Every day at noon Mr. Wu walked through the back alley, past the stinking ravine and the firecracker salesman and the old temple now used as a kind of flophouse for the farmworkers who came in from the country to these outskirts to sell at the market, and down past the rows of little stores that were mostly barbershops and brothels and pharmacies and little clothing stores and cigarette shops, and found a seat at the little family restaurant, under the great, hard whipping fan sticky with dust from the road, and ordered dishes of pork and potato and whatever fresh vegetable was on display, and sat and watched cartoons and smoked while the food cooked, and the dogs walked by, and the dust rose and fell behind the small trucks and bikes and scooters.
He was in love with the woman at the video-game arcade. She was about his age, in her midforties, and had a daughter in high school. He knew her both from the arcade and from around the neighborhood, as she and her daughter lived just a few doors down from him in an apartment with her sister and her sister’s retarded son. The woman ignored Mr. Wu when they passed each other on the busy road. But when he ran into her in the narrow pathways of the market, she’d smile politely and ask after his health. “Never better,” was the answer he always mumbled. He knew his breath was bad, and because her eyes wandered away so quickly, he knew she had no interest in him.
Mr. Wu dared not visit the local prostitutes. He took a bus into the city and spent the extra money for that bit of privacy. Besides, he thought, it’s better not to know where these girls come from, who else they are working on, and so forth. He was bashful about sex, and insisted on getting underneath the sheets to take off his clothes. During the act he kept his hands placed lightly on the girl’s shoulders and averted his eyes, but did not close them. He had learned somewhere that closing your eyes meant that you were in love. He imagined closing his eyes with the woman from the arcade. He wondered if she had the same kind of body as these prostitutes: soft, scentless, and wan. He thought it was quite standard to hate himself a little after visiting a prostitute, so he was never startled when the thought came to him: I am disgusting. On the bus home, he ate an ice cream and looked out the window, and thought of his woman at the arcade and of what she might be doing at just that moment, and his heart hurt.
He lived alone in the tallest house in the neighborhood. The downstairs neighbors were a young couple with a big, fat baby and a pet sow. The husband made a living collecting bribes for a local councilman. The woman had one flaccid hand that reminded Mr. Wu of a large prawn. He shuddered and gagged whenever he saw it. He felt sorry for the child, held and fed with that twisted, thin, limp, and red-skinned tentacle. The woman from the arcade had small, gentle, bronze-colored hands. Strong and muscled, not bony, and not fat. Just right, he thought. Perfect hands. He went to the arcade at least once a day and stayed for three to four hours at a time, usually in the late evenings. Sometimes he went in the mornings, too, when it was free of children. Days he did not go, he felt sick to his stomach, and his heart growled like a trapped animal, brooding and useless. So he went as often as he could.
The arcade was not really an arcade. It was a room full of computers with games loaded onto them and access to the Internet. He bought a daily pass from the woman. He handed her a large bill so that she would have to make change and he could stand there longer, watching her count the money, feeling her near to him across the counter.
“How are you today, Mr. Wu?” she said. She said this every day.
He mumbled something unintelligible. He never knew what to say around her. Everything he wanted to say was “You are beautiful” and “I’m in love with you.” There was, in his mind, nothing else for him to say.
“Thank you,” he said instead, taking his change and the little card with his log-in information on it.
“Enjoy,” said the woman.
He walked to the computer with the best view of her at the counter. He peered out from over the monitor all evening, watching her greet the teenage boys, take their money, hand them their cards. When there were no customers, she played games on her cell phone. She likes games, he thought. That’s wonderful, so light of heart, so free. He loved the stiff, thick shiftiness of her hair, which she most often wore down and boxy at her shoulders. Her face was tan and shiny, with big cheeks and a small, round nose. Her eyes were small and clear and bright. She wore lipstick and blue eye shadow. Every day she was more beautiful, he thought. He watched her look in her compact. He wondered what she thought when she looked in the mirror, if she knew her own beauty.
One day he got an idea. He would ask for her phone number so that they could be texting pals. He got the idea from a conversation he’d overheard at his lunch spot. Two men were talking about an article they’d read about technology and dating. He thought it was a risk to ask for her number, and knew that asking straight out would give him away. He did not want her to know that he was in love with her. He wanted to divulge that information slowly, in increments, step by step as he wooed her into his arms. Or better yet, he would keep his love for her a secret their entire lives and allow her to think it was she who had seduced him. She the one hopelessly in love, so lucky to have him. He imagined himself across from her at the dinner table, years later. She gazes at him with almost nauseating devotion. He eats his rice straight-backed, unconcerned, secretly enraged with happiness.
