People often say Chinese is an ugly language, and I always disagree, except in the case of my mother. Her voice gives me a deep existential fear, like vampire teeth on a chalkboard. She’s not my real mother, but one of the few English phrases she knows is “your mother.” She says it when she’s trying to trick me. I think she might know more English than that, but speaking only in Chinese makes us vulnerable, which is how she likes it.
Her idea of being a mother is telling me I can’t make coffee, only tea. Or coming through the door at 5 a.m. to tell me the reason I’m tossing and turning on my geriatric bed is that my blanket from my home country isn’t pure cotton.
I’ll give her credit and say that Zhao Tao does outdo herself sometimes, serving trays of prawns and cucumbers with Tsingtao beer and oil-doused meats from the wok. But when I first rode the elevator to the 20th floor and came through her double doors — she uses two locks because of the loan sharks — she looked wary. She didn’t say hi exactly, as I tried not to stare at the clutter, but smirked as I said, “Renshi ni, wo hen gaoxing.” The Mandarin-school headmaster left and Zhao Tao and I stared at each other like two creatures in a forest. My schoolboy lines didn’t endear me to her; she just glared as I reached into my suitcase and handed over a bottle of maple syrup as a gift.
In the coming weeks, my face was the gift that kept on giving — within seconds of seeing me, she’d derail like a train car of clowns into valleys of laughter. Even after my smile faded, after I’d indulged her for a few seconds, she’d cackle without end in sight, like how could she not laugh at my ineptitude and silliness?
But mostly, Zhao Tao cried. It started — my experience of the crying — on my second morning in Beijing. I’d heard that Zhao Tao’s husband had jumped from a high-rise, leaving her to fend off the loan sharks. Before that, he’d sired two boys with a hooker from Shanghai. I knew all that.
So on my second morning, I was prepared when I emerged from my bedroom and Zhao Tao intercepted me. I tried to tell her that I was going for a walk, but she held out a sheet of paper on which I could tell there was a serious cry for help. It was like when a mute sees you at the bus station and holds up a paper to read and jangles a jar of coins. Except as I read the sheet, in surprisingly intelligible English, I saw that Zhao Tao wasn’t asking for money:
“My husband was rich businessman and owned factory. He killed himself and he owed tens millions people’s currency. He cheater in the marriage and had the two boys with Shanghai prostitute who now live in the New Zealand. Please help me to find them…”
I stood crusty-eyed in the hall, in a clearing among the clutter, the 7 a.m. light pouring over the stained cream-coloured walls and into the glass-panelled cabinet — with its beer bottles, chopsticks and harmonicas gifted by previous lodgers, its broken clock, Clorox bottle, instant coffee, trophy — into stacks of string-tied paper in suitcases making a trail from the dining-room table all the way to the rice cooker in the corner.
I was trying to think of what to say.
For once, Zhao Tao was looking at me earnestly, with faith, like maybe I had political connections in New Zealand or my dad was a special agent. She waved around a photograph of two Chinese boys in rain jackets sitting on grass. Not wanting to disappoint her, I kept up my expression of intense concentration and she stared.
I wasn’t sure if she’d understood me about the walk. I still didn’t know where I lived, besides the room number. With Google Maps behind the Great Firewall, I was like a crippled bat trying to echolocate between grey residential towers, parking garages, hair salons, dumpling stands, pool halls, noodle shops, street-meat vendors and Homelink stores, all low-res in Beijing’s haze of exhaust and coal smog.
Zhao Tao said, “Go to… together” and put her sneakers on. I lacked the Chinese to tell her I wanted to go alone.
“Asi!” she called, which meant “the fourth” because he was her fourth dog.
The starving Shiba Inu bounded off the couch and Zhao Tao took her Abercrombie and Fitch jacket from the hook. She pushed open the first door and Asi jumped the metal frame, his hind legs and torso connected by a thin boomerang of brown fur.
As we waited for the elevator, I asked, “Ni zhidao Facebook ma?” as if trying to look for the boys on Facebook was a worthy contribution.
“Zhidao,” she said, but I remembered that I didn’t have a VPN.
Outside, all I knew was that we were walking in the opposite direction of the subway, away from old men playing chess on the sidewalk and legions of scooters with red baskets. We entered a residential zone and Zhao Tao ran into two ladies in visors. In a courtyard by the Capital Institute of Physical Education, a woman dashed out of a door with her toddler and wrenched his pants down, holding a paper bag between his legs. At an entrance to the school grounds, Zhao Tao said something to a guard in a security booth. He stared at me — the bleary waiguoren following around the Chinese woman. I wondered if they thought I was a male prostitute or some kind of indentured servant. I patted my passport in my pocket to make sure it was there. The day before, Zhao Tao’d taken me to the police station to get registered and we’d stopped by an apartment by her office courtyard. A Swedish man had answered the door in his pink housecoat and flopped down on his bed. He had the flu, he told me, and he ran a martial arts school. I took his passport in my pocket to the police station for renewal and decided I was never going to leave mine lying around.
