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Mourning a Breast


I gently rolled up the swimsuit, as though I could still hear the pitter-patter of falling water. I’d gotten a lot of use out of it this year. Since May, I’d gone to the pool a few times a week, usually by myself. In the blink of an eye, it was suddenly September, the sun beating down so fiercely that the outline of my swimsuit was etched onto my body. All summer long, whether day or night, wherever I went, it was as if I were still in my swimsuit, the white shoulder straps and narrow tube-shaped shorts swishing in sync with my skin.

One chilly March day, I was browsing a department store in search of a bathing suit when I heard the rush of crashing waves blasting from the swimwear department. I hurried over to check things out – what were the new swimsuits like? Skin-tight, revealing, conservative, provocative? How hard it is to find a swimsuit that fits and is comfortable. It needs to cover you in all the right places, and when you put it on, it should allow for maximum freedom of movement. I picked out something colourful. Only a skilled swimmer would dare to wear white, which vanishes without a trace when submerged in water, like a black-clad figure adept at skulking around in the night. I was used to wearing flashy colours to attract the lifeguards’ attention, alerting them to my presence at any given moment.

My swimming was poor, even terrible. In the pool, I stood around more than I swam, and I spent more minutes resting and gasping for air than I did gliding forward. My friends liked to say, You need to come more frequently, take the plunge more often. Swimming with friends always buoyed my spirits. They gave me confidence and encouragement, as well as guidance. Last year, I stuck close to the edge of the pool like a penguin, panicking whenever water flowed into my mouth. A year later, things had improved tremendously. I could swim from one end of the pool to the other, both the length and width, huffing and puffing my way across.

My friends weren’t free every day. They had to work, so I went on my own. When I was alone, I didn’t venture out to the deep end. Like a piece of drifting trash, I tended to stay near the side of the pool, gripping the edge when I ran out of oxygen. I always swam incredibly slowly. Other people paddled and kicked in seamless coordination, yet after one kick, I floated for a bit, then lifted my head to catch my breath. I swam as languidly as an angelfish in an aquarium. Even after swimming for several months, I still panted, I’m out of air!

I often cried that I was out of air. Perhaps this is why my family doctor nagged me to exercise. Exercise more, do some cardio! Typically, I only walked, did calisthenics, dabbled in fitness dancing, and rode a stationary bike for a few minutes. While these exercises stretched my muscles, they didn’t deliver much oxygen to my body. Meanwhile, playing squash and mountain climbing were too strenuous for me. I gave up morning jogging because I loved sleeping in, and besides, there was no wooded area with fresh air near my home. I decided to try swimming.

The May sunlight was brutal, so I had to wait until nightfall to head to the pool. The road leading to the pool was rather deserted. After the sun set, pedestrians emerged in full force: in twos and threes, men and women, old and young, all bound for the pool. Some slung book bags and duffle bags over their shoulders, while others carried plastic bags. Everyone dressed informally in tank tops, T-shirts, and shorts, with either tennis shoes or flip-flops on their feet. Two small refreshment stalls had sprung up recently at the pool entrance, one selling pig blood curd stewed with daikon, the other fried chilli peppers, tofu and eggplant. Customers flocked to them.

I was probably the only one who walked to the pool holding up a nylon umbrella. The others all braved the harsh rays – I was an anomaly in that I loved swimming but feared the sun. After stepping off the bus, I had to walk a mile, without any awnings or balconies to shade me, the whole road scorched beneath the searing sun. Haven’t scientific journals pointed out that too much sun exposure can cause skin cancer? Sunspots had been especially active recently. I was afraid of the sun, so I propped up an umbrella.

I liked to take along a nylon backpack when I went swimming. It was handy: I could hang it over my shoulders, and the bag was divided into two compartments. I placed a large towel, swimsuit, extra shirt and change of underwear in the bigger compartment, and soap, shampoo and an eyeglass case in the smaller one. I usually wore a T-shirt, shorts and casual shoes to the pool. Each visit, I spent an equal amount of time on the road and in the pool – my journey took over two hours roundtrip.

This year, the pool entrance fee rose by two dollars, but these two dollars were worth every cent, as the contents of the swimming pool had improved. By contents, I mean the changing room. The changing room used to have a few female attendants. As soon as you entered the partitioned-off changing area, your clothing and other belongings were handed over to an attendant and placed in a metal basket. In turn, you were given a metal tag to hang around your neck, and they stored the metal basket on a huge shelf behind the counter. The counter separated the changing room into two unconnected parts, and you had to follow a certain sequence and procedure to pass from one area to the other.

The changing room had been remodeled. The counter, metal baskets and huge metal shelf were gone, and the previously partitioned-off areas were transformed into one big room with an open floor plan. Rows of brightly coloured lockers were installed where the metal shelf used to be. Everything was now self-service. There were no longer attendants shuffling around metal baskets, and swimmers locked their clothing and other personal items in a grid of lockers, carrying the key with them. The attendant’s job was merely to discourage people from littering and running around soaking wet.

The shower curtains surprised me the most. The room never had any curtains in either the changing or shower areas. There was a row of small stalls without any doors or coverings. Everyone was stark-naked, the girls blushing. A few friends would help out by unfurling a large towel and guarding the entrance to the stall, allowing the girl inside to shower without worry. One by one, they took turns, the hands that held up the towel aching.

I often wondered who designed the pool changing room. A good structure is never as simple as a beautiful outward appearance. What matters is the interior space, the feelings of those moving inside: Are they safe, comfortable, at ease? The person who designed the changing room might not have considered these concerns. Perhaps the designer was a man who didn’t realise that it wasn’t optimal for women to meet each other in their birthday suits.

Water from the showerheads pitter-pattered down, women lathering their bodies with soap, making squelching sounds. I didn’t know who brought the shampoo that permeated the room with the sweet scent of almonds. The young girls were bashful, the middle-aged women fearless. Here, pale backsides and small breasts were on display. In the sunlight, you could see the contrast of dark and light skin, flabby and fit bodies in full view. Women with perfect figures were a rare sight.

I usually came by myself. With no one to hold up a towel for me, and no other way to hide myself, I had to turn my back on the world behind me and think of myself as an ostrich. Soon, however, I grew used to it – a naked body is nothing to be ashamed of, and the changing room was women-only. I’d take a quick shower, then come out wrapped in a large towel. A large towel helps you feel much more self-assured, allowing you to take your time getting dressed.

All the girls were over the moon when shower curtains appeared in the changing room of the pool whose price had risen. A basic plastic shower curtain hung from a metal rod at the entrance to each stall, the curtains printed with multicoloured flowers, every curtain a different shade and hue. It was as gaudy as could be, but the girls all oohed and aahed, Wow, shower curtains! Hideous shower curtains have shielded the modest bodies of many a woman. Everyone happily stood behind the curtains, water splashing everywhere, pounding against the hidden women’s skin. Peals of laughter filled the room.

A hair dryer had also been mounted on the wall, a mirror affixed beside it. Everyone would stand there primping and preening. When they came out of the pool, it was as if they hadn’t been swimming at all, and had just stopped off at a café for afternoon tea. They were still impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place, glowing from head to toe, ready to attend a garden party.

The changing room shower curtains only stayed up for two weeks before most of them had ripped and the rest were torn down. And so, when they returned from swimming, the girls resumed their previous routine of trying to cover up and avoid being seen. Sometimes, several huddled in a group, holding up a large towel like they’d done before. It was as though their dignity had been stripped away all over again. Once more, people observed the assorted shades of various light and dark bodies without saying a single word. No one gasped in admiration or surprise, they only asked, What happened to the shower curtains?

I didn’t know the current state of the changing room shower curtains. Were some still ripped, others torn down, or was there a new batch hanging? Had anyone complained? I hadn’t been swimming in more than a month. If I were to walk around naked in the curtainless changing room today, would people be shocked when they saw me? Even though I could still step out of the shower wrapped in a large towel, would people notice something was wrong?

The pitter-patter of falling water echoed in my ears, as though I could hear the squelching of soap on women’s skin. Supple flesh, water, the sweet scent of soap. When could I go swimming again? I didn’t know. I had no way of guessing, understanding, exploring, or predicting my fate. My mind swam with question marks, the answer to all of these questions the three words ‘I don’t know.’

I gently rolled up the swimsuit and tucked it in the drawer of my wardrobe. There were two other new swimsuits inside the wardrobe – why had I bought so many last year? One was covered in a tropical forest pattern. Perhaps I liked not only the swimsuit itself but also the design, which made me think of Tahiti and painters associated with Tahiti.

