The next morning the sky was clear.
We had been waiting for a clear sky since leaving Beijing two days ago. On a whim we had come out to this seaside town, after talking vaguely about “getting out”--out of Beijing’s colossal, traffic-jammed arteries, that is, where a grey slosh plugged the sky shut. Someone needs to drain this place, Noel said, and that was when we first thought of Minglao and the possibility of catching a glimpse of blue sky out here by the shore. It seemed sensible enough, and we booked tickets for the ten-hour train ride that same evening.
What are you going to do in Minglao? Lian Li inquired, when I dropped by his basement apartment in a tiny alley behind Beijing's Nr. 6 Hospital. He declared it was a ridiculous idea. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to leave the capital to spend New Year’s Eve in a second-rate resort town. We were looking for the sky, I explained. He shook his head. Ten hours each way? To look for the sky? He said he would call me there, so that I could talk to someone civilized. We’re just looking for a breath of fresh air, I said, and he nodded and then walked me back to the hospital, so I wouldn’t get lost in the maze of lanes.
But we didn’t find much clarity out at the seaside, Noel and I, on the contrary. Everything grew hazier, cloudier. It started already in the taxi, the smell of it so bestial that we sat hunched in the backseat, thick scarves pressed to our faces. Noel’s girlfriend rang and he talked intently for several minutes, contorting his long torso this way and that to keep the reception from dropping. They chatted about the trip, as if there was nothing strange about him leaving Beijing to celebrate New Year’s Eve with another woman. He made it sound innocuous and perfectly sensible, like a school outing.
When he finished we sat in silence, knocked about the back seat as the taxi swerved into the concrete square of the train station, nearly crashing into a van. The giant station buzzed and throbbed, despite the late hour, and Noel went hunting for a seat in the crowded hall. He snatched two spots at the far end of a tightly packed row, opposite the electronic information panel, its black canvas bleeding red and yellow characters. I stared at it, huddled beneath my bags for warmth, trying to extract meaning, but the characters slid off my unreceptive brain. I dozed off, then woke each time the gnarled Ayi beside me let out a burp. Noel, on my left, sat awake and aloof, surveying the stacks of bandaged luggage scattered about the floor. I could feel his finely honed sense of order recoil instinctively, and a sudden bolt of insight made me understand that, perhaps, that was the quality I most coveted about Noel--his capacity for order.
A low rumble rolled through the station and the crowd heaved into motion. The current of bodies pulled us off our seats toward the gates. At a narrow checkpoint two surly guards barked into megaphones, spitting anger at people stalling the flow, trying to shove fridge-sized bags through the turnstiles. All around us travelers scurried scurried through the dank unlit tunnel, eager to reach the bright warmth of the train. Noel sprinted ahead, up the stairs into the wet night. He immediately homed in on our compartment, then rushed back to pull me from the mass of people spilling out of the tunnel. I experienced a pang of relief at his show of solicitude, a rare blip of empathy in an overpopulated country busy with its own destiny.
The train revealed itself a surprise. I marveled at the neat berths, spotless windows and the neutral odor of plastic. I can’t believe this train, I exclaimed, but Noel had already climbed up to the top berth and, legs dangling, was organizing and compartmentalizing his travel inventory. Trains used to be dumps, I resumed, peeling an orange and briefly pausing to inhale its pungent aroma. Worse than the public toilets in Beihai Park. Always crammed with people. The trains, I mean.
Noel rappelled down the ladder and settled on a folding seat opposite me. He whipped out his pocket knife and carved up an apple with eerie precision. A few travelers nearby--migrants and business men mostly--gathered near us to gaze with keen interest at this display of skill, then scrutinized Noel as he ate his apple. At the lines of his face, so linear his expression always verged on insolence. At the slim surgeon fingers, the fit lean body. They studied his Northface backpack and Timberland boots, searching for clues to his efficiency. What are they looking at, Noel grumbled. He didn’t like making a spectacle of himself. He hated mistakes in general, and hated making them in particular, especially in public, and the care that he lavished on preventing them sharply contrasted with my ability to shrug off mine. I wondered, as another flash of insight gripped me, if I was a potentially huge mistake he was determined not to make?
