Isham Cook, an English teacher in China, has it all worked out. He lives a highly ordered life of the mind and is not one to be swayed by circumstance, until his dispassionate existence is tripped up by Cookie, an elusive woman fleetingly glimpsed around his gritty Beijing neighborhood. He then becomes captivated by the flamboyant eroticism of a woman he meets on the subway, Luna, who radically overhauls his most basic preconceptions. A third woman of ambiguous Asiatic ethnicity, the beautiful Adalat, is as unknowable as the others and he becomes obsessed with her as well. Finally, a fourth character appears with the ultimate trump card, one capable of pulling apart the very coordinates of Isham’s reality, including the narrative itself.
A hypnotic journey of a novel, with idea bombs going off along the way, Lust & Philosophy (74,000 words) is mind-rape as literature, a fairytale on acid, and a holographic Rorschach test all in one, and will appeal to fans of Hermann Hesse, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard and other novelists of the uncanny.
“Lust & Philosophy’s experimental prose and non-linear narrative spans continents, decades, and states of mind, calling to mind William S. Burroughs’ equally bizarre Naked Lunch, while fans of Henry Miller will empathize with – but may not always like – the libertine expat Cook.”—Shanghai Talk
“Into the bathroom with it, to be dipped into, as it were, at eagerly awaited moments.”—Robert MacLean, author of Foreign Matter
Read chapters 1-3 below:
China, Beijing, Haidian District. Beijing Foreign Studies University lay along the northern bend of the West Third Ring Road before the expressway veered eastward to become the North Third Ring Road. You could not find a more nondescript neighborhood in an already blank metropolis. You were not even in Asia; you were in something called a city. No lush greens in this austere university district, with tenement housing for campuses behind walled compounds manned by teenage guards in ill-fitting gray uniforms.
BFSU was split into two facing campuses across the elevated expressway. I lived on the west campus. A pedestrian underpass crossed over to the east campus where I taught my classes. Except for intersections and u-turn bays, the space under the expressway was requisitioned for public parking, turning the structure into an endless monolith. A university bisected by an expressway, where one would expect a commons: I had once sought some dour symbolism in this, until attributing it to the haphazard urban inventiveness that the Chinese excel in.
Flanking both sides of the expressway was the lower Third Ring Road for local traffic, a generous sidewalk on each side. I frequently walked north along the west sidewalk on the way to the Suzhou Street subway station, the Haidian bookstore district, and the computer district of Zhongguancun, with its megastores and restaurants. We need only be concerned with the first ten minutes of this walk, the 700-meter stretch from the west campus to the busy intersection at Suzhou Bridge (not a water bridge but an expressway overpass).
The route offered a cross-section of urban society coming and going from a hodgepodge of shops and businesses. Let’s start at the campus gate and work our way along the length of the austere stretch.
The gate’s right post had been manned informally for years by a woman of indeterminate age, her complexion the same hue as her clothes, doing a brisk business in unregistered SIM cards, standing or squatting on the same spot from morning till night like some sentry’s ghost. We pass the BFSU Hotel and its admittedly serviceable seafood restaurant to a two-story business complex housing a private translation school competing with that of the campus, a bakery, an eyeglass clinic, a cellphone service center, a ladies handbag boutique, a small supermarket (high-fiber wheat bread, canned sardines in tomato sauce, the crisp images of pubic hair on “nude art photography” books displayed in the window), a popular café called the Stairway To Love with curtained booths inviting student couples to make out in semi-privacy, a Shandong-style restaurant with waitresses in snug lavender cheongsams, a flower stall, a knickknacks shop stocked with the miniature toy animals Chinese girls like to dangle from their cellphones and backpacks, a Chongqing-style eatery, a small clothing shop. At the T-intersection of Weigong Bridge, a driveway to a business plaza, followed by a shabby residential building housing a professional photo service, a tattoo shop, a beauty salon, a post office, and a tobacco shop.
Crossing a restaurant street – and in the evening the smoky chestnut roasters and fruit peddlers parked deliberately in our path – we encounter the only attractive structure on the stretch, a slickly renovated building lined with opaque glass tiles and encircled by a mock classic Suzhou garden, the headquarters appropriately enough of an architectural firm; a China Construction Bank leased out the building’s north wing. Then loomed the Beijing Television Station tower. A large military affairs building was next with street-front space occupied by a bakery, a 24-hour convenience store, a beauty salon, a fast-food noodles shop, a Hangzhou-style eatery, a budget cosmetics stall, a cluster of cheap clothing shops for women, a liquor shop, and a state-run train and plane ticket booking office. A swank hotpot restaurant next to the entrance of a transient hotel. A bookshop sharing a photocopying service and a women’s clothing stall; another cheap clothing shop; a lousy Xinjiang Muslim restaurant; a tobacco-liquor shop, yet another women’s clothing shop, a northeast-style (Manchurian) restaurant, and finally, on the corner of the Suzhou Bridge intersection, a pharmacy.
The urban surface was relieved in the warm months by a canopy of Chinese Scholar trees, of the locust tree family and the dominant street tree in Beijing. Not a particularly attractive walk, but I’d grown to like it out of habit, or if nothing else, my obsession with Cookie.
I first saw her one spring day at this spot on my way to afternoon coffee near People’s University. Walking ahead of me was a woman with intensely voluptuous hips in tight faded jeans and jean jacket. I had to satisfy my curiosity as to what her face looked like and overtook her just as we both arrived at Suzhou Bridge. I am relieved when the face is plain, despairing when the body is matched by beauty. She was indeed attractive, with dark heavy-lidded eyes; around 30. Something earthy about her, as if spawned of this very neighborhood, yet not unaware of her allure. She gazed ahead oblivious of my glance. I continued on without looking back and dismissed the painful specter from my mind.
