After many years, I returned back to the city. As I looked at the endless stream of cars, of people walking hurriedly through the streets, I thought I would be reminded of memories from the past.
But there was nothing.
As I disembarked the plane, a wave of exhaustion passed over me. When I returned home, I properly recuperated in my bed for a few days.
This morning I woke up the sight of my cousin madly running towards me. In my dazed state, I suddenly remembered that I wasn’t wearing any clothes underneath the blanket, and instantly became awake.
After I had washed up, my cousin was frantically pacing in the living room. When he saw me, it was as if he had seen his saving grace. He grabbed at my hand desperately. “Cousin, this time I’ll be depending entirely on you.”
I wasn’t anxious, and sat down beside him. When he had finally finished talking, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
My cousin was twenty-seven this year. While other men his age were already well in the process of raising children, he didn’t even have a girlfriend yet. Therefore, my aunt was extremely worried.
A few days ago, one of my aunt’s old classmates introduced a young woman, and they were scheduled to meet today. Although my cousin was unwilling, he didn’t dare to go directly against my aunt’s wishes. Therefore, he had the idea to bring me along, using me as an excuse to rescue him from the date.
He pleaded for my help again and again. It wasn’t until he made all kinds of promises and concessions to me that I finally agreed.
The date with the girl was at three in the afternoon. I dragged my cousin into treating me to lunch, where we demolished an entire table’s worth of dishes. Afterwards, seeing that it was about time to leave, we boarded the bus to the coffee shop.
When we arrived, the other party had already been seated. The young woman’s straight, upright back was facing us when we walked through the door. She was relatively petite, and I could make out where her long hair, which had been curled into small waves, fell around her chest.
For some reason, there was an air of familiarity around her. As she lowered her head and stirred the cappucino, I suddenly felt that the scene was extremely breathtaking.
My cousin walked in front of me, sitting in the seat opposite to her. “My apologies, Miss Lin, that we’re late.”
He pointed at me, about to make the requisite introductions. However, when the young woman saw me, she stood up before he could say anything else.
Her delicate features broke into a faint smile, the impression of a dimple forming on both cheeks. She stepped in front of me, reaching out her right hand.
I stared at her, frozen. It felt like all the blood in my body was rushing backwards, flowing back into my heart. The sound of my pulse was deafening.
The voices of everyone else in the coffeeshop instantly became muffled. It felt like the only thing I could hear was her.
She said, “It’s been a while, Gu Yanhuan.”
Time quickly reversed. Suddenly, I had returned back to nine years ago, to that enviable age of youth.
It had been winter; I was in the gym, playing basketball, when a young woman called out my name saying that someone was looking for me. At first, I wasn’t interested in finding who it was. However, the young woman remained obstinately at the side of the gym, forcing me to grab my jacket and reluctantly follow her outside.
The high school campus couldn’t be considered very big, but the grounds were meticulously kept and pleasing to look at. The young woman brought me to the south side of the campus, her steps hurried, and would look back from time to time to make sure that I was following her.
The south side of campus was for the new freshman students. Behind the academic building, there was a small lotus pond. It wasn’t big, but had proved to be a popular meetup spot for lovers.
When I arrived at the pond, another young woman stepped out from behind the willows, her head lowered timidly.
Crude to the point of ugliness.
This was my first impression of this girl.
She wasn’t very tall, perhaps around my shoulder level, and looked weak and fragile. Her hair had been trimmed to school regulations, and a thick pair of black-rimmed glasses was balanced over her nose. She was wearing the school uniform, with the zipper at the front pulled all the way to the top of her neck.
With one glance, I could tell that she was one of those students who only knew how to study.
“Do you need anything?” Although I felt some contempt, I still tried to look as gentle and friendly as I could.
The contempt, of course, wasn’t towards her, but rather towards what she was about to do.
Yes, that’s right — she was about to confess to me. I had encountered this situation enough times in the past to tell the signs.
What I felt the most contempt towards was the fact that a good student like this was neglecting her studies for love.
She looked extremely nervous. Her two hands were clenched together in a fist in front of her body.
She raised her head to look at me, her gaze shifting around and not daring to meet mine.
I said: “Junior classmate, if there isn’t anything important, then I’ll leave first.”
