Ron Riekki has an MFA from Brandeis University, an MFA from the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. from Western Michigan University. His books include U.P. (Ghost Road Press), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press), and many other publications, including plays and chapbooks. His Web site is rariekki.webs.com.
We're in Chengdu. Except we're not in Chengdu. We're far from it. We're in Shaman. Except that's not how you spell it. That's not even how you pronounce it. That's how I pronounce it. We drove all the way from Shanghai, leaving behind 36 degrees Celsius misanthropic heat and a city plagued with roads. Until we got to where there were no roads. And then we made our own.
I'm with Coco, except her name isn't really Coco. Coco is the main character from her favorite book, Shanghai Nights, a book banned in China, so I don't know how she's read it. Her real name's Fang. I told her how much I loved her name, her real name (not Coco, which makes my eyes roll), and she thought I was saying 'I love you,' telling me, "It's too soon for you to say that." I clarified, but she said, "No, don't worry, you will say it soon." The aggressiveness of her flirtations made my lungs feel like they needed more air, her air. I told her that in America her real name would be very cool, very hip, very Goth, very dark. Everything about her is very. She said here her name is "very light, very feminine," that it means "fragrant."
When Fang goes home, she says it's all instinct, no reliance on maps. She told me to forget being rational, that American rationality had ruined me, has ruined America.
I asked if she'd ever been to America.
"That's not a very rational comment from you then," I said.
"There you go again."
She told me she was glad I was coming home.
"I'm not coming home; you are."
"No, you are too," she said, driving. A Vespa. She told me that it would look bad to the men to have me hugging her from behind, that I would not be seen as masculine if not driving. I didn't care. I told her I'd wear a dress; we could buzz through every small town in China and shock them into cardiac arrest. She said we'd be the ones arrested. I said I wouldn't wear the dress, but she could drive.
I didn't want to drive in Shanghai, or outside Shanghai. It's too dangerous. She was used to it, the lawlessness. I told her I'd risk my life for her, to see her hometown. She told me I needed to see China, that I still hadn't seen China. "Shanghai isn't China," she said. "Neither is Beijing. Beijing is more uncivilized, more Chinese, but it's not China. It's still West. You need to get away from the West." So we headed East, sleeping in hotels that in the States wouldn't qualify as hotels, but they were so cheap they were basically free, although by Western standards these weren't hotels as much as broom closets for rent. One night along the road we even slept on carpets we'd brought just like I'd seen the homeless do in Shanghai. Although technically there aren't any homeless in Shanghai, but I've seen them whether or not they "exist." The night on that carpet was so loud it was like the world was angry, the buzzing.
"Insects," she said, "I think you call them grasshoppers."
"Those aren't grasshoppers," I said. "Nothing sounds like that in the States. Nothing sounds like that anywhere." Deafening.
We drove the Vespa up to the farm, its motor near silent, my back brutalized.
There was no farm to the farm. There was no house to her parents' house. It was boards "made from beds," she said, "old beds." Whose? "Thrown away," she said, "the rich."
"They have rich people here?" I asked.
She added, "And twigs."
There were no doors, no floors. There were two rooms. She would sleep with her parents. I would have the back room.
Her father and mother were lying on the floor. They didn't get up. "This is strange," Fang said. "Bad."
"Sh," she said, and I was waved out of the house.
An argument started, in Chinese. I could understand nothing, just the nasty tone. I was told that Chinese speak this way, that if you think a fight is happening between people here, that it isn't; it's their natural way of speaking, linked to the Communism swimming inside them. I listened. I was sure it was an argument, but I wasn't sure. I looked into the green around the house, the jungle an angry green, a Creepshow feel to the woods, as if they would come alive and pull me in. I stepped backwards, closer to the house, near the door that wasn't a door. I could hear every word, but they all meant nothing to me, the complex shifts and pinpointed pronunciations. Fang sounded more Chinese than she ever had. In fact, in Shanghai she sounds French. I'd even ask her, "Did you just say ça va?" "What's that?" she'd ask. "Nothing." But here it was a different Fang. Her pitch changed, more masculine, aggressive. I tried to peek in the door, so only she would see me. I could see her back, her animated gestures. I caught something in the window, her mother looking at me, wordless, an intensity to her gaze, nothing of Fang in her, as if Fang had no mother. Maybe she didn't. Fang came out, pulled me into the room, ushered me past them into the sole spare room.
The room was barren. There was a broom made out of twigs and leaves. There was a lamp, Coco said, pointing to a latch in the roof. She opened it up and light came in. She closed it again.
