China Girl

For more on my published “China Girl and Other Stories” collection, visit my author page at www.holinauthor.com. She likes this American, this man with no job and nothing past a first name. Hair shaggy and strong, knife-edge wrinkles about his eyes, he booms: Hang on! He treats her to rides […]

For more on my published “China Girl and Other Stories” collection, visit my author page at www.holinauthor.com.

She likes this American, this man with no job and nothing past a first name. Hair shaggy and strong, knife-edge wrinkles about his eyes, he booms: Hang on!

He treats her to rides in his chauffeured sedan. Having a chauffeur is not unusual in Beijing — anyone who even calls himself Big Brother has one — but this American grins like a child, intoxicated by the novelty of it. She can only imagine what favors he surrenders for the privilege. Debts measured in restaurant tabs, shapely bottles of Yanjing beer clanging in toasts, hordes of them.

The American’s driver greets her with smiling crooked teeth. Many times before she has seen his kind: the ingratiating yes, the accommodating okay. She ponders whether he screams at his children, or orders his wife to assume kinky sexual positions.

The December roads are slab-like. The driver, overcompensating as usual, has the heat on full blow, and yet she clings to the American, wanting to get beneath that bulbous ski jacket, lay hands on his sweaty shirt. With easy laughter, he tickles her, outmaneuvers her. Where to tonight? he whispers. Tell me. So what if we’re in China? We can go anywhere. She is struck by his voice, the confidence of it, tough and ignorant and unassailable.

She sees the construction truck, the fat steel fibers jutting from the back of it, even before the Audi skids on a particularly crafty scrap of ice. The driver hits the brakes, which only accelerates the uncontrolled spin. The girders are now rushing towards them, towards the window closest to the American.

He sees them now too, and all he shouts is: Hang on! As if he is spitting on his hands and getting straight to work.

***

Posing nude, stretched out on her side, she chews gum and reads a comic. The photographer from Lucky Life Studios is a roundish man with an apologetically wrinkled shirt, and his voice never rises above a murmur. He asks simple questions: What do you think about this arm, just so? This leg further out, maybe? He illustrates with a dainty gesture, and for a languorous moment, there is no difference between him and her.

She nods yes and no accordingly, and all the while chews hard. So disgusting, my anxiety, this newfound prudishness, she thinks. She has snorted at commercials for breast-enlarging creams, contemplated cosmetic ads of Joan Chen and her blood-berry lips, and paused to admire the proportion of her own arms, the circumference of her ankles. But under the lamp’s hot sun, she feels misshapen, the little dip of fat around her stomach hanging there, as if gorging on the light.

Red fabric approximating a velvet curtain lounges on the wall behind her — looking closely at it, she sees corpselike dust. At the corner, a window gouges out territory, and just beyond it, the traffic honks on and on in the gray morning. A mosquito whines at her ear. She turns toward it, wishing to inquire: How are you feeling today? The photographer exclaims, for the composition he was planning has vanished, and a more seductive pose has taken its place. He rushes to say: Wait! That’s good, wait!

The comic book is just beyond camera shot, at her hip, and as she turns the pages they tickle her. A flyer peeks out. Are you a woman with a tale to tell? An editor is looking for stories of Chinese women’s love lives: office affairs, unwanted pregnancies, runaway girls. Confidentiality assured.

The photographer asks her to raise her head, as if she is regarding a sudden, amorous visitor. More concentration, he says, hands before his face, blocking all but his eyes. A serious look. Hollywood model pose. Very nice. Unconsciously, he is recreating a pose from youth, a courageous female cadre urging on her comrades with a defiant rise of the chin, forever looking into the unknown distance. The mosquito alights on his arm. With an annoyed slap he crushes it. The blood spreads on his skin like abstract art. Across the comic’s open pages, a lone swordsman whirls, his weapon slashing with tornado-like force, the inked waves of his assault threatening to burst out of the page.

***

She watches her older sister yell at her parents. The tiny, stone-hued apartment is complete disaster — half-opened paint cans, canvas crumpled in gobs, ribbons of wallpaper like obscenely gigantic toilet rolls. Her sister’s boyfriend and his comrade huddle against the wall, army jackets draped about their shoulders, their hands close to their faces as they whisper and laugh. They resemble jolly monks.

