Cheng Cheng has never found snow so detestable. The blizzard has paralyzed JFK, triggering an unending stream of apologetic announcements: yet more delays. The benches are crammed. A baby next to her is howling, and the red-headed boy opposite methodically scatters potato chips across the carpet. She decides to go outside for a cigarette. A sari-clad Indian woman takes her seat, sloughing off her rucksack with visible relief.
It is dark outside; there is already a fresh scatter of white over the newly-ploughed road. She raises her hood and cups her hands against the biting wind to light a cigarette. A plane passes overhead, its tail lights winking, and she watches till it is out of sight. When she raises her hand again, the cigarette has gone out.
The plane finally lands four hours late. She stands behind the barrier, a sense of expectation glimmering when Xia Hui appears, an unremarkable middle-aged man dragging a heavy suitcase, looking especially small walking amongst so many white people. He must have slept too long on the plane; dreams have disordered his hair.
Xia Hui spots her and walks over. She puts away the paper with his name – her arm is numb from holding it up – introducing herself briefly as she takes his suitcase. They drive towards the city, manufacturing conversation. This is his fourth time in New York, but the previous visits were short. He doesn’t like it here. These big international cities are all the same. He prefers somewhere with a bit of history – a museum, a living fossil. He asks how long she’s lived here.
“Five years. I had relatives in America who helped me get my visa. I studied for two years, then started work.”
“Have you always been with Chen Bin’s Chinese Association?”
“No, I’m just helping out with this festival.”
“Ah, you’re interested in literature?”
“Not really, it was supposed to be another girl doing it. I took over at the last minute.” She turns to smile at him in the back seat. “Actually, I don’t know the first thing about books.”
He nods tolerantly, but she feels him looking down on her from a great height, pitying. Just before they reach the hotel, he takes a call.
“Not even a minute’s rest. A couple of friends are waiting to meet me,” he sighs as he hangs up. “I haven’t written my speech for tomorrow.”
“Looks like you’ll be up late tonight.”
“I’ll just make something up on the spot.”
“Aren’t writers supposed to be good with words?”
“I’ve been to too many of these things.”
She smiles sympathetically.
They park outside the hotel. A doorman swathed in a black coat comes for Xia Hui’s luggage. The lobby is done up in the style of the thirties: dim yellowish light, swirling jazz brushing past her ear with the lightness of a feather. The couple on the couch stand up and walk over to hug Xia Hui. They are in their fifties, American, well-dressed. The man is silver-haired and red-faced, like Clinton before he lost all that weight. The woman is wearing enormous pearl earrings, her mouth a startling red.
Cheng Cheng heads to the front desk to check Xia Hui in. She leans on the counter as she waits, flicking through the leaflets. One of them informs her Woody Allen plays clarinet here every Monday night. She remembers watching Vicky Cristina Barcelona with Lulu, a story about taking small risks for love. But tickets are almost two hundred dollars – far too much for her, even with a free drink thrown in.
She walks back to the group, apologizing for the interruption, to ask Xia Hui if he wants a non-smoking room, and which complimentary newspaper he’d like in the morning.
“This is Cheng Cheng. She’s very capable,” he introduces her to his friends, his hand resting on her shoulder as if it belongs there. She waves hello, embarrassed. As she goes, she hears them discussing Xia Hui’s latest novel.
“I finished it in one sitting. Absolutely thrilling. I loved it,” says the woman, with great enthusiasm. Her Mandarin is almost flawless. “Jeffrey loved it too, didn’t you, dear?”
The man is hesitant, less confident of the language. “Y-es.” His eyes swivel as he tries to find the right phrase. “Most – passionate.”
Done at the front desk, Cheng Cheng hands him his room key and bids them all good night. She turns to leave, but he stops her. “Wouldn’t you like to join us for a drink?”
She smiles and shakes her head, and says good night all over again. A huddle of paparazzi shiver outside the revolving doors. The cameras sweep across her face like rifle sights, then turn away, uninterested, aiming again at the entrance. They are waiting for some film star. This hotel is famous – she’s read the name in an entertainment magazine, someone and someone having a liaison here, she can’t remember their names.
The hotel is on Madison, surrounded by boutiques and galleries. She walks toward the subway. Even though business hours are over, the store windows glitter in the snowy cold, bright as those artificial fireplaces rich people have. A homeless man sits cross-legged, leaning beneath a window, as if trying to warm himself.
She would have joined them but was afraid of embarrassing herself. Soong Boy always says she’s like Lady White Snake, changing shape after a few drinks, writhing on the ground as if trying to shed her human skin. She never remembers any of this the morning after. All she feels is a great weariness, as if she’d spent all night reaching for something just beyond her fingertips.
She takes the subway home. A biting wind assaults her as she leaves the station, momentarily blinding her. This junction was where she first saw Lulu. At the time, Lulu had just signed the lease on the apartment and was advertising on Craigslist for room-mates. She came to the subway station to meet Cheng Cheng and bring her to view the place. As they waited for the lights to change, Lulu turned and said, “You know what? Every day, I walk down this street and look at all these people, and I can’t resist shouting inside, ‘I love New York!’”
Cheng Cheng stared at Lulu. She didn’t love New York. She didn’t love any place. Perhaps moved by this passion she would never feel herself, she decided there and then – even before seeing the room – that she would move in with Lulu.
Now she reaches the apartment building, which has felt lonelier since the Singaporean girl next door moved away, and several other tenants left for the holidays. She pulls out her keys. The locks have been changed, but she hasn’t got round to removing the old key from her ring. It regularly takes her a couple of attempts to find the right one.
Lulu’s aunt took two boxes of her stuff away yesterday. Her room is now empty apart from the Polaroids on the wall. The girl in the pictures has a powder-white face, glowing coldly in the darkness.
Cheng Cheng’s room is piled high with cardboard boxes and overstuffed luggage. Half-read magazines are scattered across the floor, along with a tangle of phone chargers. Only a week till the end of the month, and she is still nowhere near packed. She sits at the desk and opens her laptop to check her e-mails, chewing on the ham sandwich and pasta salad she bought on the way home.
The phone rings. It is Soong Boy, who says, “Come and have dinner at my place tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow? I have a function.”
“It’s my mom’s birthday.”
“Why didn’t you let me know sooner?”
“How could I have known you’d be so busy.”
“You’re always going somewhere. I’ve been calling you all day.”
“Do me a favor and look out the window. See the snow? I’ve been waiting at the airport all day for a delayed plane. It was past eight by the time I picked up the guy and took him to his hotel.”
“So you’re busy. Was I wrong?”
“That’s enough, Soong.”
“Yes. That’s enough.”
Neither of them speak after that. Recently, they’ve been fighting about work and moving. There is an unspoken agreement now. When an argument threatens to start, they both shut their mouths for a while. After a couple of minutes, she breaks the silence. “You should start eating without me. I’ll come as soon as the function is over. It shouldn’t be too late.”
“Whatever you like.” He hangs up.
Cheng Cheng continues gnawing at her sandwich. The ham is disgusting, but she feels she should finish it. She can hear Soong Boy’s voice: “Don’t waste food.” She is getting to be more and more like his family. For them, there is no right or wrong, only duty.
Actually, going to the event tomorrow isn’t within her job description – she could just as well stay away. But she’d rather not have dinner at Soong Boy’s, where no one ever speaks. They glumly eradicate the food before them as if nothing in the world could be duller. Soong Boy’s mother used to work in a factory canteen, and is used to cooking huge portions. She constantly heaps everyone’s plate with more rice, more meat, terrified someone will leave her table still hungry. Cheng Cheng has rarely experienced such warmth in America.
Soong Boy’s parents run a grocery store in Chinatown, selling Chinese pickles, hotpot spices, quick-frozen fish balls and egg dumplings. They always smell strongly of salted vegetables. The first time she met them, it reminded her of being a child, following her mother to the state-run grocery store, where a worker in over-sleeves scooped pickles from a huge tank with a long ladle.
His parents have always lived amongst Chinese people. Even after being here for decades, neither speaks a word of English. To them, emigrating was like bringing their entire home on board the ship, travelling across the Pacific to America, then all the way to an apartment in Queens – but even if they were in the Himalayas or the South Pole, it would make no difference. They would still live in this house, sealed tight as a clamshell, not admitting the smallest New York breeze. Next month, she’ll be moving in with them – the thought makes her unable to breathe.
From her wardrobe, she pulls out a shrimp-pink dress, ready for tomorrow’s function. It used to be Lulu’s, and is typical of her – a deep V-neck, the bodice encrusted with crystals, a tight waist, and the hem gathered in stiff little waves.
When she was sorting through Lulu’s stuff, she found a lot of her own things: powdery eyeshadow, a tropical hairband, dangling jewelry and pearl earrings. Lulu always took advantage of her suggestibility, encouraging Cheng Cheng to buy things that didn’t suit her, and later appropriating them for herself. The first time she found her stuff in Lulu’s room, she was surprised – but Lulu explained it away: “In my heart, there’s no difference between us. What’s mine is yours, and yours mine. Ask me for anything you like and I’ll lend it to you, for sure.”
Packing the things into boxes, she left out some of Lulu’s clothes and half a pack of Marlboros. In the borrowed dress, she looks at herself in the mirror, vaguely hoping she’ll look like Lulu did at that other party.
It was Lulu who told her, when she first arrived in New York, not to miss a single event. Never mind whether she had an invitation – Lulu herself never did. She bought art magazines and, flipping to the back page listings, picked out the openings she was interested in, dates and addresses. The pink dress was for one such event. Cheng Cheng remembers – this was the only time she accompanied Lulu.
