By Max Berwald
Gaoshan woke up in a pool of sweat. She turned over and checked her cellphone. Bo had been texting her for an hour. She tried texting “hi” but Bo called her. “Long night?” Gaoshan’s calf cramped.
“We made plans.” It was a guess.
“Kasper’s bringing his friend over today, remember?” She didn’t. “From the States.”
“Oh yeah. What?”
“I’m across the street.”
She unlocked the front door for Bo, stripped and showered. The night before had started in Wudaokou, near Peter’s university, but ended somewhere in Gongti– probably Lantern. Hot water beat against her eyelids and she felt her mind start to move faster. When she shut off the water she noticed a faded admission stamp on her wrist.
Bo pounded the bathroom door. “Hello-o-o.”
“No.” She locked the door, flipped the fan on to suck out the steam, and dressed. She glanced at a vinyl makeup pouch. Her head throbbed. In the living room, she could hear Bo’s muffled voice; she was talking to Gaoshan’s flatmate, a French student named Sophie.
Gaoshan opened the door.
Bo’s head turned so fast her hair lagged behind her. “There she is! Let’s go.” She tapped a silver watch on her wrist.
“Nice watch.” Her voice was hoarse.
“Compliments will get you nowhere. We’ve got to make this meal memorable.”
“No wonder you’re in a tizzy.” Gaoshan found ChapStick on the coffee table and smeared some on. “You’ll never manage lunch without me.”
“Without your kitchen maybe. Ready?”
Gaoshan went to the kitchen and filled a pint glass with cold water. Then she stood at the window drinking it.
They rode bikes toward the same market they had used the summer before, when a considerable number of afternoons had been devoted to cooking, eating, talking. This summer was only a few days old but it was already different. They flew down Yong Kang Hutong, Gaoshan’s still-wet hair plastered to her collar. Bo was ten meters behind in denim cutoffs and a cream tank top. The sun had already toasted her shoulders.
At the market they shopped on autopilot, with Bo voicing questions that only constituted crossroads: what were they cooking? Gaoshan was the keeper of the recipes, and she could perform all the necessary functions of that role through a hangover much worse than the current one. She rifled through a crate of mustard greens, squinted at chlorophyll. Bo spoke.
“Are you going to quit?”
Gaoshan looked at her. “Why?”
Bo shrugged. “The last time I saw you, you were complaining about it. And now you’re drinking again.”
“I never stopped drinking.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m going to find something else.” Then, locating the perfect cluster of mustard greens, Gaoshan heard herself say, “Or I’m just going to…”
“Be unemployed for a minute.”
A raised eyebrow. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
The mustard greens hummed in her hand, happy to be recognized in their perfection. “Yeah.”
They rode back with bloated totes knotted to their handlebars. The sun was hotter now and on Andingmen they could see green buds standing out on the locust trees. The sun flashed on Bo’s watch.
Sophie was gone when they returned. Gaoshan put on Help!
When the carp had been washed in salt water, she slit and stuffed it with coriander, ginger and garlic. She prepared a sauce. Bo took the tinfoil from her hands, shooed her out of the kitchen. “This is the part I can do. You sleep.”
“I can’t sleep now.”
“Of course you can.” Then she said, “Kasper won’t be here for an hour.”
Gaoshan thought about that, then went to the couch and lied down. The laundry room had a screen that looked over the rear of the complex: the bike lot, the low wall, the French grocery store, a bing window. A breeze came through that screen and cooled her forehead, forearms, legs. She sighed and allowed herself to forget about the night before, forget about the dancing, forget about the music, forget about her headache, forget about her scratchy throat. Her eyelids became heavy.
Knocking woke her.
“Tell me that’s Sophie,” said Gaoshan. She rubbed her puffy eyes. The afternoon was still blazing and her head felt full of warm fluid. Spit clung to the corner of her mouth.
Bo stuck her head into the living room. “You want to get that?”