"It works at night too," she said. "You'll see. The moonlight is powerful here. The moon, here, powerful." I loved how she repeated words. There was a magic in it. She was French again, my Fang. "Don't worry." She must have seen something in me, something I didn't know I was revealing. "They can't speak a word of English. Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
"Yes, ling." She faced towards the non-door to the other room. "Fuck you and go fuck yourself you ass-face asses." She turned back to me, her arms so thin, legs so thin, not the type of girl I would ever fall for in America; every past girlfriend was always shapely, even fat, and I liked it. But not Fang, raised on meals all under ten RMB. I wondered if I was desperate in Shanghai, if any attention from any girl would make me commit and she was just the first. Too late. My heart already had a rash for her, a deep abrasion across my coeur, my core, for this woman.
She crept into my arms. I held her so strangely, her face in my belly button, me towering above her, not able to truly ever hug her standing. She let go. There was nowhere in the room, this vacuum of a room, vacuous. So little. Fang rushed out. I would normally have followed, but I felt like an intruder. I examined the dirt, the ants, so slow, tired ants. I would sleep with them tonight. They would crawl over me as if I didn't exist on any level beyond wood, rock. She came back, spread out my carpet. "Bed," she said and winked. "Are you hungry?"
"They'll cook for you tomorrow. Beef noodle." I must have given a look of approval. "It's not what you think. Not the beef you know. Cow stomach. It tastes like squid, fossilized squid. I love it, barbecued. You'll hate it." She dug into her knapsack, pulled out a pink dress, slapped it to my chest. I held the dress like a dead bird. "And not noodles like you're thinking, not like Shanghai. Real Chinese food." She could sense the subtlest wince, the smallest tension in my body. In every relationship, there's typically one person like this, the one who can sense the other too well. And the one who is clueless—that's the one who'll be lost in the end.
I felt the ring in my pocket. I'd touched it four thousand times on the trip, always sure it had fallen out, would fall out, a paranoia really. Even when I slept, I slept on it, on that pocket, so it would press against my side, so a robber would have to shove me over in my sleep to get to it. Eighteen karat, shipped from Phuket. Too many RMBs to tell her about, a year of childhood meals for her in that one ring. She would snatch it from me, hold it to her heart, very clichéd, my imagination, but what I hoped for. I couldn't give it to her tonight though. I'd pictured her parents at the door, an actual door in my dream, their smiles in my dream, smiles like doors to their hearts, so many smiles and doors in my dream, but this? No, I would wait.
"Put on the dress," she said. "You can't be in those stinky durian clothes you've slept in. Not with my parents in the other room."
"And a dress is better?"
"I'm going to wash your clothes. In the river. Hang them to dry. You cannot bounce around here naked. You'll offend them."
I studied her.
"I'm serious," she said. She slipped up to me, whispered in my ear, bit the lobe, "Put on the dress."
"I was joking," I said.
She waited. She touched her nipple, circled it, the outside, through the clothes, but you could see its outline. I wondered if there would be some added benefit if I put on the dress, if she would pay me back in some way.
I took off my shirt, my shoes, my pants, my socks. All the while, she talked, not looking at me, "Russell, from my office, the American. He went to that cheap mall, the one by where you first lived in Shanghai. He wanted to buy sunscreen, suntan lotion. He didn't know the words for suntan lotion. He forgot his Chinese-English dictionary. So he asks random employees, 'How do you say suntan lotion?' None of them speak English. This is a cheap store. You want English, you go to an expensive store. He goes to the cheap store. So he sees an Australian, the only Caucasian in the entire store. A man with a long line on his face, like this." Fang traces a finger down her cheek. She sees I still have my underwear on. She uses the same finger to wave for me to take them off. I throw them to her. She doesn't catch them. She motions for me to put the dress on. I do. "The scarface Australian says he speaks Chinese, he'll write down 'Please may I buy some suntan lotion' in Chinese on a piece of paper for Russell. Russell is thankful. The Australian leaves. Russell goes to the counter and hands them the paper. The woman behind the counter yells something in Chinese. Employees approach. A security man comes up. Then police come. They take him to the local jail. The note said, 'I am an American. Fuck China. I am going to rob your store.' They may send him back to the United States. Isn't that funny?"
Her father appeared in the non-doorway, the presence, the demeanor of Karl Marx, sergeant-like, with sadness painted throughout his skin.
I stood in a tight pink dress.
"What if I told you something?" she said. "What if I told you everything, wouldn't that be wonderful?"
The night was coming on like dirt. Shovelfuls of shadow landing on us. Her father.
"You don't make sense," I said.
"I go take care of your clothes," she said, packing them away.
Her father looked at my face the entire time she was gone, eyes like skeletons. A life filled with smoke and pain and dirt and floors. He looked at my orthodontic mouth, my suntan lotion skin. Then she came back, walked up, kissed me hard, long, moving the whole time, circles. Her father walked away some time during the kiss. It felt like our first kiss for a future eternity, eons of future kisses like this, and something submissive on my part to her, and it felt right.