You have to pay them! her sister shouts. They’ve already bought all this stuff, you have to pay them!

Are you crazy? Her mother’s face is as wide as a tiger’s, her eyes bulging, rampaging. What are you doing, just walking in here and telling us you’re going to do this?

Of course we’re doing this! This place is filthy. Unfit for pigs, even! Aren’t you embarrassed to have friends visit?

What do you care? You’re never at home anyway!

I tell you, he’s good! Don’t you know Army people can’t live on only their salaries these days? They all get side jobs. He’s already repainted three apartments!

With a volcanic shift of the throat, the boyfriend hacks mucus into his mouth. He leans over, seized by habit, ready to spit it all out onto the floor, but then holds himself up, barely. A thread of drool falls out, connects his mouth to his chest.

We’ll renovate the apartment when we’re ready. Her mother theatrically takes her time in folding her arms.

You’ll be dead before that happens! Hey! She snaps her fingers at the two army men. Let’s get started. It’s no use arguing with her. She picks up a paint can.

All through this her father has been silent. Now he runs a perplexed hand through what is left of his hair. Well, it’s no big deal. We can spare a little money, can’t we?

But her mother and her sister are now engaged in a tug of war over the can. Both their knuckles go white as they yell at each other: — Let go! — You let go! — We’re going to do this! — No you’re not! — You wood-headed idiot! Her father is frantically rummaging in his pockets for his wallet. The boyfriend stares dumbly at the scene.

For no reason at all, she remembers an incident from when she was six. She had accompanied her father to the office where he was supposed to pick up his pay. Already a few dozen co-workers were milling about, being impatient in a friendly way: Hey, should we get breakfast and lunch first, or what? Behind a creaky wooden desk with a short leg, a woman was yelling at them all to stop chattering and go single file, brandishing a ruler like a weapon. Then she sat down and began counting money. The minutes stretched out to half an hour, even more. The room went foggy with the workers’ cigarettes, but still the woman sat there, arranging money in tidy piles, one perfect little stack after another, obviously enjoying her power, the table sometimes tipping onto the short leg when she laid a bill down.

She was too young to be angry, but several times she pulled at her father’s sleeve: Dad, should I go up there and ask her why she’s taking so long? Her father shook his head. We have to be patient, he said soothingly. There’s nothing we can do.

She walks up to her sister and mother and with a deft flick of the wrist, tips the can. Paint spills out in an abbreviated flood. Most of it lands on her sister’s lap, some finds her mother’s coarse stockings. Before either of them can even shriek in surprise, she is out of the apartment, trotting down the steps, past the open-mouthed neighbors who have gathered to eavesdrop.

***

She calls Holiday Inn in America. Ordinarily dialing toll-free numbers from a public phone is an impossibility, but one of her friends — she forgets who now — gave her the code. At a rickety wooden stand on Renmin Road, phones lined up like toys on the sill, clutching the dirtied white receiver to her ear and mouth, she endures two housewives on both sides of her having identical conversations: home and dinner and relatives and Where are you?

This time a pleasant man answers. She savors the long-distance lag in their conversation, the extra seconds she must take to speak: Hello! I would like to make a reservation.

Of course, he says. Professional, to the point, he requests location and time, and she gives it to him. Today she is Ms. Wang; last week she was Ms. Lee, and the week before that Ms. Zhang. Today it is Los Angeles, last week it was Boston, the week before that Las Vegas. Always one week ahead for the reservation — it is too depressing to consider lengths of time any longer than that.

Thank you, Ms. Wang, the helpful reservation agent says. Have yourself a wonderful day.

Thank you, she says. She almost forgets to add You have a nice day too, but this time she remembers. Alas, the man has already hung up. American politeness is a tricky thing to negotiate.

A bus hacks diesel smoke at her. Bicycle bells ring like nagging mothers. She looks down at her sandals, her bare feet: dirt already accumulated under her toenails. Nearby a food cart serves fried dough, the single waffle-sized block of coal in its oven smoldering so intensely her eyes water. One evening she will sail into the Holiday Inn, be it New York or Chicago or San Francisco, announce her identity, and lie flat on her room’s rich, open, carpeted floor all night.

