She sat across from me in the café. Between us was a table with a tablecloth.
This scene had occurred many times, and each time I felt a turbulence in my heart. Her name was Mo Li, but from the very beginning I had called her Moli, which means "jasmine." That was my secret name for her. At first, it was a sign of my affection. As time passed and as my affection cooled, I no longer used it as a term of endearment but as an ordinary feminine name. Nevertheless, calling her Moli became a stubborn habit.
She said, "Xiaodong, I'm sorry I always seek you out at times like this. I know that you can't help me bring them back, but I'm in the habit of telling you my problems …"
I gazed at her. She had said "habit."
I remembered being awakened from a bad dream late one night three years ago. The phone was ringing and when I grabbed it and said hello, I was startled by the sound of my voice—raspy and coarse, like wind gusting over sandpaper. This was strange; my voice was fine before I fell asleep. I'd been talking to a woman on the phone, and as usual, I had smoothly created the right mood using my gentle, seductive baritone. I'd carried the conversation into my dream, but when I answered the late-night call, my voice had suddenly changed. I was alarmed because it had changed for no reason. Trying to clear the sleep from my head, I sat up straight. When I said hello again, I felt better, but still a little strange. The other party hung up. I was a person who believed that life was filled with metaphors and revelations. A phone call in the middle of the night and the sudden change in my voice led me to gloomy conjectures. I coughed hard a couple of times, and the phone rang again…
It was Moli. We hadn't talked for years. She said, "I called to tell you that Zhou Youjian has disappeared."
Zhou Youjian was my friend from college, Moli's husband.
That was three years ago. Now, she was sitting across from me in the café, separated by a table with a tablecloth. This time, she was telling me that her teenage son, Zhou Xiang, was missing; he'd disappeared three days ago.
"Moli… you don't have to apologize. It's—" [End Page 143]
"I know! But I'm about to fall apart!"
I could see that. She didn't seem to be aware that she was pounding the table.
I pushed the glass of lemonade over to her. "Drink a little lemonade, Moli." She picked up the glass, took a big swallow, and wiped away tears that I hadn't noticed until then.
I said, "It's all right for you to come see me. It helps to talk things out with someone."
I said this mainly to make her feel better. I stared at the glass that she was gripping, afraid her grip would shatter it.
"You're only trying to make me feel better, Xiaodong." She relaxed her hold on the glass, but the veins on the back of her hand still stood out.
"I know, talking can't solve anything." I was searching for the right words. "Things may not be as bad as they seem if Zhou Xiang left home only three days ago…"
"That's long enough, isn't it?" She turned hostile again. "My husband was gone for three days at first, and now it's been three years!"
I took the glass and set it down at a safe distance from her. "It isn't the same, Moli. Zhou Xiang is just a kid. You know, it's normal for teenage boys to run away for a few days. When I was his age—"
"When Zhou Youjian disappeared, all of you said the same thing—it's normal for a man to run off for a few days. Even a grown man can disappear all of a...