I Write This For You
Copyright 2018 by Krystal Song
so many words she will never say to him.
sixteen years old when she met Zhao Heng. Her roommate Cao Jie
twisted her ankle, so Ziyin went alone to the classical music concert
they had planned to attend together.
It was her
first time stepping foot in Jiao Tong University. The campus was much
larger than her own, and Ziyin soon found herself lost. She paused,
then approached the security guard by the gate.
she asked. “Could you direct me to the concert hall?”
exact moment, a boy was biking through the gate, carrying a violin on
his back. The guard called to him: “Teacher Zhao! This young
lady is looking for the concert hall. Would you mind taking her
was not in a hurry, as was his way. He dismounted from his bike and
walked to her. At twenty, he was tall, with a slender build, thick
black hair and sharp cheekbones that framed his dark eyes. He had
noticed Ziyin as he’d passed, but who hadn’t? At five
feet six, Ziyin was one of the tallest girls in her class. Her dark
wavy hair clashed starkly against her alabaster skin, so pale her
friends had nicknamed her “foreign doll”. She had entered
college only the previous year, and the constant studying and stress
were getting to her. In ten months, she’d lost twenty pounds,
and now looked as slim as the fake plastic dolls of her nickname.
course of her childhood Ziyin would have many admirers, but Ziyin was
not a romantic, and she saw this as only more cause for trouble.
Beauty was not a blessing, not when you were a girl, not when you
were a bourgeois element. When Ziyin was eleven, an older village boy
would lure her into his house and try to molest her. When Ziyin was
eighteen, an art student would follow her home from the library for
days, asking her to model for him. Beauty, Ziyin learned, made you a
So you can
imagine that Ziyin had little interest. She greeted Zhao Heng
cordially, if not coldly, then followed him into the university. Zhao
Heng had a solo piece after the intermission, and secretly, this did
concert hall is right here,” he said, pointing to the great
wooden entrance teeming with students. It was a Saturday, and a rare
double weekend–both days off for Shanghai university students.
Ziyin scanned the busy crowd. Her roommate had told her that her twin
sister, who attended Jiao Tong, would be at the concert. Ziyin had
never met the girl before, but she supposed the girl looked just like
Heng came back after parking his bike, he felt a thrill of pleasure
spotting Ziyin still standing by the doors. He thought she was
waiting for him. Hurrying up to her, he took her hand. Ziyin was
shocked by the gesture. “Where is your seat?” he asked.
“I’ll sit by you until intermission.”
tried to wrench her arm away, but his grip was firm. She couldn't
understand this boy’s confidence, but later she would. Zhao
Heng was one of the most popular boys in his school–an
accomplished violinist, a star soccer player, and a prodigy in
academia. He wasn't used to girls saying no.
enough, when Ziyin found her seat, she found beside it a girl with
short hair, long lashes, and a no-nonsense purse of the lips. “Cao
Jie!” Ziyin exclaimed, a burst of annoyance rushing through
her. “You told me you twisted your ankle and made me come all
this way on my own!”
keep in mind that girls did not raise their voices in those days.
This girl, who was not Cao Jie, turned slowly to Ziyin, raising a
brow. Behind them, Zhao Heng started laughing.
am not Cao Jie,” she said politely. “I am Cao Yi, her
sister. You are Ziyin, right? And how do you know Zhao Heng?”
she added curiously, staring at the boy behind her. Of course, as a
Jiao Tong student, she had heard of Zhao Heng and even admired him,
but always from a distance.
helped me with directions,” Ziyin replied shortly. She turned
to say goodbye, and thank you, and see you never, but then he leaned
in and whispered in her ear: “Meet me by the gate after.”
stilled. By the time she’d collected herself, he’d raced
off backstage, his violin swinging against his back.
gave her an appraising glance, but Ziyin said nothing. Cao Yi had
heard about this girl from her sister. A bourgeois girl, native to
the city. She looked exactly as Cao Yi had always pictured the
privileged Shanghainese, yet her personality did not match. Ziyin was
silent, then loud. Reserved, then emotional. As the orchestra swelled
and the curtains parted, Cao Yi glanced at her companion–at the
wistful expression of longing on her face.
Ziyin was a bundle of contradictions. Sure, she had grown up in a
wealthy landowner family in Shanghai, but when the Cultural
Revolution struck, she’d been sent to rural Shanxia to grow up
amongst animals and farm fields. Ziyin had been taught to hold her
tongue, but she’d also been taught to fight for herself, and
the jarring values of what she’d learned versus what she’d
experienced created a girl at war with herself, at war with her hopes
and dreams and wants.
listened to Zhao Heng’s violin with all the wonder of a child.
He played Vivaldi’s Summer, a fervent, passionate
When his bow vibrated with the final note, the entire audience jumped
to their feet: a standing ovation.
concert, Cao Yi asked if Ziyin wanted to go with her to meet her
friends backstage. Ziyin declined. She had church the next morning at
7:30 am, but in crowded Shanghai, her family would leave at 6:30 to
almost reached the bus stop when she heard someone calling her name.
“Ziyin, wait up!”
around. It was the musician named Zhao Heng. He was biking towards
her with the same frenzy he’d played his violin with.
you again,” she said, as he pulled to a stop before her. “Are
you going in the same direction?”
at her. His eyes were very bright, Ziyin noticed. His lips curved
upward naturally, as if he were smiling all the time. “I
thought we were going to meet after.”
she said. She saw the bus coming down the street. “Sorry, I
no matter,” he said easily. “Cao Yi told me you were
heading this way. Are you hungry? I know a good place nearby.”
wait for her reply but took her purse from her shoulder and hung it
on his handle. He reached for her arm next–Ziyin took a step
back. “I’m not hungry,” Ziyin said. “And it’s
heartrate ratcheted in her chest. She didn't know why she felt this
strange lure, a tug against her ribs, but she also knew it was
dangerous. She took another step back, preparing to leave her purse
behind. The bus pulled into the station.
he said, quickly taking her arm. “It’s just one meal, and
I think you’ll really like this place. It’s authentic
tried to consider this, but she couldn't really. His hand was on
hers, and it was very distracting, and Ziyin could do nothing but let
him lead the way. In time, this would prove to be a pattern.
was forceful, yes, but he was also fascinating, and somehow magnetic.
At Mama Hu’s Shanghai Eatery, he slid into a corner table with
the ease of familiarity, then cleaned a pair of chopsticks for her
and ordered without checking the menu. The food was just what Ziyin
wanted, as was the conversation.
their first meeting, but their lives had run parallel to each other
for a while now. Both were from Shanghai bourgeois families. Both
loved classical music. Both had dreams of leaving everything behind
and going to America. Years from now, they would meet again in the
New World, and together they would remember this first meeting, this
cog that had started the wheel turning.
Ziyin’s father was a scholar and businessman, Zhao Heng’s
father was a professor at Jiao Tong. Consequently both were sent to
the countryside for “re-education”. Growing up as a young
boy in rural Shanghai, Zhao sometimes went days without food. One
afternoon, while digging for roots along a country trail, he fainted
from hunger. Another “re-education” laborer found him and
helped him home. This man turned out to be a former professor at the
Shanghai Music Conservatory. He noticed Zhao’s talent and
decided to teach him the violin. If not for that fateful afternoon
amongst the weeds and countryside, Zhao might never have picked up
many stories like this, stories of chance meetings and lucky draws
and intervening fate. What had brought them to this corner of Mama
Hu’s, late that Saturday night? What had led them to seek
solace in each other, to find each other when it seemed the whole
world was passing them by? Ziyin would never understand how she
approached that guard as Zhao Heng biked past, how she followed him
to that restaurant when so many other times she had no. The only
thing she would understand was this undeniable pull, this awareness.
Yes, I know you. You are like me.
track of the world around them as they talked into the night. When
Ziyin finally remembered the time, the last scheduled bus had already
departed. Zhao Heng took her home on the back of his bike that night.
It would not be the last time she rode this way, her arms around him
as the evening wind rushed past. Ziyin would recall this warmth
against her chest, this knowledge that she was not alone.
around to her university. Back at her dorm, Ziyin’s friends
heard about this popular Jiao Tong boy and teased her about it. Ziyin
assured them it would come to nothing. He didn't even have her
address, or her phone number. Lost in their conversation, they had
not thought about practical matters.
was little issue for Zhao Heng. Ziyin would come to find that when he
wanted something, he would be relentless in its search. Every weekend
after, Zhao Heng would go to Ziyin’s house where he’d
dropped her off and wait. One evening, as Ziyin headed home for the
weekend, she turned the corner down an alleyway and heard her name,
tinged with excitement. “Ziyin!”
