July 20, 1991. Picked up my university diploma at the service window of the registrar’s office. It was so big I had to carry it with both hands. I dropped it twice walking on campus. The first time it fell by the sidewalk, into the mud. I wiped it off with my shirt. The second time the wind blew it away. I chased after it ruefully. All the corners were bent. In my heart, I held back an embarrassed laugh.
When you come visit, will you bring me some presents? the Crocodile wanted to know.
Very well, I’ll bring you some new handmade lingerie, said Osamu Dazai.
I’ll give you the most beautiful picture frame on earth, would you like that? said Yukio Mishima.
I’ll plaster your bathroom walls with copies of my Waseda degree, said Haruki Murakami.
And that’s where it all began. Enter cartoon music (insert the closing theme to Two Tigers).
Forgot to return my student ID and library card, but didn’t realize it. At first I’d actually lost them. Nineteen days later, both were anonymously returned to me in an envelope, instantly transforming their loss into a lie. But I couldn’t stop using them, either, just out of convenience. Also didn’t take my driver’s exam too seriously. Took it four times and failed, although two of those times were due to factors entirely beyond my control. What’s even better, I publicly claim to have failed only twice. Whatever, I don’t care…
Locked the door. Shut the windows. Took the phone off the hook and sat down. And that’s how I wrote. I wrote till I was exhausted, smoked two cigarettes, went into the bathroom and took a cold shower. Outside were the torrential winds and rain of typhoon season. Halfway undressed, I realized there was no soap left. Got dressed again. Emerged from the bedroom with a bar of soap, then climbed back into the shower. That’s how it is, writing a bestseller.
With soap in hand, and the sound of late-night radio in the background. There was a sudden clatter, as if a fuse had blown. I was enveloped in silence and pitch darkness. The power had gone out. Nobody else was around, so I ran out of the bathroom completely naked, searching for a candle without so much as a lighter. Carried three tiny tealights with me into the kitchen, stumbling into an electric floor fan along the way. Tried to light them on the gas burner, but the wax instantly melted down to the very bottom. There was nothing left to try. I threw open the door to the balcony and stepped outside to cool off. I hoped I would catch a glimpse of other kindred souls standing naked on their balconies. That’s how it is, writing a serious literary work.
Even if this is neither popular or serious, at least it’s sensational. Five cents a word.
It’s about getting a diploma and writing.
In the past, I believed that every man carried in him the innate prototype of a woman, and that he would love the woman who most resembled this prototype. Although I am a woman, I also share this prototype of a woman.
My prototype of a woman was the type who would appear in hallucinations at the last moments of your freezing to death at the top of an icy mountain, a mythical beauty who blurred the line between dreams and reality. For four years, that’s what I believed. And I wasted all of my university days–during which I had the most courage and honesty I would ever have towards life–because of it.
I don’t believe it anymore. It’s like the impromptu sketch of a street artist, a little drawing taped to my wall. When I finally learned to leave it behind, I gradually stopped believing it, and in doing so, sold an entire collection of priceless treasures for next to nothing. It was then that I realized I should leave behind some sort of record before the entire vial of my memories ran dry. I knew that these feelings would vanish one day, as if they had been only a dream, and that the list of what had been bought and sold–and at what price–would never be recovered.
It’s like a two-sided warning sign. The back says: Don’t believe it. The front says: Wield the axe of cruelty. It dawned on me one day, as if I were writing my own name for the very first time: cruelty and mercy are in fact one and the same. Existence in this world relegates good and evil to the exact same status. Cruelty and evil are but natural, and together they are endowed with half the power and half the utility in this world. As for the cruelty of fate, it seems, I have to learn to be crueler if I’m to become the master of the situation.
Wielding the axe of cruelty against life, against myself, against others. It’s a rule that conforms to animal instinct, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics–and is the axis of all four. And the comma that punctuated being 22.
Shui-Ling. Wenzhou Street. The white bench in front of the French bakery. The #74 bus.
We sit at the back of the bus, the aisle between us. Shui-Ling and I occupy the window seats on either side. The December fog is sealed off behind a layer of glass. Dusk starts to set in at six. Taipei is now devoured in a sea of black. Traffic creeps along Heping East Road. At the outer edge of the Taipei Basin, where the sky meets the horizon, is the last wedge of a dark orange sun whose natural radiance floods through the windows and spills onto the traffic behind us, as if the blessing of some mysterious force.
