This is going to be painful. This is going to hurt. Taiji traps in miniature the passing of a day. A day’s a lifetime, but tomorrow’s no redo. This is real.
The opening . . . imagine rising suns. It takes balance. Her voice wavers when she calls. Since her brother’s deformed hand (bone-whittled thumb unfit for rifles) would have kept him from the People’s National Army, her father bribed. A recruitment officer now owns shares in the highway-paving project through the city. He’ll be a career soldier, her father said, but a foreigner in the family would stall promotion.
Next: parting the wild horse’s mane. You do that by making a rule, one that answers that self-pitying question you’ve asked your whole adult life—whether you’re too selfish to love someone else—and the next time she writhes from family pressure, those late-night calls from mom, uncles, aunts, not to marry a foreigner, you will take her up on it. Nobody knows you’re already married. Her family, you thought, would come around. It’s been a year. She does bring it up, you do follow through, and possessed by some urge to really tear things down, you follow that red, arching sign down the alley to the bathhouse with no showers, the room with low beds, and make sure the whole thing’s done.
Brush the knee. It will get out, so go ahead and tell a few friends. The first one might be a colleague you’re sometimes friends with, but who you mostly just compete with—for overload money, empty titles, and access to the provost who visits the country once a year around graduation. He will hide signs of joy, trusty old schadenfreude. He has been sleeping with students and sees this as handy blackmail. Maybe unable to sleep, maybe hands numb from worry, he uses it in a text when your supervisor comes to observe classes (don’t let the word get out about the split, and more about awkward questions from colleagues), to make sure you won’t tell what you know while contract renewals are up in the air.
Catch-the-dove’s-tail simulates something graceful, but in the end these are methods of attack. Tail catching trains pinning wrists, bending elbows, and shifting qi. Don’t really do this to anybody.
Cloud hands, and keep your knees straight when you step sideways, because a few months later, you meet her at the bureau in the city. You screen your face with your shirt against the bitumen smell of road-paving construction. You come to the place that will translate and stamp the agreement. No kids, no shared property—it takes one afternoon. She’s grown her hair longer, could use sun. You realize how young she is.
Inspect the horse, kick. You sit next to each other and soon are called in. After small talk and laughs, she tries and says she’s okay but cannot stop crying. The guy wearing jeans and a flannel shirt sits at a desk among papers. His desktop bleeps with chat requests. Who the fuck is this guy, you think, to be playing marriage counselor? He says he can’t when she’s like that. She says it’s ok. He asks why. We just want to, she says, but he makes you go to the waiting room and talk about it first. She needs to calm down or he won’t.
Snake slips through, golden rooster. You say, to maybe keep it alive, Call your father. She says the money’s gone too far. Not only her brother. They are getting her promotions now, and raises.
After parrying, punching, plunging a fan through one’s back, a final gesture mimics doors closing. And the one you close tomorrow resembles but is not the same door as today’s. She hugs you outside the building and asks you to lunch.
You get a taxi by yourself, because there are no new days, just balance and nimbleness, muscle memory, practice for reshaping past patterns. Stand and meditate. Let the right ones in. From now until the next time, it’s not like you’re not living—or, a little later, like the nothing that’s before. It’s more an enclosure, a place of perspective. It takes a long time.
Justin Nicholes is the author of the novels River Dragon Sky (2012) and Ash Dogs (2008). His stories have appeared in The Saint Ann’s Review, Prick of the Spindle, Stickman Review, Slice, The Medulla Review, and elsewhere. He is the chief editor of The Pavilion and lives in Xinzheng City, China.