Gaoshan made a dash instead for the bathroom, the mirror, the vinyl pouch. But there was no time. The knock came again, now with a muffled shout. She ran a hand through her hair and swallowed and got the door. Whatever Bo was doing smelled correct: garlic, shallots, soy sauce.
Kasper was tanned and affable and Dutch and in love with Bo. He taught history at an international school. He reached out to shake Gaoshan’s hand and then thought better of it and hugged her and then introduced Corbyn. The American friend looked defeated, perhaps by air travel, with sunken eyes and a crumpled jacket that he held over his right forearm, having sweated through a thin white sweater. He was taller than Kasper. A goose feather, escaped from the jacket, clung to his neck stubble.
An hour later they were seated around a coffee table. The girls sat on the couch and the boys sat on the floor where, after a while, Sophie came and joined them. The breeze came through the screen, pushing steam away from a half dozen plates: curled pork belly and green peppers, choy sum in vinegar, boiled peanuts, pickled cabbage and the white fish in chili sauce. A single cloud trawled, despondent, past the laundry room window. Conversation slunk between worn touchstones. A puff of steam escaped the rice cooker, vibrating softly in the corner. Gaoshan became bored. She looked around the room, her eyes snagging on the liquor collection of their third roommate, James: whiskeys huddling around a crystal of St. George’s gin.
Bo read her mind, and rebuffed a flirtation from Kasper just to squint at her.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“It’s three pm.”
Gaoshan stood, found one of her legs asleep and her leggings bunched, and limped to the bookshelf. She took down a two-thirds-full bottle of Johnny Walker, weighed it in her hands, and then went for the fridge. The American followed her with his eyes but said nothing.
The fridge offered additional treasures: cold brewed coffee gifted regularly to James by the owner of a local pie shop. She set the cold brew and the whiskey on the table with a cluster of lowball glasses.
Bo chipped ice, resigned to theft. The American smiled. They drank cold coffee and whisky around polygonal hunks of ice that knocked prettily against their glasses. “Corbyn is a painter,” Kasper announced, as if drunk.
The American’s smile vanished.
“Really?” said Bo.
Gaoshan studied him for the signs of an artist and found some. She braced her coffee with more Johnny Walker and took a sip.
Sophie seemed the most interested. “Can we see your work?”
“Graffiti,” said Kasper. “Walls and buildings.”
“Let him speak for himself,” said Bo.
Gaoshan squinted. The fact that the disheveled and traveling foreigner was a professional artist was too convenient, attractive. “So, your work?”
“He’s on Instagram,” said Kasper. “His own and a bunch of–”
“Okay, okay…” said Corbyn.
“–a bunch of other featured dudes.”
“We don’t have to make it a thing.”
“Who’s making it a thing? Who’s–”
“We don’t have to, like, make it about me.”
“No one cares about you; it’s about the art.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Bo.
“Yeah, what’s the matter? You’re humble? Didn’t anyone ever tell you that an artist has to be proud of his work?” asked Gaoshan.
“Are you an artist?” he asked her.
“No, but I love painting.”
“So you are an artist.”
“I like looking at paintings.”
She felt embarrassed by his willingness to be impressed. She looked at the hunk of ice in her glass, the level of liquid ominously low.
“Who do you like?”
“I like Schiele too.”
“Caravaggio!” Sophie shouted, raising her glass; Gaoshan found her youngness obscene. She was blonde and her complexion was perfect and she blushed easier than a Chinese when she drank.
“You’re repping Italian painters?” said Corbyn, his mood apparently improved by the topic. “You can’t name a Frank?”
“A ‘Frank’!” laughed Sophie. “It’s not the twelfth century.”
“How can you tell?” said Gaoshan.
“I like the girl impressionist.”
“I got it! I got that one. That’s…”
“Cassatt,” said Corbyn.
“Fuck you. I told you I knew that one.”