Silent, exhausted passengers pack into the aisle, heads hanging, bodies propped against the seats, stone oblivious. Through a gap between their draping winter coats, I peer over at her, trying to contain the enthusiasm in my voice.
“Did you look outside?” I say in my most ingratiating tone.
“Mmm,” comes her barely audible reply.
After a light pause to frame the moment, Shui-Ling and I are sitting together in that hermetically sealed bus. Through the windows around us, the dark silhouettes of human figures wind the streets in a magnificent night scene, gorgeous and restrained. The two of us are content. We look happy. But underneath, there is already a strain of something dark, malignant. Just how bitter it would become, we didn’t know.
In 1987, I broke free from the draconian university entrance exam system and enrolled in university. People in this city are manufactured and canned, brought up to live for nothing but taking tests and earning money. The 18-year-old me went through the high-grade production line and got processed in three years, despite the fact that I was pure carrion inside.
That fall, in October, I moved into a second-floor apartment on Wenzhou Street. The original tenants were a married couple who had graduated a few years earlier. From the four remaining rooms, they gave me one with a huge window overlooking an alley. The two rooms across from mine were rented by a pair of sisters. The young married couple was always in the living room watching TV. They spent a fair amount of time on our coffee-colored sofa. “We got married our senior year,” they told me, smiling. But most of the time, they didn’t say a word. The two sisters would spend all evening in one of their rooms watching a different channel. Passing by the door, you could hear bits of lively conversation. I didn’t see my housemates unless I had to. I came and went on my own, as if we didn’t exist.
So, even though five inhabitants shared a spacious apartment with four bedrooms and a living room, it was about as tranquil as a deaf home.
I lived alone. Lived in the night. I’d wake up at midnight and ride my bike, a red Giant, to a nearby store where I’d buy dried noodles, pork thick soup, spring rolls, and the like. Then I’d come home and read while I ate. Take a shower, do laundry. No human sounds. No lights. I’d write in my journal all night, or just read. I was fascinated with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. I devoured books about spiritual suffering. Started collecting issues of the independence movement weekly. Studied up on political game theory. Couldn’t get any further from spiritual, really. But it brought certain results, namely recuperation and the swift instillment of fortitude. At the break of dawn, around 6 or 7, like a nocturnal creature afraid of light, I’d finally lay my head–which, by then, was brimming with thoughts–down onto the comforter. That’s how it went when things were good. Most of the time, however, I didn’t eat a single thing all night. Didn’t shower. Couldn’t get out of bed. Didn’t write in my journal or talk. Didn’t peruse a single page or detect the sound of another human being. All day long, I’d cry myself sick into my comforter. Sleep was just another luxury.
Didn’t want anyone. People were useless to me. Didn’t need anyone. I’d just get hurt and turn to a life of crime.
Home was a credit card bill footed by Nationalist Party voters. I didn’t need to go back. Being in university gave me a sense of vocation. It exempted me from an oppressive system of social and personal responsibility, which was a matter of going through the motions, turning like a cog while being whipped and beaten by the throngs, and putting on a repentant face for not working hard enough. It made for a manufactured piece-of-trash edifice of an empty shell, strangely enough. It drove my body to retreat into a self-loathing soul, and what’s more, nobody knew it or recognized it, which was even scarier. Two distinct constructs co-existed on a daily basis to comprise my social identity. Each was incessantly writhing towards me with its demands–although, in fact, the supermarket next door encompassed more of me than the abstract noun. Didn’t read the paper. Didn’t watch TV. Didn’t go to class except for gym, and only because the teacher checked attendance. Didn’t go out and meet people, or communicate whatsoever. Didn’t talk to my roommates. The only time I ever spoke at all was evenings or afternoons at the Debate Society, where the peacock would go to preen its feathers and practice a little social interaction.
All too soon, I realized that I was an innately beautiful peacock, and that I really shouldn’t let myself go. However lazy, a peacock still ought to preen its feathers routinely, and having been endowed with such a magnificent set, I couldn’t help but seek the mainstream of society as a mirror. It was hard to help from indulging in a little social strutting with a little peacock swagger, but that’s how it went, and it was a fundamentally bad habit. But there wasn’t a single kindred soul in the world. They say you have to teach yourself to construct the system that allows you to be free. And you have to get used to the idea that in this world, it’s everybody for themselves. It requires a strange self-awareness, in which everything down to the finest detail must be performed before the eyes of the world.
