The autumn of 1977 left a mark on two young people. On a day when the sun was shining they boarded a clattering bus and traveled to a town twenty kilometers away. It was the boy who bought the tickets, while the girl took cover behind a concrete utility pole some distance from the station. Dust and falling leaves fluttered around her and the hum of the power lines dulled the multitude of noises in the street. The girl’s emotions at that moment were as barren as a page in one of her school textbooks. She glanced from time to time at the bus station’s narrow door, a placid expression on her face.
The boy emerged, looking wan and haggard. Although he knew perfectly well where the girl was hiding, he avoided looking her way and instead walked toward the river, scanning nervously left and right. Soon he reached the bridge and came to an uneasy halt before finally gazing in the girl’s direction. Finding that she was watching him, he glared at her, but this seemed to have no effect. He turned away in disgust and then stood where he was, ignoring her. But he felt certain that she was looking at him the whole time, and this thought alarmed him. Only when he was sure there was nobody around did he walk back.
She had no inkling that he was in such a fearful state of mind; instead she felt touched by the sight of the pale boy walking toward her in the sunshine. A quiver of excitement seized her and a smile appeared on her face. But when he arrived beside her, he was fuming. “You can still smile?” he snapped.
Her lovely smile was nipped in the bud. So fierce was his expression that she looked at him anxiously, hoping for clarification.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” he said. “Don’t look at me. Pretend you don’t know me. Why do you keep looking? You drive me crazy.”
She made no protest and simply turned away. She looked at a pile of withered yellow leaves on the ground and listened as sounds emerged from his mouth.
“After we get on the bus, find a seat and sit down. If there’s nobody we know, I’ll sit next to you. If there is someone we know, I’ll stand by the door. Remember not to talk to me.”
He handed her a ticket and walked away—back toward the bridge, not the waiting room.
Some ten years later, the girl—now in her late twenties—sat opposite me as twilight fell outside our apartment and the open curtains framed the sun’s fading light. She was knitting a sky-blue scarf. The scarf was longer than she was tall, but still she kept on knitting. It was I who had accompanied her in the autumn of 1977 to that town twenty kilometers away. We were five years old when we first met, and that acquaintance eventually led—after a long and grueling process—to the institution of marriage. We had our first sexual experience near the end of our sixteenth year, and her first pregnancy occurred at that time too. Her sitting posture had repeated itself endlessly for five years, so how could there be any passion in my glance when I looked at her? For so long now, wherever I went she would follow, and this put me in a profound depression. My biggest mistake was that on the eve of our wedding I had failed to realize that all her life she would be hanging on my coattails, and that was why I was stuck in such a rut. Now, as she knitted the scarf, I held in my hand a letter from the author Hong Feng. His splendid career was an inspiration to me, and I felt I had no reason to continue a life as stale as an old newspaper.
So, just as she recycled her sitting position, I recycled words I had said before, reiterating that there was something awful about knowing someone since childhood. “Don’t you feel I’m just too familiar?” I asked yet again.
But she just kept gazing at me uncomprehendingly.
“We have known each other since we were five,” I went on. “Twenty-some years later, we’re still together. How can either of us expect the other to be able to inspire a change?”
At such moments she would always look stricken.
“To me, for ages now you have been like a blank piece of paper that can be read at a glance. And to you, aren’t I just the same?”
When tears began to spill down her face, I thought she simply looked foolish.
“All that we’re left with,” I went on, “is memories of the past, but too many memories make our past seem just like breakfast—always predictable.”
Our first sexual experience, as I said, occurred near the end of our sixteenth year. On that moonless night, we lay locked in an embrace on the grass of the school athletic field, paralyzed with fear. On a path not far away, people walked along with flashlights in their hands, their voices sharp as daggers in the night air, and several times we were about to flee in panic. When I recall that scene today, I realize that it was because she hugged me so tightly that I now cannot see just how pathetic I must have looked then.
As soon as I think of that night, I can feel the moisture of the dewdrops on the grass. When I slipped my hand inside her pants, the heat of her body made me shiver. My fingers dipped deeper, and I began to feel a wetness just like that on the grass. At the beginning I had no particular purpose in mind and simply felt like caressing her a little bit. Later I felt a strong urge to take a peek—I wanted to know what things looked like. But on that moonless night, what I smelled when I leaned closer was only a bland scent. The scent that wafted from that dark, wet place wasn’t like anything I had smelled before, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as I had imagined it would be. That did not stop me, however, from going ahead and doing the deed. Desire had been sated, only to leave me racked with anxiety, and in the days that followed I considered various forms of suicide or flight. When she began to look pregnant, my despair was paired with resentment that I had enjoyed only a few minutes of earthshaking bliss. On that autumn day in 1977 I accompanied her to that town twenty kilometers away in the hope it would all prove to be a false alarm.
