Thanks to Charlie again for editing this chapter. Thanks to Geoff for pointing out a few habbits I brought from Chinese language into English. Both of you helped a lot!
5.1 The age of innocence
Ever since David's death, kids no longer gave me the cold treatment. After I joined junior high and was elected as the class president, I was even popular. I didn't realize it, but my personality gradually changed. I used to be quiet and standoffish, putting up a cold image to protect the sensitive kid underneath. Now I laughed often and talked often.
Transferring to a new class was more difficult than I imagined. The major problem was Carl, the president of the class I just joined. Carl was a good-looking boy. He was smart. There was a big red paper hanging on the classroom wall. On the paper were the midterm exam results of every student. Privacy was still a concept too modern for old China at that time. On top of the list was Carl. The problem was my overall grades in that midterm were higher than Carl's, and he knew it.
My new classmates made the situation worse for me. Whenever they had problems with their homework, they would ask someone for a hand. Carl was very reluctant to help out. Maybe he was just lazy, or maybe he was afraid others would catch up and surpass him. As for me, I didn't care. If kids were smarter, whether I helped or not, they would surpass me sooner or later any way, right? So, usually I took time to answer questions. I was better liked than Carl because of that.
Another thing was, Carl raised his hand to answer questions during classes all the time; whereas knowing the answers, I usually kept them to myself. Teachers might appreciate Carl's efforts but not the students. It was considered not so cool to raise hands and answer teachers' questions.
I thought I was no threat to Carl. I got a "severe warning," which eliminated any possibility of me being a class president or earning any other honors. Still, Carl felt threatened and gave me a difficult time.
Everyday, a group of students needed to clean the classroom after the last session in the afternoon. We shared the duties in turn. However, I was always given the worst job, which was to mope the floor. It was the worst because I had to wait until all other jobs were done.
I was unhappy but could do nothing about it. It was in the class president's power to assign jobs. So besides the Tuesday and Thursday track team training I ended up leaving school late almost everyday. I decided the best revenge was to do better in final exams than Carl.
Carl tried to give me the nickname "Dickhead" because I had curly hair, which was very rare for a Chinese. For most boys only pubic hair curled so Carl called me "Dickhead." He pretended he was joking but I knew he was just trying to hurt me.
Kids started to call me "Dickhead" but I never answered them or show any anger. I just pretended they were calling someone else. When they got zero response from me, they got bored pretty soon and stopped, except for Carl.
Luke thought it was funny, so from time to time he would call me "Dickhead." I knew how to deal with him. Whenever he called me "Dickhead," I would call him "Pretty Boy." I knew he hated it because it embarrassed him. I didn't think Luke realized how handsome he was. He was not the type who would look at themselves in mirrors. Very soon we had an mutual understanding and stopped calling each other names.
Now I rode home together with Luke on my bike more often. Usually he played soccer after school. I would finish my mopping duty and go to look for him in the field. Once he saw me, he would say to others, "My boy's here. I have to go." Then he ran to me. That always put a smile on my face.
One day I decided to learn how to ride my bike with another person sitting on the back. I told Luke that I wanted to practice with him. He whined?but I was determined. It took me several hours to finally learn to control the bike with switched weight balance. Luke ended up with his ass on the ground at least a dozen times. After that, sometimes I steered, other times he steered. When I steered, I hoped he would put his hands around my waist as I did to him, but that never happened. On the other hand, Luke never complained when I did it.
We talked of all kind of things during the rides. We talked during classes too, but they were hushed otherwise teachers would scold us. Riding home with Luke on my bike, we talked loudly, argued loudly, and laughed out loud. We were young, we were fearless, we were free. The city belonged to us.
It turned colder and colder as the winter deepened. Waking up in the morning, you could see icicles draping from the edge of our roof. Riding became more difficult, even dangerous, because the road became slippery with frost and ice. Luke insisted he did all the steering from then on. I agreed. Another benefit of sitting on the back was that his body would hide me from the wind.
One day even Luke slipped and both of us fell to the ground. I lost some skin in my left hand and there was blood. "Ouch!" I cried out. It hurt.
"Let me have a look." Luke grabbed my hand, checked, and started sucking on the wound. At that time when medicine was insufficient, we learned that saliva could kill germs and clean wounds just fine.