I had three swimsuits in total, but I didn’t know when I could go swimming again. How much had changed in just one month – when I’d gone swimsuit shopping, how could I have imagined it? I stared blankly at the swimsuits. My mother said, It’s too cold to go swimming again. Yes, I agreed, it’s too cold to go swimming again this year. My mother said, You’ll go again next year. I said, Mm-hmm, I’ll go again next year.

The Doctor Says

Chatting with the family doctor

Good afternoon, Dr Lam.
Good afternoon. Oh, it’s you. How have you been?
I’m doing well.
Great! Your older brother was here yesterday.
He’s also doing well.
How about your mum? How’s she?
The same – chatty as ever.
That’s how old people are.
We don’t have the heart to tell her you’re emigrating.
Right now, it’s only temporary. Don’t say anything.
You might come back?
We’ll see. Here, let me take your blood pressure.
Is it a Saturday night flight?
Your blood pressure’s normal: 130 over 75.
Do I need to take the medication as prescribed?
There’s no need.
I only take it if it’s over 90, right?
Let’s have a look at your feet. Are they swollen?
No. What does it mean if they’re swollen?
A potassium deficiency can cause swelling.
What should I do if I have a potassium deficiency?
Oranges are a good supplement.
But I want to travel. What if there aren’t any oranges?
Where are you going this time?
I’m thinking of going to Mount Wutai.
You can eat watermelon.
Why did you tell me to eat oranges instead of watermelon?
Watermelon isn’t available all year round.
Besides oranges and watermelon, what other fruits are high in potassium?
Why didn’t you tell me to eat bananas?
If you eat too many, you’ll get fat.

Conversation with a woman doctor

How do you feel?
My whole body feels out of sorts.
Are you fatigued and aching all over?
I had a lung X-ray and an EKG two months ago.
Why’d you have an EKG?
I felt my heart beating wildly.
What did the test say?
There was nothing wrong.
Lie back on the table so I can examine you.
I often do a self-exam.
Does it hurt here?
Could it be heart disease?
Heart disease isn’t like this.
What’s it like?
It’s also the wrong location.
I’m always out of breath.
That happens at your age.
And there are sudden hot flashes.
Uh-huh. Sometimes I’m dizzy, and my fingers go numb.
It’s a symptom of your age.
My shoulders feel heavy. Is it rheumatism?
It’s one of the symptoms.

Listening to what another doctor says

How may I help you?
Oh, there’s a lump in my breast.
I found it three days ago.
Maybe it’s hormones.
It’ll probably dissipate in a few days.
All right then, come back in two weeks.
Two weeks won’t make a difference.
Listening to what the same doctor says a second time
Um, it’s been two weeks.
How do you feel?
The lump’s still there.
Yes, it hasn’t dissipated.
How about I refer you to another doctor, okay?

Answering a surgeon’s questions

You found it how many days ago?
At first, three days. Now it’s been seventeen.
Initially it was three days.
Uh-huh. The doctor told me to come back in two weeks.
You’re sure it was three days?
I didn’t find anything earlier.
Did you find it yourself?
How’d you find it?
In the shower. I read a book that says to do self-exams.
It wasn’t there before?
A couple weeks ago, I saw a woman doctor. She did an exam.
I’m not sure what’s going on yet.
It’s best to do a biopsy.
All right, let’s do a biopsy.
Under general anaesthesia would be best.
The lump is small but deep.
All right, general anaesthesia it is.

On Friday morning, I told my mother I was going to a friend’s house. If it got too late, I’d spend the night and come back the following day. I also told her that my younger sister would hurry over after work and cook dinner for her. She didn’t need to worry about a thing. I opened the nylon backpack that I usually took swimming. I swapped the large towel with a small one, removed my swimsuit and shampoo, and packed a container of milk and a roll of toilet paper. Additionally, I crammed in a walkman, several cassette tapes, and four books. The four books were all Madame Bovary, but in various translations.

I bought a boxed lunch from a fast-food restaurant and scarfed it down, filling up my stomach, and drank a large cup of hot water. I didn’t eat any fruit. I didn’t want the food to digest too quickly. Per the doctor’s orders, starting at noon, I couldn’t eat or drink anything. I usually have a slight stomach-ache and am frequently hungry. I didn’t know if I could go for six hours without eating anything. I couldn’t stand it but had no choice – did I want to spew out all the food and water in my belly while I was in the operating room?

