“No Equal Love” by Yiyi Lou16 min read

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Illustration by Arty Guava

Before you read: I mean to strictly follow the prompt “The straight-A high school student falls in love with the troll in her locker.” It will happen. Please wait patiently.

Sam opened the locker door. On it, he hung a cardboard sign: “The Troll Show.” It was again recess, his second in the school, twenty minutes of performance time not to lose. With as much dignity as he could muster (though no one is looking), he stretched out his legs in a split and twisted his left arm twice around his neck. In this position, he waited until a small crowd surrounded him. Hoping to hold their attention, he climbed up the locker and twisted his small body into a cube to fit the upper shelf.

Now, he must display himself as a cube to the crowd, or how else would they see this impressive performance and shower him with change? But the locker shelf was more than a metre from the ground. To push himself out and stay in a cube shape, he would surely fall painfully onto the floor. But he had to do it.

Unfortunately, Sam’s forehead hit the floor first. In pain, he sprung out of his cubical shape. Seeing nothing special about his performance, the crowd dissipated. Sam sighed. He condemned himself for failing the first performance of his superb new act, crestfallen that he will get no money today.

A clean hand laid a train ticket under his eyes.

Surprised, Sam looked up. In front of him was a figure clad in a tidy uniform. Big eyes stared at him intensely. Oh, he knew the gaze too well. It was the gaze he had seen elegant ladies give vagrants when they handed them little packets of canned soup and toothpaste out of neat cardboard boxes.

Unlike those ladies, Linda did not daintily walk away when her hand left the bill. She stayed, using the ball of her left foot to clear the ground of the dust only visible to her eyes.

“Hi, I’m Linda.”

“Sam.” Though the gaze made him uncomfortable, he did want her money.

“Sam, I love you a lot,” said Linda, “now let’s elope. Follow me.”

Now, why did Linda want to do so? Let’s backtrack a little and take a look at the background of our characters.

Linda really doesn’t need much introduction. She fits the old-fashioned smart girl stereotype in every way. A’s in every subject, thick glasses with an ugly thin frame, black leather shoes, not as popular as she wishes to be (though she would never admit the latter). Every day after school, she attends a dull class on some elite subject, like “Great philosophers of the last century,” which doesn’t interest her in the least. How could philosophy interest someone who never gives a thought about the things she learns, but merely stores them in her head until an exam comes around? Oh, and of course, she uses an elaborate set of Japanese pens for a totally needless journal composed of motivational quotes, every keyword screaming beneath unwavering highlighting.

Linda is now ready for university applications. Her grades are no problem, but her parents told her that to get into a good university these days, one needs to be involved in something that catches the universities’ attention, like starting a club or a fundraiser. Linda decided on starting a fundraising club right that instant, for she wishes to attend Harvard. That makes sense, doesn’t it? She only took that “Philosophers” course because she yearned to go to the school that harboured so many renowned philosophers.

She carefully examined all the booths on Clubs Day to make sure her club would fundraise for a unique cause. Yes, it had to be a charity club to highlight Linda’s kind-heartedness. Oh, why not join an existing club? First, Linda wanted to fundraise for all the causes in the world. In other words, she wasn’t especially keen on helping anyone. Next, how do you expect the title “club member” to catch the eyes of good universities? It should at least be “club founder” and “club leader” as well as “public spokesperson” at the same time.

So the “Funds of Hope Club” was founded, “intending to help homeless people live better lives,” as Linda wrote on the 4th page of the Club Statement.

Sam is among those whom Linda intends to help.

Sam’s underground home was flooded after 3 weeks of heavy rain. He was a new immigrant to the big city. He came from a small village where he was said to be the brightest young troll. He wanted an internship with a potion master, whom every troll in his village had heard of. Though no one knew where the master was. There’s word that an internship with him would cost sixty thousand dollars. No troll had ever seen so much money, and one could not earn that much in a lifetime with the highest-paying job in the village. So Sam told his family that he would go work in the city and save up until he could pay for the internship. Then, he would set off to search for the master.

But of course, Sam knew in his heart that no big city job would employ a troll even at minimum wage. In the big city, there was no place for him. His only choice was to beg in the streets. He must put aside his pride. Brightest troll or dumbest, why should the city care?

Sam settled in a sewer downtown and set up the “Troll Show.” Every day, he twisted his 4-foot body into unbelievable shapes in front of metro stations and office buildings. Luckily, this show was exotic enough to catch tired eyes above white collars, and Sam fared quite well.

It’s just that each night, when he freed his body to collect his money, he would feel a strange shiver through his body. A tingling numbness almost prevents him from bending down to reach the coins. He feels that his body isn’t his. Perhaps belonging to someone else, perhaps no one at all, but surely not his. At this feeling, he would simply shake his head, reminding himself to stretch for five minutes more the next day before twisting his body.