Now I took it out, in case the guard wanted to see it, but he looked away and we hurried through a market alley with stands of fish and octopus. At the Construction Bank, as we waited for Zhao Tao’s number to appear on-screen, she took out a zip-loc of 2G SIM cards and a 4G. Did I need a 4G SIM? she asked. I nodded and she removed it from its plastic, but it didn’t work because my phone was locked. Give me the 2G phone the language school gave you, she said. She took it and changed its SIM and then called her own phone with it to find out my new number. I ignored the possibility she was offloading her SIM debt. After she’d seen the teller, we left and climbed an overpass to a mobile-phone store with plastic-curtain doors. She gave my Blackberry to a woman at the front desk, who started prying open the back till I protested, “Bu yao, bu yao!”
At the ramp outside her apartment, Zhao Tao explained something about the “lobby” or “downstairs.” I asked her to repeat it, but I still wasn’t sure. As a half-way point between going upstairs and asking her to repeat herself again, I sat on the cement bench in the lobby, meditating on my situation for a few minutes. She banged on the door and I hit the security button and opened it as sun-wizened delivery men hauled in crates of oranges. We loaded them in the elevator and brought them upstairs to room 2003. I untied my shoes and Zhao Tao immediately shouted “no!” It was how you reprimand a child who sticks his hand over fire.
I retied my shoes — slowly, to show my irritation.
“Kuai kuai kuai!”
On the city bus, we rode for 80 minutes till we were almost in the mountains. We came to an old industrial park with train tracks gone to seed. I wanted to go back to Zhichunlu, but we were crossing the concrete along a wall of empty loading docks with rusty orange corrugated doors. The air was brisk and the grass was dead and apartment towers loomed in the distance, ominous and futuristic. We walked down the wall by the train tracks and down a mile or two there was the odd dusty silo with trucks unloading cargo and groups of kids playing tag. I was about to plead with her when we took a sharp corner into a low-rise complex.
Inside an apartment, Zhao Tao gestured for me to sit on a couch. The place was clean, with a tray of nuts on the table and one of oranges. Through a crack in a door I saw a young curly haired girl lying on a bed. I assumed it was Zhao Tao’s daughter’s daughter. I asked Zhao Tao if it was her nuer’s nuer and she said yes.
A woman came through the front door with her toddler son, who roared around laughing at everything. The woman offered me an orange. She was pale and gentle, with large hooded eyes. She was younger than Zhao Tao and stood meekly as Zhao Tao yelled at her. Her son bounced on his bed in the other room, laughing maniacally till she turned on the cartoons. There was a knock at the door and the women stopped talking. A stout, tanned man with gold-rimmed glasses and a large belly pressing into a tucked-in t-shirt entered. He walked over with a cane and hovered above me, saying something I didn’t understand. He kept smiling, trying to speak to me until he gave up. He rested his cane against the wall and sat in the loveseat beside the couch Zhao Tao and I were on. They began to speak and she showed him a document. Their words turned into a tug of war and she sobbed and started to cry. The pale woman offered me a tray of raisins. Zhao Tao pleaded to the man and her pleads became cries, but his voice grew louder until he was yelling. He slapped his hamstring. He was not to be questioned. They kept up their discourse until he slapped his hamstring again and slapped the document and Zhao Tao fell silent. He got up and tried speaking to me again, but I didn’t understand.
Zhao Tao’s mother came through the door and wandered like a chameleon through the apartment. She had gold skin and few teeth. She sat on the couch and touched my cheek and asked if I was married. She put her hands to her mouth and mimed playing the flute as in some bucolic ceremony. Her smile was gummy and vulnerable and she kept feeding me candies and oranges. On a pad of paper she drew hanzi of the mountains and something else. She wandered to the kitchen.
When we sat down to dumplings and beef on the bone, I pointed to a dumpling and asked if it was xialong, but no one understood. Zhao Tao gave me a warm bottle of Tsingtao and tried for five minutes to open it with a lighter. Xiao Jin (“Small Gold”), the girl I’d thought was Zhao Tao’s grand-daughter, was actually Zhao Tao’s daughter. She was acne-scarred and pretty. I spoke to her in a pidgin of Mandarin, English and hand gestures till it was clear she was fluent in English. After lunch, Zhao Tao took her daughter’s new red Honda Civic and we dropped Xiao Jin at Long Peace Street and drove back to Zhichunlu.
The next day at breakfast, as I tried to wash down a steamed bun with milk, I asked Zhao Tao how her daughter was doing.
“Nide erzi zenmeyang?”
