The old Chinese bathhouse, circa 2000

浴, the Chinese character for bathing, formerly displayed on signs indicating a bathhouse

“Wow, your skin is so white.”

“Only my butt is. My arms are darker than yours.”

“Your Chinese is really good.”

“Nothing special.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“How long have you been in China?”

“Years.”

“You here alone or with your family?”

“Alone. My wife is back home.”

“Why did you come to China?”

“I like the contrast of cultures.”

“You don’t miss your family?”

“Not too much. I like living abroad.”

“What does she do?”

“Business.”

“Why didn’t you bring her with?”

“She’s Chinese.”

“Is that so. Does she know you frequent these places?”

“Yes.”

Lust & Philosophy (ch. 1): “I first saw her one spring day on my way to afternoon coffee near People’s University”

China, Beijing, Haidian District. Beijing Foreign Studies University lay along the northern bend of the West Third Ring Road before the expressway veered eastward to become the North Third Ring Road. You could not find a more nondescript neighborhood in an already blank metropolis. You were not even in Asia; you were in something called a city. No lush greens in this austere university district, with tenement housing for campuses behind walled compounds manned by teenage guards in ill-fitting uniforms.

BFSU was split into two facing campuses across the elevated expressway. I lived on the west campus. A pedestrian underpass crossed over to the east campus where I taught my classes. Except for intersections and u-turn bays, the space under the expressway was requisitioned for public parking, turning the structure into an endless monolith. A university bisected by an expressway, where one would expect a commons: I had once sought some dour symbolism in this, until attributing it to the haphazard urban inventiveness that the Chinese excel in.

Flanking both sides of the expressway was the lower Third Ring Road for local traffic, a generous sidewalk on each side. I frequently walked north along the west sidewalk on the way to the Suzhou Street subway station, the Haidian bookstore district, and the computer district of Zhongguancun, with its megastores and restaurants. We need only be concerned with the first ten minutes of this walk, the roughly 700-meter stretch from the west campus to the busy intersection at Suzhou Bridge (an expressway overpass, not a water bridge).

The route offered a cross-section of urban society coming and going from a hodgepodge of shops and businesses. Let’s start at the campus gate and work our way along the length of the austere stretch.

Lust & Philosophy (ch. 2): “To seize the event, lock its meat and bones in my jaws and relax into the thing”


“Can we go to Rexall’s today, Mom, can we?”

’Cause the drugstore on Chicago Avenue and Main Street has tons of plastic model battleships. I’m collecting them. I want to get them all. I found a secret way of paying for them after spending my allowance. When mom goes to the bathroom I take a dollar bill from her purse. As we walk to the drugstore, I run way ahead of her and place the dollar on the ground sort of hidden. Then I run back to her, hopping and skipping. Once more I run ahead of her to the spot, because now she can see me. I grab the dollar and rush back.

“Hey mom, look what I found!”

“Oh, wonderful.”

“I can buy a new model ship with it!”

I just turned nine years old. Being eight was fun. Last summer I went to Pioneer Day Camp. We made crafts. One day, I was waiting on the camp bus to go back home, and a girl sat down next to me.

Lust & Philosophy (ch. 3): “Success is never haphazard but only ever proceeds from comprehensive and systematic attack”

Several months went by. It was near the end of the semester and summer was in full bloom. Students rushed past me as I emerged from the west campus one morning on my way to class. We are entangled in thought and never more blind to what is around us than when we head to work. The more focused you are within, the more fragmented the reality without. A big set of female hips glided toward me, disembodied in their heft, narrow waist, black slacks. I looked up. It was Cookie. Again with a friend, perhaps the same. We locked eyes as we passed. She turned around and smiled, recognizing me. She spoke to her friend and both looked back laughing, followed by a third lingering smile over her shoulder. We were far apart now. I should have been running over to talk to her, but the certainty I would be seeing her excused me from the chase, now that it was clear she was on campus. She seemed a little older today, in the morning glare, mid thirties perhaps, grittier, with pencil-accented eyebrows. Much too old to be a student, unless enrolled in the BFSU language-training center for adults, where they just might have been heading. Or a campus employee.

The encounter dramatically altered things. That was no ordinary smile; it was a full-blown flirtation. Now the entire stretch was aflame with expectation, along with the west campus, since the language-training center where Cookie might be studying was on the way to my apartment in the foreign experts building. The funneling effect of our daily physical proximity would inexorably tumble us together again. Day One had begun.

Lust & Philosophy (ch. 4): “Kind of like Hot Wheels and tits and the Day of Judgment all rolled into one”

Hey, guess what! It’s my last year of junior high and I finally meet someone who deals in LSD, which I am eager to try. One day I skip my morning classes and head over to his high school. I don’t know his name, he’s just “the guy who sells acid.” I manage to find him hanging out in the pool hall across the street. He tells me to wait for him outside the school cafeteria while he picks up my dope. He returns with a small strip of paper otherwise known as White Blotter, with ten stained droplets on it for $2.50 a hit. The paper is perforated so you can neatly tear each hit off.

“Anything I should know about this acid?” I ask, being my first time.

“Don’t take more than one.”

The universe grinds to a halt as he speaks. Though only a high school student, he looks like a wizened adult. “Can you lay one on me?” he asks.

I give him a free hit and he puts it in his mouth.

Lust & Philosophy (ch. 5): “Each new walk down the stretch was charged with expectation, at once a cornucopia and a minefield of possibilities”

I returned from the U.S. in September to start another school year at BFSU. As the days went by, each new walk down the stretch was charged with expectation, at once a cornucopia and a minefield of possibilities. Sooner or later Cookie would be coming my way. Sooner was just as likely as later. On some days I was confident I would know what to say to her in the event of her appearance. On other days doubts sprang to mind. I worried she would burst into view just when I was sunk in such thoughts and most dreaded meeting her. It would take supreme agility to rouse myself in time to nail her. I would never be able to gather my wits together in the split second they were needed. Opportunity is bald in back and can only be grabbed by the forelocks, the old myth goes. She would loom up with such suddenness she’d already be behind me by the time I noticed her, without recognizing me, or pretending not to recognize me.

Or there was the prospect of spotting her coming at me from afar and being given a precious few moments to ready myself. One convenient thing about Cookie was her pronounced pear shape – broader in the hips than the shoulders – enabling me to pick her out among a crowd at a distance. I merely had to scan my visual field for any large-hipped females, on auto pilot as it were, freeing myself up to forget I was looking for her. There were even times when I think I forgot about her. Also making identification easy was her distinctive gait, measured and graceful, stamped more indelibly in my mind than her face. Yet the very likelihood of generous preparation time was even more frightful. So much so that her arrival on the scene would commence an interval of terror, like the specter of an approaching gunman shooting people in his path.