She bit her lip, hesitating, but I had already turned around and was preparing to leave.
“Please wait a moment, Gu Yanhuan.”
Seeing that I had stopped, she gathered all of her remaining courage to ask me, face-to-face, “Do you recognize a Shi Xianian?”
So it wasn’t a confession? I looked at her, surprised. She returned the gaze, her eyes filled with hatred.
“I don’t,” I said, sincerely shaking my head.
“You liar!” she exploded, her face progressively turning redder and redder. She raised a small fist at me. “Not only do you recognize her, but you also threw her away!”
I furrowed my brows, coldly looking at her. “I don’t recognize that Xia-whoever! Move aside.”
“Go die, you □□ radish¹!” Suddenly, in one explosive burst of anger, she grabbed my arm and judo threw me onto the ground. Afterwards, without looking back, she ran away.
I lied on the ground, cradling my sore waist as my face filled with tears.
The next time I met that girl was a week later. By that time, I had already long forgotten the soreness in my waist. However, when I found her standing outside my classroom after class had ended, it felt like the ache returned instantly.
“Gu Yanhuan, Gu Yanhuan!”
When she saw me, her voice filled with pleasant surprise. At once, she began running towards my direction. I looked around for places to hide, only to find none, and so could only force a smile when she approached me. “Hello, junior classmate.”
She lowered her head, awkwardly mumbling, “Sorry, I misunderstood you.”
“Can I reintroduce myself to you again? Hello, I’m called Lin Momo.”
Lin Momo insisted on inviting me to a drink at the milk tea shop across from our school, saying that it was for the sake of apologizing.
Lin Momo had thought that Shi Xianian had been abandoned by me, and so had demanded my presence in order to vent her anger out on me. It wasn’t until later that she found out she had misunderstood the entire situation.
Shi Xianan had liked me, that was true. However, it was only a secretive one-sided love, one that I had not been aware of, and I had been telling the truth when I said that I didn’t recognize the name.
Recently, Shi Xianian had been sighing, telling Lin Momo that her love had been short-lived. Therefore, Lin Momo had thought I was a □□ radish who had abandoned her friend, and called me out to give me a beating.
Lin Momo said that her family owned a martial arts studio. I took another sip of my milk tea, secretly thinking that if I made another faux pas and offended her again, I would probably be thrown over the other shoulder.
Actually, I had heard of Lin Momo before. At the beginning-of-the-year ceremony, the principal had directed her to give the commencement speech.
The people around me immediately began to engage in earnest gossip about her grades.
Although she was a little timid, and was not the most pleasant-looking to the eye, I still felt that becoming friends with her was not a bad idea.
Of course, besides the ache in my waist.
Lin Momo smiled bashfully at the side, two dimples appearing on both of her cheeks.
Suddenly, a rustling voice came from behind me. Lin Momo stood up immediately, waving her hands: “Xiaxia, over here!”
I had the ominous feeling that going out for milk tea may not have been the right decision.
Shi Xianian, like a small honeybee, spent the entire time droning on and on around me.
Lin Momo pulled at Shi Xianian’s sleeves, which seemed to remind Shi Xianian of something. She looked at me, coyly asking: “Hey, handsome, do you have a girlfriend?”
I nearly spat out my milk tea.
I had been so scared I turned tail and fled.
Later, Shi Xianian ridiculed me, saying that my fleeing manner looked like a pufferfish, extremely stupid.
Were the junior classmates these days so forward and passionate? It was enough to terrify me, a senior.
Recently, when I was bicycling back home, I noticed Lin Momo walking along the road. I instantly pedalled faster, hollering as I swept past her, the wind from the bicycle sending her hair into a flurry. I looked back, watching her flustered face as she tried to tidy herself back up.
My lips curled up, although I didn’t know why.
In my distracted state, I fell off the bicycle. In a moment, the bicycle that Mom had bought me for my high school present lay a good ten meters away on the street.
Lin Momo walked up to my side, staring at me silently.
It was a while before she finally reacted, pushing up her eyeglasses and then running to the nearest convenience store. By that time she came back, I had managed to hobble my way and push my bicycle back to safety, before sitting at the curb and examining my wound.
I had skinned my knee, although it wasn’t as bad as I had expected it to be. I carefully stood back up, ready to mount my bike again for the ride home.