I see exquisite women all the time. I would go mad if I tortured myself on every occasion whether to try to talk to them or not. We want to relax when going about and instinctively avoid drama and other sources of tension, cultivating our protective shell the more freely to lose ourselves in thought, to meditate in peace on our daily walks. It’s not forbidden to stop and confront someone of course, but one needs a set of guidelines, a decisive criterion for the exceptional circumstance.
For me, it’s the difference between a nine and a ten. Here’s an example of a ten. One day a year or two before the present events, a beautiful woman with plump hips and breasts caught my eye, working in a liquor shop adjoining the basement supermarket in the Modern Plaza shopping center across from People’s University. I won’t describe her in any more detail; it’s enough to say she was a ten. Had she been a nine, I would have been envious, mildly distraught perhaps, and continued on my way. But because what I was now dealing with was not a nine but a ten, I found myself halting in my tracks. I entered the supermarket and slowly made my way to the imported wine aisle while getting my bearings. For it was already established that my routine on this day had been disrupted by a momentous event. I would have to make a go at her.
Exiting checkout, I sauntered over to the crucible. It was one of those liquor shops with exorbitantly priced bottles of imported “XO,” which the Chinese in publicity stunts in the 1990s would smash against marble surfaces to show off their wealth. The wealthy of today were no longer quite so vulgar, but luxury cognac was still purchased at thousands of dollars a bottle solely for the cultivation of business relationships in the form of guanxi gifts (price tag attached) that circulate from recipient to recipient as a symbolic currency, without ever being opened and tasted.
I started out at the far end of the shop and worked my way towards her. They also sold some Chinese wines. I asked her why they didn’t sell any imported wines, like the one I had just bought in the supermarket. I’m sure I was too nervous to process her response, but she was amenable to small talk and I requested her cellphone number. She laughed and wrote it down. A few days later I called and she agreed to meet at a nearby café.
She made it to the café. I learned she wasn’t a regular shop assistant – a relief, as service workers in China were invariably unskilled migrants from the countryside who worked long hours seven days a week for paltry wages. Pretty waitresses and salesgirls were not worth the effort, if only because they could hardly find the time off to even manage a date with you. Yanyuan had her own business as a liquor wholesaler and was at the shop monitoring her sales during the busy Spring Festival season. She was 27, with a boyfriend in the army. They seemed to have money; her chauffeur drove me back home. I didn’t completely give up hope, as she visited an art museum with me a week later and even agreed to stop over at my place. When she sat down on my sofa, her hip flesh expanded into me. I put an arm around her while we paged through an art book. She sat stiffly and soon left. I may have been a bit hasty, but I had to take things as far as they could go without delay to release myself from the agony of being with a ten under merely polite circumstances.
There had only been a handful of tens over the years. They didn’t generally work out, though with Jianchun – another wistful case – things played out with a bit more drama. She was a primary school English teacher of 24 enrolled in an English writing class for working adults I taught years ago at Capital Normal University. It wasn’t just her beauty and generous figure; she was an intractable, intolerable enigma. Her apparel conveyed a provocative feminine purity. While the other students dressed in dowdy clothes, she always wore a silk blouse and skirt slit up the sides, even in the coldest weather. She must also have worn a sheer bra, as the dark disks of her areolas were visible through her blouse. She was – or pretended to be – deathly shy and not only refused to speak up when called on but disappeared as soon as class ended and even during the breaks, to forestall any approach by me it seemed, of which I had never given her the slightest inkling unless through unconscious signs. Likewise, she always arrived a few minutes late to class.
When female students had no interest in me beyond my role as a teacher, which applied to almost all of them, they were relaxed in my presence, as they should be. I was no more threatening to them than if I had appeared on an educational TV program. But there seemed to be something up with Jianchun in her prickliness. She unnerved and agitated me. I was able to snag her in the penultimate class of the semester. She had mentioned Bach as one of her interests in an autobiographical composition I had assigned. Could she, I ventured, give me a list of famous works of Chinese classical music I might buy on CD? The following week after class she came up and presented me with the list. I didn’t like to get forward with students but this was my last chance, and on the pretext of discussing music I asked for her telephone number. She thought she might have some time in a few weeks. I couldn’t wait and called her the next day. She seemed pleased to hear from me and we made a date at the National Art Museum for the following Monday.
She was waiting for me outside the locked museum gate; I had forgotten it was closed on Mondays. I proposed the Wufu Teahouse, a fifteen-minute walk away. Upon arriving, I had her sit next to me. She proved more talkative than expected in this cornered state, divulging scenes from an adverse childhood. When she was five, her father had discovered her mother in an (evidently unconsummated) affair, beat her and kicked her out. She told me about her uncle, a government press editor in high standing whom she had idolized since childhood. One day when she was seventeen, he invited her for a walk and took the occasion to fondle her. She was vague on particulars, spoke in ellipses. Presumably the breasts. Violating her genitals should have elicited a stronger response from her mom than merely telling her to get over it. He did promptly apologize and never tried it again. But it wounded her.
