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In the lobby of the Minzu Hotel, Second Night Clerk Huang glanced out through the great glass doors just as the foreign interpreter wheeled her bicycle past. He stared, fascinated. He knew what it meant when she left, late at night, wearing a short skirt. There were no secrets in China. He smiled and turned back to his computer.
Outside, Alice Mannegan pedaled down Changan Dajie. She flew past the cobbled sidewalks, the storefronts crowded with Chinese paizi, signboards in arty, propulsive italic characters: Happy Fortune and Flying Crane and Propitious Wind. Knives and shoes and beauty supplies, bicycle parts and baling wire, all screaming for attention.
But their metal shutters had clanged down for the night. The black-headed crowd was gone. In daytime the boulevard throbbed with renao life, but now the bubbling volcano of Pekingese and frantically jingling bike bells was silent. It still smelled like Beijing, though. The air was ripe, opulent, sewerishand thick with history.
Beyond the low row of storefronts she glimpsed the squat, massive official buildingsthe institutes and bureaus and administrations which lined the boulevard. Changan was the main spoke of Beijing's wheel. Broad and straight, built for parades, it roared right to the heart of the capital, and of all China, the Forbidden City. The Danei, people used to call it. The Great Within. And now there it was: the massive ocher bulwarks, the medieval walls, closed, faceless; all qi pointing inward, to what was concealed, powerful, and endlessly complex. Its entrance was crowned with the huge red-cheeked portrait of Chairman Mao, smiling down from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
Alice turned, skirting Tiananmen Square. A breeze rustled leaves above her head and sent an empty fast-food container skipping across the pavement. She glanced right and left at the sound. No one.
She pedaled harder, the summer night wind silky on her face. Past the great stone Qianmen arch, then south on Qianmen Boulevard into the old Chinese City with its riot of shops, restaurants, theaters. She veered off the boulevard, through the tangle of narrow hutongs. She loved this ancient maze of dirt-packed lanes. To her this was the true heart of the capital, not the colossal high-walled palace behind her. Here in the gracefully repeating pattern of silvery stone walls and tile roofs, Alice sometimes felt China in her grasp. Sometimes. She turned again, right, then left. Now she crossed the familiar intersection, with the old capped-over stone well in the center. She steered into a brick-paved, stone-walled alley so narrow, her bicycle could barely pass. There. The Brilliant Coffee.
The neon sign screamed COFFEE in English, English being very fashionable in Beijing just now, but of course coffee had very little to do with the purposes of this establishment. She chained her bike to the crowded metal rack. There was one door, painted black, and a row of windows sealed over to make the place appear closed. There were no signs of life. But it was Friday night, almost midnight, and Alice knew better.
She pushed open the door. Instantly she was hit with the pounding, insistent karaoke bass and above that the roaring stutter of a smoking, chattering crowd. Hip, dazzlingly dressed Chinese, fresh out of their cultural confinement and keening to be part of the exploding yangqi, the now, crammed in shoulder to shoulder. Not a seat anywhere, she thought, looking around. Hardly a place to stand.
Across the low-ceilinged room she watched a slight man with a closely cropped black head and antique round glasses take the stage and begin belting a nineteen fifties R&B tune. He lurched from one foot to the other, out of time with the music, swinging the microphone stand from side to side as he shouted out each syllable.
She smiled. God, she loved Beijing. Tomorrow she would meet her new client. Tonight was free. She scanned the packed tables as the horns took off in a smart, prerecorded flourish.
A man slid into place beside her. He had wide shoulders, a deep waist, and black eyes flat in his head. "You await someone?" he said in Chinese.
"Wo zai deng, wo bu zai deng," she shrugged, her intonation almost perfect. I'm waiting, but then again I'm not. "What about you?"
He smiled, pleased with her subtlety, and it warmed her all over, because it was an uncontrolled streak of pleasure that opened his ivory-colored face suddenly into something unprotected, almost innocentthough innocence, in a place like the Brilliant Coffee, would be impossible. People kept themselves well concealed in places like this. Which suited Alice fine.
