Qu-Kai had been sharing Qian’s Remembrances of his college days with great pleasure and enthusiastically startled Qian out of his reverie. “I have a pretty good idea where we can find your happy soul!”
The sudden break in silence pulled Qian from his reminiscent contemplation back to the present and the task at hand. He looked at Qu-Kai for a brief moment and then looked down at the photo he was holding that Xiao-Bo had taken the opening night of the drama club performance of Lysistrata for the graduation ceremony. The drama professor had not selected any of their proposed choices for the production and instead recommended this Greek comedy. She felt that a comedy would be more suitable and this play, in particular, took advantage of the predominately female membership of the drama club.
They were all wearing Greek style tunics and masks which were expressionless and not at all flattering. The student actors in the photo were only identifiable by the character they played or by their hair styles. But the candid photo captured the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the “troop” and feelings of the happy times associated with his college days and the drama club filled his spirit.
“Sounds like a promising plan. Let’s go to the campus and see if we can capture another soul in the drama club classroom.”
So, they drifted over to the campus and started searching for the happy soul starting in the drama club classroom. They were unsuccessful there so they went to the campus square where the young lovers liked to hang out and still did not find anything.
“This looks like a dead end, no pun intended. Let’s head back to my place and see if we can pick up any more clues.”
Back in Qian’s study in front of the computer, they were still puzzled as to why they came up empty handed. There are so many emotional moments associated with the college years; first night on campus, first love, beautiful scenery along the river etc.
“Maybe we have to go there before the sun sets. Maybe we could see more in the daylight.”
Qu-Kai had been peering at the computer screen and didn’t even bother to look at Qian before responding. “Are you crazy? We are already miserable enough trapped in this limbo. You want to add to the torment by exposing yourself to sunlight?” Qu-Kai had been studying the life events list that Qian had made when they were first trying to figure out where to search for the missing souls.
“You have a lot of women listed here under the ‘happy’ section. I sure hope we don’t have to track down each one of them looking for your happy moment! No surprise that you completed that list first. I wish you had gotten the other categories finished before Mrs. Liu interrupted us.”
“Don’t even bother studying that! It is totally useless. None of the souls we’ve collected were even remotely related to anything on that list. Besides, you can’t be stupid enough to think that I could get my happiness from the bodies of those women. I never had a meaningful relationship with any of them. At best, any enjoyment I had with them only lasted ten minutes tops!”
“Maybe for a rich busy man like yourself, that was probably the most happiness you had time for!”
“YOU…!” Qian sputtered. His anger rendered him speechless for the moment.
Qu-Kai quickly attempted to placate him. “OK, maybe that is the wrong direction to pursue. Let’s not talk about it anymore. Tell me what happened between you and Yan-Luo.”
“There is no simple answer to that so you’ll have to listen to a long story before I get to the part where we finally break up. The years after my father died were the darkest days for our family.
After the funeral, mother lost touch with reality. She was depressed and frustrated and could not take care of us or herself. She frequently started for the door announcing that she was going to visit father and we repeatedly explained to her that he was dead. Each time hearing this shocked her back into reality and then the depression.
When she did go out, she just sat on a bench in the park like a zombie; totally oblivious to the outside world. The neighbors would call us to come and get this ‘crazy’ woman before she wandered off somewhere in a mindless state and got lost or hurt. My brother and I were too exhausted to watch over her in addition to working and going to school.
Father’s defense lawyer never went to court but wouldn’t return the money which left our family with an enormous debt that still needed to be repaid. I wanted to stay in the house until Mo-Fan graduated but didn’t know if it would be possible to keep the house with what little money I was able to earn doing part time work.
I worked for eighteen hours a day with very little to eat and barely enough sleep to stay awake on the job. I delivered milk in the morning before going to work at the electronics factory. At night I worked as a waiter in a restaurant and after closing washed dishes and cleaned the toilets. On weekends, I worked for a construction company carrying bricks. I didn’t really care what I did as long as it paid money.
I was often too tired to bother with eating. When I did eat I usually had a bowl of milk bread for breakfast and instant noodles for lunch. Sometimes the boss would give us a tea time treat of meat sandwiches but I would save them for my brother’s supper to give him more time for his studies.