I suggested the burden wasn’t worth carrying around for seven years and she should learn to forgive him. A tear ran down her cheek. I wondered if her uncle hadn’t really done something worse. Her leg was resting against mine and her fingers fluttered under the table and brushed me as she talked. I put my arm around her. The heavy bosom of this beautiful woman who hid from me in the ladies room during class breaks was now mashed against me. An odorless stench, a chemical steam bath, a heavy voltage flew. Only my reluctance to appear deplorable like her uncle arrested my claws from her breasts. She agreed to a date the following week. The next morning she called to cancel, without giving a reason, and declined to meet again. I saw her once more a few weeks later by the school gate. We nodded politely. That was it.
The situation wasn’t entirely hopeless. Granted, she may truly have had no interest in me and resolved to cut off contact to avoid misleading me. But it was not altogether out of the question that she hoped to hear from me again. In fact she may have been trying to seduce me with her dress and avoidance tactics all along, or was struggling with these contradictions all at once. A stereotype (with some truth to it) holds that Chinese women put up the hardest of fronts only to crumble after a few pokes. She might have been remarkably easy to get into bed, even after the next phone call. Considering this rare ten was possibly within such close reach, it must seem inexplicable I gave up so easily.
We try to connect when we meet people. You can almost always find some common ground with a stranger. Perhaps you have nothing to go on but a liking of spicy food or a hatred of the president. The mutual attempt at simple human friendliness is often enough. Without that minimally shared effort, the presence of another is intolerable. You might as well be enemies.
Now, what kind of cruel irony threw an enemy my way in the guise of a ten? I tried to add up Jianchun’s positive points but wasn’t having much luck. I could handle her being uncommunicative in class and neurotically shy; her complaining of the cold weather during the fifteen-minute walk to the teahouse; her ordering expensive tea she neglected to so much as taste (and I was paying for); even her refusal to smile, which I fancied stemmed not from dullness but a dignified retaliation against socially enforced humor. I would have been able deal with all of this had there been at least Bach to fall back on. When I raised the matter, however, she seemed ignorant of having ever mentioned the composer. Not the slightest interest in music was forthcoming and she changed the topic. The repertoire of topics was confined to her marriage expectations. And at last I could see she was capable of expressing a viewpoint on something: she was, as expected, a “traditional girl” who believed in marital fidelity and a stable household.
Could it really be for some people that such was all there was to life? Did “fidelity” or “stable household” qualify as hobbies? I didn’t bring it up but I guessed the prospect of sex must have loomed as a humorless business in her mind: the initial scream and the blood, followed by the requisite threats to ward off the proverbial disaster of unsanctioned sex and secure the marital lock on life.
This was still the nineties, before the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan and other women’s magazines introduced sex education to China; and it would have been the eighties when her uncle’s assault had taken place. Chinese women could be as sexually free as women anywhere in the world. At the other extreme, unfathomable ignorance. Jianchun was probably subjected to the old lore fed to girls in order to scare them that you had sex only once in your life, on the wedding night, resulting in the birth of a single child (you might have a few more goes at it if it weren’t for the one-child policy). Another piece of wisdom imparted to daughters was that only bad women had large breasts, which would grow bigger after being touched by a boy. Just when they were growing to their substantial size, her breasts had encountered avuncular fingers. Yet perhaps the act was enough to confirm guilty suspicions she was still acting out in her strange mating dance with me in the classroom.
Whatever her intentions, or lack of them, I grew more unsettled with each new facet of her personality. Above all I feared she might be mentally unstable, and for whom marriage was therefore an urgent recourse, as she wouldn’t have to work and I would be her family’s insurance against any future medical provisions, or in the worst case, her being committed to an institution.
My final news concerning Jianchun came a few days later when a married classmate of hers I was friendly with phoned me to ask if I had “forced” her. What?! Jianchun had hinted to her about some unfortunate goings-on with an unnamed foreign man (who turned out to be a fellow teacher of Jianchun’s before my turn). This led my friend to worry I had brought her over to my place to ruin her. I reassured her nothing of the sort had transpired, and Jianchun didn’t even seem to like me. So much for the only ten who had ever seemed fleetingly within grasp.
Still less of a need to mention Cookie again either, except that I saw her a second time later the same day. Now here’s the thing. She wasn’t coming back from the other direction but was once more walking north, now starting from a point further south. Wherever she had been headed after lunch, she had returned to somewhere near the campus. Thus I could presume she had some daily business in the area – a job, studies, or residence. It was early evening and I had also come back to the campus and was now on my way to get something to eat.
I recognized the spectacular buttocks from behind. She was with a female companion this time. They had just reached the corner of the restaurant street where the migrant fruit sellers gathered in the evening until the police departed and they moved their carts over to the more crowded area before the campus gate. As I was looping in front to make sure it was Cookie, she turned her head away toward her friend. I had to circle all the way around her to catch up with her face. She could not have failed to notice the awkward foreign man ogling her now. I kept moving in a single motion past them and up the restaurant street. They were parting and her friend followed in my direction while Cookie continued on down the stretch.
Propositioning a stranger on the street doesn’t necessarily involve insurmountable difficulties. I have been imposed upon countless times from out of nowhere by people of both sexes for myriad reasons. Therefore I too may impose. In theory it should be easy and effortless to address a stranger, because it happens fast. Immediately thrust into the result, you have a strong chance of not coming off badly and receiving a civil response. Some people are so flattered by your attentions that it can start a friendship. I thought of Hermann Hesse’s haunting words from Steppenwolf:
All girls are yours….The stream carried them towards me and washed me up to them and away….I gave myself up to them without defense.
In practice I need to summon up the requisite courage. A moving target requires quick thinking, and I didn’t have the luxury of preparation time that I had with a stationary target like Yanyuan in the liquor shop. Now I had a pitch. Even if she had not recognized me, the point is I recognized her and what a wonderful coincidence it was to see her twice the same day. Did she live in the neighborhood? I might have said something like that. But instead I headed up the restaurant street. The only explanation for doing so must have been fear of what I most desired.
