Fiction

The Mustached Woman. A novel. Chs. 1-2

Chapter 1

(Go to Ch. 2)

 

“Men.”

“Yeah,” Marguerite said as she led Louisa and Lixin into her loft. “Doesn’t it sometimes just make you wanna, like, wash your hands of them all?”

“And I heard she had memory problems after that. Amnesia.”

“From what?”

“Being punched in the face. He kept beating her, right in the café. Totally lost it.”

“Wow, you have such big place. So many rugs.”

“You guys have a seat down here on the bed.”

“Okeydokey,” said Louisa as she lowered herself on the futon.

“These rugs you sell?” Lixin was examining several pieces hanging on a wall and more stacked on the floor. “So beautiful. What’s that? Oh, you make rug?”

“Yep.”

“Really,” said Louisa. The three of them crowded over the loom. “So that’s how rugs are made. I’ve always wanted to know. How long does it take you to make one of these?”

“About a year. This one is for my own amusement. The others are from dealers.”

“It takes you a whole year to make that?”

“It could get done faster if that’s all I did the whole day.”

“Oh, I see. That’s the portion you’ve already done below.”

“Yeah, recently started it.”

“What this material, wool?” asked Lixin.

“Yeah.”

“Where did you learn how to make them?”

“Oh, it’s been years.”

“When you lived in Iran?”

“And Turkey. I was kidnapped once and enslaved in a rug factory.”

What?”

“Long story. Tell you about it later. Anyway, I miss it and need to keep doing it. It’s very meditative and relaxing.”

“You were enslaved? And you miss it?”

“I don’t miss being enslaved. But I miss the work.”

“Can we watch you?”

“Some other time. I need to get into the ‘zone.’ Once I start, I don’t want to stop.”

“I thought it was in Iran that you had some problems.”

“Yeah, I was jailed there for three years.”

“Why?”

“Holding an orgy in my apartment.”

“They do that there?”

”You bet.”

”While wearing the hijab?”

”No, they don’t wear the hijab when having sex.”

“What’s this?” said Lixin.

“I was also going to ask you about this,” said Louisa. “You don’t really…”

“Oh, my god. And that?” said Lixin, mouth agape. “Everyone use that?”

Marguerite lit a bong and passed it to Louisa. “Yep.”

“I’m afraid I’m too shy!” said Lixin, covering her face with her hand.

“Yeah, I could use some of this. I haven’t been able to find any in a while here. Lixin?”

“Oh, what’s that? Dama?”

“Yeah.”

“I want to try. I never tried.”

“You don’t really, Marguerite…in front of guests?”

“So tell me more about this guy who beat up his girlfriend in the café. You said he’s in Shanghai?”

“It happened here. But nobody knows what happened to him.”

“What was his name? Just in case I may have heard of him.”

“I don’t know. He was an author. I think she was his translator.”

“And he did that to her?”

“Yeah, after making her nude photos public on the internet.”

“He did that to her because he made her nude photos public on the internet? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

“After she confronted him.”

“Oh, yeah. Trying to shut her up. Was it one of those amateur porn sites where perverts post up-skirt videos?”

“Probably. I wish I could remember his name. He published some kind of book on massage, I recall.”

“Massage? Oh, one of those male white trash travelogues from the Philippines or Thailand?”

“Take it all the way into your lungs and hold it in for as long as you can,” said Louise.

Lixin coughed out the toke she took in. She tried again.

“If it’s your first time you may not feel anything,” said Marguerite.

“Why not?”

“You sort of have to learn how to get high.”

“So do you ever actually have guests over and they use this?” said Louisa.

“Many times.”

“And that?”

Marguerite walked over to the exposed toilet and pulled a hanging rug around it.

“Oh, I see. I didn’t notice that track thing above. A little more civilized now!” Louisa laughed. “But you don’t have the same for this.”

“Nah. Why hide it if the whole point is to be open?”

“I’d have to be with the right people — and maybe only after a few drinks. Wait. How many can fit into it?”

“Two. Or three. Three, if you don’t mind getting a bit intimate,” said Marguerite, stealing a glance at Lixin.

“It’s cool. The whole atmosphere here. And your clothes. That’s quite a retro dress you’ve got on.”

“1930s Shanghai.”

“It’s genuine?”

“Absolutely.”

“Can I ask you a personal question? Your…” Louisa pinched the air above her lips. “You must get a lot of comments. Or stares.”

“I’d get a lot of stares even if I didn’t have it.”

The three of them laughed.

“It does go with you.”

“I was on the subway the other day when this deaf couple were signing about me and joking about it. I signed back, inviting them over to have a bath with me. You should have seen their jaws drop.”

“You asked them that?”

“So you can sign Chinese too?” said Lixin.

“Yeah. I picked it up. I’ve picked up quite a few sign languages over the years.”

“Was it hard?”

“Not that hard. Of course, I have a strong accent. They can recognize ASL.”

“ASL?”

“American Sign Language.”

“How deaf are you, if I may ask?”

“Ninety percent.”

“You seem to have no problem talking with us.”

“As long as I can see your lips,” she said and pointed to one of her ears.

“Oh, I didn’t notice that.”

“And as long as you can understand my slurred speech.”

“I can make you out easily. What about you, Lixin, do you have any trouble understanding Marguerite?”

“I can understand her.”

“Have you always been deaf?”

“Since I was two. Meningitis. Are you feeling anything?” Marguerite asked Lixin, who was staring in front of her.

“Hmm, not sure. So on subway they were talking about your….” She covered her mouth again as she laughed.

“The Frida Kahlo?”

“Frida? What’s that?”

“Frida Kahlo. The female Mexican painter.”

“Oh, yeah! I know. With the….” Lixin drew a line across her eyebrows.

“Unibrow. But she also had a mustache.”

“No, I have to say it really does suit you,” said Louisa.

“I have seen Chinese women with mustaches as dark as mine. I’ve always wondered why they don’t shave it off. But it doesn’t seem to be a matter of pride with them. They have blank, sad faces. Like they’ve given up and don’t care anymore what people think. Or they’ve persuaded themselves that no one really notices.”

“Have you ever shaved yours off?”

“Yes. In order to make it grow back darker.”

“Oh, I feel something,” said Lixin.

“You’re getting off?”

“What do you feel?” said Louisa.

“Did I just say ‘I feel something’?”

“Yeah.”

“What was I talking about?”

“You said you felt something.”

“Oh, my god,” she laughed. “Did I just say ‘Oh, my god’?”

The three burst out laughing.

“You’re learning fast,” said Marguerite, who then went over to the clear glass bathtub, which sat dead center in the loft on a large Persian carpet, and turned on the tap.

“Did you have the pipes specially made for it?” asked Louisa.

“In fact this was the bathroom of the previous tenants and I took out the walls. The toilet over there was another bathroom.”

“Your landlord let you do that?”

“Oh, they love my place. A young couple. They joined me in the tub once. They’re interested in my rug and antique clothes business.”

“They’re interested in your shocking life,” said Lixin. “What did I just say?”

“My shocking life.”

“I don’t mean you are shocking person.”

“Wait till I tell you about family,” she grinned.

“What about your family?”

