Love didn’t run around Shanghai at night, searching the faces reflected in plate glass for someone she used to know. Love didn’t let her feet get dusty, couldn’t tolerate the creep of grime up her shins, the slick of puddles on her soles. When Love stood quite still, as she so often did, she could feel the pull of mountains and rivers and half-constructed skyscrapers and eight lane highways and movie theaters and the quiet parks with their untouched grass circling around her bowed head.
I wasn’t scared of Love; we’d just never met. I hadn’t spent the past ten years wondering why Love had shunned me, though; I knew it was my fault. I’d been closed up, balled tight like a fist. Of course, the men I’d fucked over the years probably wouldn’t have described me that way. But wasn’t that the point? They didn’t even know what they weren’t getting. They didn’t know anything.
But something about Liz had forced an opening. It’s not what I expected when her résumé popped up in my inbox, or when I forwarded it along to Principal Wu. Or when she finally arrived and I took her to her first happy hour, offered her my extra room.
Expats love happy hour. It is of course a particularly American concept, but the Chinese understand its value and have adapted it well. The bars tended to offer their deals haphazardly—one week Glamour Bar might offer a ten percent discount on martinis, another night it was all you can drink at Mural. Expats love a good deal of course, but more than that they love to be in the know, an affliction of those who willingly settle in a place where they will always be viewed as outsiders. Arriving at the right happy hour meant something, then.
The week after Liz arrived, Zapata’s was offering two-for-one sixteen ounce frozen margaritas from six to nine. After that anyone left still ordering them was too drunk to care that they cost 90 RMB. Happy hour was more crowded than usual when we arrived, even though Zapatas was one of the bigger bars in the rotation. People stood two rows deep along the heavy oak bar that ran the length of the restaurant; on the other side of the bar each of the tables was full, and the patio tables as well, though few people were actually sitting in their chairs, preferring instead to mingle.
We inched our way through the crowd toward the bar, each of us looking to drown our own butterflies. I ordered our margaritas—in English, from a German bartender—and then we turned to face the throng of entirely white faces. I never knew where the Chinese twenty-somethings went after work, but it certainly wasn’t Zapata’s.
“It’s more crowded because school just started,” I leaned in close to explain to Liz. The English teachers had returned. They traveled over the summer, or they went home having completed their grand adventures, to be replaced in the fall by a new batch of wide-eyed Americans and Europeans, all waving their TOEFL certifications proudly. They were like an incoming crop of freshmen on a college campus, or, perhaps more accurately, a new bunch of summer camp counselors: entirely replaceable, possessing next to no actual expertise they could apply to their jobs, all of them merely in it for the experience. I often wondered what these people did if they didn’t move to China: they were waiters, perhaps, or worked in bookstores, Banana Republic, until they grew up and went to grad school.
I used to love the fall, for the possibilities so many new faces brought with them. By that year I just found it overwhelming. Liz was one of them, a fact I understood clearly as soon as I had reviewed her résumé. But she was different, too. I was sure of it. Still, I wasn’t prepared.
Two months later, I sat with Love in our living room. Welcome to my home my heart and would you like some tea? If Liz noticed our new roommate, she didn’t let on. For two weeks Liz and I shared the jasmine tea—Love didn’t drink, but she watched, very intently, waiting for something to happen. I wondered how to satisfy her.
Love came to work with us every morning. I worried about the chill in the air and wondered if I should loan Love a coat, naked as she was, her skin nearly translucent, almost blueing, the color of skim milk spilled onto a grey Formica countertop. We arrived at school and while Liz went to teach her classes, Love curled up under my desk. I covered her with a blanket and fretted over the noise in the office, played soothing music from my tiny computer speakers, told Principal Wu the melodies had a proven effect on worker morale.
