A very lonely, and apparently not very attractive man, decides to join a dating website. More than three months later, he finally receives his first message from a woman, and lo and behold—it seems that by some miracle he has met the girl of his dreams. But has he? With rather morbid precision, but one that does not lack for humor, Sabrina Huang’s story describes the dubious fate of lonely people in the big city, and gently mocks the huge fantasy the websites promise—finding true love and changing your life beyond recognition.
Translated by: Jeremy Tiang
He turned his computer off and on again six times, took his first shower of the week, and went downstairs for some cold noodles and a packet of cigarettes. Only then did he dare believe what he saw in front of him: a girl, finally a girl had made the first move and sent him a message on the dating website. What a delightful surprise—though perhaps more surprising than delightful.
His appearance wasn’t designed to attract the opposite sex. It had always been this way, and no one was more aware of this fact than he. The world expects less of men than women in this department—ladies being ruthlessly divided into ‘marriage material’ and spinsters—but like most of his gender, he’d die of embarrassment if he had to admit how disappointed he was with his looks. Yet each time a woman pushed aside the cinema tickets he was offering, or he noticed a waitress looking askance at him, or he simply caught sight of himself in a subway train’s window, he’d hear a small but forceful voice: If you could look like Keanu Reeves, who would choose to be Mr. Bean instead?
This unfortunate situation inevitably shaped his personality—he lived a life of withdrawal, cocooning himself away. During high school biology classes, when he learnt about Mendel planting beans and discovering genetics, he recognised himself in a flash of insight: he was the composite of his grandfather’s freakishly tiny mouth, his grandmother’s pointy ears, his other grandfather’s naturally curly hair and laziness, his other grandmother’s tendency to plumpness, his father’s drunkard’s nose and slow reflexes, his mother’s height—she was shorter than most primary school students—and droopy eyes, his uncle’s mole (he was particularly annoyed about this—whoever heard of a mole being hereditary?) and vast quantities of acne, not to mention the petty bourgeois taint they all shared.
Realising he was basically the combination of every single one of his family’s defects, which seemed more ridiculous than tragic, he decided to stop resisting his fate. When they got to Darwin’s theory of evolution, he grew even more anxious, and decided that the only way to avoid falling foul of natural selection was to keep an extremely low profile, the way parents name their children ‘Dog’ or ‘Cow’ so as not to attract the attention of evil spirits.
And so, with the stubbornness of a dog or cow, he continued to exist. Aged thirty-one, he lived alone, an overweight fast-food server with extraordinarily curly hair, ludicrously bad luck, acne scars (though at least he’d stopped sprouting pimples), immaturity caused by lack of social interaction, and personal hygiene so bad the restaurant manager had to frequently speak to him about it—but nothing could hurt him anymore. When he encountered a beautiful female customer, his hands would shake (when word of this got out, many of the ladies who worked nearby flocked to the restaurant to test if they were attractive enough to provoke a tremor). Each night his dreams centred on turning into a completely different person. He entered his details into a dating site, but waited three hundred and five days before receiving his first message.
The girl said she wasn’t writing to him for any particular reason. Something about his self-introduction (which was actually only a hundred words long) made her feel they’d get along. He trembled as he read this, then spent three hours composing a reply, deleting as much as he wrote. From here on, they began a rapid exchange of messages.
Each morning, he’d wake to find an e-mail from her—neither long nor short, perhaps five hundred words, mostly responding to his queries from the night before and adding to whatever they’d been talking about, plus displaying an appropriate level of curiosity about him. There was nothing special about her word choices, and sometimes she’d make grammatical mistakes even he could detect, but she had a warm intelligence that wasn’t in the least threatening. All in all, she seemed a perfectly normal girl with an average education. He’d read each message three to five times before heading off to the restaurant where he’d fumble over and over for all of his work hours, because his mind was completely occupied with composing his letter to her. After his shift ended, he’d rush home to send off the thousand words that had cost him an entire day’s errors at work, and then the long wait till the next morning. This wasn’t a pleasant sort of anticipation, but he had several hundred reasons for not suggesting other means of communication.
