[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.

She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.

The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.

There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.

Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.

She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.

When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.

He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.

When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.

***

She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.

On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.

She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.

His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.

After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.

Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.

High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.

She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.

I’m older than you. That’s what she says.

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.

***

She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.

Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.

ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.

He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.

He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.

You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.

She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.

When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.

***

So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.

Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.

Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.

***

She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.

He just tilts his head.

I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.

***

On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.

One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.

Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.

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[Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies

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She works in a dingy pseudo-Chinese restaurant that dons several hats: a bar, a lounge, and a dance hall harkening back to the eighties. The interior is soaked in shades of reddish-brown timber. An earthy scent weighs on the entire ambiance—the glimmer from the gilded Buddhas and the gaudy frescoes gives it the air of a Chinese burlesque. She half-expects people to burst into song, in cheongsams or cone hats, juggling yellow fortune cookies and mechanically mimicking the paw-wave of the fortune cat. “Exotic Chinese Fare!”

It doesn’t take her long after she first got here to find out that restaurants spinning an identical concept sprout out in this New England city like a sea of bamboo shoots after a spring rain—they run the gamut from homely to inauthentic to tacky to tackier. She doesn’t know what to make of it; perhaps, this sensation of her sphincter contracting and her skin aging is a sign of a run-down, worn-out spirit. Not just that. Sometimes, she catches a glimpse of herself: a stooping, indistinct shape in the glass windows with arms as thin as chicken feet. Tòu míng. She is sprinting in the snowy countryside. Slow down, màn diǎn. Down winding dirt paths that converge with the silken moonlit sky, every step is a frame in a receding reel of seasons. Chūn xià qiū dōng. A girl in pigtails tied with glossy red ribbons inhales to puff up her pudgy cheeks, flushed like a freshly picked apple, takes a quick, bold lick of a fistful of snow and giggles like wind-bells in the breeze. The restaurant window lightly quivers with her unadulterated wonder and the interior seems cheerier to the eye for a while.

Děng děng wǒ, she says to the girl. But the grimy windows can’t bear the weight of her gaze. She stares at her history until it stares her out of her own countenance. The bright-eyed girl cannot stay for long because this world of General Gau’s chicken, fortune cookies, tips, foreign tongues, white ghosts, and imposing ivy-covered Georgian collegiate buildings is not for her. Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she is still sprinting, but the dark rolling hills and the moonless terrain no longer look familiar and she doesn’t stop to think of where she is going because she just might not know anymore. After a while, these images lock themselves up in a room. What room? She has misplaced the key. A life before now is—is increasingly like a film that she has watched a long time ago, a familiar mélange of etched lines, lilting duets between red-cheeked girls and hardworking boys, a rotating roster of characters, and blurry details. What stands out is the ending. A cheap triumph.

In this city reside smiling students in woolly red sweaters and bleached collars, ambition penetrating through their eyes and gleaming off their slick silver laptops, so young and yet already exuding the scent of privilege and success—Like that son of whats-his-name with those foreign candies. That must have been thirty years ago!but here it’s doused in an entitled sense of smartness. It drips all over the floor she mops, a stain that she can’t unsee. She cannot help but overhear sometimes, the students rattling off English like a hymn to a partial God whose covenant is so complex that even after thirteen years here she cannot pray to speak. That is how she always tells the students apart from the other diners. She will not bear to tell the rosy-cheeked girl licking snow what it is like here. Tell her what? The floor is never clean.

Sometimes, she will look up as the door chimes and see in the contours of a fresh-faced student the face of her xiǎomèi back home. The affection swells and wells up in her hands and eyes and lips and she cannot keep herself from breaking loose from wobbly English to ask them for their order again in halting Chinese. They will crinkle their brows distantly, or in polite confusion, and then she knows what she already feels in her bones—they are all not xiǎomèi and can never be.

It’s a hazy afternoon when business is a trickle that she decides to eat one of those fortune cookies that the restaurant gives to diners with the bill. The slightly sweet, but almost tasteless cookie pokes against the roof of her mouth. She crunches it hard, then pulls out the half-wet strip of paper from between her chapped lips.

She doesn’t understand the words on it at the first quick glance. As she makes out the aphorism, she feels and sees first the grease on the paper, the curled edge of it slightly soggy with her saliva, and the words in tiny print, an almost cruel shade of blue on white.

L-i-f-e i-s f-a-i-r t-o a-l-l.

She watches the white strip paper float, excruciatingly slow, before soundlessly hitting the ground. At the periphery of her vision, the ceiling overhead seems to close in on her. Méi guānxi, méi guānxi, méi guānxi. A frantic motto. The ceiling seems to collapse but it doesn’t. The ceiling doesn’t collapse but she knows as something strong finally begins to crumble.

[Story] Macau: Casino Lights Dancing

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It felt like the universe had conspired in magnanimity to lay out before me all the stars it had in its pouch.

There’s a boy seated next to me at the roulette. It’s a round-table congregation of tense, weeping or energetic men (some slightly crazy-eyed); this boy who seems unperturbed by it all; and then there’s me, scribbling devoutly. 

We all stare intensely at the spinning wheel at the center and at the blur of white making its rounds. As the ball swerves intently on the circular track, my mind leaps and stumbles, doubts and hopes. It is a scene of magnificent contrasts and soft ironies: the ball’s mechanical steadiness and the wild rocking of our pendular minds; the slowing wheel and our increasingly hitched breaths.

I feel the boy’s gaze boring into my score-keeping card carelessly lying in the space between us. I cast a cursory glance in my card’s direction–it’s just unkempt rows of crosses and numbers I have been scrawling in red and blue ink, in a clumsy attempt to spot a trend.