Zhao Tao sniffled and welled with tears. I’d said son (erzi) instead of daughter (nuer). She started crying about her husband and the boys in New Zealand and I left for school.
The other homestay, five minutes away, was, on paper, run by Zhao Tao’s sister, the pale woman at her mother’s, but this sister and her family were always leaving town for weeks on end, so Zhao Tao cooked for both. The Yingguoren (“the Englishman”), as Zhao Tao called Richard of Cambridge, lived there with Nick, a 20-year-old Singaporean commando.
During the Spring Festival, I sat there at the dinner table with Magnus, my Danish roommate, Richard, Nick and Daria, a Russian girl. Zhao Tao was bringing out dishes of prawns, rice and Chinese broccoli. She kept toasting us and saying “your mother” and opening bottles of Tsingtao, grinning as she held court. She was telling a long gushi, but I couldn’t understand and looked instead at her old wedding photos on the wall.
“She says her husband’s loan sharks can’t find out that her sister owns this apartment,” Nick translated, “or they’ll make her sell it. They’ve threatened her the last three months. That’s why her sister’s never here.”
We were fascinated by our complicity in Zhao Tao’s secret. At the bars in Wudaokou, Nick and Richard often wondered why their homestay family was always on vacation — would return for a single night and disappear again.
“She says the loan sharks were at her apartment” — where I lived — “two months ago. They stole a pair of shoes from the Belgian student.”
So it was official: we were part of Zhao Tao’s plot to evade the loan sharks. I felt like this gave me sanction to complain, something I’d wanted to do from the second I moved in with Zhao Tao. Even if I pitied her on a technical level, she was always one stage removed from pulling me by the ear, or at least laughing at me with words I did not understand.
“The loan sharks operate in a grey market,” Nick translated, “so the police won’t do anything.”
I stared at Daria, who was unfazed and wearing grey sheer sweatpants that rode up her ass, barely covered by a matching DKNY hoodie. When she moved her mouth her craft-shop earrings would dangle. I’d grown used to drunken atomized Western students, and it was weird to be around a woman with dour Old World manners, who spoke Chinese but no English. All I knew about her was what Richard had told us: that she’d moved back to Beijing after a five-month hiatus, found Richard in her bed, and bawled for 45 minutes till she finally found the suitcases she’d left behind.
As we finished the cabbage, Daria kept smiling her spacious, catlike, Brachycephalic smile at Magnus, who was handsome and sprightly and had a Danish decadence, being able to booze till 6 a.m. and roll out of bed to impress someone’s parents over brunch: a state-of-the-art Millennial.
Zhao Tao topped my glass up and said something snarky. I assumed she was talking about me, because five minutes ago she’d said to Daria — thinking I didn’t understand — something like, “He doesn’t understand but the others do.” I looked away, willing her to leave me alone, until Nick said, “She said the oldest brother gets the last drop.”
I felt bad and Zhao Tao laughed at me. Hoping she’d stop, I looked at the wall, at wedding photos of Zhao Tao with her hair up, when she was even prettier than Xiao Jin.
I followed Magnus to the couch, which had a razor-sharp back and was more decorative than functional. I wanted to leave, to cross the courtyard back to my building, after six hours of Mandarin with my tutor in Burger King. But Zhao Tao said something like “polka” or maybe “poker.” I feared I’d heard her correctly. My friend has a solution for when people want to play some dumb card game: just force them to not to. But I could hardly talk about the weather with Zhao Tao, let alone maneuver out of this.
We cleared the table and I geared up for some typical Chinese card game where the dealing alone takes five minutes. As we seated ourselves, she called out the rules, pointing to the cars and chips. Only Nick, whose grandparents had spoken to him in Mandarin, understood. As he named the trump cards, Zhao Tao looked at me, slapped my arm, and said, “qu!”
I didn’t know what to do, so I put down a card and she yelled “No!”
I tried another and she purred “duiiii…”
After the first round, Magnus threw down his cards and said he had to Skype his parents. I wanted to go with him, but Zhao Tao pointed at us as though to dare anyone else to leave.
“Three is trump?” I asked Nick.
I played a card and Zhao Tao shouted “no!” and explained more rules. Before Nick’d translated, she was telling him to go.
She could see my cards! she yelled—as if this registered on my list of worldly concerns.
“Kuai kuai kuai!”
Daria spoke Russian on her phone and passively followed prompts. She jogged back to her room, her porn-sized ass jiggling.
After round four, when we were supposed to have gotten rid of our cards, I still had one. Zhao Tao gave me the smile she’d been giving since the night I came through her doors — you’re so funny, and so stupid! Sorry, really, but I can’t look at you without laughing! She looked away a second, then cracked up even harder.
A student from Oxford who always wore a toque came to the door and Zhao Tao started making tea. I wanted to get the hell out, but they explained the rules and we played a practice hand. When I asked about trump, Zhao Tao barked something and slapped my arm.