He decided he could not do it. Asking for the woman’s cell-phone number was like asking for her hand in marriage. He knew he would be rejected. He went to the arcade and stood in line and paid for his time and smelled her hair and watched her count the money and his heart ached. Her phone was lying on the counter. If only he could snatch it for a moment, he thought. But there was no chance. He took his seat behind the computer and pined. He watched her work. He watched her use her phone. On his way out he saw what he couldn’t believe he had missed before. The arcade had a flyer with a coupon for one free hour of playtime between midnight and six A. M. on the weekdays. The arcade phone number was on it. He took a flyer. He would call the number later. If the woman didn’t answer, he’d know it wasn’t her cell-phone number. But he could pretend to be a policeman, or some higher-up statesperson demanding to speak to the arcade manager. He could say she was in violation of a code, and that he’d need to speak to her immediately. He could call when he knew she wasn’t there. He had a plan. He practiced over and over again what to say.
“This is Lieutenant Liu. Give me the manager.”
“Give me the manager’s direct number.”
But the next morning he went to the arcade and stood in line and paid for his time and watched her fiddle with her earring and make change and his heart nearly broke in half. He was impatient. He went and sat behind a computer in the far corner and called the number on the flyer.
“Wei?” answered the woman.
She had answered on her cell phone.
He nearly jumped for joy. He had her, he felt, in arm’s reach.
“Wei?” he heard again. She was behind the counter, scribbling on a pad, phone to her ear, undisturbed. He waited a few more seconds, then hung up. He quickly e-mailed his brother, who was a military man in Suizhou. He wrote that he’d met the most amazing woman in the world, and that he’d probably make her his wife within a year. Then he wrote, “She is old, and not very pretty.” He wrote that because he knew that it was bad luck to boast.
He left the arcade and made his way down the back alley, past the ravine, toward the restaurant where he would have a special lunch that day. Everything looked so beautiful. The sun, the sky, the dry brown brittle roads. A red banner announcing the opening of a new grocery store lit his heart on fire as he crossed the little footbridge. He bought a pack of the most expensive cigarettes. He bought a can of orange soda and a small bottle of baijiu. At the old temple flophouse he dropped to his knees and said a prayer of thanks for the woman’s cell-phone number.
Now that he had the woman’s cell-phone number, he would send her a text. But he didn’t know how to start off the exchange. “Who’s this?” he considered texting. “I just found your number saved in my phone. But I don’t know who you are?”
But that was no way to begin the romance of his life. He wracked his brain for a good opener.
“I’ve seen you at the arcade.”
“I see you around and think you’re beautiful.”
“I think you’re beautiful and would like to get to know you better.”
“I find you attractive.”
“I like watching you count money.”
“You have nice hair and nice hands,” he thought of texting.
None of these were good openers. He decided to wait until the perfect line struck him, rather than to rush into a sloppy exchange that might trip him up. More than anything in the world, perhaps more than winning her heart, he did not want to appear awkward.
“I will go to the brothel,” said Wu to himself, and went out and walked to the bus and waited.
Now, he knew full well that any normal man in his position would simply ask her out to dinner. But that seemed to him to be the worst possible tactic to employ. If he gave her an opportunity to reject him, he was sure she’d take it. “You have seen my face,” he considered texting.
His downstairs neighbor was also waiting for the bus.
“Brother Wu,” he called him. “What’s your direction?”
“I am going into town to speak with some higher-ups,” lied Wu. “We are working on hiring a cleaning crew for Hu Long Road. It will take some real convincing to allocate more funds for this project. It is not my job, but someone has to speak up.”
“You’re an asset to our community,” said the neighbor. He looked despondent. His wife’s prawn claw must be getting him down, the man thought, at once sympathetic and cruel.
“How is the wife, the baby?” he asked.
“The baby is sick. My wife cannot nurse, and the baby food we give it makes it shit water. I’ve done something to anger the gods,” said the neighbor. He held up his hands, palms up to the sky. Mr. Wu hadn’t been around this sort of superstitious type for a while. He’d forgotten they existed. His own prayer earlier that morning had not really been one of gratitude, but like a child’s birthday wish. He’d wished to one day hold the woman naked in his arms and lay her across a moonlit bed.
“Where are you headed?” Mr. Wu asked his neighbor.
“To the doctor,” he said. “To buy more medicine.”
Mr. Wu had run out of things to say. He looked at his phone, as though already expecting a reply from the woman at the arcade. He still hadn’t thought of what to text her. He thought, Maybe the neighbor knows.
“Tell me, neighbor,” he began. “How did you get your wife to marry you?”
“We sat beside each other in grade school,” the neighbor said simply. “We lived nearby, and our mothers played mah-jongg at night, so we played together, we were friends. We were friends first. And then the rest,” he said. “She has a sick hand, you know.” He looked at Wu through the corners of his eyes.
“I hadn’t noticed,” lied Wu.
“It made her desperate, I think, to settle for any man.”
This gave Mr. Wu an idea.
He turned to the neighbor. “I wish you both the best, and your little boy,” he said.
“The child is a girl,” said the neighbor.
But Wu was not listening. He was thinking of the woman at the arcade. He thought hard on the bus, and performed distractedly with the little prostitute, thinking of what sort of weakness a woman wouldn’t bear to be alone with. To stave off his shame, afterward he took himself to a Western restaurant for dinner, ordered steak, a fresh cabbage salad, a glass of red wine.
He took a taxi home.
He knew what to text the woman at the arcade. He would text, “How does it feel to be a middle-aged divorcée living with your retarded nephew and working in a computer café? Is it everything you ever dreamed?”
He took a long time to type all the letters in Pinyin and to select the right characters in the phone. He read it over and over again until the taxi stopped in front of his door. He pressed send and paid the driver.
He went to the arcade. The woman was not there. He paid for his time and got a computer in the corner, out of sight from anyone else, and sat and played video games, pausing to check his phone every minute or two, until the sun came up.
As he walked home, he stopped in the courtyard of the old PLA camp to watch a group of high schoolers practice their sword postures. They looked very elegant and upright in their pea-green uniforms, he thought. A bird warbled somewhere in a flowering tree. He walked beneath a curved cement archway and through the badminton courts and out through the tall wrought-iron gates and up the road to the morning market under the bridge and bought a bowl of hot dry noodles and brought it home to his apartment and ate it by the open window.
He was awakened by his phone that afternoon. It was a text from the woman.
“Actually, I am a very sad person. I am very lonely and troubled. Who are you?”
He couldn’t believe his attack had produced such a vulnerable, honest reply.
“I am an admirer,” he wrote back. “I think you are beautiful.”
And then he sent another text: “I am in love with you.”
He lay back down and waited for her to text him back. He waited twenty minutes. Then he couldn’t wait any more.
“When I said I was in love with you, I meant I admire you very much. I’d like to get to know you better. But I’m not sure that you’ll be attracted to me.”
Still, that wasn’t good enough.
“I don’t know what type of man you like. What type do you like?”
Now he had made a big mistake. He had said too much. He felt he had ruined everything. He knew he had just ruined his entire life.
“I like a man who isn’t afraid to try new things,” she wrote back.
He did not want to ruin what he had left. He thought carefully of how to reply. But she sent another text.
“Let’s meet,” she wrote. “I want to see what you look like.”
“When?” he wrote back. “I am free anytime.”
“Tonight,” she wrote. “Meet me at the back gate by the market at midnight. I will wear a rose in my hair.”
The man’s heart stopped for a moment, and then started back up again very slowly. He lay back down and caressed himself beneath the sheet. He had not caressed himself in a long time, he realized. He thought of their meeting, her face, the rose, the striped shadows from the iron gate falling across her bosom in the moonlight. He would watch her for a few moments before emerging from the shadows. He would be a long dark figure, he thought. He would be smoking a cigarette. No, that might disgust her. He would keep his hands in his pockets, his chin down. He thought of the American movie Casablanca. He would be like in Casablanca. He would touch her face lightly with the back of his hand. She would blush and turn her face away, but then she would look up at him again, into his eyes. They would fall in love, and he would kiss her. Not a long kiss on the mouth, but small kisses on the cheeks and neck and forehead. Mr. Wu thought long kisses on the mouth were disgusting. When they happened in movies he averted his eyes. The thought kept him from caressing himself any further. He read all her texts again. It was only two o’clock. He dressed and went to the arcade.
The woman at the arcade looked worried and unkempt. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and she wore a stained trench coat over her dress. He tried not to pay attention to her disarray. Once she was his, he could dress her any way he liked.