The trip from my home to the hospital wasn’t far, but there was no direct bus, so I had to take a taxi. I always find taking a taxi to be too extravagant, and it doesn’t save time, but there was no other option. I’m no stranger to hospitals. Six months ago, I accompanied my mother to the hospital to have a cataract removed. I was quite familiar with the second floor. There were nearly a hundred patients on the entire second floor, all having surgery.

I thought I’d brought everything, but it turned out one thing was missing: money. I took the letter the doctor had given me into the reception area and filled in the personal information. The clerk’s first words were: A thousand dollars for the deposit. I’d forgotten about the deposit. I had to say, I forgot. The clerk straightforwardly continued, All right, when you’re discharged, pay everything altogether. I’d registered my ID card – were they still afraid I’d run off?

My luck wasn’t too bad. There were only four beds in the last room on the second floor. The other three patients were quiet and didn’t disturb each other, each person by themselves. A female aide poured the hot water thermos for me, asking, Are you a teacher? I look like one, don’t I? She said, You do. I said, Yes, I used to teach, but now I’m retired. I took out the toilet paper from my backpack and placed it on the small side table, then tucked the container of milk, my eyeglass case, pencils and notepad inside a slim drawer. I hung the towel on the bar behind the side table.

The hospital must’ve been full. Even the admission procedures had spilled into the hallway. I went to the hallway to check in. Per convention, I was weighed, left a urine sample, and donned a wristband with my name. At first glance, it looked as though I was wearing two watches. The wristband didn’t tell time, just my identity and medical history. It couldn’t be given as a gift, nor could it be discarded. I told the nurse that my lungs had been X-rayed a few months ago and were fine – there was no need to take another X-ray. She agreed. Perhaps I never needed any imaging in the first place and it was all my own suggestion.
I’d gone to the hospital alone, so I was the one who signed the consent form for the surgery. One’s life is one’s own responsibility. Was I the best master of my life, the only master? After being rolled into the operating room, many people’s lives are left in the hands of others. Parents, children and sisters all sign consent forms for patients. Patients are often passive.

The nurse took me into a workroom and trimmed my armpit hair. I said there was no need to shave it, as people who swim regularly aren’t ever hairy. She handed me a hospital-issued uniform, instructing me to change into it an hour and a half before surgery, and she also exhorted me not to eat or drink anything. When I returned to my hospital room, it was only twelve-thirty, and I still had six hours left until surgery. Stuck in the hospital for such a long stretch of time, what could I do? Read.

One by one, I laid out the copies of Madame Bovary on the bed and sat down in the rocking chair. I’d brought the same four Flaubert novels with me because the wide bed allowed me to spread them out; because I had six hours of free time; and because I wanted to compare the differences between the original and the translations. I often compare translations – I’m someone who enjoys dabbling in translating fiction in her spare time.

I’d brought four copies of Madame Bovary to the hospital: the original, the English translation and two Chinese translations. What first caught my attention was the use of italicised words in the original. Flaubert was the father of the modern novel, a title he earned in part because of the emergence of new artistic forms in his fiction, especially Madame Bovary. For example, there are more than one hundred italicised words in the entire book.

It’s a perfectly good novel on its own. It would be fine if the narrator blathered on and on, and it would be acceptable if the typeface were completely uniform, so what’s the function of adding italics? Several of the italicised words are understandable, such as the titles of books and operas, Latin and other foreign words, and nicknames – all cases in which it’s fairly standard to use italics. Moreover, the book’s subtitle is ‘provincial manners,’ and thus a lot of regional languages are italicised, and italics are also deliberately used to foreground clichés so that they can be distinguished from the original author’s words. But the most profound function of Flaubert’s use of italics is to stealthily shift the narrator’s role without relying on punctuation.

Just from opening the book’s first chapter, you can see that the translations are inferior. This chapter is about a fifteen-year-old Charles Bovary going off to school. The italicised words include nouveau, dans les grands, genre, Charbovari, Quos ego, ridiculus sum, dans la fabrique, faire valoir, jeune homme, and Anacharsis. Among these words, Charbovari is a nickname, Quos ego and ridiculus sum are Latin, Anacharsis is a travelogue, and the others are regional languages.

