I was deeply impressed by the way this author chose to use time in this story. Generally I would be wary of taking the reader so far out of linear time in a piece of short fiction, but here, it works perfectly. Every moment between the husband and wife sets us up for what’s going to happen at the end of the work. I found myself rolling along with the movement, reading for the moments of intimacy and frustration rather than what would happen at the climax of the work. I very much enjoyed the way this writer was able to make me understand the different threads that connected these characters. By the time I reached the end of this story, I felt as though I had a greater knowledge of the ways that people unconditionally support each other. — Kristen Arnett, Guest Judge
Wenxiang stared at the back of the bus seat. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
“I feel like I’ve let you down,” Leanne said.
“Stop it. We both know it’s not your fault.” Wenxiang leaned his head against the window, his breath fogging up the glass, creating a mist which bloomed across the swathes of jaded country outside.
“What should we tell your mother?” Leanne said. Without waiting for him to reply, she added: “Maybe we can tell her we decided against it because we can’t afford it. You know, with the costs of milk powder and diapers these days? God forbid they’re smart enough to go to Tsinghua University. Do you know how much tuition costs?”
Within earshot of the two passengers seated in front of him, a pair of young, fashionably dressed women, probably from Shenzhen or some other tier-one city, Wenxiang only allowed himself to utter: “I don’t want to break her heart.”
“That’s why I hope you’ll use the right words,” Leanne said.
“There’s no consolation for a mother’s jusang.” His choice of word made her tighten her lips. It had somewhat surprised him too, how he had used a word that not only meant sadness or disappointment but also something darker and heavier, an overcast sky swelling with rain.
“Of course”—Leanne patted his thigh—“But maybe we don’t have to frame it as something so negative, you know?”
“You were always the more socially savvy one. That’s why I can always rely on you in such situations.”
“Nice try.” Leanne shook her head. “But I can’t fight this battle for you.” She stretched across his lap towards the side window, peering at the passing street signs. “We’re arriving soon. What’s the excuse going to be?”
He leaned towards her but stopped himself from speaking. In front of him, one of the city women was fast asleep, her head bobbing with each breath she took. But the other looked suspiciously awake, just scrolling endlessly on her smartphone at nothing in particular, almost as if listening for something. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Let’s talk later.”
“What are you afraid of?”
There were some things that were only meant for private ears, but what did Leanne know about that? She lived her life as an open book, unafraid of strangers on the bus who might pass judgement. Wenxiang replied only when the bus came to stop and they stood up to alight. “We shouldn’t have gone for the test.”
Wenxiang had said it in a whisper, like it was a dirty word: I’d like to book a fertility test. The nurse on the other end of the phone made him repeat it “more loudly this time, please.” He stepped away from his workstation, away from the disembodied mess of mobile phone parts and tools scattered across the small wooden surface. He repeated himself, a little louder, avoiding the gaze of the other workers adjacent to him. She still could not hear him above the beeps and hums that filled the cramped workshop. Finally, he stepped out into the corridor and said the words again, nearly shouting them, until she acknowledged him.
* * *
The doctor kept his eyes on Wenxiang. “It’s nice that you’re doing this together with your…”
“Wife,” Leanne said.
The doctor waved them to the chairs in front of his desk. “Wife. Yes. Had to clarify. Some couples do it pre-marriage. Which is smart in its own way. Got to make sure everything’s healthy before you take that next step, right?”
Wenxiang smiled out of politeness.
“And what do you do, sir?”
“I repair electronics. Mostly mobile phones.”
“What materials do you work with?”
“No hazardous fumes, doctor. I don’t repair batteries. No large voltage live wiring either.”
“You’ve done your research.”
Wenxiang nodded, but the doctor did not look up from his clipboard. “I tried to come prepared.”
The doctor pointed his pen at Leanne, who responded immediately. “And I work at a cosmetics store. No poisonous ingredients.” She couldn’t hide her smirk.
The room was cold but Wenxiang found himself sweating. Leanne did not seem to suffer from the same afflictions. If she had been nervous at all, her body did not betray it, not even when she was strapped into stirrups for her cervical swab.
“And for you,” the doctor said to Wenxiang, “you can use the private bathroom at the end of the corridor.” The doctor handed him a small plastic container and a glossy magazine with a Japanese woman on the cover.
