Dong Putao hadn’t been at work long when a shadow passed over the door. It was a man with a broad, slightly open mouth who, with a single movement, glided into the store like a shark. Ripples spread from the doorframe as water slid back from both sides, showing off the bright slickness of his skin. The shark’s stomach was huge, giving the impression he was colossal. A purple T-shirt was tucked into his navy blue pants; the crocodile logo on his belt buckle glinted. It reminded Dong Putao of a bucket handle. It was difficult to say whether his belt was actually buckled.
“It’s some boss or manager.” Dong Putao sucked in her stomach and stood a little taller, a slight smile appearing on her face.
The shark slowly glided along the counter, then quickly swam toward Dong Putao, appearing right in front of her as if he were a door someone moved. Dong Putao was surprised that this massive body could move with more grace and litheness than falling leaves in the autumn wind, as if he were walking on the pointed toes of a ballerina.
The man just then lifted his head and noticed the odd expression on Dong Putao’s face. He narrowed his eyes as if he was taking aim at Dong Putao and preparing to shoot her, causing his mouth to look even wider.
Dong Putao was a bit dazed. The pungent scent of smoke emanated from the man’s skin and drifted into her nostrils. The long hair on his hands had been combed by the wind and lay all in the same direction.
“Excuse me, sir, which kind of cell phone would you like to buy?” Dong Putao felt as if the words didn’t come from her. Those thick, long strands on his hand looked like an evolutionary throwback.
The man’s small eyes got even smaller, as if they had encountered brilliant sunlight.
Dong Putao wasn’t acquainted with him in the least; his wide-mouthed smile only increased her embarrassment.
It was as if a hairy hand had reached into her heart and squeezed it, not too hard and not too lightly; as if a hair got stuck in her throat, a sharp itch that made her want to throw up. Dong Putao was only nineteen years old. Her face was clean, like fruit washed after rain, her eyebrows had never been plucked, and her hair had never been permed or dyed. It was straight and black, like a nun’s veil, causing her to appear extremely pure and innocent. In reality, Dong Putao had already been with more than one man, but none of them had been able to resolve the question of finding work for her father. Her father was a benchfitter; after he had lost his job he had just been loafing around Chengdu and had turned into Dong Putao’s gravest concern.
A coworker was explaining the various capabilities of a cell phone to a customer; the sound passed between Dong Putao and the shark. People walking past them were like seaweed brushing by, waves in the deep water slightly rippling. In the display case were thirty kinds of cell phones, beautiful pieces of coral, luminously shining forth.
The man’s head closed in on the glass countertop. He extended a thick finger, and pointed out a cell phone priced at five thousand yuan.
Dong Putao’s hand, like a hundred-tentacled squid, reached into the display case, grabbed the phone, and quickly placed it in the man’s hand. Dong Putao earned a commission based on her sales volume. This was why every day she talked herself spitless. People were like emperors when they bought cell phones: they might have three thousand beauties in their palace, but those chosen rarely exceeded a few; some functions were never chosen in a lifetime. Still, Dong Putao, in one breath, extolled the twenty or thirty premium features of the phone, not so much testifying to this cell phone’s virtue as hinting that this man was in the know about the product.
“I’ll take this one. Make out the receipt,” said the man. The man’s thumb, just as thick, continuously jumped about on the keyboard, as elegantly nimble as his body. The shadow of his younger self could be sensed, at one time both attractive and upright, not at all like someone tired by the burden of his own weight.
“Really?” Although Dong Putao was excited, her speech sounded as if she were advising the man to be prudent.
“I’ll take this one. Make out the receipt.” The man’s speech was just as real as his massive size.
In truth, the man’s repetition was superfluous: Dong Putao didn’t need confirmation at all. In the blink of an eye she had written out the bill and handed it to the man.
The duration of the traffic light at the intersection of Tianhe North and Longkou West was one hundred ninety-nine seconds. There was always a snaking line of cars in front of the cell phone store. One hundred ninety-nine seconds was long; when one was in the middle of waiting it was especially long. If it were rush hour, one could wait through three changes of this one-hundred-ninety-nine–second light. At this time, Dong Putao always gloated over the drivers’ misfortune, momentarily pleased she didn’t have a car herself, though she was quite willing to meet car owners. Her father had turned forty-two this year. His prospects for work depended on successful people. He could easily find work as a mover, but Dong Putao didn’t want her father to do hard physical labor. Or he could be a security guard, but then again the personnel department didn’t want them old, unless a leader personally made an arrangement for them. But till now, Dong Putao hadn’t had the luck to meet a leader.
Dong Putao listlessly wiped the counter, sending a sidelong glance toward the door; cars packed the street, and people passed back and forth among the crowd of cars. She saw a middle-aged woman who looked very much like her own mother, her skin quite fair, her face genial, her clothing not unrefined. Unfortunately, Dong Putao’s mother had passed away due to an illness some years ago, and just afterward her father lost his job. Good times left, never to return. Dong Putao couldn’t help tearing up. The year before last, she had dropped out of school to work in Guanzhou, so her little brother could go to high school. Father had first found this regrettable, sighed, then told her that after she established herself she should find him a job. Nowadays, Dong Putao had established herself, she had grown familiar with Guangzhou and things were a little more stable, relatively, but a job for her father was still nowhere to be found.
There was a supermarket close to the cell phone store, and Dong Pudao had tried to look for openings there for her father. The result could be easily imagined. She tried a few other places, with similar results. Those with experience told Dong Putao that while finding a job was hard, it was easy if you had the right connections; even if you were not qualified, you were fine; if you didn’t have any connection, you had no chance, even if you were well qualified.
Now Dong Putao thought about the shark she had met a week ago. His looks weren’t disgusting, and she could forgive his protruding stomach. The small eyes were good at focusing and the wide mouth was a sign of ample wealth; even his hands, with those hairs all swept in one direction, one could pretend were a pet’s. Dong Putao was a bit regretful. The shark had taken aim at her three times with his narrow eyes, and she didn’t even stick out her chest to become a target. For people like him, of course she should have taken the initiative and started seducing . . . If she was always losing out on this kind of opportunity, she would never be able to find her father a job. Dong Putao also regretted not asking for the shark’s number. She could only blame this on the fact that the manager had been watching as the shark swam back and forth at her side.
The manager handed Dong Putao a sheet of price tags. The phone that the shark had bought was now marked down. While Dong Putao was changing the tags, the shark appeared. His broad mouth was slightly open, and with a single movement, he glided into the store. Ripples spread from the doorframe as water slid back from both sides, showing off the bright slickness of his skin. An orange T-shirt was tucked into his light gray pants, the crocodile logo on his belt buckle glinted. This time Dong Putao didn’t think about the bucket, and she also didn’t wonder whether the loop was on the waist. She only felt as if the sun had pierced the clouds and in front of her eyes was a beam of light. Her heart warmed instantly and she didn’t even realize that she was smiling broadly.
The shark panted for air, his forehead slick with sweat. He opened his broad mouth, which looked like a meat roll suddenly splitting open, his thick lips rolled back as if a bit swollen. Right between these two slabs of meat, there came a sound like milking a cow, a warm white sound. He said his cell phone had a problem; it was always crashing or rebooting itself.
He was docile like a patient, sitting on the counter’s swirling stool. As he was looking up at Dong Putao his expression was quite agreeable.
Dong Putao took the cell phone and checked it over; the problem was just as the shark had described, so she asked him to wait a second and then went to consult the manager.
Ten minutes later, Dong Putao came back into the shark’s gaze and exchanged his cell phone for a new one, repeatedly apologizing to him for the trouble. From the shark’s expression, he was quite willing to have this kind of trouble. The store’s air-conditioning was strong: he had stopped panting and was quite relaxed. He fished out a gold card case and then pulled out a card. He took a pen out of his T-shirt pocket and added his cell number. Only after all this did he ask Dong Putao when she was free. He wanted to treat her to dinner or a foot massage.
So the shark’s name was Tang Shunzhi, general manager. He also had a number of other titles that Dong Putao didn’t quite grasp. She just felt amazed. A general manager could be considered a member of the “leading” class; to get someone a job, he’d only need to give his underlings the word. Dong Putao’s eyes were fixed on “General Manager” and she couldn’t take them away, her heart quietly exploding, like a piece of sugar-filled rice puff.
Do you know where Tiyu East Road is? Ten minutes down the road, there’s a place called Bing Sheng Restaurant. It’s an old favorite in Guangzhou, everybody knows it. It’s got some really special dishes, they’ve still got the traditional Guangdong flavor, besides which they’ve created a new kind of Guangdong cuisine. It is especially good . . . crispy pork skin, slow-cooked tortoise soup, stir-fried ginseng. Whatever you eat or drink moistens the lungs and strengthens the body. Tang Shunzhi almost seemed as if he were worried that Dong Putao wouldn’t come. He made a real effort on the telephone to talk her into it, closely following this appeal with a shout of laughter, like bowls and dishes falling on the ground and shattering.
Dong Putao didn’t know how many people would be there, but she was certain there would be other general managers. She was too happy, and as soon as she was happy she just couldn’t say anything. Tang Shunzi took her silence for reserve, and became even more courteous, asking whether he ought to send a car to pick her up. Dong Putao said it wasn’t necessary, as the restaurant was quite close.
Setting out, the sky was still covered with gray fog, car tailpipes sending out condensed fumes toward the sky. The dense buildings allowed no ventilation. The fog was just like a mass of dead water, hiding the stars, moon and clouds from sight. Only that eternal traffic light on Tianhe North Street, that light which lasted a full one hundred and ninety-nine seconds, shone in the boundless night, dazzling like a pilot light. The cars were like water dripping past the green light, the huge noise almost soundless. Dong Putao tilted her head and listened carefully; there was still no sound. Her ears were already numb to this kind of noise.
