Jin moved into an apartment on the twentieth floor of Block Six, down the corridor from us, when I was nine years old. He looked like a northerner, quite practical, had strong eyebrows and teeth, and when he smiled you felt he wasn’t plotting against you and that, in fact, he’d be happy to see you do well in life.
Not long after he arrived, my grandmother met him in the corridor. The first thing she asked him was where his wife was and how many children he had.
He answered, “No children at all.”
“Heavens! None at all, Mr. Jin?”
“And no wife either.”
Back home, Grandmother said, “He’s only half a watermelon. He has the kind of face that can never look sad.”
Mother said, “Leave the poor man alone.”
I was the only child on the twentieth floor. I knew I was going to be stuck in Block Six forever because my family needed me to buy their vegetables, cook their meals, take them to their medical appointments, and eventually pay the bills for the next hundred years they planned to live. I used to vow to run away at the first opportunity. Grandmother and Mother would shake their fists and tell me what an ungrateful little girl I was, and how desperately they had hoped for a boy—that was how my family demonstrated love, except for my father, who had once been a scholar and translator but now said very little.
I kept close watch on Jin’s front door, convinced he was a plaincoat, a spy. During the day he rarely went out at all, though sometimes at dusk he would step out carrying a Polytechnic Two satchel, dressed up like a professor. He enjoyed talking to strangers. He always wore hats and preferred the shadows. I never saw him eat or drink. His life appeared empty, hollow. Grandmother was right; it did seem as if half his watermelon was missing.
Just as I was losing interest, Jin started a new routine. Around 2 p.m., when the old people had retired for their naps, he would emerge from his flat and walk over to the piano teacher Naomi’s door, knock quietly, and be let inside.
Fictions bloomed inside me. Conspiracy and melodrama, blackmail, sex, piano lessons, shared lunch boxes: Anything could be happening in there.
Naomi was thirty-five years old and had lived in Block Six for my whole life. She wore long skirts and rollover sweaters, and she taught music. Naomi was half-Japanese but had grown up in Shanghai where, according to Grandmother, her parents were world-renowned scientific researchers at the celebrated People’s Reserve. She kept to herself.
Eavesdropping at Naomi’s door was out of the question. The only time to observe them, therefore, was Tuesdays and Thursdays between 7 and 9 p.m., when my mother and others of her generation would emerge, wearing their plastic sandals, ready for ballroom dancing in nearby Emerald Goose Park.
I tagged along with my mother. My father’s health prevented him from taking part. Since I was new and the only child, everyone teased me mercilessly, and everyone wanted a dance, making it difficult to pursue my prey.
Jin usually danced alone, holding the air, as if the person he loved was in his imagination. He had a dignified carriage and a softness in the knees that turned his foxtrot from recreation into art. He made efficiency beautiful.
On the rare occasions they danced together, Jin and Naomi tried to act like strangers, mere neighbors, but underneath it, they were gloriously elegant. Every adult in Block Six was married, unless, like Grandmother, they had been widowed. Their chemistry should have raised eyebrows, but back then people were preoccupied by their own troubles and failed to notice to the grand passions of others. I, however, knew they were in love.
I thought I understood the reason for all this dancing. When my neighbors closed their eyes, they disappeared to other eras: my mother to 2018, when life still held promise, Lady Laoshi to 2008, quickstepping down the corridor of her university dormitory, and Grandpa Xu, who was at least 120 years old, to 1928, when he spent every Saturday night at Great World or the Majestic. Those famous Shanghai clubs are gone, he would say, but the steps are still the same.
For me, on the other hand, when I danced with them, I was already in the future, forgetting that I was still a child.
One night, Naomi’s parents, the famous scientists, attended the dancing. They were visiting for Lunar New Year and had brought the dancers a gift, a new album, Orchestral Gold. To my surprise, my father joined us as well. Still in his pajamas, he sat away from the light, like a dog in the shadows. First Naomi and then Jin went to keep him company. They lowered their heads and spoke to him respectfully. I felt ashamed that my father hardly said a word.