Meanwhile Noel fidgeted in his fold-down seat, trying to pry the watching eyes loose, but by now he was curiosity fodder for the entire car. Until he fled back up the ladder to cower in the protective dark. I yawned, unfazed by the stares that now shifted toward me, and pressed my face against the cold window. So where’s the sky Noel? I called up sheepishly, but he stayed silent. Bored, I followed him up, negotiating the cramped space with difficulty, even though I was a good bit shorter and more flexible than Noel. I fumbled in the dark, yanking and pulling at the sleeping bag, two sheets sown together, and promptly ripped the seam. Noel laughed, his head turned my way, then the mood altered again, and we lay in a darkness rhythmically pierced by shafts of light, spending our first night together on separate beds.
The second time things got muddled was the next morning at the hotel. We stumbled out of the train into a shabby daybreak. The air on my face had the quality of damp cobwebs and I threw Noel an accusing look. He ignored me, zigzagging through the crush of locals on the platform, his nose buried in a map that flapped in the wind. Noel's Mandarin was rudimentary and since he detested appearing even remotely incompetent, I ended up negotiating our way to the hotel and juggling the delicate issue of our “rooms”. Unlike us, the hotel clerk didn’t have his perception trapped in a cognitive fog, and when faced with a couple asking for a room, immediately exhibited unshakable common sense. A man, a woman, two big noses, they must be together, ran his conclusion, and grinning widely he pitched a “happy suite for excellent couple”. What about the beds, I ventured hesitantly. The beds? The clerk's eyes bulged. Fault lines of anxiety cracked through his equanimity. The beds? he repeated. Yes, I said lowering my voice, how many beds are in the room? The clerk nodded politely. One? An embarrassed smile. Two? The clerk smiled and nodded again. At a loss I turned to Noel, but he was leaning against the reception desk, engrossed in the swirl of veins bleeding across the fake marble top. Ah, ah, ah, the clerk croaked suddenly with eager nods. Two beds! he shouted, separate! Yes! Very separate! Yes! No problems! I turned to Noel and asked, what do you think, but he brushed off the question, and hurriedly replied, yes, fine.
The jealous ring of the phone continued to throw static between us. It rang during breakfast, as we chewed on a selection of gooey pastry, it rang during an absorbed stroll through one of the colonial villas, which, along with a profitable beer industry, the Germans had imported and then abandoned. And it rang again in the afternoon, interrupting a discussion about cultural assimilation as sharp as the spiced meat we were gorging on. It seemed Noel spoke to her all the time then, but he rarely spoke of her, because even though she now accompanied us on our quest for meteorological clarity, it felt more and more hazardous to mention her. By the third call, Noel had grown glum and moody, annoyed at the absent sun and the scarcity of options for celebrating the looming New Year. He pointed at the sea, visible from the villa-speckled hilltop, and suggested we descend to the park, a green expanse that stretched into view below, square and nondescript, cut through with lonely paths. I shrugged, wary of his prickly mood, and then grew irritated myself, annoyed that I should obligingly tiptoe around him and his girlfriend-induced churlishness. In the taxi I parodied the driver, wringing an appreciative laugh from Noel, a laugh that briefly loosened the tight lines of his face, undocked the sharp triangle of his nose from the stark parallel of his lips.
