I Write This For You

Krystal Song

© Copyright 2018 by Krystal Song

Photo of a violinist's hands.

There are so many words she will never say to him.

Ziyin was 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.

Sir,” she asked. “Could you direct me to the concert hall?”

At that 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 there?”

Zhao Heng 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.

Over the 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 target.

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 impress Ziyin.

The 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 Cao Jie.

When Zhao 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.”

Ziyin 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.

Sure 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!”

Reader, 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.

I 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.

He 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.”

Ziyin stilled. By the time she’d collected herself, he’d raced off backstage, his violin swinging against his back.

Cao Yi 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.

Of course, 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.

Ziyin listened to Zhao Heng’s violin with all the wonder of a child. He played Vivaldi’s Summer, a fervent, passionate piece. When his bow vibrated with the final note, the entire audience jumped to their feet: a standing ovation.

After the 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 secure seats.

She had almost reached the bus stop when she heard someone calling her name. “Ziyin, wait up!”

She turned around. It was the musician named Zhao Heng. He was biking towards her with the same frenzy he’d played his violin with.

It’s you again,” she said, as he pulled to a stop before her. “Are you going in the same direction?”

He looked 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.”

Oh,” she said. She saw the bus coming down the street. “Sorry, I forgot.”

It’s no matter,” he said easily. “Cao Yi told me you were heading this way. Are you hungry? I know a good place nearby.”

He didn't 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 getting late.”

Her 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.

C’mon,” he said, quickly taking her arm. “It’s just one meal, and I think you’ll really like this place. It’s authentic Shanghainese food.”

Ziyin 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.

Zhao Heng 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.

This was 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.

While 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 music.

There were 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.

They lost 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.

Rumors got 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.

But this 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!”

There was 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.)

I have a private number,” Ziyin said. “I’ll write it down for you.”

She didn't 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.

Do you want to go street-pressing?” he asked, using the local slang for window-shopping. “We could go to Huai Hai Middle Road tomorrow.”

Ziyin 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.


Always, 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.

In the 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.

Professor 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.

But Zhao 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.

Professor 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.

In winter, 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.

Before 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.

Zhao Heng 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.

She cried 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.

Zhao Heng remained skeptical. There was only so much scenery could do for you, he thought. It was the people that made a place bearable.

Ziyin 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.

They 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 breeze.

At night 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.

It was 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.

Inside, 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.

She 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.

The 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.”

This was Zhao Heng’s first letter to Ziyin from America. It would be the first in a long line to come.

Back in 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, little 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.

In the 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.

Ziyin was 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.

Ziyin 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.

They met 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.”

What?” Zhao Heng was roused out of his thoughts. “I can’t believe you’d think that.”

Then what am I supposed to think?” she demanded.

All this time, I’ve been trying to prepare for our future!” he shouted. His face was red, but he composed himself before he spoke again.

Apparently, 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.

This did not deter Zhao Heng. He would use any resource within his grasp, including his popularity.

The rumors, Ziyin learned, were true.

The girl, 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.

Zhao 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.

Ziyin 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.

With 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.”

A few 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 party secretary.”

Mother,” he started.

She held 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.”

Zhao Heng jumped to his feet. “If that’s all, Mother, I’m going to go.”

She didn't 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.

I have filed for marriage with Qiu Yin. I leave for Stanford University at the end of the year.”

Many more 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.

Eventually, 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 whatever it took.


The 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. 

Victory 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.

Ziyin 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.


Her 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 address.

Zhao Heng 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.

At his 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 boy.

I’m looking for Zhao Heng,” she stuttered in broken English.

There’s no one with that weird name around here,” he snapped. “We’re in summer session right now. Maybe your friend moved.”

Disappointment 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.

After 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.

As she 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.

When she 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’.”

Ziyin was 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.

Zhao Heng 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.

The phone rang. “Han Ziyin speaking,” Ziyin recited mechanically.

Yin 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–”

No,” Ziyin said abruptly. “I’m busy. Don’t fly over.”

"Wait! What about Thanksgiving? I’m attending a one-week conference in Hawaii. Will you come with me?”

The Ziyin he’d known could always be lured in by travel, new sights to see. But that Ziyin was gone.

No,” she said, then hung up.

Now, she thought, he would forget her. Now he would move on; now they all would. But she had forgotten one crucial fact: Zhao Heng’s inviolable will.

On 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.

Ziyin woke 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.

Wait,” 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.”

He started 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.

She didn't remember how they got to the airport, how they found their seats. Everything felt like a blurry dream, as if she were sleepwalking.

In 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 everything.

The world 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.

Immediately, 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.

But he 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.

But now 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.

Needless to say, Ziyin would be blindsided again.

When she 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?”

Back in 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.

Then the phone rang at 1:30 in the morning. It was a collect call from China. Ziyin answered sleepily. “Hello?”

Han 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.

Ziyin felt 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.

On her 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 follow him.

The wheel 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.

Ziyin wrote to Zhao Heng about her marriage. No lies, she thought. She would not repeat his mistakes. He did not write back.
Then four 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.

The 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.

Ziyin was 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 Kuwaiti company.”

Ziyin would never know his final thoughts.


There is 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 future.

Their 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.

In 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.

Ten years 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.

On the 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 back!”

Ziyin, who 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.”

Actually, Ziyin thinks. They were Zhao Heng’s favorites.

The food 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 before.

Nearby 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.

I’m 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.

How 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.”

Ziyin 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.

Zhao 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.

The 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.

Zhao Heng got his charisma from his father, Ziyin realizes. There is no bitterness in her as she thinks this.

After the 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.

Do 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.”

Now Ziyin 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.

It’s the same place,” Ziyin says. “You were right.”

When she 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.

Someday, 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.

Zhao Heng, she will think. I write this for you.


Krystal 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.

Contact Krystal

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher