I shouldn’t be here, I know. Waiting for Samantha Jesse at arrivals. Especially not when she’ll sashay in here like a starlet, pull down her sunglasses and pretend not to see me, waiting ridiculously. She’ll smile at me slowly and I won’t be able to suppress the too-eager grin I’ve been working on keeping under wraps. And after I’ve failed to overcome that hurdle, I’ll still go to her and take her suitcase and wait until she gives me the gift of her arm in mine. I’m exhausted, she’ll say. Starving. And I will know what that means.
Outside, the taxi driver will think that my struggle is with Sam’s bag. Ben zhong? he’ll say, Ha! And I will redden just a little and think, Ta de hao. Lian wo zhe shu she de ren dou you niu yi ban de li qi. Even a snake like me—my zodiac sign is unfortunate—can have the strength of an ox.
Sam will interrupt us and tell the taxi driver to teach her to say hello. Her eyelashes will actually flutter. She will forget that I’m even there. And I will think of that hike I took a few weeks back, of how that old section of the Wall shed rocks right under my feet, how each step meant somehow slipping, hopefully forward. I’ll hear those rocks breaking loose and shifting underneath me and I’ll understand: they’re just knocking the dirt off of themselves. They need that. But it’ll still affect me. It’ll still make the climbing hard.
I eventually snap back to myself because she is finally here in the flesh, pulling down her sunglasses, pretending not to see me. And it all happens. More or less. It all happens pretty much exactly like that.
And then we are in the taxi. The highway into the city is immaculate and empty and lined with skinny trees planted by the government to hide the countryside beyond. How was your flight? I ask. Was the food any good? Did you get any sleep? Alright. Okay. A little. I suppose the platitudes are worthy of the long gap between now and the last time I saw her. But we know each other better than that. She knows better than that, or enough, at least, to not question whether I’ll answer when she calls me up unexpectedly in the middle of the night because she hasn’t noticed the time difference. To know that if she announces she’ll visit, uninvited, in a week, on this same phone call, that I will not be able to say no.
I see her eyes on the countdown clock. The Olympic Games will be in Beijing in a year. All of the taxi drivers are learning English. All of the old hutongs are being torn down. High rises, like the ones she sees in my neighborhood, are going up faster than they can dry, the structures cracking as layer upon layer of new cement is placed on layer upon layer of unsettled cement. I watch her eyes flick between them to the buzzing pink neon sign of the Korean bakery, the dingy plastic flaps protecting the cool air in the state-owned supermarket, the grinning face of Colonel Sanders on the KFC sign. I try to see it all as she must: dirty, hectic, much too bright. But still the place where I am. The only place she can find me.
That first day, I thought I’d see poor, rural, bamboo, sweet and sour chicken. I was not prepared for new or shiny, for the cosmopolitan businesses with English names, for Parma ham served with melon, the opposites bouncing up against and shattering one another. It hits me unexpectedly: could this be enough to knock Sam around, outside of herself, down from her high heights? And then I wonder, not for the first time, who has been maintaining those heights now that I’ve relinquished that role, escaping into the long lonely overseas assignment no one else seemed willing to take while SARS was still a buzzword in 2003.
When do we eat? she asks.
Upstairs, I live in a cacophony of blue: blue hardwood floors, blue sofa, blue blinds, blue cabinets, blue knobs, blue bed, blue night tables. The apartment came pre-furnished. But this doesn’t matter to Sam, of course. She laughs. Hysterically. Breathlessly. The laugh that used to kill me.
You told me, she says, but this is really something else, Tay. How do you live like this?
Maybe I’ve been here too long. Maybe I’ve finally accepted that the apartment is somehow aspirational. Maybe there’s this dragon. And here in my apartment there’s the blue of the sky the dragon is strong enough to fly through and then the blue of the water the dragon is magical enough to summon, and if my snake body could only grow arms and legs and sprout a fiery red head, I could take off across the sky and flare my nostrils at the world and even breathe fire if I felt like it. Sometimes I imagine it all happening right here in my blue apartment. But telling Sam any of that would be silly.