As to why he should find himself so hooked on her after only a month, it wasn’t only because he didn’t know a single other woman outside his family; rather, to him, she represented absolute perfection. By ‘perfection,’ he didn’t mean anything like long hair or big eyes or a slender figure, though of course he did have his own image of the ideal look: petite, pale-skinned, soft as vanilla ice-cream. But the most important thing was the internal dramas accumulated after so many years of loneliness. For instance, she mentioned she adored celery, red grapes, fish, and beans, but didn’t much care for meat or shrimp, which meant if they were to eat together they could clean each other’s plates; she enjoyed after-midnight browsing at 24-hour supermarkets, picking up each item to examine it carefully before putting it back; she’d rather watch a DVD at home than go to the cinema (though she’d never rent one of those art-house films that went straight to DVD); she was an only child, she’d hated handicraft classes as a little girl, she frequently looked up at the sky as she walked along the street, she spoke too much when she was nervous, she caught colds easily, she dealt with stress by nursing little jealousies, she tried a different soft drink on each visit to the convenience store…
Her daily note might have consisted largely of idle chatter, but it also revealed more and more details like the ones above, things he could never have imagined but that immediately felt right—they conformed to the innermost secrets of his heart, yet he could never have put them into words. At the same time, his sleep was suddenly stripped of dreams. He used to dream all the time about the beauty and the happiness missing from his real life. There was nothing now—no hidden treasures, no symbolism, neither profanity nor grace, nothing but a black void.
This was illogical in all kinds of ways, and he should have had his doubts, but he believed the beautiful dreams hadn’t in fact gone away, but had rather crystallised into this encounter with the woman he was destined to be with, soon to become even more real. And so, on his wordless commute to and from work each day, he thought about this girl he hadn’t met but was intimate with, living life in parallel to him, and he felt a kind of joy that was both full and empty at the same time.
They never talked about meeting face to face, and because they had such an obvious chemistry, he wasn’t too worried about that. But after many days of sun and rain, after many moments of connection, after many sweet exchanges, she never even suggested he might phone her for a real chat.
Which wasn’t to say that if the girl walked up to him, he’d actually dare speak to her in person. But there was something frustrating about this kind of life, being single yet part of a couple, neither lonely nor fulfilled, that resulted in endless speculation. No matter how much he wondered, it was hard to settle on any one of the following possiblities:
Perhaps she was perfect in every way, and simply waiting for him to make the next move—but it was hard to imagine any woman waiting patiently for a partner like himself.
Perhaps she was already married with a three-year-old daughter and a son who’d just passed his first birthday, lumbered with some greaseball of a husband. Needing to fill the emptiness between breastfeeding sessions, and hating her life, she’d fabricated dozens of personalities, filling dozens of unfortunate fellows with frustration.
Perhaps she was not one person but a bored couple, enacting an elaborate hoax to make a stranger look foolish.
Perhaps any day now, she’d send a message asking him to transfer money to a particular bank account.
Perhaps—and this was the worst-case scenario, he unabashedly thought to himself—she might be just like him, and the person she least wanted to look at in the world was herself.
Contemplating this point, he decided to either stop the affair or take it to the next level. It was already a mercy that reality hadn’t yet brought him crashing down, and it seemed pointless rushing forward off his own bat. And furthermore, he ruminated, for all he knew, this petite, attractive girl had been put on earth just to love him. If some people could win the lottery and others survive after being struck by lightning, why shouldn’t he be visited by a miracle after suffering for so many years?
Perhaps because of his long-standing habit of avoiding reflective surfaces, he was the last person to detect the mysterious transformation.
The first to notice was a gaggle of girls from a secondary school. Every evening, they’d come into the fast-food restaurant to do their homework, covering a table or two with books and notepads. Yet their eyes, full of suppressed twinkles, were not on their schoolwork at all, but clung to him as he worked the cash register or flipped a burger or mopped the floor. This made him feel thoroughly self-conscious, and he made even more mistakes than usual, but there was nothing to be done about it.
