Facts can be more fascinating than fiction. Ming was acutely aware of that, but sometimes he wondered if he could tell one from the other without flights of fancy.
On October 2, 2019, during his visit to his mother in Jingzhou, Ming went out of his way to host a gathering in Songzi, his native town which he left permanently after finishing high school. Throughout the party, all the attending “comrades-in-arms” remained high- spirited, some singing the old songs aloud, some playing mahjong attentively, others eating the local snacks with terrible mannerisms while chatting boisterously about their shared experiences in Mayuhe, a forest farm adjacent to the Yangtze River, where they all had “received the re-education from poor peasants” at the same youth station during the Cultural Revolution.
For Ming, this was not only the first time to see these old comrades after 42 years of separation without knowing their whereabouts, but more importantly, the only opportunity to pay off his last “emotional debt,” something he thought he was still owing to Hua, who had immigrated to Australia years before he retired from his main job as an independent tutor, translator and publisher in Vancouver.
When the party finally ended in the middle of the night, he managed to strike up a private conversation with her, though only for a couple minutes. “Hua, you know why I have come all the way from Canada to attend this gathering?” he asked.
“Like all of us, you want to see old friends while we still can move around, don’t you?” “No! I have few friends in my entire life, nor do I really want to see anyone except you!” “Why me?”
“There is one thing I have been wanting to say to you in person for almost half a century. Now that we are all lining up for our final exits from this world, I….”
“What is it you must say to me?”
“I loved you, while we were laboring together in Mayuhe, and…”
“Really? Some comrades did mention this to me long ago, but I never believed them, because you yourself had said nothing like that.”
“That’s why I owe you a confession, long overdue….Still remember the tuner you gave to me in the summer of 1975?”
“What tuner?” Hua looked bewildered as they were joined helter-skelter by other comrades, who, all in their mid-sixties, well knew this to be the last occasion to goodbye one another face to face. Before getting into a comrade’s car back to Jingzhou, Ming rushed to ask for Hua’s weixin number and said meaningfully to her, “Let’s stay in touch thru weixin, shall we?”
But once back to his home in Vancouver, he found it hard to communicate with Hua. For one thing, knowing she spent almost every waking minute together with her husband after retirement, Ming saw it as utterly imprudent to video- or even audio-chat with her. A polite seasonal greeting was certainly customary, but frequent conversations about their old days would be alarming, let alone any in-depth discussion about their long lost relationship. Textual messaging seemed to be a viable option, yet it too was overly restrictive and troublesome. With his fingers getting clumsier and eyes blurrier nowadays, he simply hated typing Chinese characters on a small screen. This being so, all he could do was to constantly forward to her whatever posts or moments he found interesting or relevant. In return, Hua would make casual and succinct comments on what she had actually viewed. Undoubtedly, this was not the way he hoped to remain in contact with her.
Shortly after the Chinese New Year’s day, Hua complained that she was stuck at her parents’ residence in Songzi as lockdowns became the order of the day in response to the new coronavirus outbreak in their native province of Hubei. To kill time and fulfill one of her fondest teenage dreams, she mentioned she was taking online lessons in color-lead painting. Hearing this, Ming realized there might be much more he could share with her than he had thought, so he became more enthusiastic about sending her beautiful photos of landscapes and visual artworks as well as inspiring stories about Chinese or western artists.
But what he most wanted to do was to get answers to two questions that had been bugging him recently: one was how come Hua remembered nothing about the tuner, something he had been hiding in the depth of his heart as the first token of love he got in his whole lifetime; the second was why he and Hua failed to become husband and wife despite his strong belief that they had been karmaed for each other in this world. Only by finding the truth would he emotionally “die with his eyes closed,” as the Chinese idiom goes.
On a weekend evening in early summer, well before he could find a chance to bring up the topic with Hua, his wife happened to notice the brief but flirting textual messages he had sent to Hua. “Something going on, eh? You two seem to contact each other too often!” she said in a suspicious and sarcastic tone.
