“Are you at home?” by Liu Ying, translated from the Chinese by Michael Day

Red Seine, Joyce Polance

Are you at home?

Her: “Are you at home?”

Me: “I’m at a café.”

Her: “It’s nine at night. What are you doing at a café?”

Me: “There’s the smell of fresh bread and coffee and the warm sensation of strangers all around. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. Safer that way. It’s like a big, open living room, no need to talk to anyone. The café closes at ten. I can stay a little longer.”

Her: “So you can’t stand being at home alone, either?”

Me: “No. Since last summer, home is such a cold and lonely place. Lots of nights, I can’t sleep. It’s like I’m trapped inside a damp, dark cave. I’m so helpless, so powerless. I’ll curl up in bed or on the sofa, feeling empty, like I’m floating on a cloud, like the connection between me and the world is cut, like the power is out and I’m bathing in blackness. So I’ll force myself to go outside, someplace with people, someplace quiet. The café is a new find of mine, just opened in the neighborhood.”

Her: “I’m in Sicily.”

Me: “Oh, fun. It’s your first big trip in years.”

Her: “Four years, yeah. I got pregnant, married in a hurry, had the baby, got divorced, and switched jobs again. The baby is two now, and my mom is at home babysitting. The company laid some people off, and new hires like me with kids at home were the first to go. I panicked, went right to work looking for a job, but my mom said, no, why don’t you take a vacation? I wavered for a few days, then made up my mind. I’d go out into the world, take a breath of fresh air.”

Me: “I never even knew you were divorced.”

Her: “I barely told anybody. Everyone around me knew he was never home. They never saw him anyway. No one even noticed. At first, I thought we could make it work. When we found out I was pregnant, we got married right away. But life after the baby was born wasn’t like I thought. He still went out drinking with his buddies. He said friends were important, but they were a bunch of trash-talking bums. He never helped with the housework. He’d come home drunk and complain, say the house was a mess, I was fat, I smelled bad. My body had been through pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. I’d become a mother, but he was still a boy. We got into a fight one time, and he even said he was too good for me. He said his mother and father had always thought that. I was better-educated, made more money, and stood just as tall. The only way I didn’t measure up was my mom didn’t make as much money as his parents. My dad died young, you know, and my mom was a teacher, so we may not have been rich, but we lived clean, decent lives. When the two of us were in love, there were movies, there were restaurants, there were museums, there were little trips, there was passion, but it turned out none of it meant a thing. As daily life drags on, surrounded by baby’s cries and the smell of milk and yesterday’s dinner, you come to your senses and realize he’s crude and rude deep down to the core of him, he’s a selfish chauvinist, an egotistical, loudmouthed complainer.”

Me: “Yeah, lots of men don’t want to grow up and face reality, so they hide.”

Her: “Right. I could have kept going like that, keeping my mouth shut and my eyes shut, keeping myself busy, but it would have been like falling forever down a bottomless pit. Let’s get divorced, I said, and he agreed right away. His family owned a few houses, but they were in his parents’ names. There were no assets to split. He took back the necklace, a wedding gift from his parents, and he was out the door.”

Me: “What did your mom say?”

Her: “My mom said, if you’re going to get divorced, do it now. There’s no future in this thing anyway. It isn’t like the old days, when for the sake of having a husband you would hold hatred silently inside you, pitted against him in your heart but tied together forever. I could take care of myself and the baby on my own, and I wouldn’t have to hold in all the hurt. Life would be easy and free.”

Me: “It’s best to make a clean break. Don’t let the past leave a mark. Each day is a new beginning. Bon voyage. Keep your heart set on being happy.”

Her: “Yeah. This girlfriend of mine from my first job got married and moved to Italy. Her husband is a university English professor, and there’s a vineyard in the backyard. She spends her days tending the grapes, and she runs a little gift shop in the village, selling handmade crafts from China and things by local artists. In winter, she teaches Chinese lessons at home. She’s always been so sweet and full of life. Now that she’s simplified her relationships with people, she seems even healthier, even more herself. Her cheeks have a rosy glow. I stayed with her for two days, soaking in the good vibes. It had been so long since I’d had a good laugh. I’ve been laughing a lot these days.”

