Xie Xie – John Larson

I’m in China this fall, wasting a semester doing this low effort study abroad. I’ve been here two weeks. Ready to blow my brains out. I emailed my professor the other day to tell him I was sick and went to play mahjong in the park. I was playing with some Russian expats who spoke a little English. One of them started telling us about this karaoke bar. KTV. He said we had to go. I asked him what was so good about it. He started naming the waitresses and describing their bodies. That was the first time I laughed in a minute. I promised him I’d go. I like stupid shit like that. Singing, drinking.

            I’ve been kind of distant with my classmates, so I figure tonight I’ll invite them out to this bar. I send our group chat the address and tell them a friend recommended it to me. They’re excited. They all want to sing karaoke. At 10, we walk there from our hotel. But once we find it I can tell it isn’t going to be their kind of place. It’s seedy. The building is partially underground and not entirely legal looking. It’s not like the sanitized places we’re shepherded to by our chaperones. But we’re here, so they sit down in the recessed U-shaped booth and order some drinks anyway. They sing “No Scrubs” and some other songs. I can tell it makes them uncomfortable that our waitress is wearing a mini-skirt and a bandeau top, bending over low to place our drinks on the table. They catch glimpses into other booths, where drunk men throw their arms around their waitress’ shoulders and kiss them on their cheeks. They’re looking around like they’re waiting for our professor to show up and explain to the establishment that this kind of behavior is not to be tolerated.

            A couple of the girls say that they didn’t realize I was bringing them to a bar for pigs, not knowing I was listening. But I’ve been monitoring everyone this whole time, looking out for any signs of discomfort. I don’t know why I’m up in arms defending this place. I guess it makes me sick knowing if these kids had their way they would sanitize this place until it looked like the honors student lounge. They play at being accepting, but I know they would bulldoze anything that even narrowly diverged from their moral ideal. They’re Puritans, just without a god. They believe in nothing except their own perfect goodness. I knew they would be this way.

            “We’re going to the museum tomorrow morning,” one of the guys says. “Maybe we should head back.”

            It was our last night in Beijing. Tomorrow evening we would fly to Xian.

            “Fuck that,” I say. “I’ll keep enjoying myself.”

            The girls get up and leave our booth and I follow them into the hallway to shout some other things at them as they leave. It makes a negative impression. I’m getting the sense I’ll be hearing about this for the rest of the term. Fuck them. A booth full of Russians is watching the whole confrontation. They think it’s hilarious. I see one of them is the guy I played Mahjong with in the park. He calls me over. So the honors college leaves and I stick with him.

            I rant about my classmates to the Russians. How they’ll probably tattle on me to our professor or file some kind of report. How that’s the only way they know to resolve anything. I realize in the middle of this rant that I’m probably incomprehensible to them. I sit down.

            The guy from the park says, “You cannot stay angry in place like this.”

            He slaps my back. Has me drink some water followed by a shot of vodka. Then one of his friends asks me what I want and I tell him and he buys me a Tsingtao. It comes in a green bottle that a waitress sets on a small napkin in front of me. She’s a Chinese girl in a purple dress. He introduces her to me as Katya. I assume that’s not her real name. It sounds like something she figured Russians could pronounce, or a name they gave her. She is fairly tall and slim. Her bangs are not quite long enough to tuck behind her ears with the rest of her hair. Her glossy but wrinkled purple dress takes me back to high school dances circa 2012. She reminds me of this girl I know from home, Suze. She shouldn’t, because she’s completely unlike Suze. But looking at Katya in her flashy clothing and makeup, Suze nonetheless appears. My Russian friend explains something to Katya in his language. Hands her some small bills.

            He says to me, “Katya is here to cheer up. Make happy again.”

            He leaves me alone and goes back to singing Vitas songs and flirting with the other waitresses. Katya stands behind me and rubs my shoulders. She smells like a bouquet. It’s familiar, but in the humid, crowded KTV bar everything is blending together. It feels good to be near her. This is what I’ve been needing. She listens to me talk about Suze, how she reminds me of her for reasons I can’t place. I tell her not to take it personally, seeing as me and Suze had some problems recently. She asks what happened so I tell her the story, how I see it, of me and Suze. Katya agrees with everything I say. Confirms I did nothing wrong.

            She says, “Some women… They don’t know what they want. But there someone out there for you.”

            “It’s so difficult to feel a sense of possibility anymore. It’s like I’m trapped on a train. That’s how life feels. I can go from car to car but never find the driver. I can look out the window but don’t know where it’s going. You know this feeling?”

            She says, “There many fish in ocean.”

            I smile. “You’re a good person,” I tell her.

            She laughs and presses her knuckles deeper into my back. “You need someone to relieve stress.”

            “I’d like to try acupuncture.”

            She says, “I don’t know that, acoo-punk-show.”

            “They stab you with the needles, you know? You all invented it.”

            She says, “I would like to be alone with you. Very much.”

            Her voice is quieter, closer.

            “Aren’t you working right now?”

            She says, “They let me go early.”

            Her tongue begins exploring my ear.

            So I thank the Russians and get up to leave. My friend from the park asks if I have money. I shout that I have a fuck ton. I walk with Katya toward the hotel. She climbs on my back and rides me for a block. She gets down and we link arms. We walk with synchronized steps. I start taking strides too long for her to match. She begins laughing and hitting me. I pick her up and carry her like we’re leaving the chapel in Vegas. I realize I don’t know where I’m going, which way I took to get here. I don’t feel concerned. I’m falling in love.

            We stop at a convenience store. I ask her to get directions to the hotel, but she tells me she knows the way. I trust her. I walk down the aisles looking for condoms. Katya kisses me, unprompted. Everything they have is in a plastic case behind the register. There seems to be just two options. A yellow one. Peaches. And a blue one. Jeans.

            “What is Jeans?” I ask the two girls behind the counter.

            They look to be twins, no older than teenagers. They cover their mouths and giggle, whispering something to each other.

            I ask, “Are they flavors, or what?”

            They both laugh. I shrug but feel my face reddening. I’m the White Monkey. Katya looks up at me and smiles, covering her mouth the same way the cashier girls do when they laugh. I would like to just buy both and see for myself, except they come in packs of three. Would I need six? Katya nuzzles my shoulder. It’s friendly, but it could be impatience. I worry about that.

            “Jeans,” I tell the twins.

            They ring it up. Eight Kuai. I hand them ten. Kiss Katya on the head while they make change. They put the blue condoms in a black plastic bag. Me and Katya leave the convenience store and walk toward my hotel. I hope the honors college is sitting in the lobby when I walk in with Katya. What are they going to say? I hope they say something, just so I can show how little their disapproval affects me. I stop on the sidewalk. It’s 3 AM Beijing time but it feels like noon to me. I kiss Katya, right here under the streetlamp. There are still people on the street to see me kiss her and squeeze her ass. This tight purple dress. Everyone else can think what they want. I’ll be the American student dating the KTV girl. So what.

            We’re waiting by the elevators. Now I can’t find my card, it’s not in my pockets. I remember how trashed I am. I don’t even know my floor number. Katya hits the button for 21. She has a card of her own.

            “You’re staying here too?” I ask her.

            She says, “I stay here sometime.”

            We go into her room. It looks the same as mine. The same beveled mirror on the back wall. The same gold trim on the furniture. The same placards with laser-cut Chinese and Cyrillic characters. The same view of the city. Or maybe it’s a different view. There’s so much out there I don’t even know what I’m looking at. In Shanghai I could at least look out and see the Bund, the Pearl Tower. Here I have no clue. There’s a box of condoms on the dresser. Peaches. I open one up. It smells regular. I even put it to my tongue. Nothing.

            Katya says, “You are silly.”

            She’s unzipped her dress. She’s wearing neat black underwear.

            “What makes it Peaches? What’s the difference?” I ask.

            She says, “Are you going to kiss me?”

            I like that she doesn’t indulge me on the condom flavor thing. I like having a back and forth with her. I need someone to keep me moving.

            “I’m going to kiss you.”

            We lay on top of the red comforter. I’m close enough to pick out the little golden threads they’ve woven into it. I miss the feeling of a woman’s cheek, her neck. Katya smells more refined in the hotel room’s conditioned, sterile air. I know what her scent is now. It’s CK 1, which explains it. Suze’s perfume is CK 1 too.

            I feel like I’ve been unconscious this whole week and have only now woken up. I’m struck by the sensation of having been carried while unconscious by a large ancient animal. The animal has dropped me off here. Now I’m 5,000 miles away from Suze, smelling her exact same perfume. I feel like I’m being made fun of. By the universe.

            I remember the week before I left for China. I brought over a DVD of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. Suze had a six pack of Tsingtao in her fridge for us. We were both having it for the first time.

            “What do you think?” I asked.

            “It tastes like beer. But green,” she said.

            This was my sendoff party. Just the two of us. Drinking green beers and laughing. It was a good movie. The credits rolled. We both tried to convey our thoughts on it in a disjointed way. We agreed that we enjoyed it. The menu music looped for a while. Soon I put my arm around her and kissed her. When our lips touched it was like kissing a board.

            “Did you not want me to do that?” I asked.

            She didn’t say anything.

            “I thought this was when we moved on to the next stage of our relationship,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

            “Why did you come here?” she asked.

            “I just wanted to see you before I left,” I said.  

            She opened the black plastic bag that had the DVD case in it, pulled out three condoms I’d picked up at the gas station on the way over. They were still connected at the perforations. She put them back in the bag.

            “Is this the only thing you’ve been thinking about?”

            “No,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re my best friend.”

            “I know,” she said.

            “So why didn’t you tell me not to do that?” I said. “What the fuck was I supposed to think?”

            She didn’t say anything. So I left. I didn’t grab my things. I wanted an excuse to come back and see her again. I didn’t talk to her until the night before I left for China. I sent her a text that I was sorry for yelling the other night. She said it was okay. I said that’s not really who I am. I waited for a response that didn’t come. Then I broke rank and I asked her what she wanted.

            “I don’t know what I want,” she said.

            “I didn’t think I did either,” I said. “Until I met you.”

            I’m not numb to the experience of being inside Katya, even though I am reliving those nights with Suze. I’m feeling this present moment with Katya very intensely. I have two eyes. One looks at Katya and sees that she is a very intelligent and kind woman. I haven’t known her long, but I feel a depth to her that makes up for our brief time together. She might have that mysterious quality of person that makes them the one for you. It’s possible. I said I was falling in love earlier. Maybe that’s true. This is more than sex. That I can say for certain. It has to be. How can I make it last this time? We could stay in touch. It’s easy to get around China, even after I leave Beijing tomorrow. We have something together. I don’t know what it is. It’s worth trying. But it’s going to end here, isn’t it? Is this anything more than sex? No, It’s just I’ve forgotten what sex is. Well, here it is. Sex is a large animal carrying you somewhere else, unaware. Dropping you off later. One eye is always looking back.

            I waited by my phone until midnight for a response from Suze. Got nothing, so I took a walk. My flight was at 7 in the morning. I decided to stay up until then so I could sleep on the plane. I walked all the way to Suze’s. Across the street from her place they were having a backyard party. People were singing karaoke on a makeshift stage, Banda music. She lives in a Mexican neighborhood. The instruments always sounded somehow comical to me. But not the singing, that sounded like longing. People were drunk and singing in a disjointed chorus. I picked out a few words. …mi corazón en pedazos… Of course, it’s a broken fucking heart. For a moment I took that as a cruel coincidence. But I realized that what I felt was not unique. What I felt was the inspiration for probably half the songs ever written. At the time, this made my emotions feel as cheap as the backing track of the karaoke song. But now, remembering the sound of those voices, and how the pink and green stage lights shined between the fence posts, I don’t know if that’s fair.

            I checked my phone. Suze had texted me.

            “The mailbox.” From one minute ago.

            I opened up the thin letterbox hanging on the gate outside her place. Inside was the black plastic bag I had left behind the other night. It had my DVD and the three blue condoms. I looked up at Suze’s apartment window on the third floor. The lamp was on, the window cracked open. I stood there for a minute, maybe less. I took my things and went home, waiting on a bench for the bus to bring me to the airport.

            “You pay me now,” Katya is saying.

            “What?” I ask.

            She is holding out her hand.

            “For the experience,” is how she says it.

            “Right,” I say. “Of course.”

            I take out my wallet, set the two remaining Jeans condoms on the table. I didn’t realize she was a prostitute, but I’m trying not to let that on. Looking back, it’s the only thing that explains it. I find myself thinking about a great animal carrying me from place to place. I hold the reins, but really I’m just riding along. What do I mean by that? What part of myself am I trying to justify with metaphors? I pay her what she asks plus some more.

            She counts the money. Says, “Xie xie.”

            That’s the first Chinese she’s spoken to me all night. Twin words, the end of our transaction. I’m not a partner, I’m a customer. I’m a foreigner and I need to leave. I’m imagining how I could come back and see her tomorrow. I could see her every night. Eventually she would see I’m capable of being so much more.

            But I have a flight tomorrow. We’re going to fly to Xian. We’re going to be carried to the next thing. I can’t hang around here the rest of my life.

            I take the elevator down, but don’t know where I’m going. I have no room card. I have no way of getting back. I go to the concierge. I give him my passport, my driver’s license, whatever I have.

            He refuses my identification.

            He says, “Just your name, sir.”

            I give it to him. I tell him I’m with the honors college.

            He says, “Very good, sir.”

            He types into his computer and produces for me a new room card. He gives me directions patiently, and hands me a number to call should I need any further assistance.

            I thank him. I ask him not to tell my professor about any of this. I offer him money.

            He’s looking at his computer and typing.

            “No need,” he says. “It never happened.”