“Nothing at all, just joking as we used to in Mayuhe,” he explained. Nonetheless, alerted by this incident, he began to resort to underground communication to avoid jeopardizing his marriage. After all, he could not afford to get himself into another emotional debt. Aged 64, he had gone through all the storms of life, now he wanted to make sure to see nothing but rainbows for the rest of his life, even when there was no sunlight.
But he was curious enough to search for the truth about his fated connections with Hua. Time after time, he would indulge himself in recollecting the details about how they worked together in Mayuhe between 1974 and 1977. As the leader of the youth group, he was neither tall nor really handsome, but he showed himself to be a highly ambitious youngster with a strong will power. Not surprisingly, he had several secret admirers who were actually very pretty, but he only had eyes for Hua; to him, she not only was the sexiest and most beautiful of all, but also had a good sense of humor in addition to a cheerful personality.
In fact, he had fallen in love with her at first sight when he happened to spot her during a meeting at high school one year before. Since they came to receive ‘re-education’ in the country like millions of Mao Zedong’s red guards, he had developed a crush on her. Part of the reason why he tried so hard to outperform others in Mayuhe was to prove himself worthy of her attention. Each time they chanced to be shoulder- carrying trees together, he would love to tease or make fun of her, while she appeared to enjoy the clever way he joked with her. In the spring of 1975 when all the boys at the youth station started to learn to play the erhu or the flute, she gave him a tuner supposedly to help him set the tune, but she did so in such a private manner that he readily took it as a special gift, nothing less than a solid token of love, though never explicitly proclaimed as such on her part.
However, though he loved Hua tremendously and believed that she loved him as well, he hid this feeling even from himself, knowing his top priority was to win the opportunity to go to university, however slim it might be.
Once he achieved his first career objective, he would make the proposal, which he believed she would readily accept. Then, with the help of his family connections, they could go to the same city and get married in due course. But given the sociopolitical realities of the day, his plan for their joint future would have been thwarted if the political authorities had discovered his romantic relationship with her.
Alas, it was to his surprise as much as to his disappointment and humiliation that Hua asked him to return the tuner towards the end of the year. Thinking she might have a new sweetheart, he decided to focus on his career development. Though he had a hunch that Hua had given the tuner to his major rival named Pan, a much taller if not smarter or more handsome comrade, Ming said nothing about his suspicion, nor did he disclose his love for her to anyone; instead, he had kept his jealousy, pain, self-pity and shame to himself even until now.
After graduating from Shanghai Jiaotong University, he did have several intimate relationships, but he eventually married his wife because only she could ‘beat’ Hua in some sense or was as attractive to him as Hua. It was not until he began to thoroughly examine his life after his semi-retirement that he realized Hua as his lifetime model of love, that is, someone who embodied all female attractiveness to him. When he met her at the October party, he could not help falling in love with her again. To his amazement, he found her even more attractive than before. Already with two grandchildren, she looked as if still around forty, even sexier, more beautiful and definitely more graceful than when he saw her last time in Mayuhe. A true lady rather than a Chinese dama, a stunner she really was, he said to himself.
But how come Hua had no memory of the tuner? Given the way this little gadget of hers had set for him the tune of love, if not of life, this was something simply unthinkable. Perhaps she remembered it too well to admit it; she felt the need to safeguard her happy married life; she had a strong sense of female dignity; or she hated to be “debunked” in an emotional sense. There could be many underlying reasons for her persistent denial, he thought. The more Ming pondered over this tuner episode, the more he craved for the truth, and the more he started to miss her, especially as the Pandemic made it increasingly difficult for them to reunite in person anywhere or anytime soon. To alleviate his ever intensifying yearning for her, he conducted longer and more frequent text-talks via weixin until one day in August, she wrote, “If we were really karmaed for each other, I would wait for you in Mayuhe in our next life.”