Me: “Laughing is good for you. Laugh more. Squeeze out tears. Keep it up. Fill your heart to bursting with joy.”

Her: “Yeah. I called home a minute ago, but no one picked up. My mom should be home this time of day. Maybe she took the baby and went for a walk in the neighborhood.”

Me: “Don’t worry. If anything was wrong, she’d call.”

Her: “Good thing is, I’ll be home in two days. Well, I’m gonna catch up on some sleep.”

Me: “Have a nice nap.”

Her: “Are you at home?”

Me: “Yeah. Getting ready to jump in the shower.”

Her: “Terrible news—have you heard?”

Me: “What?”

Her: “I just got back from Jimei’s place. They’re gone, all of them. I can barely believe it.”

Me: “Who’s gone?”

Her: “Jimei got back from Italy to find her mom had passed away suddenly, and the baby had starved.”

Me: “Oh, my god.”

Her: “After Jimei left, I went to the house to check on her mom and the baby, dropped off some fruit and a hot meal. Then I twisted my ankle running in the neighborhood one night, so I didn’t go back. I called her mom and she said not to worry, she was fine. Her mom did seem healthy, like she said, loud and full of laughs. Jimei texted me one day, said no one was picking up the phone at home, maybe her mom had gone downstairs to take a walk with the baby. I told her, don’t worry, I’m sure they’re just out for a walk. The next day, I called her home phone, but no one picked up. My ankle was sprained, and my husband was away on business. I couldn’t work or even walk on my own, and with a baby to take care of, things at home were a whirlwind. I was sure her mom was just gone to the grocery, and anyway, Jimei would be back the next day. It was nothing to get bent out of shape over.”

Me: “Then the sky fell in.”

Her: “It hurts so badly. I blame myself. My heart is twisted with agony. I feel like my body is floating, like it’s all a dream. I only wish.”

Her: “Are you home?”

Me: “Just got back from work. It’s six in the morning over there, isn’t it? You’re up early.”

Her: “Jimei is gone.”

Me: “Gone? How?”

Her: “Suicide.”

Me: “Good God. Weren’t you staying in a hotel with her?”

Me: “At the funeral, her husband let her have it, started shouting, said she was a killer, said she’d gone prancing around the world without a care and let his child die. Her ex-husband, I mean. I only found out at the funeral they’d been divorced for half a year.”

Her: “And where was he when this happened? Interesting time for him to show up and run his mouth off.”

Her: “Since the day she came home and found her mom and baby dead, she’d been out of it. She shriveled up into herself in an instant. Her eyes were empty and her face was blank. She didn’t cry. She didn’t say a word. Her soul had left her body, and she was hollow. I made the funeral arrangements for her. I watched over her during the days and evenings. I let my husband take care of the house. I was worried she’d do something dumb.”

Me: “I should have flown home right away, but I couldn’t get away from work. I was just going to finish this project and then go be by her side. Later, I’d take her to New York and we’d stay a few days. A bunch of excuses, I know. I should have gotten on the very next flight.”

Her: “Seems to me she’d made her mind up. The evening of the funeral, she barely ate anything, but she did drink a yogurt drink. Before bed, she said she wanted me to go once a year and lay a bouquet on their graves. She said her mom had loved beautiful things, and the baby had, too. She wanted me to buy a big bouquet of red roses, the kind that puts a burst of joy in your heart. I woke up in the middle of the night, saw her lying on her side, and went back to sleep, relieved. In the morning, there was no one there, and I panicked. I’d barely slept for days, and as soon as I fell into a deep sleep, she slipped out. I called her cell, but no one picked up. I ran to the lake and looked all around. On the way, I called my husband and told him to go to her house as quickly as he could to take a look. It didn’t take long for him to find her. The doors were unlocked, and she was at home, collapsed on the living room sofa. She’d swallowed a bunch of pills. She was already dead.”