“I like ‘More-so’ better,” said Gaoshan.
Everyone looked at her. Corbyn said, “Morisot. Why?”
“Because she’s more specific.”
He laughed but it wasn’t condescending. It was a demonstration of pure surprise. In fact, she was so unthreatened by his laugh that she asked, “It’s pronounced Mor-ee-sew?”
“That’s how I say it.” He nodded. “I think so?”
Sophie corrected them both.
“Sure, talk over my stupid old head!” said Bo, who was very sensitive to anyone speaking over her head.
Gaoshan nodded, conceding pretension, and felt herself relax further. Her hangover was waxing pleasant.
Sophie leapt to her feet and went away and returned to the coffee table with a cigar box full of supplies. She began to roll a spliff. As if already possessed by munchies, the sight of marijuana spurred them all into a second hunger, and they ate in earnest even though the food had cooled. The eyehole of the fish peered upwards more lucidly now, without the glaze of steam. Corbyn pushed a white wad of meat into his mouth with chopsticks. He set the chopsticks down and removed a long, translucent rib from his mouth. He dropped the rib and it made a barely perceptible click on his plate. She felt pleasure at having prepared good food, which Corbyn was now eating; in the time between her waking and their sitting down to enjoy the meal, the fish had been Gaoshan’s work alone. It was something Bo could not do. And now Corbyn was devoting all of his attention to picking that fish clean, even though it was awkwardly placed for him and firmly resisted his access.
Later, high, Corbyn sat cross-legged on her bed, his back against the wall, while Gaoshan rifled through the books on her shelf. She produced a book of paintings by Schiele and handed it to him. Then she sat beside him.
It had been a while since she looked at a book of paintings with someone. With her guest holding the book, and her mind fluid with marijuana, she became aware of how different it was to look at a book when someone else was flipping the pages. For each painting, there was a unique amount of time required for each person to understand everything they would understand (before becoming bored), thus triggering a page turn. But if someone was sitting with you, staring at the same images, you could not think only of yourself. You had to think of whether or not the person beside you might be more or less bored by a particular painting before turning the page. She hoped he wasn’t anxious. He didn’t seem anxious.
And she was happy to go at his pace. She had looked at the book before.
He stopped on a painting: a large watercolor image of two little girls. The title was Two Children. He laughed.
“What?” She laughed herself. “What?”
“It’s so bad.”
“What?” She laughed harder, but she was offended. “No…”
“Look at it. They look like dolls.”
“Maybe they’re supposed to be dolls.”
“If they were supposed to be dolls then he should have called it ‘two dolls.’ But he didn’t. He called it Two Children because he was trying to paint little kids.”
She covered her mouth and looked into the painted eyes. She saw that he was right: they did look lifeless and silly. “Oh my God…”
“I like Schiele!” It was a protest.
“No, no, no.” He flipped away from the image, breaking the spell. He moved backwards through the book, returning to places they had already gone in silent reflection. “This is all, look at this shit. It’s all, some of this shit is beautiful. The bodies are alive sometimes but, just, this one.” He laughed again.
“Yeah. You’re right.”
She took the book away and started to flip. Even though she had thought of the anxiety – the burden of controlling the pace of browsing – a moment before, she found that she felt none of it now.
They moved on through the book. She picked one particularly demented self-portrait and said, “See?”
Sophie stuck her head in with insinuating caution. “Not to interrupt but do you want anything from the store?”
Gaoshan set the book down, stood up and scratched her hair until a mat of frizz haloed her. “Yes!”
“I don’t know. But is it…”
She pushed past Sophie into the living room, where Bo and Kasper were cuddling on the couch, and crossed to the laundry room. She stepped up to the screen and watched people coming and going past the French shop in the hutong below. The bing window was still selling bing, only now they had put out boiled peanuts and salted soybeans and pickled garlic and tudou si. The sun beat the earth and the sky was a uniform blue.
“Let’s go to the lake.”
