What We Talk About When We Talk About Short Stories

Mr. Leong had already printed out my stories — each stapled and spread parallel across his teapoy. Black helvetica on bright white front pages. He asked about my university and grad school, and about my mom. “She’s doing fine”, I said. He was my mother’s classmate from high school, and for that alone, she insisted, I should give him the utmost respect. He used to work as a literary agent for some years, which gave him, maybe, some right as well.

We were sitting on a brown suede corner sofa in his two-bedroom apartment in San Marcos, California. The white steam of oolong in our green porcelain tea cups slowly rose up and dissipated into the air. His room smelled like chrysanthemum.

“Let’s talk about your stories now.” He grabbed Metro from the far end of the teapoy — that was the cover story of my collection; it consisted of seven stories that took place in Shanghai. “You didn’t drive this far just to hear an old man ask about your life, did you?” He looked at me and chuckled softly.

“It’s nice actually. Talking about life and stuff.”

Afternoon sun spilled into the living room and cast splinters of light onto the whitish wall. It was the 4 o’clock sunshine — yellow of a mature and slightly rusty tone, a warm golden color that might turn orange at any inattentive second, and then night would fall.

“Yes it is,” he said. “Also when we talk about life we may well be talking about stories.”

I nodded, and held the cup to my lip for a cautious sip. It tasted like nothing but a paralyzing burn against my tongue.

It was a top-notch kind of oolong, according to Mr. Leong — supposedly with a rich and smooth texture, or whatever good teas taste like these days. The tea bags were placed in a red aluminum square box, with the yellow brand name printed on the top. “Do you drink tea? Or anything else? Juice, milk, soda?” He had asked me as soon as we had sat down. “Sure, tea is fine with me”, I had replied. But I wouldn’t be able to tell him I wasn’t a fan of such things, not when he’d already dumped the pack of tea leaves into the pot.

 

“Nice cover story”, Mr. Leong flipped through the pages and said. “It fits with the rest of your collection. And the subways. Wow.” He let out his breath of silent amazement. “They must be all over the city now. Unlike thirty years ago. I stayed in Shanghai for a few days before going off to college in San Francisco. Buses and bicycles everywhere. Few people owned cars back then. Metro was just unimaginable.”

“Yes, the city has changed quite a lot.”

Mr. Leong’s hair was a tangle of black and gray, and his beard — sprinkles of dusted snow, disheveled but somehow suited him perfectly. White shirt wrapped in a navy cardigan. His look reminded me of this elderly editor I used to know who worked in a news press — the kind of people who would rather talk about what they know than what mattered.

“Anything in the story I could work on? Characterization, plot, setting, etc?” I asked. I was hoping he wouldn’t have much to say on that — not like I would do any huge changes at this stage. My agent had urged me to turn those in to UC press early this week, but I decided to talk to Mr. Leong first and wait a few days. But honestly I didn’t know what I should be expecting from this conversation.

“Like I said, everything is pretty good.” He moved his eyes from the pages and looked at me. “There’s a few awkward lines which I marked on the pages, but you already have the whole structure down. Impressive writing by the way.” He held the teacup near his mouth while skimming through the last page of my story, and blew onto the surface of the oolong to cool it down.

 

There was a pixelated painting of the Great Wall on the wall in front of us that seemed to be knitted together from thousands of tiny pieces. It reminded me of this montage of a man that was made of bubble wrap. Maybe I should talk to Mr. Leong about that, about how this painting was made. But instead I said nothing; Mr. Leong put Subway back on the teapoy, but did not proceed to the next one.

“They are all good stories”, Mr. Leong gathered all the stories and piled them up, “and you said in your email that they all underwent loads of edits. I made a few changes to stir things up a bit. But they are already really good stories. No wonder your mom speaks proudly of you.”

“Thanks, Mr. Leong. Which one do you like the most?” It was always fun to ask about this.

“Let’s see”, he looked above to the brown ceiling fan and back at me, and said, “the one where the twenty year old graduate and the CEO exchanged bodies with each other. What’s the story called again?”

Outsider.”