“No, it’ll get infected!” Lin Momo said empathetically, blocking my way. She kneeled down, carefully pressing an adhesive bandage to my knee. Her two eyes seemed to gleam in the light. The glasses only made her look more concentrated, as if there was nothing in the world that could distract her from her task.
After that day, I suddenly found myself encountering Lin Momo more often. Sometimes I would see her hugging a pile of test papers as she cut through the basketball court to the south side of the school. Other times, she would be running with a lunch box to the cafeteria. When she ran, the wind would blow at her clothes, making it look like she had gotten fatter by a whole circle. Her short hair swayed with her, gleaming brighter than the morning sun.
No matter when I saw her, however, she was always running.
When school let out, I would frequently see her drinking boba in the nearby milk tea store with Shi Xianian. Whenever she took a sip of tea through the straw, her face would light up in an extremely happy smile, revealing her two dimples.
I suddenly realized that I was gazing too intently at her.
Within the short period of a month, Lin Momo had occupied the entirety of my brain, leaving me unable to think of anything else.
Without meaning to, I said her name aloud.
Lin Momo bit down on the straw, looking confused.
Suddenly, I said, “Why do you always wear glasses? Even if you’re nearsighted, there’s no need to wear them the entire day, is there?”
“Ah?” Lin Momo said, adjusting her eyeglasses self-consciously. “My, my nearsightedness is hereditary, and I’ve worn them for so long it’s become habit.”
I nodded, and then took advantage of a moment when she wasn’t paying attention to grab her glasses. Lin Momo was scared to death, blindly fumbling around in the air in search of them.
“Gu Yanhuan, quickly, return it to me!”
“Hey, Lin Momo, I actually quite like you.”
Lin Momo’s eyes became huge, only it didn’t seem quite right without her glasses. She blinked, at a loss of words. She immediately asked, “What did you just say?”
I placed her glasses back on her face. Her eyes immediately refocused onto my face.
I put my hands on her shoulders, sincerely saying, “I like you. We should go out.”
Actually, I wasn’t fully able to accept at the time that I fancied Lin Momo, this crude and plain girl.
However, I soon confirmed it for myself that it was indeed love.
I rode my bike alongside the river, the bicycle wheels crunching against the fallen leaves scattered all over the sidewalk. Lin Momo sat on the bike rack behind me, holding onto my waist as she chirped in laughter.
Her face was buried in my back, her thin arms grasped tightly around my waist. It was as if she was hugging her entire universe.
The time we spent together back then seems to have been stretched on forever, every second ingrained in my mind. The warm afternoon sunlight, the hurried figures of the passerby, the peaceful river water, as well as the occasional gust of wind blowing leaves all across the sky — all of those were beautiful enough to choke on.
Actually, now that I think about it, it would be better if time had stopped moving forward right then and there. Perhaps it would be even better if I had never liked her in the first place.
However, fate never cares about the trifles of humans. You can study all you want, he can tease you endlessly, but all those cherished memories will eventually transform into bitter, heartfelt pain.
When I finished my gaokao, I went to a university in the south. Lin Momo said that she liked warmer places.
After we seperated, we would frequently call each other, talking until our phones were boiling hot to the touch. I would listen to her talk about trivial matters — how today’s math homework only took her half an hour to complete — she accidentally broke a pen — the boy in the desk behind her hated class so much he would take his shoes off during a lesson — Shi Xianian and her boyfriend had made up again. Afterwards, I would respond by telling her how warm the winters were here. The sun was bright, the sky was warm, and once, in a morning run, I had even interrupted a pair of lovers.
Lin Momo laughed, telling me how cold the winter was back in our hometown, and how she longed to come and join me.
I suddenly envisioned what she must have looked like then: her eyes narrowed, her lips curled upwards, those two dimples forming small indents in her cheeks.
At the times when we had nothing to say, we would silently listen to each other’s breathing, and then laugh at the incredulousness of it all.
Afterwards, she also got into a good university in this city. The travel time between us was only an hour, requiring a total of three bus transfers.
It seemed like there was no reason why we shouldn’t live on happily ever after.
Lin Momo’s birthday was in April. She had been born in this warm month, which was one of the reasons why she loved warm places like this city so much.
