The Second Waltz
“Jin looked at Naomi . . . sibling love mixing with fatal devotion.”
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.
The Collected Poems of Wang Wei
Miss Naomi and Mr. Jin, 54B Nanyang Valley Road, People’s Reserve.
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.
Could Jin grow old and pass away? Did he forget? Would he become more like us, or we like him?
Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes, and three novels, including Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about music, art and revolution in China. Her novels and stories have been translated into twenty-five languages, and her essays have appeared in Granta, The Guardian, the Financial Times, Five Dials, Brick, Al Jazeera and elsewhere. She lives in Montreal and can also be found in the metropolis of Twitter @madeleinethien.