Love didn’t eat, but she liked the smell of home cooking. So I went to the grocery store every day after school, dragging Liz along with me, offering half-sentence explanations about saving money as I perused the produce aisle. Would the aroma of eggplant strengthen Love? Back in the apartment, the project was cooking. It was serious. I could have done some simple stir-fry, or a soup, but Love, I sensed, liked more pomp than that. So I tried to roast whole chickens in our too-small oven, simmered on multiple burners, deglazed, and even once flambéed. I was embarrassed for Love to see me following a recipe so mostly I winged it, imagining that the mere presence of Love in the kitchen would transfer to me intuitions I had never once possessed.
We ate at eight, nine, sometimes even ten o’clock.
“You know, we could just go out,” Liz suggested one night, but I wouldn’t hear of it.
Another night: “I feel bad that you’ve been working so hard, doing all this cooking.”
“I like doing it,” I answered, and then, “I mean, I love it.” I tried to look at her with intensity. “I really love it.”
The point is, I didn’t know what I was doing. But I was trying.
Two weeks passed and Liz started going more and more to Starbucks after school. Alone in the kitchen with Love, I could finally relax.
Then one night, Liz didn’t come home for dinner. I set the table for two, but Love sat with Liz’s empty plate in front her, tapping a long fingernail against the ceramic.
“I think I’ve finally mastered the balsamic reduction,” I said.
Love rolled her eyes.
“And the chicken tonight is particularly moist.”
Love pursed her lips and stamped her feet. She sighed loudly.
“Okay!” I shouted. And then more softly, “Okay. I know.” The balsamic reduction was pathetic. The saddest attempt in the history of people with Love. I started to cry. Love patted my shoulder, and after a moment began clearing away the dishes.
While I sat in front of our chicken that night, Liz had dinner with Dorian. They’d first met at Zapatas. Dorian was there when we’d arrived, standing at the other end of the bar, his back to the bartender as he glowered at the crowd in front of him, a half-drunk beer in his hand. He downed the rest of it in one sip and I expected to see him turn toward the door, but instead he signaled to the bartender for another. He was the only person in the bar not drinking a margarita. This was typical of him, but at least he used to do it with a smile on his face, and with jokes about how he needed to keep his wits about him.
He was handsome. I say that as an objective fact, though it was also my opinion of him. There was a night, perhaps six months after we’d both arrived in Shanghai. We’d been seeing each other out at various bars, knew each other well enough to smile and say hello. I remembered that he was from Portland, and that night I asked him something about life on the West Coast. Maybe I’d told him I had ideas about going there “next.” Expats often talk like that, listing cities they plan to move to the way normal people discuss the movies they’d like to see.
I don’t remember our conversation. I remember the dark corner of Glamour Bar. My back was to the wall and Dorian stood facing me, leaning forward onto his hand which rested on the wall behind my head. He is a good eight inches taller than I am, and I must have been wearing flats that night, because I remember craning my neck to look up at him. I remember the tendons in his wrist, the slight bulge of the muscle in his forearm. I remember the triangle of freckles on his wrist.
With his other hand he plucked at a few strands of my hair, bringing them close to his face as he spoke, as though examining them for some secret they might have held. His own dark hair hung in front of his eyes, which were dark brown, framed by lashes that belonged on a woman. Dorian always looked to be two-weeks overdue for a haircut, a look that suggested he didn’t try very hard. Eventually I got to know him well enough to understand how carefully he cultivated that impression.
We didn’t kiss that night. I wonder now, have wondered many times in fact, how things might have been different if we had. But we were interrupted by someone in our conversation. Dorian stood up straight, took his hand off the wall. He was tall and slender, but very muscular, not at all awkward. For a moment my hand brushed against his hip, lingered there as long as I could let it, my only indication that I wanted to feel his breath on my neck again.
That was all a few years before Liz had arrived, though. By the time she showed up, Dorian had changed. Shanghai was a city always looking toward the future, and three years after Dorian had arrived, finally so was he. The few friends he’d told thought he was crazy for wanting to buy, at twenty-five, and in China for god’s sake. They weren’t bad friends, but they were expats. Expats don’t even own furniture, never mind the apartments or houses in which to put it. They arrive with dingy frame backpacks, or heavy suitcases on wheels, which they learn to pack and unpack quickly. They crash on each other’s couches, or each other’s floors, and even when they do find their own apartments, they live as though they are still merely crashing. They buy one mug, one bowl, one set of chopsticks. They debate the need for a shower curtain. Expats are temporary people, seeking temporary lives. Only Dorian sought permanence. He thought he and I were the same in this regard; he never understood what I was really looking for.
