These dreams upset me. Lieutenant Wei's marriage, two years after I had left the army, and her transfer to another city, which would know her only as a married woman and later a mother, and then would see her die, must have wiped her history clean so she could start collecting new memories not about young, miserable girls in the camp but about happy people who deserved to be remembered. I never showed up in her dreams, I am certain, as people we keep in our memories rarely have a place for us in theirs. You may say that we too evict people from our hearts while we continue living in theirs, and that may very well be true for some people, but I wonder if I am an anomaly in that respect. I have never forgotten a person who has come into my life, and perhaps it is for that reason I cannot have much of a life myself. The people I carry with me have lived out not only their own rations but mine too, though they are innocent usurpers of my life, and I have only myself to blame.
For instance, there is Professor Shan. She was in her early sixties when I met her - but this may be the wrong way to put it, as she had lived in the neighborhood for as long as my father had. She must have watched my generation grow up, and studied every one of us before singling me out - I like to imagine it that way; you see, for a lonely woman, it is hard not to make up some scenario that allows her to believe herself special in some minor way.
Professor Shan was in her early sixties and I was twelve when she approached me one September evening. I was on my way to the milk station. "Do you have a minute?" she asked.
I looked down at the two empty bottles, snuggled in the little carrier my father had woven for me. He had painted the dried reed different colors, and the basket had an intricate pattern, though by then the colors had all paled. My father had a pair of hands that were good at making things. The wooden pegs he put on the foyer wall for my school satchel and coat had red beaks and black eyes; the cardboard wardrobe had two windows that you could push open from the inside, a perfect place for me to hide. He had built my bed too, a small wooden one, painted orange, just big enough to fit in the foyer alongside the wardrobe. We lived in a small one-room unit, the room itself serving as my parents' bedroom, the foyer my bedroom; there was a small cube of kitchen and a smaller cube of bathroom next to the foyer. Later it occurred to me that we could not afford much furniture, but when I was young I thought it was a hobby of my father's to make things with his own hands. Once upon a time he must have made things for my mother too, but from the time my memory begins, their bedroom had two single beds, my father's bare and neatly made and my mother's piled with old novels, perilously high.
"Do you have a minute? I am asking you," the old woman said again. I had developed a look of distractedness by then, and she was not the most patient woman.
I was on the way to the milk station, I stammered. "I'll wait for you here," she said, pounding on the face of her wristwatch with a long finger.
When I was out of her sight I took my time examining the trees by the roadside, and the last blossoming wildflowers winter came. The line at the milk station was long, and that was what I told when I reported back to her late. I addressed her as Teacher Shan, and she corrected me, telling me to call her Professor Shan. She led me up flights of stairs to her flat on the fifth floor. It did not occur to me that there was anything odd about this. The only thing my mother had warned me about, when I had had my first period a month earlier, was not to spend time alone with a man. .... Continued
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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