For years I had been told, not by my family but by my teachers, that my father was a felon, that my father brought nothing but harm. As a convicted criminal, he was forbidden from going online and using government services, so he relied on me. Once, he had asked me to post a letter for him. When I reached out to take the envelope, my hand brushed his. The touch of his skin was so weightless, so repellent. Disgusted, I drew back. The letter fell to the ground. It was addressed to the local office of the Public Security Bureau; my father was still stubbornly pleading his innocence. He knelt down, retrieved the envelope and placed it, soundlessly, on the table beside him. Relieved, I snatched it up. Then I did what my school officer instructed. I threw the envelope in the incinerator. Now, I remember how, in that fleeting instant when I pulled my hand away, I had never seen more disappointment on a human face.
That night, Jin and Naomi partnered for two songs in a row: Shostakovich’s magisterial “The Second Waltz,” which struck me as both despairing and playful, and Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull,” so full of longing I wanted to weep—though, back then, nobody wept. Grandpa Xu poured me a drop of his plum wine, and suddenly every detail of the night felt imprinted upon me. I remember a thousand stars, decorative lanterns, and lucky dumplings. The imported speakers, sent to Grandpa Xu when things like that were still allowed, made the ground shake as if we were dancing our way across the Sea of Japan. Jin looked at Naomi with an expression I’d never seen before, sibling love mixing with fatal devotion. I saw it as clearly as if I were standing between them.
Early the next morning, Grandmother sent me out to buy fresh soy milk. The sun was just rising. On my way back, I spotted Jin, Naomi, and her parents in the exercise area between Block Six and Block Seven. The parents were on the metal bikes, Naomi was doing chin-ups, and Jin was fanning her with a newspaper. When Naomi had finished, they drew together and began talking seriously. The parents looked severe, and I feared some difficulty had occurred; maybe Naomi was pregnant, like the cousin of Lady Laoshi who’d just had a baby at the age of fifty-one. I saw Jin place his hand on the curve of Naomi’s neck. The sun stole between the two buildings and rested on the top of her head.
After a time, Naomi’s parents began to shiatsu their lower backs. I remembered the milk. Full of annoyance, I ran home, burst into our apartment, nearly flung the milk at Grandmother, who said, “Did you have to kill the tofu yourself? Your father—” and then I darted out again, back to the yard. There were a dozen people there now, but Naomi and Jin were gone. Despairing, I turned in circles. My eye was drawn to a corner of the yard where the morning sun now landed: They were almost invisible in the shadow beside the brightest reflection.
Hidden by a hedge, I moved closer. Soon I was near enough to overhear their words. Naomi was speaking:
“How long will you stay here in Hama?”
“A long time, I promise.”
A wasp landed on Jin’s shoulder and Naomi pushed it away. “Do you still know everything, Jin?”
“I know only the things that everyone else knows.”
“I’m not so sure. What is the oldest, oldest, oldest bird?”
“The one discovered in Liaoning, and named after Xu Xing.”
“Liar. What living thing on earth is the very, very oldest?”
“A bristlecone pine in the western Americas.”
The wasp that had been circling Jin now approached me and tried to land.
Naomi said, “Why does nobody here ever tell the truth?”
“Because of self-interest. Also, perhaps, because of love.”
“I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know.” She was crying. “This country . . .”
“Don’t you ever get angry? Don’t you ever want to end it all? I don’t think I can stand this. Nobody says a word and someone is always watching. And sometimes I just . . . I just . . .”
“I’m angry,” Jin said, but without feeling. “But, Naomi, what can I do?”
The wasp dived against my cheek and I sneezed.
They turned, but I had dropped down, out of sight. When I stood up again, I saw that Jin and Naomi had stepped into the line of sunlight, two neighbors who had met by chance along the path.