I looked at him. He was totally concentrating on my wound, and he looked so serious. I couldn't help but feel happy, being here, with him.
"Hey, Pretty Boy!" I teased him.
"Dickhead!" he shot back, letting my hand go. "If you ever call me 'Pretty Boy' again, I'll make you my wife,"?he said, making the most ridiculous threat.
"Pretty Boy!" I called him again.
"Ha, then you really want to be my wife!" he said cockily.
"Nah, you are the pretty one so you should be the wife," I said, grinning like a fool.
5.2 It is not stealing if it is a book
One day after school, Luke asked me to ride with him to a bookstore for a newly published Kung-fu novel. Around that time in China, the most popular reading material for high-school girls were love stories from a famous Taiwan writer; for boys they were Kung-fu stories. I read Kung-fu stories too but only the good ones. Luke just loved them all. He convinced (or more accurately, threatened) another student into doing the mopping duty for me. If I wouldn't go, the bookstore was too far for him to walk so I agreed.
As I was checking out books, I noticed Luke's behavior was becoming weird and secretive. It suddenly came to me that he planned to steal the book instead of paying for it.
"What are you doing?" I asked as I went close to his side.
"Hush!" He looked around, giving me a stern look.
"Don't do it. If you get caught, you will go to the Camp again!" I was horrified about the possibility.
"I won't get caught!" he said. Wasn't that what all thieves thought before they were caught? But Luke was stubbon and was beyond reasoning. I also learned he didn't have any money, so there was no way for him to pay for it.
I didn't have any money with me either. But I kept bugging him. Luke got really annoyed and impatient.
"Shut the fuck up and leave me alone!" He practically shouted at me, although in a very low voice.
He was really rude. It hurt but?this was not the time to be getting angry with him. There was no way I could stop him, but it was too risky for him to just go out with the book without paying. I heard that the bookstore installed a few employees pretending to be customers. You wouldn't pay attention to them. You would only pay attention to those who wore a store employee jacket. Then you got caught. And when I looked around, maybe it was just my imagination, but almost everybody looked like a guard in disguise and it seemed to me they were all looking secretly at Luke.
Luke being sent to the Camp again would be like the end of the world to me so I thought really hard and fast for a solution.
"Let me do it!" I told Luke.
"What? No! Your grandma will castrate me if you get caught!" Luke's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He definitely didn't expect I would do something like that. If only he knew what kind of things I would do for him.
"Don't worry. I know what I am doing." Before he could protest again, I grabbed the book from his hand and went to the cashier.
"I want this book." I told the cashier, pretending to search for my wallet. There was a long line waiting. To speed things up, the cashier put the "SOLD" mark on the book before I paid. Then I pretended I couldn't find my wallet, said "Sorry," and left.
The cashier murmured something unhappily and called someone over to put the book back to a shelf. Seeing this done I told Luke, "Go get the book."
Now he finally understood what I was doing and smiled. He went there, grabbed the book, and walked out of the door casually, showing the doorman the "SOLD" mark on the book.
Once out, he ruffled my hair and laughed, "Kid, I knew you were smart - but I never knew just how smart!"
"Shut the fuck up!" It sounded so weird when I cursed but it sure did feel good. I wasn't proud of myself for cursing but I really needed to curse at that moment. I wasn't proud of myself for stealing either but if this kept Luke from going to the Camp again then it was worth it.
I didn't ask Luke how many more times he tried my trick. I hoped not too many.
A famous Chinese writer once said in the 1930s, "Stealing a book does not count as stealing." What he meant was craving for knowledge was instead a virtue. This saying was in our textbook and every Chinese grew up knowing it. After that day, whenever someone quoted this saying, I would feel a little uncomfortable inside.
Count or not, that's the only stealing I've ever did in my life. Have I ever regretted that I did it for Luke? Never.
Two days later when Luke finished reading this book, he put it into his schoolbag. Usually the books he finished, he just gave to the other boys. Noticing my stare, he explained, "This is the proof of your crime, kid. I am keeping it. If you ever disobey me I'll report you to authorities."
5.3 What did I do?
Those days the only time I got to hang out with Alison was Saturday afternoons. That was before Saturday mornings became a part of weekends so we still had classes on a Saturday morning. Alison would come home with me after classes, have lunch at our house, and we would do things together in the afternoons.