Mo-Fan wanted to get a job after graduating from high school but I didn’t want him to give up on his future career and be relegated to doing menial labor for the rest of his life. We finally worked out a plan for him to go to a less expensive community college so he could live at home and care for mother.
During my travel between jobs I would occasionally think of my classmates and in particular Yan-Luo. I had left them all behind without even saying good bye and now it seemed like our lives were on a parallel track that would never converge. For a while, I became depressed about that but in the end, I knew I had no room in my life for self pity and pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind.
After the Lunar New Year, all the creditors that my mother had borrowed money from came to the door in a never ending stream. This was a distraction for Mo-Fan trying to study for his exams not to mention a burden for him attempting to convince them to give us more time to pay off the debt. But, by this time, most of them had heard of Mother’s debilitating mental condition and had lost confidence in the ability of the Yin family to repay them.
For the most part the majority of them were sympathetic and cooperative but some of them and in particular the husband of one of Mother’s teaching colleagues became very angry. He accused her of pretending to be crazy to get out of paying the debt. When I got home from work, he and his wife confronted me and we got into a heated argument. As I recall, the conversation went something like this.”
“Every time we come here, we get the same story and we still have no money.”
“Then why do you come across town every day? If we are the kind of people that would cheat you out of your money, your visits won’t have any effect.”
“I don’t know how long you can stay in this house. You might move out in the night and we would never see you or our money again. I’m not leaving until you pay us what you owe!”
“Do you have an IOU from my mother?”
“My wife loaned the money to her as a colleague and friend. She didn’t think it would be necessary to have an IOU. Are you saying you refuse to pay the money back because we have no proof that we gave it to her?”
“Have I said we wouldn’t pay? If we really aren’t going to pay and you have no IOU, the only option you have is to sue us. And, good luck with that. You will never find us if we decide to disappear. In any case, you are not getting your money today.”
“When can we get it?”
“How much do we owe you?”
“Wait two days and come back. I get my paycheck tomorrow and I can pay part of it.”
“Only part of it? What about the interest?”
“Interest? The loan was based on friendship which by the way may dissolve if you insist on charging interest. Again, you can sue for it but you don’t have any substantial claim that the courts would honor.”
“Well, how much will you pay?”
“My family will discuss it and devise a monthly payment strategy. After all, you are not the only creditors that we are obligated to repay.”
“Well, that proposal is not much better than nothing but at least there is some hope.”
“We were both so angry that we nearly got in a fight but I guess he wasn’t willing to take on two young brothers. In the end, they both left but I could see that in the future, other creditors would be coming to the house to demand their money and I knew that Mo-Fan could not deal with this distraction and effectively study for his college entrance exam.
Mother was sitting quietly on the couch immersed in one of her frequent fits of depression. I sighed in frustration and told Mo-Fan that it was time to sort out the debt and figure out how to deal with it. But first I had to figure out how to convince mother to tell me who she had borrowed the money from and how much we owed each lender. She still believed that father was in jail waiting for us to come and pick him up so I lied to her and told her that Father wanted to know who we owed money to before he got out of jail so that he could make a repayment plan.
With surprising lucidity, she proceeded to name all the people that had lent her money and how much they had given her. I went to the dresser and located the bank passbook and the house loan documents then sat down to organize the information into a matrix ordered by debt obligation. All the while, I was thinking about how the relatives had reacted to Father’s death. His brother and sister had never even inquired about his condition and didn’t even attend his funeral. By contrast, Mother’s relatives had all been extremely supportive and warm. In reviewing the debt list, I found it annoying that the Liao family that had been relentlessly harassing us had loaned my mother the smallest amount of money.
After a week had passed, I took Mother with me to the bank along with the mortgage papers and passbook to get a total picture of the family’s financial condition. I was not prepared for what I discovered. Father’s bank account had been frozen because his death certificate had not been registered with the bank. Because of this, the house loan payments were three months in arrears and the bank was about to submit a foreclosure request to the courts. Mother had also taken out a second mortgage against the equity in the house which further complicated things.