Because there’s time to kill, you have to get through the boredom somehow. In English you’d say run through. That’s more like it.
So she did me wrong. If my old motto was I’m sentencing her to the guillotine, my new motto symbolized a new revelation: The power to construct oneself is destiny. But for you, Shui-Ling. In spite of everything, the truth is: I still can’t take it. I can’t take it. Really, I can’t. No matter how far I’ve come, it’s never enough: the pattern was already in place.
It was around that time in October 1987. I was biking down Royal Palm Boulevard and passed a certain silhouette. I remembered it was her birthday. At that very moment, all of my accumulated grief and fear struck. As I took stock and the numbers leapt in my mind, I more or less knew that I had been rejected. That was the truth. But somehow I thought I could take everything and send it all back.
She had just turned 20. I had turned 18 five months earlier. She and some her friends from high school walked past me, and I managed to catch just a glimpse of her. Her aloofness was a different matter: it was as if an entire lifetime had passed within the blink of an eye. Though they were already off in the distance, I could still see the glow of her smile. It left me with the acute sense that she was someone who naturally drew adoration and affection from others, that she was someone who radiated pure, childlike, contentment.
Even now, I’m still in awe of her innate power to command such devotion, the beauty of that power, and her ability to leave onlookers forsaken. She kept only a handful of friends. In the past, the people around her had clung too tight; it wasn’t just their hands but their stares. She didn’t need any more of that, and it wasn’t much of a decision. She was already trapped and suffocating. Whenever I was around her, I’d become clingy, too. When I wasn’t by her side, I felt as though I couldn’t get other people to open up, when in fact, she was even more impossible to open up. That’s how it worked. It was her inborn gift.
I didn’t see her my entire senior year of high school. I was careful to avoid her. Didn’t dare take the initiative, though I longed for her to notice me in the crowd. An upperclassman and my senior, she was an ominous character, a black spade. To shuffle and draw it again was even more ominous.
The lecture hall for Introduction to Chinese Literature was packed. I got there late and had to sheepishly drag my chair, which was even higher than the rostrum, all the way to the front row. The professor had to pause her lecture to let me through. In the meantime, all the other sheep turned and gawked at me and my antics. Towards the end of class, someone passed a note from behind: Hey, can I talk to you after class? Shui-Ling. She had sought me out. I knew it would happen. Even if I had switched to a different section, she would have sought me out all the same. She, who hid in the crowd, who didn’t want anyone to see her behind her veil of averted eyes and aloofness. When I stepped forward, she came out, too. And she pointed and said, revealing a child’s wanton smile: “That’s the one I want.” And like a potted sunflower that had just been sold to a customer, I was taken away. There was no way to refuse. This, from a beautiful girl that I was already deeply, viscerally attracted to. Things were getting good. There she was, standing before me. She brushed the waves of her hair away from her face with a charm that was instantly etched across my heart like a tattoo in one painful scorch. Her feminine radiance was overpowering. I was about to get knocked out of the ring. It was clear that from that moment on, things would never be equal between us. How could they, with me under the table, scrambling to summon a different me, the one she would revere. No way was I coming out.
“What are you doing in here?” I was so anxious that I had to blurt out something. She didn’t say a word or seem the least bit embarrassed.
“Did you switch to this department to make up a class?” She didn’t look up at me. She just stood there, dragging one foot behind her in the hallway, and didn’t say a thing, as if this conversation had nothing to do with her.
“How’d you know I switched?” She abruptly broke her silence. Her eyes were shimmering with amazement, and I could finally look into them. She now gazed back at me, wide-eyed.
“Well, of course I’d know!” I didn’t want her to think I’d been noticing her. “You finally said something!” I said, heaving an exaggerated sigh of relief. She smiled at me shyly, even teasingly, and I let out a huge laugh, relieved that I’d made her smile. Even the most ordinary smile was like rays of sunshine along a golden beach.
She told me that she started to feel anxious as soon as I walked into the room. She wanted to talk to me, but didn’t know what to say. I pointed to her shoelaces. She gingerly leaned forward to tie them. But when she saw me, she couldn’t bring herself to say something, and then she didn’t want to say anything, so then she just stood there. She threw her purple canvas backpack over her shoulder and crouched on the floor. As she started talking, I felt the sudden urge to reach over and touch her long hair, which looked so soft and supple. You don’t know a thing, but I figured it all out in an instant, I told her silently in my heart. I reached over and held her backpack instead, and feeling mildly contented by the closeness of its weight, hoped that she would go on tying her shoes.