Zhao Heng, standing with his bike under a tree. “I didn't know
how to reach you,” he explained. “Can I have your public
phone booth number now?” (In those days, neighbors shared a
phone number for the booth in the alley.)
have a private number,” Ziyin said. “I’ll write it
down for you.”
think things through. She didn't think that she wasn’t supposed
to give her number to strangers, or that she wasn't supposed to date
as a university student (this was an official rule). All she thought
was that she wanted to, and it felt right.
you want to go street-pressing?” he asked, using the local
slang for window-shopping. “We could go to Huai Hai Middle Road
hesitated. “Let me check with my parents first. Can you call me
tomorrow?” In truth, Ziyin wanted to go. She really
wanted to go. But she had been taught to act coy in front of boys,
and she had been taught never to show what you really wanted. The
world would only use it against you.
Zhao Heng was driven by ambition. Ziyin had never met anyone so
determined. It scared her: the burning in him, threatening to spill
over. But it thrilled her too. It widened her world, and for the
first time she looked beyond the national boundaries of China. In the
years to come, her children would see these moments as the pivotal
ones, the life-changing ones.
spring of 1982, at Mama Hu’s, Zhao Heng excitedly told her that
he had been accepted at Professor Zou’s graduate student. This
would be Zou’s first graduate student in over a decade.
Zou had always been a renowned intellect of Quantum Mechanics, but
during the Cultural Revolution, his fame had worked against him. One
of his own graduate students betrayed him, blacklisting him during
the Self-Examination campaign and sentencing him to twelve years as a
forest ranger in Liao Ning Province. During his twelve years up
north, he acquired a bacterial infection. The resources were limited,
and doctors in shortage. By the time he finally got help, the
infection had spread–and both legs had to be amputated. After
the Communist Party reinstated his position in 1977, he moved to Jiao
Tong and vowed never to take on another graduate student.
Heng had changed all that. When Professor Zou had first witnessed
Zhao Heng’s genuine curiosity in physics, he’d accepted
him as a Teaching Assistant. Then a few months later, he’d
invited him to his office to talk. This was the first time Zhao Heng
had ever seen his office, which was kept secluded and barred from
visitors. The professor’s office was in complete disarray, with
magazines, film slides, and lab equipment scattered everywhere, and
even a battered Chinese erhu lying in the corner. This gave Zhao Heng
inspiration. After taking note of the dimensions of the room, he
secretly used his connections to seek out repairmen and even a few of
his eager students to remodel the office. Over the course of one
weekend in which Professor Zou was absent, they constructed brand-new
lab counters, projection stations, and even a microchip reading
table. As a final touch, Zhao Heng brought his father’s
favorite lounge chair from home and set it in the corner, along with
a small round table. He then hung the Chinese erhu against the wall,
creating a snug music corner. When Professor Zou returned, Zhao Heng
pushed him in his wheelchair to the office. Outside against the door,
he’d hung a sign that read: ROOM HAS BEEN RANSACKED. PLEASE
ENTER WITH CAUTION.
Zou stared at the sign, then pushed open the door. He didn't say
anything for a while, and Zhao Heng began to break a sweat. At last,
he turned to his student. “Apply for graduate study,” he
said in his quiet way. “I want you in my lab.” Zhao Heng
would later say that Professor Zou treated him like family.
Zhao Heng was appointed to attend a physics conference in Houston,
presenting a research thesis on behalf of Professor Zou. This was no
small matter. At the time it was extremely rare for an assistant
professor to pass government regulations, much less an assistant
professor with bourgeois roots. But remember, Zhao Heng was
relentless. His professor had strongly recommended him to the
committee, and Zhao Heng had given an outstanding presentation in
English to the committee members, eclipsing all other candidates.
From there he passed the government background check and the
interview with the American consulate. Be it skill or luck or fate,
Zhao Heng would use every tool within his grasp to reach his goals.
Ziyin admired this. Later on, she would learn to fear this. His
ambition would be the reason for his success, and the reason for
their separation. Ultimately, it would lead to his death.
Zhao Heng left for the States, the couple took a weekend trip to his
childhood home during the Revolution. In the thick of winter, the
farm fields were barren, and the dirt-plastered farmhouses abandoned.
Few passed them in the streets.
took her to a little creek that ran through a grove of trees, with
water so clear you could drink from it. They followed the trail along
the creek until they reached an opening, and there, so overwhelming
it was like the swelling of an orchestra, Ziyin saw the wide expanse
of the ocean for the first time.
out with delight. In seconds she was running onto the beach,
stripping off her socks and shoes and rolling up her pants, then
plunging her feet into the cold water. She had never felt so close to
something so big. “If I lived here, I would never want to
leave!” she called.
remained skeptical. There was only so much scenery could do for you,
he thought. It was the people that made a place bearable.
meanwhile was running deeper into the ocean. She was so exhilarated
that she didn't notice the waves rising higher. Soon, a high crest of
a wave bore down upon her, and Ziyin would have been knocked down if
Zhao Heng hadn’t appeared beside her and held her in his arms.
