One day when Ming was ten years old, she ventured down to the cave beside the big Buddha dragging runty little Wu Li Nan along behind her. It wasn’t a deliberate plan, just an idea that came to her after the big boys punched him, stupid boy that he was. Li Nan’s uncle in Hong Kong had sent him a shiny green parka, like nothing you could buy in China, and he had to show it off. Ming saw the bullies, Tang, Yeng, and Eng, punching Li Nan and ripping off his beautiful jacket and pulling it to shreds.
Li Nan, Ming knew, would hide in the rice fields until he was sure they’d gone home. It was strange that the two of them were friends: the girl whom teachers described as the best student in the class and the boy who seldom did his homework. Instead of studying, Li Nan was always betting on things—soccer games on television, ping pong at school—and he’d set up betting pools of stones since no one had money to play with.
But in fact, he was Ming’s only friend. There was a group of five girls who used to let her walk home with them sometimes, but ever since she got into trouble for doing their homework for them—the teacher had noticed the similarity of the characters, despite Ming’s efforts to vary the writing—the girls wouldn’t talk to her. They got smacked on their hands for the homework incident, while Ming got a lecture about how she shouldn’t let lazy people take advantage of her. Now, when she passed the five girls they’d make fun of her ugly teeth.
That particular day, Ming found Li Nan crouched behind the stalks in the rice paddy with a telltale stain on his crotch. “Pee-peed in your pants!” She couldn’t resist taunting him; it made her forget, for just a moment, the hunger that was rattling through her brain. That was when she got a big idea.
“You can come with me and I’ll show you something scary,” she told him. “But it’ll eat you in one bite if you cry. Even the big boys are afraid to go there.”
Ming led Li Nan past the pink, scum-covered pond where the bullfrogs were going urp-urrrurrp, then through the grove of pine trees. The clouds were the color of ashes by the time they arrived at the Buddha on the cliff. Drizzle bit through the holes in Ming’s jacket.
“It’s so foggy, if a wolf comes along and eats us no one will find our bones ’til spring,” she told her snively little friend. Actually, he’d stopped sniffling and crying̶. He followed her to the mouth of the cave.
“We’re monkeys. Reeepp’eee eeee. You have to talk like a monkey. There’s monkeys inside and they’ll kill you unless you make like you’re one of them.”
“I’m not a monkey!” he insisted. Still, he got down on all fours, the way she showed him, and they crawled inside the hole. “I can’t see!”
It was pitch black, but as their eyes adjusted they could see crystals hanging from the ceiling like icicles and rising up from the earthen floor like toadstools. Li Nan made a funny sound, like “Aaaarrrrraaaaarrrrr!” that made Ming’s feet tremble for a second.
“Eat the toadstools!” She shouted it out like an order, trying to be louder than his shriek. “They aren’t poison. They’re candy.”
Li Nan pretended to pick one and give it to her. “This one’s free,” he said. “Now you have to buy more from me.”
“I found the candy. You pay me!”
“I stole it. Put your money in my pocket.” The darkness was making him brave. He took her hand and put it in his pocket.
She felt a big hole there, and he was pulling her hand through the hole and then she screamed. She was touching the thing between his legs. He giggled. Maybe it was funny—she wasn’t sure, but since it made him laugh she giggled too, and squeezed the thing, which made him laugh more.
“You wanna know a secret? I’m going to get rich when I’m big,” Li Nan said. Then, suddenly, he made the “AAAARRRRaarrrr!” noise again, even louder. “Look!”
Down on the ground was something white and round. Even in the dark, Ming could see two holes and below them a hollow mouth with a dead grin. Li Nan bent down and picked it up. It was a human head, with nothing left but the bones.
Ming knocked on Li Nan’s head. “It has no brains,” she declared. “Like you!”
This was the best day of her life, she decided.
Then she heard a splashing sound, and smelled the sharp stink of urine. Li Nan was making pee pee in the bone head. They both laughed.
That was when the static of a loudspeaker sounded in the distance, and a voice issued the usual five o’clock greeting: “Good evening, comrades.”
Five o’clock! They were going to be late getting home.
“My mama’s gonna box my ears!” said Li Nan. He looked almost proud of it.
“My papa’s gonna yell ’til he turns purple,” Ming said.
