It is the Shanghai of courtesans and concubines, danger and decadence, updated to 2020. American expat author Isham Cook has disappeared. His last known history is chronicled by an exotic woman who seems right out of 1930s Shanghai herself, Marguerite, a mustachioed Afghan-American who weaves Persian rugs and deals in psychedelics.
As she tells it, Isham’s story all began with Luna, a beguiling but troubled Chinese woman who happens to have a mustache, too. Also vying for Isham’s affection is the charismatic Kitty, who conspires to entrap him in a cyberweb of obsession and betrayal.
Fan’s of Isham Cook’s fiction writing will recognize in this psychological thriller his signature world of startling plot turns and seductive women set in modern’s China’s unsettling yet compelling landscape of ideas and drama.
Chapters 5-12: Buy the book (forthcoming Fall 2020)
More fiction by Isham Cook:
THE MUSTACHIOED WOMAN OF SHANGHAI
“Yeah,” said Marguerite 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.”
“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 there on the bed.”
“Okeydokey,” said Louisa as she awkwardly 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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“Holding an orgy in my apartment.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. They do that there?”
”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?”
“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, actually. 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, like, 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.
“You sort of have to learn how to get high.”
“So do you ever actually have guests over and they use this?” said Louisa.
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.”
“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. Kind of.”
“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.”
“American Sign Language.”
“How deaf are you, if I may ask?”
“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. 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, and that’s why they don’t shave it off. Either that 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’?”
“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 handsome 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.”
“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 drunk asshole who would start 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 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.”
“Oh, yeah, they can get it much cheaper here than in Japan. But the Chinese females are the ones who usually go for boob massage.”
“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?” asked 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 go often 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.”
“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.
“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.”
“To get back to this guy who beat up his girlfriend in the café, I’m really curious about him,” 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 hell of a 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?”
“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 have to confess I’m really ignorant about this.”
“Where does paisley come from, for example? You know, the pattern on shirts and scarves.”
“I have no idea. I think it took off in the sixties, didn’t it?”
“It’s originally from Persian rugs. The main design element is the boteh, you know?” She drew a teardrop in the air with a curled tip. “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. Even 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 just remember 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.”
“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,'” mimed Marguerite 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.
“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, bearing the votive offering.
“What is it?”
“A sacred medicine.”
“I’ve never heard of it before,” said Louisa.
In her jeans and topless, Lixin grabbed the jar 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.”
“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.
“Sacred medicine, dear.”
“So which one of these is the rug you’re working on? Oh, this one with the liquid shapes?” said Louisa.
“Yeah, that one.”
“It looks like a traditional Persian rug as if Salvador Dali had designed it. Really psychedelic. You know what it also reminds me of? Australian Aborigine art.”
“Sure. That art is inspired by hallucinogenic medicines too, 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.
“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 slapped 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?”
“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 crystalline powder 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.”
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 held 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 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, 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!”
“Can’t you 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 Louisa.
“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. It’s probably due to my lawyer job. We deal with all kinds of expat cases, some of them violent.”
“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? 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 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?”
“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. You’ve now 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 many 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.
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 degree 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, seized 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 respectful and understanding of Chinese female virtue, than their younger competitors. 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 — a few weeks after they had first met — because he was the second foreign male to get her into bed, but she couldn’t bring herself to elaborate.
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 at once 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. Yet 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.
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 rate and she booked a room. She used the words “we” and “our” in referring to the room she had found for them, 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 (months or years) or the explicit promise of marriage, but even when expeditiously negotiated the man is required to undergo a calculated procedure 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 it, you have to adopt the Chinese perspective for getting on in life. It differs from most other cultures in being 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 simply 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 than colleagues. 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 here, 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. 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 deflorations 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 once again, he now 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’d be. 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 aren’t 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 of putting 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 something unmentionable underlay it? Had her father abused her sexually, and then the former American guy did something to compound it and 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 live-in 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 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 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 far 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 was, quite frankly, 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 infinitely patient and immune to doubt. 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 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 miracle, a smiling angel.
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?”
“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 more threatening turn. But she appeared to have gotten the message and was no longer to be seen. The emails kept coming, though 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 Lake Michigan. 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 over the years. 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 — had been brightly projected to any 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. Jim 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.
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 Europe, where it’s the custom. 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 — ”
“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 seemed to be 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 sad 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 his glans before pushing in ever so slightly. She gasped in pain and retracted. 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.
They sat up on the bed. Lixin caressed Marguerite’s mustache, pulling at the hairs. “Why it gets darker on the sides? I wish I could grow a mustache.”
“But you can do this!” said Marguerite, pointing between them.
“Still so wet. So sorry.”
They burst out laughing again.
“I said don’t worry about it. Really. I’ll buy one of those waterproof things. I wish I could do that. You’ve got the gift.”
“I can’t control myself. I couldn’t control myself for past five days. After what you did to me in that bathtub.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. You were bad. Putting your toes between my legs.”
“You put yours in me first!”
“No, you did!”
“Did Louisa notice?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“She did notice.”
“She did not notice.”
Marguerite took Lixin’s nearest breast in her fingers and twisted it.
“You don’t need to WeChat me so much.”
“I can’t control myself.”
“Yes, you can. One or two messages is enough. Not fifty.”
“Fifty! No, it was that many?”
“About ten a day. You know, the fewer the messages, the more important each of them will be.”
“You will get 100 every day I can’t see you. I want to live with you. I’m tired of living with Louisa.”
“She always complain. She’s not happy.”
“Everything. She says I’m brainwashed like all Chinese women. Says we’re childish, always laughing at nothing and have no knowledge. If she’s so smart why she’s in debt $90,000?”
“Student loan. She knows nothing about financial planning.”
“That’s what American universities cost. They don’t have any choice.”
“Chinese parents can pay for their children to study in U.S. They save money, no loans. Why can’t American parents?”
“They’re in debt too. But I agree. I’ve long believed there should be no such thing as ‘math’ class. The class should be called ‘money’ and teach students how to save and invest. By the time they’re in high school they’ll already be investment gurus. There’s no other practical use for mathematics.”
“And she wants to sleep with me.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I just don’t want to. I refused her.”
“Sounds indeed like she’s on the way out.”
“You want to move out?”
“I think I will.”
“You could stay here. But you might find me more difficult to live with than you imagine.”
“I won’t get in your way. I know your work is important. I love books and I can read when you’re working — oh, just remembered.”
Lixin got up and fetched a book out of her bag.
“The book I told you about last time. On massage.”
“My Chinese reading ability isn’t that great. It will take me a while to get through this. How is it?”
“It’s very weird. I don’t really like it. Maybe you will like it. Louisa thinks the author is same person who beat that woman in the café.”
Marguerite pointed to the dedication page. “This I can read: ‘To everyone in my life who has praised my massage.’ What an odd thing to say. I wonder if she praised the brutal face massage he gave her in the café.” She flipped through the book. “You mentioned something about all this text on the margins. What’s it for?”
“Just philosophy sayings, about sex freedom, things like that.”
“So she was the translator? Is that her name?”
“Yeah. Lu Na. I remember something in the book. He was in massage school in the U.S. but got in trouble for going naked.”
“And he spent years trying to visit every massage shop in China. He calls himself obsessive-compulsive sex neurotic.”
“He admitted that too? That’s funny. Here’s a photo of him on the back. A middle-aged guy.”
Lixin jumped onto Marguerite and straddled her. “I want more of that drug.”
“Deems? Hey, I got something else you might want to try. The toad.”
“The toad? You mean frog?”
“Five-MeO-DMT. The void. Well, no, maybe that’s not such a good idea now. You didn’t have enough deems last time. The toad will be too much. Oh, I have an even better idea. Have you ever dropped acid?”