She hadn’t realized he’d followed her in.
tramped back to the dry land, soaking wet. Zhao Heng told her to take
off her pants, then gave her his coat to wrap around her bare legs.
He hung their pants to dry while they ate, swaying like ghosts in the
they tried to find a boarding house, but it was winter, and all the
hotels were closed. Then they tried to catch the bus back to
Shanghai, but the last bus left before they could make it. At last,
they took a local bus to a nearby town, then walked to Ziyin’s
old childhood home. While Zhao Heng had been sent with his father to
Nong Xia during the Revolution, Ziyin had been sent with her mother
to Xi Jia, only miles away. Their lives were mirrors of each other.
midnight when they arrived. Ziyin quietly led them through the
backyard so as to avoid gossip from the neighbors. Using the hidden
key, she unlocked the window by the old vegetable patch. Zhao Heng
hoisted her up, then jumped in himself.
the room was dark. Ziyin had not been back in a while, but her hands
remembered what her mind had lost. She immediately began to pump
water from the well, gather hay to start a fire, and boil water over
the flames. As she poured water into a bucket, she stilled, suddenly
aware that Zhao Heng was watching her. He stood behind her, his face
thoughtful. Zhao Heng had never seen this side of Ziyin, and now he
loved her all the more. You see, she reminded him of himself.
smiled, and he could not believe that this was his life. With sudden
urgency he clasped her around the waist and pulled her to the fire.
In the dead of the night, they sat there before the flames, leaning
against each other until the hay finally ran out.
most impressive Christmas I ever saw: a lone soul on a crowded jet
plane, crossing the international date line. Ziyin, I celebrated
Christmas twice this year, each time alone.”
Zhao Heng’s first letter to Ziyin from America. It would be the
first in a long line to come.
Shanghai, Ziyin suffered from a long illness, then watched as her
best friend from high school went through an abusive marriage. The
husband had been what Shanghainese call xiao bai lian,
white face. Beautiful face, beautiful body, beautiful words. The
whole package. He was from a working-class peasant family, but his
body was muscled and strong from farm labor, and his words charming
enough to please a politician. On their wedding night, he got so
drunk Ziyin was afraid for her friend. She grabbed Guyan’s hand
and ran out the door. But Guyan was his wife now, and she would have
to return. After Ziyin did not hear from her for many months, she
finally forced her way into their apartment and found her friend tied
up to the bed, bruises and lacerations covering her body. Ziyin’s
brother guarded the door as the two girls escaped. In time, Guyan
would give birth to a baby girl, and file for divorce. She would give
her daughter the life she wished she’d had.
midst of these events, Zhao Heng had returned. He’d come back
with American medicine for Ziyin, which was highly effective, and an
expensive bottle of foreign perfume, which she barely appreciated. In
spring she graduated and began working as an engineer in a northern
factory. The commute was long, the hours exhausting, and Ziyin never
wearier. Four years had passed since Ziyin had first met Zhao Heng at
the classical music concert. Now, Zhao Heng grew increasingly absent
from her life. It wasn't even from him that she finally heard the
news: Zhao Heng had been seen dating another girl.
not a romantic. She had not been taught to try for love. And yet,
something in their easy conversations, the warmth of their hands
intertwined, the way his eyes gleamed as he smiled at her–they
had reminded her of something else. Another world perhaps, one that
was not ravaged by revolution and party lines and heartbreak. But
that world had been a lie.
called Zhao Heng with shaking hands. He did not answer the phone. A
few days later, he called her from a different phone. His voice
sounded unlike him: cold, foreign. “I’m in Beijing for
business. I’ll be back in three days,” he said tersely.
at Mama Hu’s. This time, Zhao Heng’s lips were turned
downward, his demeanor serious. He kept fidgeting in his seat, unable
to break the silence. Finally, Ziyin couldn't stand it. “If you
want to break up with me,” she told him, “just say so.”
Zhao Heng was roused out of his thoughts. “I can’t
believe you’d think that.”
what am I supposed to think?” she demanded.
this time, I’ve been trying to prepare for our
he shouted. His face was red, but he composed himself before he spoke
Jiao Tong University had received government funding to send research
scholars abroad. Of course the opportunities were limited, and like
everything else, were only given to a select few party insiders.
not deter Zhao Heng. He would use any resource within his grasp,
including his popularity.
rumors, Ziyin learned, were true.
Qiu Yin, was the daughter of a party secretary and a senior at Jiao
Tong. Qiu Yin had always heard about Zhao Heng and admired him, but
it wasn't until they went on their first date that she fell in love.
