Please, God, let him telephone me now. Wen prayed in her mind.
She shut off the shower. The sound of water reduced to a drip and stopped. She pulled the shower curtain to the side, stepped out of the tub, and walked over to the sink. She picked up her phone from beside the faucet, beads of water rolling down her back. Frowning without knowing, she lit up the screen.
No messages. No missed calls.
Maybe next time God would hear my prayer, she assured herself.
She slowly set the phone down and started to dry herself off with an old towel. Outside the window, the city sky was a heavy, pale gray. A thunderstorm was forming. She retrieved her gaze. She’d better hurry up, if she didn’t want to get caught in the rain.
She slung the damp towel on the rod, opened the cabinet, and took out her contact lenses. Her eyes met briefly with the empty pink bottle in the corner of the cabinet. That was the lotion she bought when she was on vacation with Dong in Thailand. She used to like collecting personal care products from Southeast Asian countries. “Products from these countries usually contain the natural essence of flowers and hence are good for the skin.” She once read in an article on the Internet. Dong had laughed at her hearsay theories but promised nevertheless that he would bring some for her from Malaysia when he returned from his business trip.
A dull pain was sawing on her heart. She thought about the fight they had on the day Dong left. How stupid it was. She tried to imagine how Dong must have felt when he left. Oh God. She felt horrible.
It had begun to get dark when she left the building. A neighbor was chatting with the security guard at the gate of the neighborhood. The security guard was a skinny, short man in his sixties with deep creases in his forehead. On most of the days, his job was to employ creativity to find possible parking spots and guide an increasing number of private cars into the ill-planned neighborhood. A lot of the neighborhoods built in the 80s or 90s in Beijing were like this. At that time, private cars were not prevalent so parking space was never part of the planning.
The security guard saw Wen and yelled his greeting across the air, “Hi Wen! Going to see your parents?”
“Yes.” Wen looked up at the sky, “It is going to rain.”
“Do you have an umbrella? I can lend you one. I have one in my booth.”
“I’ve got one in my purse. Thank you though.” Wen patted on her purse and walked on. She could sense the gaze from the other neighbor. As soon as she left the vicinity, the neighbor resumed talking to the security guard, presumably about her. Wen suspected that half of the neighborhood knew her face from four years ago.
She was standing at the bus station now. Ten feet behind her, a street vendor was selling some kind of deep-fried snacks, the warm smell drifting in the pre-storm air. Several other people scattered around at the bus station also waiting, most of them burying their heads in their phones.
For a very long time, Wen couldn’t stomach riding on this bus. Line 335. Every weekend before Dong had left, they would take the 335 to visit her parents together. Sometimes they would buy snacks from the street vendors to eat while they waited. Usually they would get different things so they could share. These were the kind of mundane details of life that she had taken for granted.
She got on the bus and settled herself in a corner. She hung onto the plastic pull ring with one hand, her other hand holding her phone. That had been her habit. She kept her phone either in sight or in hand so she would know instantly if it vibrated or rang.
Her thought turned to the day of their fight. He had a flight to catch in the afternoon and she would be going to her parents’ house by herself for dinner later. She asked him if he had some coins to give her for her to take the bus later. Nowadays, without a bus conductor, if you didn’t prepare the exact fare to drop into the bin when you boarded, it pretty much meant that you would lose the change.
He thought for a moment and shook his head. “Just take a taxi. It’d only cost twenty yuan. It’s not that bad.”
“No! Why would I do that? The bus station is right outside of our neighborhood on this end and it is only a five-minute walk to my parents’ place on the other end. Why would I spend twenty yuan on a taxi when the bus only costs one yuan?”
“Okay, okay. Let me look around. I bet I can find some coins somewhere.” Dong turned around on the couch and plunged his hands into the gaps between the cushions.
“How about you take my wallet and go to the store? I have a fifty-yuan bill in it. You could buy a bottle of water from downstairs to break the bill. Don’t forget to ask for some coins in the change.” she pointed with her chin at the Hello Kitty wallet on the cabinet, both of her hands still soaking in the dishwater.