***

She enjoys visiting her musician friends. Beijingers by birth, they are both guitarists — Does anyone truly want to play bass, or are all bassists forced to their instruments by the tyrannical guitar virtuosos? she wonders — and make their home in a Dongzhimen apartment with the color and texture of a well-used ash tray. She snuggles up with a wet bottle of beer and gazes at the steam-cracked walls as they noodle about. The agenda always includes an exact cover of “Hotel California,” the version from Hell Freezes Over.

You ever write your own songs? she asks.

Of course, the handsome one snaps. Here, now, he is formidable, but she saw him play once at the Star Shower café during an open mike, and he went all tight and robotic as he improvised a blues tune. She still remembers how he slumped, his stringy hair hiding his face, as the bar patrons good-naturedly applauded his timidity, and how endearing it was.

The handsome one is the leader, the singer, but the not-so-handsome one is the better player. Bobbing his head up and down, his glasses prancing on the bridge of his nose, he coaxes machine-gun rhythms from his acoustic. Before she can even say Nirvana, the handsome one begins singing, in English. She cannot make out the lyrics, but at the beginning of every line, he moans Kurt Cobain Kurt Cobain

She doesn’t ask about the song after they have finished, for she knows that the handsome one considers songs a divine gift, something beyond the bounds of explanation. He pops in a VCD of Michael Jackson videos, pre-Thriller days. His early songs are fresher, the not-so-handsome one says in a most earnest tone. Can’t stop till you get enough, Michael sings over and over, and the handsome one passes his cigarette among the three of them.

I hear that Americans treat their dogs well, the handsome one murmurs. His face is fiery from beer. Clean them all the time, care for them like children, build houses for them — shit, they even build tombs for them! Swept up with the thought of it, he flops back onto his squeaky board-like bed. Fuck, I wish I was an American dog!

She passes her cigarette to him and he takes it with long, feminine fingers. She is jealous of those fingers. He puffs distractedly, and after a while his eyes lock on her, but she is watching the video. The sunset throws orange into the cramped room, Michael sings and dances in place, and even though she now knows he is staring at her, she continues to watch the video. She is surprised to discover she is completely content.

***

She works at a local dance club twice a week. May Lee! the DJ screams as she trots out of the shadows and the spotlight finds her. Her job is simple. She must climb the twisty stairs until she is on the smallish platform one story above the floor. Once there, she gyrates, pulses, thrusts. Give it up for May Lee! Her name is not May Lee, it is merely a pseudonym. Spotlights now dance like fireflies. The thud of relentless basslines shakes the platform beneath her. On the ground, a foreigner is shouting at her. She guesses American, as he lacks that European bearing, that aura of entitlement. May! he chants. May May May May May!

She smiles at him. Three weeks she has worked at this club, and she is still amazed at how rarely people smile. One could almost believe them to be comatose if not for their moving bodies, their jerky attempts at spontaneity. A nation of stone-faced ballroom dancers, she concludes sadly — sure you can learn the foxtrot and the waltz like you memorize poems, but what does that get you here?

Above everyone, a miniature spaceship glides on a track nailed to the ceiling, soaring with the Star Wars overture. Bomb doors open and confetti scatters everywhere. Below, the American hops in place, snapping hungrily at the floating bits of paper. May May May May May!

She tosses a smirk and a wink his way. Yes, there is a point to this black tank-top, these slinky black stockings, this petal-like mini-skirt she must wear. Loose cigarette smoke almost forces a sneeze out of her — No, no sneezing, it’s not sexy. The American is at the bottom of the stairs, making eyes at her, blocking any means of escape but not quite ready to sweep in and claim the prize. May May May May May!

