“Lunch? Why do you have to go to a lunch meeting on Saturday?” Hobbit asked me.
“I don’t know. K just needs to meet with me. I told her I didn’t want to, but she insisted. Damn nuisance.”
“It must be a personal thing. For sure it’s a personal matter.”
“No, this is business. It’s about that corrupt cop. The sonuvabitch who harassed me the last time. I imagine she wants to catch up and hash out what we’re gonna do about the visas.”
“Okay! Have a nice day!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
She was waiting patiently for me to complete our ritual.
I grimaced and leaned back into the doorway to give her a kiss on the right cheek, then the left cheek, then making an ugly face and groaning loudly, I kissed her on the lips, barely brushing her lips. Immediately I wiped away the small amount of moisture that passed between us.
“Ugh! Nasty!” I complained. She only laughed at my shenanigans. I was up to my old tricks.
Fuck sticks! I was gonna be late. Stepping outside our ratty apartment building (seriously–we have rats in this dump) was like jumping into a freezing lake. The wind immediately assaulted me, looking to chilblain any exposed skin or penetrate any bit of loose clothing. That’s okay. I needed the cold to brace me for what was coming.
I got a cab, went through the customary monotonous chit-chat with the driver (Where you from? How long you be in China? How much money you make? How you Chinese get so good? You married? blah blah blah). We got to swanky Kaide Plaza in about ten minutes. I like Kaide. It’s not a slumpit like Lesong Plaza where the clientele are basically riffraff with money. The Chinese that go to Kaide seem to have gotten a few more years of the civilizing influence of education (i.e, they don’t spit inside the building; just outside of it). Also, the USA had planted several cultural flags there: Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and–ohyeahbaby!–SUBWAY sandwiches! Y’know I luv me sum Subway sammiches!
Something about the smell and taste of fresh-chopped red onions and (ohmyGODYES!) jalapeños swimming in yellow mustard and mayonnaise rips me across time and space back home to Texas. My exploding taste buds send me into a fugue every time and for a few moments I leave China and go back to civilization, leave this crazy-ass cultural war behind. Yes. Eating at Subway is transcendental.
However, I doubt that K would go for dining at Subway. It’s too lowbrow for her. Not that we hadn’t shared a cheap meal together, because we have, but those were always Chinese meals. I think I know her pretty good: she is so proud of the motherland.
I told her to meet me at Costa Coffee. She was sitting framed against the window, wearing a new get-up, well, new to me in any event. She wore a cottony-white scarf wrapped around her throat, a thick black poncho-looking-kind of shawl over her torso, and tight stretch-denim jeans. She looked great, goddamn her. I’m pretty sure I looked like a freeze-dried dog turd. It wouldn’t matter.
We exchanged hellos and since she was kinda hungry we toured the five floors of the mall looking for someplace to eat. I’ve been here many a time and recommended this spicy barbecue place, but as usual there was a wait. You ask how long is the wait and all you get in response is an ‘I don’t know; check back later.’ You ask them to text you when your table is ready and they refuse. Barbaric, right? We found a place one floor up that served spicy food. For some reason K wanted to eat spicy today. Fine by me. I’m a spicy kind of guy.
I didn’t feel like hassling with the menu and asked K to order for us. The waiter told her to go to the fish tank and pick out the unlucky scaly bastard that would become our lunch. Shuǐzhǔyú. 水煮鱼. Basically stewed fish in a spicy broth. Yeah! I can keep on my diet today! Whattajoke.
And just like that K and I get to talking like no time had passed at all between us. Just two colleagues, two good friends sharing a work-lunch on a breezy, cobalt blue Saturday on the last day of the first month of the new year. All of the rancorous emails, all of the hot tears, all of the angry words, gone. Never existed. Sometimes that’s best. Just forget about that stuff and move on.
We caught each other up. I’d been exiled to Hegang for a while covering the international English classes until the Center could hire a permanent foreign teacher and K was transferred to the Xuanhua office to handle visas for the overseas students. Director Sky had her reasons, but both of us suspected she knew more than she was letting on. This was her way of maintaining cultural purity.