It was out of character for Liz, seeking out a man she’d only met once before. But she needed a friend. When she’d first moved in with me, we had a social life. We went out to dinners, and happy hours, immersing ourselves in a crowd of other expats. Liz must have imagined that she’d found her way into the middle of something, a web of friendships held together by martinis and cultural misunderstandings.
Then it was gone. Engaged in my projects, I stopped going out, and Liz realized she wasn’t in the middle of anything.
She must have stared out the window of her cab, trying to put our lonely apartment out of her mind. She sat in traffic, lurching past the open green lawn that Liz didn’t realize was People’s Square, which Liz didn’t know was the center of the city. She only saw the grass, and the trees edging the paved walkways, curiously lit up from their bases with green and blue lights. She was reminded suddenly of the trip to Disney World she’d taken with her parents when she was in the fourth grade, of the Polynesian Village where they’d stayed.
And so it was that she found herself passing slowly by the circular Shanghai Museum, devoted to the ancient art and culture of the country, and thinking only of a child’s token, a fake coin used to buy an imaginary treasure. There were more clouds tonight, thick and heavy, low in the sky and refracting the neon from the city just below, seeming to glow from within. Liz wished for a rumbling thunder, a change in the wind, but there was nothing yet. She thought of me again, as her car rolled past the park and picked up speed. Me, cooking. Me, searching for something Liz could perhaps help me find. It was a generous thought, and it was gone in an instant.
She turned her mind then to Dorian, wondering what he thought of her. For instance, was this a date? She must have searched my phone one morning earlier in the week while I was in the shower, copied down Dorian’s number, sent him a text: Want to grab some dinner? This is Liz. Texting was perfect for Liz—how lucky for her to have stumbled into a culture where it was the only means of communication. But it meant she had no idea whether Dorian was surprised to hear from her or not, whether he paused and stared at the phone, struggling to place her name, whether he smiled and answered quickly, having imagined the invitation in the weeks leading up to it. He texted back: Sure. And then: Hong Chang Xing, North Gaungxi Rd, famous hotpot. Liz didn’t know what that meant. She only knew that she and I had never been there before.
Liz watched nervously out the window as the cab continued through the evening traffic, wondering how long it would be before she could simply glance out the window at the Shanghai sidewalk. Just glance, and turn away, to look at her phone or think about what she would order to drink that night. The key, she thought, was perhaps more understanding: tell me why they post the newspapers in glass cases along the sidewalk, and I will stop having to notice them. All of the noticing was exhausting. She wanted to get to the point where she stopped having to see every detail, where she could just live her life.
Why do the Chinese squat on the edges of the sidewalks? What are they waiting for, and why doesn’t the posture hurt their knees? Why do they walk backward through the parks? Why do cabdrivers have one long fingernail? Why do teenagers stop her on the street to ask—in English—for directions to nearby and obvious places, and then giggle when she answers? Why are there decibel meters—huge signs—posted along the streets if no one seems to do anything about noise levels? Why is there always the crackle of firecrackers in the air?
Listing all of the things she did not know about her new home exhausted her. She probably wouldn’t end up asking Dorian any of these questions, though, or me either. There are books and books and books of words that Liz and I never spoke to each other; our insecurities differed only in their coloring.
Had she asked me I would have told her that there were no answers, that it’s impossible to explain away an entire culture. This wasn’t an archeology project. This was just life. So no, it wasn’t about understanding, but rather just acceptance. Just get used to it, Liz. Just live here, and soon you will stop seeing so much.
