poetry: john tustin – frying potatoes and onions

FRYING POTATOES AND ONIONS

I woke up and coughed my disease into the sink
And then I pissed and brushed my teeth.

It was when I started frying potatoes and onions,
Potatoes I cubed and an onion I sliced in this same room
Where I now sit and type,
That I began to think about you again,
For the third time that morning.
We were in my old apartment and it was after one A.M.
You were hungry and I made you a bacon and egg sandwich
The way my grandmother used to make one for me on Sunday morning
When I stayed at her house as a teenager.
You were so grateful, so filled with happiness
That I was doing something that is really so small
Compared to what I would be willing to do for you
And you kept saying how delicious it was,
Us warm and still vibrating from our hours
Going back and forth in bed.

Every object in the room brings a memory,
Every toss and turn in bed brings flames of fetid anger
Simmering in my stomach.
Now the rain has stopped and the fog is rolling in
But never enough that I cannot still see you
Delighting in every moment with me and steeling yourself
For when time would suspend our moments for another week
Or two.

It feels as if you are as dead as my grandmother
Or my mother
Instead of just gone from me and me alone
And when I think of you all that exists is mourning
Because it is still so new.
The potatoes, the onions, the spices
Clench themselves at the pit of my stomach
And all my eyes can see are things that are not here
And all my heart can feel
Is a phantom pain for the love we had
That you let suffer and die
All for the sake of the congruity
Of a false and moldy
Paradigm.

So I went back to bed,
Coughing again,
And wishing
For another night
Where you were still alive in my life,
Oblivious to your secrets, your artifice,
And the fraud of your extended silence

 

~

find John Tustin here

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POETRY: ROBIN WYATT DUNN – I FOUND YOU IN AMERICA

I found you in America

it’s Methodism
A religion
A thousand years of hate
and love
and middling piano notes

it’s your own philosophy
it’s Jesus
and all of his child rape
it’s the Moon
it’s God

it’s a day in America
with everything that comes with it
it’s your boss
and his dick
it’s the road
and it’s Frisbee

it’s Jesus again!
and it’s more Jesus.

It’s where you live.
Underneath Jesus.
Underneath love.

It’s a ludicrous paradigm of revelations
it’s bad porn.

it’s a long drive
with country relatives

it’s a long whiskey
and a long night

give me the long night
and the long whiskey

and tell me everything’s gonna be fine
Hunter S Thompson fine
heavily armed
and heavily medicated
and beautiful

perkily titted
and innocent
and dancing
under the influence of drugs
one of the dances your ancestors might have done

wearing a chiffon tutu
and making your lips into a delicate “O”

it’s rambunctious
it’s mysterious
it’s Methadone
and Method Acting
it’s love
it’s mine

I give you mine
and you give me yours
on the playground
after the fiesta
after all the suns have set
and all the televisions have been turned off
and the movie theaters have shut down
and New York has been turned off
and Washington is only a rumor

where wolves
and vagrants
and small burger joints
coalesce into beautiful oil paintings
where beggars nod philosophy
and beat poets
scream into the wilderness about their mothers

and I found you.

I found you in America
where I lost you too, the next day

I found you with a gun
and then, I found you with another gun
and then, I found you with my gun.

this is my gun
and this is my gun
and this is my gun, again

holy
mediocre
nearby

the visage of a saint
wearing mushrooms
in Slovakia
or Slovenia
a Sorb
with a locket
and a woman’s voice
and a god’s eyes

language is my gun
a thousand fields
and a thousand nights
Arabian and otherwise
Czechoslovakian
Albanian
Zulu

Give me the Zulu
and give me the House of Saud
Give me all of China
Give me Japan
I’m big in Japan.

Give me Jerusalem
and Palestine
and all places which have two names
or three

give me the cheeseburger
and take me to Turtle Island
where I have Wind in My Hair
And Dances With AssWipes
and all of the Lakota Wisdom
Shining over my Jalopy
With Jake and Fred
and Elmer Fudd
high as kites in a cheap motel
wondering when the sun will set
so we can go skiing

give me the moonlight
and give me the deliverance
I am the deliverance of the moonlight
no longer American, or white
no longer strictly conscious
but subject to the interference of an ancestral voice

speaking from the darkness

the shaman speaks in the ridiculous darkness
a ridiculous darkness which is both real and unreal
humorous and terrifying
where all lovers come to die
and all movies come to be born
in the caveman Saturn of the dawn
around your arms

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POETRY: MICHAEL BARTELT – GRANTS, NM

Grants, NM

I remember coming home in the evening
to a pregnant wife carrying our first.
Worked in the Uranium mines
at the time, about all there was to do
other than pump gas
and paid twice as much,
a no brainer—
made $6 an hour
with a daughter on the way.
Plus, at the gas station,
no one ever told you
you’re an American hero,
you’re helping the Cold War effort,
you’re a patriot.