While this remark might well be disregarded as a lip serviceby anyone else, he took it so seriously that he began to address her as his “dear future wife.” Every so often he would even request her to send him her photos taken in different years, because he wanted to “make up for the loss of [their] otherwise married life in this world” and to “become familiar enough to readily recognize her in their afterlives”; and with words and images, he invited her to co-build what they called ‘weixin home,’ a virtual residence where they could play with the idea of living together as a loving couple. He was clear that all such effort was just an illusion on his part, but she apparently did enjoy this cyber relationship to some extent.
On the morning of December 27, he was doing stretching exercise when he hit upon the idea of resuming to write his book Love Letters from Vancouver, which he had initially intended to be his first (autobiographical) novel in Chinese, but later thrown into his garage after getting a sharp criticism from his first reader, one of his closest comrades-in- arms in Mayuhe who had become a well-read software engineer in Silicon Valley.
On the same evening, Ming told Hua that the book, which was based on his quite dramatic life experiences up until 2000, was devoted to his first date; but now, he was all geared up to recount his life experiences from the millennium to the present. Since then, he would write three to four thousand Chinese characters every day and, exactly one month later, he finished this extremely challenging job. During the whole writing process, he was as excited as he was eager to share with Hua all his ups and downs on every front, though he had no idea about what impact it might have on her. To him, she was both his closest reader and his best or most informed critic.
On Valentine’s Day 2021, he wrote a love poem in Chinese and sent it to her as a gift, in which he articulated his long-cherished feeling for her since their separation, in which he told her he had loved her profoundly while in Mayuhe, and still did so now, though he loved his wife nonetheless. After typing the three Chinese characters and hitting the send key, he turned off the light, but felt too nervous to sleep because he had broken the language ban she had imposed on him, and concurrently too guilty because he had done something unfaithful to his wife. Perhaps, without bodily contact, such “spiritual derailment” or platonic love might be excusable, he told himself. No matter what, love was running wildly in his inner space as in the virtual world.
At the end of March, after much waiting and scheduling, he finally got his first chance to call her. It was an almost 5-hour long chat over the phone. During this passionate and informative conversation, he did not mention his first e. d. experience with his wife partly because of Hua just two nights before, but he and Hua talked a great deal about each other’s life experience, family situation and health condition. At one point, Hua told him frankly that after receiving his special Valentine gift, she spent almost two weeks struggling fiercely with her own sense of being a good traditional woman before deciding to resume communication with him. “I was waiting nervously for your response all that time,” Ming said. “If you had stopped responding to my love message at all, I would have never contacted you again, but fortunately you forwarded a meme to me later, though totally irrelevant to my confession.”
“Even now I am still hesitating if I should keep in touch with you,” Hua said. “I fear I might have fallen into some sort of trap.”
“Don’t worry! Since I am in the trap already, I would push you up to safety even at the cost of my own life,” he assured her.
“But don’t say those three words again!”
“What if your ban makes me suffocate to death?”
“Don’t worry; I could readily call an ambulance for you,” Hua said, jokingly.
“There would be no time for that. You should perform a CPR on the spot,” Ming continued by changing the topic into a pun.
“Only if you were really dying!” Hua got his pun and extended it right away.
“The moment your lips touch mine, I would resurrect!”
As in Mayuhe, she enjoyed such allusive and light-hearted conversations with him, whereas he found it utterly unthinkable that Hua should have lost all her memories about the tuner. Her innocent response made him wonder if the whole matter was actually one of his own illusions or imagined events as she suggested. But on second thought, he was just as sure that Hua must have some unknown reasons to continue hiding the truth. With no hard or handy evidence to authenticate his story, he had to put aside her nonchalance about the whole matter, though it sometimes caused him to feel deplorably perplexed, hurt and even ashamed of the way he might have overestimated her feelings for him in the first place.
To remain faithful to his wife, he even thought of giving up his pursuit of the truth or terminating his contact with Hua. Being a respected grandpa now, he certainly would not want to become a laughingstock for anyone as a victim of “first love complex” that was typical of the young; nor had he had the slightest intention to develop an extramarital relationship with the same person after such a long lapse of time. But somehow he just could not help missing her more and more.