I walked until the hedge met the wall that edged Block Six, where there was a sign I had never noticed before: “In case of emergency, break this wall to escape.” I stood beside it in confusion, feeling, for the first time, that a sign could mean its opposite, or maybe even nothing at all. I thought of the Public Security officers who watched over my father, even though he saw no one and said little. The sign was gray, and grass grew out of it. Perhaps I could ask my father what the sign had meant when he was young. He had been arrested because of treasonous words he had translated and posted on the Network. Later, he was released on medical grounds. My father had prison stories, people said, that would curdle your blood. But, to me, who could not overhear his thoughts, his recollections seemed so unfathomable, like listening to the private memories of birds or trees or to the strange clicking of abandoned machines.
Before he died, my father, who loved words, told me that the Chinese language has no past tense—that therefore all events recur and nothing ends. Similarly, he said, the Japanese language has no future tense and so, in order to imagine the days to come, all we have within our vocabulary is the present.
A few days later, school recommenced. Soon I would have to write the secondary school entrance exams. A low ranking would bring grief to my mother and grandmother. I tried to renounce dancing and snooping, and devote myself to scholarship.
During this time, Naomi moved out. Grandmother said she had gone to the People’s Reserve to live with her parents, the genius scientists. A month later, I heard that Jin was leaving Block Six as well.
A few days before he was due to leave, I chanced upon him in Emerald Goose Park. I had come on a Saturday afternoon to stretch my legs and do a secret foxtrot or two, out of sight of my mother, who liked to remind me that I was not enrolled in the Beijing Dance Academy and only mathematics could help me survive.
The loudspeaker was playing Schubert. Jin was dancing by himself, feeling his way through the music, like a starfish turning in the tide. I watched, fascinated. For the first time, the perfect efficiency of his movements made me feel ill at ease. Abruptly, he stopped and walked over to a bench beside the food stall. He sat down but, as usual, ate and drank nothing. I gripped the volume I was studying, The Collected Poems of Wang Wei , and approached.
“Good evening, Mr. Jin.”
“Miss Wu, what a surprise to see you here,” he said, without sounding the least surprised.
The new sensor lighting meant there were no more shadows in which a person could sit unobserved. Jin looked pale, even sickly. I realized I had never seen skin like his before. Everything about him appeared slightly amiss. His hair, so black it was blue, his eyebrows too perfect, his shoulders too square.
“Mr. Jin,” I said, “your dancing is perfection.”
He thanked me, his smile genuine. He had only goodwill.
“My grandmother says that you’re leaving soon.”
“The day after tomorrow. I’ve been assigned to a new work unit.”
He nodded, but so slightly he could have been shaking his head.
“Block Six will be a sadder place without you.”
He asked what I was reading and I showed him the poems. When he returned the book to me, our hands touched. His skin was papery, like my father’s, but cold, different.
“Have you finished dancing, Miss Wu?”
“Should we walk home together?”
My heart bounced up to my chin. “Okay.”
Strolling under the rain trees in comfortable silence, a breeze moved my hair and gave me courage. After all, I might never see him or Naomi again.
“How did you learn to dance, Mr. Jin?”
“My parents taught me. They passed away quite a long time ago. In 2015.”
A natural disaster, I supposed, or maybe an accident. Or something else. I thought I was beginning to understand.
“You don’t really fit in here, do you, Mr. Jin?”
“How do you mean?”
“You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met.” I glanced sideways. He had a thoughtful expression and so I plunged on. “I don’t know if you really work at the Polytechnic, or if you have a family secret, or a file with the government, or if maybe once, long ago, you were a wealthy man and now you’ve lost your fortune, or hidden it, or maybe you committed an error and the government had no choice but to punish you, or it could be that you’re a spy and so everything is a lie and nothing is what it seems—”
Since he didn’t answer, I kept chattering, sure I would uncover a revelation.
When I ran out of theories, he said, “How is your mother, Miss Wu?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“And your father?”
“My father?” I couldn’t answer.
After a moment, he said, “Grandpa Xu says that you’ll certainly be one of the few from our township to go on to University, just like your father. He must be very proud of you.”
Why should he know something about my father’s life when I myself knew nothing?
“He’s not a criminal,” I said, but without confidence. “I don’t care what my teachers say. I don’t care. He never hurt anyone.”
“Your father is a good person. Everyone knows it.”
