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Short stories

Heart Game

One again, he has fallen in love with her. There are as many reasons known as those unknown to him; for example, she somehow looks even more attractive than when he first met her forty two years ago; her personality remains just as sunny despite all the hardships of life she has gone through; even her simple-mindedness or little foolishness is no less lovely. On the other hand, he is not sure what he loves her exactly about; nor does he understand why he, at age 65, just cannot help thinking of her almost every few minutes during his waking hours every day, as if he were still a young boy yearning desperately for his first girlfriend. Probably because they had been totally lost for too long, as long as more than half a lifetime before he saw her again in early October 2019, and also has since then been separated too far apart, as far as beyond the whole pacific, with one living in Vancouver, the other in Shang Zhou. Probably because the pandemic has been preventing them from seeing each other in person while they have geared up for a higher marriage in both body and spirit. Or, probably because theirs is an extramarital or immoral relationship, though a natural result of karma. No matter what, he is acutely aware of himself having become hopelessly crazy for her for the second time, but what about her? Her feeling for him, if any at all, does seem to have revived and even gained a bit new momentum. Otherwise, she would not have been so appreciative of his love poetry devoted to her; nor would she have enjoyed his dirty talks; nor would she video-chat with him almost every midnight; nor would she have eagerly discussed all the details about the honeymoon journey they are to take as soon as they meet again in reality; nor would she, needless to say, have been so responsive to his erotic requests to gaze at her slender neck, her willowy shoulders, her shapely breasts, her long legs, the birthmark near her left groin, among many others, each like a masterful nude painting. All this clearly shows she loves him as well, though probably less than he does her, but to which extent?

Your love feels like a loach in a rice field, full of splashing vitality, but really hard to catch, let along holding it firmly in my hand, he once texted her.

Yours resembles an onion: as I peel off one layer after another, I can find no heart in the core in the end, she texted back.

That’s because I wear my heart inside out! he explained.

Like a true loach, I just cannot escape from your rice field! she replied.

You will never! For I will fry the fish with the onion, or make a good soup with them.

Good idea! But what if it tastes awful?

Doesn’t matter, even if it is as poisonous as hemlock….

He always enjoys conversing with her through such extended puns, though he often feels puzzled and agonized over the way she is reluctant to initiate a dialogue with him. Recently, he came to realize that most of the time, he has to reach out to her first, say, by forwarding a post, texting her a message, or sending a request for an audio or video chat. Last month, he kept waiting deliberately for her to invite him for a chat or meeting, but for up to ninety six hours, she remained silent until he himself could no longer wait to see her.

So, if I were not to resume, you would never try to reach out to me again? he asked in as much resentment as in disappointment.

But you are to blame! How could I tell you were not in trouble with your wife?

If my wife had found out our relationship, you should have tried all the harder to understand the situation and show your concern.

But I must wait this time.

Always so passively, eh? Like every other female creature in the animal world, waiting all the time to be … fucked?

No dirty talk! I am serious.

While he persists in talking dirty, part of his innermost being is busy pondering over the reasons why she has been trying to avoid initiating a conversation of any kind with him. Perhaps, knowing his wife has become sensitive to whatever communication that might be going on between the two of them, she is afraid to contact him at a wrong moment. If caught red-handed again, she could throw him into a big domestic storm while he has to deal with all sorts of health harassments on a daily basis. Perhaps, due to the time differences between their geological locations, she can never find a safe enough time to send him a message. At the same time, she is perhaps still fighting fiercely against her bad conscience of a derailing spouse, since her husband has always been so loving and faithful to her. If she “looked for” him first, she would definitely feel all the more guilty; however, if she receives his messages or requests passively, she would, somewhat like an ostrich with her head in sand, feel less self-contemptuous as a ‘bad’ wife. Most significantly, it is perhaps her feminine tendency towards reservedness or the traditional definition of a “lady” that has been prohibiting her from showing any initiative in the development of their relationship. No matter what, she refuses to give up her passive position, though she appears to be readily or anxiously responsive to his call on every occasion. Whenever he complains about her passiveness, she just says, coyishly, Why bother about the question of who looks for whom first?

To his bewilderment, even after he has repeatedly told her to feel free to initiate a dialogue any time before 9:00 am or after 9:00 pm every day, she shows little change. Thinking that her feeling for him may not be strong enough to overcome her reservedness or her internalized values about being a “good wife,” he tells himself bitterly that their relationship is not merely abnormal and immoral as she has often said, but imbalanced to an alarming degree: he loves her so much so that he is prepared to die for her, but she might have only put him on the bench rather than in the heart of her soul.