* * *
When the doctor delivered the bad news two weeks later, Wenxiang could only stare at his palm, picking at his callouses. He only looked up when Leanne said: “What does this all mean? Does it mean we can’t ever have children?”
“Not exactly we.” The doctor uncrossed his legs and leaned towards Wenxiang. “I’m sorry, Mr. Zhang.”
“Is it because of his job? I’ve told him many times that the heat from soldering circuit boards and all the vibrations from the machines are going to harm—”
“It’s not because of his work environment,” the doctor said. “For better or worse.”
Wenxiang did not say anything, only searched the room for everything except Leanne or the doctor.
Leanne held the inside of Wenxiang’s elbows. “It’s going to be okay.”
His mother Huichen first brought it up a year into their marriage, when they visited over the Lunar New Year. It seemed innocent enough at first, just a flask of homemade herbal soup placed in her son’s hands for him to take home. Then she said: “It’ll be good for Leanne. It helps generate heat in the womb.”
“It’s a cooling soup,” Wenxiang later said to Leanne as she sniffed it. “To fight the summer heat.”
“Mm.” She sniffed it again.
“It’s supposed to be healthy. Like the bone broths American celebrities drink.”
“Whatever.” She drank it in a single gulp.
Huichen brought it up again the next time she saw them the following Lunar New Year. A slice of fish between her chopsticks, coated in chili oil, gently released into Leanne’s bowl of rice. “This silver carp is only available during the cold months.” She watched her put it in her mouth before adding: “It’s the same fish you served during your wedding, remember? How time flies. Maybe next year, we’ll have to add a baby seat at the table.”
Leanne could only respond with polite laughter. Under the table, she drummed her fingertips on Wenxiang’s thigh. Tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap. A distress signal on a radio frequency no one was tuned in to.
When Leanne fished the pamphlet out of the trash and threw it at Wenxiang, he did not flinch, having anticipated it from how she had stomped over from the kitchen.
“When did the doctor give this to you?”
“It was the nurse, not the doctor.” Wenxiang smoothened the winkled pamphlet. On the cover, was a photo of a white woman cradling a newborn baby in her arms. At the top were large bold words: Preserve Your Fertility. Then, underneath it, small and italicised: What to expect with our IVF plan. He crushed the pamphlet back into a ball. “She gave it to me when I went to the counter for payment.”
“So what was it doing in the trash?”
“I stuffed it in my pocket when she gave it to me, and when I got home—”
“I’m not asking you how it appeared in the trash.” Leanne exhaled. “I’m asking you why.”
“I just didn’t think it was an option.”
“It literally says fertility options.” She pointed to the pamphlet, to the stock photo of the newborn baby, to the bullet points outlining different treatment plans.
“I’m not going to play this game of semantics with you.” Wenxiang’s voice itself gave up. “You’re obviously trying to pick a fight.” He got up and walked past Leanne, making sure not to make any eye contact as he entered the bedroom and shut the door.
He had barely sat down on the side of the bed when he heard Leanne’s voice through the door. “We don’t have to do it if you’re not comfortable.” Her voiced had lowered in pitch, which was what she always did whenever she wanted to signal just how sorry she was.
“Is it because of money?” she continued. “There are cheaper alternatives to IVF, you know? The clinic just pushes it because it’s the most profitable.”
“I’m not having this conversation with you.”
“I know it makes you uncomfortable. Or embarrassed. Or… ashamed? I can’t ever know if you don’t talk. So come out. Talk. Don’t be a stubborn Chinese man.” She knocked lightly at first. After hearing no response, she knock-knock-knocked again, louder still. Nothing.
Wenxiang lit a cigarette as soon as they stepped off the bus. “I can sense an argument coming, but before we get into it—” he raised a finger to pause the conversation as his lips puckered around the cigarette.
“I’m not going to lie to your mom.” Leanne checked her hair in the reflection of her smartphone, then stashed it into her tote bag. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but my womb is very healthy. Sorry to disappoint.”
He exhaled a cloud of smoke. “You know why it’s difficult for me to tell her the truth, right?”
