The red string around Mom’s ankle does not lead to Dad, and Dad doesn’t have a red string at all. But she makes him laugh with his head thrown back, and he makes her smile the way I do at Ria Ruiz, the prettiest and smartest girl in not just my class but the whole first grade—so they must be in love, no matter what the Old Man in the Moon says.
“I hope I’m like you when I’m older,” I whisper one night, as Dad tucks me in.
He smiles and lifts his brows. “Bald?”
I scrunch up my nose. “No. I mean I don’t want a string, like you. I don’t want the Old Man to tell me who to love.”
Dad looks down at his unburdened ankles for so long I nearly fall asleep. Finally, he presses a kiss to my forehead. “Sweet dreams, Weilai.”
I change my mind for the first time two years later, when my oldest cousin gets married to a golden-haired lady who shares a string with him. The red between them coils at their feet, pulsing as they exchange beautiful words about fate and certainty. My parents are still happy together, but what if Mom would be happier with the person on the other end of her string? And if a scant ring of red appeared around Dad’s ankle one day, would he leave? Would he want to?
It would be better, I decide, to have a string and love who the Old Man says you should. That way, there is no doubt. Only certainty. For the first time, I consider myself lucky to have been born in the Old Man’s domain, under his sky with his moon overhead—to have eyes that can see the intricate web of red unspooled all around us.
But when my string shows up in the middle of my third grade math class, it unfurls like wildfire and bleeds out of the room instead of to Neal Lang, who I’ve loved for three whole weeks. I bite my tongue to keep from sobbing, but fat tears leak out anyway because whoever the Old Man wants me to be with is not this perfect boy who made me a daisy crown and asked me to be on his kickball team. A steady chant of “wrong wrong wrong” beats against my skull. My vision blurs, but not enough to wipe the red from the corner of my eye.
Miss Sabrina calls my parents when I can’t stop crying on my times table, and Mom carries me out to the car even though I’m getting too big for it.
“The Old Man is not absolute,” Mom says when we stop for milk tea on the way home. She lets me put my feet up on her lap while we wait for our order, gently rubbing my newly-bound ankle. “He was wrong about me.”
“How do you know?” I confetti my napkin and pinch the insides of my wrists to stave off fresh tears. “What if your destiny is better than Dad?”
Her mouth smiles. “Who could be better than Dad?”
I swirl a finger through the pile of napkin scraps before me, then shrug. “What if.”
Our strings trail off into the distance, in parallel. They snake across the street, around an elm, and out of sight. Mom stares out the window as she says, “I have more faith in me and your father than I do in any distant old man. Don’t you?”
As I chew on a mouthful of tapioca pearls, I change my mind again. About wanting a string, a destiny. About trusting, so wholly, the will of an invisible stranger. What does the Old Man know, anyway?
Over the next twenty years, I will change my mind twenty hundred more times—sometimes from day to day, hour to hour.
Mom and Dad get divorced, and my faith returns. As they sign their papers at the dining room table, Mom’s string runs, as ever, away from Dad—a stark warning that they were never meant to be. So if the Old Man knew they were wrong for each other, he must also know who’s right for me. With that belief lodged firmly in my bones, I spend a summer chasing my string. Mom and hundreds of generations-old stories say it’s futile; no one has ever found their destiny by looking. But I still devote three sweltering months to the search, tireless even when the red wisping away from my ankle leads me in infinite figure-eights through town.
A year later, my cousin and his beautiful, fated wife split as well—so I abandon faith again and take Katie Nilini to junior prom, even though my string arcs past her without ever brushing her skin. She beams as we dance to bad remixes and worse ballads, and my heart pounds when she sticks her fingers into the chocolate fountain and smears the melt across my nose. I hold her gaze all night, not once looking down at the red that winds away from us.
But when I kiss her on Monday, between classes, I can’t help staring over her shoulder at my string—running down the hall and out the door, away from her and her lilac perfume. The Old Man knows best, or he doesn’t. Either way, I can’t stop thinking about that damned sliver of red.
In college, I date but don’t commit. Five or six weeks into every relationship, I cycle from ignoring my string to agonizing over the destiny waiting at its end. Guilt over those wandering thoughts quickly fills my chest, and I pull back from my partners with vague excuses and genuine remorse.
A few ask, beg, scream for real explanations—and I tell them the truth. I palm my ankles and talk all night about the ethereal red that streams toward my unknown destiny. About wanting certainty, but being helpless against doubt. About my parents, my cousin, and my ever-changing mind.
They listen until they believe, even though—born outside the Old Man’s land, beneath a different moon and sky—they can’t see red like me. I swallow thickly, each time, and ask if they still want me after hearing all that.
They never do, but I never expect them to. After a dozen cycles in three years, I start choosing to be alone.
