Zen was edgy.
With the warmer weather the co-eds on campus broke out their Spring season clothing. Handsome couples strolled about the university grounds in happy union. Hello! Insult to injury! Salt in the wound! How dare they look so pretty and alluring and…. Jeez. He knew he was jealous and petty and…. He was in a word pathetic.
Zen hated that hockey season was over.
It happened every summer. His raison d’être was over. He checked the calendar to see when he could get back on the ice. Playing ice hockey sated him like few other things (when he had a good game which occurred far less frequently than he cared to admit). Instead, he went to the gym almost every day and blasted out high metabolic cardio workouts to relieve himself of the “stress.”
“I got stress! Don’t tell me I don’t got stress! I got stress!”
It wasn’t all that effective
He needed to hit the punching bag, something to relieve himself of the pressure. Too bad Peter had fallen off the face of the planet. They used to box together and do some martial arts-style workouts, kicking, punching, two-step controlled sparring, whatnot, besides weightlifting, and that did the trick for Zen. The physical contact, the brutality, it was a surrogate for physical love, though neither of the two would admit it. Now however Peter was in love (love-love, not sublimated homosexual love) for the umpteenth time and he had no time for Zen. We’ll see how long that lasts, Zen thought with pettiness. He hated himself.
Peter, that happy lustful devil, had sent Zen some pictures of a bunch of new iPhones that he acquired. Peter had been visited by the nefarious iPhone bandit apparently. Zen was sure that this guy was the same guy who had stolen his iPhone way back when he first arrived in Harbin. He wanted to meet this guy to see if he was the same guy. And if he was…he’d give him hell. Otherwise, it plain irritated Zen because he wanted a damn iPhone, but Zen thought Peter wouldn’t sell him one because he thought Zen wouldn’t meet his price. Zen knew Peter expected to make good money on those under-the-table deals. Zen told him he would pay. He didn’t expect a free phone, especially not a free iPhone.
I know, I know. I’m evil for accepting stolen goods especially after my own iPhone was pilfered under my very own nose. But I really want an iPhone dammit!
Zen was not oblivious of his own hypocrisy.
I’m gonna have to meet this guy and strike a deal for myself. This Xiao Mi iPhone-Samsung knockoff/ripoff ain’t cutting it. I want the real deal. And that schmuck owes me for stealing my iPhone.
Zen also wanted to go visit Peter in his store because he wanted to show him his new collection of Rebel Money. That’s what Zen decided to call his collection of funny money.
He found it interesting that someone went to all this trouble to print these queer messages against authority.
The last two bills had a definite Falungong slant, so Zen assumed either someone who was either pro or con Falungong printed them. It was he knew counterintuitive. He thought pro or con because that’s how these things worked. For all he knew, the CIA was paying some schlepp in some remote dilapidated hovel to stamp out these anti-communist party missives on a stack of one kuai bills. And he wouldn’t put it past the CCP to do it themselves and thereby have “proof” that the Falungong were acting against the State and then have cause to persecute them. The CIA did (does?) psych-warfare all the time in Latin America. The FBI did it to discredit anyone they thought was anti-them. Was it called COINTELPRO? Or it could have been someone who just got a kick out of kicking the hornet’s nest. It may have nothing to do with the Falungong. Always machinations within machinations. That’s how governments worked. Anyway. It was a mystery. And who didn’t love a mystery? Zen was curious beyond all get out.
One bill had a three-line poem with a title Zen didn’t really understand:
This he took to mean: Sincerely read or maybe to be read sincerely (?)/Falun methodology is great/Tolerance is good/Good hearts will reap a positive Karma.
The other bill had two couplets:
This was clearer: There is (will be) a tidal wave of resignations from the Party/The Nine Commentaries will overthrow the CCP.
And the other couplet: The Epoch Times released a statement/Resigning from the Party, the Team, the Squadron will protect life.
Those were Zen’s crappy translations. Hobbit would not help with the translations, sensing this was not a hobby she should encourage in her eccentric American husband. Zen brought up the topic of Rebel Money with K, but unexpectedly (or as he should have expected) she got all huffy and puffy as if Zen had personally slandered Mao and Mao’s mother and excoriated all things Chinese. So no help there. Zen wanted to ask Peter but he wasn’t sure how much help a kid who never graduated from middle school was going to be. These were the things Zen occupied his downtime with.
Sheesh! I need to go back to drawing.
Zen felt stress at work, but this was not accurate. Work had been manageable, kind of a sinecure, since no one ever called him or asked him to do anything. In fact, everyone was so busy with their own projects that they forgot he existed. He asked to go observe the foreign teachers, maybe give a guest lecture and deliver a model lesson, but every time they said, “Good idea!” And then nothing happened. Precisely because Zen waited for someone else to organize his trip. He should have proactively called Finance, gotten the green light for travel funds, and given a directive to K (or another of the numerous office girls) and hopped on a bus or train to do due diligence. But he didn’t, so he was left twiddling his proverbial thumbs instead of playing overseer on the education plantations.