“Of course.” She swatted at the smoke. “You’re the golden child of your family. The firstborn son of the firstborn son. You have generations of Chinese expectations on your shoulders.” She scoffed. “Expectations which, by the way, you’ve created in your own head. We’re in the roaring twenties now. People have choices.”
“It’s just—my mother thinks the world of me, you know?”
“Until you can’t give her a grandchild.” She shot her hand to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that. It’s not funny at all. What I meant was—”
“It’s okay.” Wenxiang flicked ash off his cigarette. Truth be told, he was glad she had a slip of tongue, if only to make her more accessible. Over the past two weeks, she had been in a combative mood, which made it almost impossible to have a conversation that didn’t disintegrate into an argument. “What shall we tell her?”
“We both know what you want me to say.”
“My mother has already made her assumptions, and I think it’s the path of least resistance for us to just go along with it.”
“Except it makes me the problem.” Just like that, whatever respite Wenxiang had from her combative mood evaporated. “You talk about your mom’s jusang,” she continued. “What about me? Am I immune to heartbreak?”
“Of course your feelings are important.”
“Yea, that sounded very convincing.” Leanne rolled her eyes and let out an exaggerated sigh.
Wenxiang did not remember why he was in Causeway Bay—it was not important to their story—but he had walked past Sasa, and saw the young woman standing outside on the pavement, handing out little sticks of perfume-scented paper, trying to get people to enter the store. “It’ll be a great gift for your girlfriend,” she said as he passed.
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Yet.” She handed him a paper stick, which smelled like freshly laundered clothes.
He went back to the store every day over the next couple of weeks, until the young woman stopped him one evening and said: “You don’t seem to know what you want.”
Standing in the feminine hygiene aisle, he blurted, before his brain could process anything: “I’m looking for something to help with my… complexion.” He tongued the inside of his cheek, then glanced at the name tag on her uniform. “What products do you use, Leanne?”
“Firstly— ” She cocked her head to the rows of sanitary pads and tampons flanking them. “I don’t think the stuff on this aisle is going to help you. Secondly, are you complimenting my skin?” A smile crept into the corners of her lips.
“I guess it’s fairly obvious what I’m trying to do, since you’ve seen me here a few times now.”
She led him to the adjacent aisle. “And yet, you haven’t bought anything.” She picked out a tub of night cream from the lower shelf. “This is what I use. To maintain this.” She drew an imaginary circle around her face with her finger.
It would be on their eleventh date, within the confines of familiarity and comfort, that Leanne would admit she could never afford to buy any of the products she recommended. That she built her entire skincare routine off skimming tester tubs in the backroom between shifts. She admitted this when Wenxiang presented her with the tub of night cream he had scrimped all month to afford.
“How did you know it was my birthday today?” She pressed the tub of night cream to her chest before stashing it away.
“I’ve done my research.” He fished a slice of beef tongue from the hotpot and placed it into her bowl.
“You must’ve asked someone at Sasa.”
“I’m not snitching.” He spooned a generous serving of tofu into her now overflowing bowl. The hotpot restaurant prided themselves on their authentic homemade tofu. It was so popular that Wenxiang had to make the booking nearly a month in advance.
“I’ve trained you well.”
“I like to think of it less as training and more as you guiding me towards becoming a better, more considerate person.”
She knocked his hand away before he could add yet another spoonful of food into her bowl. “Are you trying to fatten me up? I have enough here to feed a small family.”
“Sorry, still learning how this being-a-good-boyfriend thing works.” Wenxiang clicked his chopsticks at her. “Forgive me for trying to make you happy.”
She prodded her tofu with her spoon and watched it jiggle, then heaped it into her mouth.
Leanne stopped them in the middle of the dirt road. “I’m an idiot.”
Wenxiang dropped his cigarette butt and ground it into the dirt with the ball of his foot. “What now?”
“You thought it was me who was infertile, didn’t you? When we went for that test?”
“Where is this coming from?”
Leanne snorted. “You wished it was me who was infertile. That would’ve let you off the hook. Problem solved.”
“Look, this whole infertility thing has been difficult for me too, and—”
“Is it so much to ask?”
She sighed. “Why can’t you just own the problem and tell your mother the truth?”
“You don’t understand, Leanne.”