Heng’s reasons had little to do with love, and a lot to do with
her Communist status. When she asked him to come to Beijing to meet
her family, he agreed, but more so to meet the party leaders who
would decide his scholarship.
listened quietly, not saying much. She thought that maybe if she
allowed this, only this, it would be alright. She did not understand
that water was an insistent force. Once the dam chipped, more cracks
would follow–until all the river rushed through.
our family’s political standing, we won’t get anywhere in
this country. We have to break out of the system, Ziyin. We have to
stop the cycle.”
months later, Zhao Heng’s mother called Ziyin to their house.
She sat the couple down. “Son,” she said bluntly.
“Everyone knows that you’re dating the daughter of the
up her hand. “I know you’ve made it clear to me that you
are not going to marry her. But the rumor has spread. Even your
father’s colleagues are asking him about the wedding date.”
Ziyin felt her heart turn to ice. “Son, I know you only want to
use her connections to get out. But remember, those who play with
fire get burned.” His mother turned to Ziyin. “Ziyin, if
you want what’s best for my son, you better marry him now.”
jumped to his feet. “If that’s all, Mother, I’m
going to go.”
see Zhao Heng for another month after that. She called him again and
again, but he didn't answer. Then, one day in winter, Ziyin received
a letter. She would always remember the feel of the thin paper in her
hands, the inky black characters that bore a hole in her chest.
have filed for marriage with Qiu Yin. I leave for Stanford University
at the end of the year.”
letters would arrive for Ziyin from America. In each one, Zhao Heng
would try to absolve himself, explaining how he was forced into the
marriage by Qiu Yin’s family. He was not forced into this,
Ziyin thought. He chose this for his career. For America. He chose
his ambition over her.
she stopped opening his letters. But like a fire burning in the
distance, she could still feel the heat of his words, an inferno
blazing in the back of her mind. His passion for America, his dreams
of breaking out of this hopeless cycle, they had taken root in her
mind. By the end of 1985, it was all she could think of. Ziyin,
she told herself, would go to America. She would do
day after the Tiananmen Square riots, Ziyin received the news of her
American VISA approval. It had taken her over five years. Five years
of incessant studying, praying, hoping. A part of her reveled in the
work; it had become a pain suppressant, a drug to take her mind off
the gaping hole in her heart that Zhao Heng had left behind.
would not come easily for Ziyin. After studying for hundreds of
hours, she’d passed her TOFEL and GRE tests, only to face the
impossible obstacle of finding an American sponsor. Her family had
written to everyone they knew, but the Chinese immigrants overseas
couldn't afford to take on the burden. At last, in the fall of 1988,
an old friend of her father’s heard the news. He'd long felt
indebted to Chang Fa, and now, at last, was an opportunity to repay
his kindness from all those years ago. He offered to act as sponsor.
read that letter so many times the ink blurred. That small act of
kindness from her father, helping his friend with his property, had
carried over through all these years, like a seed blown over the sea.
Now, Ziyin held the words in her hand as if they were the seeds
themselves, planted in the soil of her dreams. It had taken so long
coming here. From the first time she'd heard the "Voice of
America" radio broadcast, hiding under the covers so as not to
be reported by her Communist neighbors, to hearing Zhao Heng
extolling the American university system as he showed her photos of
abroad. Ziyin had wanted for so long. She couldn't believe that she,
a girl who had always had everything taken from her, was finally
getting what she wished for.
sponsor lived in San Francisco, only a one-hour drive from Stanford
University. Ziyin did not know if this was rational, but she did know
she needed to do this. She took the first taxi to Zhao Heng’s
had visited her in Shanghai many times over the past few years, but
always, Ziyin had rejected him, refusing to talk. Now that she was in
America however, she felt some sort of vindictive thrill at the
thought of surprising him here. Look at her. She had made it here
without selling her soul.
