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With happiness as if I’d found a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk, I couldn’t wait to visit my old school in Beijing. I felt both eye-watering excitement and dread at the thought of seeing Yu. I could imagine hearing him say to me again, “You are my beautiful Kiki princess. And I’m always your Coco prince.” I could imagine his face, the gold glasses, his long legs with soccer shoes on.
The plain white buildings of the school stood next to a multi-story shopping mall and apartment buildings. But the teacher standing at the school’s gated entrance stopped me and said, “Student, this is No. 41 high school, not a shopping center!” I realized that this was my old chem teacher.
“Hi, Mr. Liu. It’s me, Lucy. I’ve come back!”
“It’s you, Lucy? Welcome back. Good to see you. But you know, you need to wear your uniform every time you come on campus. And I have to say, your clothes are not fit for our dress code. You can’t wear a t-shirt here.” He looked down. “Or shorts. All the clothes you wear need to cover your body parts, including your legs and your arms.” He hesitated. “But you were the best student at No. 41 high school, Lucy, and you always followed our codes. I will forgive you this time because you may have forgotten the rule. But you can’t dress like this if you come back tomorrow, okay?”
“Got it, Mr. Liu.” I’d forgotten how strict the school rules were. Even Mr. Liu wore his teacher’s uniform, which consisted of black dress pants, a white shirt, and a blue tie with our school logo—a circle enclosing a flying bird.
“Okay. I have to say, you were always a good girl here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Liu, I will remember next time.”
I went through the campus, which was like a dark forest this early in the morning. I still remembered where my classroom was. It was in the centermost place in the school.
It was 6:00 AM, but the high school already started its first-period class. My class was a “major work” class, so it was on the 4th floor of the building. The major work classes are designed for students who perform well on the test called “Zhong Kao” that determines which students get to go to high school. Students are always ranked based on grades, and everyone can see those grades. It often felt as if we had our ranks emblazoned on the backs of our uniforms as we walked around school. I could always hear people saying, “That’s her. She’s the number one student” when I passed. And the top 100 students get the opportunity to study the major working class, which was similar to AP classes offered at American high schools, but it was designed to help the best students in the city get into the best college in China, Qinghua University.
I still remembered my Zhong Kao. I prepared it during all three years of middle school. I did all the practice I could find in China. On my Saturdays and Sundays, I spent them sitting at my desk in my white-walled, windowless bedroom studying for so long that my eyes hurt and my hand felt broken from writing so much.
I knocked on the classroom door and opened it. When I entered, I heard many students yell, “Lucy! You came back!” Many familiar faces turned and eyes wide with surprise gazed at me. The room looked as I remembered it: white walls, windows on either side showing the rooftops of other school buildings. Chalkboards all around. All one hundred students in the classroom sat elbow-to-elbow sharing two-students to a desk. They wore the familiar blue-and-grey or blue-and-yellow uniforms, only they seemed a bit bigger than I remembered. Overhead bright florescent lights lit the room.
My Chinese teacher Mrs. Lv gave me a really big hug and said,“Welcome back, Lucy! We all missed you!” Her short hair smelled like milk shampoo. She told me that she couldn’t stop the lecture but I could sit down and join the class. Looking around at all the tired faces, I felt as if I were suddenly suffering again in the information sea.
Then, Anna stood up. She looked at me with hate and spoke loudly: “Why does she get to wear shorts and a t-shirt?” And then she yelled a cuss word in Chinese. As she sat down. I joined the class and sat next to Yu, the boy I had longed to see. Yu was the soccer player in our school. He became the number one student after I moved to America. He wore gold glasses, his eyes shining through them and looking cool. He wore the terrible uniform, which looked like the color of an old elephant. He still liked to wear the Nike black soccer shoes. He smiled at me. I remembered the way he told me an academic joke: “A girl has an apple; the other has a pineapple. There is another girl, she pushed the two girls, talk about what the third girl is. Pineapple pen.” I remembered the time we did all our homework together. I also remembered the days we went home together.
When I focused on him, he actually looked as if he’d lost 60 pounds and really was more like a skeleton than the boy I recalled. Since kindergarten, we had always been best friends. We’d studied all our subjects together, and we had the same favorite food called “Guo Kui,” a rolled pork pancake. I began to worry that maybe he hadn’t eaten one in a long time. Looking at him, I suddenly recollected how it felt to be a student in China.
Three or four hours sleep per night so I could spend the extra hours studying was as normal as going to the bathroom. I used to arrive early in the morning to mop the floors of the classroom. The quizzes, endless quizzes on Hemingway and Luxun, on trigonometry, and Newton’s Second Law. I remember the look on the principal’s face when she pulled me aside and told me, “Lucy, do not fall in love. It will waste too much time, and you will no longer be the number one student in our school and get into the best college.”