“Yelling is not going to help,” I said in English.
She said something and grinned. I looked at the Oxford guy. I wanted to kill myself.
He said, “She says you’re very peaceful.”
The Chinese New Year came. Firecrackers echoed through parking garages for 240 hours straight as my chest compressed like a tin can in a wrecking yard. There was nowhere to hide. One morning I came through the bathroom door and saw Zhao Tao on the toilet and I dodged back and tried shutting the door, but the handle crashed on the tiles. I tried attaching it but this pushed the door open more, so I put the handle on the floor and tiptoed off.
Zhao Tao came through my door with a phone charger as I was late for school. She dangled it as though trying to induce hypnosis before asking me something that sounded like “mai,” which depending on the tone can mean either “buy” or “sell.” I forgot which tone was which, and why would she want me to sell one anyway? so if it was what I thought, then no way, I wasn’t going to buy her one. She waved me into the spare bathroom, the sewage-smelling one I used because it was farther from her bedroom. She pointed to a plugged-in iPhone with low battery.
“Do you want me to buy you a charger? Ni yao charger?”
“No!” She slapped her forehead.
“Do you want me to give you a charger? I don’t have an iPhone charger. Meiyou… iPhone… charger.”
“I don’t understand. Do you want me to buy you a charger? Ni yao wo mai ni zhege? Do you want me to give you one? Do you want me to… sell you one?”
She screamed like I was an evil spirit stymying her every breath. She left and slammed the apartment door after her. I went back to the bathroom to look for clues. Was the charger in the iPhone broken? The socket looked like the ghost mask from Scream. I pulled the cord from the wall and tried plugging it back in, but it wouldn’t fit. I tried jamming it in and it bent. A bead of sweat ran drooled down my neck. I started to panic. A fireball had leapt from the power-bar the time I stuck my adapter in. I ate a crumb of Xanax and left for the metro.
Class consisted of Fijians, Nigerians, Americans, and fugue-state Korean teens whose parents worked them like slaves, but who, whenever they woke up to utter something, were funny in the way that only Asian children could be.
I met my tutor at Tous Les Jours, a Parisian bakery across from Wudaokou Station, the same Kenny G song playing that played every day at this minute.
When I ran out of steam reciting bizi and erduo and the other parts of the face, I reverted to English and Chinese cultural observation — my go-to strategy when I was tired. Today I was not only tired, but terrified of Zhichunlu.
“I’m scared to go home.”
“Why are you upset?” asked Sun Wu. “Big Dragon didn’t say anything.”
Big Dragon was Magnus’s Chinese name, which Sun Wu used as naturally as if it was his birth name.
Like a barrister making his case, I sipped my cappuccino and related the iPhone-charger incident and Zhao Tao’s frequent crying, trying to thread my concerns about her behavior without any waiguoren resentment or personal weakness, circling in on the thesis that she was atypical of Chinese women, who were often modest around foreigners and concerned with giving mianzi, or face. My criticisms of Zhao Tao, I insisted, were in no way criticisms of the Chinese people, who were smarter, nobler, and more glorious than all the dumb waiguoren. But Sun Wu’s face wasn’t buying it. The day before, she’d told me and Big Dragon about the time she’d cried when her cousin fell from a horse to his death.
“You think Chinese women cry every day.”
Sun Wu looked at me gruesomely. I’d made myself a victim.
When I came home, the apartment was empty except for Asi sleeping on the couch. I checked the electrical socket — the phone was still unplugged. I tried to shove it in, without success. My phone rang — Asi howled at the polka-music ring tone. “The tutors want to take us all to KTV!” said Magnus.
We caught the bus as the moon flickered through a cocktail of smog, snow, and firecracker smoke. In a mall, we got a private karaoke room and collected stale buffet food. Sun Wu and Veronica, the tutors, brought along two doll-faced Chinese women. The women kept choosing Chinese songs that were soulful ballads about the sun and the afterlife and mountains, and it occurred to me that every single Western song, even the greatest classics, was just about masturbation, infidelity, heroin, or paranoia.
I went home to find the phone plugged in, and I never heard about it again.
The thing about Zhao Tao was that she could gnash your soul like a wolf on a lamb, and then lose her appetite. I got a new Australian roommate, Leon, the second Magnus left to go back to teaching in Shandong Province, and once, when Leon, Nick, and I bolted from a cab overcharging us and ran back to the apartment, Leon entered Zhao Tao’s room and flipped the light switch on like an alcoholic and started laughing. Not only did she not scold him for waking her at 3 a.m., she never asked him the next day why the hell he’d gone in her room at that hour.
I couldn’t diagnose the exact orientation of her consciousness: she was unpredictable. I’d been told I was unpredictable and had taken it as a compliment. But now it seemed that being unpredictable was what you called people who hoarded crap in their apartment and lived according to astrology and mood swings.