The English translation is the strangest, entirely disregarding the italics, paying them no heed at all, standardising the typeface of the translated text. And so, when reading the English translation, I didn’t realise there were italics in the French original, thereby erasing Flaubert’s painstaking efforts. Well, there are a couple of exceptions. The book title Travels of Anacharsis is italicised, with ‘travels of’ added as an explanation. Quos ego is likewise italicised, the translation specifying that these words originally were uttered by Neptune. Charbovari is exactly the same. The translator couldn’t find a suitable English word for ‘curé’ and thus also retains the original French word.

The first Chinese translation is slightly better than the English translation, adding quotation marks to the originally italicised words – for example, nouveau appears as ‘new student’. But genre, dans les grands, dans la fabrique and faire valoir are all ignored, and Neptune’s phrase Quos ego isn’t translated. Oddly enough, the translator adds quotation marks to words that originally aren’t in quotation marks, such as ‘madame’ and ‘monsieur’. The second Chinese translation is the best. All italicised words are punctuated at the bottom, without exception. Words originally in Latin are left in Latin and annotated. As for the accuracy of the text, that too is impressive. You can also see the mastery in terms of accuracy. For the first chapter alone, there are more than one hundred explanatory notes containing detailed information and clarifying allusions, providing the reader with a wealth of supplementary knowledge.

In the first chapter, there are several lines of text that test the translator’s skill, pertaining to how Charles Bovary’s parents raise their son – his mother takes great pains, but his father harbours no illusions. There are two uses of italics in the original text. One is n’était pas la peine (wasn’t worth the trouble), and the other is avec du toupet, un homme réussit toujours dans le monde (with enough nerve, a man could always succeed in the world). ‘But to all this, Monsieur Bovary, having little regard for formal education, said it wasn’t worth the trouble! Would they ever have the money to keep him in government schools, buy him a post, or set him up in business? Besides, with enough nerve, a man could always succeed in the world. Madame Bovary bit her lips, and the child drifted throughout the village.’

This passage seems simple, but in fact it implies different narrators – in just a few short lines, the narrator changes five times. The two times that italics are used, Monsieur Bovary is speaking, and the latter phrase quotes a cliché. The other three sentences are the concealed narrator’s words. This way of writing depicts the dialogue between characters in an indirect and free style. It abandons the consistent line-to-line arrangement of dialogue that is indicated by opening and closing quotation marks.

The English translation follows the conventional practice and ignores all of this, merely adding an ellipsis after ‘in the world’. Modern readers have no problem with this translation method; they don’t feel a sense of loyalty towards the original. The first Chinese translation doesn’t translate ‘wasn’t worth the trouble’, and it adds quotation marks to the latter phrase to signify that it’s a quotation. The second Chinese translation is the most conscientious, using quotation marks to accentuate both of the italicised phrases.

Hey, are you still reading?

I quickly closed the books one by one and stacked them on the movable side table at the foot of the bed. The doctor had come in to check on me. There was still a peanut-sized lump in my chest. I’ll operate on you in a bit, he said. He came quietly and left quietly. The doctor always wore a white shirt, charcoal-grey dress pants and a tie emblazoned with a fire-breathing beast. I figured it was a tie from his medical school in the UK. I’d seen a fair number of doctors. Some were like business people, some like butchers. This doctor wearing a British school tie looked very bookish, more like a university professor than a medical doctor.

I opened the four copies of Madame Bovary again. This time, I didn’t look at the first chapter but flipped to the famous eighth chapter, ‘Agricultural Show’. In the 1850s, Flaubert was already using an alternating narrative technique: over here, lovers whispering sweet nothings, over there, the Agricultural Show awarding prizes. Flaubert interweaves the dialogue without the explanatory ‘he said, she said’, while still showing consideration for the reader’s train of thought, using different punctuation marks to indicate who’s speaking: « » for the voice of the chairman of the agricultural association, –– for the lovers. This meticulously planned guidance fails in both the Chinese and English translations

The doctor had interrupted my train of thought. Unable to concentrate on reading, I closed all the books and returned them to my backpack. What was my mother doing at home at this very moment? What about my friends? Those who went to work were busy working, and those who were on summer vacation were perhaps browsing bookstores. Over coffee last night, I told them, I’m not free tomorrow. I have an appointment. My friends said, Okay, then we won’t invite you out tomorrow. My friends didn’t ask me what my appointment was – of course they wouldn’t, but didn’t they find it odd? I always told my friends everything. If I wasn’t free, I’d say, It’s my aunt’s birthday, my cousin’s wedding, or a dinner with an old classmate, but this time, I didn’t say anything.