Her fear was not nearly as acute as mine. When I proposed she have a checkup, it was she who suggested that particular hospital, and her calm and coolheadedness took me rather aback. To me, the attraction of that facility was simply that it represented a basic level of security that would allow us to keep the matter secret. But she went on to enthuse about her visit to that town five years earlier, and I was infuriated by her descriptions of its streets and her lyrical accounts of the decommissioned ship that was moored by the shore. We weren’t going there to have fun, I told her, but for a damn checkup, a test that would determine whether or not we could go on living. If the test established that she really was pregnant, I said, we would be expelled from school and driven from our homes by our respective sets of parents. Rumors about us would proliferate like the dust that blew about in the streets. In the end there would be nothing for it but to . . . “Commit suicide.”
That threat certainly did unnerve her. The look on my face, she told me years later, was quite terrifying, and my prediction of our grim future shocked her. But even in this apprehensive state she was never really in despair. At least her parents wouldn’t expel her from the family home, she believed, although she did concede that they would punish her. “Punishment’s better than suicide,” she told me consolingly.
That day I was the last person to get on the bus. I watched her from a distance as she boarded, and she kept turning around and looking at me. I had told her not to do that, but my constant reminders had fallen on deaf ears. The bus was already lurching forward when I boarded. I didn’t immediately head for the seat next to hers but stood by the door, my eyes scanning one face after another, and there must have been at least twenty people I had seen before. So I stood glued to my spot, as the potholed highway toyed relentlessly with our bus. I felt as though I were stuffed inside a bottle that was being constantly shaken. Later I heard her calling me—a sound that filled me with dread. Outraged by her lack of sense, I steadfastly ignored her, hoping that would shut her up. But her tiresome efforts to catch my attention just carried on regardless. All I could do was turn my head away, knowing my scowl had to be as ugly as the scrubby bushes by the side of the road.
But her face was suffused with innocence as she put on a show of being astonished that she and I just happened to have taken the same bus. When she invited me to sit down in the empty seat next to her, I had no choice but to comply. No sooner did I sit down than I could feel her body pressing up against me. She had a lot to say, but I didn’t take any of it in and had to keep nodding in order to give the impression I was following what she was saying. All this exasperated me, and when she quietly curled her hand around my fingers, I pushed her hand away. It maddened me that she could still carry on like this. Only then did she register how furious I was. She stopped talking, and naturally gave up on efforts at physical contact too. She turned away, feeling mistreated it seemed, and began to survey the bleak scenery. But she did not stay quiet for very long, for when the bus shuddered as it went over a bump she gave a giggle and murmured in my ear, “The baby felt that.”
Her joke only provoked me further. “Shut your mouth,” I muttered, through clenched teeth.
Later I saw a row of ships moored by the shore. Two of them had been stripped down to miserable-looking shells, and only one was still intact and undamaged. A few gray birds hovered over the seaweed on the shore.
Soon after the bus arrived at the station, two young people emerged from the exit. When a truck drove past, their bodies were obscured by the dust it threw up.
The boy, livid, walked on ahead without a word. The girl followed along behind, glancing apprehensively at his side-turned face. Instead of heading straight for the hospital, the boy turned into an alleyway, and the girl did the same. He did not stop until halfway down. There they watched as a middle-aged woman approached and then walked out onto the street.
“Why did you call me?” the boy barked.
The girl, hurt, looked at him. “I was afraid you’d get tired standing all the way.”
“How many times have I told you: don’t look at me!” he cried. “But you just kept on looking and calling my name and squeezing my hand.”
Two men approached from the end of the alley. The boy said nothing more, and the girl made no attempt to defend herself. The men looked at them curiously as they passed. Then the boy set off toward the end of the alley, and after a slight hesitation the girl followed.
They walked in silence along the street. Though no longer in a rage, the boy seemed increasingly fretful as they approached the hospital. He threw a glance at the girl, who was now gazing straight ahead, and he inferred from the look of hesitancy in her eyes that the hospital must be very close.
They arrived at the hospital lobby to find the registration office empty and desolate. The boy now lost his nerve so completely that he marched straight outside to the courtyard. Gripped by a fear that he might be held for questioning, he was simply not prepared to run the risk. She would have to confront the dangers alone, leaving him free to make his escape. By the time the girl joined him, he had thought of a way to conceal his spinelessness. It would really be too dangerous for him to stay with her, he said: other people would be able to tell in an instant what they had got up to. “Just go in by yourself,” he told her.
