The alleyway leads north, away from the street where blue jeans drape over tables littered with cigarettes, imitation Barbie Dolls and plastic machine guns. From vendors slouched against brick walls, mouths hanging loose and wet in sleep. Away from windows shuttered tight against the dust and soot that rise from the street like a permanent fog.
It advances where shadows slope behind a wall built thick against conspirators. Where garbage cans stationed like drunken soldiers, caps skewed crazily atop overflowing rotted vegetable matter, amuse dredging rats.
Passes beneath towering metal cranes, silhouettes black against the morning sky, elongated beaks poised to tear at buildings and leave heaps of regurgitated brick and plaster behind.
It curls beneath fish gutted and split wide. Beneath pucker-skinned fowl and air-blackened slabs of anonymous meat lynched beside laundry on rusty wires running slack from window frame to window frame.
Winds past a woman in miniskirt, with thick, brown, stockings bunched about her ankles. Leaning against a doorway smoking a cigarette, watching without interest the entrance to the brick shithouse twenty yards distant where the alleyway ends. Where the man has gone to relieve himself, his semen still warm and sticky between her thighs.
In the shithouse the man pisses into a black tub too long neglected, tugs at his pants, changes his mind and hunkers low, slinging his naked buttocks across a jagged hole smashed into the concrete floor. Searches the shadows for newspaper to wipe his ass.
Behind the woman a small child cries out. She cocks her head, chooses to ignore and wraps her tired lips around the cigarette, inhales deep and discards the butt beside the cylinders of coal and sawdust too damp to burn, bought from a crooked merchant with rotted rat-teeth and now piled high and useless against the once red brick wall.
The child steps into the doorway beside the woman, tugs on her skirt and receives a slap. Moves away, rubbing his eyes, and squats beside the smoldering butt, his piss squirting through the slit in the crotch of his pants, splattering his black, road-toughened feet. He pushes on the crippled remains of a bamboo cart to right himself, then watches the man emerge from the shitter.
The man pauses and begins a grumbling deep in his throat, works the flem slowly to the back of his tongue. Sends a thick glob sailing. Pulls a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lights it. As he approaches, he kicks at a bottle missed by the shrunken relic who scours the alleyways for the two jiao return per bottle. Kicks it smashing against the shattered and decaying bones of a prehistoric bicycle where it tinkles like a distorted wind chime. Pushes the woman in through the doorway ahead of him.
The boy peers through the crack between the double wooden doors. Wonders at the whiteness of the man’s skin. Watches the white buttocks rise and fall above his mother.
Afterward, the man stands in the doorway and smokes. Looks at the boy and smiles.
Ni shi meiguoren ma? the boy asks.
Bu shi. Not American. Not anything.
You think you can fuck our women whenever you please?
The question takes Robin by surprise. Most taxi drivers want to sell him women. He pretends not to understand.
Fucking laowei. Fucking rich meiguo bastard. The driver smiles as he speaks. Watches Robin in his rear-view mirror.
In the reflection, Robin sees the driver’s tobacco-stained, intermittent teeth. He turns away and looks out the window.
The driver continues to watch him. Your fucking girlfriend is in for it now, he says. I know where she lives, and soon the police will too.
At his hotel, Robin throws ten yuan on the passenger seat without looking. Hears the driver insult his mother’s vagina. The doormen smile as they hold the doors open for him.
In his suite Robin stops and listens. He listens for running water, for music. For the sound of papers being shuffled.
Instead he finds one of her gloves beneath a sofa cushion. A barely used tube of lipstick in the washroom cabinet. Dark red. A colour she hated – he liked. He leaves these things where he finds them. As though she’s just lost them. Sometimes Robin thinks she left them on purpose. Telltale ghosts of past demands and transgressions. She’s been gone almost six months.
Robin thinks of going to work. Phones his office and tells them he’s sick. They try to sound understanding. Say they hope he’s feeling better by tomorrow. But both he and they are bored with this game.
He pulls a bottle of scotch from the freezer. Considers the time – too early to start drinking. Retrieves a glass from the bathroom and doesn’t bother with ice.
She’s been gone since the dinner party. At first only a couple of blocks. Now across the Pacific.
Robin hadn’t meant for it to go that far. For her to go that far. But he never knows when to stop, when to be quiet. Never knows where to draw the line.
“Helen has a new friend,” Robin had told their dinner guests. “Isn’t that right, Helen.”
She’d returned his smile with undisguised sarcasm and said nothing.
