You Are The City

You Are the City- He, Wei

Wei He

Dear M:

I am writing you something, something that you can take as anything: a letter, an excerpt from my burnt diary, a cluster of brain cells, something I only say in dream, or a piece of my mind. I don’t know when I started writing this or when it will end. I hope that when you are reading it, I have finished it.

Have you ever thought of looking for feet for a pair of leather shoes? Looking for a wall for a framed photo? Looking for a house for a wooden chair? Looking for a cage for a gust of wind? Looking for a smile for the way you look at me? Have you ever thought of looking for a piano for a note? Looking for a poem for a color dripping off the first blossom I see this spring? Looking for an old ash tree for a trace of time creeping over my skin?Looking for a desert for a sliver thread of water? Looking for a city for the way you look at me?

I think about these questions every day, trying to figure out your answers to them. When I am thinking about them, I go to work. Now I am a postman in this small southern city, and when I get off work I go to that small restaurant around the corner to eat a bowl of fried egg noodles with extra cilantro and light red pepper. The noodles always make my nose sweat and my glasses foggy. I clean the spectacles with my left sleeve or the right coat corner, whichever is cleaner.

Some families always receive letters. Some families never receive anything, even advertisements. Some families read everything they receive, even advertisements. Some families seldom read things they receive in mailboxes. They just let all the stuff stack high, so that you will find it difficult to insert even a one-page letter. You can know what a family is like through all these letters, their happiness and sadness. There was an old man who lived alone in an apartment built in 1960s, and he painted his mailbox every year on the Chinese New Year’s Eve with white lacquer, as carefully as painting a coffin. There was never a single letter for him. After he died, nobody did that for him and the paintwork is beginning to flake. Last week, I got a letter for him from abroad. It was a plain white letter addressed in a woman’s curlicue handwriting that took up most of the space. The letter smelled like ocean.

I miss the way you applied color on your lips in the public bathroom. I lied; I have never followed you into a bathroom. Yesterday I watched a movie in which there was a woman applying lipstick on her lips. I thought she was you. I watched you riding a horse, shooting two bad men to death without pulling at the rein. I watched you picking at the food stuck to the roof of your mouth like a Mongolian man or a woman from deep in the desert. I watched you drinking without rolling your throat or heaving your chest. I watched your back dissolve into the sunset.

I buy a piece of goat cheese every day from a local farmer. He wraps the cheese in paper-like parchment which smells like dried grass. After finishing the cheese, I always score the wrap paper before folding it. I have already saved a stack of folded wrap paper. I don’t know what I am going to do with it. Maybe someday I will draw some pictures on it or make it into whistles.

I keep a very small picture of you in my favorite book, together with a few yellowed stamps. The stamps were cut off the envelopes sent by an uncle who has a mole on the bridge of his nose and who used to run sound for documentaries about nature and wild animals. He is the only connection I have to our city. He stopped sending me letters three years ago. Half a year ago, he sent me a postcard from Nepal. He wrote, “The bleating of local sheep sounds like laughing” on the back of the postcard. At night, when I don’t think of you, I will imagine the laughing-like bleating of those Nepalese sheep and see their shadows overlapping in the darkness. Sometimes when the sky is clear, I hold your picture between the tips of my thumb and index finger and look at it until my palms sweat, with the book open on my knees and one or two stamps landing on the floor. I wipe the sweat on the side of my pants and bend down to pick up the fallen stamps. They stick to my fingers.

The last time I saw you, we were at the train station. I hid behind the huge marble pillars and watched you carrying two babies in your arms with a strange man standing by you, like any ordinary woman. One child was holding a ball. The ball dropped off her hand, rolled on the ground, stopped at my feet. You put down both children and walked toward me for the ball. I ran away and never knew if you saw me. I didn’t go back to the platform until your train to Beijing pulled out of the station. That is the last time I saw you. That is also the day I left our home city. I won’t go back any more, because I would see you there. I would see you everywhere, though I don’t know where you are. Now I am tucked away in this small southern city where the rain lasts for three months.

I don’t know when I began to feel the texture of this city. The texture of a whole city is not the accumulative effect of everything in it. In this city, everything is moist, uneven, and bumpy, even paint on windowsills, tips of wings of pigeons, and half a poem written on the back of a napkin. You can’t simply touch a wall or a stone with your cheek or palms and claim that you feel the city. You have to stand on the street, at sunrise or sunset, with colored wind around you, the throb of the city tucking at your sleeve. I am trying hard to find accurate words to describe what I feel about the texture of the city and come to realize that there is no such word. It can be anything. It can be a piece of breath the city lost thousands of years ago which hid in the folds of an umbrella of a tinker. It can be a slice of moonlight hanging over a metal hook on the wall of my bedroom. It can be the ripples the black bean garlic sauce makes when I swirls it with a spoon. It can be a drop of dew sliding down the vertical rib of my cactus in the early morning. It can also be you, when you are sleeping, dancing, eating and talking. You can be the whole city.

I love you. Can I pretend that you also love me? Can I see you again? the city. You are the city.

I may send the letter out this afternoon, maybe not. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe some time when I think I have finished the letter. I will just leave some space here, in case I want to add something later in the day.













Yours forever,

I love you,


Come back to me,

Yours forever,

Love you,


1 Comment

  1. My, what a heartbreaking letter! I love that this is honest and emotional without being sappy.


  1. Story of the Week #3: “You Are The City” by Wei He | Liz Writes Stuff - [...] Read “You Are The City” here. [...]

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