When we decided to go on that sakura trip together, I had already fallen in love with you. For the first two dates, I didn’t fall for you.
On the first date, I talked about Dazai Osamu and his five suicide attempts, and how I resembled him in every possible way. I talked about Yukio Mishima, the way he liked to present himself as a samurai and hid his weakness behind that mask. I talked about Ishikawa Takuboku, who died at the age of 26. Precocious poets always die young. Later that night, I escorted you to the F train. You apologized to me, saying that you didn’t know much about Japanese literature. I said it was fine.
On the second date, we had ramen in a small Japanese restaurant. I talked about my favorite poets. I recited Bei Dao’s masterpiece "The Answer" to you. I talked about Qin Sanpeng, a poet who, just like me, was a college student. How he was gentle with every word he wrote. I talked about my poems. Showed several of my newly written love poems to you. You smiled and told me that you loved the image of a white horse with a green plum in its mouth. I told you initially it was me holding the plum in my mouth but I decided to put it in the mouth of the horse. You laughed. Your fluttering eyelashes were my undoing. Later, I escorted you to the N train. You apologized to me. You said that you didn’t read so much poetry. I smiled and said it was OK.
I went back home and took a shower, thinking about you the whole time: how gorgeous you looked and how exceptionally little you knew about everything. The next morning, you texted me seven short paragraphs and asked me if they were poems. I swept through the lines. I asked you where you found those poems. Your taste was not bad, I said to myself.
Later, I went to my fiction workshop. Nobody loved the newest chapter of my novel, which was about a mad man who fell in love with his cat and his even-madder therapist who tried to convince him to love his cup instead, so that he would have his love by his side all his life. I thought it was a genius idea but nobody seemed to understand, which was fine.
Eating alone on the staircase near Low Library, I received your message. “That was stuff I wrote a few years ago.” A large chunk of chicken fell from my mouth. I read and reread the lines:
In a desperate afternoon, I pushed the setting sun off the cliff. Bloody water roared, revealed the body of a giant fish. In the flame of the East Sea, I buried my head under her wings. To avoid the arrestment of Truth, I surrendered King Dragon’s Palace. ‘Til thunder used tears to draw three crosses on my naked back. Son of the Wind.
Who would believe a girl in her early twenties could write such a poem?
“Those were so good. So much better than mine. And I was talking about poetry nonstop last night.” I answered quickly. You said that you loved my poems and asked me to send more to you. I was so ashamed of myself; this whole time, I didn’t know a genius poet was sitting in front of me, playing dumb. I behaved like a fool.
I Googled your name and found your blog. In the past five years, you had written 2,586 posts and I read them line by line. Through the lines I knew how you felt about your lost love, about everything. I knew you loved hotpot with pineapple green tea. You had a small tattoo above your ankle, a pattern symbolizing eternity. You had a piano teacher who loved you like a daughter and was hurt when you gave up practicing. You lost your first love when she went to Australia and you never forgave her for that. You quarreled with your family about choosing oil-painting as a major for your master’s degree. After that, you locked yourself in your room, pressed your knees against your heart and cried. I felt so close to you.
On the third date, I told you about my first love. How it nearly ruined my life. I told you how I found out my girlfriend was cheating on me but she made it look like the whole thing was her ex-boyfriend’s fault. I wrote an email to him, urging him to stop harassing her. The next morning, he posted my email on his Renren, the Chinese version of Facebook and made our lesbian relationship a scandal on campus.
“I thought it was my right to ask him to stop, but I forgot, in a clandestine relationship, lovers have no rights at all.” I saw bitterness flaring in your eyes. I knew you understood.
I told you how I called him out to fight and broke several of his ribs. I won the fight not because I was stronger or better, but only because I was willing to die. After that incident, Mom had to cry and beg the dean so that I wouldn’t be expelled. As punishment, I lost my scholarship and was forced to take a year off at home doing nothing. Father stopped talking to me after that. But I didn’t care. Even if the whole world abandoned me, I would still live bravely with my love by my side. But she gave up on me after that. She gave up on us. I sent her 189 texts and called her 75 times. She didn’t answer. But I could hardly blame her. It’s hard to tread a path when one sees no hope ahead. I blamed everyone else. I blamed the ex-boyfriend. I blamed my parents. I blamed my school. I blamed my country for leaving no room for homosexuals to live or breathe. I blamed the whole human system.