“Do you know why I wanted to meet here, at Kaide?”
“Yeah,” K said, “it’s close to where you live, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, there’s that. And there’s a Rujia Inn right across the street. They accept foreigners.”
Immediately K looked away from me. She was trembling ever so slightly. She passed her chopsticks into her other hand and snatched at a tissue. I knew her: brave little girl wanted to make a point, take a stand, prove to the big bad foreigner that she’s not afraid, she’s strong, she’s invulnerable, inviolate. But too bad, so sad: we are all defenseless against our desires. Never mind the wolf outside the door. The enemy is already inside and has set up camp in your body long long ago before you were even born.
Of course I would have to grease the wheels and spin some sweet-sounding phrases to make accepting the inevitable fall as painless and pleasurable as possible.
“I’ve missed you K. You know I’ve missed you. And I know you’re angry at me. I deserve it. But that doesn’t change how I feel about you. I know you don’t want me. Don’t love me. But…here we are. You didn’t have to meet me to talk about the visa stuff. We could’ve hashed all that out over the Internet. You missed me. Just like I missed you.”
“Yes. I can see it in your eyes. In the way your body is tensed. You wanted to meet for lunch. You wanted to meet so we could eat together. Because you are hungry. Me too. I am hungry too. I am very. Very. Very. Hungry. For you. I can taste you right now….”
“No.” She looked up, eyes brimming with tears that were just about to fall, small crystal gems trembling on the ledge of her thin painted eyelashes. “No. Just lunch.” Firm. Hmm. Good. I like, no scratch that, I love a challenge.
I laughed and changed the subject. There was plenty of time still. When your opposition puts up a strong front you have to resort to other more indirect methods of approach. My secret weapon is and always has been humor. I moved the discussion away from our inevitable consummation and launched into a funny retelling of my recent misadventures with another of our office girls. My narrative served a two-fold purpose: one, she would become jealous that I was out gallivanting about Harbin with Sasha, our Qitaihe teacher, and Trudy, the new office girl, the new star of our office staff who had recently returned from studying in Australia.
I made sure to weave in plenty of compliments that made Trudy pale in comparison to K, but I also made sure to play up how much fun we had together–the three of us, but how much more fun it would have been had K come along. It was all very innocuous. Still, seeds of doubt were planted in her mind. Humans are so human. You can’t unsee or unhear an image or a sound once it’s entered your mind. And then those images and sounds become so disfigured and mutilated in the twin meat grinder of your imagination and your Id.
We ate and then went window-shopping around Kaide. K always loved how attentive I was whenever we went shopping and today was no different. They had some kind of rehearsal tomorrow. Director Sky requested that the office girls perform a Russian folk song and dance in order to advertise for our new language training center. K wanted to buy something nice for the eventual videotaping of the performance. When we eventually picked out something, she let my hands drift over her slim form, pulling her skirt straight, tucking the blouse into the belt. So nice. So pretty. So indescribably sweet.
“You look splendid, my dear.” And she did.
It was a short walk to the Rujia Inn across Xuefu Road. K walked with me in a daze, the protest caught in her throat, never escaping her lips. I decided to pretend to be the angry distraught foreigner who had lost his luggage and needed a room immediately. K hung back, vacillating whether or not to participate in my little role-play. The counter girl looked at me nonplussed, not sure what I wanted exactly, then looked at K expectantly. I remained quiet, saying nothing. The pause lingered and stretched out, the CCTV news from the flat screen wall monitor droning in the background.
K cleared her throat, straightened her back, and stepped forward.
As soon as the door closed behind us I took her. I first whipped her winter clothes off, big jacket, hat, and mittens gone. In a swooping motion, I cupped her body in my arms and dropped her onto the bed, hard enough that she bounced. I peeled off her long brown leather boots. Then, her poncho, her sweater, her jeans, her thin gauzy stockings, everything, I pulled it all off quickly, but carefully. Once I tore one of her garments and she was pissed beyond belief so I was very careful not to damage her clothes. I left her white scarf but took everything else. She protested all the while, just as she had always done. But her eyes and hands and legs said otherwise. I was pretty rough–not too rough, but rough. I wanted to punish her for staying away from me. She wanted me to punish her for her wanting to come back. Confused and chaotic, we ripped each other to shreds.