She made no protest and with a nod headed back inside. He watched as she went up to the window of the registration office, and when she took money from her pocket she showed no obvious stress. He heard her provide name and age—both were fake. These subterfuges were not things he had arranged ahead of time. “Gynecology,” he heard her say.
The word made him shudder. He detected a weariness in her voice. On leaving the window, she turned to look at him, and the medical record flapped in her hand as she went up the stairs.
The boy watched until her silhouette disappeared on the stairs; only then did he turn his gaze elsewhere. He felt his mood getting darker, and his breathing became labored. As he stood waiting, he looked out distractedly at the people on the street, then eyed the patients as they came down the stairs. Still no sign of her. He was seized with dread, a fear that upstairs his secret was being exposed. This thought became more and more real, until he couldn’t bear to stay in the hospital a moment longer. He crossed the street and didn’t stop when he got to the other side, but rushed straight into a shop.
It sold basic household supplies, and a slatternly young woman stood behind the counter, a bored expression on her face. At the other end were two men cutting sheets of glass. He went over to watch, at the same time glancing frequently at the hospital across the street. The men smoked as they worked, and little heaps of ash had accumulated on the dark green glass. The vacant looks on their faces made him all the more glum. As the cutting tool’s diamond tip slid across the glass, a white scratch appeared and a rasping noise sounded in his ears.
Before long the girl appeared on the street opposite. She stood next to a plane tree, looking lost. He glimpsed her through the dusty shop window and did not step outside until he had verified that she was not being followed. She saw him crossing the street and gave a rueful smile as he approached.
“I am pregnant,” she said quietly.
The boy stood as still as a tree. The desperate hope he had been harboring was now utterly shattered. He looked at the doleful girl. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she muttered.
“What do we do?” he repeated.
“Let’s not think about that,” she said consolingly. “Let’s have a look around the shops.”
He shook his head. “I don’t feel like it.”
She said nothing, and simply watched the traffic going back and forth on the street. People came toward them on the sidewalk, laughing loudly. After they passed, she gave it another try. “Let’s have a look in the shops.”
“I don’t want to do that,” he repeated.
They stood there for some time, and eventually the boy said listlessly, “Let’s go back.”
The girl nodded.
So then they headed back the way they had come. Before they had gone very far, the girl came to a stop in front of a window. She tugged on the boy’s sleeve. “Let’s have a look in this shop,” she said.
After a little hesitation the boy entered with her. They stood for a while in front of a white Dacron skirt. The girl could not take her eyes off it. “I really like that skirt,” she told the boy.
Her voice had already settled into place when she was sixteen. In the ten-odd years that followed, her voice would linger in my ears almost every day, and this overfamiliar sound had scoured away all my passion. And so, as dusk fell and I gazed at my wife who sat opposite me, I could only feel more and more weary. She was still knitting the sky-blue scarf, and her face was the same old face, except that it had lost some elasticity. Under my glances her wrinkles had deepened and were now as familiar to me as the palm of my own hand. She had begun to pay attention.
“Before you even open your mouth, I can tell what you’re going to say. At eleven thirty every morning and at five o’clock every afternoon I know you will soon be home. In a crowd of a hundred women, I can recognize your footsteps right away. And as far as you’re concerned, aren’t I just as predictable?”
She stopped knitting and looked at me pensively.
“So neither of us can give the other any surprise at all,” I went on. “All we can do is give each other a little pleasure, but that kind of pleasure is available anywhere in town.”
Now she began to speak. “I understand what you’re saying.”
“Are you sure?” I didn’t know how to respond, so that was all I could think of to say.
“I understand,” she repeated. Tears began to slither down her face. “You want to dump me,” she said.
I didn’t try to deny it. “That sounds so crude” was all I said.
“You want to dump me,” she said again. More tears.
“That’s not a nice way to put it,” I said. “Let’s think about all the things we have done together.”
“Is this the last time?” she asked.
I dodged the question. “Where shall we begin?” I went on.
“Is this the last time?” she repeated.
“How about we start from that autumn, back in 1977?” I said. “We took that clattering bus all those twenty kilometers to find out if you were pregnant. What a wreck I was that day!”
“No, you weren’t,” she said.
“Don’t try to make me feel better. I really was a wreck.”
“No, you weren’t,” she repeated. “In all the time I’ve known you, there’s just once you’ve been a wreck.”
“When was that?”
From The April 3rd Incident. Used with permission of Pantheon. Copyright © 2018 by Yu Hua. English translation copyright © 2018 by Allan H. Barr.