Hey, he finally speaks after we’ve both been aware of each other’s presence for the last thirty minutes, you’ve got that number wrong. 

I glance back at my sheet at where his finger points. Oh, you’re right, I say, crossing 32 (red) out and writing 22 (black) in its place.

Thanks.

No problem.

He looks like he’s about to say something else but the ball rolls into place and falls at–

It’s hard to tell by pure sight so we all, in synchronized mesmerization, look up at the screen.

It’s a 0 (zero), in garish green. There’s a chorus of groans, expected not simply because the odds are 37 to 1 but also since 0 is eternally the outlier to any semblance of a pattern. Just when I think that no one has escaped unscathed, the boy taps my card again and grins disarmingly at me when I turn to look at him.

Look at that, he says good-naturedly.

I’m about to say, “Zero is always the hardest to guess; it’s how casinos reap the cash, no?” when I see that the top right of his screen displays in clean-cut font: 

PREVIOUS BET: +3360 credits 

My jaw slacks a little. Subconsciously, it occurs to me then that I only have a woeful 120 credits left (since I just lost). 

Wow, I tell him, you’ve got some crazy luck.

It all seems so unlikely–in my month of wandering nothing has astonished me much, and to now come across, in the twilight of my travels, a moment that is at once abruptly natural and magical in its implausibility–that Littlewood’s Law comes to mind. I think of its theory that one can experience a miracle (odds of one in a million) once a month, and a voice whispers in my head, maybe today’s when something wonderfully absurd happens.

Hmm, it suddenly seems possible.

The 120 credits last me for three more rounds before I realize that I have neither the reason nor the money to stay around. 

I turn my chair to try to spot my father somewhere in this cavernous hall, but he is nowhere to be found amidst the thronging casino masses. 

Are you going to stay? His voice comes up on my right.

I want to say, yes I am because I want to see how much more you can win and what’s your name and hi I am Selina. But I just shake my head and say,

I’ve run out of money. And either ways I feel like trying the slot machines.

I’m here for kicks, he tells me, his eyes shining, I’ve already tripled my credits when I was expecting myself to leave empty-handed.

I’m not quite sure what to reply to that, so I offer him a genuine, buoyant “congrats”.

He lets out a laugh, and continues, Take 500 credits. It seriously doesn’t matter to me.

He sees that I am wavering and passes me a ticket that neatly prints 200 credits, his tone forcefully kind, If you can’t take 500, at least accept the 200 I have as a leftover. Just so.

I feel weird, I tell him truthfully, when I take money from others for free. And I don’t even know you.

Oh, now I can finally ask. What’s your name?

As we march away from the roulette towards the carousel of slot machines, the ticket bunched in my left fist, I am dimly aware of the fact that I have just broken a personal principle this easily under the allure of sustained game of chance–not for algorithmic luck, but maybe, just maybe for Eros & Psyche’s roll of the dice.

I declare boldly, I’m going to at least return you 250 credits.

He snorts. That’s a promise you can’t keep.

Conversation rolls amidst an easy rhythm of button pressing, the animated sound of shuffling reels and unguarded laughs. We don’t ask each other anything that seems too dangerous so we talk about Macau and traveling, pork chop bun and airplane reads, Jay Chou and Joe Hisaishi, winning and losing, and how, for us both, casinos made no sense at all. 

Who’s most like Wes Anderson? 

Hayao Miyazaki. Fitzgerald. Tom Wolfe. I can think of loads.

Why do they all sound like meshed Spotify Discover Weekly playlists?

As my credits dwindle close to nothing yet again, my father appears in a happy halo softly glowing with the delirium of capitalist success. There’re no awkward introductions because he is too pleased with himself to care. I get 250 credits from him and return it to the boy.

And it’s all over in a matter of seconds.

I’ve got to go, I tell him.

My father, who is counting his tickets and ready to leave, looks up, sees me dawdling, and tilts his head to consider whether he should ask about who this person is but wisely decides not to when he sees the expression on my face.

I’ve got to go, I say again.

Somehow, I just can’t get goodbye out of my mouth. It would do no justice as an ending–it’s too weak, too pale, too irrevocable.

Wait, the boy stares at me and says slowly, you know, a lot of life’s promises aren’t kept–

I look at him and in that heartbeat, feel an impossible urge to tell him that the chandelier lights in the casino happen to be dancing in his eyes there and then, like leaping, crackling, shooting stars, but I seem to have lost the ability to do anything else other than nod. So I just nod.

–But I hope I’ll keep this promise. See you again.

I think about this sentence in my luggage-strewn hotel room, on the zipping cab leaving Cotai in the misty morning as the windows fogged with condensation, in the empty bleak landscape of the departure hall as I drink bland porridge, in the three waking hours on TR2903 across the Java Sea surrounded by the lingering imprint of a short-lived encounter, and as I step through the Changi gates finally back home after 1 month and tasted sea salt in the dust.

I think about it sometimes when I’m in colorful train carriages on a collision course towards some known future. Then, on one rainy and slightly warm morning, on a cab that had fogged windows, it comes to mind, that monochromatic morning when I left Macau on a cab that could not, would not, and did not turn back. My fingertips touch the cold glass and feel again this fierce impulse to draw something, anything, to just remember. But, after a drawn-out moment of indecision and broken vignettes flashing by in a tunneling mind, I can only draw a star. It’s the only effervescence that can be put into strokes.

And I never saw him again. But it has only been 25 days, so who knows? 

In our village, folks say God crumbles up the old moon into stars.

And the rest is rust and stardust.

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月亮忘记了 When the Moon Forgot / 几米 Jimmy Liao

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The quotes, in order of appearance, can be attributed to: me & my brain, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Nabokov’s Lolita.