“Right, right. Brilliant title. And it’s a really entertaining story too. The part where they tried to fit into their new identities but still acted weirdly in front of their friends and colleagues. But…” He paused and hesitated, words painfully stuck in his mouth. Another minute passed, and he continued his unfinished line: “But not just that. Something else. Something else that made this story so special from others.”

“What’s that?”

Mr. Leong finished the last bit of oolong in his cup. So I filled it full from the tea pot. Still, he didn’t answer. For a minute or so, he glanced back and forth from the cream carpet to the pile of my stories. I looked at him, then out the window. There was a L-shaped swimming pool surrounded by the apartment complex. Half of the pool was covered in a shadow from the building or the sun or both, where the other half was translucent, with a golden shade floating on top of the water. The sky was reddening, and a cluster of white light was burning bright in the horizon, as if setting all the clouds aflame.

“This story,” he said, “it just feels so real.”

“How so?”

“It reminded me of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the kind of story that starts off from an absurd situation for the characters. You have read that book right? Schools these days all have kids read it. Classic they say.”

“Yeah I have. Several times actually. His books, philosophy and the sort of absurd experience of his characters pretty much inspired me to start writing”. As soon as I finished talking it occurred to me my tone was like celebrities speaking about their own dramatic inspirations on TV shows.

“I can see that. Most of your stories have more or less elements of absurdity in them. ” His voice was low, quiet and less amazed than I’d thought before. “Anyway, back to why I like that one particular. The plot is just beautiful. You have them exchange bodies when both of their mothers are severely sick. And the kid, of course he doesn’t want to go back to his mom now he suddenly becomes so rich. But the CEO, who now lives inside the boy’s body, travels far to visit his own mother in his hometown even though he has no money. Jesus I love that part. And even better, he visits the kid’s dying mother after learning about that so she could see her son’s face one last time before dying in peace. Wow. Just wow.”

Frankly it wasn’t my favorite story but wasn’t a bad one either. I had written it back in high school, and since it took place in Shanghai, I put it along rest of my stories. But somehow it always reminded me of those dramatic and tawdry deathbed scenes in Chinese TV shows or movies. And that made me uncomfortable.

“And why I think it’s more real”, he said, after gulping a whole cup of tea into his mouth, “is that it’s less about the city, and the whole abstract perception behind it. In your other stories, for example, you ground the characters in a certain place of Shanghai. Subway, brothel, restaurants. And you give some absurd setting to the plot, where the characters try to inhabit this absurdity but that’s it. Everything is centered around this idea that life and characters and experiences are absurd. Everything. And the characters, they don’t have anything personal — memories or where they are from or whatever; what they do for work pretty much defines who they are …”

“But what they do does define who they are,” I interrupted Mr. Leong rudely. “At least in Shanghai.” I’d interrupted him for a good reason. “Everyone has a backstory, but those don’t really matter in their lives.” What does he know about Shanghai anyway? He probably hasn’t gone back to China for ages, and he isn’t even from Shanghai. Both of our tea cups were empty, so was the teapot, and nobody had bothered to pour more water from the kettle. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.

“Sorry if I have a lack of understanding about the place.” It was Mr. Leong who apologized first, as he then opened the lid of the teapot and filled it with hot water. I then told him it should be my fault.

“I certainly don’t know the city as well as you,” he said. “Far worse actually. I’ve never lived there like you and your mom. Last time I went, let’s see, was in 2010.” There were shouts of after-school children and splashes of water outside in the pool. And parents were chatting with each other, all enjoying their leisure and the last bit of sunshine of late afternoon. The sounds, when they came together, muffled the already quiet voice of Mr. Leong. “I visited your mom and some other classmates and friends. She said you were studying abroad at that time. And we went back together to the semicentennial of our high school. It was in a small town near Xi’an.”

“Yeah she took me there before too.”

“But my point is”, he continued, after filling our cups with another round of oolong. “It’s that cities like Shanghai, they are filled with outsiders, people who are from other cities or rural areas but go there to seek better opportunities, like your mom. And most of your characters, they sure don’t seem like natives.”

I nodded.