No one ever told us anything
about the dangers of standing knee high
in water containing uranium run-off,
wearing paper masks among the yellow dust
filling the exhaust fan air, cleaning
the uranium off hopeless air filters—
masks around our necks
because they’d been clogged.

The inspectors from the government
never got out of their trucks, and supervisors
had us barricade the unsafe areas, go back in
when the inspectors went back home
to their wives and kids in clean shirts.

I went home everyday in a yellow-caked shirt.
My wife threw it in with the rest of the laundry.
Our daughter came out with no hips…

And it’s 50 years later, and we won the Cold War,
but my wife and I both have tumors on our lungs.
That’s just the price we pay for National Security.
And it’s no consolation that the Navajos had it worst.

I almost felt what it was like to be Indian
when all my friends died
and the town became a wasteland.
One buddy of mine shot himself—
poor guy said he didn’t wanna be in a diaper.

The biggest tumor of them all is the stockpile
of 4,760 nuclear warheads, the national monument
to injustice, death, cancer, Depends, and terror—
the price we pay for National Security.

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POETRY: Summer Qabazard – LEXAPRO

Lexapro

Trust this young pair of lips

professing what only
a page should learn

I’m a phdiddleedee

Full of    lala

Inhaling your    blahbla

I’ll be your puppet
if you suck it

I’m looking for
Narnia

Wonderland

There’s no pill    for you

Alice?

Lucy?

The names of the body
parts you’re looking for
are irrelevant

I need to do an independent study

in    you

I    can   keep a secret

Orifice hours
are by appointment only

Today began with vaping
and ended  with the professor

I’m property of the graduate department

Return if lost

Run if lost

Oh

Merry, merry Christmas!

Grad school is delicious

Oh

You

May experience loss of  people
May experience loss of  self
May experience loss of  language

Unspeaking of language

No end
No such end
No such thing

We jellyberry
coolshock
against your office wall

And it’s hard to    swallow
with your brains    in me

Doc

With my

young
red
beating
heart

in your mouth

Your lips

pink
with laughter

Doc

It’s hard

to swallow

I glow

a blunt    flinging attention
’til you cranberry

And it’s the lovefest of the year

Coming ’til we’re dust

~

Find Summer Qabazard online.

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FICTION: MAYA ALEXANDRI – …Mad, or Well Advised?…

… Mad, or Well Advised?…

An Excerpt from the Novel, Waiting for Love Child

by: Maya Alexandri

 

Twelve days after I first cheated on my wife with Lisa Contra-Templeschmidt, I was still shaking.  I staggered up the entry-way stairs of Mao’s Boudoir, the private club for business executives managed by Eugene Hicks, the mucilaginous American who’d adjusted vastly better to marrying into a Chinese family than I had.  I could see Eugene’s lanky form, flitting about the hostess standing at the top of the stairs and tickling her left ear with the unlit tip of his cigar.

Swatting him away with an expression both coquettishness and annoyed, the hostess gestured nervously at me.  Eugene squinted down into the stairwell.  His oblong, pointy face bunched all its features too closely together around his nose, creating a rat-like effect that was enhanced by his splayed teeth.  “I should’ve known once Billy showed up that you couldn’t be far behind,” he giggled, holding out his hand.

I shook it and, for lack of any whiskers to pull, slapped him on the back.  “I see you’re living the high life, as always,” I greeted him without pleasure.

“Can’t say the same for you.  What d’you’ve got, Parkinson’s?”

I wouldn’t have thought that Eugene was perceptive enough to realize that I was shaking.  I grimaced, thinking what doctors would eventually name my ailment: Lisa Quakes.  Contra-Templeschmidt Quivers.  Looking to change the subject, I caught sight of Eugene’s frog-ugly wife, enthroned in a Qing-dynasty replica wooden chair in the corner, surveying the club’s patrons and rubbing her distended, pregnant belly.  “Doesn’t your wife mind you using your cigar as a tickler on the hostess?” I asked.