Next, his colleagues began whispering behind his back, not bothering to conceal their chatter, which was also not loud enough to be overheard. He’d known they loved to exchange rumours about others, but had no idea he’d one day become the object of their gossip.
Then came the final straw—his mother. One morning, she suddenly thought of something or other she needed to discuss with him, and rushed over to his place. When he opened the door, she stood there slack-jawed. “Sorry, I must have come to the wrong house.”
“Ma? What are you talking about?”
She was so shocked she forgot the purpose of her visit. After studying him a long while, she finally said, “How come you’re so skinny now?”
That was the least of it. After his mother left, a dazed expression still on her face, he went to his bathroom and stayed staring at the mirror for a good half hour. He could still just about recognise himself, but was suddenly fearful. This felt like that fairy tale, the shoemaker and the elves—he wondered if something was coming in the middle of the night and only leaving at dawn, working day after day on his sleeping body, filling in and carving out, turning him into a lean-torsoed, clean-featured hunk of a man. His skin emanated some kind of light, and he’d grown a full eight centimetres. Even the big black mole by his eyebrow had shrivelled into a pale blemish that let you imagine he’d once been punched in that spot. No wonder his mother, after not seeing him for some months, was shocked into temporary amnesia. No wonder his colleagues murmured about his being on some kind of special diet, subjected to some kind of make-over. And as for those secondary school girls—of course they who’d had no interest in his former self couldn’t now get enough of his new self.
He knew it was all down to the girl. His world had changed the moment she appeared. Like Ye Gong who pretended to be fascinated by dragons but ran away terrified when confronted by an actual beast, he stayed at home panic-stricken for three days, before wandering out shakily to embrace this wondrous event, like a lottery-winner showing himself to society for the first time, still uncertain how to hold himself, having to re-appraise his appearance in each shop window he passed. Gradually, though, this began to feel good. He was now bold enough to accept the fashion tips passed on by salesgirls as they giggled, ignoring other customers, their voices so tender it seemed they were spilling their secrets.
They urged him to go across the road and ask Kenny on the second floor for a haircut. He left with shopping bags full of this and that, not to mention two receipts with cell phone numbers secretly scribbled on their backs. Beauty is a form of class, and the physical body is a weapon of class warfare. As he walked through the city meeting gaze after gaze, he knew he had become a conqueror.
But there was only one question on his mind: now that he was fit to meet her, would she come?
Every detail of that evening would remain etched into his memory forever. He got back to his apartment around eight-thirty, bearing his new outfits and a bellyful of worry. At nine, he ate the box-dinner he’d bought from a roadside stall, and then logged into his e-mail inbox. Everything was as per normal, but the e-mail recipient was a brand new person.
These three days in hiding, he thought, might possibly have caused the girl, in whichever of the thousands of lit windows across this city she sat by, to grow anxious and fretful. For some reason, this thought gave him a more powerful erection than he’d ever had before. He finally abandoned the arguments he’d spent all evening composing to persuade her to meet him, and sent only two sentences: ‘Want to see a movie this weekend? My treat.’ And with that, he swiftly logged out, turned off the light, and slid beneath his blanket. He fell asleep as soon as he touched the bed, and went straight into his first dream for a long while. He dreamt about the girl.
The perspective of his dream kept shifting. At times he watched himself and the girl from the outside, two gorgeous bodies tangled together. At other times, he was back in the trembling centre of sexual intercourse, the girl’s skin the pale translucent colour of vanilla cream. Her lips brushed again and again over his nerve endings. At the moment of climax, he instinctively bit her shoulder hard. There was no blood, just a soft yet crunchy sensation in his mouth, the taste of all kinds of fresh fruit. Now his carnal appetites had been satisfied, the desire for food was greater than ever, and he gobbled great mouthfuls, chewing at the girl’s body until it was all gone. Only then did the thought arise that something was wrong. Surely other people weren’t food?
