A Tragicomic Love Story

Armei said, “Look, I’ve got two more lines at the corner of my right eye. Time is very cruel. The majority of our life is spent on watching ourselves getting older gradually.”

Lu said, “Are you seriously counting those lines? I know a tragicomic love story in which a girl grows from a 17-year-old girl to a 70-year-old woman in twenty minutes.”

“Oh, Lu, can I call you Lulu? I like Lulu better since it takes the edge off your pedantic image. I hope your story is not too academic or anything.”

“Lulu sounds great, but I don’t have a pedantic image. And the story is not academic at all.”

“Is it a science fiction story? I mean how can somebody grow so quickly?”

“Just listen to me, will you? Every winter I think about him because his last name means cold, which is exactly the opposite of who he is. Let’s just call him Mr. Cold. He’s my teacher of the literature class in high school for two years. He’s only about 35 years old at the time, but traveled all over Asia–Vladivostok, Lhasa, Penang, Dunhuang, Bodh Gaya. I think my taking up anthropology as my profession is largely owing to his stories, but of course he will never know how much he has influenced me. He ignored me completely. Not that I considered myself worthy of being noticed. I was from the countryside with earthy country demeanor while he belongs to the big city I migrated to with urban charms. He is my first love, if you don’t consider my mom’s friend’s son who came before him. I listened to his classes and tried to hang on to every word he said.

He was not remembered by any outstanding teaching achievement. He had none. The reason for that had a lot to do with how bored he was with our class, our textbooks etc. His intelligence shined brightly only when he talked about things completely unrelated with what we had to learn in the class. Still he was our favorite teacher. Just watch his flamboyant style of reading, one would be mesmerized.

I was never able to impress him. My style of writing was too natural for his taste, which leaned heavily towards those overtly decorative passages. I have always been shy and reserved while he favored people who are quick and extroverted. His favorite student was Zizi who’s from a prominent big city family with access to Japanese electronic gadgets and banned books. Zizi was actually very generous to lend me her banned books. I should love Zizi but Mr. Cold showered her with so much attention that I was quite jealous.

I will keep it short by skipping some details here. Anyway, Mr. Cold talked about establishing a “Poetry Club” based on the famous book “Dreams Of Red Chamber”, in which there are descriptions of twelve beauty among the ladies and twelve beauty among the servant girls. All the girls were energized. As you know, jealousy was inevitable. Actually not much was achieved except those jealous fights among girls since everybody wanted to be Daiyu, by far the best poet in the book. It gradually dawned on everybody that Mr. Cold wanted Zizi to be Daiyu. So the rest of girls started to fight to be Yun, who’s the second best in composing poems.

The fights got so bad that Mr. Cold eventually decided that he’s going to administer a test on the book “Dreams Of Red Chamber” and the one who scored the highest will be Daiyu for the poetry club. So we did the test. As you know, I love this book and read it several times. So of course I scored the highest. However the next day Mr. Cold called both Zizi and me to his office and asked us to talk things over. What was I supposed to do? I felt that Mr. Cold’s eyes were pleading me to give up my claim and hand it to Zizi, who spent the entire time crying. Now I think about it, I should have asked Zizi to supply all her banned book to me one by one for the rest of her life, just to exchange for my sacrifice. However I was too young at the time and didn’t know how to play my card to my advantage. I eventually gave in and Zizi became Daiyu, not only for the poetry club, but also for reciting all the lines of Daiyu during the class period with Mr. Cold proudly looking over from the podium. At the time, we spent only one class period on each book, only reviewing several pages extracted out of the original book and placed into our textbook.

At the designated date when we were supposed to have the class on “Dreams Of Red Chamber”, however, something unexpected happened. There was going to be a parade of teachers from the city’s education department and other schools who would sit at the last row in the classroom. The new development didn’t cause any stir for other students, but I could observe that Zizi was not happy when Mr. Cold talked with her briefly right before the class started. As it happened, Mr. Cold usually steered his class to more interesting material outside of our textbook, but with so many strangers sitting in, Mr. Cold had to teach material that were assigned to him. Of course the assigned material is an extraction of the book that is more correct and meaningful than Daiyu’s poetry. It’s about a poor relative Grandma Liu, 70 years of age, who came to the mansion Daiyu was living in to beg for a good meal and some money.

During the class, we had to study the good nature of poor Grandma Liu, whose virtue was lauded and whose vulgarity was blamed on the author’s limitation as an upper class member of his historical period. At one point, Mr. Cold asked Zizi to read aloud the climactic portion where Grandma Liu was being funny and self deprecating, but Zizi fell silent. I sat several rows behind Zizi and couldn’t see her face, but I knew she had to stare at Mr. Cold with utter hatred. Just think about it, from the 17 year old girl Daiyu to Grandma Liu within twenty minutes. We are supposed to go through the process in a span of no less than fifty years with the assistance of family values, cosmetics, plastic surgeries, psychologists, philosophers. Still we are a little traumatized by the decline of our appearance. How would we feel if we were to go through the 53 years within 20 minutes?

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