If he was really a good person, why was he so insignificant? If he was really pure of heart, why was he suffering so greatly, with no one to help him? Jin spoke so matter-of-factly that a part of me believed him. But in order to do so, I would have to disbelieve so many other things.
Too soon, we reached Block Six. I was sobbing openly; I felt as if a piece of glass had lodged inside me, the same piece of glass that I knew lived inside my mother and grandmother.
Very quietly he said, “Don’t cry. Now is not the time for emotion.”
I knew he was right and tried to stop my tears.
“Miss Wu, I would like to stay in touch with you. Would that be all right?”
“Yes, Mr. Jin.” He was kind, I thought, and only trying to console me.
He opened to a page in my Wang Wei and wrote down: Miss Naomi and Mr. Jin, 54B Nanyang Valley Road, People’s Reserve. “Please come and see us one day. Will you promise me?”
Upstairs, I lay awake. I wanted to exchange my body for another, to transform into another creature, something with feathers, wings, and calm, closed eyes. On the page where Jin had left his address, Wang Wei’s poem taunted me. “Appearance emerges from chance conditions, and our true nature’s empty, kindred to nothing.”
A few weeks later, I received a postcard from Jin, postmarked the People’s Reserve. I also heard a rumor that Jin and Naomi had married, but that Jin was “not right.” A second postcard came but I put off answering; I told myself he wrote to me out of pity.
In the meantime, my own life was changing. Even on the warmest afternoons, my father, growing ever thinner, could not stop shivering. He was grieving losses I could not understand. Grandmother said you could love your family with the full depth of your being, you could love them until you were empty and desperate inside, and still it might not be enough to hold back the force of your grief. The morning after his thirty-fourth birthday, he left us. I was twelve years old. Days later, despite my mother’s tears and protestations, the authorities came and collected his body as if he, like an appliance, was kindred to nothing.
We became accustomed to things that are now banal, extensions of our everyday lives. Geo-engineering, IoT and electric air, the golden age of museums, the Gansu desert green for the first time in centuries, epidemics, de-catalogued people. I grew older and lived my life as if at a remove. Meanwhile, my grandmother left this world at 105, and this year my mother turned 72, beginning the ten-year countdown to retirement. After obtaining my medical degree, I was assigned back to my hometown, just as I thought I would be. I remained unmarried and have no children, a state of affairs that troubles my mother. Every day she asks me, “Little Wu, who will look after you when you’re old?” as if the answer might have radically altered since the previous morning.
But all this family history belongs to another beginning, middle, and ending.
For years I thought things would change until eventually, without quite realizing it, the outer world felt more real to me than my imagination, and I stopped wishing for things to be different. Time passed. I woke up and it was 2061. On my fortieth birthday, carrying that battered volume of Wang Wei poems, I traveled to the east and visited the now antiquated People’s Reserve.
When I reached Nanyang Valley Road, signboards informed me that these dormitory blocks would soon be demolished. The park opposite, which had a sizable lake, an aquaculture museum, and something billed as a supernatural forest, was being upgraded. The land was about to be renamed and, as chance would have it, would henceforth be called Jade Goose Park. It shone with heavy machinery, robotic arms, and an expanse of building composite.
Technicians dotted the grass. Among them, incongruously, was an older man in a wheelchair, watching the clamor. From afar, he looked like Mr. Jin: the same pallid skin, the same kind bearing, only older, and hatless. The blue-black hair was now a bluish-gray. Despite myself, I recognized another quality in this man; he held himself carefully as if any small movement might trigger a pain or punishment. Nearby someone was practicing, over and over again, the same dozen bars of a classical piano work. Turning back to the building, I saw that I was standing in front of 54B. I had kept my emotions in check for so many decades that I had no idea what to feel.
Naomi was wearing a sky blue blouse, a long red skirt, and black slippers. Her hair was gathered in a loose bun. She was sixty-three years old and I recognized her immediately.
I told her my name. “Naomi-zhu, please pardon the interruption. I was your neighbor in Block Six, No. 48 housing project, in the 2030s.”
She leaned towards me across the doorway. The setting sun bounced off her glasses and hid her eyes.