“How are you, Mr. Wu?” she asked. She barely looked up from her wad of bills.
“How are you?” he replied, searchingly. He put his arm up on the counter, tried to smile. She turned and yelled to one of her employees in the back room, counted out his change, and handed him his card.
“Enjoy,” she said gruffly, and picked up her phone.
He took a computer directly in front of the counter so that if he sat to the side of it and crossed his legs as though he were reading articles online and smoking, he could look at her out of the corner of his eye. He watched her take out her compact and pat down her hair. She took down her ponytail and tried to comb it out with her fingers. It only made her hair look worse. She tied it back up again and drew down the corners of her eyes. She seemed to clean out some gunk from her eyes. Mr. Wu gagged a little and stubbed out his cigarette. He looked at the time. It was three thirty. She powdered her face, and as he watched he noticed that her powdering was a little heavy-handed, that she was powdering a little too quickly, with too much gusto. He thought she looked the wrong color. He thought she looked very strange. Now she took out some rouge and spread it on her wide cheeks. That’s not so bad, he thought. But then she licked her fingers and wiped some of the rouge off. He thought of all the money and cards she’d handled with those fingers. He thought, would I kiss those fingers? He thought of the fingers of the prostitute from the day before, and wondered where they’d been, how much money they’d handled, and what sticky knobs of doors they’d pulled on. Then the woman put on some blue eye shadow and red lipstick. Wu could not help having the thought that the woman looked like a prostitute. She looks worse than a prostitute, he thought. She looks like a madam. He wondered if he still loved her. He took out his phone and reread all her texts again.
“I am very lonely and troubled. Who are you?”
She sounded desperate, he thought.
He had made a grievous mistake, he thought.
He logged off his computer, got up, walked to the counter, and handed her his card.
“Thank you,” she said. He felt sick.
There was a karaoke bar on top of the dry-goods store on the corner. He went up the stairs. The woman there gave him a large beer and a bowl of peanuts. He ate them quickly and drank the beer and looked out the window and smoked and remembered the woman smearing on that greasy lipstick. He imagined her as the manager of a team of teenage prostitutes. He imagined her yelling at one of them for not pleasing a customer. He had a horrible vision. He envisioned the woman from the arcade washing the prostitute’s private parts with the hose from a latrine. He imagined her hand in the prostitute’s private parts. He ordered another beer. He could not believe his own mind. He imagined the woman’s mouth on the prostitute’s private parts. He imagined her cleaning all the little pockets of this prostitute’s private parts with her tongue, using her tongue like a bar of soap. “I like a man who is not afraid of trying new things.” What if these new things were disgusting things like what he was imagining? What if she wanted him to lick her private parts like that? Could he do it? What if she wanted to use the latrine on his hand? And what if she wanted to lick his fingers after she’d used the latrine on his hand? He couldn’t possibly go through with something like that. What if she wanted to clean herself after moving her bowels without toilet paper, lick her fingers and then ask to kiss him on the mouth? He might have no idea that she’d cleaned herself after moving her bowels without toilet paper and licked her fingers. She might want to kiss him tonight, at midnight. His eyes filled with tears. He put out his cigarette.
“Sing a song?” said the woman behind the bar.
But Wu was too disgusted. He went down the stairs and took a walk by the ravine. He imagined the woman from the arcade swimming in the refuse. He imagined her sucking the dirty water into her mouth and then spurting it out like a fountain. I will never kiss that woman on the mouth, he decided. That is one thing I’ll never do.
But he still loved her, he tried to think. I could still love her.
He went back up past the ravine and past the shops and bought a bottle of baijiu and another pack of cigarettes and went and sat on the steps of the temple flophouse and drank and smoked for a while. A dog came and sniffed his leg. He drank and drank and spat and flicked his cigarettes at the passing dogs. “Ha ha ha ha ha,” he cackled. He looked at his watch: five o’clock. He had plenty of time before his date. At the little family restaurant he ate a soup made of mutton and spicy peppers. He shoveled the rice into his mouth like a peasant, let it fall all over his lap and onto the floor. My last day of freedom, he thought. He decided to take a taxi to the city and visit his little prostitute. He bought another bottle of baijiu for the road.
His little prostitute was not at work that day.
“Sorry,” said the fat, gray-haired madam. “We have other nice girls for you.” He looked at the teenagers sitting on the stained couch. They barely lifted their heads from their phones. One of them had stiff shifty hair like the woman at the arcade, but her face was covered in hard little pimples.
