that afternoon as the scene of her first love.
Doing things under the table seemed to be Yi-dan’s way of life. She started sketching LS Lin’s portraits secretly. Gazing at LS Lin across the aisle, Yi-dan was overcome by waves of inspiration. During lectures, she drew on scratch paper and in the margins of her books. Later she would create drawings on better paper. Not surprisingly, she also undressed LS Lin with her imagination. She took great care to hide the drawings from everyone, including LS Lin. Sometimes, she was so distracted in class that, when the teacher called her to answer a question, she didn’t even know what the question was. Once, in the geometry class, Teacher Wei’s hand fell onto Yi-dan’s shoulder. “What are you doing?” She demanded. “Give it to me.”
Luckily, on the piece of paper Yi-dan surrendered to Teacher Wei, there was only the sketch of an unidentifiable girl’s luxuriant, flowing hair, covering most of her face. “What an artist,” Teacher Wei scoffed. “You are in the wrong place. This is a geometry class!” She threw the paper back at Yi-dan and marched to the front of the classroom. During the rest of the lecture, Yi-dan waited for her verdict and punishment. She sat at her desk, her whole body drenched in cold sweat. Nonetheless, Teacher Wei seemed to have forgotten the incident, and didn’t mention it at the end of the lecture or afterwards.
After the sports event, Yi-dan and LS Lin grew more comfortable around each other. They chatted and laughed during breaks. However, LS Lin still appeared closer to her other friends than to Yi-dan. Yi-dan was jealous. As the finals week drew close, Yi-dan became restless. For some reason, she wanted LS Lin’s affirmation, or approval, before she could concentrate on her studies. She could only do one thing at a time, and she didn’t comprehend the concept of priorities.
One day, during the lunch break, when nobody was around, Yi-dan slipped several drawings under LS Lin’s books. One of them was a profile, with the long hair swinging to the other side, revealing her face and framing the gentle curves of her chest. Another one was a front portrait, with her eyes curved like a pair of new moons. The third one was LS Lin in action: jumping above a horizontal bar in a red sport jersey, resembling a flame. To top it all off, Yi-dan included a popular poem: “The bitter sand/ carried by the wayward wind/ falls into my sad eyes/ Nobody knows/ I am here/waiting for you.” Afterwards, Yi-dan thought she had done something terribly wrong, which she would regret forever. She longed for LS Lin to recognize her work, but would be terrified if she did so. During the next hour, she wanted to take back the drawings, but some of her classmates had returned from the lunch break, and she worried about their suspicion.
LS Lin finally came back. She moved her books and discovered the drawings. As Yi-dan had expected, she scrutinized each of them curiously and touched the images gently with her fingers. She put them inside her desk drawer. During the afternoon lectures, she took them out and examined them again and again. Yi-dan observed LS Lin from across the aisle and pretended to notice nothing. After classes, while walking out of the room together, they chatted about the homework, the next day’s gym class, and other things neither of them really cared about.
The next morning, LS Lin came to school with red, swollen eyes. While Yi-dan sat watching silently, LS Lin handed over the drawings to Teacher Chu, who was responsible for the school’s communism indoctrination program. In the afternoon, Teacher Chu made an urgent announcement, through the school’s loudspeaker, that a “dating incident” had been discovered in their class, and that the school would take it seriously.
The following days saw a school-wide crisis. In the late 1980s, after several episodes of student demonstrations in the country, the communist government tightened mind control over young people. Under the new puritanical moral codes, even the most innocent dating activities among young adults—not to mention thirteen-year-olds—were frowned upon and considered “bourgeois corruption.”
Though a “victim,” LS Lin was not trusted to be entirely guiltless. Her parents were summoned to the school, and all of them, together, were questioned in the principal’s office. Yi-dan saw LS Lin and her mother, whom she had never met before, walking out of the principal’s office, both in tears. Her father stayed behind and had a long talk with several school officials. The week after, the school authority ordered a meeting of all the students and teachers—interrupting normal classes, despite the upcoming finals—to address the “urgent problem.” Five boys in Yi-dan’s class, who were suspects solely because they had shown some “artistic talent,” were obliged to read their self-criticizing essays in front of everyone.
Yi-dan wondered why Teacher Wei didn’t suspect, even slightly, her culpability. She had seen one of Yi-dan’s sketches. Didn’t she notice the similarity? Moreover, Yi-dan was one of the artists drawing the school’s propaganda bulletin board twice a month. She was more talented than all five of the boys, if not all of them combined. Why wouldn’t anybody suspect her? As the true culprit and perhaps the only one who knew the truth, Yi-dan hadn’t slept at night. Everyone believed that the offender had to be a boy; Yi-dan understood that she was off the hook because she was a girl. She felt apologetic to the boys who were punished, unfairly, for what she had done.
Yi-dan worried more about LS Lin. After the incident, LS Lin had become very quiet, and her eyes were always red. She now looked even more like the TV character. The teachers shook their heads. “Who could believe,” they said, “such an obedient girl would do this kind of thing!” The girls in their class shunned her, as if she were a slut. Yi-dan tried to comfort her, but this time she had even more difficulty finding the proper words. In a way, Yi-dan got what she wanted—she seemed to be LS Lin’s only friend during this difficult time. No matter what she could say to LS Lin, however, she knew she was too timid to tell the truth. She hated herself for that.
