“The best gift a wife can give her husband is her virginity.”
On the projector, Teacher Tao played video lectures. The theme of our weekly class meeting was Virtue. I doodled in my textbook. Just when I was adding moles to Confucius’ face, Teacher Tao called my name.
“Jade, what do you think of the lecture?”
Always. Whenever we talked about virginity and self-respect, my name was mentioned. I remembered the days when I used to blush. “It was interesting,” I said.
“Do you agree with the lecture?” Teacher Tao asked.
“No, not really,” I answered.
“Why is that? Don’t you plan to give this gift to your husband?”
“Oh, I just thought it’s a little unfair,” I said. “Virginity is like a one-time thing, right? It’s like a disposable gift. If I were the husband, I’d want something everlasting, like diamond rings.”
Some boys giggled. The rest of the students didn’t know how to react, so they sat in silence. I watched Teacher Tao’s face turning red. Too bad she could not kick me out of her class. At No.7, a teacher’s performance was measured directly through the college admission rate of the class. Since I was one of the best students at No.7, losing me would be a great deduction in her bonus.
Deep in my uniform pocket, my phone buzzed. Phones were not allowed on campus, but I carried it anyway. At No.7 there was no tattletale. No one would even wake me up if I fell asleep on the desk. The less time I spent studying meant my classmates had a greater chance to get ahead of me.
As soon as the meeting was over, I reached for my pocket, sliding the phone into my loose uniform sleeves. Was it another message from The Ally? Before I left their group chat, I did brag about mission completed. I should have known better, but I was too young last year. Now I regretted showing off. People were coming for free advice, and I had no time for them.
But the text was from Swallow. She asked if I could introduce her to Chen Ben. If it was not too much trouble. A movie was coming out next month. She could get three tickets. And popcorn.
I put the phone aside, letting her cool down for a couple of hours, or days, but it buzzed again. Gosh, Swallow. I glanced at the screen, ready to be impatiently amused, but it was not her. It said:
How did you do it? Did you drug your Mom? Did you push her down the stairs?
I blocked the number. There. No more hauntings. The scar on my left arm stung a little. A part of me wished that I could have said yes to these questions. It would sound so much cooler than cutting my own wrist.
I remembered the date I joined the group chat of The Anti-Secondborn Ally. It was one week after the Shame Day, October 29th, 2015, when China announced the ending of the one-child policy. From that day, each family could have two children.
All members in The Ally were firstborns, mostly teens. The first message I saw after I joined the chat was a picture of a bulging belly. “Four months now,” said littlecherry530. “She is 47, but my dad knelt, begging her to bear a son.”
Someone named endofsky replied immediately, “You can do it. She’s old. It’s easy to cause the miscarriage. Argue with her every day, make a scene, keep her mad. If that’s not working, shove her in the heat of an argument. Just make it natural.”
Every day we talked, asking for advice, pumping each other up. Where can I get mifepristone? Put a camera in their bedroom. Does it taste different if I add it in her tea? I’m eleven. Break in when they are doing it. Shock can cause impotence. Can I get away if I smother someone by accident?
“You can do it,” said hellokittyxoxo, the organizer of The Ally. “I did it. When I found out that my mom was pregnant, I told my parents as soon as the baby was born, I would throw it out of the window. They beat me, of course, but I repeated the same sentence every morning for five months and 17 days, and they gave in. My mom got an abortion.”
Never let the second be born. They took away what belonged to us. A share of love when our parents lived, a share of inheritance when our parents died. My mom brought up the topic over breakfast, informing me that I would have a younger sibling in eight months. She talked while chewing. I said I didn’t want siblings. She said she didn’t want my opinion.
For a whole month, I read every single word of the group chat, weighing the consequence of each suggestion. In the end I sat in the hot tub, staring at the ticking of the clock. Ten minutes before my dad got home from work, I cut my wrist open. I closed my eyes, submerging myself in the scarlet and tumbling water.
Dad must have been terrified. He held me tight as he pulled me out of the tub, so tight we were almost inseparable. He drove me to the hospital. No ambulance was called. Suicide was fatal for a family’s name, so I kept it quiet and decent. No screaming on the windowsill. No sound of gunfire. It was just me: wet, bloody, naked.
