We met during your rotation in the pediatric cardiology department. I was a junior doctor then, and you were an intern. After one evening round, you asked for my WeChat ID. The head physician was talking about a kid with an atrial septal defect, detailing how the hole in the heart looked like a cave. You texted me later, saying that you'd heard me telling others about my insomnia. I did have serious insomnia then. You majored in psychology, you said. You offered to help.
Back then I was taking Estazolam. It had brought along bothersome but tolerable side effects. For the whole day I was clumsy and unsteady, and at night I'd hold the tablet pack tightly, unable to stop my craving. I studied your messages in drowsiness. Zolpidem and Lorazepam were what you recommended. They might make me feel better, you said.
“Oh really?” I texted you back. I missed a dose two nights before, then I overdosed, trying to make up for what I had missed. I was very slow, unresponsive. My phone dropped to the floor before I was aware of my quivering hands.
I'd been in the pediatric cardiology department for years. I was quite familiar with those kids who had swelling in the legs or shortness of breath, so the stories of your patients after your rotation ended were all fresh. A teenager suffering from an eating disorder that weighed fifty pounds. An electric current that passed through the brain, triggering a seizure. A girl who always texted you at midnight and was therefore transferred to another psychiatrist because of her transference.
"How would you treat me then?" I asked. "What would you prescribe?"
"You'd better see a therapist," you said. "It might work better than drugs."
"Can you be my therapist?" I said. But you rejected.
Transference is common among humans. We, as humans, would always struggle to elude its presence. During lunch you'd ask if I'd slept well or check if I was taking the medication regularly. Then I'd talk endlessly about everything that bugged me from my childhood, my hard time concentrating while listening, my inability to remember what I had heard a moment ago while you'd sit there, just listening, waiting. And after my non-stop talking finally stopped, you said that you were exactly the opposite. You were a good listener, you said, but you had trouble reading.
"I can be your eyes then," I said.
"And I can be your ears," you said.
Then one night you got wasted. You were trying to quit drinking. At a party you had a bottle, and then you couldn't stop reaching out for more. I tried to stop you but failed. You were very sober, you claimed, and very dried-out. Then you fell. You reminded me of a shattered sculpture, a broken window, a cracked knife.
In the emergency hall, you lay down on the floor. The scarred and the bruised surrounded you, looking as wretched as you. After the woman next to you was sent to have coronary angiography, a nurse came to lift you. You rose and beat him. His glasses fell to the floor, breaking into pieces.
You slept for three days straight after the infusion. You slept, peed, drank water, slept, then peed again. I was there the whole time. When you were in a coma, I studied your lashes. They were so tiny that they almost became unseen. Then I turned to your lip lines, your jaw, your short, thin hair. Your ears were soft like they were boneless. I pinched your ears. I turned them into different shapes, different angles.
The head of our Addictions Treatment Program was an alcoholic himself. Every evening, after he got off work, he'd have some Chinese Baijiu, sixty percent alcohol by volume. He'd get hammered in his clinic room.
"Wasn't he pathetic?" you said.
The head of our Addictions Treatment Program was a man in his fifties. He'd always pat our shoulders and say, "My little girls." But you said that he didn't mean to harass us. That's only his way of capturing some sense of authority, you said, that's his way of being consoled.
Finally, you asked me out. We were both on a night shift. We took a break, went outside, and you handed me a cigarette. It was chilly and we only wore flannel shirts with white coats, your fingers holding the cigarette shivering from the coolness. I took it even though I'd never had one.
I lit the cigarette, took a puff, then I choked. Before it burned my hand, I threw it away. It flared for a second, then it went out.
"You've never had one," you said as you looked at me. It was two in the morning, and the city of Shanghai was hushed. Behind us, the inpatient department was gleaming, looking as faint as the ignis fatuus.
You were the first that noticed me, you said. You prayed to have the night shift on the same day with me. I told you that I prayed, too.
After moving into my dorm room, you asked if you were the first woman that I dated. When I hesitated, you said that your ex-boyfriend had dated a man after your breakup. You used to go to live shows with your ex-boyfriend and your ex-boyfriend's boyfriend.
"How could it be possible?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," you said, "I love all the beautiful people. Men wearing high heels. Drag queens. You."
