The Responsible Ones

 

Most white men had a lover in Huangdao. Mine was Lifen. We met three nights a week after she got off of work and I had been drinking a while at the Hula Bar near my apartment. We walked through the park, past the ice statues of horses and trees and temples with chipped pagoda tiles. Men huddled around a small television set, sang karaoke on the street, belting out songs I could remember my parents singing during drug-fueled holiday parties. For dinner, we went to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I never cared for the place in the States, and the food didn't taste much better in China, but in the cold months they had heat, and unlike the local restaurants, the dining room was immaculately clean. The price for a meal was triple that of one in the market and I knew that Lifen didn't make much. She was overworked. She taught piano and dance at the college, and twice a week ran an evening fitness class at the city gym. I paid for her meal. I didn't like giving them my money, but it made her happy and there was nothing better than that.

I smoked a lot then. Cigarettes were cheap and men offered them to me everywhere I went. With this offering, I was forced to sit awhile and listen to them recite what English words they knew: America, Jesus Christ, Happiness, New York, George Bush. They were friendly people, but unmannered. They spit on the floors and slapped their wives in public. It was no wonder so many of the young women went with white men who abused them with discretion.

After dinner, I lit a cigarette and Lifen shook her head and narrowed her eyes into a scowl. She pointed her finger to her temple and lowered her thumb, pretending she had shot herself.

"This is much slower," I said.

We would not go back to my apartment together. She was worried the neighbors might think she was a prostitute. I had to leave her in the park for a half hour or so, and went to my place to clean up, drink a beer or two, and wait for her. At night, we watched movies on a laptop computer. There was a store down the street that sold copies of DVDs for a dollar a piece. The selection was limited to Westerns, war films and Japanese pornography in a cardboard treasure chest in back of the store. Chinese characters displayed at the bottom of the screen when the actors spoke, but I can't imagine Lifen truly understood what it meant to be threatened by Clint Eastwood outside a tavern in a dusty desert town in the old West.

After the movie, she pulled back the sheets and covers on the bed and turned on the heated blanket. She wore a dancer's leotard underneath her layers of clothing. She had a thin waist, thick legs, and small, taut breasts. Her hair was pinned up in two separate braids and she unclipped these and let her hair fall down her back, then swooped it over her shoulder and ran her fingers through the knots.

She wanted me on top, but she wouldn't let me inside her. She moaned and tore at the skin on my back. I bit her neck and breasts. She wrapped her legs around me and gripped my body tight like a church suit. I twisted her hair in my fist and pulled her head back until her pupils were dilated and the blue vein in her neck pulsated. The friction was enough to satisfy us.

In the morning she made coffee and eggs and stood behind me as I ate. I didn't want her to wait on me, but she refused to sit, and only after I was finished and she had cleaned the plate and put it away did she eat her eggs, now cold and wet. She bundled up in layers and a thick hand-woven scarf and walked down the icy steps to the street. I watched her collide with the throngs of people and the smoke above their heads and the melting sky as the sun spread a sea of light across the horizon.

On nights when Lifen was working, I would go to the Hula Bar where there was music and cheap beer. I ate dried squid at the bar and was sometimes invited by businessmen to drink and smoke in a private booth separated by thatched bamboo canes, my whiteness being some sort of celebrity here.

Once, a man and his wife asked the bartender if I would join them in celebrating the woman's birthday. She was turning forty. The man spoke good English, but his wife knew only a little. They put on that it was a celebration, but I could tell in their eyes that they were discontented. In less than two drinks, the man explained that they were unable to have children. The doctors believed it was a combination of the both of them, and that maybe they were not meant to be together, if being together meant procreating.

Later, while his wife was in the bathroom, he wondered if I might make love to her that night.

"Then we will see who is problem," he said.

"But what if I'm unable," I said, entertaining the man's solicitation.

"Do you not think my wife sexy?"

"No. Well, yes. She's very beautiful. But that's not what I meant."

"She too old for you, right? American want young girl. My wife very beautiful all her life. I never go with another woman. But, I want son."

"I come from poor genes. You don't want that in your family."

He put his hand on my knee and smiled slyly, showing a row of blackened teeth.

"Either way. When we leave, maybe you follow, maybe you don't. Tonight, I make love to my wife and I enjoy myself."

His wife returned. She had put on a fresh coat of lipstick and smelled of lemon and powder. The man stood and held her jacket out to her. He shook my hand and she bowed politely.

"Happy birthday," I said.

A few weeks later, Lifen and I were supposed to meet at my apartment, but she didn't show up. I figured she had filled in for someone at the city gym, or else was too exhausted and had fallen asleep early. She didn't have a phone.

It was a Monday night and only two Americans and a young Chinese couple were at the Hula Bar. The Americans were loud and drunk, talking over each other about women. The couple took their drinks from the bar and went to one of the private booths in back. I bought a beer and a tray of dried squid and sat on one of the couches in the front of the house.

"You don't caress a woman like a cat, man," I could hear one of the Americans saying. "It's a science, now, you got to pull a bit at the skin, you got to pinch it in the right places. Certain areas need a soft hand, but you don't pet the damn thing or else she'll bite your fucking dick off."

"She cries when I'm inside her, you know," the other said.

"That's a bigger issue, man. Maybe something to do with her father. This is a country dominated by men."

