Who We Once Were, Who We Will Never Be
by Brent Baldwin
Edited by Brian J. White
Your dreams are my dreams, love, forever and always. We’ll go to the city and open a noodle shop, and I’ll steam bamboo baskets of dumplings while you roll out long strands of lo mein. The men will crowd in shoulder to shoulder to eat the best soup in the city. I’ll gather our things, love, while you buy our tickets for the next train.
The factory is not so bad, love. The hours are long, and the pay is low, but I can save a few yuan a day. Go back to your cab and don’t feel guilty. You can pick me up in the evening, and we can dream together of the shop we will open soon.
When I woke this morning your side of the bed was still cold, and I know you must have napped in your cab somewhere in the city. I will leave a few yuan on your pillow, in case you need money for lunch.
Of course, love, if you need to refill your cab, you can use our money. It is yours, too, after all. And no, I don’t mind taking the bus. Go and find fares, and remember the noodle shop. I dream of it every night, alone in our bed.
None of the other factories want me. You don’t think the cab company needs another driver? Of course not. I will find something, maybe at a restaurant. We will manage, love. And we will refill that jar.
I will not tell you of my new job, love. I will save more money, and we will open our noodle shop even sooner. I dream of it as I work through the night. Perhaps we will get home together as the sun rises.
I found the savings jar empty this morning. Where are you, love? I haven’t seen you in days. I hope your taxi is not broken again.
You are tired, love. Your mouth is pinched with worry; your eyes are dark and hollow. Here, love, this is all I have. It is yours, too. Every last jiao. Work is fine. The factory? I have not worked at the factory in months. No, I found something else.
The coolers of ice beside the bed frighten me, but there is no other way. I wake with a dark line of stitches above my hip and an ache deep inside my chest.
I’ve spared what I can, but I know it can never be enough. Take it, love. Take it and tuck it away and save it for us. I will rest here for a few days, I think.
Our apartment is dusty when I get home, but it is impossible to miss your note. My chest aches as I read it, and I pretend that it is only dust in my eyes. I gather the empty savings jar, but I leave everything else, including my red qipao and the dreams we once shared.
Our village is gone. Drowned by progress. I should be angry, but I have no feeling left. My feet are stones as I trudge back to the city.
Hello, love. You don’t recognize me, and I am filled with too much shame to tell you it’s me. Neither of us are who we once were. You choose another girl while I hide in the corner.
You’re back, love, and I know it’s you. I push my shame aside as you approach. You don’t recognize me, but it doesn’t matter.
Come with me, love. Follow me through the alley and past the madames. Follow me past the bullies that guard our doors while we work. Follow me, love, follow me all the way down. You don’t notice the Styrofoam coolers stacked along the walls.
You look through me, and I’d like to think that you’re seeing the girl I used to be.
Follow me, love, and lie down. You’ll sleep. You’ll sleep when it’s over. And I’ll fetch the doctor and a cooler. We’ll refill the savings jar, and you’ll help me open that noodle shop after all.