Leon was a balm to my soul — a 25-year-old from Brisbane who acted 35 and was grey-haired like he was 45. He’d tried registering at the police station under the Chinese name “Grey Fox,” but his tutor wouldn’t let him.
The day he arrived, we’d sat alone in the apartment and I’d red-pilled him on our living arrangement. Magnus was hardened to China and would just shrug off most of what I said, but with Leon fresh off the plane, I could talk all the shit I wanted about the loan sharks, the morbid skinniness of Asi, the stained long-johns on the clothesline, the E. coli-smelling fridge.
The Mandarin-school headmaster had told Leon to go to the other homestay with Daria and Nick, but he’d pinned up his Australian flag in Magnus’s old room and started playing underground rap. On his second day, we’d stomped down Zhichun Road to buy slippers at Wal-Mart as an express bus unloaded locals in visors and tracksuits. Leon, loosed in the Middle Kingdom after weed-fogged years waiting tables in the suburbs, crackled with energy that I inhaled like nitrous. When he didn’t like something, or even if he did, he’d cock his head and say it gave him the shits. His girlfriend in Brisbane was his misso. He took kips. He took everything in stride, like Zhao Tao’s mid-day bawls. After she scolded him a few times with a hand-chopping “no!” and he just laughed at her, it made her, for once, look around self-consciously, like a puppy who’d discovered another dimension of gravity.
Zhao Tao had more salvos for me, like the time she’d sent me a voice message saying to help her “ná dongxi” (carry things), which I thought was “nà dongxi” (those things), and I hadn’t met her downstairs to carry groceries, and she’d told me over dinner that I sucked at Chinese and would return to my country the same stupid imbecile.
And yet my Chinese did improve one night, mysteriously, after four weeks. At dinner with Daria and Zhao Tao, I talked about sleeping, going to school, singing, dancing, eating rice, and trying to stick up for harried women on the street. But, more significant than anything I’d learned at the Mandarin Academy or in Zhichunlu, I’d learned to read Zhao Tao — to never look at her unsolicited, to never let stray eye contact snowball into an interaction — to give her a constant stream of banal questions, like “Is this cucumber?” or “Did you get a haircut?” or “Do you still talk to Magnus, now that he’s back in Qingdao?” And she’d drawl out “dui,” or “hao de,” probably not even listening to what I was saying, probably bored that she wasn’t fiddling me like a joystick.
And when Zhao Tao was more docile, and more kind, she seemed innocent and sad and I felt dishonest, like I was cheating my way out of what I deserved. She was still crying about her husband.
I zoned out on the Buddha shrine at the window. A bronze urn with burnt incense leading to stuffed sea turtles and a bronze Enlightened One. Red plastic candles scattered around, fake palm leaves, a miniature skull birdhouse, a lighter. Xiao Jin had told me that the shrine had belonged to her father, who, she said, wasn’t a real Buddhist. I looked out the window at the Olympic torch in the horizon, shrouded by smog, as if we were in the mountains. In a schoolyard, kids ran around a track in navy, teal, and red gym squads as a teacher on a stage commanded them with a megaphone.
I took one more look at the Buddha and then left to catch the train to Wudaokou.
When I came back that afternoon, there was someone in my room—a curly haired lady on a cell, scowling at me through brown-rimmed, hipster glasses. Zhao Tao was in Leon’s room next door, squinting over a file folder, probably working on the court case for her husband’s debt. I always meant to buy her reading glasses at Wal-Mart, along with dog food to supplement Asi’s chicken bones. Were these legal advisors? I went to the couch and scrolled through WeChat, looking out the window at the red apartments, smog maroon. When the woman emerged from my room, I said ni hao and she looked away. They moved to the kitchen table and I flopped on the bed in my room, feeling smaller and smaller.
I went to the bathroom. Every surface was packed, the plastic tower shelves with band-aid boxes and combs, the vanity mirror with miscellaneous ointments, the dust running like water. I moved some eyedrops and empty tins of breath-mints to make room for my water bottle. I brushed my teeth. I put down the toilet seat and sat with my head in my hands, staring sideways at all the dials and remote controls, the plastic control panel to raise the seat, tilt it, heat it, activate the bidet. I took my clothes off, turning on the shower. There were buckets inside, maybe to slow the progress of water so it wouldn’t clog the drain, maybe to reuse the water. I turned sideways, waiting for the heat, so as not to face the door and the hall. (There was a glass panel in the door that from inside the bathroom was a mirror and from outside was a distorted window looking in.)
After dinner, Zhao Tao made Daria and me wheel suitcases to the other homestay. In the past few days I’d carried over the frame of a water cooler, a hamper with power tools, a table. I assumed that Zhao Tao just loved to leverage the able-bodied for things. Leaving the apartment without taking a chair? What was the point of that?