“No, better not. Some other time. I don’t want to freak you guys out.”

“You already are freaking us out,” said Louisa.

Lixin laughed. Steam rose from the tub as the water level rose. The tub was illuminated underneath by LED lights. “It’s so beautiful.”

Marguerite pointed to the tall candelabras set on the four corners of the carpet. “At night time I light those as well.”

“No, come on. Do tell us,” said Louisa.

“Well, I was orphaned at eight. To make a long story short, my mom caught my dad sexually abusing me and he shot her to shut her up, and then shot himself in the head.”

“I’m sorry!” Louisa and Lixin exclaimed in one breath.

“No need to be. It’s ancient history. Strangely, the hardest thing to deal with at the time was it was all over the news. My grandmother took me in. She was a pretty level-headed woman and did a fair job at shielding me from the media and patching up my life.”

“You seem so well adjusted. I think most people would have a hard time surviving that.”

“You have no choice.”

“Do you have problems relating to men?”

“No. I take each person as they come. The problem with a lot of women is they’re afraid of men. I’m not afraid of men. And I’ve never had a problem, even when I worked as a masseuse. Chinese men don’t have the violent tendencies you see in so many American men.”

“You did what?”

“The massage shop I worked in. Here in Shanghai when I first arrived a few years back.”

“Why?”

“I needed some money till I got my rug business underway. And I wanted to see what it was like.”

“What was it like?”

“I lived in a dorm room with ten other girls. We worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week.”

“No days off?”

“It was better than the rug factory. In fact we had a pretty decent madam and she knew how to run the place and treat us well. If you needed to take a day off you just took it.”

“You were on a working visa?”

“I was on all kinds of visas back then — business visas, tourists visas — until the Government started tightening up. It’s a lot harder to find jobs where they hire you under the table these days.”

“How did you find that job?”

“I tried out a few places, to check out the girls and the quality of the service — the more upscale, New Agey places, not the shabby parlors. Most masseuses here do breast massage and I only inquired while having my boobs done so they knew I knew what I was getting into. They still laughed it off like I was crazy. But one place, the girl came back into the room with the madam and she grilled me. My Chinese wasn’t very good then but I think she found me exotic enough to be useful to her.”

“Did you already have experience?”

“I had picked up some basic techniques over the years. You meet guys who want it and they teach you how to do it.”

“Was it safe?”

“Yeah. There was the occasional drunken asshole who started grabbing me but I knew how to control them. You learn how to give them just the right amount of noncooperation. What they really want is attention. When I had male customers, that is.”

“Unbelievable,” said Lixin.

“You massaged both men and women?”

“About half and half. Most of the Western customers were young couples, actually, getting massaged in the same room together. Daring to try a massage for their very first time, and usually so nervous they were shaking. A lot of single Asian males too — Chinese, Japanese and Korean. A lot of Japanese females.”

“Japanese females?”

“Oh, yeah, they can get it much cheaper here than in Japan. The Chinese females are the ones who usually go for boob massage.”

“Why?”

“Why not? It’s a health thing here, considered good for the breasts. Nobody thinks there’s anything strange about it. It is also kind of erotic for them, a release, being pampered like that in the guise of therapy. Most female customers prefer to be massaged by a male, though.”

“Sounds like things could quickly get out of hand.”

“The masseurs aren’t allowed to do breast massage. But I can tell you it secretly goes on with some. They would never initiate it; that’s the fast track to losing their job. But if a female customer demands it and he refuses, he’ll lose her as a customer.”

Lixin had a smile wrapped on her face.

“Could you go for breast massage, Lixin?” said Louisa.

“I have done it. No problem.”

“Wow. It’s illegal in the States, I think.”

Marguerite snickered at the mention of their country.

“How much money did you make?”

“Twenty, thirty thousand kuai a month. I had to quit after six months. The big problem is it takes a toll on your hands. It started affecting my ability to weave. If you often go for massage you’ll notice a lot of masseuses use only one hand, or their fist or elbow to massage you. It’s not that they’re lazy, but their hands are gone. I got out before I ruined them. That’s the biggest hazard of the job.”

“Interesting. Can’t weaving also do the same?”

“It’s easier on the hands. Weaving doesn’t require any strength, just technique. I had acquired good technique from the start. Anyway you can only weave for a few hours a day before using up your concentration.”

Most of the tub was filled with water by now. Marguerite stood up and pulled her dress up off her head. “Would you guys like to join me?”

Lixin turned to Louisa.

“No, you two go ahead. I already showered this morning,” said Louisa.

“Same with me. I can try next time,” said Lixin.

“Come on and join me, Lixin.”

“I’m embarrassed.”

“You keep looking at the tub. I know you’re dying to get in it.”

“You sure this is okay?”

Marguerite opened up a bottle of red and brought out three wine glasses. She poured a glass for Louisa and placed the other two on the floor next to the tub. Slowly, Lixin removed her shirt and bra. But she continued to sit on the futon, arms crossed over her breasts.

“C’mon darling,” urged Marguerite, as she led Lixin by the hand to the tub.

Lixin pulled off the rest of her clothes and dipped her foot in the water. “Ow! So hot.”

“Wow, I can’t compete with you guys. You both have such great bodies,” said Louisa.

“It’s not a beauty contest, girls. Everyone is welcome.”

“Your tattoos are incredible,” said Louisa.

“They’re Scythian.”

“Why does it go all the way up only one side of your body?”

“Asymmetry suits the body better.”

“Ahh!” said Lixin as she sank back into the tub. “So luxury!”

She and Marguerite sat in the tub facing each other, wine glasses in hand.

“Next is massage, dear. So I can do those fabulous tits of yours.”

The steam obscured Lixin’s reaction.

“Can I take a photo of you guys? It’s so striking, seeing you lit up in the tub like that,” said Louisa. “Don’t worry, I won’t post them on Moments or anything. I just want to show some girlfriends of mine.”

“I’m fine with that. Lixin?”

“I can turn my face away?”

“As you like.”

“Yeah, you have to be careful these days. It’s so easy for compromising photos to get into the wrong hands,” said Marguerite.

“Everybody sending sex pics on WeChat years ago. But recently people stop,” said Lixin. “Because of scandal.”

“I’m really curious about this guy who beat up his girlfriend in the café,” Marguerite said to Louisa. “Why would a writer, of all people, who hired a translator, or was in an intimate relationship with her, do that to her? I mean, aren’t writers a step above soccer hooligans? To write a book requires a detached and patient mind, doesn’t it? A minimally civilized person.”

“Alpha male rage knows no bounds,” said Louisa.

“I hope she wasn’t permanently injured. That must have been one helluva beating.”

Marguerite and Lixin sat in silence for several minutes, their legs entwined, as Louisa squatted around the bathtub snapping photos with her Nikon D850.

”Oh, my god,” Lixin said to Marguerite. “Every time I see your glass the wine is less. It tells the time, like a clock. This marijuana is crazy. You know, I have some rugs like these in my house. I don’t know if they good quality.”

“Where did you buy them?”

“My American boyfriend gave them when he left China.”

“He’s not coming back?”

“No. I don’t know where he get them. Can you tell good quality by looking?”

“Of course.”

Tai haole. I invite you to my place.”

“Can you tell where a rug comes from? I’ve always been curious about that,” said Louisa.

“You mean the local region where it was made? You can with Persian rugs, and some rugs from Central Asia, but not Turkish rugs. They’re no longer made in Turkey.”

“Where are they made?”

“China. Henan Province.”

“Oh, really. They’re all fake?”

“Depends what you mean by ‘fake.’ They’re made according to exact Turkish specifications.”

“You mean you can’t buy a rug in Turkey that’s made in Turkey anymore?”

“No. The Chinese put all the Turkish rug factories out of business. Though the dealers there will pretend to be offended if you question their authenticity. Anyway, it’s not really meaningful to speak of the origin of an Oriental rug. Many of the classic designs have been a shared vocabulary for hundreds of years. Even many so-called local designs were borrowed from other regions long before anyone remembered.”

“Where do the designs come from then? I’m actually really ignorant about this.”

“Take paisley, for example.”

“The pattern on shirts and scarves?”

“Yeah. Where does it come from?”

“I have no idea. I know it’s a traditional pattern, but it took off in the sixties, didn’t it?”

“It originally comes from Persian rugs. The main design element is the boteh, you know?” She drew the shape of a teardrop with a curled tip in the air. “You see that a lot in Oriental rugs. It’s one of the oldest design motifs. Many rug makers don’t give a damn about where their designs come from, and couldn’t even tell you. The only thing that matters are the latest fashions, which are dictated by customers and dealers in the US and Europe. That’s been the case for the past two centuries, since Oriental rugs became fashionable in the West. Actually before that, since the Renaissance. We know a lot about early Persian and Turkish rug design from European Renaissance painters, because they put them into their paintings.”

“But where did the original rug makers get their ideas for all these amazing designs?” said Louisa, sweeping her hand across the loft.

“That’s a good question. There’s some speculation the basic Persian rug design goes back to the Scythians thousands of years ago. They occupied a huge swath of territory in Central Asia, including Persia. They were inspired by hallucinogenic drug trances in shamanic ceremonies.”

“Oh, so that’s the Scythian connection. What drugs?”

“It was known as soma. One theory is that it was cannabis. The other theory is the fly agaric mushroom.”

“Yeah, I remember reading about soma in Huxley’s Brave New World.”

“I have book on massage, very weird one. I can give it to you when you visit me. But it’s in Chinese,” said Lixin.

“She has such gorgeous eyes, doesn’t she?” Marguerite said to Louisa.

“You have gorgeous mustache,” said Lixin.

“I’ve been waiting for that. You’re the first woman who’s actually complimented me on it! Ever.”

“We used to not shave under arms. Then everybody suddenly stop doing that. I don’t know why.”

“I’ve had men compliment me, though. There are actually men who are into it.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. Some are totally obsessed with it. But it’s very hard for a man to innocently compliment a woman on her mustache. There’s no way he can come off as sincere without sounding like he’s mocking her.”

Louisa and Lixin laughed.

“‘Oh,'” Marguerite mimed as she leaned toward Lixin, “‘I just want to let you know that I’m into mustached women and I really, really love your mustache. Please don’t misunderstand me. I truly admire your mustache. I really do.’ Or, the type who’s afraid to make things worse by giving excuses and just gets to the point: ‘I like your mustache,'” she deadpanned.

More laughing.

“Or, because he doesn’t want to sound fake, he…he…” — Marguerite was in convulsions too now — “he says with a knowing grin, ‘That’s a helluva mustache you got there, babe. More power to ya!'”

Lixin sprayed out the wine she had just gulped onto Marguerite. They guffawed for a minute before catching their breath.

“I’m so sorry!” she said.

“I haven’t had a good laugh like that in a while,” said Louisa. “Getting back to — ” they laughed some more. “Oh, my goodness. Getting back to your rugs, what design did you choose for the rug you’re making?”

“One of my own. I don’t do traditional designs. See that scrapbook over there? Have a look.”

Louisa went over to the work table and paged through the book. “These so are amazing. Wherever did you get the ideas for these?”

Marguerite and Lixin got out of the tub and dried off. While Lixin got dressed, Marguerite walked naked over to the kitchen and retrieved a jar from a spice rack. “I’m carrying on the tradition of the Scythians, using this,” she said as her swaying body ambled up to them carrying the votive offering.

“What is it?”

“Deems.”

“What’s that?”

“A sacred medicine.”

“I’ve never heard of it before,” said Louisa.

In her jeans and topless, Lixin grabbed the bowl from Marguerite. “What this?”

“Have you done acid or shrooms?”

“Sure,” said Louisa.

This is to acid, as acid is to cannabis. It’s a technology for communicating with aliens.”

“Sounds scary. It’s not dangerous?”

“Can I try?” said Lixin.

“Do I look like I have problems? Lixin, how do you feel?”

“I feel good. It’s very interesting and funny feeling, but a kind of ‘struggle’ in my head.”

“You’re not ready for deems, dear.”

“I got really fucked up on acid once. I don’t see how anything can be stronger than acid,” said Louisa.

“The advantage of deems is it’s really strong only for a few minutes, and wears off after half an hour.”

“What’s it like?”

“Actually the brain produces it naturally when you dream. And the lungs, too. You know why certain types of yoga that use breathing techniques, like Kundalini yoga, are so popular? When you do sustained and heavy breathing, you start to hallucinate. That’s from the deems that’s released in your lungs. This is the concentrated form.”

“Oh, is this DMT?”

“Yes. Think of it as the ultimate soma.”

“Where did you get it?”

“I made it myself.”

“You made it yourself? How?”

“I extracted it. Every one of these designs,” Marguerite said as she fanned through the pages of her scrapbook, “were given to me by aliens.”

“Extraterrestrials?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No.”

“Well, I have to say I’ve never seen anything like this. What are these things in this one? DNA strands?”

“Yes. The universal language. The code. It’s not just the chemical building block of life, but the universal internet for advanced forms of intelligence. DNA was seeded on earth for communication purposes.”

“And you’re going to turn all of these designs into rugs?”

“If I ran a rug factory and had a bunch of slaves, I could!”

“You have these ideas when you smoke this drug?” said Lixin.

“Medicine, dear.”

“So which one of these is the rug you’re working on? This one with the liquid shapes? It looks like a traditional Persian rug as if Salvador Dali had designed it,” said Louisa.

“Yeah, that one.”

“Really psychedelic. You know what it reminds me of? Australian Aborigine art.”

“Sure. That art is also inspired by hallucinogenic medicines, you know.”

“These drawings are works of art. You could exhibit them. And this one, with the repeated patterns. It looks more like a traditional rug pattern, but trippier, with a 3D effect.”

“Psychedelic lozenges. They move and shift as you look at them.”

“Can I take photos of them?” said Louisa.

“No.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. You probably want to protect them.”

“The designs are safe and sound.”

“But no one can know about this work you’re doing, Marguerite. You have to do something with these images. You can’t just let them sit there!” she yelled, slapping the scrapbook down on the table.

Lixin set the bong down on the table. “I want to try it.”

“This is really heavy stuff, honey. You have to respect it. You had three hits of my weed. You know what’s going to happen if you have just one hit of this?”

“What?”

“You will have a hard time finding this table to set the bong back down on. If you have two hits, you’ll be suspended in a geometric matrix called ‘the waiting room.’ If you have three hits, you’ll ‘break through’ and meet the aliens. You won’t return the same person.”

“Should we really be giving this stuff to her?” said Louisa.

“Will I become addicted?”

“No, not at all. It doesn’t work like that. For some people, once is enough for the rest of their life.”

“I want to try a little now.”

“You don’t give up easily. Okay, I can give you one small hit today, and then if you take to it, we can proceed to the waiting room next time, and maybe break through after that. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Sit down on the chair. In fact we have to use this.” Marguerite pulled out a small glass pipe and placed a pinch of the white crystals in its bowl.

“Maybe you shouldn’t, Marguerite. She can’t possibly know what she’s getting into.”

“Have you ever done deems, Louisa?”

“No, but everything you’re saying confirms what I’ve heard. Aren’t you worried about having all this stuff on you, in this country?”

“I don’t arrange my life around fear. I’ll get you started, Lixin. Just before I give you the pipe, exhale deeply. When I give you the pipe, take it all in and hold it in as long as you can.”

“Lixin, don’t. You’re not ready for this now.”

“Why not?”

Marguerite pulled out a torch lighter.

“Marguerite, don’t give it to her!” she shouted.

“Louisa, I’m not a child,” said Lixin.

“No!” Louisa grabbed Lixin and yanked her away.

“Louisa, I’m only giving her a tiny amount,” said Marguerite. “Do you really want to try it?”

“Yes, I want to try it.” Lixin sluffed off Louisa.

“Now, remember to exhale and then take it in as soon as I hand you the pipe.”

Marguerite proceeded to hold the flame over the bowl and drew in the white vapor until it filled the chamber, and expelled the vapor from her mouth. Lixin took the pipe and sucked the vapor out of the chamber. After a few moments she coughed it out, her face wrinkled in disgust. “Horrible taste — oh, I feel it already.” She looked around her with a dazed expression. “Oh….Oh….”

They watched her intently. A minute later, she started to sob.

“Are you okay, Lixin?” said Louisa.

“Shhh! She’s fine. Don’t bother her.”

“She’s crying.”

“She’s fine. She really is.”

“Lixin?” Louisa went up to her behind the chair and wrapped her arms around her.

“Let her be,” said Marguerite, gently removing Louise’s arms from Lixin.

Several minutes later, Lixin stood up and walked over to the futon. She lay down in fetal position and closed her eyes.

“I hope she’s okay.”

“She’s fine. If you try some as well, you will be able to understand what she’s experiencing.”

“Why did you give it to her, knowing she’s so vulnerable?”

“Why do you assume she’s vulnerable? Why would she be any more vulnerable than you? She wanted to do it. She has intense curiosity. The urge to attain altered states of consciousness is universal. Moreover, if I had refused to give it to her, she wouldn’t stop harassing me until she got her hands on it. She’s also in love with me.”

“In love with you!”

“You can’t tell?”

“I think,” a smiling Lixin said as she turned face up, “that was the most beautiful experience I ever have in my life.”

“Glad to hear it, honey,” said Marguerite.

“What did you feel?” said Louis.

“Everything vibrating. And then everything turn into shapes like we studied in geometry class. Too difficult to describe. I still see the shapes. Oh, my god.”

“I was so worried, Lixin,” said Louisa.

“Why worried? You should try this. You have to try this.”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I overreacted.” She wiped a tear away. “I guess I’m just over-sensitive about how women can be abused. I can’t get that thing out of my head about the guy who beat up his girlfriend in the café.”

“Yeah, he sounds atrocious. But why be upset about it?” said Marguerite. “Maybe if you knew one of them. Or saw the photos he uploaded onto the web for yourself. I can’t get upset over something like that if I have no personal connection to the people involved. In an abstract way it’s upsetting, but not emotionally.”

“Anyway. The person who told me knew someone who knew her. One thing I now recall her saying is that the book the guy was writing on massage was printed in Renaissance style, of all things.”

“Now that’s interesting,” said Marguerite. “One of my favorite topics, the Renaissance.”

“But I don’t know what she meant by that.”

“They printed text in the margins in Renaissance books, a sort of metacommentary on the main text. It was a holdover from Medieval manuscripts, you know, with the margins ornamented in gold leaf and the most exquisite drawings.”

“Anyway, just because a man has literary abilities doesn’t mean he’s incapable of the most extreme violence.”

“From what I know about amnesia,” said Marguerite, “people who have it have always had it. I mean they have the tendency, a condition like epilepsy. It’s psychological. It’s hard to suddenly get amnesia for the first time out of the blue, unless from a head trauma. What did he do to her? Was he trying to kill her?”

“That’s why I can’t get it out of my head. The viciousness of it.”

“Strange that I never heard anything about it. Extreme incidents like that usually get into the news. Especially when a foreigner is involved. You remember that story a few years ago, the British guy who boasted about seducing all those Chinese women in his blog? He got run out of the country by the ‘human flesh finders.’ All he did was brag. And that Russian guy on the train, the cellist, who put his feet on top of the seat in front of him and photographed it? Also run out of the country. Bam, out! Never knew what hit him.”

“I know worse than that,” said Louisa. “Did you hear about that French guy recently who got stabbed to death by his Chinese wife when she caught him with another woman? I guess she was from the countryside and he found someone more educated. He was a pretty handsome guy, too, from his pictures in the news. Sad.”

“Yeah, I heard about that one. That was in Shanghai too,” said Marguerite. “Did you here about that case, Lixin?”

“What? What you talking about?”

“She’s still high.”

“Still, the idea of uploading someone’s nude pics on the internet without their knowledge, isn’t it just the most disgusting thing imaginable? It’s almost as bad as pedophilia,” said Louisa.

“That’s why he beat her so badly, because he couldn’t face himself,” said Marguerite.

“And he obviously had no feelings for her.”

“Do you know the café where it happened?”

“No.”

“The staff there must have called the police. It must have been a real scene. If you could find that out from your friend, they would know. Just go back there and ask. We could figure out the story. Do you think it was hushed up for some reason?”

“The problem is that friend of mine and I recently had a falling out and we’re not on speaking terms anymore. So I can’t ask.”

“Oh, well. Anyway you’ve gotten me curious about this case. You’re sure it wasn’t in the news?”

“I want some more of that drug,” said Lixin.

“No, not today. Wait a couple days before trying it again. I’ll do some with you next time.”

“I do recall the café had a French name.”

“That’s not very helpful, with so may cafés and restaurants in Shanghai with French names. Not to mention all those faux French café chains that are actually Korean chains. But why would a litterateur, a writer if that’s really what he was, do something so tacky and banal, and dangerous, as to upload someone’s nude photos on the internet?”

“He was broke? Lots of writers are.”

“But he couldn’t have gotten a lot of money out of it. Not unless she was famous. It wouldn’t be worth the risk.”

“Maybe she was pretty well known, by enough people that someone recognized her on that site.”