“Please,” Eugene entreated me unctuously, “it gives face to the whole family if I behave like an imperial lord, doing my duty by Wife, and frolicking with my concubines.  She wouldn’t accept anything less.”

I nodded, oscillating between being aghast and dismissing his remark for the glutinous drivel that it surely was.  “I need a drink,” I said with a final nod.

“To describe Eugene Hicks as ‘slithery,’” I whispered, placing my scotch on the low wooden table and flopping onto the plush opium bed next to Billy, “would be to give him too much spine.”

Billy chortled.  “I was disappointed when Six-Pointed Star picked his place for the meeting,” he admitted.  “It’s so tacky.”

I’m assuming you’ve never been to Mao’s Boudoir, Sandra, since its clientele is composed predominantly of men who couldn’t tell the theater from an anteater.  The decorating motif in Mao’s Boudoir can be summed up in a slogan fit for an interior design autocrat: recycle socialist realism as kitsch!  Four massive Mao portraits beam benightedly on each wall in the main room.  Between the portraits hang propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution, exhorting the executive clientele: “To rebel is justified!” “Labor in the countryside refines heartfelt proletariat commitment!”  “Smash counterrevolutionary thought in literature and art!”  The opium bed on which we were lounging was upholstered in red silk, embroidered with the hammer and sickle of the Communist flag.  The teapot from which the waitress poured our complimentary Pu-erh tea was decorated with a scene of a landlord, wearing a dunce cap, being publicly denounced and humiliated by an angry mob.  The waitress who poured the tea was dressed like a vampy Red Guard, in a jaunty military cap with one red star at its center; olive, short-sleeved, fitted shirt and matching shorts; ubiquitous red arm-band adorned with yellow characters; and high-heeled, lace-up black boots that ended at her knee.

“I couldn’t care less what the place looks like,” I growled, snapping forward to gulp my scotch, “but Eugene disgusts me.”

“Is that why you’re shaking?” Bill asked, observing the ice clattering in my scotch glass.

“Is it that obvious?” I cried, not so much because I minded Billy noticing, but because Lan hadn’t said anything about the tremors that’d become a constant since I first bedded Lisa.  They were, so far as I could tell, the sole give-away of my stray diao – and I’d been scrupulously attuned for any sign that would give me up.  I guess on some level I’d resigned myself that in situations like mine, everyone eventually is ren zang bing huo – caught with the booty – but I’d been hoping to forestall the inevitable, at least until I could avoid it altogether.  But if Eugene and Billy – two men, not a breed celebrated for its attentiveness – discerned that I was shaking within moments of seeing me, then the trembling must be embarrassingly apparent.  Why hadn’t Lan mentioned it?  Had I ceased to register in her consciousness?  Was she toying with me?  Or maybe it’d gotten worse?  I finished my drink and collapsed backwards onto the opium bed.

Billy watched me with a solemn expression.  After I’d exhaled dejectedly, he asked, “Drug withdrawal?”

“I wish,” I moaned.  “I can’t remember the last time I wasted my brain so blissfully.”  I lifted an arm limply to signal the waitress.  “Billy, order me another scotch, will you?”

“We’ve got a meeting,” he protested.

I glanced at my watch.  “We’re twenty minutes early, and they’re always late anyway.  I’ll sober up by then.”

“Or pass out,” Billy snorted, but he relented and ordered me another.

“Actually, Billy,” I rolled over onto my side and eyed him eagerly, “do you have any blow?  That’s a really good idea.”

“No, and it’s the worse idea you’ve ever had.  You’re already shaking!”
“It’s anxiety.  The coke will calm me.”

“How’s an amphetamine going to calm you?” Billy inquired parentally.  “What’re you so anxious about anyway?”
“I slept with Lisa.  Don’t tell anyone.”  I don’t know why I told him.  I hadn’t meant to confess to Billy, or to any other person, Sandra, except you.  I’d promised myself that only you, me, and Lisa would ever know – or at least, that was the plan.  Now you, me, Lisa and Billy knew, but I was too exhausted from the jitters to care.

A confused look occupied Billy’s face.  Then he asked, “Who’s Lisa?”

“Contra-Templeschmidt?!  The cartoonist!  The woman you hired!”

“You slept with her?”  Billy seemed incredulous.  “Isn’t that like Lyle Lovett cheating on Julia Roberts with, I don’t know, Janet Reno?  How does that happen?”

