Zhang slapped him hard across the face. “How you lose your clothes?”
“Somebody stole it when I took a shower.”
“Nobody steal things here.”
“I’m telling you that’s what happened.”
She marched him naked back to the gift shop. He was able to find a tunic with the same Italian as the last one, “La festa della streghe in mutande.” She paid for it and he slipped it back on. It now read:
WITCHES UNDERWEAR PARTY
“Okay, good. In working order.”
“I take you to my house now. I hope you better at massage, after first day training. You show me your progress tonight.”
“Where do you live?”
“I want to see Giulia again. She also lives on the Palatine.”
“Zhuliya? Who is Zhuliya?”
“The slave girl who helped me escape from her master who almost had me killed.”
“What master? You told me you have no master.”
“I don’t. I told you, I found myself here due to some kind of time travel.”
“You lie to me?” She kept glancing at the new words on his tunic:
THE FREE AND EASY LIFE
OF A FOOTLOOSE TORTOISES
“I am not lying. I was only there a short time, a few hours. We can go there and Giulia will explain that I’m not their slave. I just want to see her again and thank her for helping me.”
“Who is the master? What’s his name?”
“It’s some kind of court eunuch.”
“You know, a man whose penis has been cut off and lives with the emperor. You’re Chinese. You should know what a eunuch is.”
“Ah, taijian. What’s his name?”
“Padrona or something like that. They did tell me her Chinese name but I forgot it. It’s a female eunuch.”
“Female eunuch? No any female eunuchs in China.”
“I mean a male eunuch who dresses as a female. A transvestite eunuch. I can show you the house. I think I can remember how to get there.”
“You love this girl, Zhuliya?”
“Yes, but I don’t think she loves me. I only just met her.”
“What it mean now?” The words on his tunic had changed again:
IT LOSE SEXILY
AND GLAMOR CANNOT TELL
“I have no idea.”
“You want to sleep with Zhuliya? She beautiful?”
“You handsome but you too old for beautiful girl. You need my help. I help you sleep with her, you help me. You agree?”
“You do everything I say, never disobey me.”
They headed down the Vicus Patricius, crossed the Forum, and proceeded up the Palatine Hill. Malmquist remembered the route, and pointed out the little restaurant where he had eaten with Giulia. They arrived at the door of the domus.
“Wait,” said Zhang. “Not good idea you with me. Go to restaurant and wait for me.”
He looked back to see Zhang clang one of the bronze knockers as he retreated down the street. From a table at the eatery, he saw her waiting for a response. The door opened and soon slammed shut. She knocked on the door several more times, more emphatically. Finally the door opened again. She wedged herself in the entrance and gesticulated with the person behind the door.
“Vuoi fare un ordine?” a waitress asked Malmquist. He indicated he was waiting for someone to join him.
The door to the domus had shut again, and Zhang stood before it. After several minutes it opened and Giulia emerged. The two of them were soon standing before Malmquist in the eatery.
“Giulia!” He motioned for both of them to sit down.
“Yes, she beautiful,” said Zhang.
“Ah, sei tu di nuovo,” Giulia said to him. “Va tutto bene?”
The two women were staring at his tunic, which now read:
TRUTH IS ON THE MARCH
NOTHING CAN STOP IT NOW
“No, we go to my house now,” said Zhang. “No need eat here. Let’s go.” They headed back up the hill in the opposite direction from which they came. “Nide zhuren dui ni zenmeyang?” she asked Giulia.
“Hai xing ba.”
“Ta gei ni kongxian shijian huo lingyongqian ma?”
“Wo jiang ba ni cong ta na’er maiguolai. Wo gei ni sanbei de lingyongqian, meizhou yunxu ni xiuxi yitian.”
Zhang jabbed her finger at her scoldingly, “Wo shiyong ni yitian. Ruguo manyi, wo jiu hui ba ni maiguolai.”
“How did you convince them to give you Giulia?” Malmquist asked Zhang.
“Don’t you worry about that. She not mine yet. I just borrow her. Tomorrow she mine.”
They arrived at Zhang’s domus on the other side of the Palatine, facing the Circus Maximus. Though spacious it was more modest than the eunuch’s, and its slaves fewer.
“Do you have a family?” asked Malmquist.
They sat around a shiny marble dining table in an open patio that looked down on the Circus. Attendants set the table.
“Let’s celebrate. You two lucky. I open 2010 vintage Brunello wine from Tuosikana,” said Zhang. “Fifty years wine. No, not these.” She grabbed the three wine glasses that had been set on the table and fetched from a cabinet three strange squat wine glasses with fat stems embossed with grapes. “These from Lunbolang time in Holland. Authentic. You know Lunbolang? Very famous painter.”
“His painting very dark. Only allow small piece of light on painting.”
A male slave brought the wine up from a cellar and uncorked it.
“Chinese food okay?”
“Any food is okay.”
“Let me pour wine.” As Zhang poured Giulia’s glass, she trailed her hand over her new female slave’s shoulder and neck before moving over to Malmquist’s glass.
A series of dishes came in turn — a plump fish whose meat had been fluffed out and glazed with orange, sliced roast duck, finger-sized fried spring rolls, sautéed baby cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, sautéed Chinese kale and spring onions. Giulia could easily manage with the chopsticks, while Malmquist struggled. Zhang opened a second, and then a third bottle of wine. “Because your taste become numb, this wine not so expensive. It’s from China, close to here. Wa sai! Your face so red,” she said to Giulia.
Giulia was more relaxed after the wine but didn’t talk much. Malmquist leaned over and touched her cheek with his fingers. “Yep, you’re a bit flushed.”
Zhang came up to Giulia from behind and slithered her hands around her breasts. “Wode tian. So big. Mine too small. I like to touch big boob. Let me have a look.” She pulled Giulia’s tunic off over her head and tossed it behind her. “So hot body. Let’s do some massage, okay? Come to bedroom.”
“Oh, Jesus, you’ve got the Led Zeppelin tattoo on your belly too?” Malmquist said to Giulia. “How could that be?”
“The Led Zeppelin symbols,” he pointed.
“Si tratta di un tatuaggio comune,” she said.
“Jiefu, you take that off.”
The text had changed on Malmquist’s tunic again. When he saw it he grew pale with shock:
HAND MADE COOKIE & HOT DOG BULL
THE FOODS FOR NOT MONARCH, EARLS
ARISTOCRAT EARNESTLY WISH TO SERVE FOR LUNCH
AND REFRESHMENTS OF THE POPULACE
MR MALMQUIST ARE YOU THERE?
He followed them into a bedroom as large as the patio. The bed alone was the size of four king-size beds put together. Zhang stripped naked and said to Giulia, “Tang xia.” To Malmquist she said, “I watch you massage her. Show me your progress. Take that off, I told you.”
The words had changed again:
THERE IS THIS EXQUISITE HARMONY
INSP MELYNCHUK HERE
WRITE ON THE TUNIC
“Off!” Zhang yelled. He took off his tunic. She handed him a crystal vial. Squatting between Giulia’s legs, he removed its glass stopper, sprinkled some oil on her torso and spread it around. Zhang grabbed his penis and inserted it in Giulia’s vagina. Then Zhang pushed him aside. “Oh, baby, I love you,” she said to Giulia, as she folded the slave’s legs back and went down on her.
“Can I use your bathroom? I have to pee.”
He grabbed the tunic and put it on.
“Why you wear? You don’t need.”
Zhang crawled over Giulia and began kissing her on the mouth, while guiding Giulia’s hand to her groin. “Wo ai ni, baobei.”
In the bathroom, Malmquist could hear Zhang’s orgasmic contractions from the bedroom, loud rhythmic squeals like some pulsating creature of the jungle. He looked down at the tunic again. The same text was still there. He traced the words “CAN YOU READ ME?” over it with his finger.
YES WEARING YOUR TUNIC
WE’RE IN SYNC
WHERE ARE YOU?
LEROY CAN’T FIND YOU
“I’M IN CHINESE ROME. I’M HELD CAPTIVE,” Malmquist responded on the tunic.
I THOUGHT SO
WORKING WITH EXPERTS
WHAT’S GOING ON
The squealing in the bedroom stopped. “I’M IN A BATHROOM. ONLY HAVE A MINUTE. I CAN’T BE SEEN — ”
The door banged open. “Take that off or I’ll kill you!” Zhang yelled at him.
“Wo zhen taoyan nage paozi! You want me throw away that clothing and keep you naked?”
“I’m not used to being a slave. Please have patience with me.”
“Why you look scared?”
Zhang marched him back to the bedroom. She placed herself over Giulia in sixty-nine position and said to him, “My pussy, the water needs to come out. Show me your progress.”
He worked his hand inside her vagina. Almost instantly she started raining on Giulia’s face. “Oh, god! Now fuck me in ass. Jiefu, fuck me in ass!”
A good hour passed. Having gone through all possible positions and combinations, they reclined exhausted on the bed with some more wine. Zhang started sobbing.
“Zenmele nin?” Giulia asked her. She sobbed harder, without saying anything.
“Penso che sia sola e ha solo bisogno di un bel pianto,” Giulia said to him.
“Why did you abandon me at the embassy yesterday?”
“Ni weishenme zuotian zai dashiguan paoqi ta?” Zhang asked Giulia.
“Wo dei mashang huiqule. Zhuren hen yange.”
“She said her mistress is strict and she must return to her fast. You both sleep here. You are my slaves but also my friends. So be friendly and I treat you well. I’m lonely and want you stay with me.”
“What about your other slaves?”
Malmquist needed another trip to the bathroom that night but refrained from sneaking the tunic in with him.
In the morning, after a breakfast of rice porridge containing bits of fish, they resumed the training. Malmquist was doing a better job at releasing Zhang’s water, and Giulia studied how to do the same. When they were cleaned up and dressed for lunch, Malmquist asked Zhang, “I thought you worked at a bank?”
“I go there when I want. You have good job, you choose work time. Now, you eat alone. I take Zhuliya back to her master to negotiate price. You wait for us. Don’t you leave here. They feed you,” pointing to her slaves.
When he was finally able to glance at his tunic, it said:
POPULAR, HAD BETTER SEE
LOVELY BEAR IN DARLING
“Damn it!” He traced the words, “WE NEED TO FIGURE OUT THE CODE.” But there was no response from Melynchuk and only the shifting gibberish appeared.
Meanwhile the chariot races in the Circus had begun. It was the largest assemblage of spectators he had ever seen, and he and the other slaves had a perfect view from the patio. One charioteer lost control. Unable to detach himself from his chariot, he was dragged by his horses around the entire circuit before being trampled to death, leaving a trail of blood like a squashed insect.
He wandered about the domus. Suddenly a huge roar burst forth from the Circus. Everyone in the house, including the slave guarding the front door, rushed over to see what happened. A mass collision had reduced all twelve chariots to a flailing heap of limbs and forty-eight horses. Malmquist took the opportunity to slip out of the house.
Retracing the route on which Giulia had first taken him, he wandered down to the Roman Forum and continued through the Forum of Nerva. But instead of heading further on the Clivus Argiletum to Subura and the police station, he turned the other way. He found himself in a labyrinth of markets and narrow lanes. He cut through the souvenir shops and hoards of people, intending to double back and around to the Via Sacra. Instead, he found himself in a new forum far larger than the Forum of Nerva, lined with white marble porticoes topped by a second story of statues equal in number to the columns below.
Blinded by the bright space and dizzying crowd, he hung back in the shadows of the entrance and browsed a bookstall nearby. All the books were in Chinese. He paged through several of them to see if any illustrations could reveal their contents. The loitering middle-aged slave wearing a gift-shop tunic spouting English rather than Chinese on it was in any case noticed.