Li Nan hoisted his knees high in time to the music on the loudspeaker. Ming lifted her knees in unison, left, right, left, right, and they marched down the dirt road toward the village. Coal smoke curled out of the factory chimneys, black smudges against the graying sky. Scrambling down the hillside, Ming and Li Nan saw their mothers in a cluster of a dozen or so women heading home after the day’s work. Mama spotted Ming and raced over, her broad face hot with fury as she pulled Ming by the arm.
“Where have you been?” Mrs. Wu looked down at her son, then at Ming. “You whore!” Mrs. Wu shrieked.
She was always saying that. Ming knew it meant something really wicked and it made her feel cold inside. She twisted her free hand, afraid to look at it. Maybe both hands had turned the color of blood from touching Li Nan where she wasn’t supposed to.
“Ming’s a whore!” Li Nan flashed a vicious grin at Ming, then looked up at his mother as if he thought she might reward him
Mama pulled Ming along until they got to their compound. Outside, in the concrete square with neighbors gathering to watch, Mama scrubbed Ming’s face raw with lye soap and dried it roughly with a torn towel.
“No!” Ming screamed and cried and sobbed loud enough so that the magic monkey would hear her cries, be filled with pity, and snatch her away, but of course there weren’t really any magic monkeys. “
“Hush!” screamed Mama. Up above, through the clouds that perpetually covered the village, lightning split the sky in half.
Li Nan grew up to be fearless, and he went to New York before Ming did. His parents, who had come to Beijing to work for Mama and Papa’s company, were always bragging that their son was getting rich in America, although others whispered that he was involved in some kind of criminal scheme, or maybe more than one. Before Ming left for New York, Mama and Papa told Ming to stay away from Li Nan; Mrs. Wu, however, gave her his cell phone number.
“He’ll always help his friends from home,” Mrs. Wu had said, but something in her eyes made Ming feel like a wicked whore all over again.
Ming arrived in New York with two thousand dollars. A lot of money, her parents kept saying, though even in Beijing these days it would barely pay a month’s rent in a city apartment. She had a partial scholarship, but all it covered was tuition, and she had to pay her living expenses. Her parents’ customers were all in China and therefore had only domestic renminbi to pay them, and though everyone said China’s national currency was going to be traded all over the world someday, for now it was worth nothing in other countries.
Anyway, Mama and Papa thought everyone should work for their money. Her brother claimed he didn’t have any cash to spare, and besides, he said, it was important that Ming learn how to make her own way.
Two thousand dollars was just enough to buy books for business school and obtain a basement apartment that she shared with twelve other Chinese students and a colony of rats. Ming had nothing left for the second month’s rent. So she visited Li Nan and he gave her a cash loan.
“I can always lend money to friends from home,” he said.
Then she had to start paying him back.
A few months into business school Ming started a blog that consisted of a fictional series of sexual encounters by a black-haired temptress called Mimi. Mimi was working her way through all of the men in New York according to the letters of the alphabet. She jumped into bed with Andrew and licked dulce de leche ice cream off his dick. Ben tied her to a bedpost with silk cords; Cyril was a conductor who insisted she spank him on the bottom with his baton.
While the blog was entirely fictional, the author did draw inspiration from her own life. Li Nan had presented her with the cash, in an envelope. He watched while she riffled through the bills, caressing the numbers, scrutinizing the crisp shades of green.
“You don’t have to worry about paying me back,” he said, almost in a whisper. He sat behind a metal desk in a barren office, a single joss stick curling out smoke that, in Ming’s mind, took a Bodhisattva shape. “You just work for me. I have a lot of friends. But they’re lonely. For you, it’s a perfect job. You can get your mind off business school and study human psychology—you’ll find a million stories to write.”
Then he called his colleague Brian in from the adjoining room. Brian had a mouth that turned downward on the left side, as if something tasted bad, and a snake tattoo on each hand. He gave Ming a piece of paper with the name of a man, the address of a hotel, and the number of a room.
“You’ll make plenty of money,” Brian said in his gravelly voice. He looked her up and down and she had a sense he was looking for weak spots where he might plunge a knife if she didn’t come through with a lot of money.
The hotel room reeked of infected semen, and Ming was convinced her insides were going to rot. But the man gave her three hundred dollars.
“You should get your teeth fixed. You could make a lot more if you had better teeth,” the customer told her.
She met men who wanted her to tie them up, and another who lay in the bathtub and asked her to douse him in a bath of piss. Li Nan always let her keep half of the earnings. Some of the men didn’t even want her to stay long enough to wash up in their rooms, so she’d have to sit on the subway with their juices snaking along her thighs and stinging like acid.