“No it is not like sleeping with Janet Reno!” I hissed, scrambling to an upright seated position, furious.  “Why are you giving me backsplash? – back . . . chat, whatever.  You’re the one who started all this.  You introduced me to her!  All this is your fault!  You’re the one who told me that I could cheat on Lan, that it’s ‘in the rules’ – that’s what you said.  I didn’t want to cheat on her!”

Billy leaned forward, away from me, and poured himself some tea.  He drank it deliberately and then turned to me with a melancholy frown.  “You do what you want, Dean.”

I grabbed his arm.  “Help me, man.  I’m sorry, I’m not mad at you, it’s not your fault.  Really, I didn’t mean that.  Help me.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Tell me what to do.  I need help, I’m trembling all the time.”

“That’s natural,” Billy shrugged.  “You’re physicalizing your guilt.”

The moment I realized he’d actually said “physicalizing,” I panicked.  I mean, I’d never heard the word before our drama therapy sessions, Sandra, and here Billy was using it in the same peculiar way, and I guess I thought he was mocking me – mocking me that I was in therapy, that he knew that I was in therapy, when I thought that the only people who knew were you, me and Lisa.  My arms shot forward, and I grabbed the front of his shirt, growling with the intensity of a shout, “How the hell do —”

“— Ow! What are you, psycho —”

“— you know that?!”

“— You’re pulling my chest hair!”

I released his shirt and cast a paranoid glance around the room.  The evening was still early enough that Mao’s Boudoir was relatively empty.  A party of humorless Chinese men was drinking tea several tables away, but they seemed absorbed by whatever conspiracy they were incubating.  Eugene was flouncing around a couple of waitresses at the opposite end of the room, and his frog-ugly wife maintained her regal remove in the corner chair.  Satisfied that public exposure of our tiff wasn’t imminent, I whipped back around to face Billy, whispering, “You don’t have any chest hair.”

“You were pinching me,” he retorted, smoothing the front of his shirt with his hands.  Then he reached out and pushed my face away roughly, but not unkindly.  

I hung my head.  He planted his palm on my temple and pushed my face again.  

“Knock it off,” I muttered, lamely swiping at his hand.

“You’ve gone crazy, you know that?  You need help —”

“— that’s what I’ve been telling you —”

“— you should see someone.”  He shifted forward to the edge of the opium bed and poured Pu-erh tea for both of us.  He handed me one of the cups and said, “I know someone at the Beijing International Harmony Hospital family counseling clinic.  I think she’s really good, but I don’t know if she’s right for you.  She’s not a psychiatrist, so she can’t prescribe medication, and I think you need —”

“— What do you mean, you ‘know’ her?”

“I see her.  She’s my therapist.  Her name’s Sandra Bernard.”      

For the first time in twelve days, I stopped shaking.  The stillness I felt was so complete that I’d be willing to bet that my automatic nervous system had stopped functioning.  Then my eyes goggled.  “You?  Why do you go to therapy?”

“Because I’m depressed all the time.  I’m lonely.  I’m disrespected by all the women here —”

“— Shut up.  You’ve got a kickin’ business.   You’re busy all the time.  You make good money.  You’re an entrepreneurial success —”

“— I’m depressed, Dean.  I drink too much —”

“— you’ve got a sober personality.  Old beyond your years.  You’re too serious, Billy, too mature, that’s your prob —”

“— I can’t adjust to life here.  I feel like I don’t belong.  I look like I belong, but I don’t.  I don’t have any community —”

“— how come I’ve never seen you at therapy?”

Now Billy stared for – as actors say – “a beat.”  Then he asked, “Who do you see at International Harmony’s counseling center?”

“Sandra.”

He nodded.  “Then you don’t need my help, talk to her.”

I collapsed back onto the opium bed again, drained.  I slapped my hands over my eyes.  “Billy,” I groaned, “don’t tell anyone I go to therapy, ok?  I’m trying to keep it a secret.”

“I won’t tell anyone, man.  But, you know, everyone in the expat community goes to the International Harmony counseling center.  It’s inevitable you’re going to meet people you know there.”

“I would’ve appreciated that warning two months ago,” I sat up spastically.  “I already ran into Lisa there.  You know, the trembling isn’t physicalizing guilt.  It’s a physicalization of lust.”