His legs spasmed and bounced against the floor. He looked up to see the luminous clock hands pointing at three forty-seven. He was in front of the computer, not in bed, and the screen before him glowed furiously in the dark. He vaguely realised he’d just come from a dream, and made an effort to pull himself back into reality, away from the soft body that still seemed present, towards the computer he clearly remembered turning off before falling asleep.
Displayed in the web browser was a hotmail inbox, logged in to the girl’s account, full of every e-mail he’d ever sent her in neat rows. In another window was a reply to his invitation, but one that stopped after the first few words: ‘You said a mov’ as if the person composing this message had only stepped away for a moment, perhaps to use the bathroom.
But of course this person hadn’t just popped to the bathroom, but woken from a dream. Two of his fingers still rested on the ‘i’ and ‘e’ keys, and remained in this posture as he stared blankly, perfectly stationary until the sky began to lighten and he began hearing the first morning traffic. Dashing to the toilet, he got there just in time to throw up his dinner from the night before. There were fish slices in vinegar, fried carrot and sweetcorn with green beans, fragments of rice and egg. Seeing each component of his vomit with such clarity, he realised abruptly that he’d recently been eating all kinds of foods he’d never normally touch, but that ‘she’ liked.
He had no idea if this counted as multiple personality disorder or sleepwalking or some other sickness, but one thing was certain: his poor concentration at work and emaciated body weren’t caused by his lovelorn state, but by sleep deprivation. He’d somehow got up each night, walked into the living room, turned on his computer, registered another identity on hotmail and the dating website, written himself a letter saying ‘Hey, I think we’d get along,’ then returned to bed, waking up the next day with no memory of doing any of these things, for a whole hundred and thirteen days. His seven hours of sleep reduced to a choppy four hours—how could he possibly be well-rested?
After looking carefully through that hotmail account and his computer’s internal records, he still couldn’t understand why he’d do something like this to himself. Perhaps his need for love was simply too great, or the opposite—he hated himself too much. It could just be that something in his DNA contained some mysterious psychological illness. Some people won the lottery and others were hit by lightning, but he had a one hundred percent chance of inheriting genetic defects.
No matter what the reason was, it wouldn’t change the reality that he would always be alone. After a few days, he began returning to his original form, like a balloon deflating after a garden party: his extraordinarily small mouth, pointy ears, stubborn natural curls, podginess, drunkard’s nose, short stature and droopy eyes all reasserted themselves. The black mole by his eyebrow even took the opportunity to protrude a little further, sprouting wiry dark hairs. The only real change in his life came out of his absenteeism, that one day resulted in a text message from his supervisor at the fast food restaurant telling him that he needn’t bother coming back to work. He found a new job at a convenience store. In addition, he sold his computer, not because it made him sad or fearful to look at it, because after all he’d recovered his original nature, the resilience of a dog or ox. No, he simply didn’t want to give himself the opportunity to wreak havoc again at some point in the future.
And then there really was nothing. He began having dreams again, but they were only ever about everyday things: eating an oversalted bowl of noodles with pickled vegetables and meat; running around desperately looking for a toilet; playing a video game but not being able to get to the next level. And there were times when he’d get up at dawn, usually on sweaty summer mornings, lying in bed smelling his own body odour that lingered through the night, remembering the woman’s body in that one joyous dream, soft as cream cheese, and couldn’t help speculating: that night at 3:47 a.m., what had ‘she’ planned to say to him in that forever incomplete message?
But the thought filled him with resentment. All he could do was sigh long and hard, then drag himself out of bed. Now he pulled on the T-shirt and shorts he’d worn the day before, ready to start his shift at the convenience store, where he’d have some expired buns and milk for breakfast. He grabbed his keys, sifted through the coins in his pocket, and walked out the front door, completely forgetting that today was his thirty-second birthday. As far as he knew, it was just another day in which his dreams would not come true.
Image: Alice Conisbee
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