It was best to tell a friend. I went to the second-floor lobby and called one of them. Hello? Hello? It’s me. How’s it going? I won’t be joining you for coffee today. We know – you said so already. I’d love to have coffee with you guys. Well then, come with us. But I can’t. Why not? Because I’m in the hospital right now. What? Where? In the hospital. What happened? I’m having minor surgery. Which hospital? I didn’t say which hospital. I said I’m having minor surgery – I can’t bother you all to come visit. Speaking into the phone, I said, My surgery is later today, at six-thirty. It should only take around half an hour. I’ll call again tonight. Otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll be out tomorrow. It was minor surgery; my friend didn’t persist.

I walked down the hallway, watching the nurse check in a new patient, watching a female aide wheel a patient into the operating room, watching family members who were visiting patients sit chatting on the sofa in the long corridor. Time crawled by, every second and every minute seeming worthless, but in the hospital, every second and every minute were connected to the pulse of life. At five o’clock, I changed into the hospital uniform. After a while, the nurse came over, laughing when she saw me. You’ve put the gown on backwards – the ribbon ties in the back. Embarrassed, I drew the curtain, and turned around the gown. The nurse gave me an injection and instructed me to stop walking around. For the first time, I found myself lying in a hospital bed. As I lay in bed, I remembered I’d come to have surgery. I’d never been hospitalised or had surgery in my life. From watching films and newsreels, how terrifying the operating room seemed: everyone wearing masks, scissors and forceps gleaming. What did the nurse inject me with? The patient in the neighbouring bed said, It’s just a sedative to calm you down.

Sure enough, I wasn’t nervous. Besides, I tried to concentrate on Madame Bovary instead of the operating room. The Chinese are fortunate to have good translators and excellent translations. Translators, however, rarely win literary prizes. It’s always fiction, poetry, prose, drama and literary criticism, but nothing for translation. Translation is extremely challenging work, and good translation is even more challenging. There are translation awards in foreign countries. For example, Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch received the PEN American Center Translation Prize in 1977. Translating those immensely complicated paragraphs must have been arduous.

There are no prizes for literary translators in China. In recent years, there’s been a new crop of Latin American literature translators. I’ve read many of their translations, but no one ever mentions their names when talking about literature. The English translation of Madame Bovary is dreadful, prioritising readability above all else – who is this Alan Russell? Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling, also translated Flaubert’s masterpiece and wrote her own introduction. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to locate her book. After I got out of the hospital, I’d look for Gerard Hopkins’s English translation and see what other translations I could find.

Two female aides came over, pushing a wheeled bed. I climbed from my bed onto the one they were pushing and lay back. They pushed me down the hallway, covering my head with a shower cap along the way, firing off a series of questions. What’s your name? What kind of surgery are you having? Which doctor? What time is your surgery? When did you last eat? Have you removed all of your undergarments? Did you take off any watch or necklace? When I arrived in the operating room, the nurse there repeated the same string of questions.

The large room with operating room written on the lintel above the door was not where the actual surgery took place but a lobby that led to the operating room. I was there early. They pushed me against the wall to wait. The clock on the wall pointed to six o’clock sharp. I heard the nurses chatting about who was buying dinner that evening. I heard the telephone ringing – a doctor from a clinic had called to book the operating room, and the nurse replied, Oh dear, Saturdays are all full.

They pushed me into the operating room. I could only see the ceiling and the lintel we’d just passed. A cross hung on the lintel. A flying saucer-like mercury vapour lamp appeared in the middle of my head. I saw the doctor. He had on a hat, transforming his scholarly demeanor into something slightly comic. The nurse untied the knot at the back of my gown, took off the sleeves, and stuck something on my legs. The anaesthetist also came over and asked me my name, what procedure I was having, and who my doctor was. He said, I’m the anaesthetist. I’m here to give you an injection. You’ll sleep for a while. I said, Thank you.