Ming worked for Li Nan two to three nights a week. The rest of the time she tried to be someone else—a student, a writer, and an explorer. She wandered through the ecosystems of New York City: the shiny magic place called Park Avenue, where flowers bloomed on the oasis between the traffic lanes and doormen, dressed like royal admirals, stood outside the buildings, and the tenement streets where the people seemed to have nothing but defiance to keep them from cracking in half.
Unlike her roommates, Ming avoided political meetings. Groups scared her, gathering for the purpose of identifying an enemy who might end up being one of those present. But one Friday in May, her malcontent roommates told her about a party up near Columbia and she decided to go.
At that party, Ming couldn’t help but observe a guy in a torn T-shirt gazing at her. She could practically smell his unwashed hair across the room, but appreciated the way his eyes followed her. A yellow fever type, for certain. The West was full of men who had fantasies of whores with virginal voices teaching them a hundred mysteries-of-the-Orient sex positions. But Ming liked his eyes, and she liked how the copper-haired woman standing next to him seemed imbued with light.
She glided over to their warm circle.
“Williamsburg is the capital of hip. My squalor is cooler than your squalor,” Jeff crooned over the subway screech the night they met, as they rode the L train to his place in Brooklyn.
He lived in three hundred square feet of space, a one-third share of a loft, three floors up on an elevator that swayed. Up close, Jeff felt just as she’d suspected; when he kissed her, sweat dripped from his face to hers and if she moved an inch away from him he’d move an inch closer.
“Let’s just be friends,” she said, and the condom she’d brought along stayed in the bottom of her purse.
He shrugged. “I’m always the guy who doesn’t get laid.”
Ming slept on a pile of quilts in the corner, and in the morning Jeff made exquisite coffee. He ground French roast beans, steeped them in a French filter, and made a great show of asking, “Café au lait, mademoiselle?” He even used a little steaming device to make the milk bubbly.
Somehow Ming didn’t leave. She didn’t even go back to school when it came time to take her finals. She had studied a little bit, then kicked her books into Jeff’s laundry pile. I’ll die of asphyxiation in the exam room, she realized. This loft with the cracked skylights was a kingdom where she belonged, living where the gods of wit and talent reigned. Zoe and other friends were always passing through, drinking cheap wine and talking about exhibition spaces and rehearsals and dissertations, even while they worried aloud about how to pay their bills.
True, it was suicide to drop out of business school. Ming’s student visa was due to expire at the end of the month. But Jeff said something about “damsel in distress,” and Ming found herself uttering the words “green card marriage.”
A dozen of Jeff’s friends came with them to city hall on a Friday afternoon in June. Zoe came without Danny.
“He’s in the Hamptons,” she said, and Ming thought her friend looked more relieved than disappointed. “He promised his old girlfriend, Liesel Morgan, he’d go to a charity gala out there.” Zoe emphasized the name “Liesel Morgan” as though that were someone Ming should have heard of. “And you are both invited, as the bride and groom, to go tomorrow afternoon. His wedding present.”
The Hirsch estate in East Hampton had a deceptively modest facade of weathered redwood, with a solarium on the ocean side. Danny and Zoe ushered the newlyweds through a room where museum-white walls burst with modern and contemporary art. On the west wall, Rauschenberg and Pollock abstracts and Warhol movie stars sized up the visitors. The east wall was decorated with a collage of cigarette packs and splashes of primary colors; a giant sculpture of Cheerios, Ritz crackers, Tampax, and Crayolas boxes; and a lifesized sculpture of a crashed car.
Danny left Ming and Jeff ensconced at an aluminum patio table shaped like an amoeba while he and Zoe prepared lunch.
“Is this a table or something from an auto body shop?” cracked Jeff, rubbing his hand on the aluminum and leaving a dull smear.
When Zoe and Danny emerged from the house half an hour later, their faces were flushed. People in love went indoors and found secret spots to get it on; that much Ming knew. Such a sun-kissed mussiness about them.
Or maybe they’d been fighting.
“Danny thinks writing my dissertation about a Sichuan village is too subaltern,” Zoe announced, as she passed around a huge bowl of salad.
The salad filled the air with the lush perfume of lime. Ming drew up a forkful of green papaya and tender beef shreds flavored with garlic and chili peppers.