Food, she demands. Seriously!
I cook scrambled eggs with garlic and tomatoes, chicken wings with sweet soy sauce, and potatoes with eggplant. The rice maker’s light flips off, the steamy sweet smell of its contents dampening my face as I open the lid. We eat in the enclosed balcony, twenty stories high with a murky shot of Beijing’s lights below the perpetual smog.
The smog didn’t even matter in the beginning. The city was a mentor my first month here. I so believed in fresh starts that I dyed my hair black, became slim from all the walking, all the fish, wore zhongshan zhuang and mismatched clothing from the covers of fashion magazines that drew the approving nods of the women I passed on the streets. People even mistook me as Chinese from behind. And in that second before my face gave me away, before my accent presented itself, I felt like I might belong, like maybe this city could absorb me into its millions and free me from the person I had been. No, let’s not use generalizations to justify our behavior, Taylor: the person that I had allowed myself to be because of Sam.
And now she’s sitting across from me, playing with her chopsticks.
Do you need a fork? I ask.
No, she says, these things are fine. Of course Samantha Jesse can eat with chopsticks.
I flounder, drop a gooey piece of eggplant on the table. Sam picks it up with her chopsticks, gives me a curious half smile and puts it in her mouth, chewing slowly at me and my inadequacy.
There was a time when I would have reddened, felt the heat rising into my neck, Sam’s approval my only aim, the multiple poorly conceived plans for gaining it cluttering my mind, the snake in me finding refuge under walls, in the shade of silence.
I watch her stuff her chopsticks upright in her rice bowl, flex her hand. I’m surprised that I can even come up with the words.
It’s terrible luck, I say, proud of the nonchalance I’m able to muster, lifting another piece of eggplant to my lips.
Her face asks the question.
The chopsticks in the rice, I say, gathering courage. They look like ceremonial incense sticks for the dead.
She waves her hand distractedly over her food, batting away my words. Do you have any soy sauce? she asks, suddenly stick-straight in her chair.
Within me, I hear a shift, the crunch of moving rocks. I rush to cover the sound with words.
What kind? I ask, too quickly, waving to a line of bottles in the kitchen.
Regular, she says, Jesus! and looks at me the way she always has, somehow teasing and exasperated all at once, the look that says, You’re being ridiculous, Tay; I need you to just do this for me.
I walk to the kitchen, hesitate over the bottles. I know that I shouldn’t, but there I am walking back to the table with the one I know she’ll like least, half hoping she’ll wake up bloated tomorrow, half regretting the complaints she’ll heap on me if she actually does.
We eat in silence after that. Always the bustle before the lull. How long had I convinced myself that it was comfort rather than indifference?
I watch Sam take to chopsticks with the same skill she took to sculpting in college, her pieces in actual galleries by junior year. I see her assess the skyline and find it wanting, just as I must have appeared at The Mooney Gallery, squinting clumsily at what appeared to be a hunk of fluorescent excrement on a pedestal. Sam didn’t say hello when she approached. She sighed softly in my direction instead.
What do you think? she asked, actually seeming to want to know.
The subtlety of her coolness, the way that it couldn’t catch you off guard because it was such a natural extension of her body, made me want to find the right answer, the one that would make me perceptive rather than eager to please, the words that would make me worthy of holding her attention for just a bit longer.
I can’t remember what I said, only that I somehow stifled the question mark that normally completed my statements. And her reaction, of course. Sam laughed, gaspingly, something I only realized was good when she slipped her arm in mine and guided me through the rest of the gallery. I truly believed that I approved when she told me the sculpture was hers. I remember wanting very badly to see things new, the way she seemed to.
I try to do that now, watching Sam still fiddling with her rice. Whether my stare carries any weight, I do not know. Her eyes move out the window to Beijing and I watch Sam reorganize the buildings, shuffle them to her liking as if they are her own private Legos. I wonder if we would’ve played that game together as children. I assume she was shiny then, too. Would it really have been any more innocent a game than the ones we play as adults?