Mrs. Lv started her lecture again. I didn’t bring a pen, so I picked a pen from Yu’s pencil case, but at that moment, I noticed the prep books and practice books on his desk. There were more than 20 kinds of prep books; they were all arranged neatly and gathered by subjects. I had also completed most of these books, but there were also some new kinds that I had never seen. The speed of the publication of the practice books in Beijing was even quicker than the speed of the increasing foreign exchange. I had completed countless practice books and innumerable practice tests—they were the only way to help me get into the top three ranks among the three thousand students in my grade.
We sat there, Yu and I, listening to the lecture along with the other 98 students until lunch time. “Now, class, you are excused for lunch,” Ms. Lv said.
As the students ambled out of the classroom, Yu said to me, ”Lucy, could you please sit with me for ten minutes in the classroom? I just want to talk to you.”
“Sure,” I said, facing him. But I wondered why he hadn’t contacted me through Wechat in over the ten months since I’d been living in America.
He handed me my favorite pork pancake that he’d made himself. I took it and the taste was amazing.
“Lucy, I’m sorry that I didn’t email you. I just wanted to forget, but here you are. I didn’t contact you because I didn't want to think about it all. When you left, I was angry because you didn’t tell me why. It took me a long time to figure out why you did that. And then I had to handle all of it myself, the pressure, the memories. I still don’t understand why you didn’t tell me. And now I’m wondering whether you forgot about me or whether you forgot that we were dating,” he said angrily.
“Listen to me, you know the reason...”
“You left because you wanted a good education, right? But you just disappeared from the school, from the city, from the country. Did you think about my feelings? Have you ever? The days were bad. I needed to keep in the top three rank. I needed to put in more effort. I needed to study until 3 a.m. and get up at 4:30!
“Wait, Yu, I left for both of us. With me here, you know we wouldn’t be able to study. We’d distract each other. The pressure is the reason. Our school forced this competition on us, and you know this, but we were still together, even though the principal talked to me more than fifty times, and this shows how I love you! You know what I mean? I knew I was going to leave, but the reason why I didn’t tell you is because I didn’t want you to be sad. You have the Gaokao. That test is more important than love. It determines your life, but love can’t. You need to work really hard, and you don’t have time for other things. I didn’t want to destroy your future, so I chose to leave,” I said calmly. I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t eat the delicious pork pancake he gave me. And then I rose and walked out of the empty classroom.
When I strolled out of the school for lunch into the hot summer, I soon found myself in the “Xiao Sichuan” restaurant alone, eating my favorite pork pancake but it didn’t taste as good as I’d remembered. I could think only of Yu as I watched the bicycles zooming down the street, the pedestrians walking with their shopping bags, the cars speeding by. For a minute, I wanted to cry, but then I told myself I had done the right by moving to America. I had saved him and myself from reckless behavior. When I returned, Yu was still standing at the door of the classroom. He didn’t say anything as I walked by.
I felt as though the sun were forced down to sea level because Yu didn’t understand. But I knew Yu wanted to keep the love and study going between us, but the love could not prevail in that high-pressure environment. The principal told us many times, “This love will not be enough to beat the pressure that life puts on you because you two are the students who are hoped to be the top three students in the city and the province.” And we actually felt the pressure and the influences on us like a heavy mountain. As we got older, we didn’t have time to go out to eat “Guo Kui.” We didn’t have time to talk about our favorite movies and actors. We didn’t have time to share funny stories on our way to home from school. Instead, we brought lunch from home and ate it while we did homework. We talked about the important characters in Chinese history, and we listened to the Chinese poetry review audios on the way home. The time allowed for companionship was getting less and less, and we found we were more and more away from each other, even if we were only a few feet apart. And finally, it got away, like the principal said. Sometimes, I imagined that the principal had magic and she let our love float away, but I actually understood.
After that day, I didn’t go back to school anymore. I just met with my friends and teachers outside the school and talked with them. I needed time to forget the love with Yu, forget the pressure we had. Two days later, I went to Beijing to take tutoring classes. I used my time wisely.
After thirty-six days, I flew back to California, where I didn’t feel that much the pressure. Yu took the mock test and was the No.1 student out of all the 3,600 students in the school, and he joined the Math Olympiad competition, where he got a gold prize.
I get a message from Yu every day. He says, “Did you have a good day today? Enjoy your life.” But I do not reply to any of them. For this love, I choose to forget, but on some days my fingers hover over my phone and I almost reply.