When I was seventeen, I was very pretty and very skinny. At the time, my father was dabbling in the business of Chinese nightclubs. He does that, dabble I mean, in various impractical business schemes that always fall into one of two categories: boom or bust. Then, in a few years, he gets tired and drops whatever he has been doing in pursuit of something shinier. Such is what happens when you are the first-born son of a wealthy Chinese family. But anyway, nightclubs were his new business of choice when I was a pretty, skinny, 17-year-old.
Being his only child and a girl made me an uncomfortable thing for my father, who subscribes to the boys over girls mindset that I resent. Still, with little choice, he resigned himself to preparing me as best he could to someday take over his business ventures in the overwhelmingly misogynistic Chinese business world. It’s getting better, they say. …Slowly.
So, in the meantime, the Great Idea my father came up with for 17-year-old Heidi was to have me work as an escort in one of his nightclubs. He justified it as an effort to prepare me for the harsh realities of the environment I’ll one day be expected to maneuver. “It’s the best way for you to get a taste of that reality,” he said. “They will never suspect that they should be careful around you. You’ll just be a dumb, pretty girl to get drunk with and they’ll tell you secrets because they love to brag. This way, you can learn,” he said. “It’ll be good for you,” he said. Okay.
I picked number ‘24’ because, in grade school when they’d assign you a number so you could line up in ‘order’ after recess, I was always 24. The manager of the nightclub was more than a decade older than me but still young and raised his eyebrows just slightly when I asked to be twenty-four. I was pretty set on it. I worked Thursday through Sunday nights, the 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, at a nameless club in Beijing. We always knew when an important customer had arrived because the manager would come into the tiny, barren little room that we were kept in and tell us to fix our make-up and brush our hair. Then, we would line-up single file with our numbers pinned to our dresses and march into a private room where we would either be called (by number, of course) or dismissed again. In between customers, we’d retreat back into our little room and smoke cigarettes on the sofa with all the holes in it. The other girls, all very young and very pretty as well, liked to listen to me talk about my life in America until it made them sad. And then they preferred for me to sit quietly and listen to their stories about moving to the city and not being able to find a decent job but still being so damn excited about moving to the city at all.
The rules were these:
- I have to drink if asked to drink. I have to sing if asked to sing. I have to dance if asked to dance.
- I make a flat rate of $100 per customer.
- I have to accept tips, and they always tip.
- I stay until they leave.
- No touching.
I always wanted to be picked, even though it shouldn’t have felt as validating as it did. I liked it when these old, wealthy men would call my number and I would smile coyly. I would smile and go to stand behind them; I would feel like a secret agent.
My dad was right. In China, business and pleasure have a perverse relationship. A lot of negotiations are done at nightclubs, or karaoke clubs, accompanied by skinny, pretty 17-year-old girls and expensive imported alcohol. I imagined their breath would be sour, and it always was. “Drink!” they would say to me and then, quietly, would whisper gleefully in my ear that “this uncle is about to have much more money that that uncle over there.” Oh yeah, they liked for me to call them ‘uncle.’
My manager would stay in the room with us and act as a pseudo-bartender. He made the drinks at the counter, almost always Red Bull-whiskey, and brought them to us. I watched the other girls and these strange old men, like caricatures of the Bad Guys in cartoons, fall inexplicably to drunkenness while I downed glass after glass without a blink. My apparent remarkable tolerance egged them on. “Drink!” they would say, over and over, and by the end of the night stumble, crippled, to their drivers in the neon-lit parking lot. We never talked about it, my manager and me; it was just an unspoken understanding that I would walk sober out of the club night after night.
And so I learned the intricate, twisted ways of the trade. I learned about manipulation between man and man, and how it is no match for the manipulation between alcohol and man, and how that is no match for the manipulation of woman upon man. I learned that to survive as a woman in a patriarchal world, boldness is not always the key. Sometimes, empowerment must be secured discreetly.
