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And my forever will be yours

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Yizhuo and I met when we were two. At least that is what our parents told us, I just remember her being a permanent fixture in my life, always by my side.

Her family lived in the house next to ours, so whenever I wanted to see her or play with her, I just had to step on the balcony and shout her name. She always answered. And whenever she needed me, I made sure I was there for her too.

We used to play the entire afternoon until our legs were exhausted and our mouths hurt from laughing. It was always like that, us playing when we were children, and substituting said activities with studying and gossiping as we grew older. The only thing that never changed was that we were always next to each other.

I have three sisters, two older and one younger than me, and Yizhuo had seven siblings. If we wanted some time alone with each other, we had to ride our bikes to the end of our little town. Our favorite spot was half an hour away from our homes, a little plain by the side of the river, surrounded by trees and the sounds of nature. We used to go there every weekend when we were freed from our responsibilities.

On the weekends, the swineherd that took care of our pigs and walked them through the fields for them to feed didn't come to work, his pay slightly too expensive for us to afford all the days of the week. So, the moment I turned eight, my mom assigned me the responsibility along with our shepherds. The moment Yizhuo heard I would be the one walking the pigs, she immediately announced she would accompany me, a blinding smile on her lips. According to her, it was her duty as my best friend, to accompany me and protect me from what might fare.

I hadn't been more grateful for having her in my life than at that moment. Yizhuo never said anything, but I was sure the real reason behind her offer was the product of years of friendship. She must have known how scared I was to venture by myself with a herd of pigs on my own. But she knew me, and before I could even ask she had already positioned herself by my side, all too knowing of my fears. She was always there before I even knew I needed her.

Us taking the job as swineherds ended up being a blessing in disguise. Every month, my mom butchered a pig and curated his meat. It was a sort of celebration: we worked our bones out for hours, curating and preparing other animals, mostly chickens, and bunnies, for the same destiny. And, ever since we took that job, my mother always gifted us the bigger parts of the pig, the ones my father hadn't eaten. She let us go with a picnic basket full of cheeses and smoking bread, which we later ate in our special place by the river, chatting and bathing when the weather allowed.

And like that, we grew older in between warm afternoons and whispered secrets in the darkness of the night, always keeping our promise to remain together.

As excited as we were to grow and finally be considered adults, we discovered that there was much about the world around us we had not been privy to, the war that had been fought while we sloshed in the river and the poverty that its end brought to our entire country.

I was lucky, my father was a vicar, and that assured he kept his job – the one that maintained our entire family – but even with that, we felt the aftermath of the war, the times when we had meat in abundance now a memory of the past. Even with that, we remained the most influential family in our town. I had grown listening to those around me call me and my sisters the 'rich girls', but in the postwar, the tone changed from mockery to hatred. I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night, my mother shouting my name to hide from the bullets they were shooting at our place.

It was inconvenient, but I wasn't really scared. As much as they envied us, they wouldn't hurt us in the end: they still needed my father. In that time, a vicar used to take the place of doctors in a small town where there isn't one of their own, so hurting my father – or my family – meant not only being left without someone to bless both the dead and the living but also without a doctor and a teacher. So the shootings at night were not more than an inconvenience, a way to tarnish our seemingly perfect lives.

However, when my life didn't drastically change with the postwar, Yizhuo's did. Including her, they were eight children, plus her two parents. Even if her father was able to keep his job, they just had too many mouths to feed. That meant the moment Yizhuo turned eighteen, she was forced to find a job that would help feed her six younger siblings.

She came to see me, the afternoon before she left. She shouted my name from her balcony, as she had done so many times before, but with the knowledge, it would be the last time. She was waiting for me at my doorstep, and without uttering a single word, she extended her arm and intertwined her fingers with mine, leading me to the path that leads to our special spot.

We didn't talk at all, we just held hands and enjoyed the other's presence, tightening our hold every few steps to remind us that yes, we were there. Like we had always been.
We sat in the big stone where we used to sunbathe up until a year prior, our feet buried in the cold water, and I listened to her talk for hours about what would be her life from now on.

She had gotten a job in Germany, at a car factory. She wasn't really sure of what the job entailed but was excited to learn how to do something so different from everything she'd learn before. I couldn't tell if she was lying.

I remember thinking she was, no one would be excited to work a fifteen-hour shift, but I didn't call her out for that. If for some reason she was prioritizing my peace of mind than getting her fears out of her chest, well, it was her last day. The least I could do was respect her wish.

We spent the day together, barely aware of the passing of time, the sky darkening every second. Before we left, once we had stepped out of the river and dried our feet, she hugged me. She hugged me with so much strength that it physically hurt, cold tears staining my dress. I just remember hugging her back.