“Yes. A new friend. A boyfriend actually. Meets him for lunch – what – about once a week? Would that be correct, dear? Unless there are times I don’t know about. Are there times I don’t know about, Helen?”
Helen didn’t think their guests wanted to hear about it.
“Why is that, Helen? Why wouldn’t they want to hear about your new friend? We’re just talking about what we all do. How we keep ourselves amused in this god forsaken city. I’m just telling them one of the things that you do. This is interesting, isn’t it? You do want to know what Helen does, don’t you?”
“There. You see. They are interested in what you do. I think you should tell us all about your new friend. Why don’t you start with his name. He’s not just anyone, is he? He’s Chinese. A local. What’s his name, Helen?”
“Li Peng. The prime minister. Oh that’s very good, Helen. One of the things I’ve always loved about you. Your sense of humor.”
Robin filled his own wine glass, then everyone else’s, and lighted a cigarette.
Andrew cleared his throat. “Very nice wine, Robin.”
“I can certainly imagine why he’d want your friendship,” Robin continued. “You being a laowei and all. These Chinese do like to practice their English. How did you meet him, Dear? You never told me how you met. Did he approach you on the street and ask if you’d like to be his friend? Walk up and ask where you’re from?”
Helen did her best to ignore him. “The wine’s South African.”
“That’s how it happens, you know. But why am I telling you? You’ve lived here as long as us. The way they just come up on the street and ask for your telephone number.
“‘Hello. Where are you from. Oh, Canada. Canada very nice country.’ You could tell them you were from fucking Siberia and they’d still say ‘Oh, Siberia. Siberia very nice country.’
“You,” he said to Lorna, “with your blond hair, must get this all the time.
“Then the telephone calls start. Would you like to have lunch? Would you like to take me to a western restaurant? Would you like to come and meet my family? Would you like to fucking sponsor me to go to university in Canada?
“Has he asked you that yet, Helen? Has he asked you about helping him get to Canada?”
Helen glared. Robin drank and lighted another cigarette with the one he’d just smoked.
“That is what they all want, isn’t it? To get out of this fucking place.”
“Christ,” Andrew said. “Wouldn’t you? You can’t get anything here.”
“This place is far more interesting than anything home has too offer,” Helen said. “You both sound like you’ve been here too long.”
“We’re not talking about being a goddamn tourist, Helen. I, for one, would definitely want out. I think anyone in their right mind would. Unless, of course, you’re a member of the government. Perhaps your friend is, Helen. Or a PSB spy? Public Security likes to know they’ve got all the bases covered. Make sure there’s no secret housewives’ association planning to undermine the government. Planning to poison the minds of the Chinese public. Planting the seeds of discontent with malicious lies about democracy and freedom with their aiyees. Imagine hundreds of cleaning ladies marching the streets protesting, mops held high in defiance.”
“Don’t even start with aiyees,” Lorna said. “They’re simply impossible. Did we tell you? We had to fire our aiyee last week. It turned out she was stealing my clothes. Do you know how we found out? She came to work wearing one of my shirts!”
“I told her she should have asked for it back,” Andrew said.
“I couldn’t wear it after that. It would have been filthy. They wash their clothes in the canals, you know.”
“It would have taught her a lesson, though. Can you imagine? Running home through the streets in only her bra.” Lorna and Andrew chuckled lightly. Waited to see what effect their diversion would have.
“Or perhaps it’s me he’s interested in,” Robin said. “Does he ask many questions about me, Helen? About what your husband does? Why his company is really here. Does he ask about me, Helen?”
“No. I would expect not. That would be too obvious. Not to mention insulting. You don’t go to lunch with a married woman seeking attention and spend the time asking about her husband. No. I’m sure your friend is nothing like that. I’m sure yours is only interested in you for your witty conversation.
“I assume that is why you have this new friend whose name you won’t tell us. Seeking the attention I fail to provide because I’m working my ass off. I must admit, there’s some validity to that argument.”
Robin turned to Lorna and Andrew. “You must understand that. You both have jobs that keep you at the office until late every evening. Imagine what it would be like if you didn’t have a job. If you didn’t work. If all you had to do each day was go to the gym, meet friends for coffee. Christ, even the shopping is done for you.
“And I admit, I’m not perfect. Maybe I could make it home a little earlier if I wanted. Leave some work for the next morning. Not everything is so life-threatening that it can’t wait.
“But that’s not what I’m paid for. Not why any of us are here. They pay us to do our jobs well and fast. Why else would they pay for our housing? Give us drivers? Not to mention our salaries.