I kept talking, trying to describe Block Six as it had been. Inside the book of poems, I showed her where Jin had written their address. I described Herb Alpert and Shostakovich, my mother and grandmother. The more I spoke—claiming that she, my former neighbor, had occupied my thoughts for decades—the more peculiar I felt.
At last, she gave a small nod. “You’re the girl who gave us no peace. I know you.”
“I’m not sure . . .”
“Oh, yes, it’s you all right,” she said, nodding again. “I’d be minding my own business when suddenly your little face would appear, pushed up to the window.” Her laugh, abrupt, caused me to step back. “Poor friendless girl. The lonely child of Block Six. Of course, I knew all about your family situation . . . yes, I know exactly who you are. The things that happened to your father were a travesty, but cases like his were perfectly normal back then. Do you still ballroom dance?—No? You were good at it. But you had a lot of practice, didn’t you? For three whole years, you haunted Jin and me. Well.” She shook her head slowly, left-right, right-left. “What do you want?”
For nearly thirty years, I’d been convinced that I had followed them briefly, distractedly, when I was eight or nine. How could I be the indiscreet, bothersome child she described? And yet I remembered writing my high school examinations at the time, which would have made me around eleven. I felt as if water was leaking from my memory.
“How is Mr. Jin?” I said. “I hope he’s doing well.”
“Are you a journalist? Do you belong to some kind of news organization?”
“No, I’m a radiographer.”
She said drily, “You look through other people’s bodies. I never would have guessed.”
Her words, unexpected, made me laugh. My life felt entirely imaginary. “Naomi-zhu, I’ve brought these cakes for you from Yuan Le Bakery. Do you remember? The bakery inside Block Six.”
When she bade me to enter, still shaking her head in amusement, I stepped timidly over the threshold, as if into the future.
Over tea, she asked after my mother and grandmother. Small talk rippled out until, at last, our conversation turned a corner.
“Block Six is three provinces away. It’s a long journey to the People’s Reserve,” she said.
“Yes, but I took the hyper-speed. It was only an hour.”
“An hour?” She looked perplexed. She rubbed her eyes, as if to shed the information. “Still, you’ve come a great distance, Miss Wu. You should seize the moment and ask your questions. I doubt you’ll have a second chance.”
I took a breath. “When I was young, I had the feeling that you and Mr. Jin knew each other before.” I was trembling from nervousness. “That is, before he moved into Block Six.”
She assessed me unabashedly. “You had a feeling or you knew?”
“I wondered . . .”
Naomi rubbed her eyes again, suddenly tired. “I suffered a great trauma when I was a child, a psychological disturbance.” She looked away, not out of embarrassment, but as if she wanted to spare me an intimacy, a private pain. “One day,” she continued, “my mother told me she had a gift for me. I was eleven years old. She led me to a room adjoining the kitchen. I saw a strange little boy seated on a chair, waiting. He was around my age, and he had hair as black as a mynah’s wing. ‘This is Jin,’ my mother said. ‘This is your companion.’ He reached out his hand, like this, and held mine. He thought of me as human, and therefore like him. I thought of him as a bird, and therefore like me. My mother said, ‘Jin will never leave you.’ That was the first time I met him.”
“So Mr. Jin is . . . ”
She was waiting for me to finish the sentence.
“He’s not . . .”
“A human being? You can say what you intended to say. I’ve heard it all.”
“He wasn’t born,” I said. “He was made.”
Naomi smiled. “That’s very diplomatic of you.”
“But you and he fell in love,” I continued.
“My mother would say that I fell in love. She would say that Jin was not capable. My mother said that I attached myself to my own reflection.”
You understand, Miss Wu, my parents were at the vanguard of the age of engineering. They and their colleagues filled the People’s Reserve with creatures that had no desires or appetites. To young people now, a tiger owl or an astral, all the decorative birds, are part of everyday life. It feels as if they always existed. But they were created only a generation ago.
Outside, in the cities and townships, there were political purges. But inside the Reserve, my family and all the researchers lived a protected existence.