I don’t date again until my final year of grad school, where I meet Aaron Lao. He’s a professor, with eyes that see like mine, and he has his own string that doesn’t lead to me. We agree from date one that this won’t be serious, because his faith in the Old Man’s wisdom has never fluctuated like mine—he intends to spend his life with his destiny, once they find each other. I’m just for now, just until then, but I still fall in love with him over midnight talks about Confucian principles in wuxia novels.
“You’ll be happier with yours,” he says a year later, when he finally meets his destiny. His brow is creased, and he breathes an apology against my skin when he kisses my ankle. If I ask him to choose me, I’m afraid he might.
So I don’t ask, because he needs certainty that he’ll never have with me.
But knowing that doesn’t soften the loss. I wake up missing him for months afterwards, and I begin to hate the Old Man and his strings. Some nights, I drink and stick my head out the window and shout at the moon. Once, I sink to my kitchen floor and take a knife to my string. It curls like water around the blade, enduring, and I only succeed in slicing open my palms and spilling fresh red across my skin.
Therapy helps. Not immediately, but with time. After a year of weekly sessions with Dr. Aimee Ping, I unlearn my habits of glancing at my string a hundred times a day, of crossing my ankle over my knee and curling my fingertips beneath the band whenever I can spare a hand. Of caring entirely too much about the trickle of red that plagues my periphery.
By my ten-year high school reunion, I’m close to believing that I don’t need or want the Old Man telling me who to love. Close enough that I go up to Neal Lang at the reunion. My string still doesn’t run to him, but I still tell him I had the biggest crush on him in third grade. He laughs with his head thrown back as we talk, and I can’t take my eyes off him when he ducks across the gym to refill my punch cup.
I stay in therapy, and Neal and I stay in touch. Daily texts turn into nightly calls, and we start thinking of ourselves as a couple. We stay long-distance and non-exclusive at first, which helps stave off the guilt that once squeezed my lungs every time I’d glance at my ankle, away from a loving partner, and wonder. I almost tell him, a hundred times over, about destiny, a string he can’t see, and the Old Man in the Moon.
But I imagine swallowing thickly and asking if he still wants me after hearing all that, and fear of history repeating drives me to say, instead, “I love you.”
To say, eventually, “Marry me.”
We exchange vows at his parents’ church, and move into a condo with my dog and his two cats. Red spills from our home and runs unerringly toward my supposed destiny, but I think on it less and less—once a day, then once a week, then rarer still.
But as much as I want to, and as hard as I try, I can’t stop wondering altogether. Sometimes, unbidden, my mind drifts along the red river flowing away from Neal and floods with the idea of destiny. A pang of guilt accompanies each of those thoughts, and they coalesce over time into a dense weight beneath my skin.
On our tenth anniversary, we sprawl out beneath the full moon in our backyard. I’m bloated with good wine and Neal’s love and my decade-old knot of guilt, and I know I won’t be able to stand again without shedding a part of that weight. So as he makes me a daisy crown, I tell him everything. I talk about a string he can’t see, a weight he can’t feel. I describe the winding maybe that I sometimes stare at when we’re having breakfast at the kitchen counter.
And when I’ve talked my voice hoarse, I force myself to add, “If this is a deal-breaker, I understand.”
Neal is quiet as he turns the finished crown in his hands. Stray petals float down his wrists, and the heat of shame and fear slide down my chest in tandem. Finally, he places the crown on my head and hooks an ankle around mine.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I don’t mind.”
My breath stutters. “How could you not?”
He shrugs, his shoulder warm against mine. “The way I see it, everyone wonders. Whether or not they’ve got a string to follow. Thinking ‘what if’ doesn’t mean you love me less. It just means you wake up every day and choose me.”
“And—” I roll onto my side to look him in the eye, my own stretched wide. “And it doesn’t bother you that maybe one day I won’t?”
“Of course not,” he says, like it’s obvious. Like it’s easy. “Because it’s just as likely that one day, I’ll wake up and not choose you.”
I turn back to the moon, quiet for a long moment as Neal’s words loop in my mind. The crown’s petals are soft against my forehead, and Neal’s ankle is a solid weight atop mine. My red string, caught between us, squirms free and cascades into the distance, bright and stark beneath the light of the moon. It pleads for my attention, presents me with a choice.
Neal is smiling when I close my eyes and kiss him on the mouth. I choose him again the next day, and the next.
As for the ones after that—that’s between me and Neal, and not the moon.
© 2017 by Xinyi Wang
Xinyi Wang was born in Beijing and raised in Northern California. They studied Creative Writing at UC Riverside, then resettled in the Bay Area to drink mass amounts of milk tea. When they’re not reading, buying hats, or refreshing the same five websites for hours on end, they write stories and babble intermittently on Twitter @byxinyi.