Mom was out for the weekend. “Business trip,” Dad said. He cooked spicy beef tendons with lots of cilantro. It was my favorite three years ago. I pushed my plate away.
“Can’t Mom go some other time?” I asked. “I thought she would miss me.”
Dad said he was sorry. Of course Mom missed me.
“Do you need pocket money?” he asked.
I shook my head gloomily but he insisted. Just when I was about to give in and accepted his generosity, we heard a knock on the door.
Swallow was knitting a scarf for Chen Ben, and she came for advice on the color. “White,” I said. “The color of sleeping lotus reminds me of you.”
The color of dough. The color of rice. The color of colorless. Swallow blushed a little and smiled. She looked around and asked, “What are you going to do for the final?”
“Study, I guess.”
“What if you lose?” she asked. “Oh Jade, why would you bet your hair?”
I sighed. Swallow clenched her fists. She looked around again, then whispered to me, “Have I told you that my uncle is a chemistry teacher at No.7? I could try to – get his passwords, you know? I might access the tests –”
She really thought of me as her friend. I didn’t have much experience with the kindness from my own gender, and it was overwhelming. I stared at Swallow too hard. She stopped in the middle of her sentence. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t –”
“Thank you,” I said softly. “But it’s about my dignity. Sometimes we have to fight wars that we are destined to lose.”
It was such a great line. Swallow must have been worshipping me. After she left, I threw Li Jun’s jacket into the washing machine. He was one of the few who stayed on campus during the days off, and I had offered to wash his jacket since I wore it so often. Before I returned the jacket to him, I sprayed a little perfume on the collar.
* * *
On the last day of the semester, our final grades were out. Students crowded in front of the bulletin board: panting, calling, gossiping, crying. When I walked near, students split automatically to make way for me. I stopped in front of the board, then I reached behind my head, one hand grabbing the ponytail, the other hand taking off the rubber band.
Right at the top was my name. I was the new crowned queen at No.7. Under the gaze of the crowd, I took all the time I needed to flip my hair. I could hear my name whispered by students, over and over again like a chant.
I turned around. I walked across the empty lot, then into the administration building. At the end of the hallway was Teacher Tao’s office. She was sitting behind piles of papers when I entered. Li Jun stood in the corner, head dropped like a child being scolded. His body twitched a little at the sight of me, but I decided not to notice. It was his decision to leave the last page of math test blank, not mine.
“What do you want?” Teacher Tao asked.
“Just to thank you,” I said, “for another semester.”
When the tower bell rang, I grabbed my backpack and suitcase from the dorm. Outside on the steps I ran into Ben. He lifted his fingers, adjusting the white scarf on his neck. “Any plans tonight?” he asked.
Ming made me promise to call him. I asked Ben if he was doing anything fun.
“My parents are out,” he said. “Swallow is coming over.”
“Sounds lovely,” I said. Dad’s car drove into my sight, and I waved goodbye to Ben. When I got in the front passenger seat, I threw my arms around Dad, then I slid down to hold his left hand while his right hand rested on the steering wheel. On his sleeve, I could smell cigarettes and aftershave. I told him I ranked first in the final while playing with his wedding ring. I took it off and tried it on my finger, then put it back on him.
“I’m so proud,” Dad said. I asked him if we could stop at the ice-cream shop on the way home, as a reward. He hesitated, “Not today, Jade.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Well, we actually have news for you, when we get home.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“I guess,” he avoided my eyes, “it’s better for your mom to tell you.”
“Can you give me a hint?” I asked, eyes wide to look innocent, but Dad pulled his hand out of my arms. I sank into the seat with a strong sense of foreboding. Inside the bumpy car, the smell of gasoline made me sick.
We stopped the car, walked into the elevator, and unlocked the door. Mom was bending over the dinner table when we entered. She turned around with hands on the back of her waist. And I saw it. Underneath her blouse, the bulging belly.
“You are having a little brother,” Mom said. “Aren’t you excited, Jade?”
I stared at her, slowly pieced everything together. No cilantro. Business trip. My parents waited until the prenatal examination, when the fetus was grown enough to tell the gender. Doctors were not allowed to reveal the gender in China. If it was a girl, they would say a long list of the sweetest things: your baby was healthy, was strong, well-developed. If a boy, they would simply say, “Congrats.”
Mom walked up to Dad, leaning against his shoulder and smiling radiantly. I tried hard not to shake. “You know how I feel about this,” I said, lifting my left wrist. I felt stupid when I did it, but I could not think of anything else.
“Oh please,” Mom said. “Enough with the drama.”