To soothe his lovesickness, he turned to poetry and, in a matter of mere several months, he wrote almost fifty love poems, all inspired by and thus devoted to Hua. For him, this was certainly some achievement: he had written and published all kinds of poetry in English (which he had begun to learn at age 19 as a college student in Shanghai), from what he called “mini-epic” to “bilinguacultural poems,” from “dark fantasy” to “dinggedicht,” in disparate forms and styles, yet he had never been able to compose a single love piece. The reason was he had never experienced any truly inspiring love, he believed. But now though he was still not really sure about Hua’s affection for him, he had drawn so many strong inspirations from her that he had not only completed writing (and self-published) his Chinese memoire Love Letters from Vancouver, but had more than a dozen love poems appearing or forthcoming in literary journals across the English speaking world.
On 26 April 2021, just one day before receiving his first shot of Pfizer against covid-19, he hastily self-published his collection of love poems under the title of Limerence, just in case he, with his heart condition worsening, could not survive the probable severe side effects of the vaccination. Of course, he never mentioned this book to Hua, because he planned to give it to her later in person as a happy surprise, something like her tuner, or as his intended token of love.
A few months later, Hua was diagnosed as having cancerous cells in her lungs during her annual physical checkup. While she suffered greatly, more psychologically than physically, he gave her his best support by teaching her how to build a stronger inner self to overcome her fear and defeat all misfortunes. Right before she was pushed into the operation room on the morning of August 12, he advised her to print the Chinese character for ‘love’ on her left hand, and his name on her right, promising that his love would be her most powerful guardian angel. And much as he had expected, she had a very successful operation.
By the time she was fully recovered, he had written several dozen more love pieces, many of which were soon to be published. When circumstances finally allowed them to video-chat with each other on weixin, they began to spend nearly two hours together online every day though living on the opposite sides of the world. Among all the topics they touched upon, they enjoyed talking about love, sex and art the most, though they both felt quite guilty and embarrassed at first.
From their daily communications, he learned almost everything about the development of their relationship. For example, Hua told him, to his great joy and comfort, that she had been keen on reading every page of his Love Letters earlier in the year. Also, knowing what he had gone through in the past few decades, she had felt not merely happy for his achievements on every front, from family to finance, from work to poetry, but also sympathetic with his sufferings, including his health problems and psychological setbacks, especially the way he functioned like a money-making machine with no lubricant of love or care. In particular, she developed a strong emotional attachment to him though with an equally strong sense of guilt while in the hospital. She admitted longing to say “I love you, too” to him on receiving his Valentine message, but considering their relationship to be so “abnormal and immoral” (and “imbalanced” as he had often added), she had often thought of putting out their love sparkle before it became a sweeping fire.
“What eventually made you decide to continue our relationship?” he asked.
“I am not sure, but I felt I must follow my heart, mustn’t I?” Hua responded. “Of course you must! So karmaed as we are for each other, we should follow our hearts together, be it a bliss or curse on us.”
“Sure, why not! After the operation, I may not have so many more years to live anyway.” “An enlightened girl! So, you are really sure now? Isn’t it a happy thing to be your whole self rather than only part of it? -- I mean to live with our free will…”
“Sure thing! For the past sixty years, I have been living mainly for others, now it is time to live for myself.”
“That’s why you decided to lift your speech ban on me and allow me to say ‘I love you’ after receiving my Valentine message?”
“Yes, I do treasure your lifelong feeling for me, and I do want to let you know I love you too, only it’s too embarrassing even to talk about love as old grandparents.”
“No love is embarrassing, just as no love is wrong, ‘abnormal’ or ‘immoral,’ except perhaps it could be ‘imbalanced.’ Don’t you think we grandparents are as much entitled to love as the young?”
“Whatever you say, we are really too old to love like young people.”