Two Chinese men with shirts unbuttoned to mid-chest and shiny slick hair appear at his side. They are dancing, but with every movement they bump him, nudge him away from the stairs, shove him further and further out. She now leans over the platform, fully aware of her part in this war, and blows the American a kiss. The American is still chanting her name, although at this distance the contortions of his mouth seem sickly. The two Chinese men are now firmly between him and her, and there is no mistaking their choreography as anything but a not-so-subtle threat: Stay away from her, Foreign Devil. The American lays a hand on one of the Chinese men’s shoulders. With a sudden jerk, he is grabbed, wrestled down beneath the rolling spotlights.

She laughs, spins around, three hundred sixty degrees, seven hundred twenty, more, her own hair needling her face. Men must always play the games, and she must always encourage them. And when it is all over, one of them says hello, or no one says hello, and either way will be fine with her.

***

She hates the David Bowie song. Nothing about the melody or words is particularly galling to her, but that video! A woman dressed more like some geisha than anything remotely Chinese! That mousy face, that underfed skinny body! How could anyone think of that as a beautiful Chinese girl?

And yet this Brit with the two-day beard rubs his cheeks against her bare shoulder and hums: Uh oh oh ohhhhh … little China girl. In response, she blows smoke in his face.

Smoking is good for you, he says. She blinks, considers that statement for a moment, and shrugs it off as completely irrelevant.

Now he complains about a new expat community outside Beijing. Two-story homes, manicured lawns, local golf courses. Doesn’t that make you mad? he growls. Millions of Chinese living hard lives, and these Americans running riot over everything? Building miniature Americas everywhere they go?

She wants to answer No. Instead she thinks to herself, It must be deeply satisfying to travel and live in another country, and be able to make those kinds of statements.

Later in the shower with him, she urinates — something common for her, she doesn’t even think about it. The Brit yelps and dodges away, as if stung, and water splashes out of the tub. Christ Almighty! he shouts. That’s disgusting!

Why? It all goes to the same place, she replies calmly.

He will not even argue. Within moments, he is drying off, looking himself up and down, as if checking for acid burns. Amused and bemused, she stares at him. Now the words of the David Bowie song are coming to her … something about stumbling into town, then a sacred cow. What the hell does it all mean? She bites the insides of her cheeks as she puzzles over this affair, and the Brit stares at himself in the mirror, hypnotized by his own likeness.

***

She drags her sixteen-year old cousin to Sanlihe District on a Friday evening. Their parents chatter and pounce over mahjong, the evening holds the beautiful heavy calm of mid-spring, and the sodium streetlights glow like trapped moonlight. So she decides: I want a drink. And her cousin, so slim and so shy in her modest haircut and her monotone white blouse, must come with her.

The district is active tonight. Men dressed in padded suits sidle up to foreign men: Massage? Sexy lady. Come and see. At the outdoor bars, expatriates hang all over chairs, laughing and relating and enjoying their little parcels of territory. She feels her cousin’s nervous breaths at the back of her neck — she is talking about Beijing University, I’m worried about the college entrance exam, and her eyes refuse to stay still. To her, every person on the street must be a threat — even the policemen, their caps down over their eyes, positively cowed to be in this foreign ghetto.

Nothing will happen, she reassures her. It’ll be all right.

Her cousin gives a wan nod. Good little girl, so obedient, she thinks. And the worst thing is, she likes her.

She wants to hit the Gold Hut down the alley — sometimes the two guitarists are there, running through Doors tunes, and she has not seen them in a while — but in a concession to her cousin’s sensibilities, she leads her into a well-lit beerhouse. The Filipino band inside wears frilly clothes, as if this is a wedding party, and leans hard on friendly keyboards, inoffensive pop songs. She orders a bottle of beer, then another, and her cousin grows red with something other than drunkenness.

D-Do Aunt and Uncle know you come here? she finally stammers.

No. She drains her glass too quickly and beer runs down her chin on both sides. A fine example of alcohol etiquette you are setting, she thinks. Restlessly, she strikes up a cigarette.

Now her cousin is shrinking, flinching. Under the smoggy houselights the barrettes in her hair seem especially ludicrous.

Here. She pours a fresh glass. Have one.

Oh, no –

Come on. Drink up. You going to spend all your time studying? Enjoy yourself!

I can’t! She immediately jumps up, begins backing away. I’ll — wait outside. I’m too young. I’ll be outside. Waiting for you. And with that she flees with a tiptoe sprint.