At that moment, I suspected that there was no way that we could keep the house. The only option I had was to sell the house and hope that the bank debt would be satisfied with a little money left over for support of the family. Hopefully the worst case would be to break even. I wouldn’t even consider the possibility that the money from the sale of the house would be gobbled up by the banks with a residual negative balance added to our already staggering debt load.
I used all the money in Mother’s account to try to bring the mortgage payments up to date but it was not enough. They did agree to cancel the property foreclosure application and gave us two days to balance the account. We registered Father’s death certificate with the Household Management Bureau so the bank would free up his account to give us enough funds to satisfy the delinquent mortgage payments. The remaining balance in the account was miniscule and it became painfully apparent that we could not afford to stay in the house. The bank transferred the house title to Mother so we could list it for sale immediately.
From that point on, I only kept $3000 out my monthly salary for living expenses and applied the rest of it to the house mortgage probate costs. I also had to find a solution to the problem of where the family would live once the house was sold. I contacted my Mother’s sister first and she agreed to let us use an empty room in her store for our apartment until Mo-Fan completed his college entrance exam.
We only kept the household furnishings that would fit into our new apartment and offered our creditors the chance to scavenge what they wanted in exchange for a reduction in our debt. We took what was left to the government pawn center to get a little extra money for our living expenses.
Once the house was sold, I met with all the creditors and proposed that I apply 50% of my salary to repayment of the loans. Two groups of four out of the eight creditors would be paid in alternating months in an amount proportional to their outstanding investment relative to the total amount owed by all lenders. They all agreed and at least now we could reside in peace without being constantly hounded for money.
At last, I could come home at the end of a hard days work and relax. But on one particular day I arrived home to find a house full of visitors; my old classmates from college that I hadn’t seen for months.”
“I hope that is a segue to what happened between you and Yan-Luo. I’m starting to get a little bored with the family history.”
“Yeah, I think you will be more interested in the rest of the story. They were all gathered around Mo-Fan chatting intently attempting, I assume, to find out about what had transpired in my life since I abruptly left college without a word to any of them.
When they saw me, they all smiled warmly and greeted me without any hint of reproach. I guess that between the articles in the newspaper and Mo-Fan’s briefing, they all had a pretty good idea of the tragic ordeal with Father’s death and the disastrous financial aftermath. Yan-Luo in particular was extremely empathetic and the sadness of our sudden isolation washed over me and tears ran down my cheeks.
After the initial awkwardness of the surprise meeting had dissipated, they explained that they were anxious to find out about what had happened to me and didn’t want to lose contact with me in case I had to move. Everyone there except Yan-Luo was graduating and they wanted to let me know that they were going to include me in the senior yearbook and send me a copy after printing even though I wouldn’t be graduating with them. I was deeply touched by this gesture of friendship and could scarcely control my emotions.
They all assured me that they would be there to help me and to not try to be too proud to ask for help. We chatted a little longer and then they announced that they were leaving to catch the train before rush hour and invited me to walk with them so we could continue chatting. In retrospect, I am sure that they wanted to give Yan-Lou and me a chance to be alone. Regardless of the intent, that was the final result.
There was a strangeness between us despite the fact that we had been close lovers; most certainly because I had left so suddenly without giving any explanation to her. I could see that she was suffering the deep anguish of uncertainty and I wanted so badly to give some comfort to this beloved woman.
I suddenly felt powerless. I was a man with no future. No money, no education and a seemingly insurmountable debt load. I could only muster a forlorn ‘I am sorry’ and began to cry. She looked lovingly into my eyes and gently wiped the tears from my cheeks. Gripping silence had transformed into a state of understanding.
She broke the silence with an almost frantic plea.
I want to spend my life with you Qian if you will have me. I was afraid that you were going to break up with me and I could not bear the pain. When we came to see you, I was hurt and angry and wanted to curse you for the pain you caused me by your unexplained departure. But now I understand what happened to you and I only want to lovingly share your burden no matter how heavy the load. I can bear anything except having you torn from my life.
After that, she returned to her studies and I to my work. Because of our busy schedules we could only communicate by phone and mail. But, our souls were bonded to the extent that we did not have to be in physical contact to feel our love for each other. For the first time since my father’s death I no longer felt alone.”