I forgot about her.
Several months went by. It was near the end of the semester and summer was in full bloom. Students rushed past me as I approached the west campus gate on my way to class one morning. We are entangled in thought and never more blind to what is around us than when we head to work. The more focused you are within, the more fragmented the reality without. A big set of female hips glided toward me, disembodied in their heft, narrow waist, black slacks. I looked up. It was Cookie. Again with a friend, perhaps the same. We locked eyes as we passed. She turned around and smiled, recognizing me. She spoke to her friend and both looked back laughing, followed by a third lingering smile over her shoulder. We were far apart now. I should have been running over to talk to her, but the certainty I would be seeing her excused me from the chase, now that it was clear she was on campus. She seemed a little older today, in the morning glare, mid thirties perhaps, grittier, with pencil-accented eyebrows. Much too old to be a student, unless enrolled in the BFSU language training center for adults, where they just might have been heading. Or a campus employee.
The encounter dramatically altered things. That was no ordinary smile; it was a full-blown flirtation. Now the entire stretch was aflame with expectation, along with the west campus, since the language-training center where Cookie might be studying was on the way to my apartment in the foreign experts building. The funneling effect of our daily physical proximity would inexorably tumble us together again. Day One had begun.
But I did not see Cookie on Day Two. Now on permanent watch, I upped my errands to and from campus, to the supermarket and the restaurant street, and down the stretch and beyond, on the excuse of coffee at the spacious Starbucks near Haidian Book City or picking up some imported wine at the Zhongguancun Carrefour or viewing the latest smartphones at the Dinghao computer emporium. Previously I had passed through the campus gate three to four times a day, and on most days covered most of the stretch at least once in addition to a regular evening walk in the opposite direction south of the gate. A mere extra trip down the stretch each day, I figured, would raise my chances of an encounter significantly. Yet even with the added vigilance the days went by with no Cookie. A month later I was flying back to the US for a seven-week trip home. Now was the time to make her acquaintance, while her memory of me was fresh. Also, if she was only a one-time student in the training center, I worried she might no longer be around when I got back.
What was the likelihood of seeing her in the next 30 days? A few calculations put things into perspective. I parked myself in front of the campus gate one afternoon, counting the number of people heading north on the stretch for an interval of time and adjusted for the roughly eighteen hours of the day when they were out and about. It was not a busy sidewalk by the standard of a downtown street. People hastened or ambled by individually and in groups, easily tallied, with the occasional void of up to a minute without a single passerby. Still, the number added up to 1,000 pedestrians per hour, or up to 20,000 or more per day. It took ten minutes of brisk walking to cover Cookie’s known territory from the training center on campus to Suzhou Bridge. If I spent an average of 60 minutes a day somewhere along this way (two complete runs down the stretch and back, several trips to and from the east campus, my nightly walk), I could expect to encounter 1,000 people.
But not all were regulars from the neighborhood. We need to arrive at a number for the local population, as the higher the proportion of locals on the street, the greater the chance of finding Cookie among them. Haidian District’s 3,000,000 residents and 430 square kilometers meant a density of 7,000 per square kilometer. The distance from the Changwa Street intersection south of the west campus gate to Suzhou Bridge was one kilometer. It surely served as many people, and probably far more, taking into account the BFSU population, not to mention the huge Beijing Institute of Technology nearby, with its own tens of thousands of students. This is an inexact science, but let’s settle on a conservative round figure of 10,000 locals including students hitting the stretch in an eighteen-hour day, or three fifths of the total pedestrian traffic. Accordingly in my daily sixty minutes on the stretch, I could expect to encounter 600 locals or six percent of the local population out and about. In other words, optimistically speaking, I would have a five or six percent chance of seeing Cookie on any given day and thus a modest yet realistic possibility of meeting her at some point before the month was up.
Certainly it occurred to me that I could increase my chances by hanging out during the periods of highest traffic flow: the window of opportunity when she would be arriving in the morning, going for lunch at noon, and departing in the early evening. And indeed I tried to do this up to an extent, short of too drastic a distortion of my daily schedule. Neurosis is defined as a condition causing you repeatedly to go out of your accustomed way to avoid or secure something, and in the worst instances crippling your ability to hold a job and maintain social relations. I tend not to allow anything to interfere with my routine. Even when adding an extra trip down the stretch, it was never for Cookie alone. There was always a constructive excuse – lunch down the restaurant street, my afternoon coffee at one of the neighborhood cafés I rotated among, an errand or meeting with someone, exercise. I am an exercise addict (a distinction must be made between healthful and neurotic addictions) requiring twice or thrice-daily running, cycling or walking. When I needed a longer daytime walk, more than 30 minutes, I would circle all the way around the west campus in either direction, taking me northward or southward once down the stretch and back again. A neurotic would walk to and fro for hours on end until finding Cookie. A stalker would lurk in the shadows for hours on end. I wanted our meeting to occur with real not seeming spontaneity. I gave myself a few more goes down the stretch here and there to boost my luck and let fate decide the rest.
Yet by this very logic, countered a voice in my head, I would never meet Cookie. She was entitled to more than a mere civilized person. The angry pursuit was allowed, indeed obligatory. I myself would be thrilled to know a hot stranger was on the lookout for me, and who cares if her sudden appearance was premeditated or not? If I truly wanted to meet Cookie I could. It was merely a question of clarity and fortitude. Success is never haphazard but only ever proceeds from comprehensive and systematic attack.