“No. You don’t understand.” Her eyes were glassy now, but the Leanne he knew would never let herself look weak in front of anyone. She blinked hard several times before continuing: “If we go through with this, you’ll get your mother off your back, sure. And then what? How are we going to spend the rest of our lives together?”
“We only see my mother a couple of times a year anyway. She won’t bring it up, I promise. If it helps, we can reduce it to just one visit over the new year and—”
“I’m not talking about life with your mother.” She could not stop her tears now. “I’m talking about me staying married to a man who doesn’t have the guts to admit who he is. A man who is so willing to let his wife take the brunt of his shitty decisions. How can I live with someone like that?”
On their wedding night, in the four-star hotel suite they had booked as their one luxurious gift to themselves after a modest reception, Leanne pushed Wenxiang onto the bed before he could even take his suit jacket off. She tossed her heels over her shoulders and straddled him. Halfway through wiggling out of her wedding dress, she stopped and patted his chest. “Wait.” She rolled over next to him and gestured at him to get up. “You’re the one who’s supposed to take the lead, aren’t you? I’m supposed to be the meek virgin bride.” She fluttered her eyelids and pouted in the most comical way she knew how.
“That ship sailed a long time ago.” He winked and took his suit jacket off.
“Excuse me?” Leanne cleared her throat. “Are you saying I’m less desirable because I’m not a virgin?” She crossed her arms, paused for a moment, then pulled the strapless bodice of her dress down and puffed her bare chest, which made them both burst into laughter. She worked her way down his shirt buttons, undoing them one at a time until he stopped her by the wrist. “What’s wrong?” she said.
“Nothing, just—” he looked down at his feet.
“What? The virgin thing? That was clearly a joke.” Leanne sat up. “You’re not seriously affected by that, are you?”
“No, of course not.” Wenxiang waved her away. “It just reminded me, I guess, that we’re not as… traditional? But that’s okay. That’s okay.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re a tough one to figure out, you know? Every time I think we’ve come so far, you say something that takes me back.”
“How would you ever live without me?”
“Very, very poorly. I’d still be a country bumpkin.”
Leanne exhaled and laid back down. “I’m glad you know that.”
It happened all at once: the excited yelling from beyond the trees; the hunched figure emerging round the bend; his mother’s smiling eyes.
“I thought I heard voices,” Huichen said. “You must be so tired from the bus ride.” She squeezed Wenxiang’s shoulder.
“It was only a couple of hours, Ma. And it was a comfortable journey,” Wenxiang lied, his aching back still remembering the stiff, narrow seats.
“Still. You must be tired.” Huichen led them past the opened fence and through the unlocked front door.
Wenxiang and Leanne removed their shoes and put on the slippers that were already laid out by the courtyard, next to the shoes of Mr. and Mrs. Deng, the couple who rented the second bedroom upstairs.
Leanne was the one who broke the silence at the dining table. “We got you some laupobing from a popular bakery founded by a pair of home-baking influencers. We had to pre-order them because they’re usually sold out. You know how crazy Hong Kong millennials get with these things.”
“I’ll come back with some plates.” Huichen smiled and retreated towards the kitchen. “If it’s okay, I’ll pack some for Mrs. Deng too, for when she gets back from the factory—she loves laupobing.”
“Of course,” Leanne said. She waited for Huichen to walk out of earshot before turning to Wenxiang and whispering: She’s going to ask us. I can feel it.
Wenxiang didn’t respond. He didn’t even turn. He could only stare into the far end of the dining room, into the tianjing, the circular skywell around which the entire house was built. It was a relic of an older time, his mother had once told him, designed way before the invention of air conditioning or even electricity. The tianjing didn’t only improve ventilation and diffused more natural sunlight—it also channelled positive energy, qi, into each home. And if you shared your home with other families, as did most who lived in the village, you would need all the harmonious qi you could muster.
The morning Wenxiang left for Hong Kong, his mother was in the tianjing tending to the longan tree which grew out of the circular plot of earth bored in the concrete floor. She had started her work at first light, carefully trimming wilting leaves and wetting the soil. Wenxiang brought a cup of hot tea over to her.
“Don’t forget me when you’re rich and successful in Hong Kong.” Huichen blew on the tea before sipping it, both hands wrapped around the cup to warm them in the chilly air.