She looked at me with loving contempt. I was never her rival, just a teenage girl, young, bluffing, pathetic. Her motherhood was finally completed, with a son to bring her power. I turned to Dad. “Please,” I murmured. “I beg you.”
“You are a big girl, Jade,” he said. “You need to understand—”
I understood now. He was her accomplice. The real reason of the abortion last time was the gender of the fetus. It was a girl. They didn’t want a girl. They didn’t want another me. They were liars. He was a liar. I realized I hated him more than her. I was never enough without a penis. It was a war destined to be lost.
My chest was burning. I bent over and started retching. Mom looked at me from above. For an odd second, her face overlapped with Teacher Tao, every wrinkle, every age spot: You thought you were smart. I saw through you long ago. What other tricks did you have?
The kettle whistled. Dad went into the kitchen. Life went on. Yet I wanted a storm. I wanted a fire. I wanted something to wipe out the future. Mom turned her back on me. I stared at the sharp corner of the table. My hands were shaking. I could hear the air whispering to me: Push her. You can do it. One push and it will be over.
But I backed off. I didn’t do it. I was too much of a coward. I stumbled out of the door, making a lot of noises. No one stopped me. I wandered in the darkness, cold, abandoned. Ming’s call came in and I hung up. He sent texts, one after another. Why aren’t you picking up? You are supposed to call me. Are you taking our relationship seriously?
I took the bus. I leaned my cheek against the dirty glass window. At the thirteenth stop I got off. I walked into an apartment and knocked on the door of 201. I could hear the rustling inside. “It’s fine,” I yelled. “It’s just me.”
The door opened. Ben was buttoning up his shirt. “Jade, why?”
“Did I come at a bad time?” I asked.
He softened when he saw the tear stains on my face. For a second he almost sighed, then he moved sideways to let me in.
“Jade?” Swallow came towards us. She glanced back and forth between Ben and me. Her cheeks were red, eyes watery. Even I had to admit she looked sweet. She had the sort of innocence that I could only dream of.
“Ben told me you two were here,” I said.
Technically it was not a lie. Swallow looked at Ben but he didn’t explain. He asked if I wanted hot water and went into the kitchen before I answered. Swallow sat down near me. She tried to start small talk like a hostess. “Congratulations. I heard you ranked first.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“They said that Li Jun let you win intentionally. I think he has a crush on you, Jade. Sometimes I think you could have any boy you want.”
“Any boy?” I asked, and Swallow quieted down. Ben came back with a mug. He put it in my hands. My fingertips started to warm, then my wrist, my arm. I was breathing normally again.
“So, what do you guys want to do?” Ben asked as he laid on the couch.
“How about a game?” I suggested. “It’s called Truth or Lie.”
“Oh, I’ve played it before.” He laughed. “I call it a relationship.”
“Then you’re a pro.” I turned to Swallow. “We need alcohol though. Will you grab the beer? It’s in the refrigerator. Not the one in the kitchen, but on the balcony.”
I had been here before, with Ming. Swallow said she couldn’t drink. I passed my mug to her. “You can do water if you want,” I said.
Like any drinking game, the rules were easy. One would tell two stories, and the others would guess which was the lie. Ben started first. “Well,” he said, “there was this girl named Spring. She flew all the way from Taiwan to—”
“Lie,” I said. “Hong Kong. Not Taiwan.”
“I’m never gonna win,” Ben said. “You know my life too well.”
He took a sip of beer and I laughed. “Who’s going next?” I asked. “Swallow?”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m not—I’m not ready yet.”
“Take your time,” I said. “I’ll go. The first one is: I once met a talking cat.”
“That’s too easy,” Ben said. “Please, Jade. Give us a good one.”
“Fine, here’s the second one,” I said. “Swallow, the only reason we keep you around is to kill time. We made fun of you all along.”
The room was silent I watched Swallow as she started to shiver violently. She stood up and ran out the door. Soon she would be wandering in the darkness.
“Damn it!” Ben said. “Why would you say that?”
“You never let me finish my first story,” I said. “I did once meet a talking cat, in my dream. That one is the truth.”
“Cut it out,” he said. “You just wanted to hurt her. Are you satisfied now?”
I nodded. He was accusing me, but he stayed here, with me, instead of going after her. Could I call it my victory? I stared at my hands. They were soft and clean, like any sixteen-year-old girl’s.
“Why?” Ben continued. “Answer me.”
I didn’t reply. I stared at my hands more, and suddenly tears dropped on my palms, dampening my curvy lifelines. For a second I sat still, confused, like I had lost control of the water inside me. I tried to hold it back but I couldn’t. My shoulders started shaking. Suppressed sobs came out of my chest like a wounded cub.
Ben sighed. “Come, I’ll walk you home.”
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.