“The thing is, who actually follows those sites? If it’s a famous person, there are sites devoted just to them. She wouldn’t be on those. It would only be one of countless amateur sites. I think the chances of anyone she knows regularly surfing all of these sites and just happening to encounter her pics is pretty miniscule. Plus they’re all blocked in China.”

“Lots of Chinese use VPNs.”

“Not that many, actually. It’s too much trouble. I know a lot of Chinese, including many educated ones. They have more than enough to keep themselves busy with here in China. They don’t need the international web. And there are many other ways to get porn, if that’s what they want. In fact I bet you ninety percent of porn consumption in China today is simple sexting among friends on WeChat. That’s the best porn there is, because it’s people you know. What probably happened was she sexted him some pics of herself and he passed them on to a few of his friends, as men tend to do, and it got back to her. Which caused things to get ugly. Sexting is happening right now, millions of times a day, all over the world. Everyone who participates in this activity is to blame. I don’t know. I just have a different take on it. You send someone a shot of your boobs and then blame them when they break their promise not to show them to anyone else? What hypocrisy. If you really don’t want anyone to share your pics, then don’t give them to anyone in the first place.”

“Unless he took nude photos of her secretly, without her knowledge.”

“We don’t know what took place. Something doesn’t sound right about this story, and now I’m curious to know what really happened. Perhaps he had a good reason to beat her. I don’t mean beating someone can ever be justified, but there might be a more logical explanation of what led up to it.”

“Sounds logical enough to me.”

“Or maybe he didn’t even beat her. Maybe it’s all blown up out of proportion. And that’s why it never got in the news. It was just a petty incident, and we got a one-sided view of it from the injured party.”

“But Marguerite, he beat her severely enough to give her amnesia. I’d rather presume the worst until evidence to the contrary.”

“She didn’t necessarily get amnesia from being hit. It could have been just a big fight they had, and she was so upset or so angry that it was she who lost it. She may have given herself amnesia.”

“Why are you saying this? Why are you defending him?”

“I’m hardly defending him, Louisa. I’m just speculating based on the scanty evidence.”

“Well, I’ve got to go. Thanks for the wine and the weed. I’ll see you later, Lixin.”

Louisa grabbed her things and opened the door.

“Louisa, wait!” Lixin threw her bra and shirt on. “Sorry, I better go with her.”

“Looks like I got her in a huff,” said Marguerite.

Louisa was waiting outside the door.

“I’ll contact you,” said Lixin, giving Marguerite a quick hug.

 

Chapter 2

 

She was of conventional family background, from Jinan in Shandong Province, or more probably the surrounding vicinity or countryside. Her household had not much in the way of refinement, no books but school textbooks, no music but TV commercials, nothing adorning the walls but a calendar. Her father at least respected education enough to dole out regular beatings — a traditional way of ensuring a child’s success at school — and Luna graduated with a bachelor’s in English. This would have been in the mid-1990s, when China was opening up in earnest. The survivalist outlook of her parents’ generation spawned by the perpetual war economy was giving way to a more upholstered life, apprehended by some among the younger generation. Little freedoms were blooming all around, hesitantly plucked at first, later with more abandon. Earlier in the decade it was still possible for a Chinese woman accompanying a foreigner out on the street to be apprehended by the police, charged with “hooliganism” (prostitution) and sent to a labor camp for three years; by decade’s end they were striding into foreigners’ hotel rooms and campus guesthouses as staff looked the other way. It was also in the nineties that curious foreigners began to arrive in the Middle Kingdom, many to work as English teachers.

Between Luna’s graduation and her first encounter with Isham Cook in 2004, we can assume several developments. First, she was talented at language. She continued to hone her English skills well beyond what was required of a teaching job in the private schools where she found work, cultivating a fluent conversational English with a convincing American accent. Second, she had contact with foreign male instructors and decided that for romantic purposes they were better suited to her than her own countrymen. She additionally had a fixation on older foreign men, in their forties or fifties, who were less aggressive and threatening, more tolerant and understanding of Chinese female virtue. As we shall see, she had some kind of a daddy complex as well, and was thus in search of a father surrogate, one kinder and more patient than her own and whom she could baby in turn like a son.

A year or so before she first met Isham, something happened. Her school regularly invited “foreign experts” from an English-language consulting firm in Shanghai on brief stints for teacher training, and Luna was assigned to pick them up at the train station and attend on them. On one of these visits the consultant, an American guy, invited her to dinner and then to his hotel room and plied her with wine. We don’t know exactly what transpired. She only confessed it to Isham because he was the second foreign male to get her into bed, but she couldn’t bring herself to elaborate.

This was a few weeks after they had first met. Isham was a university lecturer in Shanghai. He freelanced at the same consulting firm, and was the latest trainer to be sent to Luna’s school. Her appearance enraptured him, this female full of contrasts. She had, as he variously described it, a primitively alluring face, a rudely attractive face, a compactly sexual face, with her large mouth and sensuous lips. She used no cosmetics or makeup but was smartly dressed that day in a business suit and knee-length skirt. Her black hair, which she wore in a bob, was naturally streaked with silver hairs. This apparent premature aging is always mortifying to a woman afflicted with it. He was impressed she refrained from dying them out and told her they added to her sexiness, as did her hairy legs, boldly shining through her nylon stockings. But it was the unshaven hairs on her upper lip, dense enough at the corners of the mouth to be noticeable at first glance, that really set him afire. On top of this all, she comported herself with confidence and professionalism, unlike many younger Chinese women with their gendered penchant for shyness and awkwardness. Her carrying on as if she had no idea she was sporting a mustache only added to the enticement.

She sensed his attraction and approached him in the office at the end of the day to exchange cellphone numbers. (Years later, she would oddly remark to him that when she first laid eyes on him at the train station, she thought he was she.)

Back in Shanghai a day later, he wanted to see her as soon as possible. They agreed on an available weekend. She knew a receptionist at a hotel where he could get a favorable price and she booked a room. She used the words “we” and “our” in referring to the room, and this also intensely excited him. Few Chinese women would openly admit their intention to stay overnight with a man they had just met. As anywhere, it’s impolite to expect sex on the first date. True, Isham was making the journey from another city and they would only have two nights together. They might as well be practical about it and get down to business; at least they could get started and make out a bit: thus might a Western dating couple reason. But this is not how things operate between the sexes in China, where women’s “sex face” is paramount. Sex face is the self-dignity bespeaking the gravity demanded of sex. The herculean task might require a lengthy period of courtship (years in some cases) or the explicit promise of marriage, but even when expeditiously negotiated the man is required to undergo a calculated process of humiliation. His fumbling effort to express his desire will have his worst suspicions confirmed, that it was indeed thoroughly misplaced and offensive in the extreme. Whatever gave him the idea she could even consider doing — the word itself is taboo — “that”? Had he no respect? Profuse apologies are of no use; he’s already blown his chance and beats a hasty retreat. If she likes him, however, she will subsequently offer to resurrect their acquaintance, on condition he reflect deeply and seriously on his moral failings.

