Thursday, September 6, 2012

One Night in Beijing

I am a boy: young, vibrant, adventurous. No, a man: responsible, ambitious, proud. Boy or man, man or boy? It makes no difference. The point is that I have testosterone. In fact, I was raised by testosterone. No, literally. It stretched me out and made me 6 foot 4, it gave me a beard that only grows on the neck, and it gave me a voice to sing Slave Spirituals. But gifts, such beautiful gifts come at a cost, the dreadful cost of arming the awful organ that had lain dormant since the blissful days of childhood. And so began the days of my tribulation. I know it’s unfair to blame all of the hardships in life on a hormone, but it’s easy, and true. And if I am to pass one thing on to my posterity, one eternal idea that they can always use to remember their dad, grandpa, great-grandpa (if the world lasts that long), it is that Sex is a terrible thing.
How so? That is what my story is for, to show you, in the brutal honesty of a translucent confession, my bitter, persistent struggles against Sex. You see, I was first infected at Stapley Junior High, during my 8th grade year on October 15th. Sometime during the night of the 15th, I was invaded, evidenced by the horrible symptom known as puberty. And so, in just one night, I morphed from a quiet, mild-mannered and obedient child into a monster. But every villain has his hero, every Hyde a Jeckyll. For my testosterone there was religion, pure, holy and stalwart; the story couldn’t be complete without it. To understand my tribulation you must understand that I have experienced the war of these two forces. The battle-field? My torn body. Casualties? My divided mind. Faith vs. Natural Man. Passion vs. Conscience.  But this wasn’t Harb ’67, no six day war. No, the Israelis had God on their side; I was at the mercy of lesser forms. When I sat down at that dinner table the war had already been fought for 10 years. But I get ahead of myself. Let me bring you to the table of my affliction.  
Seeking experience, résumé fodder and growth, I sacrificed the road trips, hammock reading, and, more importantly, the companionship of my girlfriend to take an internship in Beijing. I had, before I set out, a sort of blind enthusiasm for my trip. I knew nothing of the company, the work, the coworkers, where I would live, what I would eat, and what to expect. But I boarded the plane with nervous excitement, hoping that the name I’d been emailing would be at the airport to pick me up when I arrived. Luckily, things went according to plan, and I met my summer boss for the first time amidst the hustle of the Beijing airport. After picking me up, he took me out to eat, where, jet-lagged and worn, I had only enough appetite to sit and watch him alternate between dumplings and cigarettes. That first night was a clue to his character. You see, my boss, like any good Chinese businessman, was a habitual smoker. I suppose it is the natural product of living in Beijing, a city that itself seems to smoke, blowing large plumes of toxic, polluted air past the tall, chimney sky-scrapers. On my third day in Beijing he asked me to visit the store below our office and buy him a pack of 泰山[1] cigarettes, “the ones with the gold top.” It was my first time buying cigarettes. My second week I confused his water bottle for mine and took a gulp, then gagged at the small swig of cigarette water. In his office, I liked to watch the smoke while he asked me about America. Like any good Chinese businessman, he favored the Heat over the Mavericks and Kobe over Durant. His greatest passion, other than work, was Ferraris and Lamborghinis. The smoke would make blurry zig-zags as he tried to explain to me that just because I had an American girlfriend didn’t mean I couldn’t have a Chinese one too. I tried explaining that since my girl was half Chinese, normal rules didn’t apply, but he didn’t get it. It was that conversation, repeated several times in various forms throughout the summer, each ending with my boss giving a sigh and letting out that blurry zig-zag smoke, that led him to call me up for dinner and brought me to a Malaysian restaurant in the Soho shopping mall. True to form, when we entered the restaurant, he walked right by the no smoking sign and up the back stairway with his shining roll of tobacco. I trailed in the smoke.
Red was the sultry color that glowed at that dinner table at the top of the stairs. My boss had said we were going to meet one of his old coworkers who would make a good contact for me. I quickly assessed that he had other contacts in mind. And there she sat, loosely bathed in sensual folds of red.  She smiled at me and I felt the familiar drums of battle sounding in my chest. We sat down. There were other girls present too, dressed in nondescript whites. I’d try to remember their names, but I never knew them. And why should I? They were nothing but contrasts; girls with some beautiful features and other modest flaws, simple imperfections that were illuminated in the glow of their red companion. My boss spread his legs and let out a stream of smoke.
            “Christian, this is my friend Hano.” He motioned to a man in his mid-forties sitting at the table. “And more importantly, here are beautiful women.  Does America have girls this pretty?” Surprised as I was by the presence of three 20 something women with these mid-forties men, I was familiar with this tactic. I tried for the diplomatic answer.
“Well, both countries have very beautiful women, boss.” The two girls in white giggled when they heard me speak Chinese.
            “He speaks very well!” One of them said. My boss wouldn’t be distracted. He didn’t want peace, he wanted me to war.