Downstairs, in her car, a bronze dragon statuette sat on the front seat. I pointed and said “da long” (big dragon), Magnus’s name. Zhao Tao and Daria cracked up in ecstasy. It was the easiest joke I’d ever told and I was a sellout.
After midnight, under the covers, I heard the melody of Zhao Tao’s sorrow. Her voice scratched and ebbed in an undertow coming through the door from the couch. I got up and listened. There was a desperation in her pleas that I’d never heard before. I couldn’t understand what she was saying except “dui bu dui?” (yes or no?) and “hao bu hao?” (good or bad?), but there was a rhythm, a higher knowledge, something ancient like the whistling of a mariner on a sinking ship. I took my phone out and recorded her for a few minutes as a memento, till I heard her coming down the hall.
On Thursday the U.S. Embassy reported a PM2.5 density of 260 micrograms in the air as I made my way to Zhichunlu Station. I hacked phlegm, passing an Uzi-wielding guard in fatigues and a hardhat, wondering what he was guarding, maybe a school or consular residence. I passed him almost every day with my book bag slung around my shoulder and he glared. Maybe he thought I was carrying a bomb. Maybe not. There seemed to be a hierarchy of guards in Zhichunlu, starting with the downcast parking attendants in Soviet-type caps and heavy coats who wandered the neighbourhoods or stood at gates, hands behind. Then there were the men in casual fatigues, maybe ex-paramilitary, who stood straighter and guarded expensive estates. At the top of the food chain were the ones with guns.
Across the street from the Pizza Hut building with “VIDEO GAMES” in purple letters, I turned onto Zhichun Road. You never got used to so many people, my eyelids screaming as the March wind blasted my wet hair, fanned my inflamed skin. I was short-circuited, rapidly aging, stopping and starting, dodging people, dodging vans, dangling wires. The Chinese thought I was old too — I never met an unmarried Chinese woman not getting hectored to marry up.
Up in the distance near Zhichunlu Station sat a short, leather-faced man in a wheelchair. His shopping cart always contained a clove of garlic, but its contents otherwise changed daily as he shifted down the street. Today, he sat squinting at a newspaper, a few metres closer to the subway and the Tencent building than yesterday, a television with a smashed screen at his feet.
I breathed in an exhaust cloud and started heaving back and forth, grabbed the concrete wall: could I make it to the station? My tutor rode out on her bike under the subway overpass and I put my hand out to her, trying to look approachable between my gagging as vertigo ripped through my hindbrain. I waved again and she didn’t see me. It wasn’t her. I saw her every day in noddle shops and on the train, replicated enough in the 20 million Beijingers. I barfed on the sidewalk and huffed the wall, staring at little flyers for call girls on the sidewalk, licking my lips, seeing double of myself from an isometric perspective, my body slouching through Haidian, in the Middle Kingdom, in some mid-life stasis where I was delaying the debits of my youth. I stood up, wiping my mouth and peering down the shadowy passage under Zhichunlu Station, staring at the void of middle age.
I’d first come to Beijing as an eight-year-old, when my family stayed in the Kunlun Hotel. We ate breakfast in the tower’s rotating restaurant in the smogless sky. We’d leave the hotel and gangs of children would tug on my sleeve for blocks, cupping their hands together, wearing rags and cowlicks, Lenin’s kids. Under the bridge, a grandmother sat begging, cradling a newborn in pristine Curious George pajamas as the smell of sewage chased us run through the streets. And in Beihai Park a pigeon shitted on me and a wise sage came from the pavilion to tell me that according to Chinese custom I would one day be rich and famous, maybe a movie star.
I wanted to go back to sleep but Zhao Tao would have a lot of questions. I’d stopped sleeping completely. I kept hearing that Zhao Tao was gearing up to sell her apartment — which Magnus said was worth ten million kuai — so that she could move to the other homestay. That was why I was always carrying tables across the courtyard when I wasn’t drinking.
I was going to faint.
I needed exercise, but the one time I’d gone for a run with Nick, my nostrils had opened up after a month-long blockage, and the smell of fried food, sewage, and smog had made me not able to exercise.
The only exercise I got was dancing with the fuerdai in Sanlitun clubs whose lots of 911s and Spiders were the GDP of Detroit, where being a waiguoren got me free rum shots poured into a dice cup by a Nigerian promoter. I grinded through like a go-cart on the last drop of oil, rotors rusted, wheels wheezing, warning light blinking. Lubricants of caffeine (when Zhao Tao wasn’t looking), 4chan GIFs and naps kept my heart from stopping.
On the last morning of school, as I sat at the document-strewn table eating Shreddies from a dog bowl, Zhao Tao came through the front door with two men. I sat up straighter as they walked in front of her, stone-faced, mission-based. One, in suspenders, was Mongolian-looking and at least 6’5”. They stared at me. I wondered if they’d come to shake down Zhao Tao, but she was smiling.