I am not one of those men who divulges to the guys sexual details of the who-did-what-to-whom-and-for-how-long variety, Sandra.  Only men with small diao “bond” with each other through gossip rituals that sacrifice the women in their beds.  I wouldn’t ever have told Billy about the irresistible and depraved things that Lisa did to me.  I never would’ve confided in Billy that Lisa’s suction capacity rivals that of vacuums used in particle accelerators.  Not from me would Billy have learned of Lisa’s Tintin tattoo, located just above her pubis, that depicts Tintin joyously bouncing along astride a horse, except that the “horse” is her woolly thatch of pubic hair.  No one would ever catch me telling Billy how I directed Lao Chen to drive me and Lisa to the Full Link Center on May 12, as if we were still going to the Six-Pointed Star meeting, but instead we ran to the Kuntai Hotel next door, where her lack of inhibitions and knowledge of male anatomy brought me to three consecutive orgasms and a bout of joyful tears.  Never before have I been on my hands and knees in front of a woman, and neither Billy nor any other man will ever know that fact.  This confession is just between you and me, Sandra.  Obviously, men have to be honest with their therapists, and honesty is a sign of having a big diao anyway.

I mention that I wouldn’t and didn’t share specifics with Billy to highlight that I didn’t need to: as soon as I explained that my trembling was “physicalizing lust,” Billy’s eyes clouded.  The man didn’t need to hear more to know that I was crippled by turgidity when awake and tormented by wet dreams when asleep.  Not another word needed to pass between us for Billy to understand that I had already slept with Lisa more times than I’d made love with Lan, and that my days had organized themselves into time spent prostrating myself before Lisa and the agonizing wait until I could do it again.    

“Be careful, man,” Billy admonished thickly.

“I want to stop, of course I do,” I pleaded.

In retrospect – and I hope this next admission isn’t insulting – I wouldn’t have said that I wanted to stop if I’d known that it would result in Billy insisting that I accompany him the following night to a rehearsal of your drama therapy production of Waiting for Godot.  I did want to stop – of course I did.  I never wanted to hurt Lan.  I recognized that cheating counted as “hurting Lan,” even when she didn’t know about it.  I was disappointing her, and her parents, and revealing myself as unworthy of the trust they’d placed in me.  I felt like a hai qun zhi ma – a blight on society.  But I don’t see why anyone, even a blight on society, should have to sit through Waiting for Godot.

Billy’s rationale was that, if I really wanted to end my affair with Lisa, I had cut off all contact with her and, because I couldn’t resist seeing her when left alone, that I had to spend my free time with him.  While I’m the first to agree with Billy’s thinking as a general matter, I didn’t understand the specifics of how such reasoning landed us at your rehearsal for Waiting for Godot.  

I’d seen the poster for the production in your office, of course:  “WAITING FOR GODOT, a drama therapy production, starring and benefiting Beijing’s migrant workers, directed by Sandra Bernard, 9 Theaters Chaoyang Cultural Center, June 23-30, 2008.”  I hadn’t ever considered going to the show, however.  Even after you’d casually mentioned that the proceeds from the show would benefit the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, which prompted me to buy tickets, I still didn’t consider actually seeing the show.  (I know, I know, Sandra, I told you that I was looking forward to it.  Sorry.  I lied.)  Billy says that you told him that attending the rehearsal might help him deepen his own practice of drama therapy because, at the rehearsal, he’d see other men on their own drama therapy odysseys, wrestling with the techniques.  I can promise that if you’d tried the same line on me, I would’ve told you that I was only too gratified to have my own practice remain superficial.

And I never, never, never would have gone to the rehearsal if I’d have had even a glimmer of a notion about the cast.  Not to say that I recognized any of the migrant workers who were playing Estragon, Pozzo, Lucky, or the Boy – I didn’t.  But Sandra, how could you have cast Lao Chen as Vladimir?  He’s not even a migrant, not really.  He’s from Hebei, like, not even 30 miles outside Beijing.  How can he qualify for a production “starring and benefiting Beijing’s migrant workers”?  I know you’ve said that you had no idea that he was my driver, but so what?!  It was still a betrayal, Sandra!  A damned-near fatal betrayal!  Seeing Lao Chen on stage rapidly escalated my physical problems from demure tremors to unrestrained choking.  You might as well have taken your own two hands, wrapped them around my throat, and vanquished the air from my lungs.  Poor Billy – not having recognized Lao Chen – misunderstood the problem and started doing the Heimlich maneuver on me, which did alleviate the choking, although not because of his emphatic, sternum-crushing thrusts, but because of my sudden fear that people seeing us would think we were gay.