Lulu held a cocktail as she pierced through the crowd, agile as a leopard even in three-inch heels. She had the gift of rapidly determining which people were best connected, and engaging them in conversation – discussing the paintings, other fashionable exhibitions and concerts, all of which she knew only from magazines and gossip. This was always enough, she said, as long as you remembered the most important thing: never praise, only criticize. Say this restaurant is going down the drain, or that Broadway musical is virtually unwatchable. Complain about the bars in Brooklyn, always full of tourists. The other person invariably agrees – the most striking thing about New York is how it houses the world’s largest collection of malcontents.
Lulu looked enchanting, her dress as up-to-date as a Barney’s ad, her Celine handbag almost real. No one could have guessed she shared a tiny apartment in the Bronx. Cheng Cheng would never have that kind of confidence. She edged to the outskirts of the crowd, huddled against a wall, hoping not to be noticed. Yet a lady asked her where the toilets were, and a little later a man thrust an empty wine glass into her hand.
Trying not to be mistaken for a waitress again, she busied herself looking at the paintings, examining them in great detail, down to the labels showing their dimensions. Finally, she was rescued by a tall Chinese man in a baseball cap. He came over and said she was the only person here who really appreciated the pictures. She worried he would ask her what she liked about them, but he didn’t, and as they chatted she was gradually able to relax. Lulu left with a crowd of people the gallery invited to the after-party. Only a few people stayed behind, Cheng Cheng and Baseball Cap amongst them. They downed leftover cocktails and talked some more, until the waiter came over and took away their glasses.
They wound up in a motel, in a room like a morgue, water droplets rolling off the radiator as if it had a cold. When they made love, the boy covered himself with a blanket so Cheng Cheng found herself in a dark tunnel. She passed most of the winter in that tunnel.
The boy was called Soong. He didn’t have an invitation either. Like her, he’d never been to an opening, had only come with friends who’d abandoned him. She felt they were similar, two discards finding each other, both lucky and pitiable.
“Only you would go to a fancy event and unearth the one lowlife there,” sneered Lulu later, cruel to be kind. “You sure can pick them.”
“I’m not you. I don’t like taking risks,” Cheng Cheng answered. Unlike Lulu, whose tastes ran to Hollywood blockbusters full of seduction, murder and disputed wills, she preferred long, contemplative films, which seemed to her like old men basking in the sun, carefully picking over fragments of the past.
“That’s not true, you must do, deep down. What else would you be doing in New York, all on your own?”
But that was the biggest risk of her life, coming here alone. Perhaps too great a risk – she seemed to lose hold of gravity, and for a very long time felt she was in free-fall.
“Didn’t you come here so things would be different from the past?” Lulu continued. “You said so yourself.”
Cheng Cheng nodded slowly. “But now, I think everywhere is the same.”
Her relationship with Soong Boy was full of compromise. The only thing she stood firm on was continuing to live with Lulu. Soong Boy hated Lulu, and from early on had urged Cheng Cheng to come and live with his family. She always refused. She needed Lulu, even though she didn’t need much from her. Lulu was a skylight – she could look up and, through her, see the changing sky over New York.
She knew all of this could only be temporary, but she clung on to it, the way a lazy person clings to their nest of blankets in the morning – until the day she was rudely yanked from bed.
This was her first encounter with the NYPD. She got home one evening to find them standing by the building entrance. Seeing their blue uniforms made her suddenly nervous, as if she had no right to be in this country.
The whole building was sealed tight, and their apartment door was open, light spilling out, people milling around. She hoped it was just Lulu having a party.
She sat on the couch, waiting for the police to take a statement. They were busy walking in and out of rooms, as if there were anything left to be rescued, so many legs on the creaking floorboards, carefully avoiding the shadow in the middle of the room, a deep plum color that left an afterglow. She hugged her knees and buried her face in her arms.
The Singaporean girl from across the hall stood in the doorway, asking what was going on. The policeman told her an individual named Li Wenjuan had been murdered. He pronounced all three syllables flat, without the correct tones, making a corpse of her name. Li Wenjuan was Lulu’s real name. She’d always hated it. Now, dead, she was stuck with it.
A crime of passion, said the police. The killer was her boyfriend of two weeks, a Russian. “Have you seen him before?” they asked, brandishing a picture. Cheng Cheng shook her head. The man in the photo had the coldness of the Caucasus, old and grizzled. She remembered that Lulu had once hooked up with a bearded guy, and then complained afterwards that they were all wild men with dark hearts.
The police left, promising to call if there were further developments, but she never heard from them.
The next day is the start of the literature festival. Xia Hui is speaking in the afternoon; Cheng Cheng wishes she could be there, but Chen Bin has sent her to make the arrangements for the evening event. As the opening party of the festival, it was originally rather grand, but Chen Bin was obsessed with reducing his overhead. Now, having seen the latest estimates, he wants her to switch the champagne for sparkling wine.
She reaches the hall at three, by which time Xia Hui’s talk is over. It is the coffee break, and people are standing around eating cake. Xia Hui is speaking to a couple of women, a cup in his hand. Cheng Cheng is dizzy, not having had lunch yet. She grabs a handful of little sandwiches. Chen Bin walks over, looking terrible. Xia Hui isn’t happy, he says, because they’d got him to speak after several exiled Chinese writers, and the emcee managed to mispronounce the title of his latest book. Now he is saying he’s never attended such a dreadful festival, and wants to cancel the scheduled media interviews and skip the evening’s do.
“You have to calm him down. The guest list for tonight has already been announced. If he isn’t there, we’ll look ridiculous.”
“Yes, he seems to like you. Before the talk, he asked me why you weren’t here.” Without waiting for a reply, Chen Bin turns on his heel.
One of the women goes, leaving the other, a fright in mustard-yellow tweed, gazing adoringly at Xia Hui. Cheng Cheng recognizes her: Mrs. Yang. The day before, she’d stormed in while they were getting the hall ready, accusing Chen Bin of forgetting to send her an invitation. Chen Bin immediately pushed the blame onto Cheng Cheng, even scolding her in front of the woman. After Mrs. Yang had gone, Chen Bin explained that she was one of those Chinese women who’d turn up at the opening of an envelope, and fancied herself a bit of a socialite. Lulu in twenty years’ time, thought Cheng Cheng. Not as beautiful as Lulu, but much luckier – she’d snagged a nouveau riche American.
Cheng Cheng takes more food and some coffee. Her fruit tart is delicious, the strawberries drenched in syrup giving her the sensation of good fortune. As she eats, she can feel someone’s eyes on her, as if he’d like to overturn her plate: Chen Bin, glaring at her from across the room.
She crams the rest of the tart into her mouth and walks over, stopping a respectful distance away, waiting to be noticed. Xia Hui’s eyes brush past her and turn back, landing squarely on her body. He looks surprised and delighted.
“You look thinner,” he smiles as she walks over.
Mrs. Yang turns, her face full of astonishment. “You two know each other?”
“We met yesterday.”
Mrs. Yang’s mouth is hanging open. Cheng Cheng valiantly changes the subject: “Did the talk go well?” Her voice is warmer than she’d intended.
“It was thrilling. We all thought it was too short. They should have given you more time, we didn’t need to hear so much from the Taiwanese.” Mrs. Yang continues to address Xia Hui.
“It was nothing, just a lot of rambling. I didn’t even have any notes prepared. She knows.” His eyes have not moved from Cheng Cheng’s face.
The air seems to solidify between them. Mrs. Yang allows a moment of unhappy silence to go by, then says, “I have another thing to get to. Excuse me.” As she leaves, her eyes shoot fury at Cheng Cheng.
“Did I interrupt something?” Cheng Cheng looks down.
“Of course not. You rescued me. Can’t you tell?”
“I thought you must be used to this. You were dealing so well with her.”
“Sure, but I have to keep reminding myself not to become like that.”
“Novelists can only write because they don’t fit into the world. If I became used to all this, then I couldn’t work anymore.”
“Writers just do what they like, don’t they?”
“I wouldn’t have said so, no.”
“Then what do you call suddenly refusing to take part in this evening’s event?”
“Is that what you’re talking about?” he laughs. “I’d forgotten you work here.”
“This has nothing to do with work. I was hoping you’d be there.”
“Thank you for caring. But, you see, none of this matters to me. I only said I’d take part in this festival because I was hoping to meet some old friends.” He crumples his paper cup into a ball and goes to throw it away. When he returns, he says, “Tomorrow night I’m flying to Paris. I’ve got two speeches to make and about a million interviews.” He puffs out his cheeks and sighs. “I need a break. I’m taking the evening off. That is, if Miss Cheng will allow me?”
“It’s not my decision,” she smiles.
“I wouldn’t want to get you into trouble.” He is serious now, sincere.
“You won’t. I’m only an assistant.”
An usher announces that the second half is about to begin, and invites everyone to return to their seats. He watches the crowd file back in, and turns to her. “All right, I’m going.”
“Now? You’re leaving now?”
“Yes, I’m sneaking away before they send another smooth talker after me.”
“I’m not a smooth talker,” she pouts.
“Fine, you’re not.” He puts his coat and scarf on but doesn’t move. She looks down, shuffling her feet until they are contained within one of the floor tiles.
“Does this job matter to you?” He sticks his hands into his pockets.
“What?” She is stunned for a moment. “No, not really.”
“Yes. I’m just helping out, it’s not permanent.”
“Then why don’t you come with me?”
“Where to?” She finally looks up at him.
“Let me think about it while you get your coat. I’ll meet you at the door.”
After Lulu’s death, she took a long break from work before quitting her job at the Public Library. She was sick of the long numbers running down the spine of each book, the ones that told her which books to take off the shelf, and where to put them back. She never wanted to see another book in her life.
She told the landlord she’d stay in the apartment till the end of the month, and use the time to clear it out. Soong Boy shouted at her but it was no use, she was determined to be on her own, slowly sifting through the debris. The landlord advertised for new tenants and people came to view the place. None of them had read the story in the papers or bumped into the Singaporean girl next door, so had no idea anything had happened here. When they asked about the many Polaroids of Lulu plastered across the wall, she explained, “She’s gone back to China.” And just for an instant, she felt as if Lulu really had gone back. Soong Boy and his family saw death as a kind of downfall, but to her it was a return.
When Chen Bin showed up, she’d assumed he was yet another prospective tenant, but he said he was looking for Lulu. He’d come in person because she wasn’t answering her phone. He worked for a Chinese newspaper, and sometimes organized talks or exhibitions. He was pulling together a Chinese literary event, and Lulu had seemed eager to help when he first asked her about it.
“Lulu hardly ever took part in these events,” said Cheng Cheng. In truth, Lulu despised anything to do with China – so dull, she said. So vulgar.
“I know. But this festival has many famous writers,” said Chen Bin. “We’ve even invited Xia Hui. Maybe you don’t understand how passionate Lulu was about literature. She’d read all of Xia Hui’s books. She was determined to get his autograph.”
“Yes, she mentioned it,” said Cheng Cheng flatly, unsure why she felt the need to lie.
“It’s such a pity. I can’t believe she’s not with us anymore—“ Chen Bin’s eyes reddened. Cheng Cheng watched him, suddenly certain he’d slept with Lulu. They sat for a while, mourning in silence. Before he left, Chen Bin asked if she’d like to take over Lulu’s interpreting job. “We’d pay you, of course, although it won’t be very much.” She accepted.
Soong Boy tried to dissuade her. Anything to do with Lulu was dangerous, he said.
“I just want to meet more people.” She couldn’t explain to him how lonely she’d been since Lulu died.
No one sees them leaving the hall. The main doors open onto a small street. She walks fast, afraid someone will come running after them, and he keeps up with her. The sidewalk is empty. So few cars come this way that the snow is still pristine. A used-up Christmas tree lies beside a garbage can. She hardly ever comes to the Upper East Side. These streets are unfamiliar, mysteriously calm, like an empty stage set. His footsteps behind her make her feel like she is in a movie.
They cross Fifth Avenue into Central Park. The great sheet of snow is undisturbed. Walking across it in boots sweeps up thick clouds of white, startling squirrels who dart up trees and watch them from high branches.
“Can we take a break?” he calls, breathing hard.
Turning, she sees that he is a couple of dozen yards behind her. She stops and laughs, “I guess you don’t work out?”
“No need to move so fast, we’re not escaped convicts.” He catches up with her.
“Oh, but we are. We’ve just got out of jail.”
“You seem excited. Is it me, or are you just happy to be free?”
“No such thing.” She pulls up her collar, buttoning her coat all the way to the top. “Where to now?”
“Let’s find somewhere to sit down.”
“We’ll have to keep walking, then. There’s a café ahead.”
The café is empty. An old man sits in a corner reading the New York Times. Xia Hui asks her to order for him. The ponytailed waitress brings their drinks quickly, coffee for her and English tea for him.
“This reminds me of playing truant.” She tears open a sugar packet and pours half into her coffee.
“You, playing truant? And here I was thinking you’d have been a model student.”
“Only once or twice.”
“No reason. There were two kids who skipped class all the time. I always wondered what they did while the rest of us were in school. One time they asked me to go with them.”
“And what did you get up to?”
“Nothing. I can’t think of what we did. All I remember is that we skipped class.”
“So the moment of escape is most important.” He laughs as if he has just thought of something. “So you mean, I’m the student who’s never in class?”
“I didn’t mean that.” She looks closely at him. “Were you?”
“Sure, from when I was eight.” He smiles at her shock. “It was the Cultural Revolution. We couldn’t have gone to class even if we’d wanted.”
“What year was that?”
“’Sixty-six. The whole of China was playing truant then.”
“What is it? You look like you wish you’d been there.”
“A little. It’s hard to imagine, like a different world.”
“Yes, that’s right, I’m a visitor from another world.”
“So you are.” She lifts the cup to her mouth and finds it empty. The old man in the corner left without her noticing – the place is empty apart from the two of them. She feels somewhat dazed.
“What should we do next?” she asks.
“You don’t want to stay here?” He squints, the sunlight shining straight into his eyes.
“I don’t mind.” They ought to go somewhere, not waste this precious afternoon.
“What are you thinking?” He leans back.
“Didn’t we agree that you’d do the thinking?”
“Sure, but I don’t know New York. All the times I’ve been here, I only went where I was brought.”
“Don’t you want to go see your friends?”
“I don’t know, didn’t you say you knew lots of people here? Professors, publishers…”
“Do you want to meet them?”
“Not particularly, but you said you only came here to visit old friends. Go ahead, don’t feel you have to take care of me. I’m happy to sit to one side and listen to you talk. I like listening to intelligent conversation.”
“They’re not that interesting.”
“Seriously, they’re like the audience at the talk – meaningless. Didn’t we just escape from those people?”
“But they’re your friends. It shouldn’t be a burden to hang out with them.”
“Maybe later. I’d rather be here right now. Is that okay with you?” He suddenly straightens in his chair. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you take me to the places you usually go? Diners or malls or supermarkets, I don’t mind.”
“What’s there to see?”
“I want to know what you’re normally like, how you pass an ordinary day.”
“You’d find it boring.”
“Surely not. I’m fascinated. Just do what you’d do on a normal day, don’t worry about me. Just pretend I’m not here.” He waves for the bill. “Let’s go. Come on.”
She follows him out. A normal day? Buying discount bags of day-old bread from the shop by the subway entrance? Sitting on her fire escape feeding stray cats? She’d so hoped this afternoon would be different.
Heading to Union Square is a compromise. She does come here quite often – Whole Foods and the Strand are a more enticing prospect than the area around her apartment. And even if she didn’t live in such a noisy, crowded place, she still wouldn’t want to bring him where she lived – she feels like doing this would allow him to see right through her.
They take the subway there. The station is some distance away, but he is happy to walk – he keeps emphasizing, she must only do what she usually does.
At the station, she buys him a MetroCard. He eyes her round, red change purse with respect. “So many coins.”
She zips it shut and passes it to him. He weighs it in his hand. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much change.”
“Because you’re rich.”
“That’s not why. You don’t see many coins in China these days.”
“Really? That’s a shame. I like coins. It gives me a sense of achievement if I can pay with exact change.”
He looks at her, his eyes bright, as if he has discovered a new and unnamed planet.
She goes to the washroom. When she comes back, a black man is talking to him. Xia Hui is shaking his head, flapping his hands, impatient – he seems to think the man is begging, or trying to sell him something. Cheng Cheng listens; he is asking directions. She tells him which way to go. Xia Hui seems embarrassed.
She hadn’t noticed he knew no English. There were interpreters at the event, and he spoke in Mandarin to his friends yesterday. Perhaps he’s never needed English, always so well-protected he’d never been put in such an awkward position before.
He is silent now, his pride hurt, following her mutely like a child afraid of being left behind.
They exit into Union Square, the big and small shops around them sporting excitable red “Sale!” signs. She asks if he wants to buy gifts for his family but he says no. She points to a store where she once bought a lampshade and a few cushions. Would he like a look? He hesitates, then nods.
As they walk in, she realizes she’s never been shopping with a man before, let alone a virtual stranger. How peculiar, two people whose lives barely touch, looking together at these things for the home, cozy, soft, things to put on your bed, things to press against your skin. She feels she ought to buy something, and picks up a coral-colored woolen nightgown, a birthday present for Soong Boy’s mother.
She’d worried that this afternoon would pass too quickly, but now it starts to drag. She brings him to the Strand. He can’t read English books and only walks around aimlessly. She finds three of his novels. He says they’re badly translated, but she wants to own an autographed copy. He picks the one he’s most satisfied with, The Body Double. Later, they go to an ice-cream parlor and he signs on the title page. Pen in hand, he asks how to write the two characters of her name. Her mind goes blank, and she wonders if she should ask him to dedicate it to Lulu instead.
But no. She tells him: Cheng as in “journey” for her surname, Cheng as in “flowing water” for her first name. If not for this book, he’d never have known how to write her name. As she watches him carefully inscribing the two characters, she feels something is different now.
The sky is turning dark and their thoughts turn to dinner. He says anywhere will do, but she decides they should take a cab back to Central Park. The restaurant by the lake slightly resembles a dockyard. They find a free table by the window and look out over the frozen water, covered in drifts of snow, like a dream.
“A good choice,” he says. “You come here often?”
“Only once before,” she says, not without regret. “It would be better if we’d been here earlier, once it’s dark you can’t see anything.”
“Mm.” He seems tired.
Again, he asks her to order for him. She picks a steak for him, and cod for herself. As she hands the menus to the waiter, he suddenly says, “Let’s get some wine.”
The waiter brings a bottle of Bordeaux along with some bread. She tastes it, and he pours.
“Let’s have a toast,” Xia Hui says. “It’s been a happy afternoon.”
She raises her arm and they clink glasses. “Really? I’ve made you walk for miles.”
“Really. Whenever I leave China, my time is always packed full. Meetings, talks, events. Always rushing from one place to the next. I’ve never had an afternoon like this—“
“You mean aimless? Not knowing where to go next?”
“Yes, without an aim. People are all so tired because we’re always trying to get somewhere.”
“Maybe.” The view outside is disappearing as the light goes. The lake loses its outline, a white blur suspended in the night.
The wine seems to revive him. “Do you live alone? Or with a boyfriend?” This is the first personal question he has asked her.
“Alone. I used to have a flatmate.”
“You don’t live with your boyfriend?”
“How do you know I have a boyfriend?”
“It feels like you do. Don’t you?”
“And yet you seem like an independent girl. I bet you need lots of space.”
“I’m a Virgo.”
“Why do young people believe in star signs? I don’t understand. Are you saying there’s only twelve kinds of people?”
“It makes sense. God couldn’t make so many people without some mass production. There’d need to be a few basic types.”
“Ha, that’s a clever way of putting it.”
His approval makes her voluble. “It’s like library books. Each is different from the others, but you put them into categories to make it easier to find the one you want. And when they buy new books, it’s easier to avoid duplication.”
“You’re quite something,” he says in admiration. “Turning God into a librarian.”
“That’s not what I meant. It’s just a comparison,” she explains quickly, in case he thinks she is being disrespectful. Her understanding is that writers are usually protective of religion.
Fortunately, the food arrives. The portions are generous, and both steak and cod look appetizing. They cut the food into several pieces and do a swap.
“When you write, do you need quiet surroundings, removed from the world?” she asks.
“When I was younger, yes, very much. I wanted to hide away from people to work.”
“But not now?”
“Now that I’m old, I prefer to have noise and people around me. Movement. Different sounds.”
“Why? I thought age made you disillusioned with the world, less keen to be in it? Are writers the opposite?”
“I just meant me. I’m not speaking for all authors.”
“You’re the only writer I know. I’m going to assume the others are all like you.”
“Then I’ll have to behave myself.”
She laughs. He puts down his fork and dabs at his mouth with a napkin. “I’ve just remembered a story about a lake. Would you like to hear it?”
“When I was writing my first novel, I spent half a year in the hills. There was nothing around me, just a few empty houses. They said everyone had moved away because the fengshui was bad. I wrote all day, and in the evenings walked to the nearest village for food. One time, I had too much beer at dinner, and when I walked back along the mountain road, I stepped into empty air and tumbled down the slope. I was so drunk I just lay there and went to sleep. When I woke up, I was sprawled across a boulder, a great misty lake beside me. Just like a ghost story, falling asleep and waking in the middle of a wilderness. My first reaction was to wonder, what about my half-finished novel? Was that an illusion, too? Did it really exist?”
He sits stiffly, slowly coming out of the story. The waiter takes their plates away. At the next table, a couple study their menus. Two middle-aged men walk in, little avalanches of snow coming off their leather shoes. Orange flames shiver in the wall-heater.
It is some time before she speaks. “I know the feeling you’re describing.”
When she goes to the bathroom, she places her feet along a floorboard to see if she can still walk in a straight line. Washing her hands, she looks at herself in the mirror. Her lips are stained purple-black from the wine, like a poison victim. Her cell vibrates in her pocket. Soong Boy’s name flashes up on the little screen. Startled into sobriety, she rejects the call. A second of pure bliss, as if she can do whatever she wants.
So when Xia Hui suggests going on to a bar, she agrees without hesitation. It has to be this way, she thinks, like watching a movie all the way to the end.
As she opens the restaurant door, the cold wind blows the alcohol from her head. Her heart unclenches like a fist.
“Let’s go onto the lake.” She twists to look at it, reluctant to leave.
“I just want to stand on it. It must feel strange. Uncharted territory.”
“You’ll fall in. The ice is thin.”
Then they are at the exit of the park. She is sad to be back on the street so quickly. They hurry along to the bar, just a block away.
Pretty girls cluster around the entrance, their delicate features carved by icy winds, deep blue eyes like will o’ the wisp. One of them asks Cheng Cheng for a cigarette, her eyebrows furrowed with frustration. Her hair is blonde and spiky. Cheng Cheng gives her one and cups her hands to shield the lighter. As the girl leans towards the flame, she can smell her perfume: sweet tangerine.
Other girls come over and smile at them. Cheng Cheng hands over her almost-empty pack of Marlboros. As they go, she says, “Girls like them, they make me sad.”
“They make me feel old. Or like I’ve never been as young as them.”
“Little girl. You’re only at the start of your journey. Can’t you see how long the road ahead is?” He strokes her head, and her eyes brighten with tears.
Between the restaurant by the lake and the bar, they seem to have fallen back into the real world. Hot lights melt the snow in their hair; pop music dissolves the drabness of winter. Everyone is shouting, as if they all know each other. Xia Hui and Cheng Cheng sit there, out of place, silent as plants on a window sill. Her coat pocket vibrates like a heart trying to escape. She can visualize Soong Boy’s angry face.
When her phone finally stops, she exhales like a prisoner gaining a reprieve. Once again, she keenly feels her new-found freedom.
They finish the first bottle of wine, and he calls for another one.
“Don’t you have a flight to catch tomorrow?”
“Only in the afternoon.” He looks at her as if to say: don’t worry, we have time. She loves his generosity.
“You know—“ She is drinking fast. He just filled her glass and it is already gone. “One of my friends – she worships you. She’s read all your books.”
“Really?” He smiles as if this is nothing special.
Cradling her glass, she continues, “She was supposed to be here, not me. I’ve never read anything of yours. I know nothing about you.”
“Isn’t that better?” he says. “Not to have all those books between us.”
“No. If she were here, you’d have much more to talk about.”
“Silly girl, come here.” His voice is very soft. “Come and sit here.”
She knocks over her wineglass as she stands and stumbles to him. His arms pull her in and their tongues twine together.
He strokes her back as if she is an obedient cat. She can hear the sound of blood thudding through her temples. The glass rolls about on the table, ge-dunk, ge-dunk, wine dribbling onto her boots. He says, “Take me back to where you live,” into her ear.
“I never want to go back there.”
But she is silent, shaking her head frantically.
He lifts her face and once again covers her mouth with his. His sunken eyes are surrounded by many wrinkles that quiver as his breath grows harsh. “Let’s go,” he says.
She laughs. His hotel floats into her mind – revolving doors, chandeliers, elevators sliding shut, dull floral carpet along a corridor, ending in a closed door, his room, now opening like a magic drawer, jazz music from the bar downstairs – she’d almost forgotten, “the treat of a lifetime, a very special performance.”
“Woody Allen,” she says out loud.
“Nothing.” The black folder with the check has appeared on the table. He stuffs it with poison-green notes and holds it up. As the waiter walks over, a blaze of light cuts him in two. It’s so hot in here. She is about to melt.
“Let’s go,” he says again.
“But where?” she murmurs.
She remembers kissing in the back of a taxi. Part of her is clear-headed, observing their bodies as the bright eyes of the driver do in the rear-view mirror. She is even able to say her address clearly, and direct the cab along several small roads. When she goes to open her front door, once again she uses the wrong key. Wrenching it off the key-ring, she lets it drop in the hallway.
The memories grow sparser after this. She seems to be alone, writhing in pain, her skin as hot as iron, blistered. In the faint false dawn she sees herself stagger down the stairs. The sky is a gentle grey. Stray cats sit on the fire escape, watching her as if she is a stranger.
From very far away, Lulu walks over, wearing yet another one of the black dresses she left behind, her long skirt perfectly unwrinkled.
“We have to go, there’s no time left.” She grabs Cheng Cheng’s hand.
“Where are we going?”
“An adventure.” Her laughter is kind. “There are so many places you haven’t been.”
They walk for a long time until they reach the water. In the middle of the water is an island, so pure and white she feels ashamed.
“We have to get across. Can you do it? You don’t know how to swim,” asks Lulu.
Lulu disappears into the water with a splash and she follows. A strange sound comes to her, quarrelling voices. Before she can work out what they are saying, the noise winds around her like a noose and pulls her towards it with great force.
Cheng Cheng opens her eyes. In front of her is a tangle of limbs. It takes her a moment to identify them as Xia Hui and Soong Boy. Xia Hui is pinned to the floor, holding on to Soong Boy’s forearm to stop his fist descending again.
She sits up and glares at them. “Get the fuck out, both of you!” As she roars, she flings the bedside lamp at them. The bulb splinters across the floor, while the tin lampshade buckles. The men freeze for an instant before backing away, out into the corridor.
As the door bangs shut, they face each other, their eyes colliding then swerving away. They come to themselves. The writer presses the elevator button and limps in. Soong Boy turns and slaps his palm against the door, shouting, “Open the door! What do you think you’re doing?”
There is no movement from inside.
“You owe me an explanation, damn you.” He is furious now, pounding at the door. “Open up! Can you hear me?”
Cheng Cheng does not hear him. She is back in bed, her eyes shut. The noise outside the door grows farther and farther away, a shrinking something on the shore she’s left behind, now no more than a black speck. Looking ahead. Lulu is nowhere to be seen, and even the white island seems about to disappear. She lowers her head and flings her arms forward, striking out towards it with all her might.
Jeremy Tiang’s short story collection It Never Rains on National Day will be published by Epigram Books in 2015. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, Drunken Boat, Meanjin, Ambit, Asia Literary Review, QLRS and Best New Singaporean Short Stories. He has translated more than ten books from Chinese, including work by Yan Geling, Zhang Yueran, Yeng Pway Ngon and Yu Qiuyu, and has received a PEN/ Heim Grant and 2016 NEA Literary Translation Fellowship. Jeremy is also a playwright whose work has been performed in London, New York and Singapore. He lives in Brooklyn.Zhang Yueran
Zhang Yueran was born in 1982 the city of Jinan, Shandong Province. She began writing at the age of 14, and as a high school student, won first prize in the nationwide New Concept Composition Competition. She has published two short story collections: Sunflower Missing In 1890 (2003) and Ten Loves (2004), and three novels: Distant Cherry (2004), Narcissus (2005) and The Promise Bird (2006), which was named the Best Saga Novel 2006. Her other awards include the Chinese Press Most Promising New Talent Award (2005), the Spring Literature Prize (2006). and the “MAO-TAI Cup” People’s Literature Prize (2008). In 2012, she was named by Unitas magazine as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She has been the chief editor of Newriting since 2008 and holds a PhD in Ancient Chinese Literature from Renmin University.