            “No, no. Have you seen Anita? You need to meet Anita.”
            He motioned to the girl in red who once again flashed me a natural smile. Following the gestures of my boss’s hands, I took her in. Her hair was done up in one of those ways guys always notice but can never describe. Her red dress was low cut, pointing to breasts that stood out like a mountain in the plains when compared to other Chinese girls. She had a thin, taut waist. She was made-up, perfumed, and brimming with pheromones my body ached to discover. But war can’t be fought without two sides, and while my body committed to its prey, my mind was on red alert. In desperation it threw out its defense against the subtle flirting: forward unavailability.
          “Oh, she is very beautiful. But I did show you the pictures of my girlfriend, didn’t I? It’s just hard to compare.”  To my surprise, the blow didn’t land. There were more giggles.
            “Very good! He speaks better Chinese than you do Hano!” Once again my boss set in, speaking with a determined grin.
            “Trust me, you spend some time with Anita and you’ll forget all about those American girls. Isn’t that right Anita?”
            She simply stared at me, her dark eyes reading mine. At that moment, I knew she could see the struggle. She’d probably seen it before. She could see the testosterone working in my veins, but she saw deeper. She skirted around the conflict, feigning indifference, knowing only an indirect approach could circumvent a religious boy’s main defenses.
不一定[2]. American girls are real pretty.”  Still staring at me, she reached into her purse and pulled out a cigarette. My conscience trembled at her counter. In such few words, Anita revealed that in addition to her tangible sexuality, she had a style. She was a modern day flapper, one of those bored and beautiful sex idols fresh out of Gatsby’s parties. Cigarette in hand, her gaze lingered on me for a moment longer before she turned away.
            “Hano, could you give me a light? And why haven’t we ordered yet? I’m starving.”  She let off a puff of smoke and shouted for the waitress.  
            The waitress came as requested. She was a young girl, no older than 18, with a short, plump build and weak presence. She seemed as disturbed by the three girls as I did, yet pointing to another “No smoking” sign that had been placed at the front of the second floor, she asked Anita and the boss to put out their cigarettes. Anita flashed a little smile.
            “Sweetheart, just take our orders. Let us enjoy the evening.” Anita sized up her challenger, detecting her insecurities the same way she had rooted out my weakness.
            The waitress stood awkwardly, but somehow gathered enough courage to make another stand. Anita ignored her censure and played to her femininity.
            “That is the cutest skirt you are wearing. I really like it on you. You are such a cute little thing. Just take our order, I’m too hungry to stop smoking now. Hano, hurry and order.”
            The waitress gave up the fight and took down the order.
            As soon as she left the three girls loudly joked amongst themselves, laughing over the waitress’s fat thighs and pudgy face. Hano ordered a feast to fill the table. It was a masterful display of Chinese taste; each dish standing with its assigned counterpart. Braised pork next to sautéed shrimp, peppered chicken with fried eggplant, lemon-grass fish and grilled zucchini. The diners were equally divided up into their pairs, boss with his white, Hano with his white, me and the red. I tried for polite conversation.
            “So, are you in school right now?” I offered in between bites.
            “No.” She scooped another helping of the pepper chicken. I was surprised by her appetite.
            “You’re working then?”
            “No, not really.”
            “So… what do you do?”
            “What do you mean?”
“If don’t go to school and don’t work, what do you do?”
“I sleep in late, go shopping, put on make-up and look pretty for nights like tonight. Then I start over.”
            “That’s it?”
            “Do you have a better suggestion?”
            “No, it just seems a little boring to me.”
            “Well, hun, in China that’s a better life than most. Women in this part of the world have to take what they get or they’ll end up like those beggars on the streets. Heaven help ugly women, I don’t know how they get by.”
There was a brief pause. She continued.
“Besides, what’s wrong with my life? I like the nightlife. I like going out to eat, and the parties and the fun afterwards. I get to play all day thanks to generous men like Hano here.” She flashed him a smile.
            “She’s a special one, that girl.” Hano said to me. “She’s not like other girls; she has a different air than most.”
            Anita gave a little smile. “Hano, Jean told me you say the exact same thing to her. Don’t tell me you mean it with me?” She paused for a half-second and surveyed the dinner table. “I’m full, isn’t it time for a drink? Waitress?”
            The girl returned and everyone at the table ordered 青岛[3] beer; I got a sprite. The waitress returned with our drinks and 3 cups with dice. We were to play a drinking game. Anita tried explaining the rules to me, but they got tangled in the language barrier. The best I could make out was that we were playing some kind of bluffing game, and that if I threw out random number I might occasionally win a round. Of course, those occasional wins were few and far between. Anita seemed annoyed by my lack of wins; she wanted to drink and my game play was keeping both her and me sober.