You told me about your past. You said that you were born and raised in Harbin, a city in which the Russians dwelled to construct the railway. There were those European buildings, those elegant, grand boulevards. You told me about the St. Sophia Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in the Far East. Under the sun, its green-tipped dome shone like emerald, and the red bricks reminded you of the Red Square. The city was later occupied by the Japanese.
The medical school that you went to was built by the Japanese, you said. Built before the puppet state of Manchukuo.
Then you traced back to your childhood. There weren't many fresh vegetables in a region as wintry as Northeast China, and people would store vegetables in the cellar where you'd light a candle before you went in. I pictured the eight-year-old you standing on your tiptoes, yearning for the bok choy soup. You took a sip. Your lips were burned by the soup.
We took both the day shifts and the night shifts. There was a Starbucks on the ground floor, sucking our salaries away. We could only take two days off a month, and on those two days, we'd sometimes stay in the hospital for complementary study. Even so we got less pay than the delivery guy rushing in the inpatient building, delivering bento, blanket, and bubble tea.
Our colleague, who went to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for training, told us about American doctors' incomes. "They were among the richest," the surgeon said. "They live in houses with backyards."
At that time, we were still living in the dormitory. One morning, we returned from the nightshift to the public shower room, only to find that the hot water had run out. Coldness made us shudder together. In piercing currents, we poked each other.
For a short time, we fantasized about immigrating. The illusion ended when we found out that our degrees wouldn't be recognized abroad. After that, we started to fantasize more. Donate to Ireland. Grow mushrooms in Canada. Pay a lot to an agent for a passport somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. You told me that you had some patients of different nationalities, and they'd never been to those nations.
"It's for tax avoidance," you said. "You can even change your name."
"I'll change my name to yours then," I said, "and I'll hide behind your name. I'll flirt with everyone that I meet. I'll be a villain."
"And I'll change mine to yours, too," you said.
In the lamplight, you lay there, telling me about your wish of being a vagrant. You'd sleep in the green belts, in the tunnels, in the space under the arch bridge. You said that a vagrant might have more leisure, more dignity.
"That's just your another fantasy. A pastime," I commented. "A life that you'd never really realize because you are living another life. You are busy with your paper, your certification. You are striving for the opposite."
"You're wrong," you said, turning serious. "I've lived that life."
You'd always been afraid of hospitals. When you were little, the mill near your home, built with the Soviets, exploded. Nylon used to be the most popular fabric in the country, and when the flax dust generated the blast, it held on to young girls' skins tightly like smooth, silky plastic wrap. The survivors were sent to the hospital called The Building of Consolation. At night, when you passed by those buildings, you'd hear shouts, curses, and crying crawling out of the windows.
You were so afraid of them. You thought that hospitals were where hairless ghosts haunted. Your classmate's mother was one of them. She had four fingers left, and instead of a nose, she only had two holes on her face. Even so she still applied makeup. She wore lipstick, curled her remaining hair, and drew her eyebrows. When you encountered her, you asked her if she was a ghost. She looked as if she was crying but she wasn't. Her tear glands were burnt, too.
Your father and mother were laid off after the explosion. You were lucky enough to only go through starvation. It seemed to you that people were losing their jobs in the state-run enterprises all of a sudden. Rumors were saying that a family bought first-tier pork for the last dinner with all their savings, then put rat poison in the cooked pork.
Leave the Northeast, your mother said. Be a doctor so you'll be respected. To Beijing. To Shanghai. To anywhere. Just leave.
Sometimes you'd get fatigued. You'd find it hard to get up, then you'd leave the curtains off for the whole day. You lay still, dazing, freezing.
It's said that what we suffered from all derived from our past. Your mother, obsessed with getting things down in her way, began to go to church regularly after the lay-off. There, thousands of believers held their hands, forming a giant circle. In your nightmares, you heard them dancing, singing, yelling, and wailing.
Or maybe it's not just your mother. At fifteen, she sent you to a high school that looked so much like a jail. Under the surveillance cameras, you woke up, got dressed, took classes, and finished homework. "They could read our lips," you remembered.
You lit your first cigarette in there. The corner around the auditorium was the only place that the cameras missed. During the weekends, you climbed over the metal fences with spikes, then sneaked into the record shop for the smuggled discs. Three months later you were tipped off by your roommates. After the lights went out at midnight, you went to sleep without continuing studying with a flashlight. You weren't as hardworking as you were supposed to be.