Following Tang Shunzhi’s instructions, she went up one floor and turned to the left, pushing open the doors of reserved room “Row 13.” And there, just as expected, were four or five men. The men were like mud, turning the small reserved room into something resembling the dead water of the gray fog outside: every one of their faces was blurry and indistinct. Dong Putao thought she had come to the wrong place, but then Tang Shunzhi stood up and called “Putao” with easy familiarity, like he was yelling for the servers to bring the food. This kind of familiarity made Dong Putao a little embarrassed; as other eyes and malicious smiles shot toward her, her face turned red. She didn’t quite know how she managed to walk over and sit down; on the left and right were unfamiliar men. The plates were set out and the teacups filled. The red napkins reflected on her face making it look ever redder. They said a few words in Cantonese, laughing like a paddling of ducks on the river bank. Dong Putao didn’t understand, and felt that the room was full of a quiet loneliness. On the wall there were a few small Chinese landscape paintings, with extraordinarily clean glass frames. A man on the opposite side’s already balding pate was perfectly framed for a moment, looking just like an empty bowl. Dong Putao’s gaze slid down a few inches, meeting the owner of the balding pate’s eyes, feeling like there was a swarm of flies wildly dancing.
With much ado Tang Shunzhi introduced those sitting at the table, his voice loud like an invading soldier questioning the natives. Boss Li and Manager Xu, whom he praised to the skies, appeared well satisfied with themselves, spitting out the night’s prettiest smoke rings, just the sort of acting up in front of a young girl that you’d expect of middle-aged men. Tang Shunzhi left the baldheaded man till last, solemnly bringing him forth, saying, this is Zhang Jia Yu, General Manager Zhang, not that he’s pretending to understand.1 He’s my true buddy, a real man from Shangdong, head of two large companies!
As expected all were prestigious figures. Dong Putao darted a look at the empty bowl in the picture frame: her heart was full.
They began to eat. All signs indicated that they had wrapped up their business talk before Dong Putao had arrived, and things were ideal, quite cheerful. They were now thoroughly relaxed and dinner had progressed to the stage of impromptu buffoonery.
The first dish was a half side of papaya for every person, yellow skinned and red pulped, a bowl of soupy matter. Tang Shunzhi noted that these were papaya noodles. Dong Putao thought they weren’t the kind of noodles she normally ate. After she found out it was shark fin soup, she was mute with surprise. Once upon a time she had taken Hong Kong and far off Heaven and drawn an equals sign between them. Her understanding of shark’s fin and swallow’s nest was much the same; she hadn’t thought someday she would be able to eat either. Her tongue attempted to describe the feeling of shark’s fin but, outside of a slick-smoothness and a little bit of a fishy odor, she thought it was insipid and tasteless, far from equaling the pulpy sweetness of the papaya.
“Where’s our young lady from?”
“Ah, from Chengdu, no wonder.”
“Putao . . . where’d that name come from?”
“When my mom was pregnant she only liked eating grapes.2 My parents weren’t educated so they choose my name a bit casually.”
“Oh nice, fresh and tasty.”
They chatted on carelessly. Dong Putao only remembered the empty bowl in the glass frame was General Manager Zhang. The empty bowl had already replaced that traditional painting. She lowered her head and ate for a little bit; when she raised her head she would gaze at that empty bowl. Zhang Jiayu thought that Dong Putao was looking at him; he gazed back at her affably, but she didn’t react. From time to time the attendants came over to change the dishes and refill the tea. After a while, Tang Shunzhi asked Dong Putao to pour wine for all the guests. Dong Putao’s stomach was packed full of the shark’s fin, shrimp steeped in wine, and other strange things she had just eaten: she felt great. She felt good enough to say she didn’t drink, but Tang Shunzhi said, before you even came into the world you already had a lot of grapes; drinking a little “putao” wine isn’t a problem! As Dong Putao listened she said inwardly, if Father’s work problem was solved, I’d gladly drink ten bottles! She started to laugh, and good-naturedly poured a glass for everyone. Her mind was much more settled, her gaze softened with familiarity. She looked around at those seated as if they were her own family members. They were polite to her, quietly recognizing the fact she was Tang Shunzhi’s woman. But she saw through it all right away: this business dinner didn’t have the harmony found between real friends.
The attendants opened the doors and went out. On the door the engraved gold “Row 13” flashed. Dong Putao asked: “What does ‘Row 13’ mean?” Tang Shunzhi said: “It was probably the general term referring to merchants who specialized in foreign trade during the Qing dynasty, the compradors the west employed to operate the Chinese side of business.”
Somebody chimed in to say, you learn something new everyday.
The taciturn Zhang Jiayu, who was facing Dong Putao, had now found reason to stare at her without restraint. He took his time patiently explaining: “My son is attending his freshman year of college right now, he asked me this question too. As for the origin of Guangzhou Row 13, there are some who think it was started in the sixteenth century during the Ming Dynasty. We definitely have written records of it by the eighteenth century. The appearance of Guangzhou’s Row 13 was a first after the deterioration of foreign community, the ‘pan fang’ in the Yuan dynasty. Row 13 was specifically for foreign trade and services, so it was also known as the ‘foreign trade’; the merchants were known as ‘foreign traders.’ These ‘foreign traders’ congregated at today’s Row 13 Street. There were altogether 13 business hotels, providing foreign businessmen a place to stay. It was also known as the 13 Foreign Hotels.”
The entire room was quiet, almost nervous, as if listening to an excellently terrifying story. The overhead chandelier was like a winter’s warm sun casting light onto the earth; they were all like snakes, frozen stiff. When Zhang Jiayu came to a halt, no one revived. Zhang Jiayu had to continue talking, and when Zhang Jiayu kept on talking only Dong Putao was left listening. To capture Zhang Jiayu’s words amid a pile of sounds, she had to stare at his mouth, just as in a time of great, stormy waves one must support oneself on the ship’s railing. Zhang Jiayu was very satisfied to have Dong Putao for his audience, and didn’t mind that the others had started to chat about other things. And so the table turned into a special scene, sounding just like a radio with poor reception, the sound of two stations jumbled together and broadcast, their contents having no relation whatsoever.
Before Zhang Jiayu arranged a date with Dong Putao, he always asked if Tang Shunzhi had made a move; a good buddy would not steal from his friend. In fact Tang Shunzhi was extremely busy with work, so the number of times he saw Dong Putao weren’t many, although text-messages were frequent. He had accompanied Dong Putao home late at night twice. She hadn’t invited him to come upstairs. Tang Shunzhi hadn’t told these things to Zhang Jiayu, for his own reasons.
Dong Putao was quite willing to meet with Zhang Jiayu. When men arranged dates with girls, it definitely wasn’t for the sake of making friends. She herself also had a very clear goal: if it was not for getting her father work, she wouldn’t have any interest in making friends with an empty bowl. If necessary, she wouldn’t mind sleeping with him; it was only necessary to seize this time, as well as the atmosphere and every other condition, in order for the business to be as natural as water flowing into a ditch. But this wasn’t easy. Having experienced failure a few times before, Dong Putao had already started to grasp the fine points of doing this; the important part was to first observe which man really had the power. She must not sleep with him in vain.
Tang Shunzhi and Zhang Jiayu appeared to have reached an agreement; the time of their dates had never conflicted. Dong Putao was surprised at this, but she also didn’t think about it too much. She only needed to choose the most capable and dependable man. The first time she sat in Zhang Jiayu’s Old Crown car, she felt Tang Shunzhi’s car was newer and bigger, although Zhang Jiayu spent generously, taking her out to strange and exciting places. Whose wallet had the most money, whose power was greater, Dong Putao was for a while unable to decide.
Zhang Jiayu’s face in profile was not as attractive to Dong Putao as the empty bowl at the back. Sitting in the car, she kept looking straight ahead, as if she were driving the car herself. Zhang Jiayu first took her all over the city of Guangzhou. When they arrived at Row 13, he was still explaining the international trade. The context was perfect for bringing up the question of her father’s work. Dong Putao restrained herself for a long time, still uncertain; in the end, she held it back, working hard to put forth the appearance of exuberant interest. Afterward, the goods of Beijing Road really drew in Dong Putao, and Zhang Jiayu offhandedly bought a few small things for her, just like a father, patting her on the head.
The second time, Zhang Jiayu invited her to dine at the Nakamori Sushi restaurant, the largest in Asia. The price was very expensive; one plate of Kobe beef cost more than a thousand yuan, equal to a month of Dong Putao’s wages. Dong Putao made a silent decision not to order the beef. In fact, Zhang Jiayu didn’t order it. He laughingly said he wanted to be thrifty and economize, as his finger slid away from Kobe beef on the menu.
The food was really good. When she had finished eating, Dong Putao was perfectly happy. After the meal, in order to while away the time, Zhang Jiayu suggested a series of activities: going bowling, getting a Japanese foot wash or a Chinese medicinal massage, or a night climb on White Cloud Mountain, and so on.
Every possibility was health oriented? Dong Putao felt that was quite amusing. That’s right, the body was essential. It’s the way we all live, Zhang Jiayu said. Dong Putao selected Japanese foot washing.
A Chinese girl wearing a kimono cawed out a couple sentences of Japanese, and sent the two of them to their private room. She switched to Chinese, asking if Mister and Ma’am had their own number. Zhang Jiayu said he still wanted number seven. He told Dong Putao, you can ask for a man, men’s palms are more powerful. Dong Putao shook her head, “No, I don’t want a man.” “Why?” “I’d be embarrassed.” “What’s there to be embarrassed about?” “I’d be embarrassed for him.”
Zhang Jiayu laughed gently.
Dong Putao again thought about the question of her father’s work. The question was entwined in her mind, revolving like a millstone, unceasingly luring her to speak forth, but again in the twinkling of an eye, the chance to speak whirled away, leaving her with an open-mouthed, tongue-tied expression, as if the odor of the foot-washing herbs had nauseated her.
The attendant took off Dong Putao’s socks, took her bare feet and placed them in the wooden bucket. The sudden heat shocked her, and she let out a sharp yelp. The attendant kept apologizing and wanted to add some cold water. Dong Putao tried to calm herself down and focused her attention on testing the water with her feet. She then discovered the temperature wasn’t that high, proceeding to steep both her feet in the water, deeply immersing them. Her body felt refreshed as if it were a blooming flower; in her heart a bee was flying, dazzled by the spring day’s brilliant sun and wild flowers.
