I have learned, since then, that life is like that, each day ending up like a chick refusing to be returned to the eggshell.
I was eighteen when I entered the army. Lieutenant Wei was twenty-four, an age that I now consider young, though at the time she seemed much older, a lifetime away from me. The day I arrived at the camp, in a midsize city plagued by hepatitis and pickpockets, I came with a single half-filled suitcase. The army had sent an extensive list of supplies that would be issued to us: toothbrushes and towels and washbasins, mess kits, thermoses to be shared among a squad, uniforms for all seasons - we used to joke that, had the army known the sizes of our bras, they would have ordered them too, dyed the same green as our socks and underpants.
A few men and women in uniform loitered under a tree. I had taken a night train, making a point of leaving home and arriving at the camp at the earliest time allowed. My father had seen me off at the train station, shaking my hand solemnly through the open window when the train whistled its signal of departure; my mother had not come, citing illness, as I had known she would.
After I registered, a woman officer, about a head taller than I was, her hair cropped short, introduced herself as Lieutenant Wei, my platoon leader. She had on a straw-colored uniform shirt buttoned to the top, dark green woolen pants, and a crimson tie. I did not cringe under her severe stare; I had lived, until then, beneath the unrelenting eyes of my mother. Decent if not strikingly beautiful - sometimes during a meal she would study my face and comment on it; in the evenings when my father was working the night shift, she would remark on my adequately developed curves. I had learned that if one remained unresponsive in those situations one could become transparent; when my mother's eyes peeled off my clothes piece by piece they would meet nothing underneath but air.
After I changed into my uniform, Lieutenant Wei ordered me to mop the barracks. Yes, I replied; yes, Lieutenant, she corrected me. Yes, Lieutenant, I replied readily, and she looked at me for a long moment then turned around as if disgusted by my lack of defiance.
I was the first one of our platoon to have arrived, and I walked through the aisles between the bunk beds, studying the names taped to the metal frames. The company was housed in a three-story building, with each platoon occupying a long floor and bunk beds lining both walls, separated into four squads by washstands and desks. I would be sharing a bunk bed with a girl named Nan: We each had a white sheet, underneath which was a thin straw mattress; a quilt and a blanket, both dark green, folded as though they were sharply cut tofu. There was no pillow, and soon we would all learn to wrap up our outside clothes - dresses and shirts that were forbidden in the barracks - into pillows at night. Next to my bed was a window opening to the courtyard, where trees whose names I had yet to learn stood in a straight line, their branches pointing upward in a uniform manner.
Lieutenant Wei came back later and ran a palm over the floor. Do not think this is your home, she said, adding that I'd better prepare to shed a few layers of skin. When she ordered me to mop the floor again, I replied, "Yes, Lieutenant."
"Louder," she said. "I can't hear you."
"I still can't hear you," she said.
"Yes, Lieutenant," I said.
"You don't have to yell at my face. A respectful and clear reply is all we need here."
"Yes, Lieutenant," I said. She stared at me for a long moment and said that a soldier shed sweat and blood but never tears. I waited until she left before I dried my face with my sleeve. It was my father's handshake through the open window that I had cried for, I told myself, and swore that I would never again cry in the army.
A dream has occurred repeatedly over the past twenty years, in which I have to give up my present life and return to the army. Always Lieutenant Wei is in the dream. In the early years she would smile cruelly at me. Didn't I tell you that you would be back? The question was put to me in various ways, but the coldness remained the same. The dreams have become less wicked as the years have gone by. I'm back, I tell Lieutenant Wei; I always knew you would come back, she replies. We are older, having aged in my dreams as we have in real life, the only remnants of a previous life among a group of chirrupy teenage girls.
Excerpted from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li Copyright © 2010 by Yiyun Li. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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