(Photo illustration by Glen Wexler)

Once upon a time, Christmas was just another day, and so were Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In celebrating these days now, and the more personal ones — the birthdays of Lois and their two children, their wedding anniversary, the day the family adopted a three-legged King Charles spaniel — Feng Chen found satisfaction in buying and giving: cards, flowers, cakes, chocolate, presents, dinners. These things, he knew, did not bring happiness, but like other everyday necessities, they provided a solid base for normalcy, without which his family, he suspected, would look askance at him, asking who he was, and why he was there.

Middle-age, contentedly married and moderately successful, he prided himself in his ability to make the optimal, rather than the right, decisions in the arenas of both his professional and personal lives. That he was sitting here at the bar of a boutique hotel in Beijing rather than in the den of his Connecticut house, watching two women decorating a Christmas tree with crystals sponsored by a jewelry retailer rather than listening to Eric practice the saxophone for the winter concert or watching Luke write fat letters on the homemade holiday cards for his teachers — this in itself was a strategic decision.

Eric would be disappointed, Lois had reminded Feng when he called her about the postponed return.

Yes, he knew, Feng said, but what if he could reconnect with this cousin who had businesses in Beijing and Shanghai, and in a year or two perhaps Eric could spend a summer as an intern here? Think how it would look on his college application, Feng said, and knew that Lois, sighing aside, was already agreeing with him.

Yumi Lin had booked the hotel room even though she had three places in Beijing, a flat in the CBD and two villas in the less-polluted countryside. A hotel provided her a position of both advance and retreat. Meeting Feng on her terms was how she wanted things to go between them now.

They were not related by blood: After her father’s death, her mother had married Feng’s uncle. The two families lived in the same alleyway, and when she transferred to his school, he was her protector and best friend. They were 12½ then, and that they were not real cousins had been on both their minds when, for the next five years, they shared a secret dream of marrying each other.

The outside world offered little in teaching them about love. His parents owned a television set, its antenna made of tinfoil good enough to receive the two local channels. On Saturday nights, they were allowed to watch the programs until a good-bye message came on at 11 o’clock, followed by flickering black and white static signals. If a man and a woman kissed on screen — often in a movie or a television drama imported from America or other countries you would see such a shot — a grown-up would cough in the room, and he and she would both turn their eyes away from the screen, not looking at each other yet feeling the secret of their closeness. They had no more than held hands a few times, but starved love, like a plant that had mis-rooted in the crack of two rocks, could nevertheless prosper and blossom.

She was the less diligent student among the two. The beautiful slave Bianca in the Brazilian telenovela made her smile abstractedly in class; on the back of her workbooks she tried to draw Dee Dee McCall, Det. Hunter’s partner. Dee Dee, how she had adored that name: Later, when she had her first business, she named it Dee Dee Imported Co.

She was not ambitious. Her father had died in a loading accident in the train yard; her stepfather and Feng’s father both worked as welders in half-dying, state-owned factories. Her vision of the future included an honest job and a life with Feng, who would, like his father and uncle, be the man of the household, raising the family with his honest labor and swapping off-color jokes with his friends when they stopped over for a beer, which would make her blush with happy embarrassment.

* * *

When Yumi exited the elevator, Feng felt mome n tarily confused by her smile, which was too unguarded, as though little remained from the past, nor was there any scheme in arranging a meeting at a hotel. Her continued success with importing stationery and paper products from Taiwan and Japan; her timely investments in several cities before the real estate market had become a bubble; her two unsuccessful marriages — all these he had heard about from his parents, disapproving because when his uncle had been sick with liver cancer, she had paid the family to hire someone to take care of him. She then bought another flat for her own mother so she could be free of any burden.

To think that your uncle spent two whole weeks building and painting a popsicle cart for her, Feng’s mother liked to say, as though she would never recover from Yumi’s ungratefulness, which Feng believed to be a protest — a punishment for his family, even — for his heartlessness.

She greeted him not by name but by calling him Cousin Feng. For a moment, he felt a panic that he had miscalculated. He was here, he knew now, because of an urge to cause pain that he could easily justify and forget. With Lois and the boys, it was essential that he be a good man; with his colleagues, he wanted to be an important man; to his parents, he was the filial son. But who in the world would allow him to be a cad but the woman with whom he had already acted as a cad?

She saw the fleeting doubt in his eyes before he greeted her like a diplomat. Years ago, he had told her that she was, after all, a cousin, more like a sister. What went unsaid was the unmatchedness of their futures: He, admitted by the best college, had set his heart on going to America; she, having failed the high school entrance exam, had become a roadside peddler, selling popsicles and ice cream bars in summer, candied thornapples and crabapples in winter.

