The Elephant in a Pink Tutu -- fiction by Zhaohan Shi
It was a normal night. Not the type of normal that reoccurs every day of every week of every year; those were the nights he spent sunken in the sofa in the apartment he rented, playing some old movie softly in the corner, drifting off to sleep. This was the normal night for some heritage he only half heartedly tried to embrace ever since he left home. It was a loud night scattered between steaming dishes and noisy children and distant relatives with a long list of prodding questions he didn’t want to answer. His mother and father were amongst them, tightly packed into a ring of adjoining chairs in the middle of the room. There was no open spot next to them.
My soon-to-be wife and I found seats not too deep into the corner but far enough from the center of the room. I felt the wooly fabric of her maroon sleeve brush against my own as she looped her arm around mine. I smiled at my parents and they beamed happily at my fiancée. One of the uncles raised a glass to me. “Finally back, eh, Xiao Zhang! Oh, look how tall you’ve grown. And how mature now!” His lips gleamed with oil from the food. Dinner had started sometime before our arrival. “And this must be your… wife?” His surprise lingered prominently in the air.
“Fiancée. Yu Tong.” She smiled and introduced herself, extending her hand to my family.
Somehow, his smile stretched even wider. “Ah, congratulations! How did you manage to keep such a pretty girl a secret? We didn’t even hear a peep!” I was just about to answer when some lady with curly black hair butted her her way into the conversation. Her hair was curled in such a way that you could tell she visited the same salon in the same Shanghai alleyway every other month. “Such short hair!” She remarked in true aunt-like fashion. “What happened to it? It looks all… choppy.” “You don’t get it,” the uncle jumped back in, “this is what kids call fashion these days. What they get from those hairdressers in big malls with the glass windows and fancy Japanese shampoo.” “Right, right,” and their laughter concluded that conversation with the clinking of their glasses.
It was then I noticed the elephant sitting in the seat next to the uncle. Its two front legs barely reached the table top, and its gray body looked stuck between the wooden armrests. Its ears flopped on either side of its head, brushing the shoulders of the uncles it sat between. The most noticeable feature of the elephant was its trunk that spilled onto the table. It was wrinkly, thick, long, and plated perfectly on the porcelain dish that sat in front of it. The pair of accompanying chopsticks were presumably buried somewhere beneath. For a moment, I thought our eyes crossed.
“Xiao Zhang grew a lot, hasn’t he?” My permed-hair aunt patted my arm. “Oh yeah, the last time I saw him, he was as skinny as a monkey.” “It’s been so long.” “He used to be – and don’t be mad at me for saying this –” she looked at my mother “– but he was kind of girly when he used to come around. He even wore his hair long, right?” She frowned as if trying to recall some unpleasant memory. “To his chin. And didn’t he used to wear–”
“Yes. He’s certainly grown a lot these past years.” Mother interrupted. This quadrant of the table seemed to lapsed into silence for a split second. But then the surrounding banter overtook the stagnant air and the conversation shifted back to my fiancée.
The elephant was sitting right in front of a steaming dish of fish. It was quite a large fish, almost the length of my arm. Its white eyes gazed up at the ceiling unwaveringly. There was a hole in its belly and several spots along its back. It had probably been steamed alive after having its scales scraped off. And after all that, it had to sit through this dinner before it got to float off to heaven. Death by a thousand cuts would have been an easier way to go. Or perhaps it was a bad fish, and this evening was its penance. Would it eventually drift to the underworld and drink Meng Po Tea, forgetting about everything in this life? I recalled how thousands of years ago, men who committed horrendous crimes were tied to a stack and skinned little by little, until all that was left was just white bone and a lingering spirit. Perhaps in those last moments they might’ve wished to be a fish that swam freely in a stream, tucked away peacefully in the folds of the mountains. Then, at least they’d forget everything seven seconds after it had happened. It took a while for my thoughts to return to the elephant. A middle-aged man and another aunt reached over its trunk for the fish. They stabbed and prodded at it, ripping off some white flesh. Eating fish on New Year’s Eve signified that there would be enough for the family to spare in the coming year; extra money, extra luck.
Was the elephant part of some extra superstition I didn’t know about? I tried to catch that gaze that I had met before. And I did, but it was a fleeting interaction that conversed nothing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw mother and father exchange a glance that held multitudes, steeped in deep Chinese parenting experience.
I excused myself from the room.
An air of foreign calm isolated the balcony. I held a cigarette between my fingers and leaned over the railing. I had no lighter with me. The unkickable habit sat on the soft spot between the knuckles and first joints of my index and middle finger. It was thin and white. Not like the ones whose thick smoke would overshadow the presence of the smoker; it was one of the thin ones that would produce a single column of smoke, barely lingering on the enjoyer’s fingertips. Bitter flakes of snow landed on that little lifeline. If I had had a lighter on me, this particular one would probably have tasted something akin to loneliness. Through the walls I could practically see my fiancée spinning graciously between mother and father, aunts and uncles. Silently I thanked her.
I did not hear the door open. The elephant joined me in my little space, also leaning against the railing. For a brief moment I pondered the load-bearing qualities of balcony railing. I had somehow missed it in the brightly lit dining room, but with the elephant standing so close to me here in the dark, it was clear to see that it was wearing a pink tutu. And it was a few sizes too small.
“Hey,” I said. “You cold?”
It shook its head, ears flapping.
“Didn’t like it in there?”
“Yeah,” I breathed white mist over the railing. “Me too.”