“And fictions, short stories, they are all about characters. And there’s no way you can explore those characters without talking about their memories, their hometowns, and other things.”

“But, fiction is never supposed to be about the characters. It should be about this general human experience that takes place in Shanghai.” I tried to argue, but soon I realized it was useless, and unpleasant. “Nevermind what I said.”

 

I had asked mother what Mr. Leong was like before the visit. “Somewhat odd, unlike when he studied in China”, she had said in the phone, talking about the last time they had met. “He must have a lot of things to say, all clogged in his mind and stuck at his mouth. Often enough he won’t say anything, or he’ll speak too much. But I’m sure he will give you some solid advice on your stories.”

 

The living room fell into an impenetrable silence as the bright yellow sun was blazing among the dark gray clouds, placing all the apartments and the pool under its indomitable shadow. I looked at my watch. It was 5:32 pm.

“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I was taking a too personal standpoint toward your story.”

“No you are not. I actually really appreciate your comments.” It slipped out of my mouth so fast that it took me another second to realize that I didn’t mean it.

“No I was being personal. Had you changed Shanghai to San Marcos I would’ve been fine with it. Writers should have the choice to incorporate their characters however they want and I respect that. I really do. But something triggered me when I was reading your story. Reminded me of my mother and other things.” Mr. Leong gave out a heavy sniff, and continued, “she died about ten years ago. Cerebral hemorrhage. I got on the plane as soon as the news came but I was still too late. And my father died one year after.”

“I’m really sorry about that.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. It was a long time ago”, he said.

The air felt as if suffocated with a sudden choke of sadness, but had nobody asked for that. It was the kind of sadness that was less depressed than dull, the kind that would sink you down into the cream white couch and make you fall asleep.

My eyes were nearly half shut when Mr. Leong started talking again.

“Don’t you feel that too sometimes? All those distant memories about parents and friends and hometown and many other things rushed into your head. They feel like such luxuries, especially you won’t have those anymore.” He paused for a deep long sign, and continued, “maybe you are still too young to have a strong feeling about those things. When I first came here I didn’t really think about those. I missed home, yes. But ninety percent of the time I was learning English, reading books, and washing dishes at a nearby Chinese restaurant. And I thought a lot about what I was going to become. No idea I would one day become a literary agent for twenty some years and read thousands of other people’s work. Good I’m retired now. Perhaps it’s literature’s fault; they made you sensitive to things — bringing back memories you didn’t ask for.”

I nodded, but I didn’t know what I was nodding at. Maybe he’s right, that one day when I was retired and free too, I would be haunted by the past memories. But now I just wanted to submit my final draft to my agent, Mr. Dobrowski, and then to the publisher. Maybe out of here right away and drove back to Pasadena.

 

I had not touched the cup since Mr. Leong last poured for us, and neither did he. Now when I finally took a sip, carefully, the tea was no longer warm. It was odorless and bitter, and the cold taste of the water only made it worse.

“I remember every night, after dinner, back in Xi’an, mother would try to teach father how to sing without going out of the tune. And during weekends father would bike us to this restaurant downtown. The top tube was made extra long back then, so he would sit there, mother in the regular seat and me in the rear one. We always ordered braised eggplants and pork belly there.” He was smiling, with two dimples on each side of his cheek. And his eyes were shimmering, with something much happier than tears. “And your mom. Sometimes after school we would sneak out to Xingqing park instead of going straight home, and rent a small rowboat for an hour or so with several cents. Things were really cheap back then. We would row to the center of the lake and just let it float there, and we would talk about teachers and our favorite songs and etc. Such fun times.”

After Mr. Leong finished talking, he looked outside at the darkening horizon and then back to me. “Sorry, we were supposed to talk about your stories.”

“No, it’s fine”, I said.

“Do you want to have dinner somewhere? There’s a good Korean place down the street.”

“Sure. Sounds great.”

I asked myself whether mother and Mr. Leong had had a thing together. Or it might be some sort of camaraderie instead of love, who knows. Dusk had completely taken over the living room by now, but we were ready to leave.

Maybe I would ask him later what his plan was after retirement.

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