Even now, your mother is still obsessed. She got everyone's contact information so once you missed her messages, she could call all of us. I got her calls as well.
"Where's my daughter?" she said in a call.
"Don't call again," I said.
"Who are you?" she questioned. "Who allowed you to speak to me in this way?"
Why would I have insomnia then? I consulted you.
"If you tried a family constellation," you explained, "they might tell you that there was a skeleton hiding in your family's closet."
"I'm not going to those workshops," I complained. "They blame everything on mothers."
"So, let's try this," you handed me a stuffed monkey. "This is your sleep. Talk to it."
I looked at the monkey. That's my lost sleep, my anxiety. That's my mother's lost sleep and my grandmother's anxiety. At the age of forty, my grandmother swallowed thirty pills of Estazolam because of my grandfather's cheating, then she was sent to the hospital, receiving gastric lavage. My mother has had trouble falling asleep since then.
I held the stuffed monkey in my arms. I touched it and kissed it. I rebuked it, punched it. I threw it to the floor. I picked up it. I dusted it.
Your job as a child psychiatrist was busy. Fifty children in the morning and fifty more afternoons. I wondered who needed treatment more—the children or their parents. I wondered why there were so many sick children.
Or maybe I was that sick child, too. When my back started sweating again, I tried to imagine myself floating on the ocean, embraced by transparent, otherworldly humpbacks. I tried to relax my clenching teeth, my tense tongue, the roof of my mouth cut up by my nails. Then I imagined you in front of me, cleaning up what's broken, picking up what's ruined.
On one morning you had a patient aged thirteen. In the comic books that she read, her mother said, two naked men were climbing on each other, becoming entangled.
"Does it mean that she's a lesbian?" her mother said, "Can you save her?"
You took a glance at the girl. She was playing with her fingers, looking so numb, so careless.
"I can't," you said, "you can cancel if you want."
There were other crying mothers. A mother begged you to write Better Family Relationship on the prescription. Her husband was cheating on her, she said, so her son refused to speak anymore.
She kneeled when you refused. In the clinic room, she kowtowed to you fiercely. She was taken away by the guards eventually.
Later that year, we moved out of the dorm, rented an apartment, and adopted a kitty. Then the kitty was diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis which almost made us break. At night, when we didn't have nightshifts, you'd watch Person of Interest with me, the recovering kitty walking from your belly to mine. I guess that's when our lives were finally getting better—you were asleep when I was still awake, picking out cat hair from your flannel shirt attentively.
I'd still have nightmares. I'd dream of endless staircases, bodies drifting along corridors. I'd dream of empty train stations filled with haze. When the pandemic first happened, I woke you up in the middle of the night to confess my fear of going to the frontlines.
"I am afraid as well," you murmured in shame. And then you fell asleep again.
Suppose we'll all turn into ashes. Suppose we'll turn into those pushed out of the wards every day. From there, they were sent to the morgue, to the hearse, to the incinerator that burned them into the memories soon forgotten. Witnessing their passing made you tired, you said.
"Get good grades. Contribute to society. Raise some kids. Support your mom and dad until they are dead. Is that what they called a meaningful life? What's the meaning of being meaningful? But I'd only like to be a meaningless human being. Should I be ashamed of that? I'm of no use but I don't harm. Am I being environmentally friendly in that way?"
"And what's the difference between ashes?" you said as you walked past the morgue. "Would my ashes weigh more if my life meant more?"
My lost sleep was still missing. Nights after nights, I sat up on our bed, restraining myself from taking another pill. Dependency on tranquillizers would easily evolve into addiction, you once told me. I'd be guilty if I became an addict.
Your mother, who eventually knew about me after one of her calls, made her way to your clinic room. Watched by other mothers, she slapped you on the face. Then she tore your white coat into pieces. She dragged you until you fell.
And I pretended that nothing happened. I was born timid, and I will always be. After she sent you to the conversion therapy center, I was still too timid to stop by. And I was sleeping on my own once again. Now you were gone, and I could feel the paper medicine box by my fingers, so I ripped it open. I caressed that familiar tablet pack. I swallowed down Estazolam, pills after pills, without water. Finally, I found a reason, I thought. And I was calm again.