“What lake?” said Bo sleepily.
She expected protest, but Bo climbed to her feet and went to join her at the window. “That sounds good.”
“I’m staying here.” Sophie collapsed onto the couch. “But I’ll roll another spliff for you.”
“I thought you were going to the store,” said Gaoshan.
“I was, but if you’re going out, you can go on the way!” She stretched. “I want tonic water.”
“A six pack.”
The four of them packed their things and the girls stood by the mirror and touched themselves up in a manner that was automatic and sharp and seemed a protest against their being stoned.
The men sat, pretending to talk, but really watching Gaoshan and Bo.
Sophie rolled them a spliff for the lake.
Gaoshan frowned. “I don’t really want it in my purse.”
“Me neither,” said Bo.
Corbyn said, “Got a pen?”
Bo and Kasper watched him while Gaoshan rifled in a mug on the bookshelf. She gave him a ballpoint pen.
He unscrewed it, removed the spring and the ink tube, and slid the spliff into the chamber. Then he screwed the pen back together and stuck it in his pocket.
“That’s settled,” said Bo.
Gaoshan said nothing.
The cannabis fugue was passing, but gave the bicycle ride a unique character. In the same way the summer had already separated itself from all other summers, the day was now beginning to separate from all the other days of her life, taking on a quality usually unique to very old memories. At first she thought that it must remind her of something, so she searched for the memory. But no, this day had been built for its time and place. Whether or not it was ushering in a new phase of her life was impossible to know. Maybe it represented only a break, a different day among days that would prove, ultimately, to be the same as one another.
They rode to Andingmen and back through the dappled sunshine and past the new green buds on the locust trees. Taxis honked and mothers pushed strollers in the bike lane and Gaoshan rang her bell. The boys followed the girls right down Gulou Dongdajie to the Drum Tower, where they turned south onto Di’Anmen. To their right the air had a different quality. A breeze drew cool air from Qianhai Lake down the shopping streets. They passed the Temple to the Fire God and Wanning Bridge and turned right and parked at the north gate to Beihai. They locked their bikes under budding trees.
They rented a tiny boat and staggered onto the lake.
“I don’t know what you do.”
Gaoshan looked up from the water. “Sales,” she said. “I work in sales.”
He gave her a look.
She wondered if she had misjudged his openness.
“Cool,” Kasper said finally, breaking the silence.
Corbyn said, “What do you sell?”
Bo looked between them.
“I sell English classes.”
He nodded as if that explained everything and took out a Hongmei and lit it. He looked over the water towards Qionghua Island, already lush, and the White Pagoda. She followed his gaze. The golden lump on top was now made so glorious by the clean air and sunshine that it was almost corny, fake.
But it’s not fake, she thought. It’s real.
Bo looked out across the water to another boat, shaped like a rubber ducky, yellow with a red bill. As it drifted closer to them they could see that it had only one occupant: a man on his way into middle age. He could have been thirty-eight or forty-five, and he sat alone, drifting. He was seated beside a crumpled North Face vest, his green t-shirt dark beneath both arms.
“Look at him,” said Bo. “Have you ever seen something so lonely?”
She was talking to Kasper, but Kasper had fallen fast asleep, his lips slightly parted on Bo’s shoulder. He had stooped there for a kiss and there remained. Bo smiled adoringly and looked at Gaoshan to make sure that she recognized her adoration and Gaoshan smiled back and then returned her gaze to the White Pagoda.
Corbyn finished his cigarette and took out the pen. He unscrewed it and Gaoshan looked around. The only one close enough to see was the lonely man in the green t-shirt, staring into the middle distance and sweating. She got out a lighter and he gave her the spliff and she lit it, sucked. Then she held it out to Bo and Bo squinted suspiciously before taking it and smoking it, which woke up Kasper.
“Oh,” said Kasper, recoiling from the smoke. “Oh.” Bo coughed hard.
