Outside the barbed wire and crudely built brick walls, parents were waiting. Cars, motorcycles, a few tricycles and bikes, feet, feet, feet. At Hebei No.7 Experimental High School, we had one weekend off every month. For the rest of the days, we studied and slept on campus. When the college entrance examination ended, half of our graduates would be accepted into top universities in China, defeating rivals from Beijing and Shanghai even with the preferential policy for residence.
Students flooded into the hallway as soon as the last class ended. Chen Ben was waiting outside my classroom. As usual, we chatted about his girls. “She flew all the way from Hong Kong,” Ben said, “just to see me.”
“What a pilgrim.”
“Her name is Spring,” he continued. “I bought her lunch. That’s all. My girlfriend at the time was mad at me. I don’t get it. Would you be mad if you were my girlfriend?”
He was waiting, so I lingered a little before I answered.
“You know,” I said, “you are not that innocent.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is not good for boys to be pretty. You get spoiled so easily.”
His laughter was drowned out by the tower bell. It was the last notice for students to leave. Startled pigeons flew across the wine-colored sky. Roofs and bricks were dyed rosy in the sunset. I watched Ben’s reflection in the blazing glow on the glass window behind him. He had long and curly eyelashes, casting shadows under his eyes with a subdued softness.
In ten minutes, the school gate would be closed. Whoever stayed behind would wait for another thirty days. Dad didn’t have time to pick me up. Ben asked if I needed him to walk me home.
“Next time.” I tilted my head. “I have a companion today.”
Near the iron gate stood a short girl, slouching under the loose school uniform, shifting from one foot to another. The school committee went out of the way to make us less attractive, and we ended up with the most hideous uniform. With ochre jackets and sweatpants covering her curves, the girl looked like a bag of potatoes.
Her name was Swallow. As I walked towards her, she opened her mouth, gasped, then closed in silence like a goldfish.
“Let’s go,” I said. “I’m starving.”
We walked past the gate. “Was that Chen Ben?” Swallow asked. “Are you guys close?”
“No,” I denied, giggling. “Not at all.”
“What were you talking about?” she asked.
“Oh, he wanted to walk me home. I said I was going with you.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know – I wasn’t –”
Swallow was always apologizing. I didn’t stop her. When we got on the bus, Swallow said, “I wish I could be more like you, Jade. You’ve got everything.”
“Trust me. You don’t want my life.”
I studied her expression as I spoke, trying to find a trace of something. She had a face like dough, pale and plain. Normally I didn’t mingle with girls not my kind, but Swallow and I lived in the same building. I wondered if she had heard something from my household. Noises or rumors. Something from last year, about my suicide attempt.
In the elevator, we said goodbye to each other. I took the silver bracelet off my left hand. The scar was visible. I didn’t cut too deep back then, but when it started to scab, I smeared red chili over my wrist to make the color last.
Mom was sitting by the plastic folding table when I entered. Dad carried steel plates out of the kitchen. “You’re cooking?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “You only come home once a month.”
“No cilantro?” I asked as I looked down at the table. Dad said we had just run out. The kettle whistled and I poured tea for my parents. When I bent my wrist, the scar showed.
“How’s school?” Mom asked.
“Same.” At No.7 High School, students were divided into three different classes: average, advanced, and experimental. I was in the science experimental class. During midterm, I ranked second out of over one thousand.
“Your class advisor called,” Mom said. Teacher Tao would never leave me alone.
“What does she want?”
“Your hair,” Mom said. “Teacher Tao said every other girl in the experimental class cut their hair short. She made good points. Think about all the time you can save in showers.”
I used to practice tucking my hair in front of the mirror. I lifted my elbow, let my fingertips slide from the top to behind my ear, all the way down until I touched my collarbone. Sometimes I closed my eyes. I took time to enjoy my delicacy.
“I had the best grades among the girls,” I said.
“You are still the second, aren’t you?” Mom asked. “What’s his name, the boy who always ranks first? Li Jun? With extra time, you could have beaten him.”
I chewed, swallowed, and put down my chopsticks. I joined the theatre club and I wrote for the school newspaper, while Li Jun faked coughing in physical education class so he could sit aside to do his math homework.
“Let the kid eat,” Dad said. “No man’s marrying her for her grades.”
I told them I was going out tomorrow to help Chen Ben with his biology.
“Isn’t he from an average class?” Mom asked. “Teacher Tao said you hang out too much with the grassroots.”
“He’s Ming’s cousin,” I said.