My fiancée joined us on the balcony. She smelled like I imagined a bird would, trampled by the aunts’ rose scented perfumes and the uncles’ swirling spirits. She leaned against the railing too and looked down. Neither of us spoke. Nor did the elephant. Though I doubted whether it could at all. Or would. It scratched the spot where the pink tutu clasped the tightest around its waist and wriggled in the little skirt.
“You got a lighter?”
“Yeah. You smokin’?”
“Thinking about it.”
She pulled out the lighter, slick silver between her fingers. “Give me one too.” For a while, we just appreciated how the smoke tasted far better than any of the dishes inside.
“They were asking me when we’re going to get married, you know.” She puffed a stream of smoke as she updated me on the precarious situation unfolding inside.
“I just told them ‘soon’. We should set a date, though. We can have a small wedding, just for our parents.” I responded. This had always been the plan. “What are your parents saying? Do they suspect anything yet?”
“Told them ‘soon’ too. They were suspicious at first, since, you know, they did catch me once.” She clasped her hands. “Then dad had a stroke, and I just… Now, they’re happy. I’m the only child they have.”
After that, we just sipped on smoke and wind in silence.
Eventually it was time to go back inside. “You ready?” She stubbed out her cigarette. I gave the notion an earnest ponder. “Honestly, not really,” I sighed.
“I’ll go in first. You take your time.” She gave the elephant a firm pat on the back and headed for the sliding glass door.
“Hey,” I called out behind her. “Thanks. For everything.”
She raised her hand. “Don’t forget that we’re doing this again at my house.”
Finally, a feeling of mutual agreement settled on this New Year’s Eve.
The door shut with a click.
I thought about why I was doing this. Yu Tong was doing it for her parents, but what about me?
A minute later I heard the sliding of the door again. It was my mother. From the dark I noticed how the wrinkles have crept up her forehead; the years I’d spent abroad shone clear as day on her face. It was almost surreal to see her standing in the cold across from me. Her hair was still black at first glance, but if you looked closely enough you could see faint roots of gray beginning to emerge.
“What are you doing out here?” She asked, barely inside the threshold herself.
“Just getting some fresh air. Didn’t want to smoke in front of all the relatives.” I showed her the cigarette. She squinted at the thing between my fingers. “...Well, don’t be out there too long.” She finally said, “It’s cold out.”
As I watched her scurry back to the family I recalled some point in my early childhood. It was before I had any concept of boys and girls. It was simply that I did not understand the difference between a boy and a girl and a cat and a monkey. Fish and birds, now those were clearly different; one could fly and one could swim. But those of us that walked here on earth – how was one expected to tell us apart? When I was a little older, I had thought that perhaps my mother, who was twenty-five at the time, did not know the difference either. She had started sending me to ballet classes after school. And out of nowhere she’d dug out a bunch of little dresses and rainbow hair clips. I didn’t cut my hair much back then, so when it got long she would braid it up nicely with the hair clips, stuff me into one of the cute little outfits she had painstakingly put together, then send me to ballet class. Even with my vague understanding of gender I recognized that I was the only boy in the class, but the girls treated me like one of their own and I had a great time in those lessons. I don’t remember when exactly I stopped doing ballet, but I seem to recall it being around the same time my mother brought me to the hairdresser and asked the barber to shave my head. “But mom, I don’t want to cut my hair!” I had wined, but she placed a firm hand on my shoulder and shook her head. The more I revisited this memory, the more certain I felt that she had said something along the lines of it being “her fault”. Only years later did I learn that I had a sister who would have been two years older than me.
As my cigarette reached its natural end I decided it was time to head back in. I hadn’t noticed, but the elephant had silently slipped back inside. Through the glass door, I could see it was back in its seat at the table, the pink tutu wedged firmly between its big gray body and the seat. I pulled the door handle to the side, but realized I couldn’t open it. It was stuck. I pulled harder, leaning my entire body weight onto my fingers, but it just wouldn’t budge.
I did not want to bang on the door to get everyone’s attention.
But the balcony was getting colder as the night proceeded in its course, and I was feeling increasingly anxious as I spent more involuntary time on the balcony by myself. My hand burned against the cold glass panel. Finally, Yu Tong looked up. And so did the rest of the family. I took my hand off the glass, shoving the cigarette in my pocket. I smiled sheepishly and waved at the table.
It was my fiancée who came to my rescue. I slipped through the crack she opened up. She shut the door behind me and we walked back to the table together.
“What took you so long!” It was the permed aunt again. “We were missing you already!” I tried to smile but I couldn’t feel my lips. “It was getting a little stuffy in here, you know,” I gestured at my red fleece sweater. She responded by piling more food onto my plate. “You’re still a little skinny, here, have some more. Look at your cousin–” she pointed to a portly man I hardly recognized. A man aged around thirty, wearing a pressed shirt and tie, looking like he was always ready to jump back into work. His belly was starting on the slow jog towards being a successful middle aged entrepreneur and he was talking to my father. “Such a sturdy boy. But you – you’re eating too little!”
I nodded and smiled at my plate and the mountain of food piled on it.
The elephant sat in silence, looking hungry. I felt bad for it. But its trunk was still sitting on its plate and I didn’t want to disturb it. By the end of dinner, it hadn’t moved at all. I got up with my fiancée and considered saying goodbye to the elephant. I thought about how I would bid it farewell. I thought about hugging it. Or just waving. In the end I settled for a knowing glance that I wasn’t even sure it noticed.
The elephant in the pink tutu looked sad as I walked into the night.
Zhaohan Shi is a junior at high school who enjoys the smell of fresh grass after rain mixed with ink-blotched pages of old books. She works as the editor for a school publication, The Tavern.