One day, when we were fifteen or sixteen years old, Jin asked me, “Do the things I feel in this body belong to me?”
I answered truthfully. I said, “It would be unjust if they belonged to anyone else.”
“What’s the difference between feeling and being alive?”
“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.”
“What’s the difference between being alive and being a person?”
He meant, in other words, the difference between him and me. “A person has illusions.”
Jin existed in our world but did not have our in-built illusions. His body belonged to the People’s Reserve and one day it would cease to function: That was the mortality he knew. We were bound to each other. I informed my parents that Jin and I were in love and wanted to spend our lives together.
My mother ridiculed us. “Jin is a temporary thing.”
Temporary, temporary. This was the word she kept using. I couldn’t understand. I touched my own hand, my arm.“What could be more temporary than this?”
Jin was temporary in a different way, she said, because one day he would fall into “redundancy.” She spoke of deleterious mutations, failure rates, and so on. We are each born or made with a body that is reliable for a specific length of time. After that, when an organism apprehends systems failure, it prefers to die. This is not the same as saying that the person prefers it, only that the organism does. She said that Jin was nothing more than a copy of reality, an isomorph but not a person, and that I might as well run away with one of the fake birds in the skies of the People’s Reserve. To desire a falsehood was a form of illness, a depravity. “You have no idea what love is,” my mother said. “It doesn’t exist in a creature who submits to you and doesn’t belong to himself. Only children love that way.”
Yet in the world around me, I saw people who searched their whole lives to find themselves reflected in another; I saw it in mothers gazing at their infants, and I saw it in families. As soon as we glimpsed ourselves in another person, a place, or even an object, we grew close and began to love them. Lovers and friends mirrored one another, teachers and students, even the government and its people. How could I be different?
My parents sent Jin away from the People’s Reserve. He was free to live his own life. The times were changing. Once, a creation like Jin had been something to fear, but later he became a model for what society could become. I, meanwhile, was twenty years old and adrift. Jin had been everything to me. I moved away too, determined to grow into my own person. One day, Jin arrived at Block Six. We were both older. My heart broke a thousand times when I saw him. The rest you know.
Outside Naomi’s window, the construction site gleamed under a dome of pinkish light. The pond of Jade Goose Park was almost invisible. I saw the man in the wheelchair coming along the sidewalk, turn towards our door, and I heard the door open. Mr. Jin.
He wheeled into the room and kissed Naomi.
Turning to me, he reached out and shook my hand. “Miss Wu.” His eyes fell on the book of poems resting on the table. He said, “I thought you would come sooner. I’m very glad to see you now.”
The years, I told him, had passed without my realizing it.
Jin asked after my family, my father.
I was surprised to find that, even after all these years, I could not say his name. What could I say about him, whom history had so entirely forgotten? After my father’s release, he used to wake just before midnight, gather his bedroll, and sit on a chair beside the door to wait for the guards, as he had been required to do during his time in prison. No one could persuade him that he was free, that the guards were gone and that, on this night at least, he would not face interrogation.
“Naomi,” Jin said. “Is it still where you left it?”
Naomi went to the piano and lifted the lid of the bench. She began to remove items, examining them one by one. I watched as if from another age. Halfway through, she turned to me, holding a thick book in her hands. “Your father was one of my first students when I moved into Block Six.” Her expression held both of apology and wonderment as she set a practice book on the table before me.
“There was no piano in your apartment, so your father left the book here. After his arrest, I meant to bring it to the incinerators. But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stand to even touch it. In the end, Jin and I decided to leave it. If anyone discovered the papers, we would lie and tell Public Security we had never noticed what the book contained.”
The pages could be folded out, accordion-style. Tucked inside were printouts, photographs—my parents, my grandmother, and even myself as a young child. The old paper reminded me of the feel of my father’s hand, light and alive. In my possession, for the first time, were his translations (“The Uses of Literature,” “The Problem of Truth,” “To Those Born After”) and the diary entries and essays he had posted to the Network, and had long been expunged from cyberspace.
I was taken aback by the carefulness of his words. Thoughts about literature and existence, and questions about the nature of the law, society, and goodness. Was this the extent of his crimes? Was this really all he had done?