When it was over, it was like a tornado had hit. This was bad.
Usually it was like a roller coaster ride: we’d laugh and scream all the way to the end of the ride and then run down the ramp, jump the turnstile, and do it all over again. Not this time. This was like Kansas-tornado bad. Her mascara ran down her face in streaks. She turned away from me, pulling the sheet around her, going fetal on me. I pleaded with her. She let loose with a barrage of nonsensical, illogical accusations. It wasn’t illogical but it was angry logic and not really fair, only loosely accurate. Aw crap! This is not what I wanted. Now, I’d have to talk her down off the ledge. Fuck sticks! Fuck sticks! Fuck sticks!
I tried to wheedle her out of her solipsistic regret-induced coma. Nothing doing. Soon she just lay there, unresponsive. My brain was spinning. Damage control. Damage control.
I whipped on my clothes and ran out into the hall. Perfect. The maids had left the cart outside one of the rooms. I snatched an armful of bottles of body lotion. The maid didn’t even see me. I ran back into the room. I turned up the heat on the radiator next to the window. Then, I tugged her feet free from the sheet. I started at her toes and worked my way up her calves, her knees, her thighs. This wasn’t sexual massage. This was my lame attempt at spiritual healing. I intuitively knew that my words were coming across as poisonous. She was eaten up with self-loathing and needed some therapy. Massage therapy was the only thing i could think of that might get her heart and mind to unclench. Not having any real massage oil I had to make do with body lotion. Not easy. Not easy. But slowly she let me unbend her knees. She let me open her arms, her balled fists. She let me roll her onto her front, my hands plying the oil, kneading it into her soft white flesh, caressing the guilt, the shame, the stain out of her skin and letting it evaporate into the air. Thank God humans have a short attention span. Thank God nothing, nothing lasts forever. The crying eventually halts, turns into sobs, dry heaves, stunned silence, then acceptance. Or at least capitulation. You have to move on. You can’t just stay and wallow in the bone-crunching, ligament-snapping zenith-nadir of emotion. Impossible for most humans. And gratefully so.
God knows I’m grateful. I had misjudged K. She was always whimsical and mercurial. In fact, she was a virgin when I met her. When we first fell in together, she acted so nonchalantly, so at ease, I didn’t believe it at first when she told me that it was her first time. In fact, it freaked me out. Of course, my freaked-out-ness was quickly eclipsed by my lust for this beautiful slim, pale Chinese flower. In the beginning I could not get enough of her and it seemed to me that she felt the same. Or so I thought.
I realized now that she had gotten into something way over her head. She was not the consummate young professional when it came to feelings, to sex, to relationships. She was a neophyte, a tyro when it came to the emotional battlefield of sex, love, and romance. I had assumed that our falling out had nothing to do with us, but rather my numerous problems with the Center, the government, and the random disorganized manner in which things got done. I had threatened to quit and she reacted almost violently when I said I was leaving the Center. I was so beside myself with anger at my own situation that I misinterpreted K’s response. I felt she was taking their side, the ol’ Chinese-against-foreign-devil trope. In short time, I got sent off against my will to Hegang on an excursion that lasted several months. I was cut off almost entirely from everyone in my life. I was cocooned in my own limited world for months with zero word from her while I dealt with the administrators, teachers, and students in Hegang.
She looked over her shoulder and said, “Thank you. That was wonderful. I’m better now.” She rolled onto her back, took the cup of water from my hand, and sipped deeply.
I massaged her thigh. “I’m glad. I was kinda worried.” I hunched my head closer to kiss her flat stomach, but she put her hand on my head. It was just firm enough. It was no. I knew the difference. Cool.
I got up and stretched. “MuthaFuckah! Ah!” I smiled at her. “You all right there kiddo?” She nodded and grabbed for her cell to check the time. “I’m gonna take a quick shower. You can join me if you like?” I left it like a questions and didn’t wait for her response. Time was bleeding out and life had to be sutured and thrown back into the mix.