The taxi deposited us at the edge of the water, a stew of flat grays and blues, without a ripple. Behind us, on a vast ring of concrete, disoriented figures strolled in listless loops. Do you like them? I asked Noel, not really interested in an answer, but itching to shatter the accumulated monotony of park, weather and water. He was scraping invisible characters on the concrete with a stick he had brought down from the hillside. Who? he asked then, the Chinese? I nodded at the two human specks moving along the promenade. Noel considered, his green eyes boring into the concrete. Yes, I like them, he said. Why? I asked. I think they’re interesting. What makes them interesting? I insisted. He rolled his eyes, but I knew a part of him liked to be challenged, liked to have the neatly labeled categories of his worldview re-examined, even rearranged, and that he should get this challenge from me was by now fairly routine. The way they cope with history, he said, with everything around them changing...And you? I kicked a pebble, doggedly silent, but he asked louder, And you? I gazed out at the sea. I think not speaking the language is very convenient, I said. What do you mean? He sounded puzzled. I recounted a recent experience, one which had since kept bothering me: A few weeks ago I went to a fancy restaurant with some Chinese colleagues. We were waiting for the meal to be served. Usual crowd, mostly corporate types, a few expats. My colleagues are used to me by now, so they talk freely, and they were chatting away, I don’t remember about what, when suddenly this clatter fills the room. And one of my colleagues snickers and whispers to the others, forgetting I was sitting next to him: there goes another stupid European dropping a chopstick.
I shrugged and we set out to wander about the park, one of many new parks engineered as a benchmark of the country’s success. At the edge of it, where the clipped lawn hit the surviving bunkers of communist housing, I came to a halt, chilled and tired, and searched for Noel who I thought was trailing behind, but he suddenly surfaced on the path in front of me. His eyes locked mine in place as he came closer, gained speed, until he was hurtling toward me on a straight line of collision. He wants to kiss me. The realization careened into my brain fully formed, hung there in suspense, as Noel came shooting down the asphalt, arms twitching at his sides, as if ready to be flung around me, and just when I told myself, almost dizzy, he is really going to do it, he came to a sudden stop, inches from my face. Let’s eat? he said, breathing rapidly, but without missing a beat, his thoughts shut airtight behind blank eyes.
When we left the hotel at dinner time, the clerk waved and bowed, and hollered, beds good, yes? across the lobby, sending Noel scooting into the street. And that’s when things got knotty for the third time, on the evening of New Year’s Eve, when the attractive owner of the “Tasty Sea Paradise of Minglao” set her sights and the full battalion of her charms on Noel. At first we didn’t notice her, absorbed as we were by the sight of our dinner wriggling and crawling around us. A battery of locals had--after much head scratching, conferring and smiles of embarrassment--agreed that among Minglao’s foreigner-proof attractions the “sea paradise” was tebie hao--especially good--but also hen tebie: very special. And tebie it was. The “Paradise” was full of sluggish crustaceans packed in brightly lit water tanks, lining the floors and stacked high against the walls. What’s wrong? I asked, when Noel snapped to a surprised stop in the entrance. Then I caught sight of the piled-up seafood stirring in tanks, claws and jutting hairs dragging lazily across flimsy sand bottoms. Are you sure this is a restaurant? I whispered to Noel, and that was when she came into view, hovering still and alert at the fringe of the room, lips a severe red, sleek ebony bun nestled in the nape of her long neck.
A waiter hustled over, dragging his shoes like a pair of recalcitrant hostages, bellowing This way, please! This way! Brimming with excitement, he welcomed us to "the fastest-growing country in the world" and led us with great ceremony past endless rows of crustaceans into the crowded dining hall. We’re the evening attraction, Noel hissed, cheeks aflame. Eyes and voices surged to snatch a glimpse of the Europeans being escorted to the epicenter of the room. We sat down, waiting for the curiosity to subside, when a sudden blast of music left us momentarily deaf. They have a band, Noel yelled, pointing past my shoulder to the scraggly singer wailing the lachrymose chords of a pop song, eyes closed, shoulder-length hair brushing a set of bony shoulders. Between us, on the plastic-decked table, Noel's phone gleamed with silent menace. Still, we bantered weakly over heaps of maimed, half-eaten shellfish, but our efforts fooled no one, certainly not the astute owner of the "Sea Paradise", who set out to puncture our seashore charade with the accurate, if crude intuition of the casual observer. Her entry into our dinner was as regimented as a government-run television extravaganza. She delayed it for an hour, but when she finally sashayed toward us, silk robe billowing out dramatically behind her, she immediately opened fire.