The cab stopped in front of a building that was possibly a restaurant, perhaps even the right restaurant: the Chinese characters glowing neon above the door made it impossible to tell. But Liz paid the fare and got out, hoping for the best. Thirty minutes later, she was pleasantly buzzed on warm sake and not-quite-cold beer, plunging thinly shaved beef and mushrooms into the vat of boiling water between her and Dorian, gossiping freely about me.
“I think she’s losing it,” she’d said to Dorian soon after she sat down, because caustic and dismissive was funnier than generous. And she told him about the cooking because she couldn’t think of anything else for them to talk about.
And then later, “I think maybe she’s really lonely.”
Dorian mixed up some kind of peanut sauce in a small bowl and thrust it toward her. “Try this.”
“I can’t tell if she even likes me,” Liz answered.
Dorian shrugged, almost imperceptibly and shook the bowl of sauce in front of her again.
Liz chopsticked in a slice of the boiled meat. “That’s good.”
Dorian didn’t have the answers she was looking for.
“She’s a bit strange,” he’d said when they first sat down, but Liz persisted, refusing to allow her complaints about me to be reduced to the kind of personal foibles that cannot be explained and are therefore not worth discussing.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s anything you can do about it,” he tried later, but solving the problem wasn’t really the point.
And finally, “I haven’t really spent much time with her.”
Liz didn’t believe him. She wanted context. She had been here almost two months; she wanted to know what I had been doing three months ago, or six.
Finally Dorian sighed. “I’m not sure I completely understand the problem. So she’s cooking a lot more. Is the food terrible or something?”
“No, it’s not that.” Much of my food was actually quite good. “It’s just…” Liz trailed off. She struggled to describe what was different. It’s just I have this strange feeling that she’s waiting for something terrible to happen, she wanted to say. But she knew it didn’t make sense. “She has this weird energy,” she finished, finally, hoping that would capture it.
To her surprise, Dorian nodded. “She’s been here for three years.” The explanation meant nothing to Liz, but it might have made sense to me.
Liz just looked at him. She fought the urge to push the brown hair that fell across his forehead out of his face. She looked at his shirt, then, its red and blue checked pattern faded, the elbows threadbare. She couldn’t tell though, whether it was a very old shirt, or a new shirt made to look old.
“She’s crossed over,” Dorian continued, “from temporary to permanent. Temporary expats stay one, maybe two years. They save up their cash, take a train through Southeast Asia, and then they go home. Back to real life. Living in China was a cool thing they did, something to put on their résumés, or write about in grad school applications. Longer than that, though…” He took a long sip of beer. “Things change.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Three years,” he smiled. “So you see, I’m an expert.”
“So this is like some kind of expat existential crisis she’s going through?”
“Honestly? I have no idea. Why don’t you just ask her?”
Liz had wondered this herself over the past couple of weeks. It would be easy enough. Why all the cooking all of a sudden? It would take less than a second to say.
She didn’t ask because she knew there was a definite reason, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it was. If she thought there was a chance I might say, Oh, gee, I’ve just always wanted to get better at it, then Liz would have asked a long time ago. But there was no chance of that. Liz knew—she sensed—that I was engaged in some kind of Project. Though she couldn’t help but speculate, Liz didn’t really want to know what it was.
“Yeah. I’ll just ask her.” She watched the broth bubbling in the pot between them. She didn’t know what else to say.
Dorian likely walked away from the restaurant, having put Liz into a cab and given her driver instructions. It was surprisingly cold, the wind biting, but he needed the air. Dinner had been strange, and he was baffled by his decision not to sleep with Liz. But he thought about me, not Liz, on the way home, the stories Liz had told him worming their way into his brain. I’m sure I’d always struck him as a little bit crazy—not in an interesting, artist sort of way, and not in the way that required professional attention. Just the standard, boring, twenty-two and drinks too much and gets wild-eyed at the end of the night, searching for someone to take me home kind of way. Dorian had witnessed it. Many times.
But those kinds of crazy girls went home after six months, or a year, and there I was, still around after three. We’d arrived in Shanghai right around the same time, and neither one of us knew anyone else from that time who had stayed.