A Chinese man nearby was staring at Malmquist’s tunic, which now said:
“Ni weishenme du women de shu? Gou nucai buneng du zhongwen.”
Malmquist put the book down and walked away.
“Hei! Huida wo, dang wo gen ni shuo hua!”
The man followed him and started pushing and slapping him and yelling at him. Malmquist gave him a punch in the solar plexus to disable him and quickly worked his way out of the market. He could hear shouting behind him. Turning left on Clivus Argiletum, he proceeded into Subura and looked for a shop to hide himself in. He spied a naked woman standing behind the curtained doorway of a brothel and stepped inside.
“Ciao bello,” she said.
He sat down on a chair and mimed being out of breath. He reached into his tunic pocket, pulled out an empty hand and slapped his forehead with it to convey that he had forgotten his money. Just then a group of men ran past the shop shouting, several in military garb. The prostitute looked at the men and back at Malmquist. “Sono alla ricerca per voi?”
“I don’t speak Italian.”
“Tamen zai zhao ni?”
“I don’t speak Chinese.”
The group of men outside passed by the shop again from the other direction. She led Malmquist down a row of cubbyholes and put him in one. “Shhh!” she said. “Silenzio.”
Malmquist could hear the prostitute exchanging Chinese with someone outside. A man entered the brothel. Malmquist recognized his voice as the same man. She was arguing with him, and her fellow prostitutes poked their face out of the other cubbyholes. The man dragged her into Malmquist’s cubbyhole and threw her on the bed. Malmquist had already slipped underneath the bed and held himself up against the inner surface by sticking his feet and hands into the metal slats. The man cursed and slapped her in a rage as he raped her. Soon he was gone. The woman bent down and signaled to Malmquist to stay where he was for the time being.
Later, she let him come out from under the bed and lay on it, but kept him in the room. “Dobbiamo aspettare fino a quando fuori è buio,” she said, pointing toward the street.
Hours later, she kicked him out of the brothel. It was already deep dusk. Back at Zhang’s domus, the guard wore a surprised expression at seeing Malmquist, who breathed a sigh of relief to see that Zhang and Giulia hadn’t yet returned. He was finally able to get synced with Melynchuk:
FAINS I SUCH A FADDISH ERA
I WANNA DO EVERYTHING
IN MY PARTICULAR WAY
JEFF YOU THINK YOU’RE
IN A DIFFERENT REALITY?
“YOU MEAN ONE IS AN ILLUSION OR DREAM OF THE OTHER?”
WHICH VERSION IS REAL?
“YOU HAVE MY TUNIC AND I STILL HAVE MY HEAD WOUND. BOTH ARE REAL. WHAT TIME AND DATE?”
7AM OCT 3 2060
YOU SHOULD BE
13 HOURS AHEAD
CHINA TIME ZONE
“6PM HERE. DON’T KNOW DATE. WAIT SOMETHING WRONG. SHOULD BE 8PM HERE. WHAT TIME DID I ARRIVE AT POLICE STATION YESTERDAY?”
“I LOST 2 HRS. DON’T KNOW HOW. I’M EITHER SWITCHING TIME AND PLACE OR — ”
The two women returned, and Malmquist had to abandon his fiddling with the tunic.
“Zhuliya expensive but she now mine,” said Zhang. The slave was carrying a sack of her belongings. “How your day here? Let’s have dinner.”
She disappeared into the kitchen with the attendants, before quickly reemerging. “Shenme yisi? They say you escape the whole day! You disobey me!”
“I can’t stay inside the whole day. I go crazy. I have to get out and do some exercise.” He jumped back and forth on his two legs. “I didn’t think there would be a problem.”
“It is problem. Big problem. You know how much danger if you out alone? You helpless. No Chinese or Italy language. And your tunic not proper. I need to get you proper tunic. This will cause you trouble,” pointing to his tunic, which now read:
SOFT AND LIGHT PIE
AS IF TIME PILES UP
* * *
Forthcoming (summer 2017): The Kitchens of Canton