For a time she stares into the crowd where her cousin disappeared. Bodies bump accidentally, squeeze past each other, twist in avoidance, endless combinations. The waiter sets a fresh candle on the table, and she gazes at its fragile light. You should have had a drink, cousin, she thinks. Because no one in China is too young.

***

The guitarists are having a party, and she arrives late. She knows something unusual is happening because she can hear the Cui Jian song from their window, three stories up, through the pounding rain. To them, Cui Jian is a boulder around their necks, a constant reminder, for he is an underground rocker gone famous and they decidedly are not.

Trailing soggy echoes, her umbrella bogged down with rain, she trudges upstairs. She hears Mr. Cui bellow:

I’ve given you my dreams,

given you my freedom,

but you always just laugh

at my having nothing —

When will you go with me?

She knocks at their door several times, but in the din no one responds. With a sigh, she lets herself in. There has been some attempt by the guests to be polite, for shoes are lined up by the door, but past that are cigarette butts like bomb debris, the sudsy wash of beer across the concrete floor. The oddest odor is now pricking her nose — beer mixed with marijuana mixed with puke.

Hey! The handsome one is stripped to the waist, and by his side are two women, completely naked. There is something modest in the way they stand, and how their knees knock. Unsteady, a seasick chain, they lean leftwards, then rightwards. Can you take a picture? the handsome one slurs. Hurry, we can’t stay like this all night …

One of the women leans in to whisper something in his ear. The other is fiddling with the tiny hairs on his chest, giving his nipple a mischievous tug. He laughs, ticklish, and it is at this moment that she takes the picture.

The not-so-handsome one is bent over the toilet. At first she presumes he is throwing up, but then he rises, and it is clear that he is alert, calm. A glass syringe is in his hand.

What are you doing? she asks.

Experimenting, he says. No, he isn’t normal; his eyes are doll-like. The whites of them quaver like the almond gelatin she had at dinner. The liquid in the syringe is yellow, with tiny dark bits scattered throughout.

What is — she begins, but the not-so-handsome one stumbles past her. She turns and a foreigner, apparently the lone foreigner at the party, introduces himself. Fully clothed, dark and clean, he reminds her of Antonio Banderas, but his English is perfect. Quickly, the conversation develops: He is a teacher. No, just for the year, then back to Seattle.

And then he says: I’m the party man.

What do you mean?

I, um, helped organize this party.

The handsome one chases one of the naked girls past them. She pounds the floor hard with her naked feet, fleeing into the bathroom, the door slamming behind her with a furious eek. He delays his pursuit just long enough to grin at Antonio, then throws himself against the door. For a moment she fears it will splinter, but then it bangs open, recoils back into the handsome one’s face. He laughs despite the pain, enters the bathroom, slams the door shut again. She hears the girl scream — pain or ecstasy, it is impossible to tell — and very slowly, she rests her hands on her cheeks, close to her ears.

You okay? Antonio asks. You want? He offers a marijuana joint. I also have –

Help! Someone help!

The not-so-handsome one is convulsing on the floor, the syringe by his side and cracked open. A naked man and woman are on the couch, drawing their scattered clothes around themselves, only their eyes visible above their raised shirts. The foreigner retrieves the syringe, wafts the odor his way, and sniffs. Oh man, he groans.

What? she whispers.

Oh man, he says again. He injected himself with the shit from the toilet …

Even as her stomach rebels at the thought of it, she sees that the not-so-handsome one is not moving at all. The foreigner bends over him, stretching his eyelids open, then forces his mouth into a fishlike pout. With an almost phlegmatic movement, he begins mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

The handsome one has sank to his knees by her side. Oh fuck, he says. Oh fuck. His head wobbles this way and that, and even as he rubs his eyes she sees the tears flowing freely. She puts her arms around him, holding him as tight as she has ever held anything, and he trembles with the force of his delirium, his head hard against her shoulder.

***

This is the third time she has been interviewed by a visa officer. The door to the interview room is slightly ajar, and snatches of conversation from outside infiltrate: an American man is trying to arrange full U.S. citizenship for his Chinese wife.

