Both of them were in their mid-twenties and had never taken a lover. Soon they began to write each other a few times a week. Within two months they started their rendezvous on weekends at movie theaters, parks, and the riverbank. Mai Dong hated Muji, which was a city with a population of about a quarter of a million. He dreaded its severe winters and the north winds that came from Siberia with clouds of snow dust. The smog, which always curtained the sky when the weather was cold, aggravated his chronic sore throat. His work, transcribing and transmitting telegrams, impaired his eyesight. He was unhappy and complained a great deal.
Manna tried to comfort him with kind words. By nature he was weak and gentle. Sometimes she felt he was like a small boy who needed the care of an elder sister or a mother.
One Saturday afternoon in the fall, they met in Victory Park. Under a weeping willow on the bank of a lake, they sat together watching a group of children on the other shore flying a large kite, which was a paper centipede crawling up and down in the air. To their right, about a hundred feet away, a donkey was tethered to a tree, now and then whisking its tail. Its master was lying on the grass and taking a nap, a green cap over his face so that flies might not bother him. Maple seeds floated down, revolving in the breeze. Furtively Mai Dong stretched out his hand, held Manna's shoulder, and pulled her closer so as to kiss her lips.
"What are you doing?" she cried, leaping to her feet. Her abrupt movement scared away the mallards and geese in the water. She didn't understand his intention and thought he had attempted something indecent, like a hoodlum. She didn't remember ever being kissed by anyone.
He looked puzzled, then muttered, "I didn't mean to make you angry like this."
"Don't ever do that again."
"All right, I won't." He turned away from her and looked piqued, spitting on the grass. From then on, though she didn't reproach him again, she resisted his advances resolutely, her sense of virtue and honor preventing her from succumbing to his desire. Her resistance kindled his passion. Soon he told her that he couldn't help thinking of her all the time, as though she had become his shadow. Sometimes at night, he would walk alone in the compound of the Sub-Command headquarters for hours, with his 1951 pistol stuck in his belt. Heaven knew how he missed her and how many nights he remained awake tossing and turning while thinking about her. Out of desperation, he proposed to her two months before her graduation. He wanted to marry her without delay.
She thought he must have lost his mind, though by now she also couldn't help thinking of him for an hour or two every night. Her head ached in the morning, her grades were suffering, and she was often angry with herself. She would lose her temper with others for no apparent reason. When nobody was around, tears often came to her eyes. For all their love, an immediate marriage would be impracticable, out of the question. She was uncertain where she would be sent when she graduated, probably to a remote army unit, which could be anywhere in Manchuria or Inner Mongolia. Besides, a marriage at this moment would suggest that she was having a love affair; this would invite punishment, the lightest of which the school would administer was to keep the couple as separate as possible. In recent years the leaders had assigned some lovers to different places deliberately.
She revealed Mai Dong's proposal to nobody except her teacher Lin Kong, who was known as a good-hearted married man and was regarded by many students as a kind of elder brother. In such a situation she needed an objective opinion. Lin agreed that a marriage at this moment was unwise, and that they had better wait a while until her graduation and then decide what to do. He promised he would let nobody know of the relationship. In addition, he said he would try to help her in the job assignment if he was involved in making the decision.
Excerpted from Waiting by Ha Jin. Copyright© 1999 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, 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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