“But maybe that doesn’t matter to Helen. Maybe she chooses to conveniently forget about that. About where we’d be if it wasn’t for my job. If it wasn’t for my long hours. Is that right, Helen? Is it easier just not to think about that?
“Of course, then she’ll probably say something about the nights I’m out late that have nothing to do with work. The nights I’m at Minders, or Frank’s. But then, as you know, she’s usually with me. But maybe you choose to forget that, too. Is that what you do, Helen?
“And yes, sometimes I have the tendency to stay out a little bit late. Who doesn’t. If you’re having fun what the hell does the time matter? Especially with the long goddamn hours I put in at work. I deserve a little time to play. But I don’t have to tell you two about that. You know.”
“We all certainly tend to drink a bit more here than normal,” Andrew said. “Have to. Necessity. So bloody stressful. Can’t even …”
“But I guess Helen feels that’s reason enough to seek male companionship elsewhere. Not that I think anything’s going on. I know they’re just friends. But you both know how important face is in this country. Can you imagine what that would do to my reputation at the office if anyone was to find out my wife meets with another man? A Chinese man. Can you imagine what they’d think of me? The loss of face I would incur.
“But I guess that doesn’t really concern you, does it, Helen? You’re a poor neglected housewife seeking a little attention. A small token of appreciation from a member of the opposite sex. Anyone of the gender will do. As long as he’s got a penis hanging between his legs and makes you feel desirable. Makes you feel special. I guess that’s all that matters.
Shut up, Robin thinks. Why couldn’t I have just shut up?
Helen turned toward Robin and smiled. “There is no Chinese man,” she said.
Why do I never know when to draw the line?
“There’s only Peter Denton.”
That was not supposed to happen.
Some things cannot be taken back.
“And of course I fuck him.”
Robin awakens and wretches into the toilet. He drinks a beer standing under a cold shower, dresses and leaves the hotel to walk to Maggie’s.
Robin is sick. He’s sick of the marauding procession of rusty, faded-blue trucks and dull, yellow taxis that blast their horns as they throw coal-black exhaust into his face. Sick of dodging lengthy, ancient buses with disintegrating accordion mid-sections that block his route, of conductors and drivers screeching price and destination over scoring speakers in a never-ending sales pitch to prospective riders.
And he is sick of the beggars on the sidewalk displaying stunted and distorted limbs beside murky vendors who scatter across his path like mice, their stash of CD’s illegal and hunted by plainclothes police in semi-pursuit.
He cuts off Xinyuan South Road, walks down to the canal where fishermen have nets sunk low in the river, corners pinned down by long spider-leg poles. Robin pauses to watch as one fisherman drags the bottom clear where his net will lie. Swings a grapple in a slow and steady arc. Releases it to sail out into the water, landing with a small splash. Leaves the line loose while the grapple sinks, then hauls it in slow and steady as if he’s already hooked a fat round carp. Pulls the plastic bags from the hooks and then begins to swing it again.
The fisherman is old, rust-skin the colour of the grapple. Wears a Mao suit, a Mao hat. Now not so common in Beijing. He turns toward Robin as he hauls in his last throw. Doesn’t smile at first. Then displays sporadic, nicotine-teeth, and Robin is surprised to find the old man’s smile is in response to his own. He raises his hand in a half-greeting, but the old man has turned away to finish his task.
At the east third ring road Robin turns north, back up toward Maggie’s. Passes vendors of fruits and toilet paper, vegetables and posters, competing for the same coins hidden in passerby’s pockets. Passes shoe repair men sitting side-by-side on stunted stools like aged gargoyles, one hunched over his tiny, hand-powered sewing machine while a woman balances impatiently on one foot. Sidewalk urchins scramble about Robin’s feet like beach crabs on the bloated body of a seal washed ashore. Repeat the one English word they’ve been taught. Money.
Normally he ignores them. Pushes them away with his squash racquet. Or his briefcase. Doesn’t want the filth from their hands to mark his clothing. Today he places a few coins in their hands. Watches them scurry back to their beggar master where he sits drinking beer and smoking with his friends beneath the staircase leading up to a large western-style department store.
Robin ducks into the darkness and solitude that is Maggie’s. Plops onto a bar stool and orders a Corona.
A woman slides onto the stool beside him. She is short and heavy. Imported from the north. Mongolian.
She flashes a piano key-board smile and asks his name. “I like know you better, Roen,” she says.
It would be nice to believe that, Robin thinks. Just once, it would be nice to believe that.
Then he calls to the bartender and orders them each another beer.