“Can’t you just let him copy your homework?” Mom asked. “So you don’t have to waste time on explaining.”
Later that night, Dad came to my room, asking if I needed pocket money. I nodded reluctantly, pouting my lips. He pulled his wallet out. “Have fun,” he said. I hugged him.
“We have never wanted you to do anything big,” he said. “We just want you to live a comfortable life. Safe, and happy.”
He closed the door and I pulled out my phone. I texted Chen Ming, my boyfriend. Puppy love was strictly forbidden in most Chinese high schools, but my parents liked the idea of me being with Ming. He was an upperclassman and studying computer science at UC-Berkeley. With a good diploma, he would have a good salary, a car, a house, and hopefully my hand. Ming texted back. I didn’t reply.
* * *
“To prevent polyspermy, a cortical reaction is triggered when the first sperm reaches the egg. The release of calcium ions will cause the cortical granules inside the egg to fuse with the plasma membrane, which produces the enzymes to digest the zona pellucida, making it unable to bind more sperm.”
“You know,” Ben said, “when you said we are going to study biology, I didn’t really expect us to be studying biology.”
“What were you expecting?” I asked.
“I thought it was one of the excuses you told your parents,” he said, “to get out.”
“I’m not a liar like you,” I said. Ben leaned forward, laughing. My phone buzzed and I reached into my pocket. Ming tagged me under a love song video. I replied, telling him I fell asleep last night. After all, we were twelve hours apart. You sleep a lot, Ming replied. I told him I had to. I’m still growing, I said.
Which part? Ming asked.
You’ll see when you come back in the summer, I said.
Across the round wooden table, Ben smiled at his phone screen. He played the video and moved it closer to my ear. His wrist touched my hair.
“Cousin Ming,” Ben said. “I do miss him sometimes. How’s he doing?”
His voice was soft, almost humming the tune. When we talked of relationships, it was always about Ben: his girlfriends, dates, admirers. For most of the time I smiled, allowing him to go on and impress me. I kept my past to myself, and Ben brought up Ming’s name more frequently, enthusiastic about our match. “When you and he get married,” Ben said, “I’ll pick a wedding gift for you. What do you want?”
“I want more than you can give,” I said, turning my head to the French window. We were sitting in a café right across the street from campus. Why did we pick a place so close to school? I was not sure, but we were both good-looking, we dressed nicely, and we almost wanted to be seen together, to have our coexistence questioned by our acquaintances.
Until we were officially introduced at Ming’s family party, Ben and I had never spoken to each other even though his classroom was next to mine. Many times Ben had passed my window with a basketball under his arm, panting in a black shirt and a white headband, holding energy drinks some girls handed him. Many times his teacher had printed my essays as samples, asking students to read out loud in class, and I could hear my own words being spoken on the other side of the wall. Perhaps if either of us was less than what we were, we would have nodded or smiled. At No.7 High School, ranking was the one and only law. Ben didn’t have the grades to talk to me, even though he was tall, robust, walking against the light like a young god.
It was all about competition. Every month there were exams. All students’ grades were listed on the bulletin board from highest to lowest. Every point could result in our places changing. Classes started at 7AM and ended at 10PM. No one left their seats during breaks. All we could hear was the rustle between pens and paper, like silkworms devouring the last mulberry leaf. Every year, at least one student jumped off the school roof, splattering onto the empty yard at the heart of the campus. It became part of the No.7 experience to hear the ambulance siren soaring through night.
“It has something to do with Feng Shui,” Ben said. He pointed at the school buildings outside the window. I asked him to explain.
“You see how those four buildings are arranged?” he asked. “They are in a square, and in the middle is the yard. If you look down from above, the buildings will look like a character: mouth（口）. With students in the buildings, we put people（人）in the mouth（口）, and we have the character of prisoner（囚）. Can’t you see, Jade? We are trapped.”
For a moment he stared at me, searching in my eyes for something I couldn’t give. My phone buzzed again and I quickly pulled it out. It was not Ming, but an unknown number:
How did you do it?
I frowned. I was going to delete it, but the second message showed up on my screen:
The Ally said you succeeded.
The Ally. I stopped, and the third, the fourth, the fifth messages came in: Teach me your ways. I’m running out of time. How did you get rid of it?
Di Bei is from Beijing, China. She is a first-year MFA fiction student at Boise State University. She holds a B.S in biology from Randolph College in Virginia. Her first Chinese YA novel is coming out in August 2019.