We walked back together, moving languidly, trying to delay the moment we would have to say goodbye. We stopped once again by the entrance of our town, and Yizhuo turned to me. She looked conflicted, as if she had been trying to say or do something but hadn't dared. With fast movements, she raised her hands to my face before I could even think what was happening. For a few seconds, I almost thought she leaned in. My heart beating with more strength than it should at the thought of what she could have possibly done. What I had wanted her to do.

Instead, she locked her eyes with mine, placing her forehead against mine.

"Minjeong…" she uttered. She looked on the verge of tears. "I will always be by your side, okay?"

I felt the familiar prickling of tears in my own eyes.

Yizhuo blinked, and tears fell down her cheeks. I wanted to clean them, as I always had done, but my body paralyzed the moment I realized that I would never be there to clean her tears ever again.

"I promise, Minjeong." She had to stop, a sob ripping down her throat. "I will come back, okay? Even if it takes me years, I promise I will come back to you. I will work every day until I have the money to be with you again. And then I will never leave your side. Not again. I promise I will be yours"

I felt her hot breath against my skin, and before I could even realize what I was doing, I closed the distance left between our lips. And then I kissed her again, and again. And I wished I could kiss her like that until the end, I wished I had always been kissing her like that. And it almost felt like it. How could something so wrong feel so natural, as if it had been meant to be?

"I love you, Minjeong" she cried out the moment our lips separated for the last time.
I held her hand, and I looked her in her eyes, nuzzling my head with hers. I pressed my lips against her forehead.

"I'll be waiting for you"

I don't know if Yizhuo was disappointed I didn't tell her 'I love you' back, but it didn't matter. Because Yizhuo had promised she would come back. And then I could tell her how much I loved her every day of our lives. Because Yizhuo had never broken a promise she had made to me. It was just a matter of time.

***

I wasn’t completely sad when Yizhuo sent me back an invitation to my wedding, confirming she wouldn’t be attending the ceremony. I could understand her motives for not wanting to come - other than the logistics and the difficulty of traveling from another country.

To be honest, I was actually relieved. The knowledge I wouldn’t have to promise my forever to another person, to a man, while Yizhuo’s eyes bored into me. I thought it would be easier to close my eyes and pretend that it was what I wanted, that I loved the person in front of me, and that getting married to him had always been the plan. I was wrong.

On my wedding night, I couldn’t help but cry the moment the man who was now my husband fell asleep. I got dressed and took a shower, letting the water wipe away my tears and the memories from that night.

I didn’t hate my husband. He wasn’t a bad man, and he had extensively courted me for more than a year. My father had absolutely loved him, and I couldn’t blame him for it, really. A young man with a house in the city and a promising future as a tailor, who was in love with me - who knew why. My mother, instead, hadn’t been his biggest fan, his humble origin not up to her standards. In the end, it was a matter of them needing to marry me off, and him being the best suitor.

I had my first child nine months after the wedding, on a cold December morning. I was terrified to be pregnant, but Yizhuo had been there to soothe me throughout the process. Not in person, of course, but via letters.

A couple of months after Yizhuo had moved to Germany, I received her first letter. When my father arrived from the city with a letter in his hand, it felt like the world would be okay again. Yizhuo was by my side again, everything would be alright.

The letter wasn’t a love poem or something of sorts - though I would have quite enjoyed that. It was a retelling of the more mundane things that had happened to Yizhuo throughout her first week in the country and the first days of her new job. In a way, it was almost better. It felt like she was still by my side, as if she had never left and we were still sharing and commenting on the banalest aspects of our lives.

I answered with a letter of my own, along the same lines. I couldn’t help myself and I also added a paragraph in which I explicitly said how much I missed her. I could have written an entire novel about it, but I didn’t want to burden her with my feelings. She had enough things to deal with on her own.

It stayed like that for a long time, me taking care of my son and my other children that came along the way. It was an exhausting job, handled by me entirely with little to no help from my husband. But whenever I opened the mailbox to see an envelope with the name Ning Yizhuo engraved in it my heartbeat in my chest with enough strength to carry me to the next letter.

When my third child came, my first daughter, my husband was renowned enough to afford a phone in our house. I didn’t let it show, but my excitement was over the roof. Having a phone meant I would be able to hear Yizhuo’s voice for the first time in a decade. She didn’t own a phone of her own, but there was a number at her job available for contact.

The first time I called it was nerve-wracking. I waited for the perfect opportunity, at what would be Yizhuo’s lunchtime a day when my children were spending the day with my mother-in-law so that I wouldn’t be interrupted. It is wrong to admit it, but I felt more excitement waiting for the call to connect than I had felt on the day of my wedding.

The woman that picked up wasn’t Yizhuo, but a telephonist to whom I asked to redirect the call. And finally, I heard her voice, goosebumps all over my body.

“Hallo?”

“Hi, Yizhuo. It’s me”

Pronouncing her name out loud for the first time in such a long period almost felt like a sin. Or maybe the sin was the feeling attached to her name.