Zen was left to his own devices to do whatever he saw fit. The stress he felt was actually a vacuum of oversight, a typical and regrettable state of affairs. His director assumed that he would take whatever measures necessary to promote the good of the program. Of course, when he tried to intercede or recommend (and sometimes strongly recommend) certain measures, he was handled. He got handled. He felt invisible hands handling him, patting him on the back, and sitting him down in a corner. Sit there. Be a good pet. Our token foreigner. And doesn’t that just feel good?
Of course, it was headhunting season and they needed new teachers for the next scholastic year. The number of students participating was going up and up, but Zen asked himself, “Have we resolved the systemic issues that have been preventing the program from following best practices?”
He and K had to cooperate again as they always had done each year to hire new teachers. (Awkward!) Damn her. Even as she annoyed him with her puritanical and patriotic manner, she charmed him with her smile. Her dancing almond-shaped eyes, soft innocent demeanor with just a hint of coquetry, her lips, her smile, the silly look in her gaze, belied by her sharp wry comments. A girl. A young girl. A child really, dimly aware of life. Damn sad she was not interested in the world beyond the first level on Maslow’s pyramid. Zen shook his head thinking about her. She occupied too much space in his head. He felt haunted. She haunted him. Figuratively and literally.
She had been nagging him every day to commit to a contract next year, but Zen kept putting her off. He had no idea where life was going to take him. She looked at him sadly whenever he said he might leave the Center. The truth was she was not sad; she was merely put out. The director pressed K about settling the contracts for next year’s hires. The Center still needed Zen as a teacher and as a manager of foreign teacher affairs. The quicker they settled the contracts, the less they would have to make in “payments” to certain interested parties who facilitated such matters.
Zen said to her, “What’s with the forlorn looks? It’s not like you’re gonna miss me.”
This comment stung her. It was a cheap shot. Zen made it so difficult to just get along amicably and made everything ultra personal. K was a sensitive soul, maudlin and weak physically. She could never forget that Zen had helped her get this job and get her out of teaching English kindergarten hell. Her eyes watered up and she bravely laughed and said emphatically, “Of course EYE won’t miss you, but the CENTER needs you.” And quietly she added, “I need you to help me find new teachers.” Zen only heard, “I need you.”
K picked up her cell phone with one hand while her other hand dabbed at her eye with a tissue. She had allergies that often made her congested and red-eyed. Zen thought, “She still cares about me. Imagine that.”
Zen wanted to hate her, and he acted thuggishly, hurting her feelings whenever he could, giving her the high hand, reminding her that he had a higher position in the Center and that she was just office help. He made such spiteful comments indirectly, never overtly, but he made it clear she was persona non grata. But then they started interviewing candidates and they played off one another so seamlessly, trading questions and making the candidate teachers feel so at ease and liked and wanted. They quickly hired half of the teachers they would need for next year. The sense of shared accomplishment buoyed their friendship and ingratiated one to the other, prompting high fives and spontaneous cries of victory. It was worrisome to Zen.
He started making excuses why he couldn’t go into the office and they conducted the interviews over Skype, but then he did have to be in the office and ended up staying for hours and hours even though their work was done. K beamed happily because Zen stopped acting like a huaidan. He started making jokes and cutting up and being silly just like he used to do when they had first met so long ago. He complimented her about her looks and pretty dresses and good English speaking skills. He held the door open for her. He offered to buy her lunch. Just like he used to. She was content.
It did not do Zen any good, however, merely distracting him from curing the ills in his own life.
And life was pressing down on him. That was real. If he did not have actual stress from work or even from Hobbit (as disagreeable as she could be, her acrimony and waspishness was understandable given her current situation), Zen did have pressure from Life. He would have to make a choice soon. He was getting older and the few windows of opportunity available to a man of his age and limited abilities were few and far in between.
What am I gonna do? Where am I gonna go? I’m too old for this shit. I can’t just go put up sheetrock or cut lawns or clean fish. My body can’t take it. And who the hell hires anyone over the age of forty? What did Zen’s brother say to him once? “I’m convinced that twenty percent of the population in America are permanently unemployable.” He wasn’t talking about Zen at the time. They were just shooting the breeze, but it resulted he was talking about Zen. Superfluous man. Zen felt that he was turning into a Pechorin or a worse an Oblomov.
So I’m here.
This is my life.
Am I gonna live in China forever? Or do I pack it up, admit failure, and slink back, tail between my legs, to the US of Ay-ssholes. Yeah I said it!
I have nothing in this world. I have nothing. There is nothing ahead of me except misery and pain and then finally death.
…jeez…talk about gloomy.
Man…I think I really need to get laid…damn…when’s hockey start again?
Zen would come to regret his overactive libido and worse, he would give cause for others to regret it as well.