“I’ll be working at a mobile phone repair centre, ma. After rent, I will barely earn more than what you make at the factory. It’s not like I’m a businessman with some exciting venture.”
“When will I see you again?”
“I promise to come back every new year.”
His journey to Hong Kong would take three hours, beginning with a two-hour bus ride to the Guangzhou South Railway Station, which would lead him across the border to his new beginning. After his mother walked him out the door, he made his way down the dirt road towards the bus stand. He kept his back turned. There was no need for prolonged and difficult goodbyes, he thought. His mother was prone to melodrama, and the quicker he got out of sight, the better. Yet he could not resist turning around just before he disappeared around the bend. But the courtyard of his house was empty. His mother was gone. Wenxiang felt at once relieved that she was able to let him go, and disappointed for the same reason.
Huichen emerged from the kitchen, plates rattling in her bony hands. As she passed the tianjing, hobbling from her bad hip, her silver hair caught the sunlight and shone a brilliant white. It was only then, haloed by the light of the tianjing, did Wenxiang notice the sunspots that now speckled her cheeks.
“So—” Huichen rapped her knuckles on the table to thank Leanne as she refilled her teacup. “What did the doctor say?”
“How did you know we went to the doctor’s?” Wenxiang said. Huichen would’ve found out at some point, but Wenxiang thought he would at least have been present while it happened.
“I told her that we were going for a checkup. Just routine.” Leanne drummed her fingers on Wenxiang’s forearm. Tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap.
Wenxiang placed his palm on Leanne’s fingers to steady them. “I didn’t know you two spoke. When was this?”
“Every month,” Leanne said.
“Only because you don’t tell me anything.” Huichen took a bite of laupobing and turned to Leanne. “Haochi. Very fragrant.” It was very much like his mother to steer a conversation towards food if a hint of possible confrontation came up. It was impolite and improper to bicker over a meal, his mother believed. It had been a bad habit that Wenxiang struggled to unlearn in adulthood—Leanne saw it has one of his most frustrating traits, how it was nearly impossible to get him to discuss important issues openly. And now, his mother was reinforcing this avoidant behaviour, which, truth be told, Wenxiang was somewhat happy for.
“How are Mr. and Mrs. Deng?” Wenxiang asked his mother.
“They’re thinking of moving out so they can have two bedrooms. Their daughter is getting too old to share their room. And they can now afford it because Mr. Deng finally got his long-awaited promotion.”
“Oh, their daughter, I remember her,” Wenxiang said. “What was her name again?”
“Yuming,” Leanne said.
Huichen nodded while chewing.
“Eat slowly, Ma.” Leanne turned to Wenxiang. “Yuming started working at the textiles factory as soon as she graduated. Actually, that reminds me—” She snapped a finger. “You mentioned wanting to take some old clothes back with you to Hong Kong, right?”
That had been on the list, but Wenxiang was not sure why Leanne seemed in a hurry to get him out of the dining room. Nevertheless, it would be a welcome respite from the discomfort he’d been feeling all day.
The Deng family bedroom door was closed. Wenxiang felt like he was violating their privacy by going into their room without permission, but that was just another way his worldview had changed since leaving for Hong Kong. Village houses were full of shared spaces with no expectation of privacy. Laundry for all families in the same house was usually done by one of the mothers. Whatever condiments and spices were contributed to the pantry were free for all. And if you ran out of room in your closet, you could always stash a few winter coats with the other family. It was precisely those shared spaces that created the feeling of hominess sorely missing across the border. In Hong Kong, everyone—investment bankers in sharp suits and taxi drivers working sixteen-hour shifts alike—chased money at the expense of all else. That was what it took to have a good life, Wenxiang learned.
He walked up to the cupboard that once belonged to his family. Huichen had given it to the Dengs because they could not afford to furnish their room at the time. The cupboard bore signs not only of age, but of its history in Wenxiang’s life. He could remember how every scratch and gouge on its door was created by his carelessness as a child, how there was a water stain in the corner caused by a cup of spilled juice which had angered Huichen so much she banned all drinks in the bedroom thereafter.
Just as Wenxiang opened the cupboard door and squatted to retrieve his box of clothes, he heard them. Rather, he heard her—he heard his wife, trying her very best.