I ate frugally for half a year, saving up enough money to buy her a birthday present. Afterwards, I squeezed onto the public bus, carefully shielding the bamboo flute with my embrace.
Recently, I had seen her admiring an enormous billboard for long period of time. On it, a young woman was sitting by a river of stars, her nimble fingers blowing a white bamboo flute that melded in with the cloud-like fabric of her skirt.
Lin Momo’s greatest passion was actually music, not studying. She enjoyed playing the flute the most. However, with her current family financial situation, her parents could only hope for her to get a good enough education.
When she received the gift, she remained silent. The heavy atmosphere made me feel uneasy.
“Gu Yanhuan, I’ve been accepted into a school outside of the country.”
I stared blankly.
That day, we had an unprecedented, explosive quarrel. We stood by the small creek in our city, the weeping willow branches dancing by her shoulders, the green leaves tangling with her hair.
Her parent’s hopes — her family’s pressure — that fleeting opportunity — the attractiveness of studying abroad — all of these had convinced her into making her decision.
The news crashed into me at once, catching me off guard. At once, I swung her hand off of me and left.
My phone screen lit up when I sat at my dormitory desk. Beside it lay the scarf that she had knitted for me last year. The black and white yarn interweaved in a complicated design that must have taken a great deal of effort to make.
The caller ID was Lin Momo. My finger hesitated for a long time, before finally choosing to pick up.
“You’re still going to leave, right?”
“I want to send you off.”
Before she left, I wanted to see her one more time.
That day, the sun was especially bright, the clouds beautiful and light. I went to Lin Momo’s school, helping her carry the luggage to the airport.
She watched me, biting her lip, but said nothing.
Afterwards, she hugged my waist, crying into my shirt. It was like we had gone back to those days of riding the bicycle together, enjoying the unbridled momentum of our youth.
She said: “Gu Yanhuan, I’m sorry.”
I silently hugged her back, wanting to reassure her that I didn’t blame her, or to tell her not to feel upset. However, I only let go of my hands, saying, “Lin Momo, you must properly study overseas. I… won’t wait for you.”
I had only seen Lin Momo cry once, and it had been in my embrace. After she released me, I shook my shirt, scattering all of those tears that had no need to exist onto the ground.
Afterwards, what happened?
Afterwards, I didn’t attempt to contact Lin Momo. After I graduated from university, I remained in the city I had studied in, not knowing if I was trying to hold onto something or if I believed in something.
In the end, I still loved this city. It was warm, filled with pleasant people, and had a graceful sort of beauty to it. It was the kind of small city that an author could write about in a story.
At my parent’s behest, I finally returned back to my hometown. My parents had become old, and it wasn’t proper for me to leave them on their own.
But fate worked in such mysterious ways. After leaving this city for seven years, after separating from her for five years, after returning back home for three days, I had once again reunited with Lin Momo, and in this kind of fashion, too.
Lin Momo’s school regulation haircut had grown into more mature curls. Those offensive glasses had also been changed into invisible contacts. She had learned how to apply makeup and perfected her smile, although I could still see her old self overlapping with her current appearance.
I also smiled, changing my expression into something more fitting for the occasion. I reached out my right hand to join hers.
“It’s been a while, Lin Momo.”
Out of nowhere, a tall and handsome mixed-looking man immediately stepped between us, his face filled with jealousy as he pulled Lin Momo away. She could only give me an apologetic smile as she left with that man.
“Sorry, if you have time later, let’s get in contact.”
There was no need for us to contact each other again. I had already cut all ties with Lin Momo years ago.
I left the coffee shop with my cousin. As we sat on the public bus, I looked out the window, watching that azure-blue sky and the light, carefree clouds. It was just like that day Lin Momo had left me, the weather so nice it made others feel upset.
As we passed by that familiar small creek, I suddenly smiled.
How could this small Earth fit so many oaths of eternal love? How could time stretch out into forever?
Parting ways and then reuniting was only a short-lived moment in our lives.
Meeting again after a long period of separation did not carry with it any kind of romantic beauty. Afterwards we all departed our own ways, hurrying after tomorrow.
¹Calling someone a radish [萝卜] is modern slang for a heartless person [花心] (lit. flower-hearted).