A Meaningless Exercise

1

Tuesday or Thursday this week I woke up an old man. I looked in the mirror as I brushed my teeth and found the once vibrant wires crestfallen and frosted. My hair was a wedding cake. It was funny and I would’ve laughed but for my aging heart.

At breakfast Mum and Dad had no questions, did not look surprised. I supposed they were used to transformations by now. Dad was talking about coins.

“It’s fallen drastically. Just last week one bitcoin cost over twenty thousand. Now it’s worth what, five thousand a coin? Well, well. Simply drastic.”

Dad loved the word “drastic,” and the word “drastically.” They had a dramatic effect.

“Incredible, even.” Dad continued. “Who would’ve thought? Though it is not at all unexpected.”

“Why not?” said Mum.

“Well, bitcoins are practically worthless. What can you do with a bitcoin except sell it? And what’s the difference between a bitcoin and, say, a batcoin?”

Old and used to the ways of the world as I was, I understood immediately. Value and rarity are interdependent variables positively correlated. Things matter because they are rare because they are different. There is no difference between a bitcoin and a batcoin. They will all end up like the tulips.

2

I was sitting cross-legged in Jing Yulin’s bedroom, playing a game called “Favorites.” Yulin would list two things and I would have to choose one of them. Supposedly it revealed one’s temperament, given enough time and choices. It was an ingenious game for icebreaking. I did not have any preference for anything and chose randomly.

“Rain or sunshine?”

“Sunshine.”

“Blue or black?”

“Black.”

“Apples or strawberries?”

“Strawberries.”

“Oh my,” said Yulin, “we’re exactly the same.”

I panicked. “If I’m exactly the same as you, how am I different?”

As soon as I said it I realized it did not make much sense. I tried to clarify. “We should be the same person.” But that also did not make much sense. So I said, “Only one of us should live.” What I meant was we could not coexist, being the same person.

She looked and looked at me. Her eyes were soft boiling. When she spoke again it was something different.

“Why are you so keen on knowing the weather?” she said.

“I try to record everything I can.”

“But the weather?” said Yulin. “Does that matter?”

I said nothing.

“Why do you record everything you can, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “So I don’t forget, I guess.” Because when I forget I do not know who I am. And it is important to know—I mean remember—who you are. Why?

Yulin shook her head and stood up. “Come on, let me introduce you to my brother.”

Yulin’s brother was in his bedroom next door. He had just fallen asleep face down on an open book called Planet Earth: death by forgetting. He was seventeen years old and looked nothing like Yulin, which was unfortunate. Yulin was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

3

I have big dreams. I knew I had big dreams from a very young age. Exactly what they are I do not know yet. At the dining table Mum asks, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be an artist,” I remember saying one day. And the day after I saw the sky burning I said, “Firefighter”, wanting to save as many skyscrapers as I could while they are alive. Yet another day I said “Urban planner,” and “Historian,” and yet another day “Construction worker,” thinking as long as there is life there could be no death.

I never repeat myself. Mum doesn’t enjoy it so much but I know it’s a good habit.

4

I was walking down Hongli Road one evening when I saw the sky burning. A liquid red was creeping up the northwest corner to the tops of skyscrapers. I called Mum. Perhaps I should have called the fire station, but I was young and in a panic. Anyhow I said to Mum, “Did you see the sky?”

“What about it?”

“Well? Can’t you see?”

“See what?” she was impatient. She was probably at home cooking.

“It’s on fire.”

Mum hanged up. I figured she went to call the fire station. The next day I told Jing Li about it.

“Are you talking about the sunset?” he said.

“Does it happen everyday?”

Jing Li said nothing. I figured it probably does.

5

I first met Yulin at the balcony of my school. The balcony was on the sixth floor. Students were not supposed to go there. She was leaning down the rail when I pushed through the glass door, her neck elongated towards the boulevard six stories down.

“Good morning,” I said.

Yulin jumped. She had not seen or heard me. “What are you doing here?” she said.

“I wanted to check on the weather.” The rain was black last night and I was worried.

“The weather?” She looked at me. Her eyes were big and black like rain. “Can’t you see it from downstairs?”

“It’s closer and more accurate from here.”

She turned back to the rail now, clinging onto it with owlish claws and thrusting the upper part of her body forward and downward. She looked like a rocket bound for the boulevard. I looked up at the sky. When I looked level again she was gone.

6

“Did you see the sky burning?” I asked Jing Li.

