My first words to him were, “How’s the weather up there?” He was 6’3 and stood in a puke green Rick and Morty shirt. I’ve only heard the five words once before on some Disney show I watched back in 2nd grade when I was learning English. He rolled his eyes. “I can see the dandruff in your hair from here.” I kicked him.
He kissed the sandpaper-like discoloration on the slope near my arms, branding it with a sloppy wet, yawning moon. It coated my eczema scar like a layer of glitter. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered, languidly tracing circles on my scratched knuckles. I saw my reflection in the flecks of his brown eyes, the color of the Godiva chocolates he bought to celebrate our first month together.
“No, you don’t write the simplified 我爱你 (I love you). You’re supposed to write it the traditional way.” He grabbed my pen and wrote 我愛你 on the paper. “You must have the 心 (heart) in 爱 (love). I don’t buy that friendship stuff.”
I whined, “愛 is so hard to write, though. No one writes it that way in mainland China.” I crossed his characters out, writing 我爱你 again just to annoy him.
I haven’t seen him in 84 days.
It was easier to fall asleep with the call’s crackling static. The sound of bed sheets tumbling like love letters crumbling. His hot breath through the phone. My eyes were dry when he cried, when his sobs reverberated in my empty bedroom. I imagined that the sobs consumed him until there was nothing left but my name on the tip of his tongue. We dreamt our days away.
“What did you say?”He laughed. “How are you so smart but so dumb at the same time?”I swallowed the words I was about to say.
“It’s not HI-SHUN. It’s pronounced HAY-SHUN, Haitian.”
I shrunk. “English isn’t my first language, okay?”
He laughed and ruffled my hair. “I know. It’s kinda cute.”
He didn’t know this, but I used to rehearse what I would say to him. So that when we folded paper cranes, OR-REE-GAH-ME didn’t turn into OR-GAN-ME.
I don’t do that anymore.
“How do you know if you love someone?” I asked him, week after week after week. “I don’t know either. It just feels right with you.” Saying it makes it real. But I didn’t know if I wanted it to be real.
It’s like pressing a finger on a bruise. Do you love me? It’s a knee-jerk reaction at this point. Do you still like me? Do you care for me? Yes, yes, and yes, he says. Again, again and again. How do you measure love? Is it by how many times he’s willing to say yes? Or is it by how perfectly he can draw Descartes’ heart r = a (1-sin θ)? Or is it by L = 8 + .5Y – .2P + .9Hm + .3Mf + J – .3G – .5(Sm – Sf)2 + I + 1.5C.1 Where L is the predicted length of the relationship in years?
I tick off the grievances like ticking off a shopping list:
“I feel like you don’t love me as much,” tick.
“I feel like you don’t want to talk to me,” tick.
“I don’t know what you want,” tick.
I stick in an “I know you’re trying, and I never doubted your love.”Is it true? I don’t know, but it seems like the right thing to say.
He texts back:
“I feel like you don’t see things from my perspective sometimes.”
It is the “I feel like” for both of us.
“I’m sorry I can’t give you more.”
I cut him off. I apologize. He swears, only to apologize seconds later too: “Sorry for swearing.”
“It’s fine, I’m sorry for not listening to you,”I reply. And truly, it is fine.
“I have to go now,”he says, “I love you.”
“Ok. I love you too.”
He comes back after dinner.
“Wyd rn,”he asks. And I reply.
Xinni Chen is a high school senior from Shanghai, China. She currently attends a boarding school in Massachusetts. Her works have been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, the Bennington Young Writers Awards (First Place in Fiction), and The New York Times. She is the prose editor for her school’s literary magazine and the Editor-in-Chief for her school’s newspaper. You can find her on Instagram @sunshine.cxn or Twitter @sunshine_cxn.
Artwork by: Carlos Irineu da Costa