“At the age of twenty, I had fallen from the peak of my life. I thought that I had fallen so hard that I would never be able to stand again.”
“But you did.” Our eyes met and I felt warmth gushing in my body.
If there was one thing that would pull me out of my pain and tie me back to this world, it would be finding the right girl and keeping her by my side for the rest of my life. We would sit by the fire and talk all night. We would talk about Wilde, about Woolf, about Basho, about every writer and poet we liked. I would write my novel on my desk and she would be full of sleep, nodding every now and then til I held her up and gently put her to bed. I hoped very much that this person would be you.
The next Friday, you told me you were sick. I offered to visit you but you refused. I knew you were just being considerate and didn’t want me to go downtown. I brought you porridge. While waiting for you outside of the apartment building, I covered the container with my coat. You didn’t come and you didn’t reply to my texts. I sat on a bench and waited in the wind.
“Why on earth did you come? I told you there was no need.” You finally came downstairs. The fake anger in your voice aroused such tender feelings in me. I knew it was right that I came. You needed me.
I handed you the porridge and apologized that it was cold. You gave me a little hug. Your cheek slightly touched mine. The heat it radiated warmed up my body. But the warmth disappeared the moment you went back to the building. I was shaking all over so I ordered myself an Uber. Waiting for the car, I stared at the revolving doors of the building, hoping to catch a last glimpse of you. After a while, I saw a figure in white reappear in the lobby and I instantly recognized you. Were you coming back for me? My heart was full of hope. You fetched your mail and your figure soon receded into a small dot. On the way back home, I wondered if one day, you would recognize me at the mere sight of my back. Were you among a crowd of thousands, I knew I could spot you all the same.
That weekend, I asked you whether you felt better and you complained about the weather. It was March and it was snowing in NYC. I assured you that spring was coming and an idea came to my mind. “The Cherry Blossom Festival is coming this weekend. Would you like to go to DC and see the sakura with me?” My heart was pumping quickly while I waited for you to answer. “Yes, how about next weekend?” My heart leaped at the thought that we would spend a night together. I booked the Capital Hilton.
The next week was torture. Time passed slowly, like it was slogging through mud. I was in no mood to write, in no mood to translate, in no mood to read, in no mood to attend classes. In no mood for anything other than looking at your photos on Facebook and the posts you wrote. There was an air of melancholy, of coldness in your downcast eyes and slender arched eyebrows, very light in the tip, like two random strokes in Chinese Shanshui paintings. I loved every bit of you. Every part of your body. Every word you had written.
The day finally came. I checked my bag four times to make sure our tickets were there and left for Penn Station. You wore a pair of dark shades and a camel overcoat. I handed you a double espresso and a bar of chocolate. The same things you ordered on our first date. You answered with a cold thank you. I felt something was not right.
On the train, you took out your PSP and started playing some stupid video game. I hoped you would talk to me but you didn’t. The game went on and on. I took out Notes of a Crocodile but couldn’t read a word. I tried to think of something to say. Asked you about the game. Asked about your work. Asked about your plans for the future. Staring at the screen, you answered with no apparent interest. I soon ran out of words.
We were silent for a long time until I asked you about your visa application.
“I can’t really count on the H1B visa. Last year, more than 200,000 people applied and only 80,000 got chosen. So there is a great chance that I will have to go back to China and start all over again. It’s a really bad time for having a relationship. I can’t bear to have another long-distance relationship.”
My heart sunk. I said, “Timing is not the most important thing. What is most important is whether you meet someone you really like.”
You peered at me from the corner of your eyes, your hands still pressing on the black buttons on your PSP. “I no longer have such high expectations of romantic love. I’m getting old.”