It was already six by the time class ended. Shadows flickered across the university grounds, and the evening breeze was lilting in the air. I grabbed my bike and took off. I sailed down the main campus thoroughfare, which seemed so clean and wide, keeping with the leisurely pace of the traffic. I didn’t know if I was following her, or if she was following me. Within a year’s time, the two of us would grow to cherish our ambiguous rapport, at once intimate and unfamiliar, and tempered by moments of silent confrontation.
“Why did you come over and talk to me?” In my heart I already knew too much, but I pretended to know nothing.
“Why wouldn’t I talk to you?” She sounded slightly irritated. It was dusk, and the shadows fell across her face, so I couldn’t read her expression, but as soon as she spoke, I could tell she’d had a tough freshman year. There was a curious note of dejection in her answer. I already knew her all too well.
“I’m just an underclassman you’ve seen like three times!” I nearly exploded.
“Not even,” she said coolly to herself.
My eyes were fixed on her long skirt as it wafted in the breeze. “Weren’t you worried that I wouldn’t remember you, or didn’t want to talk to you?”
“I knew you weren’t like that.” Her reaction was perfectly composed, as if everything to do with me were already set in stone.
We reached the school gates, not quite sure what to do next. She seemed to be hinting that she wanted to see where I lived. The way she said it seemed to convey a touch of familial kindness, almost like a tough but pliable cloth whose inner softness made my heart ache. Besides, as they say, if the flood waters are rushing straight toward you, what are you going to do to stop it? This was how she naturally treated me, for no apparent reason. I took her towards Xinsheng South Road, back to Wenzhou Street.
“How’s this year going?” I tried to break through her gloom.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She squeezed her eyes shut and made a slight grimace, as if trying to forget.
“You don’t want to tell me?” I was practically edging her onto the road. I was sure she was going to get hit by a car.
She shook her head. “I don’t want to tell anyone.”
“How did you get this way?” It pained the depths of my heart to hear her utter such nonsense.
“Yeah, well, I’ve changed.” Her eyes flickered with a haughtiness and arrogance that underscored the boldness of her statement.
“Into what?” Her answer was so immature that I felt tempted to tease her.
“I’ve just changed, that’s all. I’m not the same person I was in high school.” There was self-hatred in the viciousness of her tone.
To hear those words, “I’ve changed,” was truly sad. The traffic lights flooded Xinsheng South Road, with an opulent yellow. We wandered along the red brick wall that encircled the suburbs, clinging to the giant steel fence for balance. To our left was the opulent glow of the road. To our right was the boundless jet black of suburban hinterlands, teeming with the majestic splendor of solitude. There’s nothing that won’t change, do you understand? I said in my heart. “Can you count the number of lights that are on in that building over there?” I pointed to a brand-new high-rise at the intersection.
“Uh, I see lights in five windows, so maybe like, five?” she said brightly.
Just wait and see how many there are later on. Will you still remember? I asked myself, answering with a nod.
The first semester, she was my lifeline. I took to a clandestine form of dating–that is, the kind where the person you’re going out with doesn’t know it’s a date. I denied myself, and I denied the fact that she was part of my life, so much so that I denied the dotted line that connected the two of us and our entire relationship to a crime. But the eye of suspicion had been cast upon me from the very beginning, and this extraordinary eye reached all the way back to my adolescence. My hair had started to gray early. Life ahead was soon supplanted by a miserable prison sentence. It was as if I never really had a youth. But still, I was determined at all costs to make myself into a figure of great tenderness and compassion. And so I locked myself and that eye together in a dark closet. Every Sunday night, however, I was forced to think about her. It was a dreadful ordeal. I’d resolve not to go to Intro to Chinese Lit, and every Monday I would sleep in until it was almost 3, though I’d naturally wake up in time to rush to class on my bike. Every Monday after class, Shui-Ling would matter-of-factly follow me back to Wenzhou Street, as if she were merely passing by on her way home. Afterwards, I’d wait with her for the #74 bus. There was a bench in front of the French bakery. Our secret little rendezvous were like that: tidy and simple. Executed with the casual deftness of a high-class burglar–bribing the guards with one hand, feeding an avaricious greed with the other. Other times, we would hardly keep in touch, and I barely even thought of her. She was an apparition seen only on Mondays. On Mondays, an offering to my death, she would come to appease me with roses, draped in white muslin, barefoot, and floating. Her primal mating dance, with eyes closed, in rapture. Rose petals scattered into the wilderness. She made me an offering, and she didn’t even know. A bouquet of roses every week, and among roses it seemed that I might still be alive. It was a new life in which I could reach for those roses, only to find a glass wall. When I outstretched my hand, I discovered it was my own reflection. When Monday ended, the glass wall grew even thicker.
