By Hantian Zhang -
Summer, 1965. A white-hot, long afternoon. Narrow, staid alleyways flanked by rickety, wood-frame houses. We wake up in these houses from our nap, sweat browns our contours on the bamboo sleeping mats. Cicadas are screeching nonstop, far, near, everywhere. We fan ourselves and take big swallows of water, still cool from the clay water jug as tall as our shoulders. We are bored so we give our doorknobs a twitch, testing if we can get out and play. But of course, all doors are locked from the outside, as our parents are still in the factories making cannons. We understand. Chairman Mao has warned us to be on alert—Brezhnev, Johnson, Chiang Kai-shek are vulturing for their next chance.
Somewhere not far, tires are screeching on the asphalt. Men’s voices volley through the dense air, coordinating some tasks. We look down out and see two thin, shirtless men unloading a bed frame from a truck; another in a tank top is piling storage trunks and woks and pots onto a pushcart. Then we see her, in a white cheongsam so fitting her curves.
We are no longer bored. We open our eyes wider. Our stares circle her, tremulous and ravished. The slit cuts from the knee up along the outer side of the thigh. The proud twin mounds on the front, the curvy knolls of her rumps. Our mouths gape. Our throats are dry. You see, we’ve never seen a riveting figure like hers; our mothers all wear short hair and go to work in frumpy uniforms.
She now leads the men along the alley, her shoes make crisp sounds as they contact the slate; and now as she passes our windows, her jasmine perfume tickles our nostrils. Our hearts beat louder, our blood boils faster. The four of them proceed until they reach a house further down, so far that it is almost on the bank of the big river. The men move in the bed and then the dresser, then all the trunks, woks, and pots. She conjures up a watermelon and cuts it to pieces, distributing the moon-shaped slices like a good hostess.
Our new neighbor, then. We look across the narrow alley and exchange glances. We whistle to express our happiness. She must be the wife of a ranked cadre, someone booms. No, another refutes, a ranked cadre does not live in a house like this. Look at her, she must be the wife of a capitalist; they gave their factory to our government and then moved here. We talk and talk until we forget how hot the afternoon still is, or how long we still have to wait until our parents get home, releasing us to play on the pebbled beach under a cauldron of mosquito-hunting bats.
Summer, 1966. A white-hot, long afternoon. Narrow, restless alleyways. There are no more naps, because there is a revolution in full swing around us. We watch our parents storming the offices and dragging out fat cadres to struggle sessions; we trail our older brothers and sisters to libraries to burn all bourgeois poison that masqueraded as books. Slogans are blaring incessantly, far, near, everywhere. Our blood is boiling, our eyes wide open.
We march along the alleyways when we see her, just back from the market with a basket of vegetables and watermelon. She still wears her tight-fit, white cheongsam; she still has her pitch-black hair piled in a beautiful shell-shaped bun.
Why is she wearing white? one of us asks, shouldn’t she be wearing red, to celebrate our proletarian revolution?
—Hear! Hear! We concur.
And why is she wearing that kind of clothes? another of us asks, she must be a capitalist’s concubine.
—Agree! Agree! We holler.
We form a circle and trap her in the middle. Her eyes sweep across us and reveal fear.
“Little generals of the Cultural Revolution,” her voice shakes as she hands the watermelon in our direction, “it looks you all could use some sweet watermelon!”
How dare you bribe us? One of us grabs the watermelon and smashes it on the ground. We command you to cleanse your dirty bourgeois thoughts, starting with getting rid of that piece of junk you wear!
“Yes, yes, young generals,” she grins and replies eagerly, “I will change, I will change.”
But you think we’ll let you walk around in that thing any longer? the oldest of us does not budge. Whom are you mourning with that white?!
Following his leads, we all dive in, each with a tidbit of watermelon in hand to smear the red juice on her outfit. Her body swirls violently; her arms flail as her legs tick. We hold her arm and grasp her cheongsam. We shovel more watermelon into her to press out more red stains.
She gives another fervent push, so the silk fabric—already wrinkled and tainted beyond recognition—rips open at the waist and falls off. Now it is like a piece of junk tossed on the slate, stained with melon flesh that mixes with mud and sweat.
And before us she is laid bare, only panties and no bra, the two dark pink circles on her breasts burning our eyes like cauterizing irons. She lets out a desperate cry like a wounded dog, her arms crossed before her breasts to cover them up. We take a step back, dumbfounded by her body and what we have done.
Fuck, the oldest of us curses and then lets out a contemptuous spit. Hope you bourgeois cow have learned your lesson!
We part to let her pass, still with arms crossed before her chest. Our eyes follow her tumbling down along the slated alley. The big river shimmers at the far end. The layered city is a mirage across the river.
One month later, from across the sultry alleyway after a heavy shower, we stand by the road and watch them loading a parked truck with their bed frame and their dresser, their pots woks and storage chests. The same man in a tank top and the same two shirtless porters. She now has her hair cut short, her body hides underneath a loose blouse. Her head is down, and her eyes evade ours.
We are silent. The truck starts and shrinks in our vision, stirred slurry hitting its mudflaps.
Summer, 1970, and then how quickly, there come the summer of 1980 and then 1990. We had sojourned in the countryside and then had come back; we believed in communism and then capitalism and then nothingism. We got married. We had children. We forget our old dreams and begin new ones.
But throughout all these summers, the big river continues to shimmer at the end of our alley; the layered city continues to flash like a mirage across the river.
Summer, 1996. A sultry, endless evening. Narrow, dirty streets. Our first-ever karaoke night out, at the invitation of a Hong Kong real estate developer. We sit in a rigid line deep into the sofa, balking at touching the cups of water on the coffee table—would it cost one-tenth of our salaries? “Relax. Relax.” The Hongkonger chuckles in broken Mandarin. He demonstrates how to use the remote. He teaches us Cantonese pronunciations. He howls out dissonant lyrics like nobody is watching, so we clap and drink the water and ask for juice. When our turn comes, we begin with the 80's songs and then the recent tunes from Hong Kong and Taiwan. We ask for wine and baijiu. We begin to talk business in between the beats: our terms for him to develop our rundown neighborhoods; the ways to import machinery from Russia and export plastic toys to Ukraine. The developer apparently feels happy so that he calls in hostesses to sing with us, those young girls perhaps not even 22 and all in white cheongsams. They insert their perfumed bodies between ours, their titillating breasts grazing our shoulders as if by accident. Our mouths gape. Our throats dry. We slide our hands into our pants pockets. You see, we have never been so physically close to such riveting figures; our wives all have their hair cut short and go to work in dull outfits.
We walk out of the karaoke parlor past midnight, and we are so drunk that we must prop on each others’ shoulders. One of us pauses and throws up by the curbside. Another stands between two buildings and takes a long piss.
Summer, 2016. A white-hot, long afternoon. A gated, gardened residential compound. Air-condition sets hum in my home, this room, that room, everywhere. I wake up from my nap, fold up the quilt and come out to sit in the living room. I am bored so I give my son a call, asking how my granddaughter likes her birthday gifts from me—a white cheongsam, cut from the finest silk.
“She likes it, thank you,” my son replies blandly, “but dad, can I call back later? Need to pick her up from a piano lesson.”
Ok, ok, I nod and hang up.
I turn on the TV. Groups of brisk girls are dancing in unison on the stage, all in bikini-like, tight-fit clothes. I switch to the news channel for something more riveting, but the anchor only prattles on and on about our Leader’s latest speech. I doze off again alone on the sofa, unaware of the drool leaking from the corner of my mouth.
Hantian Zhang is a writer living in San Francisco. He is a data scientist by day.