I almost laughed. You were only 26. “Things might change. You know, I didn’t like bisexuals till I met you.”
“It’s a pretty common feeling in lesbian circles. In the end, bisexual women would always choose to marry a man and have kids. The pressure of family and society is too much. When one road is blocked, it’s natural for people to choose the easier path. Especially when they don’t hate men at all.”
“I can see your point.” You lifted your chin and looked out of the window. Fields of grain and trees passed by.
Eyeing you eagerly, I said, “but everything changed after I met you. Nearly all my standards changed for you. Now, I don’t have any antipathy toward bisexuals. All because of you.”
You looked up from your PSP and hesitated for a moment. “But I truly exhibit some of the traits of bisexuals. My parents still don’t know that I like girls. Maybe I will get married and have kids in the end as well.”
Your words sent a chill to my heart, but I insisted, “that is because you haven’t found the right person. When you do, things would be different.”
“What is the right person?” You closed your eyes and sighed almost inaudibly. “The last person I dated for two months, I thought he knew me so well that there wouldn’t be another person in the world that understood me better. But what happened? The relationship still ended after I came to America. I doubt very much that there is a ‘right’ person.”
Hope rose up from my heart. I smiled and tried to break through your melancholy. “But at least you would give it a try?” I eyed you attentively, hoping that the tenderness of my heart would reflect in my eyes.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we stay this way?” The train was passing through a tunnel and the shadows veiled your face.
I paused for a moment and summoned up my courage. “Remember our second date? When I asked you whether we were dating or just hanging out, you told me perhaps it was both. I want to ask you the same question again and I hope very much that your answer will be different.”
“I really don’t know. This is such a wrong time and I’m tired. Can we stop talking for a while?” Your eyes were half closed.
The train was passing a line of hills, all bare and dry. There was no breeze in the coach. I stood up and tried to open the window. It was sealed. I sat back in my seat and regretted that I had pushed you too hard. After all, this was only our fourth date. Perhaps you were resisting something. You were resisting your feelings towards me because it truly was bad timing. You must have loved me a little or why would you agree to see the sakura with me and spend a night together. I felt reassured and tried to bury myself in Qiu’s novel. You fell asleep quickly and your head was shaking with the movement of the train.
“Yi Wen. Yi wen.” I called your name gently.
You murmured something unclear.
“Come, rest your head on my shoulder.”
You whispered a soft thank you and leaned on my shoulder. My left shoulder was instantly on fire. The place where your skin touched mine felt red and naked. I could feel your breath, and the slight trembling of your body. I tried to adjust my breathing to your pace, so that we breathed in and out at the same time. Our bodies rose up and down as one. The air we breathed out converged at some point and became a translucent rivulet.
When we got off the train, the March wind was chilly and I felt refreshed. I looked back at you and smiled. “Did you sense that I was interested in you before the trip?”
“Yes.” You answered briskly.
I smiled again. “Then you must have trusted me, agreeing to stay overnight and share a bed.”
“Why? What do I have to fear? If I don’t want to do anything, you can’t force me.” Seeing the gloominess on my face, you added, “But I guess I do trust you.” I walked by you on the outside, closer to the street, for fear that a car might veer into the sidewalk and hit you.
We went straight to the Tidal Basin. The sakura was not yet in full bloom. But the pinkness was still charming to the eye. This fragile beauty, this pinkness, so light that it verged upon pale white. When the pallid pinkness covered the whole tree, a grotesque sense of prosperity and vitality could be felt. I told you how in Japanese culture, the sakura represented the evanescence of life: one feels death is closing in even at the prime of one’s life.
“Cherry blossoms scatter－snap! The buck’s antlers come off.” I recited Kobayashi Issa’s haiku.
“I also write haiku and tanka myself.” I told you eagerly.
“You do?” You eyes were fixed on a far-off sakura tree.
“Under the moonlight/ a man in a white shirt/ cherry blossoms fall.” I recited. “What do you think? I wrote it myself.” I wanted to know your opinion.