Jenny always behaved when Luke or Alison was around. She really liked Luke, and she was really afraid of Alison. Sometimes I felt sorry for Jenny, because she was having the same problem I did at her age: kids her age refused to play with her because of Grandpa. She was lonely and she needed attention, but still, she was an annoying brat.
Another thing for Jenny was that her teachers were all my old teachers. Jenny was a slow learner so teachers always complained, "How could your cousin be so smart and you be so dumb?" Psychological damage? We didn't recognize and acknowledge such things in China.
I tried to tutor her when she hadn't pissed me off. Many times after I explained a simple concept repeatedly and still she didn't get it, I ended up raising my voice in frustration and she ended up screaming or crying. I actually was good at explaining things. Jenny just wasn't very smart.
I could never get Jenny to do anything for me but when Alison was around, she could get Jenny to do anything. It seemed like we had ourselves a little servant.
That specific Saturday afternoon, Jenny needed to finish her homework so my aunt could take her home for Sunday without worrying about homework. Jenny, however, refused to work on it because Alison and I were there playing. Grandma became frustrated and told us to go somewhere else.
Alison hesitated for a moment before suggesting, "Why don't we go to my place?"
I had accompanied Alison many times to her place but she never invited me in so I was curious about her home. She told me that her parents wouldn't be home until dinnertime and it was still only one o'clock so we were safe.
We went there. It was not a house but an apartment building that belonged to her dad's factory. They lived on the third floor. We entered, and I was astonished. They had a color TV set, a piano, a cassette player, a set of speakers, and a lot of other stuff I couldn't even recognize. Alison looked embarrassed. "Dad doesn't want me to bring any classmates home." She tried to explain, and I could understand why. They were apparently much wealthier than other people. She was just showing me her room, and suddenly we heard the apartment door opening.
"Oh crap!" She looked really worried. "Quick! Here!" She led me into their bathroom and shut the door. Then I heard Alison asking, "Dad, why are you home so early?"
"I am a little tired so I came home for a quick nap. I'll have to go back to work later," her dad answered.
I got really nervous. I knew we were not doing anything we were not supposed to do,?but if he opened the bathroom door and saw me there, he would definitely think Alison and I were doing something really bad.
Luckily, he just went to his bedroom and Alison quietly opened the door and beckoned me out. She was putting on her shoes and asked me to turn off the light in their corridor. I saw a button and pressed. Unfortunately it was not the button for the light but for the doorbell. That was actually the first time I encountered a doorbell. Her dad came out immediately and saw me, "Hey Jake, I didn't know you were here."
I didn't know what to say, so I answered honestly, "We are about to leave."
"OK. Have fun then." He was nice and polite. I didn't see why Alison had to be so secretive with me being here.
Alison looked really pissed off. She called me "stupid" and refused to talk to me for the whole afternoon. We ended up sitting on a public bench with me reading a book and her doing nothing but watching birds.
5.4 A fight over beer
Grandpa seldom talked about the glory days when our family still had tons of money and land. Whenever Grandma started telling me stories about those days, Grandpa would stop her. How they could adjust from being extermely wealthy to having next to nothing was beyond my imagination. However, in late 80s, food supplies were improving rapidly. That said, considering there was such a large population in China, products were still far from abundant so the government still had to allocate important resources per person through a rationing system instead of letting us buy freely with money.
Besides more food, a few luxuries started to appear, like beer. I thought it was some new invention, but Grandpa said that beer was available decades ago. Then it just disappeared. After many years it resurfaced in stores again, though in very limited supply. Every house was assigned one bottle and everyday you could use the empty bottle and some money in exchange for a new bottle. In our house Grandpa got to drink the beer. He let me sip from his cup once but I didn't like the taste so I didn't try again.
Usually around dinnertime, Grandpa would send me to the local store to buy a new bottle. One day I dropped the bottle and it broke. After that Grandpa had to switch back to his home-made rice wine. I felt really bad because I knew Grandpa loved beer. I looked everywhere, hoping to find a beer bottle but I had no success.
One day I saw Luke standing in front of his house drinking a bottle of beer and talking with a buddy of his. When his buddy left I went over. I thought he was drinking his dad's beer but surprisingly, they had two bottles in their house. I asked immediately, "Where did you get the extra bottle?"