“I’ll take the one with the pimples,” he said.
“Wan Fei!” yelled the madam. The girl got up. She was extraordinarily tall, he saw.
“Never mind,” he said. “Just give me the dumbest one you have.”
“Zhu Wenting!” yelled the madam. A fat-faced, pale, short-haired girl got up, eased her phone into the back pocket of her pale yellow jeans. He followed her into the back room and watched her undress in the red light. She had small, hard, pointy breasts. He went over to her and pinched them. She had no reaction.
“Does that hurt?” he asked her.
She pinched his cheek like a little child’s. “Does that hurt?” she asked him.
He found her delightful. He got undressed. Although he was drunk, he was still shocked by his own actions. He reached down and caressed himself while the prostitute walked to the bed and pulled back the sheets. Her bottom was round and dimpled and the color of polished brass.
“Let me kiss you,” he said, and pushed her face down into the pillows.
As he swiveled his tongue around her privates, he fell in love with the woman at the arcade again. He reached down and caressed himself. The prostitute laughed and put her butt in the air.
“Put your finger in it,” she said.
He was aghast.
“In what?” he wanted to ask. But he did not ask. He put his finger in his mouth—he did that—and put it up the prostitute’s bottom. She made a squeaking noise and wriggled and squeezed on his finger and squeaked again.
“Wrong one,” she said.
He was not embarrassed. He put a second finger in there. She made a bigger noise. He pushed them deeper in. He decided he would make love to her this way—in her bottom, with his fingers. This was living, he thought. He reached down and caressed himself as he did it. She wriggled and squealed.
“Be quiet,” he said. He took his fingers out of her bottom and pushed her head into the pillow to muffle her squeaks. That gave him an idea. He squished his fingers between her face and the pillow and hooked them in her mouth. He felt around her mouth for her tongue and did his best to wipe his fingers off on her tongue. Then he went back to making love to her behind with his fingers. He continued to caress himself. He thought of the woman at the arcade.
“Enjoy,” she’d said.
He laughed. The prostitute’s muffled squeals excited him. He took his fingers out of her behind and put them in his mouth. He could not believe what joy he’d brought himself. His eyes filled with tears.
Around eleven forty-five he passed the ravine and stood and took in the moonlight. He felt nervous, and yet very serene and tired. Along the road were just a few cars and a few people and a few cows led on ropes and a few dirty children throwing pop-its at the side of the bridge. He walked toward the road but then stopped abruptly. The woman from the arcade had turned the corner and walked, a rose in her hand, in his direction. They could not possibly walk together to their rendezvous. That would defeat the entire purpose of their meeting, he thought. He hung back and waited for her to pass, then continued on, watching the steadiness of her gait. She twisted off the stem of the rose and began to put it in her hair.
He walked several yards behind her, then watched as she fixed the collar of her coat and smoothed out her skirt as she waited, looking around nervously in the dark for him. She did not look so garish as she did earlier that day in the arcade. She curled the end of a strand of her hair around her finger, then let it go. She looked beautiful. It was almost just as he’d imagined, only the striped shadows of the iron bars did not fall across her bosom, for she was standing on the wrong side of the gate. The faint light that was cast down on her was from the neon sign across the road. It made her look intelligent, he thought, wise, savvy, in a way.
He was not sure he could approach her.
He decided to send her a text.
“Go stand behind the gates. I will stand under the neon sign. If you like me, clap your hands. If you don’t, whistle.”
He took a deep breath and lit a cigarette and went and stood in the light. He looked at his phone, then up, looking straight in her direction. He turned to the side, to the back, then to the front again. He waited for a clap, a whistle, but heard nothing. He waited five minutes. He had his answer.
Mr. Wu went back down the road and bought an armful of fireworks and took them up to the karaoke bar over the dry-goods store and up onto the roof and started sending them off into the ravine. They made a delightful wheezing and whipping noise before they exploded. He watched the white and green and red and yellow lights fizzle out and extinguish in the dirty ravine sludge. He decided to send one higher up into the sky. It sailed over the ravine and hit the banner announcing the opening of the new supermarket. The banner lit on fire. He quickly ducked back into the doorway and went down into the bar, said good night, and stumbled down into the road. He walked home under the burning banner and down the dark and quiet road, pausing now and then to raise his arms in victory.
Love what you've read? Subscribe to The Paris Review.
August Kleinzahler, The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay
George Seferis, Helen
Jason Zuzga, Liquid Courage