The room on Wenzhou Street. Elegant maroon wallpaper and yellow curtains. What did I even talk to her about in there? She sat on the floor, in the crack between the foot of the wooden bedframe and the wardrobe, with her back to me, almost silent. I talked nonstop. Most of the time it was just me talking. Talking about whatever. Talking about my horrible, painful life experiences. Talking about every person I’d ever gotten entangled with and couldn’t let go of. Talking about my own complexities, my own eccentricities. She was always playing with something in her hands. She would look up at me in disbelief and ask me how I was complex, how I was eccentric. She accepted me. It amounted to negating my negation of myself. Those sincere eyes, like a mirror, hurt me. But she accepted me. In my anguish, I said You don’t understand about every third sentence. You don’t understand. Her eyes were suffused with a deep, translucent light, the ocean gazing at me, silently, as if it were not necessary to speak at all. You don’t understand. She thought she understood. But either way, she accepted me. Years later, I realized that had been the whole point. Those wrenching eyes, which could lift the entire skeleton of my being. I longed to be devoured by the ocean of her eyes. That symbol, from then on, would continue to burn me every second and minute. The brace of those eyes formed a bridge to the outside world, but for the scarlet mark of sin and the deep-set imprint of abandonment, the ocean’s yearning.
I am a woman who loves women. The tears I cry, they spring from a river, and drain across my face like yolk.
My time was gradually consumed by tears. The whole world loves me, but what does it matter since I hate myself? Humanity stabs a bayonet into a baby’s chest, fathers who have daughters yank them into the bathroom for a beating, handicapped midgets drag themselves onto highway overpasses to let everyone know they’re about to go, just to get a little spare change, and mental patients have no way of suppressing their hallucinations, their suicidal urges. How can the world be this cruel? A human being has only so much in them. Yet we must learn from experience until we arrive at the maddening conclusion that The world wrote you off a long time ago, or until we finally accept the prison sentence forced upon us: Your existence is but a crime. And the world keeps turning as if nothing happened. The forced smiles on the faces of the lucky ones almost certainly say it all: just do it. Do it to avoid getting stabbed in the chest with a bayonet, taking a beating, dragging yourself out to the highway overpass, or checking yourself into a mental institution. No one knows about your tragedy, and the world cunningly evaded its responsibility a long time ago. All you know is that you’ve been crucified for something, and you’re going to spend the rest of your life feeling like no one’s going to help you, there’s no way out, and you’re in it alone. Life imprisonment is what separates you from other people. On top of it all, humanity tells me I’m lucky. Hanging around my neck are name tags that read The Luckiest Breed, and if I don’t put on a satisfied expression in front of the mirror, they’ll all be disappointed.
Shui-Ling, please don’t knock on my door anymore. You don’t know how dark it is here in my heart. I don’t know who I am at all. What’s ahead of me is unclear, yet I must move forward. I don’t want to become myself. I know the answer to the riddle, but I can’t stand to have it revealed. The first time I saw you, I knew I would fall in love with you. That my love would be wild, raging, and passionate, but also illicit. That it could never develop into anything, and instead, it would split apart like pieces of a landslide. As flesh and blood, I was not distinct. You turned the me that opened up into my own key, and when you did, my fears seized me in a flood of tears that soon vanished. I rid myself of all my self-hate and discovered the corporeal me.
She didn’t understand. Didn’t understand she could love me, maybe that she already did love me. Didn’t understand that beneath the hide of a lamb was a demonic beast that had to suppress the urge to rip her to shreds. Didn’t understand that love, every little bit of it, was about exchange. Didn’t understand that she caused me suffering. Didn’t understand that love was like that.
She gave me a puzzle in a box. She put the pieces together patiently, one by one, and completed the picture of me.