“Riesling?” Danny asked. He poured wine. “Guess you’re not a spice wimp, being from Sichuan. I just told Zoe—no offense, Ming—but I don’t think there’s anything commercially viable about the story of your childhood and how you were so hungry that you saw a talking monkey. Academia likes history that looks to the future. When I tell people that my girlfriend’s getting a PhD in Chinese economic history, they ask me what’s going to happen there. Like I’m supposed to know how long we have ’til China overtakes America as a superpower! I told Zoe she ought to study the big state-owned companies under Mao, and how they contributed to China becoming a force in the world today. Then she can write her ticket as a high paid consultant on top of teaching.”
Ming helped herself to more salad.
“I like a girl with a hearty appetite. So…where do you go in New York for real Sichuan cuisine?” Danny asked.
“Real Sichuan cuisine in Communist China was rice gruel,” Jeff injected. “Ming’s mother cooked the rice over and over because they had to make it last all month.”
“It’s still communist,” Danny pointed out.
“And her father got rice gruel with roaches for protein when he was a political prisoner.”
“He wasn’t quite a political prisoner,” Zoe interjected.
“Li Nan, a friend from my village, took me to this place in Chinatown when I first came to New York. You would never be able to find this restaurant; it’s on the second floor and there’s no sign, but the owners are from Sichuan and they cook very good Sichuan food. I think they made dog but they wouldn’t admit it. Li Nan is not always, shall we say, on the right side of the law,” Ming confided.
“Danny’s grandpa was a crook. Every fine estate starts with one,” Jeff observed.
“Put this in your mouth so we can start roasting you,” said Zoe. She pretended to shove an apple at Jeff, but instead started slicing the apples into seedless quarters.
Danny passed the plate to Ming. She mumbled, “No, thank you.”
“Ming doesn’t eat apples,” Jeff said.
“I like it here much better than the Hamptons,” Ming told her new husband that night.
Grimy Brooklyn heat sneered through the skylights. She was sitting atop her pile of quilts.
“I am quite sure Danny doesn’t like me.”
Jeff was silent, which seemed to be his way of agreeing. That night Ming massaged his shoulders, then let him massage hers, and pulled him on the bed. He didn’t even let her touch his hard-on; he kissed her, down to her toes. He asked, too often, too tentatively, “Do you like that?” A true love, she thought, would know what she liked just by the way their bodies melded.
Still, it was nice to sit up in bed with Jeff after they made love, laughing as he read aloud from a paperback copy of On the Road. He spread a map of the United States on the floor and showed her a thin line called Route 66. It was an open road where dreamers drove and kept going until they ran out of luck or out of gas, he told her. Ming and Jeff decided they’d take the trip someday.
They let the rest of that long summer grow prickly with dreams; they went to art galleries and visited an agent who liked Jeff’s portfolio; they ventured into Tiffany’s and Bergdorf and Jimmy Choo, and Jeff watched as Ming fondled silver high-heeled sandals that cost $725. It would take five slimy hotel encounters to buy shoes like that, she calculated in her mind, and going without food for two weeks.
Jeff was always finding things in the streets. He’d carry wicker chairs home on the subway, and broken plates and old computers, but only Macs. He kept his computers on a long table in his makeshift room. On one computer he composed his own weird poetry into voice-activated software; on another, he made digital pictures of pretty faces look like gorilla masks. A week into their marriage, he discovered a photo on the internet from the Hamptons party of Liesel Morgan, the vanilla-haired, financial analyst ex who was, Jeff said, after Danny.
“Clichéd party shot.…” Jeff railed. “Awful lighting.”
Ming laughed as she watched him photoshop Liesel Morgan into a cavewoman. At moments like that, they were vengeance warriors in an army of two.
Ming still worked some nights for Li Nan. She told Jeff she was helping her parents sell to the American market and sometimes had to go to dinner with prospective clients.
On other nights, to tease her, Jeff would read Ming’s blog aloud. “He had a regatta tan on every part, and Mimi rubbed him below deck…are you kidding me? This is so bad it’ll probably make you rich. Too bad you’re not really a hooker. Sick twisted reality sells.”
Ming told her family that she’d found a husband in New York. If she’d tried to tell them she needed money, they’d say come back here and work for us. It was a pyrrhic victory, to have officially become a poor artist. A victory that extended even beyond the Cheng household to her entire pragmatic homeland.
“I feel like the family I should have been born to is right here,” she told Jeff and the roommates one night while they lounged on Salvation Army chairs and hashed out the world’s problems.
“Yeah, we’re a nuclear family. Looks like fusion, but it’s really all fission,” said Jeff.
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