Several months went by. It was near the end of the semester and summer was in full bloom. Students rushed past me as I emerged from the west campus one morning on my way to class. 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 thirty 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 a thousand pedestrians per hour, or up to twenty thousand 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 sixty 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 a thousand 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 three million residents and 430 square kilometers meant a density of seven thousand per square kilometer. The distance from the Changwa Main 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 ten thousand 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 six hundred 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, 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 thirty 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 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 collision of two incompatible 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. She 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 her bulky bra cups. 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 eighty 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 thirty is married, so the married tend not to wear a wedding band, 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.
“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 cock 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 divide the world into those who live on books and those who live on TV, and they are 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 twenty-five. They take a husband – almost any will do – just to stop the incessant peer and parental harassment (though oddly marriage frees them up to flirt with men). They will 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 the 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.
* * *
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