2nd Prize Winner
Walking towards the barricade was an uphill climb, and my legs wavered from months of disuse. In another life, it’d be exhilarating to break the law so openly. Instead, it was terrifying to be outside in the quiet with only the cry of cicadas to accompany me. They’d become more noticeable in the absence of cars and busy roads, city highways turning empty. But I wasn’t alone. There past the wire fencing, standing just beyond the short stretch of no-man’s land, was a boy who owed me a date.
In the overripe spring of May, in a locked-down Shanghai choked by heat and regulation, normality was a distant dream. For three months, he’d promise me over text: When this is over, we’ll go everywhere. I’ll take you to the French Concession’s best cafes. His to-do list was never ending. I’d always reply, exasperated: Okay, okay. I never had the courage to ask, Will I ever see you again?
Now he was two meters away, halted in place by a second fence, our hands barely close enough to touch.
It was 9th grade P.E. class all over again; staring at each other from across the gym, then looking away. Blushing at a first crush, a first love. But the things that seemed so constant in our lives were now a luxury: dim restaurants and bustling city nights, hot steam rising from a bowl of ramen, the song "Stay With Me” by Miki Matsubara playing in the background. I’d imagined dates to be more than just the highway. Had I been given a choice, it’d be in the Lebanese restaurant on Anfu road, in the season of plum rain and wisteria. But seeing him again after months of isolation was enough. So I reached for him on the other side, no-man’s-land separating us from an embrace. He held onto my fingers gently across the distance, both of us pressed up against the metal railings. His hair had grown longer. He looked tired. Yet there was still a giddy smile on his face, as if he couldn’t believe what we’d done.
“I’m going to get into so much trouble,” he said.
I sighed, thinking about how my mom had frowned at me earlier in the morning and said, “Really? You’re breaking the rules for a boy?”
“But think about it this way,” he amended. “We can tell everyone else that we got out months earlier than they did. We snuck out! We’re badass!”
His exuberance made me blush. I didn’t say anything else to keep myself from stuttering. But I leaned into his warm touch, comforting even in the humidity and 37º heat.
“When this is all over, we’ll go everywhere,” he said.
I let myself believe him. His endless supply of hope. I imagined the barricades falling down, cars rushing back onto the highway. I imagined holding him close in a picturesque cafe downtown, the French Plane trees on Avenue Joffre blowing pollen everywhere.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”