Not all the red color came from me. Most was chicken blood from the farmers’ market. I kept my eyes shut and listened. The doctors said it was lucky that I missed the main artery. After opening my eyes, I didn’t talk for days. Whenever Dad approached me, I tugged at his sleeve, staring at him with silent tears.
Mom told me it was enough. “You need to get normal again,” she said. “I’m tired of making excuses to Teacher Tao about why you are not at school.” I glanced at her, then tucked myself into the blanket. She had some notion about what I was doing, and I wanted her to know she was right. From her, I learnt about every mistake a woman could make in marriage: complaining, yelling, cursing, smashing fine china and cleaning up the mess later, alone.
Two weeks later, my parents went to the hospital. The pregnancy was ended. When they came back, I ran to hug my mom. “I love you so, so much,” I said. She pushed me aside. I backed off. After I closed my door, I sent the first message in the group chat:
I did it.
* * *
Half of the students in the experimental class had stomach illness. There was never enough time to eat, so we either wolfed food down or skipped meals. As soon as the lunch bell rang, students flooded to the dining hall like a locust plague. It was hard to outrun the starving boys, so I brought snacks. During the 6th class break, I chewed a red bean bun in my seat, letting my taste buds savor the sweetness.
Teacher Tao showed up from behind, grabbing the bun from my hands. “No food in the classroom,” she said. “The smell will disturb your classmates.”
She threw the bun into the trashcan. I lay my head on the desk. The acid burnt inside. The hunger was eating my stomach. I reached under my desk and held onto the iron stand. When the next break came, I turned around, asking if I could borrow a jacket.
Li Jun stared at me, mouth half open. I had hardly ever talked to him, although his seat was right behind me. “Please,” I murmured, “I am cold. Feel it.”
I leaned my fingertips on his cheek, then moved away, gentle like the landing of butterflies. Li Jun gave me his jacket. I curled under it. When another class ended, he came to my desk, asking if I felt warmer. I shook my head.
“It doesn’t feel that cold to me,” he said.
“Guys are stronger,” I said, gasping a little. He asked if I was okay. I told him my stomach hurt. “Oh,” he said. “My mom always says that brown sugar is good for the stomach. You should ask your mom to cook brown sugar and ginger soup for you, you know?”
I touched my lips with an index finger. He quickly stopped, almost blushing. I grabbed his hand and put it against my stomach. He blushed more. I closed my eyes, lying on the desk again, holding his hand. He tried to swallow saliva without making sound.
Teacher Tao broke in. At No.7, there was a peek-hole on every classroom door for teachers to get hold of students’ behavior. She pointed her finger at me, trembling, and Li Jun flinched away. When she finally caught her breath, Teacher Tao asked, “How dare you?”
I told her I didn’t understand.
“What were you doing?” she asked. “You and Jun –”
“My stomach hurts when I skip meals,” I said.
“You think you are smart,” Teacher Tao said, “but I saw through you long ago. I could smell the sluttiness in your bones, no matter how hard you hide. I can’t imagine what you will end up being in your life.”
“Who knows,” I said. “Maybe a high school class advisor.”
The whole classroom was dead quiet. “Don’t you ever go near the boys,” Teacher Tao said. “Don’t you dare distract them again. They have a future.”
“I have a future too.” I stood up from my seat. “I am tired of your double standards. How about this? If I rank first in the final, you will apologize to me.”
She didn’t answer, and I continued, “If not, I’ll cut my hair short.”
I sat down. Beneath two layers of uniform jackets, my heart pounded. Teacher Tao didn’t know how to react, naturally, but I had rehearsed the face-off in my head many times before. The adrenaline rush was addictive.
At dinner break Ben found me. “I heard about your little bet with the class advisor,” he said. With the routine life at No.7, any news could be breaking.
“Which side are you betting on?” I asked.
“You are family, Jade,” he said. “All I can say is: you will look good even with short hair.”
Defeating Li Jun was something that had never been done. Although our rankings were close, his scores were way above mine with full points in almost every subject. He was the gold trophy in Teacher Tao’s collection.
“You are such a gambler,” Ben said to me. I was never a gambler. I always calculated the risk. With a curling index finger I beckoned to Ben. He leaned forward, breathing slowly over my head. I pulled out my phone to show him Swallow’s text. “What do you say?” I asked.
He pulled back. The residue of warmth in my hair quickly vanished. “It depends,” he said. “Is she cute?”
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.