Stanford dormitory, she knocked on the door. Her breathing was
ragged. Her stomach felt as if it were collapsing in on itself. As
the door opened, she came face-to-face with a red-headed American
looking for Zhao Heng,” she stuttered in broken English.
no one with that weird name around here,” he snapped. “We’re
in summer session right now. Maybe your friend moved.”
crashed through her like that ocean wave long ago. Ziyin left a note
at the residence hall, but she knew it was fruitless. Shanghai might
have been big, but America was a giant.
returning to San Francisco, Ziyin had no appetite. She slept in every
day and refused to explore the city. All she could do was turn her
memories over in her mind, like rolling marbles in the palm of her
hand. If she had walked a little faster to the bus stop that night,
if she had passed through the Jiao Tong gate a little slower, if she
had not gotten lost finding the concert… but then she would
not be here, in America. She would not have met Zhao Heng, she would
not have this piercing ache in her chest, but she would also be a
different person, standing somewhere else in the world.
started graduate studies in Texas, gradually, the ache dulled, losing
its sharp edges and turning soft and faded. She started attending
church, where she learned to forgive the boy who had molested her,
the guards who had robbed her, and Zhao Heng–the boy who had
left her. That summer she vacationed in New York, where her mother’s
friend Mrs. Chang set her up with a boy from Hong Kong, a boy named
Moses. He was studying to become a doctor.
returned from her trip, her roommate greeted her. “Here’s
your mail,” she said, handing her a thick packet of letters.
“Also, there’s a guy who keeps calling for you. He says
his name is ‘Huh’.”
jetlagged and sleepy and didn't think much of this. She went to her
room and flipped through the letters carelessly, then froze as she
saw the distinctive tight handwriting on one faded envelope. This one
was followed by many more. A whole stack of them.
had been searching for her for years. When he finally received the
note at Stanford, he tried to track down her address, but lead after
lead had come to nothing. Finally, he’d traced her apartment
phone number, only to hear she was gone for the summer.
rang. “Han Ziyin speaking,” Ziyin recited mechanically.
Yin, it’s so good to hear your voice again.” Ziyin froze.
His voice was like a living dagger. “Do you know how excited I
was to hear you’d come to the States? Do you have time this
weekend? I can fly over first thing–”
Ziyin said abruptly. “I’m busy. Don’t fly over.”
What about Thanksgiving? I’m attending a one-week conference in
Hawaii. Will you come with me?”
he’d known could always be lured in by travel, new sights to
see. But that Ziyin was gone.
she said, then hung up.
thought, he would forget her. Now he would move on; now they all
would. But she had forgotten one crucial fact: Zhao Heng’s
Thanksgiving break, Ziyin went to her professor’s house for a
holiday dinner. Her roommate left to stay with a relative in Houston.
Around midnight, Ziyin returned to her apartment. As she was fumbling
for her keys, suddenly a strong pair of hands seized her from behind.
She was about to scream when she looked up to see Zhao Heng’s
familiar face limned in the lamplight. He pulled her into his chest
and pressed his lips against hers. They were warm, open, achingly
familiar. They felt like home.
the next morning still in Zhao Heng’s arms. They had talked
until early morning, then fallen asleep together. She gently moved
out of his grasp and went to prepare breakfast. She had almost
finished cooking when Zhao Heng woke, rising immediately and wrapping
his arms around her. She turned her head as he tried to kiss her, but
he cupped his hands around her face and pressed his lips against
hers. It had been five long years, and he had never been so hungry.
he released her suddenly, so that Ziyin swayed. “What time is
it?” he asked. “We need to get to the airport. To catch
our flight to Hawaii.”
pushing her towards her bedroom. “What?” Ziyin asked,
still feeling faint. “I can’t…” But he put a
finger to her lips, and his touch was like a sedative, distilling all
reason from her mind. Ziyin stood paralyzed as Zhao Heng found a
suitcase in her closet, packed a few random sets of clothing, then
took her hand and drove her to the airport.
remember how they got to the airport, how they found their seats.
Everything felt like a blurry dream, as if she were sleepwalking.
Honolulu, Ziyin forgot about consequences, forgot even about her vow.
Years ago, after Zhao Heng had left her, she had promised herself she
would have nothing more to do with him. And yet, in the sultry
tropical air, the vow felt dusty and antiquated. Under the heat of
the sun, under Zhao Heng’s vibrant charisma, Ziyin forgot
continued on, relentless. In the spring of 1989, after months of
resumed dating, Ziyin received a call from an unfamiliar number. The
woman did not say hello, did share her name. She only said one thing.
“You break apart other people’s marriages.” Then
she hung up the phone.
Ziyin called Zhao Heng. Again, he sounded completely unlike himself.
It was with dread and terrible foreboding that Ziyin felt as if her
life was repeating itself. “I’ll call you later,”
he said briefly.
didn't call her later. Days passed, and no call came. Meanwhile, the
world moved forward. The sun rose relentlessly, and Ziyin had to face
her life. She had no plans after graduation. Unconsciously, she had
been waiting for Zhao Heng’s decision. Where would he go for a
job, where would he choose to study? Implicitly, they had both known
she would follow him.
Zhao Heng was gone again. This time, when Moses called, telling her
about a picturesque town near San Francisco, Ziyin was interested.