I saw a bright pink curtain. A voice said, She’s awake. I heard the doctor say, You’re awake. You had a good rest. I stretched out my hands and feet – I could move them. The bright pink curtain: Of course! I was already back in my hospital room. Hadn’t the anesthesiologist only just said, You’ll sleep for a while? I pressed down on my chest. Some sort of gauze was stuck to it. Oh, the surgery was over. I had no idea. I had no impression of anything. Everything was a complete blank. I stretched out my left hand and opened the drawer of the small side table in front of the bed, feeling my eyeglass case. My watch was inside. I looked at it. It was seven-fifteen. Perfectly precise. An hour of anaesthesia, a blank hour of my life, without consciousness, without dreams.

My younger sister came to see me, bringing me dinner: my favourite chicken drumsticks. But I wasn’t hungry at all, and in fact, I couldn’t eat. A while later, my younger brother also dropped by, bringing me fruit, which I also couldn’t eat at the time. He asked me, How do you feel? I said, Fine, so he arranged for me to be discharged the following day, going over the details of who’d pick me up, who to call, etc. Although it was a private hospital, visitors weren’t welcome after nine o’clock. At nine o’clock, the lights in the ward would dim.

Six hours after the surgery, I’d be able to eat. My brother and sister said, Keep the drumsticks. At two in the morning, if you’re hungry, you can get up and eat them. I didn’t get up in the middle of the night. I went to bed after nine and slept soundly until dawn. I felt great. I got up and washed my face, gargled, and brushed my teeth. I asked the nurse to open the milk container for me and downed the whole thing, enough nutrition to last for three or four hours.

At eight o’clock, which was supposed to be when the female aides changed the bedding, the head nurse gave an order to clean the ward, so all four of us patients went to sit in the long corridor, watching as a parade of hospital beds and moveable side tables both big and small teetered out, the vases on the side tables clattering. I didn’t care for the hospital uniform, so I’d changed back into my own clothes and sat there holding my walkman, listening to Spanish music. Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat is quite animated, bursting with local colour, the click click click of the castanets suitable for rattlesnake sound effects. Isn’t that same sound also found in ‘Butantan’, a movement from Ottorino Respighi’s Brazilian Impressions that describes a house of reptiles?

When the Spanish National Ballet came to perform in Hong Kong, their best performance was of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, which they danced as a group. The set was an Art Nouveau mirror, the dancers’ postures and movements richly varied, their national costumes vibrantly hued. It was outstanding, an energetic dance suddenly elevated to a higher level. However, the supposed highlight of the second half, The Three-Cornered Hat, was flat-out awful, the result completely different from that of the album. They’d cut out the fabulous solo, leaving only the background music. Even Picasso’s set and costume design couldn’t save the production, which culminated in a chaotic denouement.

The doctor showed up. Good morning, doctor. The doctor said, Hey, you’re sitting in the hallway. He continued, Oh, you changed into your own clothes. Feeling rather chipper, I asked if I could be discharged. He said, All right, come to the clinic next week to have the stitches taken out. I excitedly phoned my sister and asked her to come help me pay my medical bill. It turned out that the hospital accepted electronic payment – had I known earlier, I could’ve gone downstairs and settled my bill without bothering anyone.

When I returned home, my mother saw I was back and asked, Did you have a good time? My sister said, She didn’t go to a friend’s place, she went to the hospital to have surgery. She was afraid you’d worry. My mother said, What, you had surgery? What’s going on? I’m scared. Heavens, I won’t be able to sleep tonight.

Conversation with the surgeon

I called you as soon as the report came back yesterday.
I got here as soon as I could.
The report confirmed it was a tumour.
A tumour.
A malignant tumour.
A malignant tumour.
Have any of your elder relatives had this kind of tumour?
My grandmother on my father’s side had a uterine tumour.
The uterus is not the same as the breast.
What about other relatives?
My younger sister.
She had one, too?
A benign fibroid, more than a decade ago.
In foreign countries, one in eighteen women have a malignant breast tumour.
Is it rare among Chinese people?
No, it’s becoming more and more common.
What’s the cause?
It’s unclear. Genetics are a strong possibility.
I’ve never been married, and I’m of a certain age.
There’s a good chance that has something to do with it.
So, what now?
It must be cut out to prevent spreading and metastasising.
When should I have the surgery?
The sooner the better, of course.
Let’s do it immediately.
Let me check when the operating room is available.
Okay, tomorrow at 3.30 p.m.
General anaesthesia?
Of course, general anaesthesia.
General anaesthesia two times in one week?
No problem.
Then let’s do it.
Be at the hospital tomorrow at 9 a.m.

Translated from the Chinese by Jennifer Feeley.

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