Jin said, “We thought, one day, when the worst was over, we’d return everything to you. We couldn’t risk leaving it behind in Block Six. So I gave you our address and made you promise to come.”
For months after his suicide, I would fold my father’s old clothes, shake them out, fold them again, as if reassuring myself that his body was truly gone. At night, I told his ghost that people were created in the image of society and constructed by the times they lived in. How could he and I be any different? I shook out his clothes, and mine, and each time they were perfectly empty as if neither of us had been.
On a piece of paper tucked into his piano book, my father had written, “Wu Ming, please don’t doubt that I loved you.”
I needed to ask him how. How could I not doubt? How could I love? Was it the human part of me that loved, or had it always been mechanical to love, and human to doubt? My father had watched me observing Jin and Naomi, and he must have seen how much I needed to believe. He must have considered how every illusion serves a purpose.
Could Jin grow old and pass away? Did he forget? Would he become more like us, or we like him? I had wanted to be encircled by them and to know.
Outside Jin and Naomi’s home, the breeze, caught in the trees, was even and deceptively calm.
“There’s something I still don’t understand,” I said. “When Mr. Jin arrived to Block Six, why did you pretend not to know each other?”
They said nothing for a moment.
“We needed time,” Naomi said finally. “To our neighbors it was only a joke. That I, the unmarried piano teacher, would choose Jin, who was clearly ‘not right.’ They all knew exactly what he was. But you helped us. You were convinced that Jin and I were meant to be. That we were concealing a grand love affair—”
“—but I was right, I was right all along.”
“Our neighbors thought adult passions were beyond the understanding of a child. Anything you, Miss Wu, observed could only be a fiction, a child’s fantasy.”
“An illusion,” I said.
Naomi nodded. “If Jin and I danced together, if we gazed at each other a moment too long, if we met in the shadows, we could say that it was all for you because, back then, no one wanted a child’s fantasy to fall apart. Not like that. Not on account of us. Don’t you remember? Our lives were so unmoored back then . . . We pretended we were playing a game you had set in motion. Time gave us the opportunity to see if my mother was right, if I had mistaken something temporary for something permanent. I feared her words. I had to face them. We needed time.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt that my feet were balanced on a dome of glass.
The sky darkened and Jin remained in the shadows. We ate the cakes that I had brought. They moved towards each other with the glorious elegance I remembered. Darkness was falling and, in this light, Jin’s features grew softer. Something in his expression resembled a thousand other faces I had seen, or passed by, in my childhood.
I looked down at the pages in my hand. My father had written, “The only difference between Jin and us is that he knows the material from which he was created, and the purpose, the utility, for which he was made. This difference between us is vast.” And then, a few lines down, “Insignificantly vast.”
I returned home and the journey, by regular train, took a whole day.
Hours passed, and as we traveled passed settlements that seemed both ancient and imaginary, I read every word in the piano book. My father had been gone for decades, almost as long as he’d been alive, but now he spilled out of my hands, onto the empty seat beside me, and into the air, forcing me to absorb this truth: that the crimes of which he had been accused—treason, subversion, and inciting disorder—had been entirely fabricated. An allegation, a lie, had broken his reality. I wanted to push my hand through the window of the train; I wanted it to stop its continuity and refuse to be carried back.
When the train pulled into my station, it was evening again. Through the crowds, I walked unsteadily to Block Six, to the apartment where my mother and I still live. I passed the sign, now completely hidden by grass: “In case of emergency, break this wall to escape,” and I stood before it, remembering how my father had said that our language contains neither a past nor a future tense. The present, our side of the wall, is all we have to describe the days to come, and so we must use it. In the present, Jin decides to follow Naomi, my father is released from prison, and I arrive home once more, carrying this difficult love. I want to incinerate these words. I need to keep them. Free to doubt, my life might fold away from illusion, and then what might be? I touch the handle of the doorknob. How cool it feels, and strange, as my father, leaving, shuts it behind him, and I pull it open and enter.
Read a Q&A with the author.