He wanted to talk to me about the apartment, wanted to show me the kitchen, when he finally had one, let me roast my chickens there. We made it, he would tell me. This is what we get. As though we were contestants on some kind of reality game show: Who Wants to Live in China? We do! We do! Our living room would become a kind of expat salon. We’d end up in the next edition of Let’s Go Shanghai: When traveling through Shanghai, one must stop and visit Sasha and Dorian for tips on the best dumpling houses and a coupon for 50% off a martini at Blue Frog.
Dorian wasn’t sure he wanted this, but then what else was there? A Chinese wife? Or an endless adolescence—years and years and years of happy hour and screwing the English teachers? He was past all that, he knew, but where did that put him, if not in a new condo with me?
He wondered, as he picked up his pace covering the last few blocks back to his apartment, if he would have been able to spot the moment in his life where the choices ceased to be limitless, if he could go back in time, if he knew to look out for it. It was called adulthood, he guessed: that moment, when the sum total of all the decisions he’d already made began to shape and define the available options. What had he been doing during that moment? Drinking a beer? Or sitting down at his desk? Not realizing that there was no longer any room to move sideways. It was obvious to him that Liz hadn’t yet crossed this threshold, and so he thought about befriending her, so he could watch for it, so he could be ready to jump out at just the right moment and tell her: Haha! There it was. That was the last decision. Everything else now is consequences. Enjoy! And he would bow with a flourish, as though he’d just performed some kind of magic trick.
Thoughts like this didn’t always depress him. On the bright sunny day when he’d met up with the real estate agent, he’d felt as though the pieces of his life were finally falling into place, building a path. But on walks like this he thought that a path was really no different than a wall. Same bricks, different placement. The real estate agent hadn’t taken him around to look at any properties, and actually sort of looked at him like he was crazy when he asked. He should have expected it, of course, since nothing in China was as straightforward as it should have been.
“Why are you staying here?” he said aloud with a sigh, as he opened the front door of his building and steeled himself for the long climb up to his apartment.
I finished cleaning up dinner, because there was nothing more pathetic than a woman sitting amongst the detritus a ruined plan. I left the wine out, though, as drinking seemed my only option. I sat at the table, sipping wine and staring at the front door, rehearsing my opening lines:
“I was worried about you.”
Or, “I thought you’d be home for dinner.”
Or, “How was your night?”
Or, “Well, well, well…”
As it turned out, I had a mouthful of wine when the door finally did open, and I swallowed quickly, and then hiccupped, and coughed.
Liz gave me a funny look. “Hi,” she said slowly, as though wondering if I might be concealing a weapon under the table. That’s how she looked anyway. Like a scared teenager.
I tried for nonthreatening. I wished I had a book beside me, or at least my phone: anything to disguise the blatant desperation that shrouded me.
Liz looked relieved. It was, I guessed, a normal thing for me to have said. I poured a glass as she sat down beside me.
“Long day?” she asked.
“Weird day,” I answered, and then, after a sip for courage, “Weird few weeks, actually.”
“I was wondering. Have you cooked everything in China yet?” she laughed and I realized that she was drunk. This was probably a good thing, but I couldn’t help but feel jealous.
“What did you do tonight?”
She hesitated, and I knew—if there’d been any doubt before—that she had betrayed me. Before she could answer, though, I’d already decided to forgive her. There was no other choice if I wanted this to work.
“I had dinner with Dorian,” she answered finally, and I heard in her voice an apology.
“Oh.” It was the only hint of disappointment I allowed myself. “Did he grill you on what you were doing here, and then try to convince you to go home?”
She looked surprised. “No. He didn’t ask me much of anything, actually.”
I shrugged. “He has this weird thing about Americans moving here. Like you’re exploiting the country unless you’re fluent in Mandarin and have a Master’s Degree in Chinese culture or something. Like it’s illegal just to come here and get a job.”
“No, he was pretty calm about all that. Maybe he was tired.”
There was silence while we both looked into our wine glasses.
“So what did you do?” she looked around the room, as though there might be evidence of something.