You should have done this already, she hears someone say. Why are you even here? Why are you wasting my time? You have to fill this out and have it authorized by the local authorities. It’s not my job to do it for you.

Why do you want to go to America? the visa officer asks.

Her current boyfriend from Austin has coached her on the answer, and she speaks fluently, if not flawlessly — this is intentional, for a smoothly recited answer gives the game away. In my particular field of my study … best program … feel like I can contribute to scholarly studies not only in China, but America as well … Etcetera.

I see you’ve already been accepted at UT Austin, he says. Good school.

This is new to her, this kindness. Her previous interviewer simply scowled, unblinking, as if awaiting any weakness that would manifest itself immediately on her own features. You want to go to America, you have to prove you have a good reason, he had said. At the end of the interview, he had shaken his head. Not good enough, he said, and that was that.

But now this interviewer is smiling, his breath sweet with coffee, and telling her that her school is good. This is unexpected. She knows that an American smile means nothing, but still she returns it with a shy one of her own, and it is at this moment that she realizes her heart is pounding with excitement. It’s going to work, she realizes.

And they gave you a scholarship, he continues. That’s great.

They are very generous, she says modestly. This is good, this modest business.

You have official permission from your government to go?

She produces the paper. Still his smile is big and bold and beautiful. Who first described America that way? Did they know how right they were?

And someone has agreed to be your sponsor?

Yes, she has that paper too. Signed by her boyfriend, who pilfered the company letterhead from his father’s cement factory.

Are you working right now?

No, she says. Not entirely true, she is working part-time, but she can’t talk about the dance club with a man in a suit.

Still he smiles. But wait, now he shakes his head. Smiling and shaking the head? A conundrum to stump even Buddha.

Your credentials are good, he says. But —

No! she nearly bursts out. She has stood on the street all morning, in line with the dozens of others who have come to the U.S. embassy for the very same thing, stamping her feet in the chill, looking down at her shoes for every passerby or local policeman who stared at her, every silent judge of her motives and loyalty to her country.

But she stays quiet. She only half-hears the rest. Something about limits. Quotas. So many applications. We prefer people who have steady jobs. It means they are earning to support … difficult to turn away worthy people … She is now standing, shaking a hand, or rather, a hand is shaking her. Through the slightly open door, back to the central reception area. Head awhirl, she thinks: I will get this Austin man to marry me. I know I could convince him to do it, he loves me just enough. And then it would be all right.

The American man and his Chinese wife are still arguing with the embassy official, who glares from behind a window, his glasses hanging obscenely low under his eyes. Who the hell do you think you are? the American man is shouting. I’m an American citizen!

I don’t care, the official says, and she is taken aback by the venom in his voice. It is completely unlike the rudeness of the street merchants, their offhand cruelty. This is a tone calculated to hurt, like the brutal twist of a knife even after it has pierced the victim’s heart.

The American man is still raging. His wife meets her eyes, and looks down at the floor. Already a Marine guard is at the door, his hand at his sidearm, appraising the situation. He pushes past her with an unnecessary shove, and even as she struggles to regain her balance, even as her momentum takes her out of the room, she laughs once, a near-hysterical giggle. What am I thinking? she wonders. Why would I marry him?

***

She is supposed to rendezvous with the handsome one at the front gate of their alma mater. Held up in traffic for an hour — They add ring roads and ring roads, and all it does is breed more drivers, she huffs — she finally gives up and exits the taxi a kilometer away. Hey, I can’t let you out here, I’ll get in trouble, the taxi driver whines, but she thrusts an extra 10 yuan bill at him and stomps off without a word.

Dust kicks up in her eyes. When she graduated two years before, this was a two-lane road, divided cleanly down the center by a line of plump trees. Now, a pseudo-highway, six lanes across, gravel and dirt and the diesel gas that leaves that scratchy stickiness to your throat. She fumbles for tissues, realizes she neglected to take any in her rush out the door. She is forced to buy a roll of toilet paper from a local stand. She rubs her eyes with it, and it feels as if they are being scratched with stones. Half-blind, she stumbles past unfamiliar geographic landmarks. The Dunkin Donuts over there now a Kenny Rogers Rotisserie Chicken. The alley behind the university, once so foul and cluttered with grimy restaurants and construction rubble, now home to bootleg DVD stores and clear-paneled windows. Detesting this hotter-than-usual August and the dampness at her armpits, she walks on.