The attendant took the feet in her hands and kneaded them like freshly unearthed lotus roots, carefully massaging every part until they were pink. After twenty minutes, her feet were air drying on top of the stool. Zhang Jiayu’s pair of old lotus roots were also out, steaming hot. He was already asleep, his head propped up by a micropellet pillow. There was the rhythmic sound of snoring.
Dong Putao thought that the empty bowl at the back of his head was probably formed by such pillows over time.
Afterwards, her feet were pounded, kneaded, pushed, rubbed, pressed, and pushed for a good while, until the attendant at last stopped. Dong Putao thought they had finished washing, and was just planning to put on her socks, when the attendant again took a foot and placed it in her bosom. And then, as if she were a sculptor preparing to create, her hand grasped a small razor which she then extended toward the toes. When she had finished taking the toe nails one after another and trimming them, Zhang Jiayu still hadn’t wakened.
Dong Putao and Tang Shunzi were dining together. As they casually chatted during the meal, when they came onto the topic of Zhang Jiayu, Tang Shunzhi spared no efforts to praise him, as if praising Zhang Jiayu was a part of his daily life. Dong Putao laboriously nodded her head and expressed agreement, yes, Zhang Jiayu was a cultured leader, and he understood a bit of humor too. That empty bowl floated into her mind. She regretted people always had this or that kind of defect . . . Snoring that loudly in front of so many girls!
Dong Putao had gradually figured out the two men’s different approaches. Tang Shunzhi was always beating the grass to frighten the snakes, Zhang Jiayu, on the other hand, was always guarding the stump waiting for a rabbit. No matter what, she knew their heart’s desire, but they didn’t know hers. Neither had asked about her family situation, only rushed to stuff her mouth full of things, taking her to exercise, all in preparation for the one day when they could devour her healthy body.
Tang Shunzhi suddenly brought up his family. He said he loved his children, loved his family, but didn’t say he loved his wife. He let Dong Putao guess whether he had a lover. When Zhang Jiayu had brought up the subject of lovers, he hadn’t asked Dong Putao to guess but rather told her a true story. At a dinner party, people started to talk about a person not present. Someone said that his body was weak, his spirit lacking, he certainly didn’t have a lover. They hadn’t realized that this certain person was dining next door. The comment was no sooner made when that certain person pushed the door open and entered, ferociously yelling, who says I don’t have a lover?
Dong Putao understood what Zhang Jiayu meant: as far as men are concerned, not having a lover is a kind of disgrace.
So she looked at Tang Shunzhi, as though he was a favorite dish, then spoke: “You do.”
Dong Putao’s answer was quite unexpected. This had been a private matter, but the girl had seen through it in short order. On the other hand because it was no longer secret, he felt as though he had been relieved of a heavy burden. He seemed as happy as he was grieved. He offered a piece of duck liver to Dong Putao, saying it was popular right now to eat duck liver, cold and dressed with sauce, braised or fried with rice, it was all pretty good. Only after Dong Putao finished eating it, did he continue with the story of his lover. The story was too long, and Dong Putao didn’t remember the beginning and subsequent development of it. She only knew that the current situation was that he and his lover were still very much in love, even though they only saw each other a couple times each year. They still missed each other terribly. The measures he had taken were to cherish his family, act kindly toward his wife, and earn a lot of money.
Dong Putao saw in Tang Shunzhi’s big mouth a vast, limitless sorrow. At this moment she felt guilty for having concealed her father’s problem; she ought not to think of how to use him. For an anguished person, the most sincere solution was to put forth the troubles of one’s own heart. Dong Putao spoke of her family in Chengdu, how she had continuously sought work for her father, and how everyday her father eagerly awaited her news. Tang Shunzhi asked what her father’s special field was. Dong Putao said benchwork. Tang Shunzhi “ahhed,” expressing regret; his company needed quality talent; 70% were expatriates with advanced degrees from abroad.
“Although . . .” Tang Shunzhi’s pivotal word grabbed Dong Putao’s heart, “To find anybody a job in Guangzhou is not a problem for me.”
“Then I’m counting on you. My father is an honest person.” Dong Putao very sweetly finished speaking, stopping for a few seconds before continuing: “That time you came to my store, you looked just like a ballet dancer, spinning toward me in just a moment, and you didn’t seem fat at all.”
“My feet are small, I wear size 39 shoes. I just got fat last year. Before that there weren’t a few girls who liked me.”
“But there’s no one who likes you now?” Dong Putao hadn’t thought she would be able to this quickly remove the stone pressuring her heart; her heart recovered its vivacity.
“No one. Do you?” Tang Shunzhi mouth stretched open, his teeth small and sharp.
Dong Putao smiled. She would obtain a response to the question of her father’s work before going to bed. So Tang Shunzhi was a person of high morals, she liked that. His attitude also helped her morals. Going to bed was certainly the last resort, and she didn’t want to take it as the only trick available. But Dong Putao didn’t anticipate that things would take a very different turn after dinner.