"I bought it. Ten bucks."
I was shocked. Ten Chinese dollars was a lot of money at that time. A a month's food for four of us ? Grandpa, Grandma, Jenny, and me - only cost about forty dollars.
"Where did you get so much money?" I asked, worrying that he stole it from someone. Stealing was definitely not beyond Luke. I never critisized him about anything he did of which I wouldn't approve, but that did not mean I wouldn't be upset when he did something crazy.
He looked around, and then said in a very low voice, "Kid, if I tell you, you have to keep it a secret."
I nodded, and my worrying deepened.
"I earned it."
Luke then explained it to me. Our city had about two million souls at that time and it had only two movie theaters. Now that the government allowed movie importation from outside China, movie tickets were really hot items. Luke and his buddies would wait in line two or three hours before they started selling tickets, and buy as many as they could afford. Then once the tickets were sold out, they would sell their tickets at twice or even three times the original price.
"But is that legal?" I questioned in concern.
"Who cares?" Luke answered with his usual attitude.
I thought for a while. Maybe I could do it too. It was quick money. If I got ten dollars I could buy a bottle and Grandpa could enjoy beer again. So I asked Luke, "Can I join you?"
"Kid, that's not something you should do. Why do you need money anyway?" Luke asked. Usually in my house, I told Grandma whatever I needed and she would buy it for me. I carried some small cash for an icecream during summer or a hot deep-fried dumpling in the afternoons during cold days but that was it. I never needed a large amount.
Then I explained to Luke how I broke the beer bottle, and how Grandpa couldn't have beer anymore.
"Take this." He offered his bottle to me.
"No, I can't. It's a lot of money."
"It's OK. I'll buy another one. I plan to buy a bike too, but that has to wait another month or so. Then I can ride my own bike with you."
I was definitely not happy hearing this. I considered riding one bike with Luke as our special thing. I enjoyed it tremendously and I thought he did too. Apparently he didn't because now he wanted to end it. I didn't know if this was the reason, or if it was the fact I had never accepted expensive things from non-families before so, in any event, I stubbonly declined Luke's offer.
That night after dinner, Luke came into our house with his beer bottle and offered it to Grandpa. Grandpa was surprised and asked, "Where did you get the extra bottle?"
"Oh, my uncle didn't like beer so he gave it to us. We really only need one." Luke knew Grandpa well enough to understand that if he said he bought it or found it somewhere, Grandpa wouldn't accept it. While he was telling this lie he kept glancing at me.
Grandpa was pleased. He thanked Luke and accepted the bottle. I was really struggling, but seeing the happiness on Grandpa's face, I couldn't bring myself to tell him the truth. I didn't know why, but I was extremely upset and extremely angry with Luke.
I went into my bedroom, and Luke followed. Once we were alone, I suddenly erupted, "I told you I don't want your bottle." There was such strong anger in my voice Luke almost looked frightened.
"Hey, I didn't give it to you. I gave it to your grandpa." He tried to get out of this with a lame excuse and he tried to grin at me, which only made me more furious. Once my temper arose above certain level, I became capable of saying really mean things that usually I wouldn't say, and I said to Luke, "We don't want anything to do with your dirty money."
Luke's grin suddenly froze then died slowly. It was replaced by a really hurt expression. A dark shadow came to his eyes. He didn't say anything further. He just stood up and left silently.
That night I totally could not sleep. I went over the day's events in my head again, again, and again; whenever I thought of the moment Luke's grin slowly died, my heart would break into millions of pieces.
Next day early in morning, I entered Luke's house and his bedroom. He was still sleeping in bed, his quilt covering his head. I stood there for a while, listening to his light snore. Then suddenly he awoke and opened his eyes. He stared at me.
It took me another a minute or two before I could say, "Luke, about yesterday, I am sorry."
He simply said, "Yeah."
I rehearsed an long apology many times in my head, but it was still extremely difficult to put them up front to Luke. I ended up staring at the windows in silence, full of misery.
"It's OK." Luke suddenly said, sitting up and putting a jacket over his shoulders.
"Will you forgive me?" I asked, unable to meet his eyes.
"Oh kid, I will forgive you anything."