I wake up on the couch, somehow, Sam passed out next to me. I am noisy. I boil water, scatter tea leaves in the pot, take my cup to the balcony and let the door squeak shut behind me. The retirees are doing tai chi in the concrete park below. I feel the warmth of the tea through the ceramic. They do this every morning, ignoring the choke of people, the heat reflecting off of the concrete and glass, the confusion of bicycle bells and car exhaust. They turn it all into something else. They churn the air into water, they sweep the water into waves, their muscles tense against the strain. They push it all away and pull it all back in, every morning I’ve been here, every day I can remember. This and the tea are working.
As if on cue, I hear Sam moving inside. I have to look away, back in on my apartment, where the walls are covered with tiny cracks that seem to grow each week. I focus on my breathing, feel the oxygen entering my lungs, leaving my body. I focus on the warmth in my hands.
She announces herself with an exaggerated yawn. Where to? she asks, yawning a second time.
My mind has moved into dangerous, theatrical territory. I try to choose my words carefully, but find myself mute instead.
Sam does that thing with her eyes—the somehow sweet eye—before she slides off the couch and up beside me in one impossible move.
I want that duck, she says. The one that’s famous here? I bet you know the best place.
She smiles at me goofily. Of course she does. And I find myself smiling back.
We take a pedicab through one of the few remaining hutongs, the four-sided houses wedged against each other, the alleys narrowing, their stones closing in on each other. I feel claustrophobic somehow. We see girls giggling together, cooking over an open fire, a husband and wife selling fruit under an umbrella, two women in pressed suits on bicycles, a group of friends slapping cards on the ground, exchanging money, a woman washing clothes in a shallow basin on the ground. Sam focuses her camera, lets the woman see her push the button, watches as the woman heaves herself up, shakes her fists, yells curses. Our cyclist stands on his pedals and spits at the ground while Sam finds a cat to photograph. All that I can do is talk to the driver.
He knows the restaurant and soon we are pulling up to the smell of Peking duck overwhelming the tiny alley. I close my eyes and take it in. When I open them Sam is staring at me.
Inside the old house and its tiny bedrooms divided into dining areas, Sam is staring at the place, too. Sideways.
It’s kind of dirty, Sam says.
It’s also kind of famous, I want to say. Jacques Chirac has eaten here, Bill Clinton, too. I order rice wine instead. And again, I don’t warn her. What is wrong with me? Here I am, letting this happen. She really should know, I tell myself. And even then, I just watch her swig a mouthful and choke. There’s baijiu dripping out of her nose and neither of us can keep it in. We buckle over, filling the whole place with laughter.
Sip, I say, too late. Sip!
The people around us are staring or laughing along. Some of them are offering up napkins, slapping the half-choking, half-giggling Sam on the back.
Oh god, it burns! she says, suddenly serious, waving her hand in front of her face. She looks me straight in the eye. You know, it really is very impressive, she says. All of this. You live here. You survive.
For just a moment she holds my gaze in hers. I want to smile, to take the compliment, before she looks away. But inside me, stones teeter, one slipping from its place. The others fall in succession, rippling over each other, smashing each other to dust, the sound ringing in my ears, any chance of finding the right words lost. I still do not know which is worse: her approval or her indifference.
I call for the waitress in Mandarin. I chat to the pedicab driver in Mandarin. I escape into the melody of the tones, the sharp staccatos, the polyphonic rhythms of my voice, the driver’s replies, his feet on the pedals, the bumps in the road. I let the dips and curves soothe me and close my eyes against the sight of Sam beside me.