“Minjeong?” she choked up. I chuckled, happy tears already running through my cheeks.

“Yes, Yizhuo. How have you been?”

It became a new part of my routine, making sure I could call her at least once a week. Because, if her letter had given me enough strength to carry with my lifestyle, hearing her voice made me feel strong enough to do anything. As if there was nothing I couldn’t do with her by my side.

Yizhuo got married shortly before I birthed my fourth child - another daughter. Her parents had been concerned, her being so past the usual marriable age. But in the end, they had found what they consider a respectable man and had arranged Yizhuo’s marriage with him. Yizhuo invited me to the ceremony, sounding as excited as I had been for mine, but me being so close to my delivery date made my attendance impossible. I told Yizhuo I was sorry I couldn’t be there, although I was secretly glad I wouldn’t have to see her marrying another person. I wasn’t sure I could stand there and listen to Yizhuo promise him to be forever by his side. She had already promised me that, she couldn’t do it with both. I’m not sure if she believed me, though I wasn’t completely sure I wanted her to.

 ***

“You know what’s the first thing I’m going to do with my retirement money?” Yizhuo asked.

It was a late Friday night. I was up after waiting for my teenage sons and daughters to arrive. After making sure they were safely in bed, I had immediately called Yizhuo.

It was a habit by now, every Friday night we called after we made sure our children were in bed, and there was no one awake to listen to us talk. It had been almost a decade since Yizhuo had almost had a phone installed into her home, and ever since we had never stopped talking every week. It wasn’t the same as having her by my side, a poor substitute for her presence, but it had to be enough.

“Mmm, what?” I whispered into the phone, my finger playfully tangled in the cord.

“A house right next to yours”

My breath hitched, my heart pounding in my chest with an intensity I almost found worrisome.

“And then?” I dared to ask.

“Then we are going to spend what’s left of our lives together. We’ll go on dates, we can go to the beach, shopping, and even travel around the world if that’s what you want to. We’ll do it together”

“And what about our husbands?” I was sure my tone hadn’t properly hidden my tears. I didn’t really care.

“We’ll divorce them. They are going to be old hags by then, no one will say anything if we leave them. Divorces are quite trendy right now, did you know that?”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Okay” I agreed. “We’ll divorce them and then we’ll be together.”

“Forever. It’s a promise” I smiled.

“It’s a promise”.

Yizhuo came to the city where I lived a couple of months after I turned sixty. It was the first time we saw each other in more than forty years. She had aged, the years of extensive working at the car factory having taken a toll on her. In my eyes, she was more beautiful than she had ever been. Every crease and wrinkle was only a reminder of how close we were to spend our forever right next to each other.

We went house hunting. It was fun, and we got to spend a lot of time next to each other, discussing the best marble for the countertop and the colors we thought we should paint the walls. I had some qualms over the price of some of the appliances she wanted to buy, but she calmed my worries.

“I’ve worked fifteen hours a day without rest to be able to afford the house I want, so I will not be swayed by something as menial as an exorbitant price”

Over that year, she flew back and forth several times, finalizing the details of what would be her new home. I saw how all the flying took a toll on her body, the exhaustion, and the migraines that it brought. I even suggested she let me take care of the final details so that she could come once everything was ready. I really thought the problem had been the flights.

It was our moment - our forever. After years of doing what we were supposed to, we finally would be able to with each other. But then I received the call, and the future we had envisioned vanished in front of my eyes.

It was a brain tumor. The doctor she didn’t have much left, perhaps half a year, if she was lucky. She tried to hide it, but I could see it as clear as day, all the hurt and the pain that it brought her. I lost the notion of where hers ended and mine started.

Yizhuo decided she was to spend the rest of her days in the house she had bought next to mine. Her daughters weren’t very happy with her decision, but Yizhuo had never been other than stubborn, so she settled in her house with one of her daughters.

I was over every day. We tried to act as if nothing was happening, to pretend life was going according to the plan we had. And we managed until she was bedridden.

Her memory started to vanish. She forgot who her daughter was, unable to recognize her. Within a few weeks, she couldn’t even recognize her siblings that had come to visit her.

Somehow, she didn’t forget me. ‘Minjeong, Minjeong’ she called my name every day. When she felt well enough, she walked to her balcony from where she called my name, as she had done when we were little. When everything had been okay. And I always answered her, because that was how it had always been. How it should have forever been.

I was next to her when she passed. We were holding hands while I whispered to her all the things we were going to do once she felt better. All the dates we would go to, and all the places we could visit together. While I was telling her how much I wanted - needed her in my life.

She had looked at me, interrupting my monologue, and with a tear dropping down her eye, she told me she loved me. As if she had known it would be the last time she would say those words. The last time I would ever hear them.

I didn’t even get to tell her how much I loved her back.