“Sleeping beauty,” said Corbyn, taking the spliff from Bo. He took a long pull and returned it to Gaoshan, who was eying the water with something like suspicion. As time marched forward, she felt as though she were becoming a physical extension of the lake.
Bo fell asleep.
“So,” said Gaoshan. “Painting is all you do.”
“All I do,” he repeated. “All I do.”
“I mean, you don’t–”
“I don’t get paid for it...” he said. “Not really.”
“What do you do?”
“I worked at a bank.”
She shook her head and he said, “Chase.”
“Two weeks ago.”
“Really? So you grew the beard in…”
He laughed. “Right.”
He scratched his nose and offered her the smoldering roach.
She shook her head and he tugged at it, tossed it into the lake.
“What are you going to do now?”
“What do you mean?”
“I have some money. I’m not going to do anything for a while. I don’t know what I’ll do when I run out. Maybe go back to New York. Or stay here.”
She nodded. “Stay here.”
He tried to judge her expression. “If I stay in China… I haven’t been here long. If I stay in China I won’t stay in Beijing. I’ll never learn Chinese here. There are too many people who… speak English.”
“Where did you meet Kasper?” she asked suddenly.
“At a bar. In the Netherlands.”
“When were you in the Netherlands?”
He shook his head, which confused her.
“I’m going to quit my job too.” Her brain felt tipped over, as if all her thoughts were running like liquid from a tipped basin. “I’m going to do nothing for a while. Forever maybe. I’m very tired of working and I don’t like my work.” Although these things sounded trite out loud, they only convinced her that this day was, in fact, different from all previous days. Something was changing inside of her.
“Are you good at it?”
“Are you good at it?”
“Can I have a cigarette?”
He took out his pack of Hongmeis and shuffled one out of the pack, handing it to her. She rolled it idly between her fingers and a single flake of tobacco fell away. Then she lit the Hongmei and tried to blow smoke over the lake. It came back in her eyes and she blinked, rubbed them. “Well,” she said. “Well.”
“Quit your job,” he said.
“Quit your job.”
“If you don’t like what you do, do something else.”
“But rent and…” She trailed off. What she was really thinking, all of the sudden, was, what’s wrong with my job? What’s so bad about my job? And she saw herself at the off-white desk on the eleventh floor, quietly listening to The Doors through her headphones, prepping for a sales call.
He nodded. “All that.”
“I want to… I want to do what you’re doing, and just, travel around doing…” She swallowed, unsure of where this was coming from.
“I’m going to paint.”
“You’ll get arrested if you try painting walls in China.”
“Or you can…”
“Or go home.”
She pulled on the Hongmei.
Bo woke up.
“I forgot where we were,” said Bo.
The sun went down. The night was mild and damp and the breeze lazy. They rode their bikes to First Watch and bought 2CI in the courtyard. Sophie was there but looked tired. She followed Gaoshan and Corbyn to the bar to buy beers but said nothing. Gaoshan wondered if something had gone wrong, or if she was only distracted. A band began to play, cloying pop-punk sprints. Dozens of songs, all bizarrely truncated – forty-five seconds. A minute. Forty-five seconds. She took her IPA to the stairs.
Corbyn accidentally swallowed his tab in a wash of beer. She succeeded in nursing hers until it disintegrated in a wash of foul-tasting chemicals. She smacked her lips. Corbyn laughed. “There it goes.”
“Your eyes are fucked up.”
He laughed, hoarse. “Gross.”
A man pushed past. Goashan remembered they were on the stairs and continued up. At the top step, she wheeled and said, “We forgot Sophie’s tonic water.” But there was nothing to be done so they went forward.
On the terrace he watched as she became stir crazy, then clambered onto the roof. She made her way, scooting on her ass, along the peak. Her fingers hummed. Her fingers caught on a tile and it went scuttling down, shattering in the hutong. A cluster of smokers looked up but she leaned precariously backward, became invisible.