When she was riding home in Tang Shunzhi’s car, Dong Putao already held a great deal of admiration for him in her heart.
Guangzhou at night was like a deep, deep sea. The outside was very peaceful, the car floating like a boat in the sea. Dong Putao wanted to keep floating out like this into the even deeper sea.
“Ahead is my company. I’m going to go up and change my cell’s battery. How about it? Want to come take a look?”
Tang Shunzhi got out of the car, and Dong Putao trailed after him. After passing a couple password locks, they turned a corner and finally got to the entrance of the CEO’s office. After they went in, Tang Shunzhi turned on all the lights, including the bathroom lights. Dong Putao had never seen this kind of palatial office; she was the picture of bewilderment. When she pushed open the door to the inner suite, she saw a queen-sized bed and elegant furniture. She felt as if she had been splashed with a bucket of cold water; her head cleared and she retreated backward. She saw that Tang Shunzhi was making tea and felt it would be awkward to leave right away. So she sat down on the real leather couch and tried to sip some “highest grade Pu’er tea.”
The question of her father’s work again floated into Dong Putao’s mind. Tang Shunshi’s attitude in the restaurant seemed more dubious now; the admiration she had felt toward him on the road slipped away. A man and a woman alone and face to face . . . the atmosphere had something questionable about it. Dong Putao thought about running away to the outside, but quickly realized this was almost laughable. Only with Tang Shunzhi here would the question of her father’s work “not be a problem.” She believed he wasn’t boasting. Since that’s the way it was, what need was there to be anxious? She mocked herself, drinking down the strange tasting pu’er tea. The tranquil room seemed to have many attentively listening ears.
Tang Shunzhi’s ear was close, no more than a foot away, the dark ear canal so deep that one couldn’t see the bottom. Without prompting, he raised the question of Dong Putao’s father’s work, saying that in a few days it would be taken care of. While he spoke, he extended a finger, brushing away the hair on the side of Dong Putao’s face and tucking it behind her ear. Dong Putao didn’t find Tang Shunzhi mentally unattractive, physically there was still a bit of a hang-up. She wanted to avoid his touch, but she didn’t want to look obvious; but wanting to be unobvious in avoiding it was impossible without avoiding it.
In fact, Dong Putao only shrank from his touch in her mind, her body hadn’t moved at all. She was afraid she would be shrinking away from her father’s work. But she didn’t want Tang Shunzhi to see that the reason she wasn’t hiding was because of her father’s work. So not only had her body not moved, she appeared very much bashful and Tang Shunzhi’s hand smoothly came to rest on the side of her shoulder, He also began to dub his movements: “Putao, the first time you saw me there was a bit . . . of that . . . love at first sight, wasn’t there?”
Tang Shunzhi promised Dong Putao “not to speak of it with anyone,” and said that boasting of scoring with a woman was a disgraceful business. Dong Putao called her father and told him that his job would be taken care of in a few days. She herself also felt as if she had grown wings, the news carrying her high. In the next few days, Tang Shunzhi again took her to his office a couple times in a row to strike the iron while it was hot; he acted as if he had forgotten about her father’s job. Dong Putao imagined that he had made plans and didn’t press him. In the meanwhile, she again met with Zhang Jiayu a couple times. She wanted to encourage a sort of nonsexual feeling between them, in order to give herself another path to resolve her father’s problem. Zhang Jiayu was still waiting at the stump for the rabbit, taking this waiting as a sort of attack. He didn’t stint on money, taking Dong Putao to dine at all kinds of restaurants, and to all kinds of places for feet washing and exercise. One time they went to a bar at Zhujiang River. The bar was too noisy, they couldn’t say anything, or what they said they couldn’t hear: they were a couple of bored people.
Dong Putao almost wanted to end this kind of involvement.
One night at eight or nine o’clock, Dong Putao finished washing up and rushed to watch a Korean soap opera. The male lead, Yan Chengjiu, was refined and smart, and had enchanted her. She really enjoyed this kind of limitless fantasy and happiness. Sometimes she would dream of him an entire night, dream of his deep affection for her. It was at this time Zhang Jiayu called her and asked her to go singing. She was quite unwilling, but Zhang Jiayu was waiting in his car downstairs. Holding the sweet adoration of Yan Chengjiu in her breast, she combed her hair and changed her clothing. As soon as she came downstairs she saw that empty bowl outside the car, walking in circles as he smoked; the car hadn’t been turned off. Dao Lang was singing “The First Snow in 2002.”
Zhang Jiayu took Dong Putao to a dreamlike location. The lights shone dimly, the smell of powder hit the nose, piles upon piles of exposed flesh, faces bursting into smiles like brilliant silver. From among them someone said “General Manager Zhang! Hello! Please follow me!” Dong Putao felt as if she was entering a secret cave of demons and fairies, dark and mysterious. One moment there was a small bridge with flowing water, the next she saw ancient trees with wildly twining roots, on top of which were brilliant red fruits. The demon showing them the way opened a set of thick, heavy doors; inside was chaotic, as if they had just caught Tripitaka.3 The men and the demons were grasping, straddling, their inclined shoulders and entwined thighs twisting and winding indistinctly.