She didn't think it would be a big deal. Just some pretty sights to
see, have some laughs with Moses.
to say, Ziyin would be blindsided again.
arrived, Moses already had the whole trip planned. They went to
Davis, where he attended medical school. They visited UCLA, his alma
mater. They rode the rides at Disneyland then did the meet-and-greet
with Moses’ family. At the end of the trip, Moses proposed. He
was a man who knew what he wanted, who made decisions and did not let
them go. Ziyin, on the other hand, was caught up at the crossroads of
her fate. Her thoughts were like wildfire; she felt like life was
happening too fast. Carefully, Ziyin answered, “I think we both
need more time to get to know each other, don’t you think?”
Texas, she found a letter waiting for her. “There have been
complications with the divorce,” he informed her. Qiu Yin had
never signed the papers; their divorce had only been approved on the
basis of their legal separation. Because they were both Chinese
citizens, and married in China, they would have to file for divorce
in Shanghai instead. He asked for time from Ziyin. He said he had
received multiple job offers in both America and Canada. If he could
finish things quickly, he could be back in the States within a month.
Wait for me, he asked her.
phone rang at 1:30 in the morning. It was a collect call from China.
Ziyin answered sleepily. “Hello?”
Ziyin.” Ziyin froze. She immediately recognized Qiu Yin’s
voice now. It had haunted her in her sleep. “I am calling you
because I want to say, ‘thank you’. Thank you for ruining
my marriage. Thank you for causing my miscarriage. Thank you for
killing my baby. I wish you all the misfortune in the world.”
The phone clicked silent.
sick. That night, she couldn't fall back to sleep. She told herself
she wasn't a bad person. She told herself she wasn’t wrong. And
yet, nothing she could tell herself would change Qiu Yin’s
words. Zhao Heng’s actions. Ziyin’s reactions.
own, Ziyin made up her mind. It didn't matter that Ziyin still had
feelings for him. It didn't matter that she had been with Zhao Heng
for so many years, that they had cared for each other for so long. In
the end, all those years did not determine all the years to come.
When Ziyin was around him, she felt happy, yes, but also small. She
would always come second to his ambition. When crisis arose, and they
would always arise, he shut her out, kept her waiting. He expected
her to wait, Ziyin realized, he expected her to wait for him. To
that had been set in motion all those years ago–Ziyin slammed
the brakes. She disconnected the phone. She moved to California, she
started a PhD program at UC Davis. This time, when she went on dates
with Moses, she actually gave him a chance. By the end of 1991, when
Ziyin was twenty-six years old, they got married.
wrote to Zhao Heng about her marriage. No lies, she thought. She
would not repeat his mistakes. He did not write back.
years later in the autumn of 1995, Ziyin received a small, thin
letter from Zhao Heng’s mother. The letter was short, simple:
Zhao Heng was dead.
alleged cause of death: suicide. In the end, no one would know if he
had jumped, or if someone had pushed him. No one would know his final
thoughts, the images that flashed through his mind as he fell. “They
claimed that my son committed suicide while being investigated for
trading government intelligence information.” She did not
clarify who “they” were, but Ziyin did not care. She knew
Zhao Heng’s ambition would always take him past reason, past
fear. He had always attracted attention, no matter where he’d
gone. With his brilliance, his charisma–his would not be a
quiet life. And he would refuse to censor himself, censor his dreams,
his wants–until the end.
booking a flight to Shanghai when Qiu Yin called. “I’m
not convinced by the official report,” she said. Her tone was
calm now, level. His death had changed her too. “They say he
committed suicide jumping off a Beijing highway, but I think he was
murdered. He told me he was worried about his safety, did you know
that? He was working with a company in a joint partnership with a
would never know his final thoughts.
so much she wants to say to him, even now, so many stories he will
never hear, moments he will never live. He left her young, and so he
will remain forever young, engraved in amber in her mind. As they all
grow silver hairs and wrinkled lines, he alone will remain a
bright-eyed ghost: gleaming black hair, warm steady hands, his lips
quirked in a smile right before they fell upon hers. She remembers
his voice not as that cold, foreign sound over the phone, telling her
tersely that he must go. No, she remembers only those nights at Mama
Hu’s, talking so long into the night that she must ride the
back of his bike home. Impassioned, animate, hands gesturing as he
dreams aloud of scientific discoveries and possibilities for the
lives ran parallel for so long. Children of the city, born to bright
and privileged futures. Children of black elements, sentenced to
rural villages only miles from each other. When they returned, both
placed their hopes in their studies. Both had learned that education
would take you far when nothing else could.