The tall one went in the bathroom and I could hear him pacing, cigarette smoke carpeting under the door. I texted Leon to tell him the movers had come, that they’d be entering his room, where he kept his cash. Zhao Tao got in the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat and started yapping on the phone. I knocked.
On Saturday morning, the screech of a power-drill bore into my watery skull. A car horn blasted as white light poured through the swathe of drapes detached from the rungs. A man was shouting at Zhao Tao and laughing. I sat up against the bedpost, predicting possible arcs of puke hitting the trashcan. Half the books on the wall, mostly Chinese texts and pirated Western novels, had disappeared at some point.
Leon texted me: “warzone”
I went to the bathroom and tried splashing water on my face, but barely a drop came out and the toilet wouldn’t flush. I went back to bed, holding it in. I went to the kitchen, where men were unplugging the fridge. The dining-room table was covered in thermoses, binders, sauce bowls, plastic cups, a business card, greased rags, stale bread, baijiu shot glasses, med bottles. Zhao Tao doled out the leftovers of cucumbers and chicken to me. When she pointed to the thermos with hot water, I reached for a mug and a packet of instant coffee.
“Bu he kafei, he cha.”
“Weishenme?” I asked.
My tone was not incisive enough to communicate my displeasure. Why was she so against me drinking coffee? She mimed someone tossing and turning all night and I stared at her for a long time, letting a hint of ferocity creep out of my eye sockets, but it was nowhere near long enough. I was tired of getting health prescriptions from someone who fed her dog nothing but chicken bones, who kept a pair of moldy, ripped jeans on the kitchen floor as a mop, whose fridge smelled like a diaper.
Xiao Jin came in.
“Any idea when the water will be back?”
“There’s a bathroom on the main floor,” she said, “if you can find the superintendent.”
I went to my room, away from the prospect of a blackened squat toilet lined with cigarette butts in a cupboard-sized shed. I flipped through Conversational Chinese 301 and glanced at my phone. Zhao Tao came into my room.
“Bang wo! Kuai, kuai!”
A bespectacled mover with lumber-jack arms and a Budweiser shirt was heaving the maroon cube desk in Leon’s room. His face went flush and Zhao Tao rushed in with Xiao Jin. I put my hands into the mix and we snaked the desk around the door and hauled it over the metal ledge. In the elevator, facing David Beckham’s mug hawking cellphone plans, I conceded: Zhao Tao was stronger than I was. The sunlight chastised me as I came out in the streets of Zhichunlu in sweatpants and slippers. We hauled the desk down the ramp and the drawers slid out and Zhao Tao hit the man three times on the head, then slapped his hands three times. After we’d loaded it in the truck, I told Zhao Tao and Xiao Jin that the man was very strong.
Five hours later, after I’d taken a shower and Leon’d started packing to move to the other homestay, Zhao Tao made us carry over a bookcase. We angled it onto the streets of Zhichunlu past the parking-lot guards and strawberry vendors, fumbling and repositioning it for a better grip, laughing at ourselves: the sucker waiguoren servants. We carried it vertically into the Taiyueyuan courtyard, pretending to stick guns over the top like a waiguoren militia. The sun beamed into the park on a lady in a visor doing tai chi, her palm extending towards us.
As we walked back, I mocked the way Zhao Tao said “nnnnnnnnn-NO!” and told him about the time she’d left me with the vegetables cooking, come back, accused me of burning them, and struck me.
“Can you get the suitcases by the door?” said a voice. It was Xiao Jin, in front of the Homelink store.
Had she heard me?
She messaged me two minutes later to bail on dinner, my final dinner — and Zhao Tao wasn’t coming either. Leon was glad, but I remembered how it’d been when Magnus and Richard left Zhichunlu to go back to teaching in Shouguang. On their last day, Zhao Tao had driven us to White Cloud Temple and past Tiananmen and then we went to Sanlitun for beers. On the top floor of a foreigner bar, Zhao Tao kept pointing at me until she asked me to leave with her. We wandered outside a mall with an Apple logo and Christmas lights and wreathes. She told me to take pictures of her. She was gentle and ethereal, uttering a pleasant “dui” to everything I said, and I felt that she finally understood me, that we were skating through the night in symbiosis, in peace. Later, when she looked at the slightly overexposed photos on her iPhone, she laughed her head off.
Leon and I took the 10 and then the 4 and emerged at a mall with escalators bisecting an electronics bazaar. We met up with three Englishmen at a Nanjing-style restaurant and ate medicine-tasting fish. One Englishman said he had lived with Zhao Tao when her husband died.
“He designed the lighting in the Olympic Bird’s Nest. I noticed him acting a bit different in the weeks leading up to his death.”