            “It’s not fair to play this when you are drinking Sprite. Let me order you a real drink.” But as much as my body wanted to take her to bed, both my mind and body agreed that drinking wasn’t an option. Religion had won that battle long ago.
            “No thanks, I don’t drink.”   
“How can a man not drink? How can you go through this world without drinking?”
            “How does alcohol help you get through this world?”
            “It just makes things—fun. Life is dull without alcohol.”
            “I don’t think so.”
            Exasperated, she gave up her push and went back to her bread and butter of forward sexuality. She pulled her chair closer to mine, teasing my inability to play the game. After she had finished her drink, she leaned her head against my shoulder and pulled my hand until it was laying flat on the table. There was no more conversation, only the electric sensation of Anita’s fingernails scratching down my forearm and over the back of my hand. 
In my young years, religion had sanctified the dinner table as a fort of defense. Into its four legs it breathed the virtues of love, honor, honesty and obedience, all topped with a sturdy rectangle of unity. You might think this personification eccentric, but religious boys know that the dinner table stands for family. At my family dinner table, Dad always sat at the head, his chair turned to face the open kitchen. Mom sat on the other end, constantly correcting my posture and growling because my dirty elbows were desecrating her table. Imagine how she would have erupted as the symbol of family slowly burned under the soft scratches of hands to forearms. Imagine how she would have felt? But my mother wasn’t there. Neither was my father, my girlfriend, or my friends. Even God himself seemed to missing from that communist country. Have you ever been completely free from social restraints? I was in that moment. Testosterone gained the upper ground, flashing images in my mind of the fun evening ahead. I wouldn’t be caught. One innocent night of fun, indulging in the soft skin and forbidden touch of a woman who would know how to please a man. But why stop at one? I could have her whenever I wanted. No more jealousy at seeing the skinny, feminine Chinese men kissing their girlfriends, no more angst poetry written to ward away lonely nights. And when the summer was over, I would go home, forgetting my trespasses in a self-imposed amnesia and then happily slide back into the circle of friends and family who would accept me back into their lives without the slightest suspicion.
We paid the check and walked downstairs to catch some cabs. My boss and his friend got in the first taxi and disappeared into the night. Hano and his friend went next. It was just me and Anita. The final cab pulled up. I was alone in Beijing, but tonight I would not be lonely.
            It is strange how in moments of extreme moral decisions the littlest events carry the heaviest significance.  Moving towards the cab, Anita leaned onto my arm and her touch reminded me of the girl who I really wanted at my side. My mind played out a montage of the past and future. There was our first kiss at Utah Lake and the pain pouring out in a hug before leaving to the airport and Beijing. I imagined our engagement and how beautiful she would look in the wedding dress. There would be children, bringing with them the hectic Saturdays, scrambling to ball games and dance recitals. I saw romantic evenings and nights sleeping alone on the couch. There wouldn’t be the excitement of the dirty, forbidden passion that Anita represented, but what I saw was whole[4].
            Anita was already in the cab. Her skirt had been pulled up to show off her perfectly toned legs. She looked at me with tired eyes and her vulnerable body. I pulled out a 20 rmb note from my pocket and handed it to her. She looked at the bill, then back at me.
            “What’s this for?”
            “Your cab ride home. It’d be rude of a gentleman to make the lady pay.”
            She stared at me and I knew that for the first time in a long time, she was uncertain of what to say.
            “Why don’t you come along? A real gentleman would make sure the lady made it home safe, especially at this late hour.” She bit her bottom lip and then added softly “I want to show you my place.”
            Her forward push was too late. The battle was over.
“Sorry. I need to get home.” I pushed the 20 at her one more time. She took it. I will never forget that look in her eye as I shut the cab door. It was a mixture of disappointment and contempt, the consequence of injuring a pride that had grown accustomed to invulnerability. Her car drove off. I walked off in the direction of my distant home. The street was quieter that late at night, the only traffic on the road was taxi’s whisking away their passengers to pubs and clubs and late night rendezvous. But me, I walked on to an empty apartment where I would open up a computer and make a phone call to tell a girl 6,612 miles away that I loved her.      

Our Engagement Picture

[1]  泰山: pronounced Tai-Shan. The name of one of the five sacred mountains. It is associated with sunrise, birth, and renewal. A fitting name for a brand of cigarettes. 

[2] 不一定: pronounced Bu-Yi-Ding. A common Chinese phrase that lacks a direct English translation. It expresses doubt and uncertainty.
[3] 青岛 pronounced Qing-Dao. Chinese second largest brewery. Originally founded by Germans in 1903. The beer is named after Qing-Dao city in the Shandong province of China.
[4] Whole: An English word derived from the old English word “Hal.” In adjective form it means “in an unbroken or undamaged” and as a noun “a thing that is complete in itself.” A fitting word for the end of a 10 year war.

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