Only once did I feel legitimately, horrifyingly threatened. He was 57 and had a lot of money. He was the prize customer, the one who made the other girls primp for an extra fifteen minutes because he tipped in hundreds. And he was very smart. Sitting down, before his first drink, he pulled me not-unkindly by the elbow to be close to him and said, over the din of the club music, “Who are you, little girl? What tricks are you trying to pull?” I said nothing, just looked at him blankly, and then motioned for him to have a drink with me. He grabbed the glass from my hand, switched it with his, and downed it in one go. Then, he smiled wickedly at me with his crooked teeth and I did the same, feeling it burn all the way down. “What do you do,” he asked, calling me ‘little girl’ again. “I dance,” I answered (I did), and he prompted for me to get up and do so. So I danced for this man who seemed to have eyes for no one but me, and he beckoned for the manager to bring him the bottle so that he could pour my drinks. By midnight I was drunk, by one in the morning it had become a struggle to get away from him. He was on me like a wolf. With a good yank, I am in his lap and each effort to get up was met by his cold clammy hands bringing me back. The rest of the night happened in intermittent periods of clarity, punctuated by drunken blackness. There was something about an argument, and a shove, and a broken bottle, and the manager of this nightclub my father owned, who poured me drinks with no alcohol, with his fingers so tight around my upper arm that it hurt. I could hardly see anything because he made me stand behind him but there were punches thrown and angry words of a rich man threatening to take his money elsewhere. Then, there was a hurried rushing of me out of the club and being ushered into a cab that was instructed to take me home. The last thing I remember before falling asleep in the back seat of this taxi was the crooked mouth saying, “I know who your daddy is, little girl.” Saying, “You can’t trick me, little girl.”
The next morning, my father told me that I didn’t have to work at the nightclub anymore. I was very quiet, relieved and humiliated at the same time. I wanted to know if he was mad at me because I had chased away his best customer. I remembered the other sad girls who sat in that little room with me, comparing their sad childhoods to my lovely one, and realized I would never sit with them again. He was quiet too, smoking an entire one of his expensive French cigarettes before exhaling through his nose and leaning luxuriously into the pretty posh white couch in our pretty posh white apartment.
“How do you feel about getting married?” he asked me.
I was seventeen years old; when I thought about getting married I still thought about Disney castles and princess ball gowns. I thought, maybe in another fifteen years. I thought, I would meet him at a coffee shop in San Francisco and he will tell me that he loves the book I’m reading. I thought, he would need to have kind hands and kind eyes and a kind heart. I did not, however, think that I would meet him over dinner at a fancy Beijing restaurant arranged by my parents.
They’d let me pick out what I wanted to wear and I chose my favorite shirt because it had a lot of flowers on it. Taking the Beijing metro alone to the restaurant, however, gave me plenty of time to regret my choice. How stupid, flowers, I thought. You must look like a little girl. Still, the train moved forward with a methodical hum, taking me to my stranger-fiancé.
He sat at a table for two, in the corner of a restaurant situated on the 60th floor of a very tall building. How different he looked, now that I was noticing him, from the manager of my father’s nightclub. He wore a pressed linen shirt and studied his menu intently, not noticing, or refusing to notice, me until I stood a few feet away from him. Then, very quickly, he stood up.
“Hi,” he said.
I laugh nervously and he does as well, pulling my chair out for me and then reclaiming his own. We order good-looking food and eat very little of it.
“Your father and mine are good friends,” he tells me what I already know. “They do business together.”
“Mm,” I respond, taking a quick bite of something I’ve forgotten.
As we both fall to silence, I think to ask him why he always made me drinks with no alcohol.
“You were so sweet, I mean. You seemed so sweet. I didn’t want you to be taken advantage of like all those other girls. You know they meet the customers at the back door of the club and then go sleep with them for money, right?” I nodded and waited for him as he hesitated before saying, “You asked to be number 24. Nobody cares what number they are.”
Our plates, hardly touched, were cleared and dessert was served. Watermelon cut to look like a butterfly. I looked across our too-big table at the man that I will marry and smile at him because I don’t know what else to do.
“Come on,” he says suddenly, as though if he did not say it quickly enough he would lose the courage to. “Let me take you somewhere better.”
The two of us take a nighttime cab to Houhai Lake and he starts talking more and more as we walk beside the water reflecting the red and yellow bar signs on its shores. On the street, we buy lamb kabobs that taste better than our expensive dinner and drink beer from the bottle. He tells me about how he had grown up in the countryside, where the grapes were big as peaches, he swears! His fingers drag through his hair in an endearing, anxious sort of way and I really smile at him, trying to remember memories that were not mine.
“So they want us to get married,” he says, addressing for the first time the precarious circumstances for our so-to-speak date. “They want us to get married,” he repeats, as though trying to convince us both.
“What do you think?” I ask tentatively, unequipped to handle this strangeness.
“Take a trip with me,” he says in lieu of a response. “To Hangzhou.” Hangzhou is a beautiful province in Southeastern China, a city that lives in fables for its remarkable beauty and home to a mythical lake. My mother used to tell me bedtime stories about this lake, about a young boy who saved the life of a snake nymph. The nymph fell in love with the boy and turned herself into a human girl so as to love him properly and they grew old, getting married and having a daughter of their own. Buddha, however, could not allow a man and a creature to love one another and so she trapped the nymph beneath a tower in the middle of the vast, still waters of the lake. The nymph would not be released until the waters of Xihou ran dry. For the rest of their lives, both the man and his daughter tried to bail the lake dry with bowlfuls of water in order to save wife and mother, but to no avail.