Me: “Did she leave a note?”

Her: “She did. It said not to be sad for her. It said her heart had turned to ashes long ago. Now, with her mom and the baby gone, she had even less reason to live. She would go to be with her mom and the baby. It was the best way.”

Me: “I can’t get my mind around it. Did she have any other family?”

Her: “She was her mother’s only child. She had an aunt and uncle, but they’d never been close. There was no one in the world she could rely on. From high school to college, the three of us were always together. You and me, we were like her sisters. But I blame myself for this. I’ll be living in her shadow for the rest of my life. The pain is almost too much to bear. It feels just like a dream. The dead are dead, and those of us left living will never be the same.”

Me: “Only the good blame themselves. Bad people put the blame on others.”

Her: “No one knew she was divorced, not even me. You know, everyone and her sister is divorced these days. But when a marriage breaks down, a woman has to bear all kinds of pressure from the outside world, and on top of that, she has to bring up her kids by herself. Men come around quickly from the shock. Before you know it, they’ve married younger women and started new lives. Her dad died young, leaving her mom and her alone, and then she got married, and now this. She never said a word, but inside she was hurting. She wasn’t like her mom. Her mom was always laughing. The baby was always laughing too, going quack quack, like a little duck.”

Me: “In Italy, she said she didn’t know how long it had been since she’d had a good laugh, but for a few days anyway, she laughed a lot.”

Her: “I’m glad to hear that, to know she laughed a lot, once upon a time.”

Me: “Are you at home?”

Her: “Yeah.”

Me: “I just woke up from dreaming of her.”

Her: “I can barely sleep through the night. I’ll drift away, and she’ll be standing there in front of me, and she’ll try to speak, but it’s like she’s mute, no words will come out. It’s so painful to watch.”

Me: “I just dreamed of her standing in the vineyard, eating grapes, juice staining the crooks of her smile. The sunlight was shimmering, and she stood there squinting into the light, smiling. You know, when she smiled, it was so beautiful.”

Her: “Yes, when she smiled, it was so beautiful.”






























:“ 季美从外面旅行回来,发现老人家因突发病走了,孩子活活饿死了。”





















:“她离了婚,竟然连我都不知道。你知道,周围到处都是离婚的人,但婚姻不顺,对女人来说,还是要格外承受些来自外界的压力,除此,她还得独自拖带一个孩子。男人翘起屁股摇摆几下,轻松的就又有了年轻的女人、新的生活。她父亲早走,与母亲两个人过日子,结婚后又遇上这些事。她什么都不说,但内心是压抑的。她不像母亲,她母亲倒是会时常发出咯咯咯的笑。她孩子笑起来像小鸭子 ,也是咯咯咯地。”










image0Born in the 1970s in Zhejiang, China, Liu Ying is the author of the novels Abu, A Little Heaven, Light Like the Color of Skin, Deep Inside Me, and Sister, as well as the story collections Attic and Delicious Mushrooms, among other works. Her story “Attic” was made into a Chinese motion picture. She currently lives in Manhattan.

unnamed3Michael Day is a traveler, writer, and Chinese and Japanese translator whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, Words Without Borders, Georgia Review, Massachusetts Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review. He has worked with authors including Lu Min, Chen Cun, Chi Zijian, and Yumiko Kurahashi. He won first place in the 2015 Bai Meigui Translation Prize for Chinese to English literary translation, second place in the 2018-2019 John Dryden Translation Competition, and was joint winner of the 3rd Japanese Literary Publication Project International Translation Competition.

0817191448k+(1)a1Joyce Polance is a Chicago-based painter working in oils. Polance was born in New York City in 1965. She attended Wesleyan University and received a BFA from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She has exhibited internationally and has work in many private and corporate collections. Polance is represented by Judy Ferrara Gallery in Three Oaks, MI and Elephant Room in Chicago. She may also be contacted directly for purchase of paintings.