“Just hung out for a while. Read a bit. Cooked some dinner.” Cooked you dinner, I wanted to say, but stopped myself.
“Are you boycotting restaurants now?”
I laughed nervously. It was time to talk about it. “No. I’m sorry…” My voice trailed off while I had another sip of wine. I wished I’d had more to drink more while I’d been waiting. “I had this crazy idea.” Even as I started the sentence, I wasn’t sure which crazy idea I was going to talk about: that Liz might have also been in love with me; that if she wasn’t already in love with me, she would fall in love after tasting my efforts in the kitchen; that love was just a matter of proving certain skills, cooking just a kind of elaborate mating dance.
“I wanted to make things homier around here, you know, so you wouldn’t get homesick and leave.” It was plausible enough.
She laughed. For what seemed like hours. “Don’t you think you should have asked me what I missed from home before you started trying to recreate it?”
It might have sounded chastising, or mocking, but she was smiling and sipping wine and so I chose to think she felt touched.
“Okay, so what do you miss?”
“I don’t know…”
Say snuggling, I willed. Say secrets in the dark. In the weeks since I’d fallen in love, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that Liz was a woman—the first I’d ever loved. But it hit me then. Silky like a woman. Fragrant like a woman. Hot breath and passivity. Her long brown hair fell over her face as she stared down at the table, and I longed to grasp it between my fingers, pull it toward me and tickle my own chin with it. Her fingers tapped against the stem of her wine glass, and I longed to lick them, knowing they would taste like honey.
“There isn’t much,” Liz answered. She didn’t look up at me. If she had she would have known. “I don’t really feel homesick, at least not yet. Just really disoriented, I guess.”
I nodded. You’re dizzy and I can catch you. Maybe we should go lie down. Instead I refilled Liz’s glass.
“You’ll get used to it.”
“Right. Of course.”
We sat in silence. I hated the roommate small talk.
“Why did you move here?”
She laughed. Her laugh. God. Like glass shattered in ecstasy. “I was wondering when you were going to ask me that.”
“It’s such a boring question. I usually try to avoid it. But it’s weird, I guess, that I have no idea.”
“Yeah. It’s weird that I have no idea either.”
I shook my head. “I don’t buy that. You’re just not the type to move across the world on a whim.”
“Right. So what type I am?”
“You’re more thoughtful than that,” I answered slowly. I wanted these words to stick. “You have plans.”
She looked at, maybe finally saw me for the first time. “It was more of anti-plan, I think. Everything in my life had been so predictable, you know? Graduate from college and follow my boring-ass boyfriend to New York. Let him pay for dinners because he’s making tons of money while I can’t find a job because what the hell do you do with a degree in English anyway, if you don’t want to teach, and I really didn’t want to teach.”
“But you’re teaching now.”
“Right. But teaching isn’t really my job here.”
“Living in China is your job.”
“Exactly. I wasn’t doing anything in Brooklyn. What do you do? Oh, I wait tables, but really I’m just waiting for my finance boyfriend to propose so I can move into his apartment and start decorating. Or something. It was insane. No, inane. It was inane.”
It was the most I had ever heard her say. I got up and opened another bottle of wine.
“So what happened with Mr. Finance Boyfriend?”
Liz shrugged. “He got bored. Or I got bored.” She took a sip of wine. “No, sorry, that’s a lie. I wasn’t bored at all. I was planning our wedding.”
“You were engaged?”
“No. But that’s what an idiot I was. I was thinking about wedding venues while he was looking for the escape hatch, or wondering why the hell his college girlfriend had followed him to New York in the first place. Why didn’t I just fade into the mist, like everyone else’s college girlfriends so he could start fucking all the finance chickies in his office?”
“Was he? Fucking the chickies, I mean?”
“Who knows.” She drained the rest of her glass and held it out toward me. “The point is, he wasn’t saving up for a ring. I was delusional.”
“So what happened?”