While her classmates studied day and night for the stringent high-school entrance exam, Yi-dan was spared the ordeal because her parents decided to move the family to a different country. Shortly after their arrival, her family, along with many emigrants from their country, converted to Christianity so as to declare their ultimate divorce from communism. They believed that Christian values maintained social order and family integrity, and agreed with their own traditional culture. Yi-dan refused to go to church.
Later, Yi-dan and her brother both acquired citizenship in their new country. Ironically, they always voted for opposing political parties and canceled each other out. Her brother landed a well-paying job, got married, and occupied a leadership position in the local church. On Sundays, he addressed a congregation of mostly fellow emigrants from their country. He and his wife went on “pro-family” campaigns, and sent Yi-dan pictures of themselves, both wearing T-shirts with the slogan, “Marriage = One Man + One Woman,” in the two languages they knew. They insisted that, according to the Bible, Woman was made from one of Man’s ribs, and therefore needed to be reunited with Man. Yi-dan told them the creation myth from their own culture, in which the Creatress made women ahead of men, and completely independent from men.
Yi-dan lived in half a dozen states, traveled around the globe, changed career several times, and fell in and out of love with a succession of female and male partners. She finally settled in a coastal city, known as the country’s progressive bastion. None of Yi-dan’s male partners was of her own race. She recognized her prejudice, and knew the risk of being called a sellout by her countrymen, but simply couldn’t help herself. Most of her female partners, in contrast, had the same skin color. Her family never suspected that these women were more than friends with Yi-dan. Yi-dan could have come out to her family, but, oddly, in their culture, intimate contact among female friends—holding hands, cuddling, or even sleeping in the same bed—was considered totally normal. Yi-dan didn’t need to inform her family about yet another of her eccentricities. Her mother had already given up trying to find her a proper husband.
More than twenty years had passed since Yi-dan last saw LS Lin. Sometimes, she wondered what had become of her. In fact, she still felt guilty. One day, she typed LS Lin’s official name in Google, and a list came up. One of them was an Assistant Professor of Microbiology at Santa Clara State University. She opened the page and saw a picture. It was her! It couldn’t be anyone else—Yi-dan recognized the curved eyes that resembled a pair of new moons. The rest of LS Lin looked different: she had gained weight and now had a face like a full moon; her long hair was replaced by short, permed curls; she had over-plucked eyebrows, heavily powdered cheeks, and bright-red lips; she wore a rather formal, but somewhat ill-fitting suit. Yi-dan looked at her CV and learned that LS Lin had come to this country as a graduate student and almost crossed path with Yi-dan several times. She was now about an hour from where Yi-dan lived, and Yi-dan had her address, email, and telephone number. Yi-dan paced around her apartment, seized by torrents of feelings. She had an urge to jump into the car and show up at her office to surprise her. When the initial heat cooled down, she decided to send LS Lin an email first. She sat down in front of the computer to compose a letter.
“Dear Little Sister Lin,” she typed. It sounded strange. Yi-dan regretted that her computer didn’t have the software of her native language. Actually, she had almost never used the language in the past twenty years and wasn’t even confident about its grammar anymore. She would have to use the default language. However, “Little Sister Lin” seemed no longer appropriate, and she had never called her “Dear.” Maybe she should call her “Professor.” Then she decided it was a bad idea, and changed it back to “Dear Little Sister Lin.”
Yi-dan wrote briefly about her family and work, and resolved to leave her personal life for later. She felt she owed LS Lin some truth, but didn’t know how to approach it. She assumed that LS Lin was married with kids now and didn’t know that Yi-dan had been in love with her. She had no idea about LS Lin’s positions on the social and political issues in this country and would rather err on the conservative side.
She hit the send button. In the next hours and the next days, Yi-dan checked her email over and over. There was still no reply from LS Lin. Maybe she was at a meeting? On vacation? Too busy with her research and teaching responsibilities?
Yi-dan waited anxiously. Then she realized that she wasn’t worried about LS Lin’s political positions but rather something else. As if waking up from an ethereal, enchanted dream, she lingered in its delicate senses and unfathomable feelings, not willing to face the reality. She held onto the memories of the silky long hair, the curved eyes with long lashes, and the lissome figure over the horizontal bar. While a voice in her head told her to grow up, be rational, and accept the complicated, ever-changing world, she couldn’t bear seeing her adolescent years’ bubble burst. No, it was not, or not entirely, about the loss of youth and beauty, as the Little Sister Lin in Dreams of the Red Mansion wrote, “Their colors fade/ Their scents dissipate/ Nobody pities their fate...”
John Keats wrote, “Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art/ Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night/ And watching, with eternal lids apart.” Yi-dan wanted desperately to salvage something from her life, something “steadfast.” Like wearing the same pair of old sneakers from continent to continent, or eating the same bland oatmeal amid a potpourri of culinary offerings, Yi-dan wanted to guard something against the fast-changing world, to make it eternal, undissolved by the shifting of time and life’s circumstances, and uneclipsed by learning, culture, nationality, or politics. She didn’t know, however, what exactly it was.
It perhaps didn’t matter, Yi-dan thought, whether, or how, LS Lin would reply.