He laughed softly. "I wait for you," he said. "And an outside person too. Imagine."
"Yes. An outside person." Behind his smile she caught the usual male reserve, the relaxed sense of his own racial superiority which always made her tremble with fear and hope and excitement.
"Please." He signaled with a sidelong glance, then turned and threaded through the crowd away from her, not leading her, not even looking back at her, but knowing she would follow. A waiter jostled past them with a full tray. She felt the Chinese eyes: Look, a Western woman in a short black dress, red hair, birdlike, freckled. She liked being noticed. It heightened the satisfaction of nights like these, nights she allowed herself because, after all, she was a woman and when there wasn't real love in her life she needed, at least, some attention. Nowa miracle. The man was producing two empty chairs.
"How are you called?" He leaned close to shut out the wall of music.
She answered "Yulian," the Chinese name she currently used for these situations. Yulian was an old-fashioned name; it meant Fragrant Lotus. It was a name that rang on many levels. The bound feet had been called lotuses, and there was also that famous heroine of Chinese erotic fiction, the Golden Lotus.
These allusions were not lost on him. He pressed his mouth together in amusement. "I'm Lu Ming."
A hollow-chested young waiter with a sharp, acne-cratered face materialized. "Bai jiu," Lu Ming told him, slang for the steamroller 120-proof rice spirits popular in China. Then he turned to Alice: "Unless you'd rather have a"he interrupted his Chinese to try to pronounce it the English way"Coca-Cola?"
"Bai jiu ye xing," she answered. Good, she thought, rice spirits, one shot, maybe two. It was better to be high. "Good. Bai jiu."
The spirits arrived, clear liquid in two tiny glasses. Lu Ming toasted their friendship with a standard phrase, and then added, "Gan-bei," dry glass, and they both drained it and laughed. The fire burned through her stomach and rose instantly to her head. How long since she'd eaten?
"What are you doing in Beijing?" Lu Ming asked, circling his empty glass on the wet tabletop.
She paused. Sometimes she invented professions; tonight, on a whim, she decided to tell the truth. "I'm an interpreter."
"Freelance. I'm about to start a job with an archaeologist. Something to do with Homo erectus."
"Eh?" he squinted.
"You know, Homo erectus, our ancestors, the missing link? Like Peking Man."
"You mean the ape-man?" he chortled, using the street word, yuanren. "I doubt very much if the Chinese people could be descended from the ape-man!"
"Well"she tensed slightly at this prejudice"I don't know anything about it, really. I'm just a translator."
Still Lu Ming did not let it go. "But such an expedition must cost huge money!" He raised his hand in a two-fingered signal to the passing waiter. "And for what? For history? Eh, it's a waste!" Two new, full glasses appeared in front of them. The music blasted away. "History is but a hobby. It's for old men with no yang left."
"I like history," she said defensively. "I think old things are beautiful."
"What counts now and for the future is modernization. Commerce." He leaned into her. "Money."
"To money." She forced a smile. It was no use arguing with Chinese men. Especially if you were a woman. And a foreigner. Their probing interest in herthe free American mind, the direct laughter, the pale, willing bodyalways held the potential for an edge of contempt. If she could stay back from that edge, though, the excitement was unmatched. The two of them drank. "And you, Lu Ming? What do you do?"
"I'm in business," he said simply, as if no further explanation were needed of this most glorious word. Gracefully he withdrew a white card from his black jacket.
She glanced at the characters. "Lu Investment Consulting Group?"
He touched his forelock in mock salute.
"Well, Chairman Lu, to your profits." She smiled, pleased to see that there was now yet another tiny, full glass in front of her. "Gan-bei." They drank and gasped together. The booming room shuddered. "These must be good times for you," she said, rolling the empty glass between her palms. "The current leaders."