He remembers well that on May 28, 2021, shortly after they became aware of their true feelings for each other, he mentioned, half-jokingly, that she had been treating him or his love like a playful emotional toy, and that her feeling for him had never been really sincere, but this toned-down accusation turned out to be so offensive that she kept ignoring his messages for three consecutive days before resuming contact with him.

Yes, for all his complaints, requests and explanations, she just sticks to her old passive way. Notwithstanding his acceptance of her position as somewhat justifiable or excusable, he feels bad and even resentful about the likelihoods that she does not really care about him as she appears to, that her feeling for him will not be as enduring as his for her: should anything happen, she might flee right away and leave him behind to deal with the mess all by himself; and that she loves her husband more after all, since he is taller, handsomer and maybe wealthier as well. True, she has demonstrated her affection for him in more telling ways than she did for her husband before their marriage, but her love feels quite evasive, while he is afraid of himself having probably overestimated his own importance in their relationship to begin with. For him, unrequited love or delusional fancy as her or anyone else’s love interest is something he finds despicable, though he sometimes sympathizes with those who suffer from it.

He further remembers that while dating with a girl after they finished university in Shanghai, he went through a lot of emotional hardships. Attracted by her beauty and intelligence, he showed no hesitation when he confessed how he had fallen in love with her at first sight. In the weeks that immediately followed, he kept articulating his love in the subtlest fashion, in every conceivable way and with all the heart and soul of a passionate young man, but before long, she seemed to take his love for granted and even become fed up with the kind of innocence, intensity, sincerity and enthusiasm manifested in his love. Without much previous experience, he knew little about how to handle an intimate relationship or about the psychology of the beloved and, gradually, he found himself degraded into an unappreciated admirer. Even his conscious effort to reserve sex for their wedding night had somehow been taken as a gesture too naïve or too prudent, for she might well have expected him to unleash his sexual impulses in those passionate moments. His unfailing activeness and thoughtless initiative led her only to look down upon him, so much so that she eventually decided to marry his rival instead. The most important lesson he learned from this experience, as he has come to see it now, is not to let the other party get the upper hand in the emotional battle. Whoever confesses first would be the loser; and whoever shows a deeper or stronger affection for the other party would be taken advantage of or “exploited” emotionally later.

Now, four decades after that deplorable dating experience, he finds himself cornered in a similar situation. He knows he is head over heels in love with her, a woman circumstances had prevented him to date formally when they were still teenagers; now he misses her all day long, constantly lost in his thinking about her day and night, between wake and dream. He has told her to put aside her “feminine reservedness” just as he has done with his “masculine dignity” and, for hundreds of times, he has been tempted to capitulate, but each time there is an inner voice reminding him to wait prudently for her to admit the profundity of her affection first. Then his own declaration of love would take a consoling, considerate and compensatory tone; by biting his time, he might be more appreciated as a returning lover. If he confessed the full and fearful dimensions of his true feeling first, he would lose the battle. In other words, he must listen to the sagacious voice in him, pretend to make light of their relationship, and wait patiently for her misstep to confess initially and sincerely without reservation. Thinking along this line, he decides never to yield to his confessional impulses.

Of course, he needs to take more initiative in their relationship; after all, it is he who has stolen her heart from her perfectly loving husband or their heavily-guarded matrimony, but how can he “look for her first” most of the time without letting her know how mad he has actually become about her?

After long and much deliberation, he hit upon an idea during insomnia last night. He will propose to follow a contact schedule: he sends invitations to her every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, while it is her turn to do so on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. As for Sunday, it should be reserved for an “emotional leave” unless either has something important enough to initiate a conversation. This way, they have equal freedom, right or obligation to carry their mutual love to the end while both are exempted from the pressure to win in an emotional seesaw battle.

Great, let’s follow this schedule, strictly and persistently, she says. But is it really important to win in this game of the heart? Is there a win-win situation? What if they both lose? He is not sure yet.

(Note: this story is inspired by Helena Qi Hong)

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Changming Yuan

Yuan Changming published monographs on translation before leaving China. With a Canadian PhD in English, Yuan currently edits Poetry Pacific with Allen Yuan in Vancouver. Credits include 12 Pushcart nominations, 15 chapbooks as well as appearances in Best of the Best Canadian Poetry (2008-17), BestNewPoemsOnline & Poetry Daily, among nearly 2,000 others across 48 countries.

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