Now she is half an hour late, and as she nears the gates, she debates what she should say. Harried: Really sorry I’m late, this damn traffic. Or playful: Rock stars are never on time — you expect me to be? Or just concerned: Haven’t seen you in a while, are you okay?

Halfway between the university gates and the street, a small crowd has gathered around something. Giving in to the ravenous curiosity that she sometimes hates to see in others, she hurries over, shoves against the sweaty wall, and breaks through just enough to see what they are looking at.

The handsome one is on his side, in a fetal position. His lips are open, and she can see the tips of his cigarette-stained teeth. The white T-shirt at his throat is dyed red, and the stain runs down his side, onto the sizzling concrete. He stares straight ahead, as if taking extra care to pose for a portrait.

Her sight goes blurry as she holds a hand to her head. Conversations ricochet:

Just a few minutes ago —

— Fight in that bar over there —

— They chased him over here —

— The two of them ganged up on him, one held him down, the other cut him —

— So fast, like a dream —

At the university gates, the two guards stand sentry, unmoving, staring straight ahead, their helmets smart on their heads. Mouth yawing open, she wants to yell at them, scream Do something, you bastards! but there is still a fragment of reason in her head that mutters: It is not their concern. It is not their job.

More and more people are gathering. Already some are edging up to the body, like scavengers probing the prey for signs of life. With a single tortured breath, she shoves past all of them, falls to her knees by his side. She reaches out and closes his eyes. In the sun, his skin is hot to the touch.

The crowd rears up with a thrilled surge of whispers: Who is this young woman? Maybe the fight was over her. Why is she still here? The police will give her a hard time. She disregards it all and stares at his smooth face, his long hair now wilting, the parted lips that for all the world seem to be asking for a drink of water. You idiot, she says silently. Maybe I really cared about you. You idiot.

The police arrive an hour and a half later, and find her on her knees next to him, having not moved at all. When they help her to her feet, she looks at them with a spectral smile and murmurs, Someone had to stay. To watch him.

She runs away. No, she knows putting it like that is too dramatic, although she likes to imagine she is running away. She is merely on a city bus, a bus she has never taken before, on her way to some unknown destination on the north end of town. The trip seems as lengthy and treacherous as traveling the length of a province, and she appreciates the bus’s slug-like pace, the rickety way the doors whip open and never quite close completely.

A day later she will return home, her clothes stained from a night spent out in the open at the Perfection and Brightness Garden — in olden days, it was part of the Imperial Summer Palace, but it has devolved into desolate ponds, wrecked Roman columns, a few trees clumped together. She will find a spot overlooking the dried-up remains of a lake, drink four and a half bottles of beer in the moonlight, and sprinkle the remaining half-bottle onto the sickly brown grass. Her father will be the first to see her when she shambles in the next afternoon, and after she tells him where she has been, he will look at her sadly, and say: Your mother will talk to you. I can’t say anything. I love you too much to get angry.

The bus is empty except for the driver and the woman who sits near the doors, selling tickets. They exchange words; in appearance they seem to be locals, but their dialect is unintelligible. Friends from the same remote village, she guesses. The driver laughs heartily, his brawny arms holding the wheel tight as they hit another in an ongoing series of potholes, and yells something back to the ticket woman, something warm and vulgar and confidential. The ticket woman guffaws at the brazenness of his remark, and dismisses him with a wave, but they continue smiling at the rear view mirror, at each other.

Tired, she tries to sleep, but the jolts and bumps of the bus are too erratic. It is hot, perhaps the hottest day of the summer, but the wind rushing through the open windows dries her. She buttons up her shirt and wraps her arms around herself. Outside, Cicadas buzz all around, in stereo, and the thin-necked trees sway in great washes of green. She wishes the bus would continue on unhindered, sailing through this verdant alien countryside, but she knows that in a few weeks the leaves will turn, and fall.

– 2002

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