So very nice boyfriend you have, she remarked, and with a single, precise flap of her robe, induced Noel to offer her a chair. She kept her eyes firmly on Noel and her back to me, as she chatted, head expertly tilted sideways. I was left to stare at her smooth bun and milky nape, when she abruptly whirled around, the sugary smile on her lips dissolved into blunt hostility. We are just friends, I stammered, confidence waning under the siege of her contempt. Is this all you are capable of, her mocking eyebrows asked, and seeing that I posed no threat, she proceeded to breezily dispose of Noel’s faraway girlfriend. She deplored so much distance put between love, and so much faith put in silly technology, declaring email and mobile phones heartless substitutes that conveyed nothing and covered up everything. It’s not good to trust in machines, she said, patting Noel who answered with a vacuous grin. Machines cannot help the loneliness, she sighed and then pointed out that he was, after all, traveling with another woman. Your...friend, she is very sad-looking, yes? she added in dulcet tones, nodding in my direction, eviscerating me with her eyes. Noel predictably stayed silent, stared in consternation at his phone, which now refused to ring, and I stared angrily at a chipped nail on my finger and gritted my teeth. She was like a battering ram, her curious absence of self-consciousness defusing every obstacle, despite stilted English, ransacked teeth, and rampant provincialism. After titillating Noel with tales of her prowess as a cutthroat business woman, she followed up with flirtatious belligerence. You have most beautiful eye, she cooed, so green, so --how I say--so fresh! Like wet fish! She caught my smirk and quickly corrected herself: like water of the sea! So crystal clear, the water of sea, yes? I drummed with frozen fingers on my glass, half-listening to the endless little anecdotes she told about herself, and finally, fed up, rose and excused myself.
In the frigid restroom my fighting instincts revived somewhat, and I raged at the empty paper roll and managed to crack the toilet lid, after smashing it shut repeatedly. By the time I got back, a dab of gloss on my blue-tinged lips, the frizzy hair finger-brushed, the bun’s hand, like that of a greedy empress, lay plastered across Noel’s thigh, and her lips were pegged to his ear. I’m sorry, I interrupted, flashing a smile that showed off my intact teeth, I think we have to leave. I am feeling sick. The bun raised her severely plucked eyebrows. Noel sputtered and coughed and checked his watch. Already? he asked, more confused than upset, but for once I experienced radiant clarity. I rubbed my forehead and looked faint, and Noel stirred at last, a hint of worry in his eyes. The bun grudgingly unglued her hand from his thigh. I hope it’s not food poisoning, I sighed, snapping my purse shut and waving for the bill. You not eat anything, maybe that is why you feel sick, the bun replied, smile barbed with animosity. But this time I held her gaze, and after a moment she sneered through dilapidated teeth and crossed her arms in a sulky concession of defeat. Throughout, Noel acted docile, as if he'd just woken up, and quietly followed me out. At the door the bun overtook us, shimmied ahead, expertly flicking her robe like so many slaps to my face. Next time, she said one intimate hand on Noel, you come visit with wonderful girlfriend yes?
We slipped into the night, our footsteps resonating through the hollow town. She was something else, Noel mused, and I acknowledged, now that he was safely out her grasp, that she was quite something. Ambitious, I agreed, like all of them. What is it with this us versus them you have going on, Noel quipped, then gripped my arm. What now? I protested, and he pointed at his watch. It’s late, it’s almost midnight, I want to go somewhere and celebrate! But Minglao was drained of life, all it served up was a couple of hotel bars with potbellied men drinking to another year of unpredictability. At five minutes to midnight we stumbled into what looked like a disco. A scrawny deejay rallied half a dozen teenagers to a last dance. Midnight arrived without a countdown, and Noel and I kissed chastely on the cheeks. His arm briefly lingered around my shoulder, I felt its weight, his jacket sleeve brushed my cheek, then his hand withdrew to embrace the cold metal of his urgently blinking mobile phone. He went outside to talk to her in the freezing night, and I lit a left-over cigarette in cranky disregard for the newborn year. Then my phone beeped and blinked in its turn, it was Lian Li on the line, but the music roared and I couldn't hear a word he said. I went outside to talk to him, and there we stood Noel and I, together on New Year's Eve, celebrating on separate phones.