And now I began to wonder whether she really was a ten after all. For if she were, surely I would already have met her. Because a whole different logic would have applied. Tens stand like tripods securely on the three Bs – beauty, bust and buttocks. Our encounters happened so fast I had yet to ascertain the size and shape of her breasts. Very large breasts cannot be hidden even under bulky clothing. That my attention wasn’t immediately drawn in that direction proved hers must have been less than huge. Possibly still quite full and gorgeous – the pendulous sort that dangle down perhaps – just not exceptionally so. But this too is uncommon enough, and without positive evidence I had to assume the average condition. If she did turn out to have a flat chest, the flaw would have disqualified her from being a ten. She would only be a nine. I was guided unconsciously by this likelihood. With a bit less wind in my sail, it’s easy to understand the failure to find her.
For her part, Cookie wasn’t doing much to help out. I never saw her in the west campus cafeteria, for instance, used by hundreds of students along with university staff and faculty retirees, and where I lunched several times a week. A substantial slice of this population in other words was in this cafeteria every day, which was moreover right next to the language training center I had seen her heading towards. It seemed peculiar she would never set foot there even once. Maybe she had and was put off by the food, never to go back. Nor did she seem to be a café person, or I would have seen her by now at the Stairway to Love or the Sculpting in Time across the expressway at Weigong Bridge.
To be sure, most people aren’t café types. The café local is a rarefied species. Unlike bars, where you go to make conversation (if only with the bartender) and alcohol is employed to facilitate this, the café is the only institution where people go to bask in their loneliness. This wasn’t the case, say, for the famed coffeehouses of Restoration London, whose original purpose was to share witty conversation or news (the earliest European newspapers were only available in the coffeehouses), to conduct business or serve as a stock exchange, all social activities – though even then it was noted that visitors tended to glance at one another rather than start up conversations. The modern coffeehouse or café has evolved into a retreat for isolated reading and writing. Since you can do these things at home or at the library free from disturbance, why go to a café at all?
This paradox of wanting to be noticed but not approached – the longing for companionship that draws us into the café’s intimacy only to end up staring at each other from our little bubbles – must count as one of urbanites’ more poignant accomplishments. But café etiquette used to allow us to puncture someone’s bubble if they were sitting at an adjacent table. The book at hand would be strategically chosen by its owner to invite conversation. These days we may impose on people only in the rare instances they’re not hooked up to their laptop and earphones. Perhaps that is in general a good thing: the ever-greater respect accorded to privacy in public space. So when the bubble is punctured it is more of an event, a little rape.
As occurred recently at the popular Changhong Bridge Starbucks. The curious case of a nine who offered me her body and I refused. It may seem almost incomprehensible in retrospect that I could refuse a nine who handed herself to me on a silver platter. I don’t really have much of an explanation except to say it was the contact of two tough personalities. There was a facing pair of armless sofa chairs by the window with the sunlight I needed for reading. One was vacant and the other occupied by an attractive woman who had pulled up her shirt to caress her bare belly, a vulgar habit Beijing working-class men indulged in out on the street in the summertime. It was an odd thing for a woman of any background to be doing and I was intrigued. I asked if I could share her table. She nodded and gestured. I pulled out my textbook to prepare for my class on the history of the English language. She grabbed it out of my hands and looked at it.
Lin was her name, a businesswoman from Harbin. She fit the stereotype of Manchurian females – tall, physically imposing and aggressive with men. When she stretched back in her seat with a yawn, her shirt lifted up over the big underglobes of her bra. I must have glanced at them an instant too long for she started railing on about men who stare at women’s breasts. But she also bragged how easy it was for her to attract such men. The fact was, she said, most men liked full-figured women. Whenever workplace stress caused her to lose weight, the men went away, whereupon, like magic, all she had to do to make them come back was to restore herself to her usual 80 kilograms.
I found her views to be in refreshing contrast to the usual ideology of skinniness that women are indoctrinated into. I asked for her number. She said she had lost her cellphone and didn’t have a new one yet. Yeah, right. I gave her my card anyway.
I got a call from her a few days later. We set a date. That evening she texted my cellphone: “It’s probably not a good idea to be getting involved with a married man.” In China it’s assumed that everyone over 30 is married, so the married tend not to wear a wedding band, as it’s a redundant signifier. And they feel it’s no one else’s business anyway. A quite healthy attitude, I believe. But this means you never know anyone’s marital status until you ask them. This usually happens on the first or second date, or if you’re too hungry for each other, after initial sex. Delaying the truth is excusable as long as one tells the truth (although lying is common). Lin’s breach of protocol with her presumptuous declarative rather than the expected interrogative irritated me. I told her I wasn’t married but maintained several girlfriends. This seemed to strike a nerve.
“Yeah I knew you were the type you think you’re special but you’re neither handsome nor rich and lacking in soul or spirit you have nothing to offer me,” she responded without punctuation, a curious yet oddly appropriate text-messaging style favored by certain Chinese (the language lacked punctuation until modern times, after being influenced by Western script).
I told her she should be grateful I was being frank and what gave her the right to be upset? She announced she was cutting off contact. I deleted her number from my cellphone.
One day the following week I received more text messages from her: “I’m feeling bored and started thinking about you again still the same cocky guy won’t you regret not taking the opportunity to catch a beautiful woman?…Do you want to make love with me you should have called me a thousand times by now.”
And you are who?
“You got it.”
I don’t want to make love with you.
“Then you can save your money go ahead and forget about me I can masturbate ha ha!”
“…I really want you I want your penis even more.”