In the midst of the thick smoke and fog, Dong Putao saw Tang Shunzhi, like meat filling pressed between two demons.
She stared dumbly, expressionless. Because there were many things she hadn’t thought of, many things she hadn’t thought of all appearing before her eyes. She didn’t know how to respond. Zhang Jiayu used a toothpick to offer her a piece of fruit. She took it, ate it, but still didn’t have the slightest expression.
The demons’ youth was real, their innocence was an act. Their light make-up made them hardly seem any different from regular girls. Dong Putao naturally was looked upon as one of them. The karaoke was noisy. To be heard, you had to bite your listener’s ear, and when you were biting ears, your listener’s hand brought your waist very close. There was a man who called out, There are some huge tracts of lands in here, nicely hidden. Give it a try, it feels great! A demon’s top was pulled up, her white belly fully exposed.
Dong Putao’s whole body was hot and dry. She felt as if dozens of ants were crawling on her skin.
There was no connection between her and these people. Their huge mouths were laughing, like those of satisfied vampires. In the demons’ den, leaves and branches were wildly trembling, the ground moved and mountains shook.
Her father’s job had not been taken care of, her still-growing brother had nothing better to eat but salted vegetables at school. These people had no right to be this happy, they were entirely enjoying the misfortune of others. Tang Shunzhi acted as if he didn’t know her, acted as if they had never spoken of her father’s work “not being a problem.” His shirt was open, his entire body sunk into the soft sofa.
Dong Putao sat there dumbly for a while, and then, like a leaf blown in the wind, she floated up without a sound and left the cave of demons, passing through the small bridge with flowing water, getting off the elevator, hailing a cab and returning home.
“Putao, last night why did you take off so suddenly? I thought you had gone to the restroom. Treating a client to go singing . . . calling a young lady to accompany us . . . this was a necessary social engagement. Many contracts are signed this way. Last night after you left, General Manager Zhang really lost face. He said he’d go find you, and neither of you came back.” Tang Shunzhi said on the telephone.
Dong Putao had just gotten up. Her stomach was making gurgling sounds and she felt quite sick. Tang Shunzhi seemed to be apologizing, but also seemed to be blaming her. Maybe he was just trying to exonerate himself, but nothing he said sounded right to her. She didn’t utter a sound; she didn’t want to explain herself. That would really be too awkward. As for her father’s work, which would “be taken care of in the next few days,” in the blink of an eye half a month had passed and there hadn’t been the least action.
“These days the company has been very busy but I haven’t forgotten about your father’s work. I’ll find a time to speak with General Manager Zhang. Finding a spot in his company won’t be the least problem. I’ve worked with him seven to eight years, I know him very well.”
In General Manager Zhang’s company, then. Dong Putao thought for a moment and found it amusing and laughed to herself. The bright white sun outside was also laughing. A bird that flew into a bush of camellias was also laughing. And then, that smile on her face disappeared into nowhere, like the bird. She turned solemn and tried hard to think clearly: first she slept with Tang Shunzhi, and then Tang went to Zhang to arrange work for her father. She herself was friendly with Zhang, and Zhang was so very solicitous to her. Yet there she was, taking the long route and approaching Tang. In the end, father was to be placed in Zhang’s company. What was the point of going to Tang in the first place? She felt sure there was a problem here. Why didn’t she go directly to General Manager Zhang, and if necessary, sleep with him?
Dong Putao felt faint. She couldn’t make out just what had happened, but she did come to a very simple conclusion: she had slept with the wrong person.
“So that’s the way it is. General Manager Zhang will certainly guess that we’ve had a relationship. I slept with you but not with him, which implies that you are better than him. This will irritate him, and he will be uncomfortable. If someone’s uncomfortable, why would they do you a favor?” As Dong Putao thought through this line of reasoning, she was as sober as a bird in the morning.
“Buddies like us don’t care about that stuff. General Manager Zhang has a lot of girlfriends. I know him, toward unconquered girls, he will go to great efforts. He’ll take them to restaurants, to teahouses, or to have their feet washed, their bodies massaged . . . Don’t think he’s doing all this because he’s deeply in love.”
“If the man I went after was bedded by my good friend, I wouldn’t be all that comfortable. Don’t say anything to him yet, give me some time to think it over. Perhaps it’s better if I talked to him myself.”
“But whatever you do don’t be in a rush to sleep with him, I really understand his temperament. He wants that feeling of unreachability. You need to think of a way to keep him hanging.” Tang Shunzhi quipped.
Dong Putao felt as if someone had just spit on her. She felt nauseated inside. She hung up the phone and lay in bed for a while. Then she felt something crawling on her face. She touched her face, and it turned out to be tears. Where did the tears come from? It wasn’t until this moment she realized she had been crying. Crying for what? She thought a bit, it seems it was for the sake of her father’s work being at risk. It wasn’t as if she could go find Tang Shunzhi and take back sleeping with him. She wiped dry her tears, felt that now was not the time to cry. There was a large hope in the person of Zhang Jiayu. She had already fostered a friendship with him. This sort of help was as easy as lifting his little finger; surely he would help.