She sighed. “I got drunk. I mean, we got drunk a lot, actually, but I got drunk and wanted to talk. You know, a, what are we doing here Bryan, sort of thing. And he just had no answers. And looked so uncomfortable. Like he just wanted me to go away. And I said, ‘You look like you just want me to go away,’ and he just shrugged. Didn’t even have the decency to actually break up with me. Just shrugged. So I stormed off, thinking he’d come after me, or do something, and he just let me go. Back to Brooklyn. By myself. At two in the morning.
“The next day he told me I was being dramatic. I said, ‘Fuck you, you’re being passive aggressive.’ At which point he probably shrugged again, I don’t know because we were on the phone. And I said, ‘What do you even want here Bryan?’ And he said, ‘I think maybe we should just be friends.’”
Liz and Love shook their heads.
“The thing is, he isn’t really,” Liz said. “Or wasn’t. He was just so… so logical. So completely devoid of any kind of passion. Like he dated me until it was no longer logical, and then he stopped. He did some stupid equation, and the answer wasn’t Liz, and so he just kept shrugging and ignoring me until I went away.”
Love didn’t solve equations and while she did occasionally deal in absolutes she felt much more comfortable ensconced in cotton, her outer edges blurred, her center held fast but difficult to find. I liked the idea, though, that there was an equation out there somewhere whose answer was Liz, a Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sort of thing: I had the answer and now needed only to work out the question.
“So, you and Bryan broke up, and the next obvious step was move to China?”
She laughed. “Yeah, that’s the part where the logic gets fuzzy. I had definite reasons to leave New York, but I didn’t know where else to go. Going home would have been defeat. Anywhere else in the States, I’d need a reason, a plan. It seemed like moving abroad was a plan in itself. I took the first job offer I got.”
“Cheers to that,” I clinked my glass against hers. “I’m glad you’re here.” This time we did make eye contact, and I made the most of it, shooting sparks.
“Thanks. Me too.”
I love you, too, is what I heard. I wanted to lunge across the table, but somehow managed to restrain myself. “We should have more wine,” I said instead. “And sit on the couch.” I felt like a teenaged boy waiting to yawn and stretch my arm across my date’s shoulder. Ridiculous, but somehow it was working. Liz sat down first, and I sat close beside her, leaving almost an entire cushion of the couch empty. She didn’t fidget, though, or look uncomfortable.
We kept talking, but I wasn’t focused on the conversation. Instead, I was looking for ways to touch her.
“Your hair is really beautiful.” I actually said that, and then waited for Liz to cringe and slink off the couch, back to her own bed, away from me and my creepy compliments. But she didn’t move. Or, she didn’t move away from me anyway; she did turn and half recline, flinging her hair across my lap.
“Oh, do you like it?” she laughed, shaking it.
“Yes, very much,” I whispered, but she didn’t hear. She was drunk and laughing, had collapsed completely onto my lap. I was afraid to move, afraid to ruin it. I did run my fingers through the hair, though; I couldn’t resist. She closed her eyes and purred like a cat. I closed my own eyes, too, focusing on the feel of her hair.
It may seem that Love got lost easily, wandering off after the aroma of pork dumplings, pan fried and served steaming, or running frightened from the crash and pop of fireworks meant to scatter only old ghosts. Most of the time, though, Love stayed put; if she seems lost it is only because she can be hard to recognize.
“Have you ever been in love?” Liz asked, suddenly. Or maybe it wasn’t sudden. I couldn’t say, hadn’t really been listening to the conversation, lost as I was in her brunette strands.
“No,” I answered, not exactly lying since I knew she was asking about the past, before that moment of hair spread across my lap.
There was silence for a moment, and so I continued. “Not real love, anyway. I’ve dated, but it was all fake.”
“Do you think all love seems fake once it’s gone?”
“Probably.” I wanted to sound cynical, just to make things easier.
“Have you ever had sex with a stranger?”
I snorted. “Oh, yes. I mean, not complete and total stranger, I don’t even know your name kind of thing. But definitely I just met you tonight and we’ve talked for an hour, and I’ll never see you again.”
“You’re not missing much.”
“Have you ever had sex in public?”