“…I know you get women into bed for free but I’m not one of those stupid bitches you can’t afford me keep your money.”
“…What’s going on why no reply are you angry with me and trying to ignore me I’m thinking what it would be like to sleep with you don’t you long for me?”
“…Where’s your courtesy why are you so different now I see you were faking it you should have done a better job but I can see through you I can easily tell a shabby liar.”
Lin was one of my limits. Of course, had she been a ten I would have slept with her, with who knows what consequences. It wouldn’t have been my first time getting involved with an angry or obsessive woman. Or an extremely creative woman that I just wasn’t quite up to. Ironically, I probably had less in common with Cookie than with Lin, whom after all I met in our respective environment of choice – the coffeehouse.
You can understand a lot about a person based as much on what they don’t as on what they do do. A default image of Cookie’s character was beginning to form. Not being the café type, she probably had no interest in books. I divided the world into those who read and those who watch TV, and they were inveterate enemies. A TV watcher would definitely have been a problem in the long-term. On top of no interest in coffee or anything Western. But she did have something to do with the university, so maybe there was hope. All that mattered in the short-term, however, was getting her into bed.
She had dressed in tight pants whose effect was to flare out an already shapely figure. Most women are embarrassed by big buttocks and try to de-accentuate them. Through the constant attention or clear-headed advice of men, she had learned to like her flamboyant shape and appreciate how lucky she was. Perhaps she even enjoyed life – all the more impressive if well into her 30s, as she would have been born during the Cultural Revolution and inculcated in that era’s survivalist ideology, so reminiscent of Western Puritanism. She was almost certainly in a committed relationship with another man, and likely married. No woman that attractive survives singlehood past the age of 25. They take a husband – almost any will do – just to stop the incessant peer and parental harassment (though marriage paradoxically frees them up to flirt with men). They will even latch on the first man who seems to express sincere love, while their own feelings for him may be a mere afterthought.
The happily attached, on the other hand, stare inwardly with such concentration they become invisible. But Cookie presented herself in italics. The warm smile she cast me was not that of a woman wrapped up in another man. Still, without more evidence I had no right to read it as anything more than charmed surprise at a passing foreigner, proffered on condition we were heading in opposite directions. For if I had managed to confront her she would have whished away like a bird at the tongue-tied prospect of marshaling what little English she had gotten in school with a scary foreigner. It is assumed, correctly for the most part, that you can’t speak Chinese, and still the burden is on you to initiate a conversation. While my Mandarin ability wasn’t up to intellectual discussion, it was more than adequate for these purposes, once I had lassoed her with a simple nihao.
The problem was that Cookie was nowhere to be seen. The possibility was dawning on me that maybe she was no longer around, and I would never see her again.
I returned from the U.S. in September to start another school year at BFSU. As the days went by, each new walk down the stretch was charged with expectation, at once a cornucopia and a minefield of possibilities. Sooner or later Cookie would be coming my way. Sooner was just as likely as later. On some days I was confident I would know what to say to her in the event of her appearance. On other days doubts sprang to mind. I worried she would burst into view just when I was sunk in such thoughts and most dreaded meeting her. It would take supreme agility to rouse myself in time to nail her. I would never be able to gather my wits together in the split second they were needed. Opportunity is bald in back and can only be grabbed by the forelocks, the old myth goes. She would loom up with such suddenness she’d already be behind me by the time I noticed her, without recognizing me, or pretending not to recognize me.
Or there was the prospect of spotting her coming at me from afar and being given a precious few moments to ready myself. One convenient thing about Cookie was her pronounced pear shape – broader in the hips than the shoulders – enabling me to pick her out among a crowd at a distance. I merely had to scan my visual field for any large-hipped females, on auto pilot as it were, freeing myself up to forget I was looking for her. There were even times when I think I forgot about her. Also making identification easy was her distinctive gait, measured and graceful, stamped more indelibly in my mind than her face. Yet the very likelihood of generous preparation time was even more frightful. So much so that her arrival on the scene would commence an interval of terror, like the specter of an approaching gunman shooting people in his path.
Such thoughts by themselves, even without the physical intrusion of Cookie, could usher in a state of anxiety. When this happened, my perception splayed: noises were cacophonous, colors electric, odors razor-sharp. I was one degree removed from the wretchedness of full-blown synesthesia, although things have calmed down considerably since my old flashback days in college, occasioned by a first reading of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It had been an uncommonly cold Canadian winter in my freshman year at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The campus facilities were closed for the semester break so I couldn’t go swimming. I was angry and depressed in my mother’s apartment on the outskirts of the city. To pass the time I set about reading all of Shakespeare, starting with the tragedies.
We all know about the harrowing poetry of King Lear, and it’s a bit less harrowing for that reason; indeed the more often famous passages are quoted, the more banal they become. The early Titus foreshadows King Lear in the extreme humiliation and degradation the respective protagonists undergo. Both plays could be described as psychological investigations into the destruction of human personality, though Lear obviously goes much further in this regard. With Titus Shakespeare was also upstaging the violent plays of Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe through parody. But this background context was of course lost on me on naïve first reading. The play wreaked havoc and assumed painful literality inside my gloomy brainpan.
Titus’ daughter Lavinia is ravished by the sons of the Empress Tamora, her tongue cut out and hands severed to prevent her from revealing the identity of the rapists. Not only did I feel Titus’ agony at the sorry sight of Lavinia, the language itself came to life and seemed to enact on me what the words described, as if the knife that Titus exhorts Lavinia to use on herself pierced my own heart:
When thy poor heart beats with outrageous beating, / Thou canst not strike it thus to make it still. / Wound it with sighing, girl, kill it with groans;
Or get some little knife between thy teeth, / And just against thy heart make thou a hole; / That all the tears that thy poor eyes let fall / May run into that sink, and soaking in / Drown the lamenting fool in sea-salt tears.