Should she let Tang Shunzhi raise the question or take it up herself? She still couldn’t make up her mind until the afternoon. She faintly felt that the whole thing was a total failure. Tang Shunzhi might tell Zhang Jiayu everything. Zhang Jiayu then wouldn’t come looking for her any more. So when Zhang Jiayu called, Dong Putao was jubilant.
“Dong Putao, I’d like to apologize to you. I shouldn’t have taken you to that kind of place, letting you see men’s vulgar side. I know you don’t work today. Let’s check out the revolving restaurant at the penthouse. I’m downstairs having a smoke while I wait for you. No need to rush.”
Dong Putao slowly put on her clothing, folded her quilt, washed her face, and brushed her teeth. She seemed to be in deep thought, but actually her mind was a messy ball of yarn. She couldn’t get it sorted out at all. She went downstairs in a muddy haze only to see Zhang Jiayu in his exercise clothing, with a baseball cap on his head. He looked as if he had just finished golfing and was in radiant spirits. That empty bowl had disappeared, and Dong Putao was suddenly very happy, as if all of her earlier unhappiness had come from that empty bowl. She complimented Zhang Jiayu, and Zhang Jiayu seemed happy, so the two sat in the car talking and laughing, like a pair of happy birds on a tree branch.
At the revolving restaurant, Dong Putao was looking at Guangzhou City from high above. She watched a long time, then said: “This kind of view of the city is interesting. The closely packed buildings look like a rock forest, the roads like rivers in the forest, the cars are like beetles, and the people are ants.”
“Yes, the scenery in the day and the night are quite unalike; when it rains or something you can’t see at all.” Zhang Jiayu fished out a clump of colorful papers from his bag, “Putao, come on, let’s see how your luck is. Can you scrape out a Toyota?”
“What is this stuff?”
“Society Benefit Lottery tickets. I bought five hundred tickets. If you can scrape out four king of hearts, the prize is a Toyota. If we win we’ll split the prize.”
The lottery tickets were spread over half the table. Zhang Jaiyu pulled out a coin, scraped away one to demonstrate. As for sitting in a western restaurant and scraping out a car, this kind of business, Dong Putao was half believing, half doubting. Still, she calculated: if she won half the lottery, that was at least how much? Seventy or eighty thousand yuan? Her father could stay at Chengdu and not work; he could have a relaxed life. She felt electrocuted for a second by this accounting. Suddenly she had conceived new hope, like fireworks exploding in the night sky. Her heart was inexplicably beating fiercely: if she was able get rid of the deep anxiety of her father’s work this way, that would be too amazing. Her heart was like a sail swelling in the wind. She set about creating this miracle with her own hands. She started purposefully scraping very slowly, like a bettor lingering over his starting cards, her eyes full of swaying kings of hearts. When the ticket’s bottom color was about to be revealed, she was drawn by yet another sort of mysterious excitement, comparable to having caught a glimpse of a partial truth, her whole body and heart were spurred onward by the hope of seeing the whole picture.
But, just like a person climbing a slope. Once he’s reached the top, he discovers that beyond there is only a new slope waiting for him, nothing else gained. She could only continue to climb, her continuous disappointments piled into a heap of used lottery tickets.
She kept at it for a while. Then Dong Putao’s hand became sore, and her heart felt dried up. No longer was she so pious, and she also lost her patience. She sped up, with a contemptuous attitude, as if she were an impatient student, working at the lottery tickets as assignments. Scrape, scrape. Her hands were mechanical, her heart becoming dimmer as if someone had doodled on it.
In the middle of it all, she decided to give up. She rested a bit, and then she picked up a coin and involuntarily started to scrape again. Just like when she first started, at first slow, then speeding up. In the end, her hand was wildly scraping in a nervous cramp, as if she were having an epileptic seizure. She forgot what she herself was doing, and heard Tang Shunzhi say, “I haven’t forgotten the business of your father’s work. I’ll go speak with General Manager Zhang. Getting him into his company, it shouldn’t be a problem.” This time she didn’t think it was funny, and didn’t laugh either; rather, she felt incredibly uncomfortable.
Closely following this, Tang Shunzhi made a joke of it by saying, “Whatever you do, don’t rush to sleep with him. I’m very clear about his temperament, he wants that feeling of unavailability. You need to think of a way to keep him hanging.”
His words were like a ball of sticky spittle, making Dong Putao nauseous. She was certain that Tang Shunzhi had spit a mouthful toward her. Her hands shook violently.
Suddenly, Dong Putao’s hands stopped shaking. She looked directly at Zhang Jiayu and decided that, right now, she was going to discuss with him the question of her father’s work.
1In Mandarin, the words for “general manager” and “understand” are homonyms.
2“Putao” is the Mandarin word for “grape.”
3Tripitaka refers to the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, whose journey to India inspired the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.
Translation of “Xi Hong Yi.” Copyright Sheng Keyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by John Barthelette. All rights reserved.