Mnemonics

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The idea of actually calling the police occurred to the Daughter. By no means did she want him to be arrested and spend the night in lock-up — which no doubt nowadays served more as a breeding ground for the virus than anything else — but it couldn’t be denied that, in a way, he had brought it on himself; driving all the way to Zhuanghe was truly a preposterous idea. 

Xu Wei was between a rock and a hard place. All the siblings were taking turns looking after Grandma, and now he was up. If he didn’t go, either he’d just be leaving someone else in the lurch, or he’d be dooming Grandma to rapid (and lonely) deterioration. And Grandma already had afflictions enough, given that she wouldn’t be able to celebrate nongli xīnnián for the first time in eighty-six? years — at this point, it’s hard to keep track. No, it was Xu Wei’s turn to stay with Grandma, so he would accept his burden. 

Ever-methodical since his birth under the sign of the goat, he packed his bags in a matter of minutes, resorting to his old trick of humming rhyming lists to avoid forgetting anything. Socks in the glove box, cigarette packet in my jacket, ID and cash on the dash, shoes and hat and suit always in the boot, yan xu bing’zi on the seat next to me.

Li Na, whose enduring love for this man had been anchored in those rhyming ditties for decades, was on the verge of a conniption fit. She had already tried, actively and passively, to keep her husband from leaving, because the virus is spreading, because I swear I’m getting a divorce, because you’ll die and give the Daughter a stroke, because nobody cooks a wǔcǎi xuěhuā shànbèi like yours, because I’m too young to be a widow, because it’s freezing cold, because I’m too old to find a boyfriend, because you’re staying here, and that’s final!

But Xu Wei blithely kept going back and forth to the car, with his dopey grin and unwavering devotion to being contrarian, and those unescapable, sing-song rhy-yming li-ists began to grate on Li Na more and more. As he passed from one room to another, the song remained reverberating, like one of those pungent farts that lingers endlessly in a room: “Socks in the glove box, cigarette packet in my jacket, ID and cash on the dash.”

“ID and cash on the dash…” ID AND CASH ON THE DASH…”

In the end, that pestilential song gave Li Na an idea and, as impulsive as any good horse, quickly slipped that detestable “ID and cash” off the hapless dashboard and left him bereft of ID, driver’s license, and credit card.

That cheerful farewell with a have a good trip and a call when you arrive and a smile perplexed Xu Wei, but at the same time, he regarded it as a small triumph, the respect due to the man of the house.

As soon as the car pulled out, Li Na pulled up WeChat to video call the Daughter and report the scheme that had been launched with the theft of the wallet, improvised and without follow-up. It was then that the Daughter, a distant spectator of this drama from her home in the United States, brought up the police, with Machiavellian resolve and a thirst for harmony.

Li Na recounted everything in minute detail to the young man who picked up the phone, that my husband is in a metallic orange Chang’an, with license plate 辽B-C1603, that he doesn’t have any papers, that, remember, it is dangerous to leave Dalian, that if he is stopped, send him home right away. But the receptionist transferred him to a clerk. But the clerk transferred him to a detective. But the detective transferred him to the highway patrol. And even though the story shrunk inexorably with each telling — Chang’an, metallic orange, 辽B-C1603, home, right away — Li Na never despaired.

When Xu Wei called to tell her he had been stopped by the police, she feigned surprise as she sighed with relief, but he wouldn’t let her get a word in edgewise in his eagerness to tell her that according to AutoNavi, I’ll arrive at my destination in Zhuanghe in one hour and forty-six minutes, that the police let me go because you know what a smooth talker I can be, and my charm has only grown with the years, that what no longer work so well for me are rhyming lists, that I was convinced I had my ID and cash on the dash, that I’ll see you in a few days, that in a week at the very most. 

At the very least… what a horrible month. Not only did the city of Zhuanghe close its borders two days after Xu Wei’s arrival, but it forbade him from even leaving the apartment because he didn’t have his papers and had traveled from another city. They treated poor old Xu Wei like a leper, there, locked in his apartment, with sensors monitoring his door to make sure he didn’t leave, and a sign warning his neighbors of the mortal danger of breathing the same air as this undoubtedly virus-ridden intruder. How eternal those few weeks seemed: two cases immediately emerged in the building, one of his brothers had to bring him food, three cases, they played game after game of mahjong (the old biddy is invincible), five cases, he bathed Grandma every day to cleanse her of the virus, the virus, the virus, six, he looked ever poorer and dirtier as his beard grew — which also brings bad luck, and he has nothing to shave with — seven, eight cases.

Li Na has been calling the Daughter and Xu Wei every day; at first with concern, then with melancholy, and finally out of inertia. She had never lived alone before and, to alleviate her isolation (and to celebrate it) she has decided to change things up. Inspired by the Daughter, she has chosen to lead a gweilo lifestyle: she has done zumba every morning, binge-watched the complete filmographies of Audrey Hepburn and Janet Leigh, paraded around the house in a man’s shirt, and eaten caesar salad every day. She has missed Xu Wei, of course, but by the Great Lady of the Three Foxes, what bliss, but how sad, but what a treat.

Today Xu Wei is finally back, hurrying, hurrying, to get to a barbeque at a friend’s house in the outskirts of Dalian, visions of succulent lamb dancing before his eyes. In a rush and excited to return home, Xu Wei struggles to turn the lock, and when he finally opens the door, he does so with a thunderous crash. Li Na hears it (as if it were possible not to) and slips in the bath from surprise and nervousness — positive or negative, who can say?

Despite the spurts and spurts of blood gushing cinematically down the drain, Li Na doesn’t want to go to the hospital because, as she well knows, eating lamb when one has stitches goes against thousands of years of medical lore. And she’s going to devour that lamb whole after a month of salads. She won’t let them give her a single stitch.

Eight stitches. 

Xu Wei absolutely refuses to go to the party under any circumstances, because he doesn’t dare to tempt fate any more, because what wretched luck he’s had: it’s as if he’d been on a fourth floor, as if he’d dressed in white, as if someone had gifted him a clock, as if he’d left his chopsticks stuck in the rice, as if he hadn’t followed the tenets of feng shui, as if he’d adopted a turtle. But either we go to the party, or you can go back to live with your mother and leave me in peace.

In a few minutes, Xu Wei, clean-shaven, will check that his ID and cash are on the dash before starting the car to take his beloved wife with eight stitches on her scalp to dine on lamb. And whatever must happen shall happen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

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