After three months of such a life, three weeks of heavy rain hit. By the end of these three long weeks, if you had walked on any road in the city, you would find that each step you took left ripples at your feet. The streets are flooded. The edges of sidewalks became waterfalls as water rushed down the curbs. Almost all the manhole covers had been removed, yet the mouths of the sewers could not swallow the water fast enough. They choked, suffocated.

Sam’s sewer home drowned. He trudged through the wet streets to the only place in the city that remained dry: the city’s highest point, a private school on top of a hill.

There happened to be a half-opened, empty locker in the hallway, so Sam took it as his temporary home. Seeing that the students are pretty well-off, he decided to set up his show here until the sewers dried out.

Now, it’s only fitting that we look back to Linda’s story.

A year had passed since Linda started the Funds for Hope Club. She had not raised a cent. Linda and her parents were getting anxious. Her classmates’ parents have been talking about last year’s Harvard applicants. Some of them were club founders who raised tens of thousands of dollars but still did not get into Harvard. Linda, apart from having eleven APs, did not have any accomplishments to make her stand out from other applicants. Neither did she have any astonishing social connections. Now that her club had failed, she decided to step outside her comfort zone to do something big, something sensational that would shake the whole world.

As if by destiny, the locker that became Sam’s new home and stage belonged to Linda, who never uses it because the neighbouring locker belonged to a girl whom she despised, a girl whom she caught smoking outside the corner store one afternoon. When Linda joined the students who gathered in front of her locker, she saw Sam. A mad plan struck her. If it succeeded, it would make her sensational.

When she returned home, she carried out her plan immediately. She began an autobiography. Exactly as her English teacher had taught her, she started by planning out the elaborate story. She began with an account of how she founded the Funds of Hope Club after becoming friends with a homeless girl who later died in the streets one winter.

Oh, no no. I didn’t forget to tell you about that part of Linda’s story. I must clear my name here. I’ve only told you what had happened to Linda. That part, it never did happen.

Then, she wrote about how she fell in love with a homeless street performer (she specified that he was a troll, for this detail was very important to show her support for undiscriminating, equal love), and eloped with him to help him start a small business.

From that day on, she was determined to live her life exactly as she had written in her autobiography. If all goes well, the published autobiography would get her into a literature or business program at Harvard. Which one did she prefer? It didn’t really matter, for Linda took a special interest in nothing. As long as it’s Harvard.

Having planned out the beginning of her book, Linda went to Sam at recess. We already have a pretty good idea of what happened then. Linda met Sam’s eyes with an intense gaze, the gaze which was meant to say “I love you” to Sam, the gaze from which Sam only saw pity. Under her gaze, Sam felt that strange shiver go through his body again. As he had had done many times, he bent down, collecting the train ticket. He did not love Linda, nor was he convinced that she loved him, but he saw that she had money. He followed her without a word. They rode the train to a small village much like Sam’s. Linda described her prospects: “We are going to go to the village downriver to start a small business, okay? Look what I brought to sell! Aren’t those phone cases pretty nice?” Sam nodded absent-mindedly, trying to guess how much money Linda had.

Upon arrival, they lunched at a coffee shop. Linda laid a thick, leather-bound notebook on the small table. “Sam, please go check where we can sell our things. I must write my autobiography.”

“Why are you writing? I thought you wanted to start a business.”

“Oh, you don’t know business.” Linda dismissed him.

Sam soon found a good street corner and returned. Linda handed the phone cases to him and instructed him to start selling them.

“How much should we sell them for?” asked Sam.

“Those are 15 each, and the clear ones 66 because they are breakproof.” Linda answered, impatient to keep writing, for she had just reached the first climax, where they have sold a third of the goods they’ve brought and are recounting the $2000 they’ve made.

So Sam went back to the street corner. His voice echoed the streets until stars came out but he made no money. Most villagers had smartphones of old models that did not match Linda’s cases. Sam, yearning an honest living, recalled what his villagers would buy from a street vendor. He returned to Linda and suggested that cigarettes and beer would sell better.

“I didn’t think you were like those people!” Linda jumped up at once and took a big step away from Sam. “How could I sell those things? They do society no good! What would universities think of me?”

She realized what she had blurted out.

“I mean, I don’t mind that you didn’t sell anything, it’s okay,” she hastily corrected herself. “I mean, they’ll sell better tomorrow. It’s the courage to continue that counts!” She forced a smile, remembering that she needed to love Sam. She gathered her notebook and waved Sam to camp out in the village square.

At night, Sam silently scoffed at how conservative Linda was, and began to doubt whether he could make honest money with her. He decided to have a look at how much money Linda had on her. While Linda slept, he quietly rummaged her bag. There was an envelope containing ten thousand dollars. After some hesitation, Sam decided against stealing, but he would stay with Linda, for a vendor is not a beggar.

Before zipping up the bag, Sam saw the notebook Linda had been writing in. He was suddenly curious. Why would she give up her comfortable life to sell phone cases in a village? After all, he knew she did not really love him.

