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Chapter One: encounter with my lover

Well, there's a wide wide world of noble causes

And lovely landscapes to discover

But all I really want to do right now

Is find another lover!

--Joni Mitchell

My name is Nikki but my friends all call me Coco after Coco Chanel, a French lady who lived to be almost ninety. She's my idol, after Henry Miller. Every morning when I open my eyes I wonder what I can do to make myself famous. It's become my ambition, almost my raison d'être, to burst upon the city like fireworks.

This has a lot to do with the fact that I live in Shanghai. A mystical fog envelops the city, mixed with continual rumors and an air of superiority, a hangover from the time of the shili yangchang, the foreign concessions. This hint of smugness affects me: I both love it and hate it.

Anyway, I'm just twenty-five, and a year ago I published a collection of short stories that didn't make any money but got me attention. (Male readers sent me letters enclosing erotic photos.) Three months ago I left my job as a magazine journalist, and now I'm a bare-legged, miniskirted waitress at a joint called the Green Stalk Café.

There was a tall, handsome young man, a regular at the Green Stalk, who would stay for hours drinking coffee and reading his book. I liked to watch his changes of expression, his every move. He seemed to know I was watching him, but he never said a word.

Until, that is, the day he gave me a note that said "I love you," along with his name and address.

Born in the Year of the Rabbit, and a year younger than me, this man enchanted me. It's hard to put a finger on what made him so good looking in my eyes, but it had something to do with his air of world-weariness and his thirst for love.

On the surface we're two utterly different types. I'm full of energy and ambition and see the world as a ripe fruit just waiting to be eaten. He is introspective and romantic, and for him life is a cake laced with arsenic -- every bite poisons him a little more. But our differences only increased our mutual attraction, like the inseparable north and south magnetic poles. We rapidly fell in love.

Not long after we met, he told me a family secret. His mother was living in a small town in Spain, with a local man, running a Chinese restaurant. It seems you can make a lot of money in Spain by selling lobster and wonton.

His father had died young, suddenly, out there, less than a month after going to Spain to visit his mother. The death certificate said "myocardial infarction," and his ashes were flown home in a McDonnell Douglas jet. Tian Tian still remembered that sunny day, and how his tiny grandmother, his father's mother, cried, tears streaming down her wrinkled face like water dripping off a wet rag.

"Grandmother was convinced it was murder. My dad didn't have any history of heart disease; she said my mother killed him. That she had another man over there, and they plotted it together."

Staring at me with a strange look in his eyes, Tian Tian said, "Can you believe it? I still can't work it out. Maybe Grandmother was right. But whatever -- Mother sends me a lot of money every year to live on."

He watched me in silence. His strange story grabbed me immediately, because I'm drawn to tragedy and intrigue. When I was studying Chinese at Fudan University in Shanghai, I'd wanted to become a writer of really exciting thrillers: evil omen, conspiracy, dagger, lust, poison, madness, and moonlight were all words that sprang readily to my mind. Looking tenderly into his fragile, beautiful face, I understood the root of Tian Tian's sadness.

"Death's shadow only fades little by little as time passes. There will never be more than a thin glass barrier between your present and the wreckage of your past," I told him.

His eyes grew wet, and he clenched his hands tightly. "But I've found you and decided to put my faith in you," he said. "Don't stay with me just out of curiosity, but don't leave me straightaway."

I moved into Tian Tian's place, a big three-bedroom apartment on the western outskirts of the city. He had decorated the living room simply and comfortably, with a sectional fabric sofa from Ikea along one wall and a Strauss piano. Above the piano hung his self-portrait, in which his head looked as if he'd just surfaced from a pool.

To be honest, I didn't much like the area. Almost all the roads were full of potholes and were lined on both sides with cramped, shabby houses, peeling billboards, and reeking piles of rubbish. There was a public phone box that leaked like the Titanic whenever it rained. Looking out of the window, I couldn't see a single green tree or smartly dressed person or a clear patch of sky. It was not a place where I was able to see the future.

Tian Tian always said that the future is a trap set right in the middle of your brain.