This is not to be mistaken for Victorian-style prudery. It’s another phenomenon altogether, entirely and indigenously Chinese. To understand this, you have to adopt the Chinese perspective for getting on in life. It differs from most other cultures in that it is quantitatively based. The basic principle is additive: whatever works, requires more of the same. Goals are reached through sheer effort. If you fail to achieve results, you aren’t trying hard enough. If you want to pass an exam, you study long and hard. It’s neither a lack of training or intelligence, nor faulty technique, but poor time management alone that explains failure: the valuable missed hours of study sacrificed to eating, sleeping or otherwise procrastinating. You just didn’t study enough. Want to get promoted? Work longer hours, sell more products and cut more deals than anyone else, and this requires not only that you spend every waking hour on the job, but you are also faster and more productive per hour. The same applies to intellectual labor. Want to develop cutting-edge software? Develop a more muscular brain: concentrate harder and sustain that concentration longer than anyone else.

The quantitative principle is equally important in human relations. To get what you want from people, you insist and you persist and you don’t give up until they give in. If you want to win a woman’s heart, you don’t stop until she yields the fort. And she won’t yield the fort, not if she can help it, well hardened as she is to the male battering ram. Taking offense to sexual advances is woman’s defense, a highly rational one at that, against the expected attack. I have an anecdote from a Chinese female friend. In her last semester of graduate school, a male student approached her one day and invited her to coffee in the library cafeteria. Out of politeness she agreed. She agreed again a few days later, but only for the purpose of telling him she already had a boyfriend. This was hardly about to stop him, of course, as this “boyfriend” was surely fictitious, the first of her defensive moves (he had been observing her for some time and she was always alone). He made repeated attempts to take her out, all of which she turned down. She had to stop studying in the library to avoid him. He began waiting for her outside her dorm building. She greeted him diplomatically at first, then ignored him. Thereafter she made a point of only going about with a classmate. Finally she visited the History Department, where he was a PhD candidate, to complain to the chair, but this too had no effect. Fortunately the semester came to an end, she graduated and was free of the pest. Yet not for long. A lax secretary divulged her new address, and she found him waiting for her outside her apartment building on the other side of the city. She had to make two trips to the local police before the unpleasantness petered out.

We’re obviously dealing, at least from a Western perspective, with a mental case, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, for want of a better term; I’m not sure there’s a diagnosis specifically for those who stalk. But in fact we don’t need psychology to explain the guy. From the Chinese perspective, there’s nothing wrong with him. His behavior was perfectly logical. He knew what he wanted and was just very thorough in pursuing it. He held out the hope, not wholly unrealistic and likely attainable through mere patience, that one day she would wake up and regard her revulsion in a new light, and give the poor lad another shot. It would make everything so much easier for herself were she to cut him a bit of slack and humor him. The burden of being preyed upon would vanish once she discovered he actually had positive qualities. And once the revolution was underway, it would only be a matter of time before she found herself sleeping with him. At the same time, he was clearheaded enough to know this was all unlikely. But even at the risk of jeopardizing his reputation in the History Department, or the inconvenience of a few days spent in administrative detention, he would try every single resource at his disposal until immovable obstacles were placed in his way. That he had tried his best to land this rare and supremely ideal creature, possibly successfully, would be far preferable to the subsequent torture of having failed because he had not tried hard enough.

Seeing is believing, and having held himself in suspense until this moment, Isham was pleasantly relieved to be whisked into his hotel room by Luna as if it was the most normal thing in the world. They had had a nice dinner beforehand, and he maintained the congenial mood by taking it slow. When he made his move, her lips met his and her clothes practically fell off. To his further delight, where he expected to find within her black bush the swollen gash glistening red, brown or purple, hers was the color of ivory. Never had he seen such a striking and beautiful vulva.

And at this point they hit the wall. The vaginal muscles were clamped tight as a fist. He had racked up a number of devirginations over his career and fancied he knew how to go about it. Some girls are refreshingly unsentimental and once they’ve renounced the virginity cult wish to get the operation over with immediately. Others need a couple sessions. For every woman it’s painful, for some excruciating, but the worst is quickly over. Isham tried settling her on top to allow her weight to slowly sink onto him. He tried everything short of brute force. No matter how many positions were rotated over the sleepless night, her groin would retract and pull away even as it ground against him. She clearly had some kind of raw desire for him, at least her mouth did for his cock. But when using his own mouth on her she would gasp in pain. In the morning they tried again. Her body was in complete rebellion. That’s when she confessed the hotel incident with his colleague, whose name she refused to reveal.

“Well,” Isham asked her, “did he rape you, or what?” She could or would not say. “Did he force you? Did he penetrate you?” Silence. “It’s okay. You can tell me. There’s nothing shameful and it’s not your fault. I’m not going to laugh at you or blame you. You’ll feel better if you come out with it. What happened?” More silence. “Are you a virgin or not?” To this all she could do was shake her head and mumble, “I don’t know.”

The frustrations were repeated the next night, with nary a millimeter of progress. Still, Isham was back in Jinan a week later. The second journey was symbolically important. It would reassure her he wasn’t just after a quick fuck but respected the magnitude of the occasion, and took her seriously enough to devote this much time and effort, with moreover no reassurances of further progress.

Further progress there was none. On the train back to Shanghai again, he reflected that a third visit, any time soon at least, would be pointless. He could already see Zeno’s paradox at work — the closer he got the further away he was. He considered everything. One factor which on the surface might seem decisive could be dismissed out of hand. He had informed Luna at the outset that he had a girlfriend, who was living with him. This was hardly an obstacle; had it been, she would never have approached him in the first place. Naturally she had supposed he was married, as are almost all men in China over thirty. Because everyone is married, wedding bands are not obligatory and there is more leeway to fool around. The married are capable of entering into affairs with surprising ease.

In any case, he mused, it was only a matter of giving her some time, time to let this opportunity to put herself on solid footing as a poised and confident woman, by which we mean no longer a virgin, sink in.

If indeed she was still a virgin. Might there not be a darker reality? She had told him about her strained relationship with her parents. She had nothing good to say about them, her father in particular, and had long moved out. He knew not to inquire about staying at her place instead of a hotel; single Chinese women invariably have roommates and it’s in bad form. He was just curious to know about her living circumstances. She refused to admit anything. Everything about her was a mystery. If her life was a monolithic blank, could it be that something unmentionable underlay it? Had her father abused her sexually, and then the former American guy did something to seal her misery? Or maybe neither man had done anything that egregious, and Luna was sexually dysfunctional from the start, as some people are — and if they are Chinese will always be. There is no mental health industry to speak of here, despite token services. University students seldom get up the nerve to visit a campus counselor for psychological problems out of fear of being exposed or expelled, and workplaces offer nothing. No person would ever reveal their horrible secrets even to their own mother. It’s just something you have to bury deep inside.

Then an alternative idea occurred to Isham, one that had nothing to do with psychosexual trauma. He recalled once reading about a disorder known as vestibulitis, or abnormally sensitive nerve endings at the entrance of the vagina, rendering intercourse painful. The condition supposedly affects up to fifteen percent of females. Though a simple operation can cure it, it’s not well known even among Western doctors. There is certainly no place a Chinese woman afflicted with it can turn to for help. She would have to be lucky enough even to learn she has the condition and find a place to perform the operation abroad. Isham sent Luna a text message asking if this might have something to do with it, knowing full well a response to the bizarre question, in a culture where women are not taught to take responsibility for their sexuality, would not be forthcoming. With that, he set about forgetting her.

A month later, she contacted him to announce she was moving to Shanghai where she had found a teaching job. She asked to stay with him for a few days while she arranged her own accommodation. Bonnie, his Chinese girlfriend, agreed; Isham wasn’t the sort to shack up with a woman who wasn’t openminded. They made space for her on the living room couch. This predictably was disheartening to Luna, as was the sound of their lovemaking at night. She did her best to create tension in the air, by refusing to speak to Bonnie. When Bonnie was out, Isham made a couple more attempts with her in bed. It didn’t help he was growing impatient, curtailing things to a mere half hour, if that long, before getting dressed and dismissing her. Finally he told her in an email (he had given up trying to explain things to her face to face):

“This is a polyamorous household. That means whatever group of adults, and of whatever sex, happen to be thrown together, it is their duty to accommodate. It could be two men and a woman. It could five men and five women. It could be ten men and no women. Whatever the combination, they all adjust to one another. We are presently two women and a man. Now Bonnie, I would have you understand, is not women-oriented. She’s heterosexual. But she tries. Because experimenting with women is an important part of her sexual development, and because enlarging her conception of reality is the philosophical thing to do. But it only works with friendliness and camaraderie on all sides. In response to our hospitality, we thought you’d provide some generosity of your own, say chipping in for food, or cooking a meal, or helping to clean up a bit, or if these are all too much of a challenge, at the very least you’d offer your body, freely to both of us, on your own initiative and not guiltily in secret to me alone.

“Out of China’s 700 million women, congratulations on having the imagination to join the majority, almost all of whom are conventional and mired in relationship jealousy. Here I am offering you the opportunity to liberate yourself and rise above the swamp of pettiness, and you all the more stubbornly insist on being just like everyone else. Are you proud of your ordinariness? Are you proud of being sexually self-centered? If so, the only recourse is for you to quickly put as much space from us as possible, on foot, and start walking ten, twenty kilometers a day. Shanghai is a large enough city. When you’ve walked so far you are tripping on the pavement from exhaustion, and there’s no one to take you in, maybe then you will begin to understand the meaning of hospitality, when nice people offer you their place, and themselves, to you.”

As I’ve been able to reconstruct from the archives, Bonnie had a slightly different take on the matter: “Isham, look at the way she dresses. She wears that stupid t-shirt with the cartoon characters over a long-sleeved dress! And those shoes and white socks and the pink ribbons in her hair — she’s like a six-year old. Did you see what she eats everyday? Spam sausage in instant noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And when you’re not here she sits there on the couch and she rocks, back and forth, staring in front of her. She obviously has mental problems. Why do you waste your time on this rural trash? I thought you had better taste in women.”

Luna soon left and was out of the way. They expected they would not be hearing from her again. Failure to turn her into a woman was too bad, especially after all the effort that went into it, an increasingly ridiculous and degrading business, finally, one that should have been halted earlier. It was not a question of dignity but of common sense. The idea of a woman on the verge of thirty stuck in sexual infancy quite frankly was disgusting. Isham assumed Luna would be too mortified to contact him again, and he wasn’t planning on contacting her.

But he underestimated and misunderstood her capacity for human kindness. Pure kindness is immune to doubt and infinitely patient. The email started rolling in. She acknowledged in somewhat cryptic fashion the logic of his arguments:

“You hit on the point in your email. Beat up and collapsed, I dare no longer look you in the eye while facts jump out of your mouth. Thanks for that hit-and-run which was like a morning call. The harder you hit, the stronger I am transformed. Fine. A form of a prayer, the morning call serves to help you tune into a frequency. It wakes up or activates the awareness. The frequency shapes the life of people and needs to be heard. Otherwise, one is lost and gets nowhere. The frequency is equal to the total population of people and things. Abundant. And I ended up being seriously overdosed on endorphins and dopamine. With that, I fought against the sleepless night, and epinephrine won. On the other hand, no people are upset or uncomfortable about sex. No one. Naturally! How could all the planet’s species come into being if there was no sex? It’s a holy godly given gift.”

Then again she could be clear and straightforward: “Little Isham,” she wrote, “Today is a brand new day and a brand new week and a brand new month. To begin the brand new with the end in mind, I’m listening to what your lines are saying. Excuse me, may I get carried away a bit and try to whisper something? May I, as a silver-hair friend, remind you that togetherness means more than marriage. And time means love. You are in. Cherish it before it’s too late or you’ll lose it. A more appropriate way is to express a sense of care. It’s a good feeling to know someone cares about you. And you might want to be listened to as well. If so, I’m all ears (and eyes since all we have now is email), when you feel you want to tell me how you have been doing, even if you don’t feel like telling me anything.”

Her letters continued to arrive on a daily basis, many about his estranged relationship with his mother. Luna found it incomprehensible he neglected to make any effort to amend things and at least keep the lines of communication open with the person who gave him his life. There were frequent emails about his health and diet: “I’m not a physically strong person but I can’t remember when I last caught a cold. I happened to evolve into a state like this by using cold water to wash my face every winter morning. I take a hot shower before going to bed in evenings. I just don’t shower on winter mornings. Challenge yourself to use cold water to wash your face every winter morning. Dude, it’s really tough. But if I can manage it, you can, too. And I bet you’ll never catch a cold again.”

In her capacity for kindness Luna could be quite creative. Imagine having spent your life in failed relationships, and then being confined to an environment where opportunities for meeting people were greatly diminished, isolated from society in a rural area, a strange country, a penal colony, or which is equivalent, by advanced middle age itself, when you begin to become physically repellant to those younger than you, no matter how handsome you were in your prime. Imagine musing, all alone in your shack, cabin or trailer, on the most poignant of those long lost loves, perhaps one in particular, the woman you blew off most cruelly precisely because she was the most loving and attentive of them all, and how wrong you had been in doing so, a truth realized too late, after all lines of communication were severed, her email address long forgotten or inactive. Imagine one day, just when you are thinking about this very woman, you see for a split second her apparition appear and disappear in your window. No, it can’t be! And the face pops into view again, less hesitantly now, a smiling angel, a miracle.

Isham wasn’t in such dire straights, of course, still hale and hearty enough to enjoy the attention of more than a few “robust female specimens,” as he liked to refer to them, including one currently living with him, that old warhorse who stuck with him when all the others fell by the wayside, Bonnie. But as her emails were infrequently returned and he had not invited her back, Luna felt she needed to reach out with a bit of playful drama. She had been observing what time Bonnie left for work and the days Isham wasn’t in class. One morning she went round to his side of the foreign experts’ guesthouse and peeked through a gap in the curtains of his bedroom window. The morning, while one is still in bed, is the most sexual time of the day — he’d likely be having an erection that very moment — and the circumstances most opportune. She felt herself to be ready, readier than she had ever been. He’d surely find the spontaneity of her arrival intensely erotic in its own right. She wasn’t intending to be noticed when poking her face in the window, just wanted to confirm he was there, but secretly she hoped to be noticed, as it meant he was laying in expectation of her.

Well, he did notice her. Throwing on some clothes and dashing outside, he grabbed her by the arm and yanked her in the direction of the school gate. He wanted to smack her in the face but kicked her on the shin instead. “Fuck you!” he yelled.

“Isham, what — ” She was at a loss for words and tears came to her eyes. “Why?”

“Oh, I’m getting a reaction out of you. You’re beginning to get it. You have just made a tremendous leap in understanding. You see that I am angry. Yet I fear you’re only halfway there, and we’re not going to get anywhere until you to tell me why I am angry.”

“Isham, I only wanted to — ”

Why am I angry?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll tell you why. You are stalking me. Do you know what stalking is?”

“I…I…”

“Did I ask you to visit me?”

“No, but I just — ”

“Did it not occur to you I might have someone with me?”

Marching her to the school gate, he told the guard he was being harassed and not to allow the woman back in the campus again. Guards at Chinese universities tend not to involve themselves in petty disputes. Luna returned frequently over the next few weeks, waiting for Isham to emerge from the guesthouse as she stood forlorn at a distance, wishing he would melt and speak to her. She knew he was about to make a long-awaited trip back to the US for the remainder of the summer, and was waiting for him again when the taxi to the airport arrived. She ran after his taxi as it drove away.

Two months later he was back in Shanghai. He had blocked her cellphone number but not her emails: he wanted to monitor their content in case the harassment were to take a threatening turn. But she appeared to have gotten the message and was no longer to be seen. The emails kept coming, sporadically so, and eventually stopped.

Isham had a longtime friend, Jim Spear, from northern Wisconsin. Jim’s two decades of travel to distant ports while serving in the navy had left him with a taste for the East, and upon retirement he launched into Chinese-language study at a Shanghai university where Isham was teaching at the time. They met in the foreigners’ cafeteria and quickly hit it off. Though from deer country, redneck territory, Jim was a Democrat and into the blues, while Isham, a leftist Chicagoan with a PhD in rhetoric, was into early classical music. Jim was from a hunting family: a Ruger 22 semi-auto pistol, a Smith & Wesson police 38, a Springfield 22 rifle, and an AK-47 (an effective hunting gun which would also come in handy against hostile foragers when the US economy collapses) were the only firearms he needed; Isham was afraid of the sight of a gun. But they had a few things in common. Both were atheists, down-to-earth in temperament, straight talkers, with a fondness for craft ales and voluptuous Asian bodies. They returned to the US for a spell around the same time, and Isham drove up from Chicago to visit Jim in his rented flat in Green Bay, on the second floor of a house overlooking the water. Jim was one for hospitality. He cooked venison steak from a deer bagged by him and his father on their annual November hunt, and insisted Isham have his bed while he slept on the living room couch. Isham brought his Kodak projector and carousels of hundreds of nude photos he had taken of Chinese and Japanese women. Jim’s white curtains were perfect for projecting the images on. Halfway through the slideshow, a horrifying thought occurred to them. Jim dashed outside and to their relief found the street deserted: the porn show — erotic photography, Isham corrected — was brightly projected to passersby. They had a good laugh over that.

Isham had introduced Luna to Jim, and the two became friendly. When Isham cut her off, she turned to Jim for solace, and he began receiving her emails. He met with her a few times upon his return to Shanghai. “Please, please, take her, she’s all yours,” Isham told him. “I wish you better luck than me.” Jim was as keenly attracted to her as Isham had once been (hirsute women being another shared interest of theirs) and managed to get her over to his place, but she was preoccupied with Isham and sat stiffly the whole time. They fell out of touch after he returned to the US for good.

Ten years later, on a trip to Shanghai, Jim looked her up and she was amenable for a date. She seemed to have matured; more contemplative, as if having undergone some major trial, while she gave no suggestion of being hooked up with a man. “She’s put on weight. She was wearing a tight skirt and you shoulda seen how round that ass of hers is now,” Jim told him.

Isham perked up at this. Could it be time had turned her into a worthier creature? Had she mellowed over the years and acquired some wisdom, some character, some inner peace, on top of a ripening figure? He was one of those rare birds, a man drawn to women in their forties and fifties. She wasn’t quite forty, but Jim’s news changed things. He contacted her. She played coy at first, and it took a few exchanges before she agreed to see him. He booked a hotel room and they met in a seafood restaurant next to the hotel. She refused, however, to eat any of the food he had ordered, despite having accepted his dinner invitation. For the sake of digestive health and weight loss, she explained, a full meal should be eaten only at lunch, and a snack in the evening. He wanted to know how she had been getting on over the years. She said she volunteered for an animal rescue organization.

“Yes, I know. You’ve always been doing that. And you’ve always taken in stray cats. That’s good of you. But’s what your job. Your day job?”

She was watching him eat. “Isham, you need to adopt my suggestions if you want to lose weight.”

“I agree, I could lose a little weight. Can’t we all? I know the midday meal is more important than supper. I used to live in Germany. But you’re not answering my question. I want to know what your job is. Is that too much to ask?”

“I really worry about your health. At your age — ”

“Luna, I’m trying to have a conversation with you, and you’re talking to yourself. Are you aware of that?”

” — the metabolism slows down and exercise isn’t — ”

He slammed down his chopsticks. “Why can’t you answer my question? What’s your fucking job?” He got up, paid the bill and walked out.

Luna followed him outside. “Isham, I’m sorry.”

He calmed down and took her up to the hotel room. After getting out of their clothes, he opened up her legs. She was even hairier than he had recalled. The trend sparked by American porn in the 1990s of trimming the pubic bush down to a thin vertical strip had evolved further. Now only baby-smooth genitalia were considered civilized, with Japan and China the last redoubts, though it couldn’t be long before they too succumbed (the shaving of the erotic underarm hair was already a fait accompli in China by this time). Isham respected this sexual naïf for one thing at least, simply allowing her body to be. He dug his face into her with a moaning hunger that’s difficult to explain to those without the need. I suppose a meth addict’s fix might be the best analogy, or a closeted gay man’s desperation to get his mouth around his first cock. He took his time cunnilinguing her. When he finally placed himself at her entrance he lingered there, massaging the labia with the helmut of his penis before pushing into her ever so slightly. She gasped in pain and retracted, and once again, that was as far as they got.

He later reflected that the best solution would probably have been rape — benevolent rape. Force was not something he was instinctively inclined to use, but it would have taken care of the problem. For millennia that’s how it was done. It’s still done that way in less developed societies, places like rural Romania or Bulgaria, where women are kidnapped, literally carried away kicking and screaming by the pursuer and his male relatives. Was Luna of primitive provenance as well? Could her difficulties opening up be an unconscious expectation that only a real man, a warrior, was worthy of taking her virginity? He was confident she would not have regarded it as rape. On the other hand, he suspected she would be fully capable of threatening a rape charge in order to hold onto him.

With these uneasy thoughts it took a few months before Isham was ready to see her again. On this occasion he chose a different hotel, and he instructed her to meet him in the outdoor restaurant patio next door for dinner.

The evening culminated in a tub of margarine splattered against the hotel room wall.

*     *     *

Chapters 3-12: Forthcoming

More fiction by Isham Cook:

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel
The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China
Lust & Philosophy, a novel

Categories: Fiction

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