“What?” We were on the balcony. Two little hands trapped behind the glass wall of my watch ran into each other again, the first time in twelve hours. My watch was black like rain. Right now it was not black but transparent under the sun, a single refractive eye eating away colors. It peered into the sun with dignity without fear. The sun peered into clouds and gaseous rain and the tops of skyscrapers and all the little animals underneath that looked like distant dying stars. The little animals were writhing from the pangs of old age. We couldn’t see their faces from where we stood on the balcony. Jing Li was smoking and trying to read a book called Planet Earth: death by forgetting.  “When?” he was saying.

“Yesterday,” I said. “The fire seemed to have spread from the northwest, at least that’s where it looked reddest. I saw it climb the sky as if it were an escalator. Some skyscrapers towards the north were affected, too.”

“Really?” said Jing Li. He was reading a book called Planet Earth.

“It was awful. So many lives must have been lost. Do you think it will happen again?”

Jing Li looked at me now. His eyes were black and refractive like my watch. “Are you talking about the sunset?” he said.

7

Yulin is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen, but her stories are even more beautiful. The first story she told me was about a little girl who was ugly. The little girl who was ugly was bullied by her classmates for being ugly and went to sleep everyday knowing she was ugly. She was constantly reminded of her ugliness as her mother told her everyday, as she kissed her good-night: “So and so is such a lovely little girl, unlike you.” So that the little girl grew up fully aware of her position in the world. Then one day, as if by some force of magic, the little ugly girl became beautiful. She learned to guard her beauty the way Adam guarded his apple. She brandished her beauty like a battle flag against those less beautiful than her. But once in a while, she came across ones more beautiful than her. Whenever this happened she went to sleep a little girl haunted by good-night kisses, and as soon as the city fell to lightless slumber she shrank body and soul into a yellow tulip.

The last story she told me was about the death of a planet called Earth. One fine summer morning Earth awoke having lost its memories. Without memory Earth fell to temporary chaos, but in time its inhabitants returned to their senses and a committee was formed to reconstruct memories. The committee tried many things, like abducting the Martian identity (having reduced the planet to ashes) and traveling back in time to relearn history piece by piece. There were many other things the committee had tried that Yulin hasn’t told me. It was a long story. Earth didn’t really die in the end. It just wasn’t Earth anymore.

8

Jing Li is aristocratic when it comes to coins and cigarettes. He makes a point of collecting only the most expensive of coins and smoking only where it is not allowed. Only then they are worth the squandering of money and corruption of nicotine, he says. Now he offers me a cigarette. We are on the balcony and he is trying to corrupt me.

“Come on, have one,” he says.

“No,” I say.

“Take it. It will make you feel different.”

I take the cigarette and put it between my teeth. Jing Li lights it. “Inhale,” he says.

I do as told. My cheeks inflate as I inhale. Now they have departed from the teeth so far they hurt, and I swallow. The fire climbs down the root of my tongue to chest and heart and lungs to form a flammatory circulation round and round my organs. I cough.

“You’re not supposed to swallow,” says Jing Li. “How do you feel?”

“Dry,” I say. There are small sharp particles in my throat.

“You’ll come to like it.”

We drape our arms over the rail. Two little hands trapped behind the glass wall of my watch form a straight line. It is sunset. The sky is covered in flames. Everyday I see the same skyscrapers catch fire, their naked tops tinted the color of blood. But they never topple.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A historian, I guess.”

“I thought you wanted to be a construction worker.”

Not anymore. Not right now. We have enough skyscrapers, all right. What’s important is to remember them before they topple.

“You know why I like smoking?”

“Why?” I say.

“Same as why I like coin-collecting.”

I do not know why Jing Li likes coin-collecting.

“It makes you feel different, you know? To just look at those fine lines and letters and know they belong to you, they that used to belong to some English aristocrat of royal blood and heavenly mansions. You realize how commonplace the things you once worshipped are. How the sky is always two times higher than the vertex you perceive. Literature pales in the face of a good coin’s material greatness. You look at it and you possess it and you rise. You know more about history than any historian.”

“You do?”

“Hell yes I do.”

10

My journal goes like this:

The sky is very dark at the moment, there is rain and mist in the air. I enjoy the mist very much. It makes you wonder whether the sky is dark or bright underneath. One thing is certain: tonight the rain is black, like soot. I was walking under it and felt it beating black and particulate against my surface. Though you can never be certain. One moment the sky is dark. The next it changes. Any moment it changes. Sometimes I hold my breath counting how many seconds it takes to change. It is a meaningless exercise. It will always change, no matter how long it takes.

And on and on in chronological order.

Mum says: “It is smog, not mist.” Mum knows much about smog. “Why do you keep such a meaningless journal, anyway?”

I shake my head. I have no idea. I suppose we are all afraid of turning into tulips. We all need something to hang on to.

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