Let’s go back, he mouthed over a pop song, the green of his eyes dulled with fatigue. The cold was sobering. We hurried back to the plush silence of our hotel room and watched the rest of the world drink and dance on CNN. The rest of the world looked exciting and fresh, and waved to us in a rainbow of colors. It doesn’t feel like we’re in the fastest-growing country in the world, Noel remarked, and I knew he was matching the rich hues on the screen against the colorless reality beyond our hotel window. It’s television, I said sleepily, and he replied, it’s damned good television then, and I said nothing, too spent to examine why life should look more colorful in countries with stagnating growth. I fell asleep on my bed, fully clothed, and after a long time, hours it seemed, I heard words, I heard Noel call my name, Frederique, in a low voice. Through the jitter of my lashes the hovering figure of Noel assembled, his body poised in the gap between our two beds, behind him the flickering screen of the television. Someone was dropping the ball on New York. Frederique, he said again, tentatively, or I thought he did, because then the ball dropped and the crowd burst into cheers, and I wasn’t sure, who had said what, and being in doubt I held my breath and lay motionless. The crowds went on cheering. And then with a fizz everything went quiet. A gulp of black swallowed the bucket of colors that had poured from the screen onto my closed eyelids, glowing there in a patchy carousel. In the absence of noise that followed, I could hear Noel’s steps brush softly away, retreating to the safety of our status quo.
The next day the sky was clear.
Let’s go to the beach, Noel suggested. We were lolling around on the teal armchairs, letting the streaming sunlight inject heat into our limbs, grease our blood flow. He pointed at the stretch of sand that snaked its way along the shore and vanished in the bulge of our hotel curtain. A smattering of voices blew in through the open window. We flitted off our spots into the first day of the New Year. There were a million Chinese on the beach. Noel planted himself at the edge of the water, tall as a lighthouse, and instantly a clot of beach goers surrounded him. The scene had something laughable. I watched them point up at Noel in amazement, elbowing each other, but soon I got restless and turned to the spectacle of the teeming winter beach.
A circle of elderly men played volleyball in striking, orderly fashion, positioned at equidistance from each other, volleying the ball with delicate restraint. You know, I’ve never seen a Chinese on the beach before, Noel told me after I withdrew from the game I had unsettled with my overly aggressive serve. I didn’t know they liked going to the beach? He looked at me quizzically. A mother and her two ribbon-festooned girls walked by. Both girls held dainty pink umbrellas over their faces, already schooled to protect a skin tone that would ease their path to success. They strolled past us, ribbons fluttering, and I admired their eyes, bright with promise, everything about their little beings polished to perfection, as if competing with the crisp, clear blue of the sky. Noel, who had been sitting next to me in the sand, playing with the leather tassels of my handbag, jumped to his feet. The sun glared behind him and I couldn't make out his face, but I heard him ask, Were you awake? and I replied with a startled What? squinting up at the outline of his body. I waited for him to repeat the words, to confirm what I had heard, and when he asked something utterly different, asked, where are we going? my paralysis finally snapped and I dived head-first into the cool, translucent shock of clarity. There was going to be no mistake.
You know, I said to Noel, rising and brushing the sand off my trousers, you know, I said again and crossed my arms, the reason why it's us versus them is because we don't stand a chance. I pointed at the mother fussing with her daughter's dress. We don't know anymore how to take what we want. Noel flushed. I bent down to reach for my bag and noticed one of the girls watching attentively from beneath her lace-hemmed umbrella, which she quickly lowered, but not quickly enough to hide the little, sharp eyes. They stung my face or perhaps it was just the glare of the sun stinging my skin after the long absence of light.