I agree hurriedly to his proposition, both of us falling back on momentum to find courage, and his face was split with a grin. He raised his bottle to tap against mine and we drank, out of fear and excitement and in the face of a terrifying potential. We drank to our arranged engagement.
Later, he takes me back to my apartment but does not ask to come in. Instead, we sit on the marble steps at the foot of my towering home and share his last cigarette.
He pinches the cigarette between the pad of his thumb and the top of his middle finger, showing me how. Then, he hands the stub to me and I imitate, securing it between my fingers, ready to send it airborne. “This is how you flick a cigarette,” he teaches me, and I let it fly, the cherry whipping apart from the rest of it into the milky Beijing darkness. Gleefully, I clap and cheer before my fiancé catches my lips in his, our first kiss.
I was engaged for a grand total of a month and a half, when I was pretty and skinny and seventeen, as arranged by my parents who wanted nothing but the best for me. This, however, is not the story of the end but of the near-end, which is usually the best part.
Him and I took a bullet train south, from Beijing to Hangzhou where entire streets are lined by weeping willows and colorful, slanted rooftops. Our hotel room was small but clean, with crisp white sheets and a huge window that let in the morning sunshine and the China summertime humidity. The bathroom, not separated from the bedroom, had a shower with walls of glass and I showered very quickly, hoping the steam on the glass concealed my nakedness from the already-averted gaze of my fiancé.
At dusk, the two of us walk by the fairy tale lake and compare the setting sun on the horizon to the one in the water. We find a place to sit, on the edge of the huge body of water, and dangle our feet in the water like children. We are nervous that the fish will bite our toes.
“I’m much older than you,” he half-sighs. “I’m thirty and you are seventeen.”
“You’re thirty and I am seventeen,” I repeat, mulling over the words. “So what?”
“So what?!” he exclaims but he is laughing. “So… so many things! So you have so much more growing up to do, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. What will your friends say? Don’t you want to meet someone your own age?”
“No,” I tell him. “No, I think this is okay. What am I supposed to be looking for? Somebody to fall in love with? I could fall in love with you.”
“Okay,” he agreed, and took my hand. “Do that, then.”
That night, accompanied by the heady scent of lake water and summertime, I slept with him. He undressed me carefully, like dismantling a bomb, and laughed at all the noises I made. “You’re good at this,” he tells me, and I don’t know if I should beam or if I should hide. Then, creases folded between his eyebrows, he admits that he doesn’t want anybody else to touch me like this.
“They won’t, they won’t,” I assure him, and we resume.
In the morning, we fuck again and this time when I shower I don’t care if he sees me. He watches from the bed, smoking a cigarette and wrapped up in our bright white sheets. When he asks me what I want to do today, I ask if we can climb the mountain with the temple and see the lake from up top. It takes all day for us to hike to the temple and, once there, we are both covered in sweat and struggling for breath. We scrambled to the roof of the temple and I tear my pretty blue dress but I don’t mind. Heaving, we settle in stillness and breathe in great gulps of air suspended above of a canopy of trees and the faraway glint of the lake’s surface. Below us, on the veranda of the temple, the sounds of children running and playing echo eerily.
“Let’s take a picture,” he says and I am astonished. He, who has a religious aversion to taking pictures, asking to do so. I happily take out my camera and we take many, of us on the roof of this Chinese temple and of the faraway lake with the snake nymph still trapped under a tower in the middle, in the deepest part of the water.
“Remember how you said you could fall in love with me?” he asks as I peer keenly through my camera at the misty valleys of the hills all around us, trying to steal away in still photographs this staggering beauty. “Yeah,” I mumble, not entirely paying attention.
“Don’t fall in love with me. Don’t, because, I’m not going to marry you.”
The camera was suddenly very heavy in my hands that it dropped to my lap. I gape at him. “But our parents, and –“
“I don’t care. Even if they cut me off, I don’t care. I’ll go do whatever work I have to do, but I will not marry you.”
“What exactly is so repulsive about me?” I ask and there is a desperate shrillness in my voice that makes me want to retch.
“Nothing,” he says quickly, and then again, “nothing.”
“I told you that I want to do this, I want to marry you,” I insist, already knowing that it won’t do any good. “It will make my parents happy,” I add pointlessly.
“Heidi,” is all he says, but he looks right at me and suddenly I see California, where we could never live if I married him. I see college, which I was expected to give up. I see the faceless boy at a coffee shop in San Francisco who sits down unexpectedly across from me and says, “that’s one of my favorite books, you know? I think Ray Bradbury is brilliant.” I see living as a poor freelance writer for three years in Berlin. And, to my horror, I start to cry.