She let out a groan at the thought of that scene. She was so demanding and annoying, wasn’t she? She would apologize if Dong would just call her. She was a different person now. She wanted to show Dong how she would love him and treat him with all the tenderness in her heart.
As she remembered, he shrugged but agreed. She smiled at the sight of him picking up that girlish wallet of hers. It looked funny but adorable in her eyes.
When he returned, she had just finished washing the dishes. She wiped her hands on the kitchen towel before taking the wallet from him.
“How much was the water? Did you buy something else?” she asked, still plowing through the contents of her wallet.
“No, I didn’t get anything else. The water was maybe one yuan, I think.” he dropped himself back into the couch, “Why?”
She frowned, “There was only thirty-five yuan in the wallet.” She dug the contents out and counted in front of him, “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five.”
“Ugh. Did I forget to take the rest of the change? I was watching sports on my phone at the time…”
Things spiraled down from there. She called him “money-burner”, and he said she was “ridiculous”. She got hysterical and began to cry. She yelled, “I haven’t bought new clothes for an entire year! I get my makeup from dollar stores!” Between sobs, she murmured, “When could we ever afford to have a baby with our finances like this?”
She could never forget the look on his face. It was a mix of anger, sadness and humiliation, something she had never expected to see from a light-hearted person like him. “I’ll get a good allowance from this business trip. The company pays one hundred and fifty yuan per night for trips to Southeast Asia.” he said in a softened tone.
Tears were welling up in her eyes now. She wiped them away with the back of her hands. What is he doing now, at this very moment? She wondered. Is it rainy or sunny where he is? Is he seeing the same clouds as I am?
When she arrived at her parents’ house, her eyes were still red. Her mom studied her face for a few seconds when she opened the door but said nothing.
Dinner was simple but tasty. Traditional Chinese dishes that would make one think of “home”: pork meatballs cooked with brown sauce, scrambled eggs with chives, steamed whole fish seasoned with green onions and ginger. The three pairs of chopsticks worked on the dishes in silence. The only sound was her dad clearing his throat and spitting out phlegm from time to time.
“Wen,” her father finally broke the silence, “You haven’t told us. How did your accounting certificate exam go?”
“I passed. Sorry that I forgot to mention earlier. I received the formal notification in mail yesterday.”
“That is great!” her mom and dad both exclaimed.
“Will your boss give you a raise, now that you have the accounting certificate? Have you told your boss yet?” Her mom leaned forward.
“It doesn’t work that way.” Wen picked up a big piece of fish meat and put it in her mom’s bowl, “Plus, the accounting certificate I got is nothing. Several people in our department have passed for Certified Public Accountant. That is more…You guys wouldn’t understand. Just don’t worry about me, mom. Have some fish.”
“I always worry about you. How can’t I?” The ending note of the last sentence hung in the air.
Wen placed a hand over her mom’s and patted.
“I ran into my old colleague yesterday.” her mom continued, “She said she had a neighbor that had a nephew that was of your age and was still single…”
“Mom!” Wen snapped. She threw the chopsticks on the table, one of them hitting the edge of a bowl and bouncing to the ground, “Why don’t you understand? How many times do I have to tell you? I don’t want to go on blind dates!” her lips were trembling, “I am married!”
Her dad raised his head and stared at Wen. Fatigue and sorrow were written everywhere on his weathered face, “They are ending the search on May twenty-ninth. It was announced in the news. You must have seen it too, haven’t you?”
Wen glared at her dad. A torrent of anger and fear roamed through her body. “How can they?” she shrieked, “They haven’t found anything yet! They don’t have evidence for anything! How can they just give up? It’s two hundred and thirty-nine lives!”
Her mom cupped her hands over her mouth, a broken, whining sound coming from underneath. Tears were spilling down her cheeks.
Her dad rubbed his eyes, “It has been four years, Wen. No one would blame you if you give up.”