The smokers on the terrace were more concerned. They squinted. Nobody told her to get down. They looked at Corbyn, who was watching her over sips of beer, still hoping she would turn around. When she didn’t, he drained the beer and climbed after her on all fours. The moon was on his shoulder. He climbed until he had reached her at the roof’s far edge. He sat beside her and they lit each other’s cigarettes. “What’s with us?”
Corbyn shrugged. “Did you come out here to be alone?”
“I fucked that up.” He giggled chemically.
She shook her head.
“I should have asked.”
“How could you have…”
“It was supposed to…”
“Oh, oh, oh. Sorry.”
His laugh grated now. At once damp and scorched.
“I’m not…” she said. “I’m not going to quit my job. I want to quit my job, but now there’s you– so I, don’t have to. Because you are going to do the thing where you’re an artist and you don’t have any money–”
“I do, I mean, right now I do have some money, so it’s not like–”
“Don’t interrupt. I mean, you’re doing the thing that is going around and making art and not caring about what will get you the most money in the long run. I’m glad you’re doing that. In fact, I’m the reason that it is so important that you do that. Because if you weren’t doing that, I might have to do that! And I’m not that kind of girl. Person.”
He looked up and found Ursa Major. “You want to make a lot of money?” He sounded breathless from the 2CI, and his voice had a wet snapping to it. She hoped that she didn’t sound that way, but guessed she probably did. “I mean, you care about that?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes. I don’t, hate money. You need it, I…” She knew that she, Gaoshan, was not as stupid as she sounded. She trusted Corbyn not to laugh at her. Of course, it didn’t matter if he laughed, but in… “Some people get by without it, but not me. I want to be comfortable. Very comfortable forever, if possible. I don’t want to fight. I want everyday to be like this one, or as much like it as possible.”
He shook his head. “But that’s not possible. Most days won’t be like this one, whatever you do. And they can’t possibly be like today if you’re working. Have you ever had a day like this in an office? In sales?”
There was an edge to his voice when he said ‘sales.’
“Careful.” She looked at the stars.
He looked up too. “Sorry.”
“But if I don’t work like… in my… I get money on commission too, you know? And I’m good at selling the classes. Which means that when I don’t have to go in on a Saturday, I can go dance in Gongti until I… and I can sleep in? On Saturday morning, and go shopping with Bo hungover and then make food and… Go to the lake.”
“Go to the lake,” he agreed.
“If I didn’t… I couldn’t have an apartment so close to the lake.”
“Some other lake,” he said.
She laughed hysterically and pitched forward. She slid on the tiles and he grabbed her bicep and her breath snagged in her throat. “The point is…”
“Be careful!” He yanked her back up.
“The point is that, it won’t be close to Beihai.”
“What won’t be?”
“My new apartment.”
“In a hypothetical future… where you quit your job?”
“You got it!”
“So if I keep painting and slowly running out of money and traveling around the world…” He flicked the butt of his cigarette and the glowing coal went end over end into the dark. “…Then you can keep on working in an office and making money?”
“Yes,” she said. “You get it.”
“I think I get it.”
“Trust me, you get it.” She leaned on him, but then started to fall.
He propped her up. “Can you get the fuck off of this roof? I mean–”
“What does that mean?”
“I mean, without falling off.”
“You have to go first!”
He started to climb and she followed him but there was no way he could steady her, not even a good way to watch her. He had to go forward inch by inch. Another tile cracked loose and slid toward the street. “Heads up!” he shouted in English. He heard it crash. Someone cried out, but not in pain. “Fuck,” he whispered. “Oops,” giggled Gaoshan. The night was cool but she was sweating. “Be careful,” he said. “Be careful.” There was no way for him to watch her. “You good?” Another tile clicked loose. As it slid away Gaoshan saw that, like the White Pagoda, the tile did not seem convincingly real. She crawled steadily forward. The night began to spin.