“It’s nice. Can we sit down for a while please? ”
I spread my scarf over the grass and we sat together, listening to a group of young musicians playing “Amores Corridinos.”
“So what do you think of the haiku?” I asked.
“Oh, you mean the Issa one?”
“No, I mean mine. Can you picture it in your mind? It’s such a striking image. A man in a white shirt. The moonlight sprinkles and his white shirt reflects the silver lights. Then cherry blossoms fall. How utterly beautiful! This combination of images.”
“Sorry, but I really can’t visualize it.”
I was slightly disappointed. How you lacked the power of imagination. But then I thought about the poems you wrote. To get your attention back to me, I recited several of your poems and praised your literary talent.
“Stop talking so loud. People are staring.” The blush on your face sent my heart leaping. You were always so shy. Clearly, you were impressed by my memory and my love for your poems. You removed your overcoat. The afternoon wind sent your dress billowing.
In the gift shop, your eyes were attracted to a jade bracelet. It was simple in design but each stone had a different shape and a different hue. It was elegant and set off your skin tone. Ever since you mentioned your birthday was coming, I had been planning to give you something special, something perfect. A Tiffany necklace or a pair of Van Cleef earrings. But I was worried that you wouldn’t like the style I picked. A love poem or handmade biscuits might be too simple and childish. I was running out of ideas. When I saw you look at the price tag, gasp and put the bracelet back, I knew it was time. I grabbed the bracelet, ran to the counter and swiped my card. Handing you the gift bag, I smiled. “Please take it as an early birthday gift.”
“Is there something called a late birthday gift?” With your eyes veiled by your dark shades, I couldn’t understand what you meant. You put on the bracelet immediately. The gems made your wrist look fair and slender. My heart was filled with a wild sense of satisfaction.
Later that night, we dined at a fancy Japanese restaurant. The salmon miso soup and seared tuna nigiri were cooked to perfection. You ordered a bottle of plum wine and we drank together.
I toasted you. “I am so lucky that I could meet a girl with such literary talent.” I made sure the rim of my cup was lower than yours, paying my respect in Japanese style. The pink blossoms glittered on the white ceramic sake cup, reminding me of the pleasant day we had. I drank up and showed you the bottom of my cup.
“Real talent is rare. But I see it in you. You possess real talent in poetry writing and I hope you can make the best out of it. It is arranged by fate and worth cherishing for life.” I eyed you eagerly.
“But it’s been three years since I wrote those poems. What if I have already lost it?” You looked down at your lap. Your pink eyeshadow was shiny under the yellow floating lanterns.
“I know you won’t. Because I have faith in you. I know you have it in you and you just need some inspiration. Like we all do.” Love was the best muse for poets and I wished that my existence would bring you the inspiration you needed and urge you to write something even better. Perhaps I would never be able to write a poem better than yours but love was not a competition, I told myself.
“Thank you for saying this, Kang.” I was thrown into a state of ecstasy when I saw the blush on your face. Girls love to be praised.
“I want to toast you again. I am so happy that I have met such a pretty, sweet, smart and talented young lady... ”
Your fingers brushed over my wrist. “Kang, are you drunk?”
“It is only half a bottle. And I am truly very happy tonight. I haven’t felt this way for a long time.” I knew you interrupted me because you were shy and you were not used to being praised. That was why I loved you in the first place. You were so smart yet so humble.
The night was cold. On our way to the hotel, I stopped you, took off my scarf and arranged it cautiously around your neck. You thanked me but said you never wore scarves because they felt like shackles. “Nonsense,” I said. The pacific blue scarf added a new charm to your complexion under the moonlight.
Our room was on the fifth floor. It was a lavish room. The purple satin bed runner gave the room a romantic feeling. Did Capital Hilton change the bedcover for the Cherry Blossom Festival? I had no idea. You seemed very pleased with the room and took off your overcoat. Your tight shirt revealed the sweet curve of your body. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of longing. You threw yourself on the bed and moaned in satisfaction.