Leanne’s mistake was not knowing about the tianjing. In the days before boomboxes and electric speakers, the Chinese nobility sat along the tianjings of their mansions while listening to the province’s best singers. In pursuit of harmony, the skywells were designed to be perfectly resonant with the human voice, amplifying and enriching each melody. That was what Wenxiang’s mother told him, at least. It was likely another one of her stories to keep him entertained as a child, or to keep him distracted from the banal reality he otherwise lived in. And so it went in the ancient times, his mother said, that even the slightest whisper would carry across the long chamber of the tianjing, rolling upwards and gaining volume. There could be no secrets in the house.
“We’ve heard from the doctor,” Leanne said, her voice roaring out of the tianjing and into the Deng family bedroom. “We wanted to let you know as soon as we had news, but we couldn’t find the right time.”
“Are you okay?” Huichen said. “Is Wenxiang okay?”
“The problem lies with me, Ma. I cannot carry a child.”
“Shenme?” Huichen inhaled sharply.
“But don’t worry, I’m still healthy otherwise, and so is Wenxiang. The doctor says he’ll work with me on some fertility treatment options. But he can’t make any promises.”
There were no more words coming out of the tianjing, but Wenxiang could picture his mother nodding slowly while Leanne stared into her teacup, not sure if it would be appropriate to place her hand on her mother-in-law’s to soothe her jusang.
The blackout curtains were drawn, but a sliver of light had crept in through a crack and illuminated Leanne, just barely, just enough for Wenxiang to notice she was still asleep. The king-sized bed in the hotel suite was the largest they had ever shared, and was certainly the most comfortable one he had ever slept in.
Leanne stirred. “You’re up early.”
“Yea. It’s a big day for us.” Wenxiang propped himself up with one of the many pillows on the bed. “Day one as a married couple. How do you feel?”
“Hungover. And my throat hurts.” She swallowed dryly.
Wenxiang got up to pour her a glass of water. “You were really going hard at the karaoke machine. And the bar.”
“Got to get our money’s worth with the free-flow bubbles, right? Plus, I need to be a good wife now who takes care of her body, so it’s good that I got it out of my system. I’ll need to stop drinking, if…” She patted her stomach and mimed a pregnant belly.
They had a couple of precious hours left before they had to check out and return to the realities of Hong Kong life, where they would need to head straight to Sasa and the mobile phone repair workshop to begin their respective shifts. And so they made every remaining second count. They took another soak in the luxurious bathtub (later packing the leftover soaps and moisturisers into their bags), taste-tested every type of coffee available in the machine, and ate all the complimentary mints in the drawers.
“I wish we didn’t have to leave.” Wenxiang mindlessly flipped through the TV channels while lying in bed in his bathrobe. “It is so perfect here. So carefree.”
“Until you have to pay the bill.” Leanne drained her third cup of espresso and balanced it on the pillow next to her.
“Yes. Until then.” He laughed. “Until then, I have no worries and this is perfect.”
“Life outside this room is not that bad, is it?”
“We’re not the one-percent, I know. But the fact that we can even afford a night in this hotel—hell, the fact that we can even afford to get married—already means we’re doing better than most people in Hong Kong.” Leanne hopped off the bed and changed out of her bathrobe into her clothes.
“You’re probably right.” Wenxiang reached for his watch on the bedside table and put it on.
“You earn an honest living, and you’ve got a good wife who loves you and tries her best to make you happy. What more do you want?” Leanne ruffled her hair before tying it up into a ponytail. “All this is yours to lose.”
Wenxiang watched Leanne pack their belongings into their duffle bag as they prepared to leave the hotel. He noticed her wedding band for the first time since he put it on her finger last night. She had insisted he not get one with a diamond—she liked it plain and unadorned. He thought again of what she said just now. She was absolutely right. He could not ask for anything more in this life. She was a good wife. And all this was his to lose.
Marcus Tan’s writing has been shortlisted for the 2021 Exeter Story Prize, anthologized in Best Small Fictions 2021, and published in Prime Number Magazine, No Contact Magazine, and elsewhere. He is from Singapore and currently resides in Hong Kong. You can find him at marcus-tan.com or @marcusytan