"Eh, it's so. It's because of old Deng Xiao-ping we have all this." He paused and with a rapid sweep of his eyes managed to include the frenzied crowd, the recorded tidal wave of guitar and saxophones, the rolling static of laughter, and, last and most pointedly, his square white business card half splashed now with rice brandy on the table. "Ta-de kai fang zheng che, liufang bai shi; danshi Liu-Si ye jiang yichou wannian," The open door will hand down a good reputation for a hundred generations, but the Six-Four will leave a stink for ten thousand years.
"True," she said, recognizing the colloquial term Six-Fourshorthand for the Tiananmen incident, which had occurred on June fourth. Chinese liked to remember things by their numbers. "Do you think new leaders might change the situation?"
He lowered his voice, conjuring a bond between them. "It's a mistake to think it matters who's in charge. Of course the old leaders die. But then not much changes. The wolf just becomes a dog. Though as for the open door"by this he meant China's new liberalism"I am sure it will remain as it is. They'll never be able to close it." Under the table he placed his foot alongside hers, a gentle but insistent message. "You see," he said, and spread his hands disarmingly, "I care only for my personal success now. Completely selfish! But I'm educated. Andeveryone agrees on this, Yulianmy heart is good. Therefore"he leaned in and locked on her eyes"will Yulian now go with me to some more peaceful place where friends can speak with their hearts at ease?"
Cigarette smoke, laughter, the throbbing bass swirled around her. Suddenly the Brilliant Coffee was a box of thunder, of unbearable noise. He really wants me, she thought with the familiar thrill. And then she hesitated.
He rubbed her foot with his. It was soft, he wore only a sock, when had he taken off his shoe? "Yi bu zuo, er bu xiu," he whispered, Once a thing is begun, no one can stop it until it is finished.
He moved his foot away, not touching her now, only leaning closebut his entire body flamed with attention. Hers did too. She closed her eyes. Pretend, tonight. She felt a pull to the center of him, where surely lay entry to all China. "Wei shenmo bu," she whispered finally, Why not.
He didn't speak as they pedaled side by side through the mud-rutted lanes that coiled away from the Brilliant Coffeeshe remembered this the next morning as she rode her bicycle back in the misty, unfurling dawn to the Minzu Hotel. He had smiled at her once, radiantly, but said nothing. It was like a Chinese man not to speak, not now, not when it was about to happen. They all had this magnificent reserve. She knew how this wall of reserve would come to an end, too, and she had been right: even now, pedaling hard through the early half-light of Wangfujing Boulevard, her thighs cramped with desire when she remembered the way the door had closed behind them in his apartment and he had turned to her, reached for her, and all in one motion carried her down with him to the floor where in an instant the verbal, astute, urbane man he had been at the Brilliant Coffee vanished and in his place was a purely physical being, urgently male, frantic to enter her.
Later, when they were lying naked under sheets by the open window, he asked her whether, since she was based in Beijing, they could be friends. She didn't answer right away. This was the hard part for her. She loved it when they first touched her, and she would always cringe a little, pull back, savor the waves of shame and shyness and then, finally, surrender. That was the pleasure. But it always ended. The sex always ended and the talking came back, and with it the lines she could never seem to cross.
"Of course I couldn't visit you at your hotel." He lit a cigarette and exhaled a blue cloud toward the ceiling. "It would cause too much talk. You're waiguoren, an outside-country person. Not Chinese. But you could come here, at night."
Did he have to say all this? Though of course a lot of men talked too much, and unwisely, in the temporary state of total spread-legged candor which followed sex.
"Well?" he asked softly, fingers moving through her hair.
She guarded herself. "I know all about what you are saying."
He smiled. "Mingbai jiu hao," he whispered back happily, I'm glad you understand.
She let his words trail off. In a few minutes he slept.
She moved away from him in the strange bed. And the next morning, when she rose in the half-light and tied on her antique Chinese stomach-protector and zipped up her black dress, and he whispered to her from the bed to write down where he could get in touch with her, she wrote just the characters for the phony name, Yulian, and a fictional Beijing number.
Sometimes, when she got up and dressed before dawn, the men didn't ask for her number. They would watch her go without a word. They seemed to know better than to say anything to her at all.