After dinner, outside the turnstile at Zhongguancun Station, Leon told me about his tête-à-tête with Xiao Jin. She’d primed him on the new situation, just as I’d once primed him, since he was going to be living with her mother for five months.
“Mate, she told me her dad didn’t jump off the building. He was thrown off.”
When I came through the doors for my final sleep, Zhao Tao and Xiao Jin dispersed from the table, from the things they were packing, like ants making off with sugar cubes. Zhao Tao came back, asking why I’d returned so late. She told me to turn off the lights and said something about giving me a test in the morning. The two of them went to Zhao Tao’s room to the bed. I switched on my laptop in the room, silky with my fingers so Zhao Tao wouldn’t hear and run in.
At 6 a.m., the crashing of furniture and Zhao Tao knocking and calling out. Xiao Jin stood in the hall, apologizing. I was supposed to meet Leon at 11 for miantiao at the Hui Muslim noodle shop, but men were entering my room and picking up the bed.
Zhao Tao tried giving me another Beijing Olympics hamper, but I told her I had one. “I’m going to take a cab to the airport,” I announced, even if my flight wasn’t for 9 hours, expecting her to protest, to tell me to wait so she could drive me to the bus stop. But she gave a surprised nod. I could tell that she was a bit offended, but glad for me to get out of her hair.
I called Leon. He said I could come over and shower, hang out, so I threw everything into my suitcase. In the hallway, Xiao Jin and I said our goodbye. She smiled her intimate, secretive smile and said she’d see me at the other apartment before I left, but I knew this was the last time. I took my luggage into the hall and looked one last time at the mostly empty apartment, at the despoiled Buddha shrine by the window.
Zhao Tao came to the elevator with Asi. As we waited, she got a forced tremble in her voice and said “sorry… my husband” in English. Mei guanxi. Downstairs, the lobby looked like the storage room of an antique shop with her clothing racks and TV stands. I opened the security door with Leon and Asi fled into the street, though Zhao Tao stayed back. I wheeled my suitcase past the blue plastic parking tarp, down the jagged concrete, past the parking-lot guard, wondering if Leon, in his sweatpants, was mad he’d had to get up early.
We left the gate with Asi in tow and I wondered if we should wait for Zhao Tao to get him as he marked the bumper of a car. He darted around the corner. I knew that the dogs in China had more agency and survival instincts than those in the West, so I didn’t say anything.
At the other apartment, Leon gave me a plastic-wrapped hotel towel and I tiptoed through the bathroom and the mould-caked marble shower. I used a shampoo bottle with Cyrillic letters and a few drops left.
Back in the living room, I was about to ask Leon if he wanted to see what time the noodle shop opened, but the door burst open and Zhao Tao hauled in a bookcase with a mover, shouting orders like a football coach, their faces vein-blue. I wanted to say goodbye, but Leon told me to just leave. I hesitated and went to the elevator.
On the streets outside Taiyueyuan, the cars were in gridlock for blocks. At a magazine kiosk by the VIDEO GAMES building, a driver agreed to 120 kuai. I told Leon I was going to miss him and hugged him goodbye. Dust and migraine swelled behind my eyes as I reached the outer ring roads of the city and realized I’d never again hear the sound of Zhao Tao’s key in the door.
At PEK, the check-in counter wouldn’t open for five hours.
I hauled my suitcase, laptop and backpack through a metal grid and rode the escalator to Pizza Hut, where I’d meant to eat since coming to Beijing. Lunch was 80 kuai — more than I’d spent on a meal in six weeks. I sat reading Conversational Chinese 301.
I felt no relief. I knew I was leaving a woman behind who was a wreck on the scale of the WTC. I’d never tried to help her when she cried. What could I have done? Ask my tutor how to say, “Get better soon”? I could hardly talk to her about getting a haircut.
The waitress brought my pizza and I asked her, “Zonggong shi 80 kuai ma?” She didn’t understand, and responded in English.
I could fly home and access all the sites I wanted, buy whatever, travel anywhere, tell everyone about the woman I’d lived with in Beijing. I could do all this while Zhao Tao picked up the pieces of her husband’s life.
An announcement came on the loudspeaker for a flight to LAX.
There was one time that I reached out to her, though. I’d stayed home when Leon’d gone to the pub quiz at Lush. As I surfed 4chan, Zhao Tao came back to the apartment with Daria. She called out for Asi and laughed with relief as he ran down the hall from under my bed. I turned off my laptop and the overhead light, lay in bed, pretended to be asleep as she called my name. She and Daria cooked in the kitchen and, shortly after sitting down to eat, Zhao Tao started crying. The cries got more desperate, and Daria’s words didn’t stem the tide. I knew that if only I showed my face to Zhao Tao, she would laugh. So I got out of bed and went out there.