A string of Christmas bells attached to the door jingled, and someone stuck a steel cane between the door and jamb.

"Bu!" the bartender shouted.

A pair of small hands grabbed the edge of the door and pulled, and a tiny woman, a dwarf, slid inside. She wore ratty, fingerless gloves, and she blew on each finger as if putting out a row of candles and then gave the door a wild push to let in another dwarf, a man, holding a small guitar case. The man had a beaming smile and he called out a greeting to the bartender who kept pointing toward the door, his face red and tight with anger. "Bu," he said again, as someone might say to a dog with a torn pillow in its mouth. The man pretended not to hear him and walked toward the stage by positioning the cane in front of him, leaning on it and then swinging his right leg around. The Americans were in an uproar and the Chinese couple brought their drinks out to the front of the room to see what was going on. The woman carried the guitar case and with an adept quickness unlike any human movement I had seen before, snapped off her gloves and opened the lid, flipping the guitar upright and passing it to the man who was now planted on the stage. He tuned the guitar, but was struggling to hear over the bartender's admonishments.

"Let the little fuckers perform," one of the Americans said, and they took their beer mugs from the bar and sat on the couch opposite me.

The dwarves' faces were dirty, their lips chapped. The man had a scratchy voice and he coughed twice after each sentence he spoke. He strummed the guitar, but it was clear he couldn't play very well; his fingers were too large for the thin neck, and when a rhythm began to take shape, he fumbled a flat note that sounded like a rock striking a plastic pipe. The Americans were entranced. They sat upright on the edge of the couch, wide-eyed and hopeful, seemingly trying to will him to be better.

After a few minutes of his playing, the woman began to sing. She shadowed the poor instrumentation with such a sweet and uplifting voice my body tensed and my heart pounded. I couldn't understand what it was she was singing about, but it didn't seem to matter. The couple knew and they held each other close, and this night was one of those rare ones they would remember all of their lives and mention again when the relationship grew uncertain and they were in need of evidence to continue on together.

The man quit playing and watched the woman sing. His eyes grew damp as her voice broke on the high notes, untrained, all passion and wisdom and spirit. When she finished her song, the man hopped off the stage and held his knit cap out to the Americans who examined the colors of the bills in their wallets, gave up and tossed it all in. I gave the man three hundred Yuan and knew it would go a long way for the two of them, a week at least. The Chinese couple refused, but he held out his hat and shook it abruptly and the Americans shouted for them to pay the man, and so they finally dropped a few coins into the hat, picked up their drinks and returned to the booth in back.

The dwarves were full of laughter. The Americans bought them drinks and they were drunk fast. The woman sang bits and pieces of songs. She gave herself a little whack on the head when she forgot the words. One of the Americans tuned the guitar for the man and in doing so broke a string. It hung from the neck of the guitar and he coiled it around two fingers and cut it loose with a pocket knife he'd been using to pop the caps off our beers. He said it was a trick he learned in college. Girls seemed to like it.

The man was no longer able to balance himself on his cane and the woman was of little help getting him out the door. It was up to the Americans.

"I feel so bad for the little guys," the one who'd had trouble with his girlfriend said. "We should help. Take them to a hotel or something."

"That's a fantastic fucking idea, man," the other said. "Hey, buddy, want to get the door for us?"

They had decided without much of a plan to pick the dwarves up in their arms and carry them to the Palace Hotel down the street. Drunk, I thought it was the kindest gesture I'd ever seen.

They picked them up underneath the shoulders. The man let out a happy cry and the woman, still singing, extended her neck and kissed the heartbroken American on the cheek. The two men held the dwarves like babies. They were quiet then. They had become responsible. Their faces took on the wood-seriousness of consequences come to light. I held the door open and could hear the dwarves laughing raucously as the Americans held them in their arms like gift bearers, taking them to a king who might or might not cut off their heads.

When I returned home, Lifen was waiting at the door. Her face was red and chapped from the cold wind, eyes dark as cherry pits, hair long and knotted. I kissed her and held her and she pushed her hips against mine. She smelled of sweat and gasoline from work and the bus ride across town. She wanted to make love.

I watched her shower. She shaved her legs and the hair around her vagina like I'd taught her. Small droplets of water covered her body. Her skin looked amphibian. She undressed me and made up the bed. She put a pillow underneath her for comfort.

"Virgin," she said.

She had learned the word and spoke it like a proposition.

She writhed beneath me, clawed at my back, turned her head as if possessed. There was pain, but she bit her lip and moved through it like a stage actress. Our bodies made ugly sounds and when it was over, she hurried out of the room on her dancer's toes; quietly, nimbly, floating just above the floor.

She returned and put her head on my chest and I told her about the dwarves at the bar and other stories I remembered then but can't remember now. Soon, she was asleep and I lay the covers over her and went out into the living room to smoke. There were spots of blood on the floor leading to the bathroom. I cleaned them up with a towel and seeing that the trash was full, tied the bag off and brought it downstairs to the municipal bin. The wind carried off the ocean and through the tunnels of the complex. For a moment, I thought I could hear the dwarves singing. I went to the street, but there was no one out at this time of night. The lights above the bars were turned off. Litter spun in the wind. I went back upstairs and got into bed with Lifen. She was warm and small in my arms.

 

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