“But our love is just as passionate. Physically we are no longer strong or energetic. Old as I am, I’ve become softened on both ways, so much so that I cannot satisfy you, an extraordinary woman with the physique of a forty-year old, but without enough sexual power, even without penetration at all, we can still make love in countless alternative ways. Just as we can talk dirty together on weixin, we can also make babies together in our bed of art and poetry. At least, our love can help each other maintain good health besides good looks.”
“Anyway, we must keep our relationship underground, however beautiful or helpful to ourselves, or people would find us ridiculous and disgusting.”
“Still care about how others might look at us?”
To protect each other’s spouse from getting hurt, Ming and Hua decided to tell all the white lies about their mutual love, and reached two basic agreements. 1) they would face all possible challenges to their relationship together until their last breaths; and 2) they would have part of their ashes mixed and buried together in Mayuhe after death.
Upon signing their love agreement at the outset of 2022, Ming was further inspired to write a long and hybrid book in English, into whose fabric he tried to weave all his ‘bests,’ including his most insightful findings about life as well as his worthiest life experiences. By adopting a highly innovative narrative framework and exploring his true relationship with Hua in terms of spiritual growth, he hoped to raise, and offer his answer to, this question: how can Adam and Eve live together happily as they grow really old? In a larger sense, how can the aged regain their lost pureness, beauty and nearness to the Supreme? Meanwhile, Hua embarked on a series of color-lead paintings, most of which he would use as illustrations for his book. In so doing, both of them felt as if being reborn into love and living in a paradise regained.
In the meantime, he had never really stopped trying to dig the truth about the tuner, the very starting point of their relationship. But for all their efforts, she failed to retrieve her memory, if any at all. She did admit liking him a lot while still in Mayuhe, but she did not love him as he believed she had done; it was only after she received his valentine gift that she started to feel seriously for him.
“But how do you account for the tuner you gave to me back then?” he asked once again, thinking that she might be, unconsciously or unknowingly, playing the classic game of love with him. Indeed, love could be an emotional battle between a man and a woman: if one had admitted loving the other more than the other way around, one would lose at least part of one’s own attraction, if not the whole battle. Unsure about the depth of Hua’s feeling for him, he kept hoping she would one day break free of her reserve, the chain of moral restraints, or whatever else had been blocking her memory about the tuner.
“Sorry, Mingming,” Hua explained, “if the tuner thing were not an invention of yours, if I had given it to you as you remembered, and requested it back later to give it to Pan Lihao as you had suspected, I must have done all this just to help you guys learn to play the erhu.”
“You mean you gave it to me not as a token of love, but nothing more or less than a learning device?”
“Sure thing! If I had intended it to be a love token, how could I have asked you to return it to me and give it to Pan instead? What a childish and ridiculous thing to do…. that would be completely against my character!”
“In that case, our relationship was based on a misunderstanding, an emotional error to begin with?”
“You bet, but a very beautiful one, isn’t it?”
“Sure it is! Except that it makes me feel painfully embarrassed about how I have been flattering myself in our relationship all these years!”
“But my affection for you now is true!”
“Well, I think I must accept your explanation. It seems to be the only logical answer to my questions about the whole matter.” A few days after ‘resolving’ the tuner myth and finishing the first draft of his hybrid novel “Back to Eden,” Ming received a video call from his mother across the Pacific, who showed him a small package meant for him.
“Just open it, Mom, and see who has sent me what is inside!”
It turned out to be none other than the tuner! Dark red, one inch long, in the shape of a tube, about the thickness of a little finger, with a metal reed at one end getting somewhat rusty.
More intriguing was the short handwritten note that came along with it from Pan: “Long long time no see, old pal! The other day, I was browsing randomly online when I happened to find your Love Letters. From your memoir, I learned Hua had actually given the tuner to you first. If I had known this fact in Mayuhe, I would never have kept it as a special souvenir! Now that you two seem to have developed a real (extramarital?) relationship despite old age, I send my very best wishes as well as this little thing (I have no way to contact her). Keep it well, Pal, hope the tuner would not tune out your marriage as in my case!”
Author’s Note: This story is inspired by and thus devoted to Helena Qi Hong ( 祁红)