“It’s not dangerous drug?”
“Not as strong as deems but a lot stronger than the little dose I gave you. And it lasts the whole day. You’ve got today free, right? This will be your training session for the void. Next time we do it together we can hit the deems or the toad when the acid peaks.”
“I don’t understand — when acid peaks? Do what?”
“That’s for next time.”
“You will do it with me today?”
“Yes, I want to.”
“You sure you’re ready for this? It lasts the whole day.”
“More than fun. We need to get into the mindset, though. We’ll play hippies. Let me dress you. Then we’ll go get some lunch and I’ll explain more about what to expect.”
Marguerite picked out a black V-neck halter top and Indian batik wrap skirt for Lixin; for herself, a bright orange robe and flaming pink bandana. “Put these on. We’re going braless and pantyless.”
“No bra and panties!”
“Acid teaches your mind how to breathe freely. Your body needs to breathe freely as well.”
“Everybody will stare at us.”
“So what? They’ll stare anyway, trying to figure out what the hot babe is doing with the strange foreign woman with a mustache. It’s an honor to be stared at. You can exercise your freedom for one day, can’t you? After all, you’re not going to the office.”
“You look like Buddhist nun in that,” Lixin said as she got into her top and stretched it over her breasts. “This is offensive. People will think I’m a liumang. You know, hooligan.”
“I know what a liumang is. Your country needs more female hooligans. You’re willing to drop acid without knowing anything about it, but you’re afraid to go braless! Suit yourself. Your black bra will go well with the top.”
Lixin adjusted the halter over her bra. “Still shows too much.”
“It’s your big tits. C’mon, you can show them off for one day after hiding them for the other 364 days of the year. Now, for the crowning touch.” Marguerite gave her a long kiss on the mouth. Lixin tried to pull her back down on the futon. “No, let’s go.”
Lixin was treated to shawarma wraps and Brooklyn IPAs at a Lebanese eatery in the South Shaanxi Road area.
“Of course, I like Chinese food,” Marguerite responded. “I’ll take you to my favorite jiaozi joint for dinner tonight. I just need my Middle-Eastern fix.”
“When will you give me the LSD?”
“I already gave it to you.”
“You did? When? When we kissed?”
“There was a lot of stardust in that saliva I passed to you.”
“Oh, no. What did I do? What will I feel?”
“Starts off a bit like weed, a goofy, happy feeling. As the feeling deepens, this sensation of awe comes over you,” she said, gesturing like a preacher hitting a crescendo. “It’s the mind’s way of grasping the scale of the experience you’re about to have.”
“Marijuana. Then the show begins. Okay, imagine you got really high on marijuana and went to an amusement park. You know the rush of sensations when you’re strapped in the ride and flying straight down, straight up, upside down and around in circles? Well, on weed it would be a lot more intense. A good strong hit of acid puts you through the same but without the amusement park. It’s an amusement park experience without the rides. You experience time as an amusement park ride.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have five fingers because five minutes have passed, and it’s hilarious because you have five fingers on your other hand and you don’t know whether those five minutes have come or gone. Meanwhile, the idea of an ‘hour’ is so sad and alien and unattainable it might as well be the moon.”
“You’re frightening me.”
“Oh, but it’s fabulous, even when it’s scary.” Marguerite paused for emphasis. “Learn to be scared. Drink that fear like it’s the most expensive wine you’ve ever had. Acid is the greatest teacher in the world.”
They walked over to Apisdistra Books, the city’s expat bookstore café.
“Feeling anything yet?” said Marguerite as they sat down with their gelato and coffee.
“Oh, I forgot to bring that massage book. I wanted to have a closer look at it. Do you think they might have the English version?”
“I can ask.”
A few minutes later Lixin returned with the book in hand. “They have it.”
“Massage and the Writer. Isham Cook. Here’s that dedication again, ‘To everyone in my life who has agreed to a massage.’ The English makes a bit more sense now. Do you think the translation is good overall?”
“It’s okay, I think. Maybe too formal and proper. Oh, I feel something.”
“Yeah, I’m getting off too.”
“I feel good. More sensitive. Everything looks sharper. I like it.”
Marguerite started reading the book. “I just thought of something. Let’s ask if they have this guy’s contact information.”
They went up to the cashier. He looked into their computer’s database and seemed perplexed. “Deng yihuir.” He went upstairs to a back office and returned with the manager, who examined the book.
“No record of this book,” said the cashier.
“What do you mean?”
“We never sold this book.”
“Then why is it here?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s not officially listed. Not on the government-approved list. That means we can’t sell it,” the manager explained to Marguerite. “It looks like the kind of book that won’t be approved.”
“So the author himself must have planted the book here. Can I buy this? It doesn’t have a price.”
“You can just take it.”
“I’m really feeling it now,” said Lixin as they sat back down. “Your skin is glowing. Everything duplicated on you. Every hair is two hairs. You have two pairs of eyes, one below the other. Not like drunk on alcohol but very sharp and clear. The air is thick, like jelly.”
“I’m going to see how much more of this I can read before I start getting restless myself.”
Lixin got up and wandered around the store, peering at book covers as if she were an alien anthropologist.
“His writing actually isn’t that bad,” Marguerite said when Lixin returned. “How are you?”
Lixin typed into her cellphone. Marguerite’s chimed and she picked hers up. “‘How is the English translation?’ It was originally written in English!”
“When you speak I can see your words fly out into the air.” She typed another message.
“Why are you sending me messages? You can speak to me right here.” Marguerite went back to her book.
Lixin was staring in front of her. “Oh, my god.”
“Listen to this: ‘A massage business could vastly increase its clientele if a bondage option were offered where the customer is fastened to the massage table with ropes or shackles.’”
“I don’t understand.”
“It says massage shops should offer an S&M service, tying customers down to the table.”
On the massage table, Lixin was silently crying.
“Ni mei shi ma?” asked Lingling.
Marguerite reassured her Lixin was fine and to continue with the massage. The two masseuses synchronized their strokes. As Ailing pushed her palms downward over Lixin’s breasts, belly and pubic mound, Lingling glided her hands up each leg and into the vagina.
“And listen to this: ‘The normal person on the massage table expects oil, the madman the hatchet, the artist menstrual blood.’”
When they arrived, a masseuse was waiting for them in the lobby. “Nihao, Lingling!” Marguerite said as they embraced.
Marguerite introduced Lixin and they headed up to their room, joined by three more masseuses. The Thai-themed room was outfitted with Lotus figurines, wide massage tables draped with silk sashes, and soft flute music. The deluxe tables had indentations in the sides for resting one’s arms on shelves underneath. They drew a curtain across, separating the two tables for privacy. The girls showered.
“I still don’t understand.”
“I mean time is bendable, flexible. Like Dali’s melting clocks.” Marguerite finished her IPA. “I need some coffee. You know Aspidistra Books?”
“Yes, I love that store.”
“Later we can go to this massage shop that specializes in four-hands massage. I’m friends with the masseuses there. I used to work with one of them at the old place.” Marguerite leaned forward. “They’ll massage you erotically if you want. Four hands on you at the same time. Totally fucking mindblowing on acid.”
“Are you sure I’ll be okay?”
“The one thing you have to remember is no matter how scary it gets, it will pass. It can turn from funny to scary and back to funny again in minutes, if you go with the flow. Don’t run away from it. You can’t. You can’t run away from yourself.”
“Sometimes I think I’m a savage inside.”
“I just thought of another place nearby I can show you later, an art gallery teahouse and women artists’ collective. I know the owner. She and her friends once staged a kind of performance art where they served the customers naked.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“It wasn’t advertised. Only friends had advance warning. Shocked the hell out of the customers but they seemed to be in no hurry to leave. But I’m not sure if anything’s going on there today.”
Lixin was toying with her gelato.
“You aren’t eating your gelato. There’s something about the sight of melting ice cream that is intolerable. Can I finish it for you?”
Lixin typed a message.
“Thank you. Now stop texting me and speak to me directly.”
“It’s so quiet here. Like an abandoned store in a movie.”
“I like the quiet. Some cafés put the same music on repeat for the whole day. Sometimes the same song on repeat. They don’t understand playlists in this country. Drives me insane and I wouldn’t be able to deal with that now. That’s why I like this place.”
“I want to leave.”
“Let’s go for massage. But I have to let them know we’re coming in case they’re busy now.”
They sat down on a bench in Xiangyang Park. Marguerite put her arm around Lixin. “You okay, dear?”
“I feel gloomy.”
“Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“Look at my hands. They’re sweating. The trees are twisting. I can smell them.”
“Yes. The park has a powerful smell.”
“People’s faces look like masks. Peking Opera masks. They’re staring at us.”
“Stare back at them.”
Lixin burst out laughing. “You have a Peking Opera mask on your face.” She ran her hand over Marguerite’s cheeks. “Your mask is white, the color of death.”
“Your face looks darker than usual. I thought it was a rich yellow but it’s more like butterscotch.”
“I’m too dark. People think I’m a peasant. What’s butterscotch?”
“A candy. I love darker-skinned Asians. Are you ready for the massage now? You still look kind of grim.”
“I want to sit here for a while.”
“It will help you relax.”
“They will give me sex massage? I’m afraid.”
“Only if you want it.”
“They will give you the same massage?”
“I’m not sure. I only know two of them who are willing to do it and I’m having them do you. It doesn’t matter to me what kind of a massage I get.”
Marguerite got off her massage table to check on Lixin. “You okay, lovely? Oh, you’re crying!”
“I’m okay. Leave me alone.”
Later she heard Lixin’s breathing speed up behind the curtain. Marguerite asked the masseuses doing her if they recalled a regular customer, a middle-aged American male named Aishamu.
“Haoduo waiguo keren lai zheli.”
“Yes, there are a lot of them in this area, but he would be a massage connoisseur.”
When her masseuses had left, she showed Lingling and Ailing the photo of Isham Cook on the back of the massage book.
“A! Renchulai ta.”
They both recognized him. Lingling had even done house calls at his home. The last time she saw him was around a year ago, though, and she hadn’t seen him since. She still had his address in her cellphone and would WeChat it to Marguerite later.
“How was he as a customer?”
She said he was always friendly and courteous, never pushy or rude. Enjoyed erotic massage but never demanded it and was content with a little genital teasing. Eventually she brought him off one day out of pity. He tipped her. Curiously, he never came back and that was the last she saw of him.
“Wo ye fashengle!” said Ailing. She had had the same experience with him and his sudden disappearance.
“They won’t be embarrassed if I get on the table naked?” asked Lixin.
“They’ll give you these disposable panties. Just remove them when you’re ready to be massaged there. But keep quiet if you feel like coming. I won’t know my masseuses. They might be embarrassed if they’re not supposed to know.”
“How will I relax if they have Peking Opera faces?”
“Close your eyes. Try closing your eyes now.”
“I can still see the trees.”
Lixin leaned back into Marguerite and the harsh fragrance of her thick hair enveloped her. They sat there in silence for some time before leaving the park.
“When we entered the massage shop I had that same feeling like in the bookstore,” said Lixin. “Old museum with nobody in it. Strange tinkling sounds. I thought the woman in the lobby was a statue. When she started speaking I was terrified. But felt better that you knew her.” Lixin’s hands were shaking as she started taking off her clothes.
“No, don’t take your clothes off here. Change in the shower rooms they showed us down the hallway. Unless you’re comfortable bumping into male customers with just a towel wrapped around you.”
“Are you starting to feel better now?”
“I think I’m better. Finally, I could relax and then I got excited when her fingers were inside me. Oh, god, I’m so embarrassed.” She blushed and covered her face with one hand. “I caused a mess on the massage table. But had such rush of feeling from it and the gloominess went out of me.”
“Is the acid under control?”
“It’s still strong, but better. It was hell in that park. I’m not so confused now.”
“I’m past peaking. Actually, I think you got more than me. I chewed the two tabs pretty thoroughly in my mouth but you swallowed most of my saliva.”
They were sitting outside at Peet’s Coffee. The dog-day haze had dissipated and the late afternoon sun was bringing out the colors.
“That’s quite the robe you have on. Very striking,” said a foreign male with an American accent at the table next to them.
“Thank you. Authentic Hare Krishna robe from 1960s Berkeley.”
“You from California?”
Marguerite received a message on her cellphone. “Isn’t this address close to the Conservatory of Music?” she asked Lixin.
“Yes. Fuxing Zhonglu. You will try to visit him?”
“Yeah. I’ll go myself. You don’t have to be involved with it. I think it will be easier to explain my purpose that way. If he’s still there.”
“What do you want to find out?”
“What his story is. If it’s anything like Louisa described it could be more interesting than any books he wrote. I have no idea what I’ll find out.”
Several days later, Marguerite helped Lixin carry two taxi loads of her belongings up the stairs to her loft.
“Louisa was okay about you leaving?”
“Don’t tell me she threw a fit.”
“I paid her three more months my half of rent payment.”
“I got a very inquisitive phone call from her. She’s jealous. How are you feeling? Ready for some more acid?” grinned Marguerite.
Lixin was silent for a moment. “I need some time to turn it into philosophy.”
“Why don’t you use that philosophy to consider why you need to keep sending me so many WeChat messages. It’s starting to annoy me.”
“But you felt fine the next day.”
“Yeah. It was very powerful. You said that other drug, DMT, is even stronger? How could that be?”
“It’s different. When you’re ready we’ll try some more of it, a blastoff dose, unlike the kiddie dose you had last time.”
“How about that author? You visited him?”
“I visited his apartment. His girlfriend was living there.”
“Yeah. She was sort of suspicious and reserved but let me inside and invited me to sit down. He wasn’t in China now and that’s all she was willing to divulge. I didn’t want to pry, so I asked her about this Lu Na or Luna, the translator. I made it seem like I was interested in her for other reasons and didn’t mention the rumors about him beating her. She said she knew very little about her and had never met her. In fact, she seemed relieved that I wanted to know more about Luna. Maybe she thought I could find out things she didn’t already know. Yet she didn’t ask me to get back in touch with her. She gave me the email address of an American male friend of his who lives in the U.S. He was apparently friendly with both of them. I mean Isham and Luna.”
“How was his apartment?”
“Comfortable. Lots of books. Anyway, I emailed the friend and he replied right away. He was also rather suspicious of my intentions at first, but when I asked if I could visit him to talk about it in person he agreed. That should break the ice. He lives way up in the Wisconsin north woods and is probably lonely.”
“Visit him? You will go all the way to America just to visit the friend of a violent man?”
“It’s called investigative reporting,” Marguerite winked. “No, in fact I’ve been needing to make a trip back to the States. I have business affairs in Chicago that I’ve been putting off for some time and this is a good excuse to get the trip out of the way.”
Lixin was crestfallen. “When are you leaving?”
“I think next week. I still have to arrange everything. You’ll be fine here. I’ll only be gone a week.”
“Will you stay with him?”
“Not unless he invites me.”
“Will you sleep with him?”
“I have no idea. The path to sex with someone is always a tangled forest. But it sure helps things along if you’re trying get information out of them.”
Marguerite’s rental car pulled off the country road and into a driveway that curled around to the back of a small red cottage. She was greeted by a yelping dachshund that jumped on her lap as soon as she opened the car door.
“Xiaolong! Don’t worry. He won’t bite. He loves women.”
“Jim Spear, I presume?”
“That’s me all right. Marguerite? Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too. You were right about the deer. Thanks for warning me. They appear on the road right out of nowhere. Must have passed about thirty of them on the final stretch up here.”
“How long was the drive?”
“About four hours. I drove up from Chicago yesterday and took a detour to the House on the Rock and Mazo Beach.”
“Oh, yes. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been to either place.”
“I got here earlier than expected because Mazo Beach has been shut down. For good, it seems.”
“Yeah, I seen reports in the news about the police harassing people there.”
“It was the Midwest’s greatest nude beach in its heyday. Complete tragedy. Is this your garden? Lovely tomatoes. You’ve got a whole cornucopia growing here.”
“Zucchini, cucumbers, leeks, green beans, peas, and asparagus.”
“These vines here are Marquette grapes. Those are Brianna grapes.”
“You make wine?”
“Got fifteen gallons currently fermenting and another ten gallons left from last year. As well as crab apple and cranberry wine.”
“I’m impressed. As I am with these. You aren’t worried about law enforcement?”
“I’ll be harvesting these babies before they get tall enough to be seen. The winds are blowing in favor of legalization anyway. May be just be a few years down the line.”
“Oh, is that a sauna?”
“Is it rock heated?”
“You know what the ancient Scythians did? They would crowd into communal sauna tents and throw marijuana on the rocks and inhale the fumes.” Marguerite opened the car’s trunk and hauled out a suitcase. “I’ve got something for you here.”
“Let me help you with that. I hope you don’t find my little bachelor pad too ramshackle. I’m on a Navy pension and not exactly living in luxury.”
“Well, you seem self-sufficient food and booze-wise.”
“That much is true.”
“No, your place is cozy!” she said as they entered.
“Have you made arrangements to stay anywhere, by the way?”
“No. Not yet. Can you recommend a place in Minocqua?”
“I could. You’re also welcome to stay here. You can have my bedroom. I’m perfectly fine sleeping on the couch for a night.”
“It’s up to you.”
“Let me show you what I have here.”
“Oh, are those Persian rugs?”
“I brought different sizes since I didn’t know how big your place would be.”
“Beautiful. But I’m sure I can’t afford any of them.”
“This three-by-four meter should do it. You want to have enough floor space around it to frame it.”
“It’s gorgeous. But I really can’t — ”
“I’m in the rug business. This costs me nothing. It’s yours. End of discussion.”
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
“In case you’re wondering if there’s some kind of a catch, don’t worry. My only agenda is what I mentioned in my email — to learn a bit more about the massage book. It’s causing quite a buzz in the Shanghai grapevine, but no one knows anything about the author or the translator. They both seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth. And you’re one of the few people who personally knew them.”
“What’s all the buzz about?”
“One thing at a time. I’m actually kind of hungry. Is there a restaurant around here?”
“Let me slap something together. It’s the least I owe you. You’re in good hands. I’m actually a part-time chef.”
“Fantastic. I’d love to try some of your wine.”
“What would you like to start with?”
“All of the wines you mentioned. You play guitar, I see. And what kind of a guitar is that?”
“The other one?” Jim said from the kitchen. “That’s a three-string cigar box guitar. It allows you to play blues with a slide because the action is set higher.”
“And you paint! Nudes.”
“Another one of my amateur hobbies.” He handed her a dark liquor in a port glass. “This is some chokecherry wine I still have left.”
“Oh, Jim, is this marvelous. Oh! My goodness. I’ve only been here ten minutes and I’m drowning in pleasure. That means, of course, I have to stay.”
“Here’s something else I created. An oatmeal rum raisin cookie — hold on a second — made with cannabis butter. You don’t want to eat more than one of these.”
She snatched it from him and took a bite out of it. Xiaolong came up and dropped a rubber ball out of its mouth. Marguerite bounced it around the room for him to fetch while Jim cooked. She examined his CDs and books. He emerged with different samples of wine and finally, steaming dishes. “Hand-stretched noodles with hickory-smoked bacon and baby ramp pesto. Stir-fried sections of corn on the cob with butter and Sichuan peppercorn.”
They set to eating.
“Your cooking is worth the price of this rug. If I were selling it, that is. So you used to live in China?”
“After retiring I enrolled in a Chinese program for foreigners at a university in Shanghai. That’s where I met Isham. He was teaching in the English Department. I wanted to stay in China longer but couldn’t get a job there without a university degree. So I came back to the U.S. and picked up a B.A. in journalism. Went back to Shanghai and found a job as an English radio announcer.”
“You did all that after you retired? How old are you?”
“Fifty-five. I retired when I was forty after twenty years of service.”
“You look great for your age.”
“I came back here for good in 2010. Traveling was my life. I’ve been to many of the world’s ports on my tour of duty, including all over East and Southeast Asia. But my roots are here and my father is getting old. I sort of need to be around.”
“You’re from Minocqua?”
“That’s where I grew up. My dad lives out on Blue Lake. I couldn’t afford a house in town now since the tourist boom.”
“How did you meet Luna?”
“Oh, that’s a long story. She was one of Isham’s many women. A really sad case, though. Really crazy and fucked up.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was really attracted to her too. Sexy as hell, her appearance anyway. Not her personality.”
“Is that painting of her?”
“That’s of Bonnie, his longtime girlfriend. They go way back.”
“The one who gave me your email address?”
“Yeah. He once lined up about ten women for me to photograph in the nude and paint their nudes from. She was one of them.”
“What was the problem with Luna, exactly?”
“As sweet as an angel, with a seriously major case of OCD. And borderline paranoid schizophrenia. She’d get these ideas in her jaws like a pit bull and wouldn’t let go of them. She had some kind of virgin complex and they couldn’t have sex. Couldn’t get his one-eyed snake inside her. I suppose it was pretty clear why. She just couldn’t let go, with all the other women he was juggling. But at the same time she couldn’t let go of him. That was the problem. Constant emails and phone calls — and stalking him. It got to the point where he had to cut off all contact. That’s when she started calling me. Every day. And an endless stream of bizarre, incoherent emails.”
“All the while she was helping him translate his massage book?”
“That was much later. He had cut her off for years. And then hooked up with her again around five years ago, I think. The book came out just a few years ago, didn’t it?”
“The original was published in 2015. The Chinese translation in 2016.”
“You cannot believe the frantic, fucked-up emails and phone calls I had to deal with from her. Until I had to cut her off too.”
“Oh, tell me about it. I may be dealing with the same problem myself. I recently got involved with a Chinese woman, a real beauty, who has the same OCD tendency.”
“I’m bi. I invited her to live with me after she had a falling out with an American woman she was living with. Now I’m wondering if I made a mistake.”
“She’s obsessed with you?”
“You could put it that way. I’ve told her repeatedly not to send me so many cellphone texts but she keeps doing it. About a hundred messages over the past four days since I left Shanghai. Any advice about how to handle this?”
“Are they threatening messages?”
“No. She’s just in love. She doesn’t have any sense of limits. It seems to be just a pure, naive, unadulterated outpouring at one go of all the feelings she’s accumulated in her life. It’s like a faucet on full blast.”
“Well, I suppose it matters how much you like her yourself.”
“If I can influence her and bring things under control there’s hope. But what do you do — be gentle and persuasive or a strict taskmaster?”
“I can tell you I would never be able to live with a woman like Luna for one minute. No matter how much I’m attracted to her.”
“Anyway. I like your painting style. A fresh cross between Matisse and folk art. I love that one over there with the squatting nude holding a wine glass.”
“I haven’t painted anything in a while. I have so many other projects going on that I get sidetracked.”
“What if I posed for you?”
“That might be an interesting proposition,” he nodded.
“Your wines are so orgasmic that I could even take my clothes off right now. Sorry, just kidding. I hope my boldness doesn’t freak you out.”
“If you dressed in a gorilla suit with a strap-on dildo and wanted to roger me to death, that would be bold.”
“You’re funny. No, really? You sure you could handle it?” She undid several of her shirt buttons.
“I love artist types, the free-minded. Totally my thing. Yes, by all means make yourself comfortable!”
“You get your easel ready first.”
“I could set it up tomorrow. You might find me weird in saying this, but I find your mustache a turn-on.”
“Actually quite a few people do. The ones who dare admit it.”
“And I would love to see those breasts of yours.”
“Watch out. I get horny on weed. The cookie is hitting me. How much did you say you put in it?”
“I see you ate half. That will get you nicely stoned. A whole cookie is enough for most people.”
“You’d better keep me distracted. Tell me more about Luna.”
“She also had a mustache, almost as dark as yours.”
“Oh, really. Do you think there was anything to trigger her behavior?”
“Let me give you an example. He wrote a story in one of his books — I don’t think it was the massage book — about sex robots run amok and a male character somewhat resembling Isham who was raped by one of them. Luna thought he had written her into the story. Or maybe she was another robot, not the one who raped him. Something like that. He couldn’t get it across to her that the story had nothing remotely to do with her. She had pulled the idea out of thin air, out of her paranoid fantasy world. But once lodged in her head it wouldn’t budge. She was calling me about it in tears.”
“Did anything come of that?”
“As soon as she got a new obsession into her head, she dropped it. Like it had never come up at all. But what about you? I want to hear about you. Where are you from?”
“I was born in Afghanistan. We fled after the Soviet invasion and made it to the U.S. as refugees. I don’t have much memory of that time. I went back by myself after the war ended, as a teenager. It was crazy and I escaped into Iran and got ensnared in the carpet-weaving business.”
“So you’re Muslim?”
“No. Not at all. My parents were secular and that’s why we got the hell out.”
Marguerite burst out laughing and went to the bathroom. When she returned, she tucked her legs under her on the couch. Her bra was gone.
“What was so funny just now?”
“I can’t get that place out of my head. The House on the Rock. It’s a total riot.”
“I’ve heard it’s interesting.”
“This madman named Alex Jordan created it back in the 1950s. It started off as a Frank Lloyd Wright-type house on the top of a big rock. He kept adding to it over the decades and turned it into a massive museum filled with mechanical music boxes and circus orchestras performed by life-sized dolls. There’s this gigantic carousel. The naked mannequins riding the horses have realistic nipples. The climax is this huge hall surrounded by church organs set on different levels with twisting walkways going up and around them, like a drug-induced amusement park ride. The only problem is the organs don’t play. Many of the museum’s machines are broken. They should repair them. The place has an abandoned feel to it. Can I use your shower in a bit?”
“After one more glass of that white wine.”
To understand how a tub of margarine got splattered against a hotel room wall, we need to backtrack to a more important question, why a private galleon of such intricate construction kept crashing against rocks on its journey through China. The galleon was Isham Cook’s philosophy of polyamory. Polyamory’s pejorative connotations present something of a challenge when trying to explain the term to the Chinese, or to almost anyone for that matter. The concept is universally dismissed out of hand by civilized people as at best a naïve and flaky hippie pipe dream and at worst a ruse of immature and irresponsible males for acting out their lust on as many women as possible. It helps, however, if we make a decent effort to understand the concept, and with it the wreckage of a hapless navigator in hostile territory.
Some contemporary English-Chinese dictionaries have the word but mistranslate it as polygamy or polygyny: yifu duoqi, “one husband, many wives.” Polygamy has a specific historical meaning in China, where up through 1949 any wealthy man could have several wives and concubines. Today it’s viewed as a sorry, feudalistic legacy of the past (a few ethnic minority groups such as the Mosuo in Yunnan Province still practice a form of matriarchal polyandry, but they’re viewed as harmless museum curios), whereas polyamory, an awkward compound in the view of etymology purists, from the Greek poly and Latin amor meaning “many loves,” only entered the vocabulary a few decades ago as an Americanism. A Shanghai friend suggested that a literal gloss in Chinese of “many loves,” duo ai, would short-circuit the reflexive associations with polygamy and work well enough.
Polyamory is a consensual intimate relationship involving more than two people. The core polyamorous unit is the triad: three people sharing each other lovingly and sexually. It’s not a one-off or occasional threesome; there is a mutual effort among all parties to cultivate the relationship, indeed stabilize it through “the logic of the tripod,” as Isham called it. Polyamorous relationships are not bound to the triad. There is no limit to the number of partners, of whatever sex or gender, who can be added to the group and “interlace the varied fragrances of their nakedness.” Any partner is free to leave and join another group. Living together is not a requirement but is the logical outcome: the communal family. There are as many types of polyamory as there are polyamorous relationships; only sexual coercion is precluded. The variety of polyamorous relationships is upheld as vital to the definition of the term. Polyamory is democratic.
To repeat: polyamory is distinct from and incompatible with polygamy, the sexual domination of more than one woman by the male head of a household. Once monogamists acknowledge that polyamorists are not polygamists, we can get to the real issue at hand — monogamy itself, that deeply entrenched Ur-faith held as dearly as Christmas. Polyamorists have no desire to take Christmas away from anyone. They merely seek to be legally allowed to practice among themselves something better, and thus to sway by example. Monogamy is rigid; it is limited to the dyad and prohibits intimate or sexual relationships with people outside of the dyad. Polyamory is open and fluid. It enables and encourages the natural desire to enter into a new relationship while being loyal to an existing one. It affirms that the quality of sex life withers when a couple is confined to each other and blooms with the infusion of fresh blood. It affirms the lifelong need to love — and fall in love with — more than one.
If there is one respect in which polyamory is superior to monogamy, it is the salubrious upbringing it provides to children. The monogamous household is a mini totalitarian state. As demagogues whip up hysteria and brainwash and bully the populace, the tyrant parent likewise has free reign to terrorize the child. The communal household preempts tyrannical parenting and reduces the likelihood of psychological, physical and sexual abuse. But even reasonable, well-intentioned monogamous parents may inadvertently instill severe personality distortions on the child simply given the absence of alternative perspectives. When the number of parents and children increases, the biased and irrational influences of the few are counterbalanced and kept in check by the more reasoned knowledge of the majority. Meanwhile, the multiple-parent household need not preclude the child’s being cared for and raised primarily by his or her biological parents.
The absence of sex education at school in combination with repressive morality at home has long had devastating psychological consequences for people, perpetuated from generation to generation. The first important figure to explicate these consequences in all their dreary clarity was Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, in such books as The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality (1932) and The Sexual Revolution (1936). On this vital topic the polyamorous household has an important role to play in educating its children. Of course, sexual contact between children and adults is prohibited, in accordance with laws and mores (while noting that the age of consent has varied widely over time and across cultures). But open sexual discussion in appropriate contexts should be encouraged and parents’ own healthy, polyamorous relations held up as a model. Family nudity is encouraged as well (long practiced in many northern European countries).
The danger of infection and disease among the sexually open or “promiscuous” is not a valid argument against polyamory. In the polyamorous household, relationships are brought out into the open and there is honesty, accountability and responsibility. The incidence of sexually transmitted disease is already high everywhere, not least in conservative societies where sex is hushed up and STDs circulate silently. This is due to a societal failure, the lack of effective, shame-free, universally available sex education. Most cultures still languish under puritanical, sexually repressive morality. In no country is there anything approaching a positive and comprehensive sex education for adolescents, created specifically for them. There is no reason why teenagers couldn’t be as knowledgeable about STDs as doctors. Sex education should also be interesting and fun and include, for example, live demonstrations in class by sex specialists and the option of student-on-student participation.
Among the growing library of articulate advocates for the polyamory movement, Ryan and Jetha’s Sex at Dawn (2010) is probably the best known and most eloquent. But long before the term was invented, two books spelled it all out. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels enumerated in cogent detail the many alternatives to bourgeois marriage which the tribal or communal unit has at its disposal for arranging itself sexually, as evidenced in non-Western cultures throughout the ages. And there was German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s stunningly simple insight in The Art of Loving (1956). Contrary to the conventional notion of love (and its inseparable destructive obverse, jealousy) as a commodity of limited quantity easily squandered unless saved up exclusively for the chosen one, love is an infinite resource with no inherent limit to the number of people it can be showered on, simultaneously and over the course of one’s life.
As Isham saw it, so self-evident were these truths that any clearheaded teenager could grasp them. It wasn’t polyamory that was shocking but its absence. It was not only perplexing to Isham but profoundly tragic so many sex lives were attenuated, lost to confusion and self-deception, to the miserly hoarding of the body, cruel recognition achieved in old age when it’s too late. Most offensive to his sensibility were the many highly educated progressive friends, leftists who should have known better, so-called intellectuals, who seemed even more enslaved to bourgeois morality than the conservatives he knew. With Chinese friends he made a bit more progress in conveying the concept, perhaps due to a notorious yet quite sensible precedent, the polyamorous-like setup among some households in rural China where a wife agrees to share her bed with her husband’s brother in exchange for another hand on the farm.
He was rigorously honest with every woman he got into bed. He told them at the earliest opportunity, without necessarily spoiling the romantic mood, that though he was capable of loving a woman with passion and devotion, sexual ownership and fidelity was a different matter altogether: contrary to nature, repugnant and wrong. It was something he was both constitutionally incapable of and opposed to in principle. If as a result the woman he was explaining this to refused to have any more contact with him, if all women refused to have any contact with him, fine. He’d confront that with the same serene fortitude of a life sentence in prison or the loss of his groin in a car accident. He could not, and would not, compromise his beliefs; the very idea was philosophically nauseating. Ironically, these blunt pronouncements worked just as often as not. Chinese women expected men to lie their way into their pants. This guy’s refreshing, disarming honesty had the opposite effect and earned their wary respect.
If you’re attracted enough to a person, it doesn’t much matter what they say, what ink cloud they spew at you to throw you off or warn you of what you’re getting into. You will still latch onto them if given the chance. Isham was exactly the man Luna was looking for — he was the only man she was looking for — and had heard him out calmly and with little change in her demeanor on their first dinner date in Jinan. It’s not clear how well she absorbed his ideas or whether she understood them at all. It wasn’t a language problem; it was the great cultural and conceptual gulf between them. The only important thing at the time was they were spending their first night together. She proceeded to fail in bed and was deeply upset over it. She would continue to be upset with herself on their subsequent attempts. Now, when he contacted her ten years later, she was more pained than happy to hear from him, having put that past behind her. But seeing him again was a forgone conclusion.
As we have seen, he was impatient and angry over dinner in the seafood restaurant and things concluded badly. She was afraid of him and this fear was lodged in her vagina. It foreclosed the possibility of sexual progress that night with virtual certainty. For his part, it wasn’t so much the virtual certainty of no sexual progress which made him impatient; it was the pointlessness of all their interactions. He told her about another woman he was seeing at the time named Kitty. He hadn’t planned to do so but felt a pointed comparison might get through to her, because the two had more than a few things in common. Kitty was employed in an investment firm and quite the financial whiz, yet like Luna she was kindhearted and also had a keen interest in animal protection. Like Luna, Kitty had a mustache (a darker one yet) but kept it out of the way with depilatory cream, it being, alas, unacceptable at her workplace. Unlike Luna, however, Kitty enjoyed a nice meal and could converse on a range of topics.
This wasn’t the first time Luna found herself in the competition; she had lived for a time with Isham and his girlfriend Bonnie. She was hurt at this revelation of a new enemy but managed to maintain perspective. She and Isham had been apart for a decade and it was hardly surprising he had acquired another mistress, one he could even make love to, which was more than she could say. Stoically, she considered the really important mystery and matter at hand: why he still hadn’t married Bonnie. Was this mistress the reason? Was Isham torn between the two and struggling with the prospect of leaving Bonnie for her? Luna asked him more about Kitty. What was it that made her outshine Bonnie? “You’re missing the point,” he said. “I’m polyamorous, remember? It’s not a competition between them. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to like each other and have no intention of ever meeting, but they complement me in their own way. I intend to hold on to both of them. I could even hold on to you too if you could solve your sexual problem.”
To Luna, there was no more incomprehensible and offensive idea than this polyamory. She regarded Isham as confused, lonely, distracted and deluded. By forcing the issue, she hoped to bring out the truth of what he had surely wanted all along. As hard as it was to encourage him to choose between Bonnie and Kitty while leaving herself out of the picture, she could potentially triumph in the end. If Isham was torn between the two women, that meant he truly loved neither. With patience, Luna might guide him back to herself. Despite his loss of confidence in her sexuality, she was ready and eager to open up. She was ready to tell him why he hadn’t succeeded yet would still be able to, but that too required patience, a patience he had not yet attained. All was immobilized in a morass of misunderstandings. She would be the catalyst, the one to break through the logjam, resolving things in one direction or another. She only wished he could see her selflessness and altruism in this regard.
After that night, Luna continued to press Isham about Kitty in frequent emails. He ignored them, until he succumbed one day to a more sympathetic mood and agreed to give her a final shot. On condition you not bring up Bonnie and Kitty. As he waited for her to join him in the outdoor patio restaurant next to the hotel, she texted him that she was on her way and bringing his dinner, which she had already prepared.
“My dinner? I thought we’re eating together in the restaurant outside. Wasn’t that the plan? It’s a budget hotel with a tiny room. It’s not set up for food. I don’t want you to bring anything.”
“I’ve already checked in and the food is getting cold,” she said upon arriving at the restaurant. She was wearing a frilly polyester dress over track pants and over that a Goose Island T-shirt from Chicago he had given her on their last meeting.
“Things are not getting off to a good start.”
The room was built around a queen bed, with only enough space for a small desk. Luna laid out the items she had brought: a bowl of spaghetti, sliced bread, plastic cheese, and a tub of margarine. He occupied the sole chair while she sat on the edge of the bed. He gestured at the food.
“I already ate,” she said.
“First of all, I again tried to invite you to a nice dinner at a restaurant. Last time you joined me but refused to eat anything. This time you refused to join me altogether. Second, you are staring at me while I’m trying to eat. You’re not my servant. Third, you had no idea what I’d like to eat but instead brought these bizarre processed foods, and you claim you know about healthful food.”
“I researched how to make spaghetti on the internet because it’s Western food.”
“Why do you presume I need to eat Western food? Have I ever given you any indication I can’t eat Chinese food? What’s this meat in the sauce? Oh, it’s spam! You don’t make spaghetti sauce with spam. And you made the sauce using ketchup!” He dropped his head in his hands.
“Isham, I want to talk about Bonnie.”
“Hold on. Didn’t we agree not to talk about her?”
“I want to know when you married her.”
“What? We’re not married. Whatever gave you that idea?”
“You are married to her. You need to admit the truth.”
“Why do you assume I’m lying? We are not married. You are rapidly spoiling the mood with this nonsense.”
“Isham, she wants to have a child and start a family. Have you told your mother yet?”
“Told her what?”
“About your marriage to Bonnie?”
“I told you I am not married.”
“You are married and I’m waiting for you to admit it.”
“Fuck, this is annoying. I don’t like to be accused of lying when I’m not.”
“I hope you didn’t hide your marriage from your mother. How can you improve your relationship with her if you don’t — ”
The tub of margarine splattered against the wall. “Get out! Get out of here, now! I’m through with you!”
“No, Isham! I’m sorry!”
She blocked the door as he tried to open it. He caught himself.
“Okay, okay. You can stay. I don’t want a hallway scene in this hotel. I have work to do. I will stay here, you stay there. You will not speak to me for the rest of the night. You stay on your side of the bed and shut up.”
She collapsed onto the bed in tears. For the rest of the night she lay sleepless in her clothes, her back to him, quietly sobbing, and left early in the morning.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to clear the fog and Luna promptly recognized what went wrong. If her previous emails to Isham had been frequent, she now redoubled her efforts and sent him five, ten emails a day, long emails, starting off with this, the first of them:
“My goodness, I need to catch my breath. I need some air. This is Luna live from her sanctuary. I’ll update you on her mental situation — if she could manage to survive Papa Isham’s enlightening, informative, liberal, artistic, lovely sex bomb. I’m exploded. You got me, sir. Holy cow! And happy Thanksgiving Day, a day for people to fill up their hearts and minds with gratefulness, instead of grumpiness, warmth and friendliness instead of coldness and hostility. On this day, constructive attitudes will substitute for destructive negativities. Show me the broadmindedness you’ve acquired through being a writer.
Dear Isham, if you have pressure to release, I can help you to release it in whatever way you prefer. I just hope it’s not violent like throwing things, as happened the other night. I understand at that very moment your heated temper just skyrocketed and it was out of control. Please don’t do that again, my love. It’s a lose-lose situation. Next time, harness your negative feelings into positive passion first, then fold me in your arms and kiss me deeply. What do you think? Come on, handsome. I’m imagining crawling on top of you and taking that big thing of yours inside of me this very moment.
I’ll tell you a secret. If I could draw you away from your work for just a few minutes the next time we’re together, if you could just spend a little more time gently kissing my body all over, I would open up. I get very excited when my breasts are kissed and caressed. But it seems that your computer has a vagina which greedily sucks up your dick instead. I am eager to know more about you. My mind hungers for new perspectives. It orgasms from innovative ideas. I hate small talk. I want to talk about atoms, death, aliens, sex, magic. I like a person with a serpentine mind.
PS. Are you disappointed that we talked about your relationship with B and K in the hotel room? Is this what you were angry about? Look dear Isham, what if I pretend not knowing your feelings toward B and K, and you pretend not knowing that I know your feelings toward B and K, which I think is exactly what happened between you and B about you and K. My love, I don’t want to be the next B. And I’m not K. I am your friend and your woman.”
In other emails, she took a more creative approach:
I finally figured out what you were trying to tell me when you came up with your Chinese author name, Aishamu. I’m not sure if you know the meaning behind the Chinese characters, but 艾 is mugwort, a traditional Chinese medicine plant used in aijiu, moxibustion. There is a kind of aijiu treatment for older men’s penis to restore virility. They place the burning ai in a chamber over your genitals. It symbolizes Bonnie trying to help your sex life with her, because you’ve been together for so long. The third character, 姆, means female, or wet nurse. The character also has the woman radical on the left, and the mother radical, mu, on the right. The mother radical is actually a picture of a woman’s breasts, lying sideways (the two dots). This symbolizes Kitty, who is nourishing Isham with her fresh milk. The middle character, 沙, means sand. It has the water radical on the left (three strokes) and the shao radical on the right, which means something very tiny, like little rocks, or sand on the beach. But shao also means little of something, or lacking something. It symbolizes Isham lost and lonely on the beach, looking for his mother. Bonnie and Kitty have got Isham trapped between them on the beach. ‘Aishamu’ was your cry of help. You chose it as your author name because your books are your only way of communicating honestly with me. It’s why you asked me to translate Massage and the Writer.
As Isham had by now blocked Luna on WeChat for good, she was relegated to viewing his Twitter posts, along with Kitty’s Weibo posts (China’s Twitter), another valuable source of information, and ferreting out their veiled messages. She was wrong about his supposed marriage to Bonnie, she told him in one of a hundred unanswered emails that followed over the next few months, and hoped he wasn’t offended by her mentioning it: “It’s good that you eventually indicated your marriage to Mrs. Kitty Cook, which I read from your Twitter and her Weibo. I admire your marriage. You did the right thing, especially after how much you’ve hurt her emotionally.” He was a proud man, she continued, and she understood how difficult it was for him to admit his love openly. But monogamy works. Polyamory is just a way of killing time until you find the right person. She surmised that the reason she hadn’t been invited to their wedding was he had likely denied Kitty one, given his aversion to ceremonies (he had mentioned his former marriage to a Chinese woman in the 1990s, a low-key affair at a government office and a simple dinner with her family). This was indeed a shame, yet she still had much useful advice she was hoping he could forward to his new wife.
The more Luna learned about Kitty, the more she realized Kitty was everything she was not. If the two women bore some superficial physical resemblance — fine-boned yet shapely figure, intense eyes, a mustache (or the capability of one) — they were worlds apart in character, temperament, accomplishments. Kitty came from educated stock, a good family, with a Masters in Finance from Fudan University, one of China’s best. In a culture which discouraged female excellence, she had numerous passions and hobbies and the nerve to barrel her way forward with them. She could walk into a strange nightclub, get up on stage and belt out stunning renditions of Chinese songs to a wowed audience. She painted. She was quite talented at photography, practicing on her attractive colleagues and subordinates who eagerly posed nude for her, once they saw her formidable array of camera gear and lenses. One of the benefits for a Party cadre of advanced managerial position was abundant annual leave. Whenever traveling solo to a new country, she would rent a car and head to a remote setting where no Chinese had ever ventured and post photos on her Weibo blog, along with smartly penned, historically informed essays contextualizing the photos, some of which won awards in photography magazines.
Her female friends envied and idolized this free and independent spirit. Luna too was impressed and became a devoted fan of Kitty’s blog, perhaps more devoted than anyone else, judging by her interpretative acuity. For his part, Isham carefully read every one of Luna’s emails, thenceforth his sole source of information about her. He needed to monitor her evolving state in case things took a turn for the worse, signs of which her more recent missives already hinted at: “Oh, God, I can’t believe it, Isham. You’re revealing what I wrote to you to Kitty. You’re pulling my leg and making fun of me. You are laughing at me and ignoring my good intentions for friendship. I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. Please don’t ask Kitty to tell me things through her Weibo.”
This prompted a response from Isham, demanding Luna provide evidence that Kitty was doing what she claimed she was. Then the months of emails were suddenly followed by silence — a permanent, not an ominous silence, he hoped. But a few months later Luna started up again, with an altered tone:
How have you been doing? I haven’t written to you for a while. I’m not sure if it’s safe to contact you through this email box. So after you read this message, please delete it right away. Also, make sure you’re reading this alone by yourself and not with someone else, of course, if you can. I will delete it right after I send it to you. I’ll check this email box during breaks between some business I have to do today. I probably won’t be able to reply to your response until later today.
Subsequent emails were more worrisome:
“Please delete my WeChat account from your phone, otherwise, Kitty will not stop her lunacy. She will interpret it as you’re still interested in me, which is not the case. This behavior of yours is hurting me constantly. Do you know how much of my personal information Kitty has stolen from me? I saved my account names and passwords for social media, emails, banking, etc., all in one email in my email box. She attacked my computer and she has everything! And she watches me whenever I’m online. Whatever I do on the Internet, she will pop up a window to show whatever I’m doing. If you were me, would you go to the police for this crime? Your advice would be appreciated.”
This was all utterly baffling to Isham, for Kitty knew nothing of Luna’s existence. He would never dare to have mentioned being acquainted with such a person. What the hell are you doing with this pathetic, troubled woman? — Kitty would have asked him had she known. She also would have asked him how much Luna already knew. If he had been pressed to explain why he had revealed her Weibo to Luna in the first place, I’m sure he’d deny it was to humiliate her but to educate her, to point the way by positive example to what she herself could be. Anyway, there was no harm in it; Kitty’s blog was visible to anyone. It was after all a public profile.
Whatever could possibly have deposited these seeds of delusion in Luna’s head? A primal rage against the enemy projected onto the enemy so that one becomes the object of the rage? Cognitive dissonance of such an intensity as to cause a psychologically crippling rupture? Or more simply, her despair at succumbing to the truth that she really was cut off and once again wouldn’t be seeing Isham for another decade? One decade was manageable; a repetition of this was not. In other words, did Isham make her mad? Or if not madness, instead of fading away like last time, was Luna now contemplating taking things into her own hands?
He did make a mistake, he recalled, a potentially serious one. When he had first told Luna about Kitty, he mentioned in passing the name of her investment firm, a prestigious company. He wasn’t sure why he even mentioned it other than to embellish her with a few colorful details. But he also revealed her full name. Luna proceeded to threaten to contact Isham’s workplace if he didn’t get Kitty to stop harassing her. She threatened to contact the police as well. Go ahead, he told her. Unless she could produce any evidence, she’ll be laughed right out of the police station — or kept there for causing trouble. And she threatened to contact Kitty’s firm.
“I strongly advise you not to do that. Do you have any idea what you’re getting into? Kitty is well connected in the Party hierarchy. She’s a tough, no-nonsense woman and doesn’t have patience for petty people and their narcissistic fantasies. She could destroy you. I am telling you, you do not want to cause her trouble.”
Luna’s threat put Isham in an awkward position, because he now had to tell Kitty. “It shouldn’t be a problem if she contacts your workplace, right? She has absolutely no evidence you’ve ever harassed her. She’s just a crazy woman who can be dismissed out of hand.”
“The problem is my superiors will see me as a woman with moral issues and a messy life.”
“I feel really bad about this.”
“I know she has problems and you would never intentionally have set her against me.”
When we idolize someone, we can’t imagine their life could have flaws. But this aspirational female patriot had gotten tripped up at work by other mishaps, prior to the entrance of Luna onto the scene, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Before she met Isham, Kitty had been engaged to a Chinese man whom she caught in bed with another woman shortly before their wedding date. She dumped him but maintained contact and they stayed on cordial terms. Years later, not long before Luna’s harassment campaign began, her ex’s girlfriend developed her own inexplicable obsession with her. The woman made several calls to Kitty’s superiors accusing her of harassing her. She flatly denied it. Isham was inclined to believe her when she later told him about it. Who knows what went on between the two women, but though Kitty was capable of enormous anger, harassment wasn’t her style; she had worthier hobbies. To compound things, her new boss happened to be harassing her himself. Nothing more blatant than a few insistent dinner invitations of unclear purpose, which she naturally invited by virtue of being beautiful and unmarried, and which she found excuses to refuse. He took the occasion to warn her about the alleged harassment of her ex’s girlfriend.
Around the same time, Kitty had taken an unauthorized trip to the U.S. with Isham. Party members couldn’t just travel anywhere on a lark. International travel was more tightly controlled for them than it was for ordinary citizens, and they had a special company-issued passport. There were furtive ways of working around this, magic hats a private passport could be pulled out of, thus enabling Kitty to troll the globe as much as she had. The hitch was that a subordinate on her team thoughtlessly spilled the beans during a meeting where her boss was present. Kitty was disciplined and an ungainly chunk of money taken out of her annual bonus, a common punishment in the Chinese workplace.
It wasn’t long after this that Human Resources passed on the present allegations to Kitty’s boss: her involvement in a love triangle and her hacking into the electronic devices of her opponent, with whom she was evidently engaging in ongoing and relentless psychological warfare. The revelation wasn’t quite as sexy as it seemed, for no evidence was provided by the accuser. Still, a pattern had formed and management had had enough. Kitty was demoted in rank and divested not only of her remaining bonus but also of her team. But this wasn’t the end of her worries.
If it had turned out that Kitty really had hacked into Luna’s electronics, if Kitty really had been caught up in some mental affliction or temporary insanity driving her to go after another woman in jealousy bloodlust, a severe reprimand might have come as a godsend. Though harassment could be grounds for gross misconduct and termination, mitigating factors would be considered. The Party office in Kitty’s firm wouldn’t allow one of its members to be dismissed without conducting its own investigation. So far things had not become serious enough for that. They would give her the chance to snap out of it, and that would be the end of it.
But what if, as we are presuming, Kitty was innocent, and Luna’s attack proceeded from full-blown paranoid schizophrenia? This was more perilous, since Luna would continue to rage no matter what Kitty did. True, Luna still wasn’t providing any evidence. Yet why, if it was all a hallucination or a fabrication, was she going out of her way to call Kitty’s company in tears a second and even a third time, to complain that the harassment was not only not going away, it was getting worse? Kitty was monitoring her twenty-four hours a day and watching her every movement through her cellphone and computer cameras, Luna claimed. These allegations weren’t just coming out of the mouth of an angry or vindictive person; they seemed to be a call of distress, enough to give her superiors pause. While they wanted to believe, and still believed, Kitty to be incapable of engineering such destruction behind the scenes, they couldn’t dismiss the suspicion she might be a very good actor.
“Oh, I’m anxious, anxious, and anxious,” she told Isham. “If the Party launches an investigation, do you know how bad that could be for me? I’m meeting with her next week to see if I can get to the bottom of it and find some kind of solution.”
“You’re meeting with Luna? How in the world did you ever get in touch with her?”
“She contacted me through my blog. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be involved. I can deal with it.”
A week later, the day after her meeting with Luna, Kitty asked Isham to come up and see her at once, as she needed to talk about what happened. She picked him up at a nearby subway station and they drove around looking for a café. She was cold and tense and distracted, as if not knowing her way around her own neighborhood. They drove into the underground parking of a shopping center and circled around in vain trying to find a parking spot. It was a sweltering Saturday and the crowds were seeking refuge in air-conditioned malls. They gave up and found a coffeehouse on a nearby street.
“I’m grateful you agreed to make it here from so far away on such short notice.”
Kitty showed him her bruised wrist. “We met at a restaurant for lunch. I tried talking to her about animal protection and other things I thought she could relate to. She just stared at me and hardly spoke. Finally, I got up to pay the bill. She also stood up and shoved me and I fell down and hurt my hand.”
“I took her to a computer shop to prove that I never hacked her. They examined her cellphone and my cellphone and showed conclusively that I was innocent. She wouldn’t believe it. She accused the shop staff of having a secret connection with me and hiding the truth. Nothing came out of it. The whole meeting was pointless.”
And the calls and the threats from Luna continued.
* * *
Chapters 5-12: Buy the book (forthcoming)
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