“I am sooo tired.” You rolled to the further edge of the bed, like a spoiled child.
“Don’t you want to shower?” I suggested.
“Oh yes.” You got up, gathered your things and went to the bathroom.
The click of the lock made my heart sink. Lying in bed, I listened to the sound of water flowing. I imagined you naked in the middle of the room. Water flowing down from your silky hair, running into the hollow of your collarbone, gliding down your ample breast and wetting your nipples. Your nipples stood out at the first touch of the water. You stroked them gently with your fingertips and let out a pleasant little cry. The water dribbled down and caressed your groin, the dark forest between your legs glistened...
I was lost in my thoughts when you came out of the bathroom, your body only covered by a towel. You threw yourself onto the bed and dried your hair. You must have used the body lotion from the hotel and the milky smell drew me near. Your bare shoulders were so fair and smooth that I wanted to lock you in my embrace. The air was still and the motion of your hands gradually slowed down. You stared at me with a strange fire that made my heart jump. I looked down at you tenderly and kissed you. Your mouth was full and warm and sweet. I wanted to suck more of your elixir when, with a thrust on my shoulder, you pushed me away. Your face was twisted with anger.
“What are you doing?” You cried out.
“Don’t you want it?” I was surprised.
“No, I don’t.”
“Stop pretending. Yi wen. I love you so much. And I know you love me too.”
You rolled your head away from me. “I never liked you. Get away from me.”
It pained me to hear you say things that you didn’t mean. “If you don’t like me, why did you agree to see the sakura with me? Why did you agree to spend a night with me in the same room? I know you have feelings for me. You are just too afraid to admit what you feel.”
“What?” You laughed so loudly that I thought you had gone mad. I eyed you with terror.
“I agreed to come because I loved you? What are you thinking? I agreed to come because I wanted to see the sakura and I needed a travel companion to share the cost. That’s all.”
“A travel companion?” That sounded so ridiculous to me. “Then what about the birthday gift I bought you? What about all those things I have done for you? I took such a good care of you throughout our journey. Don’t you feel touched?”
“I didn’t force you into any of that. And to tell you the truth, you behaved like a servant. All this time you think you are a perfect gentleman, holding doors, buying food, handing me the bottled water and unscrewing the cap for me. Where can I find a better servant?”
But that couldn’t be true. “You must have loved me. You said you loved my poems.”
“You are such a child. Of course I lied. What do you think? I detested you from the first time we met. You with your silly poems and your bragging. How I laughed.”
A surge of rage made my temple throb. “You what?”
“I laughed. You think you are somebody. You think you are a great writer just because you attend an MFA and write some lame poems?”
“Stop. Yi Wen. Please.”
“You know what? You are nothing but a child. Too much attention-seeking. You think I would ever fall in love with a child?”
“A child? ” I murmured to myself.
A cold smile crossed your face. “You think you were a hero because you beat that ex-boyfriend up? And you felt proud that you brought shame to your family and you made a stupid mistake that nearly got you expelled? You think that is heroism? It’s hotheadedness.”
The throbbing of my temples became a burning headache, but you showed no sign of stopping. “You don’t even know what love is. Have you ever asked what I want? I don’t want to be taken care of. I have hands myself. You and your condescending attitude. You think girls will be touched every time you hold the door and quote a sonnet? ”
Your lips were moving and moving until it became a patch of redness. All of a sudden, I couldn’t hear anything. I wanted to shout, but words dissolved on my tongue. I was put in a vacuum. No oxygen. No smell. No sound. No color.
Slowly, I got out of my bed. Clad in my pajamas, I left the room and didn’t look back. My body was light as the wind. Past Lafayette square. Past the President’s Park. Past the Ellipse. Past the marble monuments. At last, I saw the Tidal Basin. In the middle of the vast blueness, illuminated by moonlight, there was a sakura tree. Pink petals were falling.
Born in 1994, Li is a Chinese lesbian writer who uses her second language to write fiction and nonfiction. She is currently a MFA candidate at Columbia University.