Two Years from Now
Someone not seen in a long time
"One whole month is missing. I mean one whole month of 2011 has disappeared, it's gone, it can't be found. Normally February follows January, March follows February, April follows March, and so on. But now after January it's March, or after February it's April ... Do you understand what I'm saying — we've skipped a month!"
"Fang Caodi, just forget it," I said. "Don't go looking for it. It's not worth it. Life's too short; just look after yourself."
No matter how clever I was, I could never change Fang Caodi. Then again, if you really wanted to search for a missing month, Fang Caodi would be the one to do it. In his life, he'd probably spent quite a few missing months just existing. He was always turning up unexpectedly in odd places like he had vanished for a million years and was being reborn just when you were least expecting him. Maybe someone like him really could accomplish such a politically unfashionable task as restoring a missing month.
The thing is, at first I didn't really notice that a whole month was missing. Even if other people told me about it, I wasn't ready to believe them. Every day I read the papers and checked the Internet news sites; every night I watched CCTV and the Phoenix Channel, and I hung around with intelligent people. I didn't think that any major event had escaped my notice. I believed in myself—my knowledge, my wisdom, and my independent judgment.
* * *
On the afternoon of the eighth day of the first lunar month of this year, as I left my home in Happiness Village Number Two and set out on my usual walk to the Starbucks in the PCCW Tower Mall of Plenty, a jogger suddenly pulled up in front of me.
"Master Chen! Master Chen!" the jogger gasped while trying to regain his breath. "A whole month is missing! It's been missing for two years today."
The jogger was wearing a baseball cap, and I didn't recognize him at first.
"Fang Caodi, Fang Caodi . . ." he said as he took off his cap to reveal a bald head sporting a short ponytail held at the back with a rubber band.
Suddenly, I knew who it was. "Fang Caodi. Why are you calling me master?"
He ignored me. "A whole month is missing! Master Chen, what can we do about it, what can we do?" he repeated rather desperately. "It's been more than a month since we last met, hasn't it?" I said.
"Longer than that. Master Chen, you know, a whole month has disappeared! It's terrifying. What should we do about it?" Fang said.
I tried to change the subject. "When did you get back to Beijing?"
He didn't answer and then suddenly he sneezed. I handed him my card. "Don't catch cold. You shouldn't be running around. We can meet later. My phone number and e-mail are on the card."
He put his cap back on and took my card. "We can look for it together," he said.
As I watched him jog off toward the Dongzhi Menwai Embassy Row area, I realized he wasn't just out for a jog, he was on a mission.
Another person not seen in a long time
A couple of days later, I found myself attending the Reading Journal New Year's reception on the second floor of the Sanlian Bookstore on Art Museum East Road. The reception was an annual affair. In the 1990s I used to drop in off and on, but since I moved to Beijing permanently in 2004, I've come up every other year to shoot the breeze a while with the older writers and editors, just to let the cultural world know that I'm still alive. I never bother with the younger ones — I don't know them and they don't seem to feel any need to know me.
The atmosphere at the reception was somehow different from previous years; the guests seemed quite elated. For the past year, I've noticed that I, too, have often felt some sort of unaccountable cheerfulness, but the high spirits that day still took me aback. That day everybody was so euphoric it was as if they'd just knocked back a few shots of Jack Daniel's.
The venerable founder of Reading, Zhuang Zizhong, hadn't made an appearance at a reception for a while, but this time he turned up in his wheelchair. There was quite a crowd jostling around him, so I didn't go over to say hello. Besides Old Zhuang, all the staff at the journal—those who were still alive, that is—had all showed up. That was no minor miracle. In all the years I've been associated with the Sanlian and its journal, Reading, I've never seen such a grand occasion. It left me pleasantly surprised. I'm quite cynical about human nature. I've never believed that the inner workings of any organization were completely harmonious, especially not any mainland-Chinese organization, and particularly not state-operated enterprises, including state-operated cultural units.
That day all the writers and editors whom I knew greeted me with excessive enthusiasm; but when I started to strike up a proper conversation, their attention had already shifted and they hurried off to someone else. This sort of treatment is pretty common at receptions and cocktail parties, especially when you're not a star. After being greeted and then snubbed two or three times, I readjusted my attitude and returned to my usual one—that of an observer. I have to admit I was pretty moved by what I saw: so many celebrated and diverse members of the intellectual elite gathered together in one place looking genuinely happy, even euphoric ... This really must be a true age of peace and prosperity, I thought to myself.
I was feeling pretty good, but very quickly I got the feeling that it was time to leave. I walked out of the reception intending to browse around in the bookstore. I took a look at the art books on the second floor, and then glanced at the new bestsellers and the business and travel books on the first floor. The bookstore was teeming with browsers. So people are still reading books. Terrific! "The sweet smell of books in a literary society," I thought. As I made my way downstairs toward the basement, students were crowding both sides of the stairs, sitting and reading, almost as though they didn't want anyone else to go down there. Feeling cheerful, I picked my way down the stairs. The basement level is where the Sanlian keeps its extensive collection of books on literature, history, philosophy, politics, and the humanities, and that's why it's my number-one destination every time I visit. I've always believed that the generous display of these humanities books is one of the things that make Beijing a city worth living in. A city that reads books on literature, history, philosophy, and politics is definitely a special place.
From The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung. Copyright 2012 by Chan Koonchung. Reprinted by arrangement with Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.