America, they found each other again, but the crossroads were nearing
now, inevitable. In the end Ziyin would see her past and now allow it
to define her future. When their lines diverged, Ziyin let him go.
She can only pray Zhao Heng did the same.
later, Ziyin returns to Shanghai for his memorial anniversary. She
walks along Hua Shan road, admiring the leafy sycamore trees and
remembering their long-ago street-pressing dates. She can still hear
their drifting conversations through the alleyways, riding on the
back of his bike as the day turned to night, and the night to day.
street, she sees a familiar paint-chipped door. To her infinite
surprise, Mama Hu’s is still open, only Mama Hu’s son now
runs the business, and he recognizes her immediately. “Miss
Han!” he cries as soon as she steps inside. “You’re
was only planning to take a peek inside, cannot leave now. She greets
him warmly, and he takes her to her old spot in the corner. Only now,
he lays a menu for one. “Do you want your usual rice balls with
Osmanthus?” he asks. “Those were always your favorites.”
Ziyin thinks. They were Zhao Heng’s favorites.
arrives quickly and Ziyin takes a small bite. The rice is sweet, the
Osmathus fragrant. Before she knows it, tears are rolling down her
face. She remembers sitting here with Zhao Heng, discussing the world
as if it was theirs’s to own. She has never come here alone
customers glance at her, so she quickly pays and exits. She is early
to visit Zhao Heng’s mother, but she cannot wait now. Zhao
Heng’s mother is so happy to see her. Her maid prepares all of
Ziyin’s favorite Shanghainese dishes.
touched you still remember my favorites,” Ziyin says, seeing
all the fish and tofu and mustard greens. Zhao Heng’s parents
always provided such hospitality.
could I ever forget?” she cries. “Zhao Heng never showed
any interest in cooking before he met you. I couldn't understand why
he suddenly wanted to learn how to cook Shanghainese food, and then I
heard about you.” She pulls out an old notebook, one of Zhao
Heng’s journals. “He wrote how he impressed you by
showing off my dishes as his own.” Zhao Aiyi begins to cry.
“Ziyin,” she says. “He couldn’t forgive
himself for leaving you. He made a mistake. But he has suffered
enough for it.”
reaches out to hold her hand. All the while, Zhao Heng’s mother
talks of how they were meant to be. How they came from similar
backgrounds and were both of similar blood. She talks of how she
always thought Zhao Heng was set for life once he started dating
Ziyin. Ziyin says very little.
Heng’s father has passed away now. Ziyin is shocked by this
news. She always believed the soft-spoken math professor would live a
long life. “But he wasn't the same after his only son’s
death,” Aiyi explains.
stories Zhao Heng told her echo in her mind. When Professor Zhao was
assigned “correctional labor” on the farm for his wealthy
capitalist background, he faced formidable tasks. Once, he was
assigned to make fifty kilograms of rope from straw and have it all
done by the following night. Instead of bemoaning his fate, he went
from door to door waking up his fellow correctional laborers:
professors, musicians, artists, doctors. He asked for their help.
“Together, we can do it.” By the next day, the job
was done. From then on, the outcasts worked together in everything,
lifting each other up so that they would rise as one.
got his charisma from his father, Ziyin realizes. There is no
bitterness in her as she thinks this.
memorial ceremony, Ziyin walks with Qiu Yin down a grassy trail. The
trees end, giving way to sand, and then, there it is, the roaring
ocean. Ziyin recalls the first time she saw this sight. She would
have been swept away, if Zhao Heng had not been holding her. Now, she
stands on her own.
you remember this place?” Qiu Yin asks. In Zhao Heng’s
passing, the hard feelings between them are gone. “I found it
on my own. Zhao Heng told his mother, who told me later on. I put
together the stories and found this place.”
sees, his wife wanted so much to be loved by him. Qiu Yin wanted so
much to understand what he was thinking, feeling. In his death, all
she wanted was to love him.
the same place,” Ziyin says. “You were right.”
returns home, she kisses her babies and hugs them to her chest. Moses
returns home and she loosens his tie for him. She feels as if her
heart will burst with feeling.
her children will grow up, and her daughter will read her writings
and try to make sense of the life that came before her. Someday, her
daughter will put pen to paper and try to piece together the memories
of what once was. The people she could have known, the lives that
slipped through her fingertips.
Heng, she will think. I write this for you.
Song is an undergraduate student at a university in Southern
California. Her work is influenced by her family's roots in Shanghai
and Hong Kong, and her experience growing up as a first-generation
immigrant in America.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher