Liu Wen turns his attention on me, 'How do I like China?' 'What is it like in New York?' 'How did I get here?' He is fascinated when he learns that I worked north of the Arctic circle, on Baffin Island. He worked in Australia for awhile, he explains, in Melbourne. "Australia will be the next major economic power," he says, "now that they have the technology to use the Outback." He says 'Outa-baka.'
It is a strange meal. The food is good, but it is disturbing to watch Liu Wen animated while Haitao sits and broods, playing with his duck. I don't know the rules here.
Liu Wen pays, they give him the debit statement and he doesn't even glance at it. Out on the street it is night. "Still too early to do anything," he says. At home I would suggest we go watch the kite races but here I don't know what anyone does. Liu Wen is attractive, fascinating, but he seems interested in me only as conversation. That is all right, it is better than being alone. I think. I'm uneasy and uncertain. Wait, let things happen, I tell myself, live in this moment, there is nothing but enjoyment in this moment.
We take a bus across town to Linggu Park and walk. "They used to close the park," Liu Wen says, "but now everything is monitored."
It is a tacit way to say 'be careful'. Liu Wen seems to catch Haitao's silence. The evening is cool. We walk up a road until we come to a building surrounded by a moat crossed by three bridges. We stop and I try to figure out the reason we are here. The building is small, square, white, with a graceful blue tile roof with upcurving ends in the tradition of Chinese architecture. It's a nice little building, but what is the point?
"The tomb of your honorable namesake," Liu Wen says to me, grinning.
"Zhong Shan?" I ask, stupidly. He nods. Sun Yat-sen is buried here. Well imagine.
I glance at Liu Wen, he has a funny smile on his face. Haitao leans on the balustrade at the edge of the moat and looks down at the sluggish orange carp motionless near the light set under the bridge.
I don't know what to say so I say nothing. I am not even sure if they are making fun of me.
"Well," Liu Wen says to no one in particular, "let's go play."
Haitao straightens up and shoves his hands in his sleeves. We walk back and catch a bus.
We ride all the way back across town, out of the dark park into wide streets, then through the bright heart of Nanjing, back out into the dark edge of the city. The bus is only three segments when we get on, goes down to two, picks up two more in the center of town, loses them (people transfer from segment to segment but we just sit) and finally goes down to one segment before we get off. The air smells different down here. All of China smells different, I noticed a dusty, old clothes smell when I got here, but I don't smell that anymore. Here is a damp smell. Liu Wen remarks we are close to the river.
Around us are godowns. We walk past loading docks and parked flat-skids for moving goods off trucks. I can't imagine why we would be here. Liu Wen stops at a metal door and hisses at me, "Don't give your real name," and opens the door on a badly lit stairwell. Up we go as I try to understand what he meant. At the top of the stairs another door, waiting behind Haitao I can't see what it's like when Liu Wen opens the door, only hear sudden music, people murmuring. I can't hear what he's saying, only that he is talking to someone at the door.
"Don't worry," Haitao whispers, "he is a member." Then he follows Liu Wen to the door and this time I hear the doorman say, "Shi shei?" Who are you?
"Li," he says, the most common surname in China.
"Shemma Li?" Which Li?
I smile, 'Haibao' means 'seal'. I have seen seals with their cat's heads and sad eyes in the waters off of Baffin Island, and Haitao, in his sleek way, has picked a name that flatters him.
"Shi shei?" the doorman asks me, he is wearing a white mask with holes for eyes and a slit for a mouth.
"Ma," I answer.
"Guai-zi," I answer. 'Ghost' or 'Demon.'
Haitao glances over his shoulder at me and smiles. I smile back. We are inside.
The place is big, after all, this is a godown, even if it's not being used for storage. The light comes from floor level or just above our heads and the ceiling disappears in darkness. Looking up I almost think I see stars, which is of course an illusion. The lighting is all gold, our faces and hands are gold. There is a bar and some small tables, and then there are larger, square tables, with people standing around them. Gold light comes up from the tables.
"Want a drink?" Liu Wen asks.
I shake my head.
"Are you buying?" Haitao asks. "Mao-tai then."
Liu Wen shakes his head and laughs. I remember my mother buying mao-tai for her future boss when she was giving gifts to change jobs. A bottle cost more than she made in two weeks, and that was twenty years ago.
In China, a secretary makes more in a week than I make in almost a month at home as a construction tech.
I wonder if I am dressed right. Looking around I see a few people dressed as I am, and a few dressed in long formals, tails almost sweeping the floor at their heels as they stand at the tables. Some dressed like Liu Wen, with complete disregard for appropriateness. What is this place, a gambling hall?
There are no women. I look around, surprised. There are no women. Haitao is watching me, smiling a little.
"In New York, do you have places like this?"
"I don't know," I say, "I don't know what this place is."
"Jiaqiu," he says.
I don't understand. In Chinese, one word can have many different meanings, 'jia' can mean 'family' or 'home' or it can mean 'beautiful' or 'welcome.' 'Qiu' can mean 'prisoner' or 'ball'. I try sorting through meanings and nothing makes sense. Mandarin is a hell of a language in a lot of ways.
"Which 'jia'?" I ask and he sketches the character on his hand.
"Jiagong de jia," he explains, which doesn't translate into English. 'Jiagong' means to be caught in a surprise attack by one's enemies and closed in, almost squished between.
"The jia of jiazi?" I ask. 'Jiazi' means clothespin, which in Chinese is called a 'press-pin'.
"Dui," he says. Right.
"lanqiu de qiu?" I ask. 'Qiu' meaning 'ball' as in basketball? 'Press-ball' or 'Squeeze-ball'? What the hell is 'Squeeze-ball'?
"I don't think we have that," I say.
"You'll like it," he assures me.
I am not so certain. But Haitao brightens up, he actually looks at Liu Wen when Liu Wen hands him a tiny glass containing mao-tai.
"Let's play," Liu Wen says.
We find a table with only three men around it. They don't glance up. The tabletop is featureless, a golden glow illuminating our faces like heat from a fire. Liu Wen picks up a contact and grins at me with gold teeth before jacking in. The three men shift slightly as if someone had stepped up beside them. Liu Wen seems engrossed in the glow. Haitao jacks in and the four--Liu Wen included--absently shift again.
I study the glow for clues.
Whatever is happening, it's not visible. I jack in.
The table is still there, but I have an overlay, I am in a circle with five others. It's a little like contact when making a call, that instant before sound cuts in; I don't see them but they are there. I try to see them and I can--five men around a glowing table--but then I almost lose the sense of contact.
I am a boundary, I am part of the golden glow. And there are balls in the glow; a golden ball (almost invisible), two silver balls, a black lacquer ball and a red lacquer ball. I find the red lacquer ball attractive. I reach out to touch it, it is not so different from working power tools, and it gently squiggles away from my touch.
I sense a slight hiss of disgust from my right, and I am shocked into actually seeing the man. He is tall, dressed in a high-collared cutaway coat and he has hair that brushes his collar (hair almost as long as mine, is he huaqiao?) He is staring into the table, oblivious to me.
Liu Wen stirs, "It is his first time," he says.
I am sliding back into the field and so I feel the acquiescence.
I watch this time.
Haitao is after one of the silver balls. He attempts to cup around it, so that equally repulsed it will have no place to go and be held, but one of the strangers (not the long hair) hits it with a touch and it shoots towards my end of the table.
Haitao makes a start to stop it, a wild unfocused motion that suggests that I shouldn't want it too close, so I hit it rather like hitting a ping pong ball, back towards Liu Wen who deflects it, pool cue style, right into the stranger beside him.
We are suddenly dropped out of contact and Liu Wen says, "My point," and the stranger, "my loss."
Liu Wen smiles at me, "Good ball." Which in English is more like saying, 'good save.'
We fall back into the golden ocean and the balls are distributed in the center. Silver are top and bottom, red and black revolving slowly around the golden in the center.
Liu Wen taps the red ball toward the silver and both rebound towards where no one is sitting. Haitao reaches out and slings the red towards himself and although the long haired man and Liu Wen try to tap the ball it touches Haitao and we drop out of contact again.
"My point," Haitao says, smiling. No one takes a loss.
The long haired man nods. "The gold, the black and the red are friendly, the silver are not. Anyone who causes an opponent to take a silver gets a point, and the opponent loses a point."
"You can never start the gold in motion on the first play," Haitao adds, "and you can't touch the golden ball until it is already moving, although you can hit it with another ball."
We are back in the gold. Haitao clicks the black into the silver and we play them around the table. I play cautiously, trying only to deflect, never attempting to catch, and trying always to send the silver to the center, particularly after someone sends the silver at Liu Wen and before it has even begun to cross the space between them he reverses it right back into them.
Finally by accident I send the silver into the golden ball. It has been in play a few times before but I have never even touched it. The long hair reaches for it and one of the other strangers tapps it away. Someone else jacks into our table as the golden ball is gliding past me and I feel everybody shift. It startles me and without thinking I reach out like a jai lai player and sling the ball my way.
When it hits there is an explosion of feeling. For a moment I am the golden ball and the golden ball is me and I am jolted with pleasure. It is orgasmic and threatens to unlock my knees but before I can even react it washes through me and we drop out of contact. I blink and everybody grins at me. I look at them.
Then I remember, "My point."
"Five points for a gold," Liu Wen says.
Back into the light, where I find my sensitivity is heightened. Now when the red or black balls come near I feel a tickle of sensation, with the golden ball it is even more definite. The silver balls seem colder. I become more aggressive in my play and catch the red ball twice. The explosion is less dramatic than the golden ball, and I remember to say, "My point," each time.
Only once am I hit with the silver ball, and it drains me, takes away the sensitivity, and I have the sense that what I have lost has gone into my opponent. Hungrily I play harder until I almost take the silver ball again, managing by sheer luck to deflect it into one of the strangers. He has been playing a long time, and I am jolted again by the power of what drains off of him.
"My point," I say.
"My loss," he says. Our eyes meet and he looks hungrily at me, and we drop into the light.
I am more careful, made aware by my near miss, and manage to catch the black lacquer ball once. It is like the red lacquer. I catch the red lacquer.
We drop out of contact.
"My point," I say.
"Time is up," Liu Wen says. "Nine points, you almost made it."
Time is up? "How long have we been playing?" I ask.
"Two hours," Liu Wen says. "That's how much we paid for. If I had realized you had nine points I'd have fed you the tenth, just so you could see what it was like."
"Like the golden ball?" I ask, staring into the gold of the table.
He shakes his head. "Different."
Better, I think.
I look up from the gold. Already the others are back in contact, only Haitao, Liu Wen and I are out. Somehow I keep expecting to drop back in, but instead, they take off their contacts and I take off mine. My bare wrist feels cold in the air.
I look at them, Haitao looks tense. Liu Wen looks like he always does. I am aware of perspiration on my neck, under my hair. I am even more aware of my aching testicles, and that I am tight against the seam of my pants. I feel as if I have been cock-teased for a couple of hours, which is precisely what has happened. But it doesn't seem as if we have been playing for two hours.
I lick my lips.
"He did pretty well," Haitao says.
"Beginners luck," Liu Wen says.
I realize that Liu Wen paid for me. "Thank you for the game," I say.
"I love the way you talk," Haitao says softly.
"How do I talk?" I ask.
"Your accent, the formal way you say things."
"Do I have much accent?" I ask.
"It's charming, exotic, and yet you sound so refined."
I thought my Mandarin was pretty good. I resolve to work on my accent.
Liu Wen shakes his head, smiling. "I'll see you two later," he says and heads back towards another table. I follow him with wistful eyes, wishing to be back in the golden glow, although I ache.
"He's handsome," Haitao says.
"He could be," I answer, "if he would bother."
"Come with me?" Haitao asks. Lai gen wo ma?
Of course I will go with him. We walk through the godown to the back, where there is a narrow iron stair, and up above the lights he opens a door on a room like a coffin, a little more than a meter high, the same wide. It is only then that I realize why he has taken me here, that there is not another game at the end, or at least, only the old game.
I laugh, although I am so aroused there will be damn little joy.
He stoops and enters, and sitting on the mat says, softly, "Lai lai lai," 'Come, come, come. I stoop and follow him, kneeling in front of him, aware of my boots on the mat. I lean awkwardly forward, resting my hand on the mat next to his thigh, and we kiss. I tug gently at his pants and he raises his hips for me to slide them down. If there is a way to do this without a sense of interruption I have never found it. But then I kneel reverently and pay homage.
And later, once, he asks me, "Why 'ghost'?"
"Waiguai," I say, 'foreign-devil' or 'foreign-ghost'. It's the old slang term for a foreigner. Not very flattering. Like Westerners say 'Slope-head.'
"You aren't a "waiguai," he says, "you're hauqiao." Not a foreign ghost, but an overseas Chinese.
That is what it says on my identification. I was certain my IDEX would be waiguoren but it says huaqiao. The flimsie they gave me indicated that my genetic mother may have been Philipine Chinese (the combination of my mother's Hispanic genes and my father's Chinese, I suppose.) Haitao doesn't know that my mother is Hispanic-American. I do not mention it.
I am, I did not get much sleep the night before. It is Monday and I met Haitao for dinner last night--late because he had something he had to do before he saw me. I was jealous but did not ask.
I am here for an examination, just to make sure that my new kidneys are working.
"You are the first patient I have ever had who is the result of cosmetic gene-splicing," she says. "It's illegal here except for authorized disorders."
It is now at home as well. Except for things like Taysachs, Downs, Herodata's Schizophrenia. She has accessed my deep records, I wonder if she will change my IDEX, but she doesn't seem to think of it. I am jittery and nervous.
The doctor is astonishing. Gone is the perfect, concerned woman I remember from when I was sick. She says the correct things, like 'You look tired,' but she says them with an air of detachment. I don't answer her and it doesn't seem to matter. She explains things, tells me how my kidneys grew, how the old ones are beginning to atrophy. She holds me off with her words. "If you experience any depression or anxiety these days you are welcome to come and talk with a counselor."
I nod unhappily. She is jacked in to my medical records. What does she find in my medical records that makes her think that I need counseling? Something from Baffin Island? Or perhaps my constructed genetic make-up is flawed and I am prone to system imbalances? She certainly does not want to counsel me. Why did I think her so wonderful?
"Are you eating right?" she asks, and does not wait for an answer. "Still avoid things like beer and alcohol and not too much protein yet." She stands. I stand.
"Thank you Dr. Cui," I say.
It must be the unit that they used to keep me quiet. It must have encouraged me to trust my doctor, to assume that everything is all right.
All my life, or at least since I was seven and got my jacks implanted, I have jacked in; in school, at work, to call a friend, to find out how much credit was on my account. But those are operations where the system is passive, where I draw on the information. In the West, active systems, systems that feed back into the human nervous system, are illegal. There are exceptions; the big kites that the pros fly, for example; they feed flight information back to the flyer, but those are licensed. I've never been to the doctor and been jacked into an active system.
Jianqiu, 'Pressball' is an active system, too. I know it is illegal, that's why one doesn't use one's real name, although if the system records a trace they can identify our individual nervous system patterns. Still, that takes a lot of work, I suppose they'd almost have to know who we were first.
Active systems are illegal, as everyone knows, because they can cause injury. And because they are addicting. I wonder if Jianqiu causes any sort of degeneration of my already taxed nervous system. There are certainly ways in which it is taxing. But I have no idea if I will ever play again. I'd certainly like to.
Is that the definition of addicting? If so, duck is addicting because I'd also like to try Nanjing duck again.
On Tuesday I have my engineering tutorial again. I cross the busy arcade and take the lift. I don't know if we are going to bother with engineering again.
"Lai, lai," Haitao says absently, opening the door. He is not looking at me, and the flat is rose. He gestures and the lights come up. So I suppose we are going to work. We sit down and he sighs, sits for a moment as if too listless to bother before leaning forward to look through the book.
It is quite a performance. But I'm not Liu Wen to make fun of it.
"We don't have to work this evening," I say, "I can go back, we can work another time."
"No," he says, "it doesn't matter." He pages through my book.
"No, truly," I say. "I'm doing better. It makes more sense these days." This is the truth, although I have some questions I'd like to ask.
He smiles. "You are always so polite," he says, "are all American huaqiao so polite as you?"
"Old fashioned, maybe," I say, and begin to get up.
He puts his hand on my arm. "Don't pay any attention to me, Liu Wen doesn't."
"Liu Wen knows you better than I do," I say.
To my astonishment his eyes fill with tears and he looks away. Then he stands up and walks to the window. He stands with his back to me and I wait, confused and alarmed. What did I say?
He doesn't say anything for awhile and I have time to feel uncomfortable. What should I do? I don't know what to do so I sit and look at my engineering book, and then back at Haitao. I don't hear any crying. His shirt is as bright as yellow lacquer and the nape of his neck is pale between his hair and the collar.
"What's wrong?" I finally ask.
"A friend of mine is going to be arrested," he says.
Liu Wen? No it can't be. I wait.
He clasps his hands behind his back. "He is a teacher," he says. "They are arresting him on a morals charge, but it's more complicated than that."
I think, it always is. And I am relieved it isn't Liu Wen.
"I feel sorry for him," Haitao says, "of course. They'll send him to Xinjiang Province, to do Reform Through Labor. Do you know, if you misbehave in a labor camp, one of the punishments is to wire your thumbs together? They draw the wire very tight. It cuts off the blood. You have to eat rice out of a bowl like a dog, without using your hands. And then gangrene sets in and they cut your thumbs off. Or maybe you die."
What's to say? At home they used to send people to the Corridor out west, convict labor. Now, sometimes they send them to Mars. Convict labor. Chinese citizens do not usually have much interest in going to the moon or Mars.
"I think we are a disease in society," Haitao says. "Bad cells. I think something has gone wrong with us."
"In my country there's a bird that lays it's eggs in other bird's nests," I say. "The other birds don't know. They think this baby is their own. They raise it and feed it, in some ways it becomes almost a monster because it grows so large and demands so much. But eventually it simply leaves the nest, like any other bird. It's not a monster, it's really just another part of things. I think we're like those baby birds. We didn't ask for this, our parents didn't ask for this. No one is guilty, just maybe unlucky."
"So you think that we're accidents," Haitao says. He sounds sarcastic.
I shrug, even though he's not looking at me. That's what I think, and if he doesn't, that's okay.
"I'm afraid," he says. "If they interrogate my friend, they may arrest me."
I say delicately, "Perhaps you have a friend who can help you, someone who perhaps helped you transfer out of your teaching job..."
"No," he says curtly.
It crosses my mind that if they arrest him and interrogate him, perhaps I will be arrested as well. But it seems too improbable to concern me.
He is still at the window, looking out with the city as a back drop. This flat is like a theater for him, a shadow box for his own display. I get up and walk behind him, put my hand on his shoulder. He is trembling, like some small animal. I stroke his hair, he leans back against me and I wrap my arm around his waist. He turns his head so he is looking away from me and relaxes against me, his profile expressionless in the reflecting window. I tighten my grip, feeling his buttocks and back pressed against my stomach and groin, his fine skull under my fingers. Slowly the shaking subsides.
There's no doubt that his fear is real. But I cannot help but notice the flicker of the whites in the reflection of his eyes as he glances towards the window. He adjusts ever so slightly, improving the line, perfecting the pose.
"Don't worry, haibao," I say, thinking how 'seal' fits him, how sleek both he and seals are, "you are a perfect picture."
He laughs, shakily. "You see through me."
I don't really understand him at all, but I kiss his hair rather than answer, running my fingers across his chest. His pulse beats visibly in his temple.