Titus cuts off his hand as ransom for the release of his two sons; their heads are returned instead. In revenge, he captures the rapists and bakes them into a pie, which their mother proceeds to eat until Titus triumphantly reveals to her what she is doing. Only the final scene’s slaughter prevents the cycle from continuing. At this point the outrages have themselves taken over as the true protagonist, and the formulaic plot becomes irrelevant to the play’s main agenda: a shamanic celebration of some long-lost tribal rite, performed without being understood, whilst killing appears as a mysterious form of production, as if humans were literally grist for a mill run by a colony of giants.
I myself wasn’t a victim of mutilation. There were no signs of blood around me. Yet slaughter was in the air, the tension overwhelming. I lay wide awake the entire night, my heart scrunched into a fist. In the morning the kitchen knives pointed at me with menace. The sandwich I ate for lunch jabbered insults to my face. Hostile trees swiped at me with their branches. Cars grunted and growled like animals, their front grills twisted into scowls. Their gathering acceleration launched the air-raid siren of a nuclear attack.
I headed to the campus counseling clinic, where I was led into a psychiatrist’s office with a row of interns present. I described my experience reading Titus Andronicus. He listened in jaded silence, mumbling observations to his note-taking students, and nothing to me. More jaded silence. No less freaked out after the counseling than before it, my next stop was the emergency room. An unsmiling physician inserted a needle into my arm. As the chlordiazepoxide flowed through my vein, I began to pick up the pieces of the day. The next day was as bad as the first. I guess because I realized things couldn’t really get much worse, the following two days was a degree less severe. I got accustomed to the condition over the next decade. Thereafter it subsided into a dormant state, capable of reactivation at any disturbance or period of tension, of which Cookie’s appearance would be an instructive example.
On more relaxed days when I was quite prepared for Cookie’s encounter, other potential hurdles arranged themselves in my path, the likeliest being of course that she would be with a man, or I would be with a woman. Confronting her in such a situation is not forbidden, but it would be awkward and embarrassing, and might even turn her off.
Another possibility is that I would be late for class and in a rush, with last-minute lecture preparation coalescing in my head. Here I would have no one to blame but myself for failing to shift gears. If she was already on my mind upon sighting her, I might be able to seize the moment. I could surely sacrifice a few minutes of my students’ time. I could even frankly ascribe my reason for being late to this special occasion, and they would laugh and understand. But I cannot deny the deeply ingrained norms of behavior we are all burdened with: the same unconscious compulsion that makes us swivel around when the policeman hails us keeps us pointed straight ahead on our way to work. She too might be in the same frame of mind and speed up her gait to discourage my approach or simply fail to notice me right in front of her. I resigned myself to the knowledge that the synchronicity needed to spark our encounter was much too fragile a thing to survive the pounding steps of our daily trajectories. In broad daylight and in full view we would pass each other like two ships of the night.
There were still more obstacles. What if after the successful prosecution of a new diet she had lost so much weight since the last encounter that the hips were gone and the face too gaunt for me to recall? Or if recognizable, then significantly less attractive? What if, on the other hand, serious weight gain had puffed out and distorted her face, likewise obscuring recognition just enough to cause momentary confusion and paralysis of action? What if she was pregnant? What if her next smile revealed terrible teeth? What if I chanced upon her squatting on the pavement, chewing seeds and cursing someone on her cellphone in local working-class dialect? What if I caught her hawking and spitting or openly blowing her nose and wiping it off her face with her sleeve? But women from the countryside generally don’t wear jeans, but polyester slacks. Anyway, it still had to be established that we weren’t too much beyond each other’s station. I must keep reminding myself not to assume we were somehow matched for each other, that the socio-cultural gulf separating us wasn’t vast. For that matter what if I saw her in the back of a chauffeur-driven Audi? What if I saw her in professional attire leading a delegation of academic officials? What if the next time I saw her she was not only every bit as attractive as my imagination had embellished her, but much more so?
I mused over the problem of that class of women who are always out of reach, or just out of reach. The closest I ever got to snatching someone out of this impossible tier situated above was back in the long lost era of my high school years, the pregnancy of my life, bursting with adventure from each day to the next, having what can only be described as a legendary status, each memory a vivid oil painting.
Kicked out of the house in the summer vacation of ‘75, I hitched a ride to the mountains, looking for work. My first stop was Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, where I found a job serving soft ice cream at the Banff Buffeteria. The very first day two girls with remarkable bodies walked in, a blue-eyed blonde my age named Sherry, and Ginny, four years older with long wavy brown hair, sparkling black eyes, and the “Stones” embroidered on the back pocket of her jeans. They were from Vancouver. I recall Sherry being hot but I scarcely noticed her since I couldn’t take my eyes off Ginny, who was altogether of a different, marvelous order. In the evening they came back. Ginny invited me to join them later at the King Edward Pub.
My shift over, I walked over to the tavern. Snarling back and forth along the street in front was a turbocharged shiny black van with Alabama license plates. One of the occupants taunted a hitchhiker. The hitchhiker gave them the finger. The van screeched to a halt and three identical men dressed in black with long beach-blond hair jumped out, flailing.
“We’re from Alabama! Where are you from?” one of them yelled at the hitchhiker.
Freaks gathered around the brothers and used holy silence to calm them down. Outnumbered, they filed back into their van.