The beginning of the autobiography seemed like a regular diary, starting with how Linda began her club, and how she met Sam and eloped with him to this village. The part where she fell in love didn’t convince Sam, but what surprised him even more was that after their arrival at the village, the entire story diverged from reality.

In the story, Linda and Sam sold phone cases together for an entire afternoon and made five hundred dollars. Frowning, Sam turned the page to find that tomorrow’s events were already recorded too. Their profit was to triple. Judging from the planning page, Linda had scheduled to finish her autobiography within the next five days. By then, she expected the police to find her. Linda would show them the ten thousand dollars she brought and tell them that they’ve made it within a week. Of course, she made a note to exclude Sam from those interviews.

Sam, remembering Linda’s previous slip about universities, realized that the story of “helping a poor troll get on his feet” would give Linda publicity, make her autobiography sensational, and hoist her into Harvard. As soon as Linda publishes the book, she will return to city life. She will leave him. All this was already planned as the opening chapter of her sequel, a second autobiography. So she’s using me, Sam nodded to himself. Of course.

Sam buried his dignity and stayed with Linda. Together, they sat in the streets for five days with their phone cases, Linda scribbling in her notebook from time to time. Both knew that they would not make any money. By the end of the week, two policemen found them, just as Linda had expected. She instructed Sam to buy three coffees as she spoke with the officers. Sam returned with four.

Linda soon published her book. It became a national sensation. She was to hold the first signing event in the gym of her school. Sam, as the media demanded, was to accompany her. Even before the event began, Linda had a line of journalists and fans waiting to speak to her. She began to use Sam as her secretary, again demanding him to buy coffee, asking him to throw away her coffee cup, instructing him to fetch her coat and her script. Sam obeyed in silence, but that strange shiver was going through him again, the tingling numbness taking hold of his body.

Finally, as everyone else took their seat in the gym, Sam yanked Linda into a corner. “Don’t you order me around like that,” he said, “I know what you wrote.”

Linda stared at Sam more intensely than the time they first met. It never occurred to her that Sam could read.

“Look, I’ll share 20% of the profits with you, and you shut up about it, okay?” She whispered, looking around to make sure no journalists had overheard.

“Nothing you’ve written is true! And you’re tricking them into thinking it is. Why don’t you just call it a novel?”

“What do you understand? It’s not astonishing enough for a novel. But if I say it’s real, they believe it and say it’s extraordinary, and that’ll help me get into Harvard. Now swear you won’t say a thing.”

Before Sam could answer, applause showered the empty gym floor. Linda was hurried into its centre. Her speech wasn’t remarkable, so let’s skip it. When she walked off stage, the applause was more polite than genuine. The audience, restless, began to get up for the book signing.

Then, Sam walked into the centre of the gym, where Linda had stood a moment ago. With practiced fluency, he lowered the mic stand to his own height. This was unexpected. As the speakers screeched, the audience fell silent. Some sat back down.

“Hi, I’m Sam, from Linda’s book. I want to tell you that nothing in this book is true.” Despite having practiced the speech seventeen times, Sam felt a nervous urge to scan the gym. But he restrained himself because he knew if he looked to his right, he would be forced to meet a pair of intense eyes. He licked his lips instead.

“Don’t think of her as an activist for equality or undiscriminating love,” he continued. “There is no equal love in our story. She never loved me, at least not equally. I was just a convenient character to develop her made-up story, the story she wrote before our so-called elopement. It’s a story meant to astonish the media so good universities would accept her, a story where she supposedly helps me out of poverty. But she never actually tried to help me make money. She had that ten thousand dollars with her since the first day of our trip! She just wants all of you to believe she lived that astonishing life, which she did not! And look here, she already planned a second autobiography! The first chapter will be a painful break-up with me. I dare say that shall never happen now, because I won’t play along with her little plot!”

Big cameras zoomed into the torn planning page held in Sam’s raised hand. Everyone listened intently. It was only proper to finish the story with a moral.

“When I asked Linda why she didn’t just call it a novel, she answered that the story wasn’t extraordinary enough as fiction. It was only extraordinary enough for all of you as her real life, as non-fiction. My friends, please stop trying to make everyone believe you live a life that’s extraordinary by their standards. Stop living for them! These seemingly extraordinary things are not what makes your life extraordinary. You are the one who makes your life extraordinary.”

Standing ovation.

It was such a motivational speech that Linda rushed up to hug Sam, forgetting everything else. She declared that she now truly loves him. But a crowd seeking photos tore the two apart. A whirlwind formed on the gym floor. In its centre stood Sam. Linda stood four yards aside, a lone island, quite lost. The heartbreaking sentiments in her second autobiography wouldn’t be totally false now. But who would read it?

Yiyi Lou is a 17-year-old high school student from Nanjing, currently living in Vancouver. She loves movies, skateboarding, and rock and roll.

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