For a while after his father died, Tian Tian lost the power of speech. Then he dropped out of high school in his first year. His lonely childhood had already turned him into a nihilist. His aversion to the outside world meant he spent half his life in bed: reading, watching videos, smoking, musing on the pros and cons of life versus death, the spirit versus flesh, calling premium phone lines, playing computer games, and sleeping. The rest of the time he painted, walked with me, ate, shopped, browsed in book and record shops, sat in cafes, or went to the bank. When he needed money, he would go to the post office and send letters in beautiful blue envelopes to his mother.

He seldom visited his grandmother. He had moved out of her house when it became a nightmare. She had sunk into a permanent state of delirium, fixated on that "murder" in Spain. Her heart was broken, her face ravaged and her spirit gone, but she wouldn't die. She still lives in a western-style house in the city now, fuming with anger, cursing her destiny and her daughter-in-law.

Saturday. Clear weather. Pleasant indoor temperature. At exactly 8:30 a.m. I wake up, and beside me, Tian Tian opens his eyes. We look at each other for a second, then begin to kiss silently. Our early morning kisses are tender, affectionate, smooth as little fishes wriggling in water. This is the compulsory start to our day -- and the sole channel of sexual expression between us.

Tian Tian just couldn't handle sex. I'm not sure if it was related to the tragedy that had caused his mental problems, but I remember the first time I held him in bed. When I discovered he was impotent, I was devastated, so much so that I didn't know if I could stay with him. Ever since college I had seen sex as a basic necessity (although I've since changed my mind about this).

Unable to enter me, he stared at me, speechless, his whole body in a cold sweat. It was his first time with a woman in all his twenty-four years.

In the male world, being able to perform sex normally is as important as life itself, and any shortcoming causes unbearable pain. He cried, and so did I. For the rest of the night we kissed, touched, and murmured to one another. I soon came to adore his sweet kiss and gentle touch. Kissing with the tip of the tongue feels like ice cream melting. It was he who taught me that a kiss has a soul and colors all its own.

He was kind, loving, and trusting as a dolphin. His temperament was what captured my wild heart. What he couldn't give me -- sharp cries or explosive pleasure, sexual pride or orgasm -- lost significance.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera gives a classic definition of love: "Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)."

At the beginning of my time with Tian Tian, I had no idea that I would experience this for myself, until a series of events and the appearance of another man gave me the chance to understand it.
n
At nine o'clock we got up, and he got into the huge bathtub while I smoked my first Mild Seven cigarette. In the tiny kitchen I made corn congee, eggs, and milk. With the golden sunlight dripping outside the window like melted honey, summer mornings always seemed poetic. I felt totally relaxed, listening to the sound of water gushing in the bathroom.

"Will you come to the Green Stalk Café with me?" I asked, taking a big glass of milk into the steam-swirled bathroom. Tian Tian's eyes were closed, and he gave a long yawn, looking like a fish.

"Coco, I've got an idea," he said in a low voice.

"What idea?" I brought the milk right to him, but he didn't take it in his hand, just leaned forward and sipped a little.

"Why don't you give up your job at the café?"

"Then what would I do?"

"We've enough money not to have to work all the time. You could write your novel."

It turned out he had been brewing this idea for some time, that he wanted me to write a novel that would take the literary world by storm. "There's nothing worth reading in the bookshops these days, just empty stories," he said.

"Okay," I said, "but not right now. I want to work a bit longer. You sometimes meet interesting people in a café."

"Whatever," he mumbled. This was his pet phrase, meaning he had heard and taken in the comment but had no response.

We ate breakfast together, then I dressed and put on my makeup and wandered elegantly around the room until I finally found my favorite leopard-spotted handbag. Sitting on the sofa, book in hand, he glanced up as I left. "I'll call you," he said.

This is the city at rush hour: All sorts of vehicles and pedestrians, all their invisible desires and countless secrets, merge with the flow like rapids plunging through a deep gorge. The sun shines down on the street, hemmed in on both sides by skyscrapers -- the mad creations of humans -- towering between sky and earth. The petty details of daily life are like dust suspended in the air. They are a monotonous theme of our materialistic age.

Copyright © 1999 by Zhou Weihui

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