“What are we going to do?” is all I can think to say.
“We’re going to enjoy the rest of this trip,” he tells me, looking with me into the distance at the telltale lake and letting me cry. “We’re going to have five beautiful days together in this magic land and then I will take you home. You will fly away and I will marry a simple girl who will need me to make her life, not to ruin it. You, on the other hand, will go have great adventures and maybe someday you will have the privilege of falling in love with someone you are not obligated to marry.”
And this, this is the story of the end.
The last character of my ex-fiancé’s Chinese name means ‘to fly.’ Later, long after he had disappeared from me, I will have it tattooed on my ankle as a stupid sort of ode to a man I could have fallen in love with. In the meantime, however, he asks,
“Hey, want to go fly kites in the square?”
We climb excitedly down from the temple and go to fly kites and feed pigeons.
Four years can be a long time. My father has moved on from the Chinese nightclub business to flipping houses in Los Angeles. I am on the brink of graduating with an expensive albeit useless degree. I have moved thousands of miles away from my home and my family. In four years I’ve dated like I’ve chain-smoked and I am neither as pretty nor as skinny as I was when I was seventeen. But these things only make themselves noticeable if you look closely. Four years can be not very long at all.
Next to those four months in Beijing, these four years pale in comparison. Those four months had, in one fell swoop, knocked askew my pink-frilled mindset and thrust me into sleeping days and working nights; into a place where “no touching” had to be a rule; and then, unexpectedly, into an almost-marriage with a man I could have loved. It would be a lie to say I still think often of those four months (I don’t) but it seems that they think often of me and feel the need to remind me, from time to time, lest I forget.
A few weeks ago, I took a trip back to California to visit my family for the holidays. On a Tuesday night, my father told me shortly, through my closed bedroom door, to cancel my plans for the night because he needed to take me to dinner with some business acquaintances. I put expensive perfume on my wrists and let him drive me to Beverly Hills, where my dad opened the door for me for the first time and I followed him into an elevator full of mirrors. I checked my lipstick in my reflection; he checked his watch.
There were two chairs left unoccupied at a huge, round table and I nodded my greetings to the unremarkable faces of old men talking before I sat. They poured me a glass of red wine and I watched it fill, already wanting to go outside for a smoke. The hands that poured my drink were gnarled leather, the nails bit painfully short, and I looked up to meet an ugly man with small eyes and a crooked smile.
“I remember you,” I say without thinking, and feel my father bristle to my immediate right.
“Don’t speak like that to your elders,” he snaps, putting an unfamiliar hand on my shoulder and I bite my tongue. “This uncle works for me,” my father continues, “he has had some great misfortunes in the last few years.”
The man pulls me, not unkindly by the elbow, and says so only I can hear, “I remember you, too.”
Four years can be a long time. In four years, a very wealthy man who made his money off the misfortunes of others fucked with someone more powerful and more sinister than him. In four years, he lost his house and home and had to be employed by, of all people, my father. I am quiet as we eat and pick up, in bits and pieces, the story of his fall from wicked grace. Before the second course, I ask to excuse myself to step outside. On the balcony of the restaurant, I light a Camel and hear the sliding door behind me open and close again.
“I remember you,” the man says again, unnecessarily. “Your boyfriend broke my tooth.” He smiles his crooked smile and I try and see the replaced tooth but cannot. “I knew who your father was the moment I saw you, little girl. You tried to trick me but I knew.”
For a long time, I stood with my back to the Los Angeles city lights and looked at him, letting my cigarette burn without smoking it. Once, he had made me feel very small and very afraid even though I was pretty and skinny and seventeen. Now, I feel huge standing before this little man. With my city behind me, I feel alarmingly more powerful than an ugly, bankrupted old man. Addressing me, he is wasted and pitiful.
“I am not a little girl anymore,” I say finally and he just goes on smiling.
It is damn near impossible to get rid of glitter. The tiny bits of glass get stuck beneath your nails or in the creases of your fingers. In these four years, I did not hear from my ex-fiancé again. What I did know I had gleaned from gossip my father relayed to my mother. He married a woman I do not know last year. I want him to be happy but I still can’t seem to wash the glitter off my hands. Under certain slants of light, what is left of that summer sticks like glitter.
I don’t remember his hands or if they were ‘kind.’ I don’t remember what drink he liked to order at the bar. I don’t remember what his smile looked like. But cigarettes still taste like him. Drunk at a club, when a stranger leers at me, I look for him. Tonight, on the balcony of a tiny one-room apartment I share with no one, I pinch my cigarette between the pad of my thumb and the top of my middle finger, letting it fly, the cherry whipping apart from the rest of it into the anonymous night.