She broke away. She tried to fix my dress. It wouldn't budge, too tight against my skin.
"What if I had a child?" she said.
"No, not with you."
"What if I had two?"
A snake appeared on the window sill, green. Fang ran into the other room, grabbed a makeshift broom made of twigs, and came back.
"It's gone," I said.
"Deadly," she said. "Very deadly. You must not let that in the room tonight."
"How would I stop it?"
She handed me the broom. "When I was child, the green snakes would come. I would see their shadow. My father would come in, pick it up by hand, and throw it outside. I would ask him, 'Are they safe?' He would say, 'No, if one of them bites me, I will die, very painful death.' I asked, 'Then why you pick up the snake?' He said, 'How else do you get rid of a snake?' I thought this was very funny."
She seemed to be getting more Chinese, almost regressing to her childhood, more doll-like, higher-pitched. I read an article about this, how when people visit their childhood homes, they can regress to traits instilled into them by their parents, take on new old personalities.
"You said you have two kids," I said. "The only problem though is that's impossible."
Something triggered memories of my childhood Christmases, strong memories, déjà-vu. How it linked to China, I have no idea. Maybe it was the green of the snake, a Christmas green. I remembered hating Christmas, not wanting so many presents, feeling like I didn't deserve them. The largest fights were always on Christmas, when our whole family was in one room—that's when the danger happened.
"You're Chinese," I said. "You can only have one baby in China. Or you'd get fined. Considerably." I studied her. I wanted to read her like she reads me, but she was stoic, a lonely dangerous orphan. I knew nothing of her childhood. Nothing. She knew mine in its entirety. Had seen every photo I owned. Tiffany, our black poodle, upside down asleep on the couch. Dad with his Rhinelander first place slow pitch softball trophy. My mother's high school photo, the beehive hairdo. Me with one tooth, Alfalfa hair. Everything embarrassing. I knew nothing of her.
"Twins," she said. "You can have twins, and that's legal. Or, I could have an illegal child. It could be here. Maybe I go to it now?"
I wondered if there was abuse in her past. She had worked at a foot massage parlor. I knew that. It was legit, she'd told me. Maybe it wasn't. She had a degree in Spanish from Fudan University. Or maybe she didn't. "That's 2½ billion people I can speak with," she'd told me. "Mandarin, English, Spanish. How many can you speak with?" She was seeing a Spaniard when I met her, a Spaniard from Italy, she said, where she always wanted to go, but he wouldn't take her, so she left him. Was that the father? Was there a father?
"I go now," she said.
"To my child. To my children."
"Here," she said, "There." She walked away. I followed behind her, through the sole large room, to the outside winds that had come from the desert plateaus. The night was here; I was caught up in it. She got on the Vespa.
I tugged at her, at her backpack. She screamed, a sound I'd never heard, a baby banshee. Her parents were in the empty doorway, both of them, like I'd imagined. I let go. She pulled away, rode off, bumpy. She stopped in the darkness, killed the engine, and her voice came from the darkness.
"Zhōngguó," she said. "Zhōng-guó!"—making fun of my mispronunciations in the past. She said you can't be in China if you can't even say the name of the country. I would just exaggerate the English bastardizing of the word, calling it "Jungle." "There," I'd said. "Jungle. Is that good? 'Jungle'?" "Yes, perfect," she'd said. "Jungle."
"Zhōng-guó!" And then the engine never started up again. She must have walked it into the shadows, to save gas, then started it up once she'd hit a pathway. Or maybe she just disappeared.
I tried to think of the little Chinese I knew. To survive the night, I needed to sleep indoors, with them, near them. "Dui bu qi," I said. "Sorry," I said. "Sorry. Dui bu qi. Dui bu qi. Dui bu qi, dui bu qi."
The father, if he was her father, went inside. The mother was seeing her first monster, this thing that I was, holding her broom, still holding her broom. I handed it to her. She accepted it. An acceptance. Something official in the way she took it.
If the father came out with a knife, I would let him put it through me. He came out with a dead grey shirt, a perfect fit for me. I slipped off the dress. They were bored with my body, my penis, my stupidity. I put the shirt on.
I walked inside. They let me, no hesitation.
I went to the back room, opened up the latch. The moonlight was strong. She had left me the carpets. I rolled up one end as a sort of pillow as I'd seen the homeless do.
I got ready for sleep, the strangest sleep of my life, a hard and angry sleep.
Then, in a corner of the room, I thought I saw the green snake, or perhaps another one, but perhaps the same one, returned. I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure if it even was a snake. I slowly got up, careful not to frighten it, and started walking towards the dark corner, to the snake, to see if it was a snake, walking towards it, to pick it up; I disappeared into the dark corner.