Eventually she stepped into the narrow bathroom and looked for the cheap plastic shower cap. I soaped off her back, but she didn’t do mine. That’s fine. My loathing of drama trumps my lust every time. In my youth I could pay the fee that came with the drama. Not any more. It fagged me out. I needed peace, man. I needed tranquillity. Stability. Harmony. So why did I move to China? Yeah, why. Why do I do the things that I do? Fuck if I know. I’ve been riding this stubborn mule called self-awareness for so long without being able to significantly change the crazy-twisty paths and narrow defiles it seems wont to tramp down.
Part of the path is accepting who you are.
But my life is not an angelic sweet symphony. Just a farcical sim-phony. A simulacra of wisdom refracted through the prism of my fucked-up self and emanating out in beats of despair, anxiety, and emotional devastation. The only key difference is what I mentioned before: you can’t wallow in the regret. At some point you accept that you’re a fucking villain. Perhaps I am an enlightened villain. But still a villain.
Before I go home I pause at the outdoor gym next to the soccer stadium. I need to build up a little bit of a sweat. I need to smell like me and not like anyone else. You know, fear of drama. I do some push-ups and pull-ups on the parallel bars, throw some kicks, practice my splits, and swing on the rings until my scalp feels itchy with sweat. Night falls early so I get frosty pdq. Then I go to the local Cangmai. The old half-blind fucker who owns it always overcharges me (since I’m a foreigner and of course too stupid to know the actual prices of things) but he chain smokes and the smoke is good cover. I linger, taking my sweet time, going up and down the shelves looking for chips, chocolate, and beer, letting the foul smoke permeate my clothes and hair. When I think it’s been enough I pay and go home.
Hobbit appears behind the door, an innocent and oblivious smile plastered over her face. Praise Jesus-Allah-Buddha she’s not in a foul mood. She takes my bag from me while I get out of my boots.
“Why took you so long?”
“Why did it take me so long?”
“Don’t bother me. I’m too tired to think in English.”
“After the meeting I stayed in the cafe to grade papers.”
While I undress, file away student essays, brush my teeth, and rub cream onto her poor little cracked and bleeding feet, Hobbit never stops chattering. She fills my head with the events of her day. The frustration at the bank with her mother. The naughtiness of her son. The hassle buying train tickets for her father. The little pitiable dog that followed her home that she brought in and gave a bath. Hopefully, I would not mind that she used my shampoo and towel to clean and dry the half-frozen creature?
The say what?
“The poor dog. It was out in the cold and it followed me home.”
The say what?
“It’s locked up in the kitchen. Don’t worry. You like dogs.”
That’s right. That’s makes perfect sense. Aw hell and damnation. The door to the kitchen which is never closed was closed. I saw it but I didn’t actually see it. I leaped off the bed and went to the kitchen.
“Don’t scare it!” Hobbit called from our bed. “And be quiet. I’m tired and want to go to sleep.”
I ran to the kitchen. Slowly I opened the door. Sure enough there was a dog in there, sleeping nice and comfy on my hockey jersey. My goddamn hockey jersey. It was a short papillon and dachshund mix. Chocolate fur. Slight proud underbite. Bright curious wary eyes. The eyes of a creature in over its head. Fuck sticks.
I didn’t dare touch it. She looked at me, not in fear, but uncertain. What was I? Would I hurt her? Would I help her?
I closed the door and went into the bathroom. Sure enough. It did smell like wet dog. Talk about oblivious. I didn’t even notice. Oh God help me. I was startled when I saw my face in the mirror. It was fucking Lon Chaney. Phantom of the Opera Lon Chaney. It was me haunting my own life. I felt weak in my knees and wispy in the testicles, like someone had given me a sharp swift front kick in my family jewels. I shot the bird at that wraith glaring back at me from the dirty mirror.
I think it was Chekhov who said that by the time a man is in his forties he wears the face he deserves to wear. If that’s true, I was in serious need of a facelift. For now, I settled for getting some sleep.