I found Ginny and Sherry sitting inside with more freaks. There was a youth hostel a few miles outside of town with communal tents, they said. We left the tavern. The black van was still poised outside. Ginny approached the Alabamans and asked if they would drive us to the hostel. We got in. As in those dreams where one minute someone is a deadly stranger and the next a gentle puppy, the Americans were surprisingly docile inside their van. They dropped us off and disappeared gracefully down the road without a trace.
The hostel cost only a dollar a night and was run by freaks. You could choose a single cot in the men’s or women’s bunkhouses or a double cot in the couple’s bunkhouse (marriage wasn’t a requirement). We sat around the campfire drinking Molson Canadians while a freak played guitar. Ginny snuggled next to me and grabbed my hand. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever met and she had just grabbed my hand.
She led me to the couple’s bunkhouse. Eight cots were paired together to form four double beds. Sherry had latched on an older freak and they shared the adjacent bed. I laid out our two sleeping bags on the cots. Ginny pulled off her shirt and big braless boobs flopped out. She kept her black silk panties on. We got inside my sleeping bag and she wrapped her legs around me. She was so soft she felt like one long breast. But she was on the rag and I wasn’t allowed inside her panties. I didn’t understand why that should have prevented us from going all the way, but she was adamant. Sleepless the entire night, I moaned, a virgin at sixteen.
She promised to be with me the next evening but failed to show up at the restaurant, and I couldn’t find her at the tavern after work. The thought of not seeing her was unbearable. I began a tense two-mile trek to the hostel along the highway. Eventually a van pulled up.
It was Ginny. I jumped in. Our second night together was as ecstatic and tortuous as the first. At dawn she finally let her panties come off and I went down on her. We were fully exposed with the sheets off. I didn’t give a fuck if the three other couples in the tent were watching us out of the corner of their eye. A tampon string protruded but there was no sign of the blood with which I would gladly have painted my face, I was so in love with her.
We got up and dressed. The freak who had played guitar at the campfire noticed the beer opener I wore around my neck stamped into the shape of a guitar and approached me. He was spellbound and wanted it. Sorry, but I didn’t want to give it away. Freaks are generous with one another, he pleaded. If one has something that’s more suitable for another freak, he should give it to him in the spirit of brotherhood. He plays the guitar while I don’t, so I should give it to him. The material value isn’t an issue; after all, it’s only a cheap trinket, but one of rare and immense value to him: a guitar beer opener. It would simply be the most fitting gift ever to have passed from one hand to another, and I am lucky enough to be on earth at this moment to realize this exchange. I will feel good about it, knowing the guitar beer opener found its true home. He will dangle the opener from his neck with pride. It will take on talismanic significance….
The more eloquently pleaded the freak, the more stubborn I became. My refusal followed, of course, from Ginny’s refusal. Had she let me inside of her, the freak would have gotten his opener even before asking. But he hung from my refusal and I from Ginny’s refusal and she from the planets by eternal hooks.
I was also equally cognizant of my failure to seize the meat of the event.
In the evening I began another tense trek along the highway. This time no van pulled up with Ginny in it. Earlier they had mentioned staying at another hostel this night, a simple campground for individual tents a few miles beyond the first hostel. I cried as I walked the entire distance, too distraught to bother thumbing a ride. I found Sherry and the guy she was with in his tent at the campground. She didn’t know what had happened to Ginny. They let me share their tent.
In the morning we went back to town looking for Ginny, and even Sherry seemed worried. Then we spotted her on the street. To my horror, they announced they were going back to Vancouver that afternoon. I myself soon wound up back in Edmonton, for that very day a rumor swirled at the restaurant that the RCMP were in Banff looking for Americans without valid work permits. As I was unsure of my status (I was in fact a legal Canadian resident), I quit. Back in Edmonton, I called Ginny up. She was sweet on the phone; it was hopeless.
I have since cultivated sexual relationships with great bodies and take whatever looks I can get. In Beijing I kept an ad in an online dating service. Many men have an upper cutoff point; I have a lower cutoff point. Without a certain sensation of heft settling on me, I can’t get excited. Only women weighing 65 kg or more need reply, photo required. My ideal female weight is in the 75-80 kg range. I guessed Cookie to be about 70 kg, promising to increase with age. The latest woman to reply to my ad, who called herself Lily, claimed to weigh 70 kg. A prim photo of her face was not encouraging, even with a professional makeup job. I decided to give her a shot anyway and meet her for lunch at the school gate (she lived in the neighborhood). The thought occurred to me while waiting for her that a mischievous deity might shove Cookie at me precisely when Lily showed up. But the devil could not have devised a more ingenious method of throwing me off-guard than what actually happened.
A magnificent set of hips in tight slacks and short jacket approached from south of the gate – not Cookie, I quickly ascertained, but a woman of average looks, hair pulled back in a ponytail. That was an ass worth closer inspection but it would be a few moments before she acquired enough distance to give me a rearward view. I then glanced at my watch: twelve o’clock, our designated meeting time. The Chinese tend to be punctual on dates and Lily would be arriving any second. Just as the great ass passed by on my left I turned to look at her again. Another woman with her whom I had not noticed was returning my gaze with a searching, quizzical expression. It was Cookie! By the time she turned back to her friend they were already a significant distance from me heading north on the stretch. The woman in the slacks must have been the same person with Cookie on my previous sightings. But this time it was not her friend’s but Cookie’s outsized hips that were obscured, now heaving against her long snug down coat from behind.
Lily was standing before me. She was quite homely.