The pedicab stops in Wangfujing, and I finally open my eyes. Sam is looking at me with something that could be concern or pity. I pay and step into Wangfujing and show her what I know. This, I say, pointing to a fashion runway set up in the pedestrian zone. And this, motioning to the crowd eating hamburgers inside a fast food place. Here, the Chinese eaves of a western skyscraper’s roof under construction. And that, stopping to listen as a group of schoolgirls play heavy metal on traditional stringed pipa. Here, I say, leading us into a glass-fronted mammoth in which everything gleams gold, in which the brilliant reds, the kelly greens and cobalt blues twinkle, a pandemonium of color.
But Sam’s eyes have gone dull. I’m not even sure she’s heard me. Here she is, running her fingers along the store’s merchandise, carelessly, my unguarded reverence ineffectual against her fortitude, her capacity for warmth confined to milliseconds, her fleeting affection encased in towers more worthy of war than tourism. She looks distractedly around the building. I watch her eyes go up the stairs that wind around the circular interior.
I want a necklace, she says. One of those jade ones.
She starts up the stairs alone and turns to look at me.
Are you coming or not? she says, staking her claim.
I follow, I will admit it; I do. I follow her past the pearls, past the amber, past the coral. I follow her all the way to the far end of the third floor gallery. I’m right behind her when she picks up a pendant, decides in a moment on its perfection. I compose myself against the anger flushing my chest, creeping up my neck, threatening to give me away.
Get it for me? she says, her intonation only rising to form the husk of a question as she turns to look at silver bracelets. Her interest has already receded, of course, and I am left to find the words in another language, to get into a heated haggle over the necklace, to walk away from the saleswoman three times to get my price. I don’t know where it comes from, really, but I end up slapping the pendant into Sam’s hand as I walk past her to the exit.
Her composure breaks, her voice too high when she calls for me to wait. I let her follow me for once. There’s one last place. The sky there is blue and there are dragons.
I ignore the people streaming from the subway stop. I ignore the guards and the shrine to the workers. I ignore the too-large expanse and the too-stern stones of Tian’anmen Square altogether. I look to the sky, and the kites comfort me, for just a moment.
I search the birds and the butterflies for my dragon. She is there, haughty and red, with ludicrously long whiskers, bulging eyes, that puzzling half grin, the one that both tempts and menaces, the one that could be inviting you in for tea or a massacre. And she is not alone. Two vendors are competing for sales. The blue snake climbs higher. The wind catches its silver scales.
I search out the vendors holding the strings below and find them taunting each other, punctuating their barbs with shared laughter, losing their balance as the wind becomes stronger, as their struggle takes on higher stakes. A small crowd has gathered around them. The snake gains ground. The dragon climbs to steeper, more perilous heights. It doesn’t stop. Of course it doesn’t stop. And of course Sam wants the dragon.
I shake my arm free when she grabs it with the request, still watching the vendors. One has finally yielded, is pulling his now-battered kite in, all humor gone from his face, his once playful taunts now reproach. I want to tell him it gets easier, more bearable, the pain eventually muting itself, the promise of something unexpected always possible. But we would both know it’s a myth—a magnetic myth, sure, but still a myth.
There’s that dramatic swell again and the realization that I’m ridiculous enough to see signs in the sky, but it’s about damn time that she knows. I hope that my nostrils are flaring. I hope I can get that close to the dragon, at least.
You hurt me, I say, all the time. I’m standing right beside her, still too scared to look her in the eye. I wait for the shock to wear off. I wait for some emotion to register.
I know, she says. I know.
I turn to look at her without thinking, but I can’t read anything in her face. An idea comes, and then the words, and somehow it’s so easy, so much easier than I ever thought.
I can book you on a group tour to Shanghai? I say. You’ll be with English speakers. Your return flight leaves from there?
Sam doesn’t respond. Her eyes have moved to the ground and she’s actually kicking her feet. The crowd flows around us, an inconvenient island, the smell of sweat mingling with sunscreen in the air. She reaches for my hand. Whether she’s asking for forgiveness or just needs help getting home, I don’t know. But there’s something in the waves of people, something in the ripple of the air around me, and somehow I don’t even try to find out.
Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.