Her mom moaned, “You are only thirty. You still have a life to live. You need to move on. Dong is not coming back!”
A blinding flash of lightning suddenly struck the sky. At the same time, the rain started to pour down. The falling rain hit the thin kitchen roof above their heads like muffled drumming. The painful memory from four years ago had never for one day faded in Wen’s mind.
March 8, 2014. At 12:41AM on that fateful day, flight MH370 left Malaysia for a six-hour flight to Beijing. At 2:40AM, the Malaysia air traffic controllers communicated that flight MH370 was missing from the radar. There were 239 people onboard.
Passengers included a feted group of Chinese calligraphers, a couple on their way home to their young sons after a long-delayed honeymoon and a construction worker making his first trip home in a year.
Wen recalled vividly the ballroom on the second floor of the Metropark Lido Hotel, which was the holding place for the 500 relatives of the 153 Chinese passengers at the time. Hundreds of chairs were set out in the room. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the air incessantly from the male relatives who had been chain-smoking. The atmosphere was so fraught it was hard to breathe.
In between the angry meetings with Malaysian and Chinese officials, Wen clutched her mom’s arm hard and pleaded, as if her mom was the one making the decision, “Please let them have enough to eat and wear. They need to hold on until rescue arrives…” Near the stage, a man was bawling furiously, “We want proof! We want our families! We want the truth!” People were crying hysterically; some were hitting their heads against the walls.
Wen left the room, lending her weight on her mom. In the hallway, a woman that Wen didn’t know walked up to her, held her with both arms and cried aloud. Wen wrapped her arms around the woman and wept uncontrollably.
A wail pierced through the air, “Bring them back to me, dead or alive!” The desperate calling echoed in the hotel. Wen later learned that that lady’s son, daughter-in-law and grandson were all on the plane.
Wen was panting, her wet face a sickly red. The dishes on the table were getting cold. “Dong is still alive. I believe he is still alive. There is no proof that they are dead. I believe that he will come home one day.”
Her parents were both crying too now. Distant thundering roared in the darkened sky.
Wen’s phone suddenly rewarded her with a “ding”, the notification for an incoming text. She flinched and reached for the phone immediately. It could be him. Every day, every hour and every minute, the possibility stood that the next second she could receive a call or text from him.
Her shoulders sagged when she saw that it was just an automated text from 10086, notifying her that her data usage had reached its monthly limit.
Through tear-filled eyes, Wen clicked opened the text conversation with Dong. An endless string of text messages showed up on one side of the screen. These were the texts that she had been sending him religiously over the past four years.
With trembling fingers, she typed, “Please come back home safely. I miss you. I want to see your face. I want to hug you. Please come back safely.”
She glanced over at her parents before she reached for an inner pocket of her purse and took out a small Hello Kitty wallet. She said, “I told him to break the bill at the store. I yelled at him because he lost fourteen yuan. I didn’t touch the money in the wallet when he was gone, because I wanted to show him the thirty-five yuan again when he returned, so that he wouldn’t be so careless with money next time. He never returned. I feel so bad. I feel so bad.”
“Stop beating yourself up…” her dad was begging, “You need to move on. It breaks our heart seeing you like this…”
“I don’t know how…” Wen threw her head back and cried towards the ceiling, “I don’t know how…How could a plane just vanish? Where is my husband? I don’t understand!”
The phone was laying on the table next to her unfinished rice, the screen dark and still.
She unzipped the Hello Kitty and dumped the contents out. She muttered as she was ironing out the bills with her hand, “I want to be a good wife to him. Please, God. I beg you. Please give me that chance.” She had picked up several compulsive repetitive behaviors over the past four years, such as screenshotting her phone frequently for no reason, and knocking three exact times on the kitchen cabinet every time she walked by it. Somehow she had convinced herself that if she kept doing these things, bad things wouldn’t happen to her and one day Dong would return.
There, she was counting the bills, again and again:
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five…