I blushed, but Liz’s eyes were still closed, so it was okay. “Are we playing this game now?”
“Fair enough. Semi-public, I guess. Have you?”
“Yes. Your turn.”
I knew exactly what I wanted to ask. I estimated that we were two questions away.
“Have you ever had sex in a car?” I asked.
“Have you ever had sex on a plane?”
“Me either. I almost did once.”
Don’t tell the story, I thought. Don’t say his name.
“Your turn,” she pressed, and I exhaled loudly.
“Have you ever kissed a woman?”
I can not guess the length of the pause that followed. “No,” she answered, and I could tell it was a different kind of no. “Have you?”
I told the truth. I knew it would be better. “No. But I’ve always wanted to.”
“Me too!” Liz squealed and sat up. She was so drunk that I wondered for a moment if I shouldn’t stop this game. But then I reminded myself that I am not a man, and had nothing to force on her. There was no danger there.
“So… should we?”
“I suppose we have to,” I answered.
“Okay, wait.” Liz adjusted her posture, pulled her hair away from her face, licked her lips. “Okay, I’m ready.”
I leaned forward; Liz met me half way. We pressed our lips together, softly: top lip on top lip, bottom on bottom. At first we didn’t move. We were like two children, playing at something we didn’t understand. And then suddenly we understood. Our lips parted and I pushed my tongue through until I felt the gleam of Liz’s teeth, brought my hand to the side of her face, found the sweet hair again. After hours and hours, or perhaps just a moment, Liz leaned back, pulling me with her, until we were both lying down on the couch.
I felt exposed, as though our own couch in an otherwise empty apartment was too public a space to be doing this. I wanted to bring her back to my bedroom, where the curtains blocked out the neon twilight shining through the windows. I wanted to bury myself and Liz under my thick comforter—nevermind the sweat—so I could feel but not see Liz’s bare legs against my own, her soft belly against my own, her breasts against my own. I didn’t want to speak, though, did not want to ruin what we had started, and so I forced myself to press on, beyond my anxieties, beyond questions of how do I do that, and what will that taste like, and how do I close all the space there is between us.
I kept my eyes closed. I assumed Liz did too. We moaned but didn’t speak; not even the oh fuck god yes that I knew was between us. We didn’t stop to ask permissions and we didn’t giggle to fill the awkward space of a bra being tossed aside, a pair of jeans caught up for a moment around the thighs and then shucked like extra skin, like an old self. We didn’t stop until we’d finished—first Liz and then me just after—and even then it was hard to know whether we’d reached the end of what was possible. Eventually we lay still, tangled up on the couch and suddenly shivering slightly, suddenly parched. The light outside the window made the almost imperceptible shift from neon to dawn. Liz adjusted her weight slightly beneath me, sighed. We may have drifted to sleep.
“I need to pee,” she said finally.
“I need some water.”
We sat up and I looked away as Liz pulled her clothes back on, embarrassed to look at the nipple that was not so long ago in my mouth. I wanted a better ending for this: a hot shower, a retreat to my queen-sized bed. But it seemed too late for that already. Liz was dressed and on her way to the bathroom.
“I think I need to get some sleep,” she said when she came back out. But she smiled, finally, grinning like we’d shared something, and touched my hand. As though we had shared something real. I carried it with me into my own bed, used it to fill the space I was saving for Liz.
Love remained curled at the end of the couch, slicked with sweat and shivering.
The next morning when I woke up she was gone.
Not all expats are runaways. They don’t all shudder when they think of their hometowns, of the smallness of all the lives wasted within them. There is just as much bravery to be found in the Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Australians living in Shanghai as cowardice, just as many people hurtling forward as there are standing very very still.
Liz, it turned out, had just gone out for coffee, but the silence in the apartment that morning was a harbinger of what was to come. When she finally left Shanghai a year later, I felt robbed. At the same time I hated the fact of that metaphor. I yearned for the tangible and concrete—something I could have shown to the police. My heart, my lungs, the taste I used to awaken with every morning on my tongue. They’ve all been taken, I might have said.