When the waitress brought them their drinks, he dismissed her because she would otherwise stand next to their table, ready to serve, eager to eavesdrop. He had done enough research to speak of particular details about Yumi’s business, and he did not ask about her divorces so as not to sound intrusive. He showed her the pictures on his phone — Lois, a white woman born to missionary parents who grew up in Taiwan; their two children, looking neither like him nor her; their dog who, despite an unfortunate accident as a puppy, had the most loving and cheerful soul — all these, Yumi understood, would not be on his conscience if he was invited upstairs to her room. But when it was time for him to withdraw himself, they would be there between them, irrefutable responsibilities. She had suspected, when he called her, that he wanted to see her because the life he had built needed her as a witness. Victory would feel less victorious unless the casualties remained casualties forever. But the question was, was she still that person he had had to get out of the way to pursue his ambition?

She listened, and when she did speak, she asked questions to draw more words from him. With resentment, he realized that her questions about his family and his life in America were asked out of genuine curiosity rather than courteousness masking, as he had hoped, jealousy.

But what about her? he asked, and said he was here because he wanted to know more about her life.

Her life, she said, was much less interesting. Things had happened to her, she said, both good and bad beyond her expectation.

What she meant by bad, he knew, were her divorces, but would he himself fall into that category, too? Keenly he was aware that for his success he had made the necessary sacrifice of her. It was not the only sacrifice, but it had made a deeper imprint than the subsequent ones. But where, in her success, did he come in? She had been left behind because she was not good enough for his adventure, yet left behind, stranded in a country which he had deemed impossible to live in or live with, she became richer than him only because she happened to be in the right place at the right time. Good things happened to her, she said with an ease that annoyed him. Dumb people’s luck, his mother had said bitterly.

Yumi read in his eyes wounded pride. Ever so like him, she thought, unforgiving, because it would take too much out of him to forgive. In middle school, there had been a mathematics teacher dismissive of the school — a third-tiered one, most of the students born to parents with barely middle-school education and working in labors. “In 10 years,” the teacher had once said in class, of no one in particular, “many of you boys will be sitting in the alleyways in undershirts and loose shorts, holding a baby or shouting at a wife or spanking and picking a dead mosquito off your arms. That, I am telling you, is where your limited ambition is taking you.”

Do not mind the teacher’s arrogance, Yumi had told Feng afterward, but he had taken it personally, as she could see he took it personally now that luck had favored her more than him. When he had told her that, as cousins, they should not continue their relationship, she had not had the heart to point out his dishonesty. She had not been surprised: Since her father’s death and her mother’s remarrying, she was never again taken aback by the caprices of fate and the human heart. But accepting a lie readily without protesting, was that not in itself deception? Perhaps Feng would have found it easier to accept her prosperity had she pointed out his lie then, and by doing so, given him the permission to be practical, to turn away from a youthful love as a calculating man. Things could have been more comfortable between them; friendship, or even a business partnership, might still have the space to grow.

After a while, they seemed to have fewer safe topics left. He downed the rest of the martini and asked her what her plan was for the evening. She looked, for a moment, perplexed, and for the first time in the meeting he caught the diffidence he had known in her from a younger age. With gentlemanly ease he waited; rarely he had this luxury of allowing someone else to make the decision.

She brought a card out of her purse and handed it to him. The paper was of poor quality, and the printing was inexpensively done. On the card was a lone, dwarf house in a snowy land, a yellow, foggy lamp lit from the only window upstairs, and inside was a misprinted line in English: Marry Christmas. When he looked up at her, she brought out another card, the original, the house more lonely, the snow more dreamlike, the yellow light with a warm, orange hue. Feng recognized the card when he opened it — he had sent it to her the first year he was in New York City.

All these years she did not know how to thank him for his gift, she said now, placing the two cards side by side. The idea of selling a pirated version of the cards, along with candied apples, had seemed a most natural one. No one would pay attention to such a card now, but back in 1984, her cards had stood out among the old-fashioned greeting cards from their youth, bamboos or cherry blossoms or pine trees printed on yellow paper.

He remembered the cards, a pack of 20, bought at a dollar store. As a gesture of largesse, he had sent one to her, knowing she would not know that his college friends had received the same card. He studied its mirthless look, and knew that she had won. Already, he believed a position for Eric could be arranged when it was time to ask. The payback, which she would be happy to offer, was his due.

Yiyun Li’s latest book is “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.” In 2010, she was selected by the New Yorker for its 20 writers under 40 fiction issue, and was granted a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Read The Post’s review of Li’s “The Vagrants.”