I threw Billy off me and bolted to the back of the theater, where I hid behind a chair in the last row and peeked around at the on-stage action.  At the rear of the stage was a screen on which a large paper cut-out of a gnarled tree was backlit like a shadow puppet.  In the foreground, Lao Chen was arguing in Mandarin with a compact, muscular Chinese man, while a third guy wandered around the stage with an imbecilic smile on his face.  As Lao Chen spit on the stage and demanded 50 kuai before he’d run through the scene again, you, Sandra, were standing in the front row, waving your arms and screeching, “Just as emoting conquers emotion, continued existence defeats existential doubt!”  

Then Lao Chen grabbed his bowler hat off his head and began smacking the Chinese muscle man with it.  I’d never seen Lao Chen so vigorous or assertive, and I wondered if perhaps he hadn’t misunderstood the Chinese title of the play: whoever had translated the title “Waiting for Godot” had used characters that sound like “Godot” – gedou – but which is actually a verb indicating hand-to-hand combat.  Lao Chen seemed to think he was doing the muscle man a favor by not making him wait for the brawl, and the muscle man seemed to support such an interpretation by laughing as Lao Chen’s hat chastised his face.  Eventually, the muscle man snatched the hat and good-naturedly fished 20 kuai from his pocket.  

“Vladamir, listen to me,” you were squawking, Sandra, “when you say, ‘That passed the time,’ we the audience must understand that you Vladimir understand that passing the time is what gives life meaning.  Without something to do to pass the time, we’re just waiting for death and hoping neurotically that we’ll find a god once the inevitable arrives.  It’s boredom, listen to me, Vladamir – don’t give him any money! This is drama therapy!  We don’t pay the patients for treatment! —”

I began to relax, assured that everyone involved in the production was too involved with the on-stage fracas to have noticed me and Billy enter the theater.  As the muscle man replaced the bowler hat on Lao Chen’s head, Lao Chen volubly attempted to negotiated the fee up from 20 kuai to his standard 50.  The muscle man continued to argue with him, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying because you were still shouting, Sandra, “—it’s boredom that makes life seem meaningless because the waiting is interminable.  Unbearable!  Boredom forces us to ask, ‘Why are we waiting?’  The meaning of life is to stay busy, so that we’re never bored enough to ask that question.  Are you translating this?  I need you both to pay attention!  Stop giving him money!”

The muscle man most certainly did not translate what you’d been saying, Sandra, before he patted Lao Chen affably on the shoulder, turned and strode to the end of the stage, and jumped into the first row next to you.  The way he moved, the muscle man gave me the impression of a carny – maybe not a circus freak exactly, but someone who spent a lot of time around them.  He had shoulder-length, straight, black hair, and his eyes were bloodshot.  His face, which was wrinkled, looked older than his body, and I’d guessed that it’d gotten that way from hard living.  He wore ripped jeans and a tight t-shirt that stretched the words “SunFlood” from nipple to nipple; silver chains, spikes and skulls clanged from every available wrist, neck, ear, belt, wallet, and pocket.  The overall effect, while not handsome, was undeniably sexy.

Incredibly, astonishingly, unbelievably, when Mr. SunFlood landed in the first row next to you, he snaked his arm around your waist, pulled you close and kissed you several times.  Watching his lips graze your cheek and face, I began to feel that this theater was an alternative dimension governed by alien rules, a place where contingencies that would’ve been outlandish in this world were instead commonplace.  It was like coming to China for the first time all over again.  I knew that I was correctly perceiving the information, but I couldn’t integrate it into a schema of the world that I recognized.  You, Sandra, you were in a cross-cultural relationship, like me?  You don’t even speak Chinese!  You have no comprehension of wenhua chayi!  I felt indignant, protective, like a big brother.  I wanted to bolt down the aisle, punch SunFlood in the chest, and warn him: “If you hurt her, I’ll . . . . !”  

But my aggressive impulse withered at the thought that maybe I wasn’t so much protective, as possessive.  Was I as displeased to discover that you had a lover as I’d been to learn that my mother had remarried after my father?  While I puzzled over my underlying motivations, you and he exchanged a few murmured words, and then you hollered at a pitch that would’ve made a battalion of rats fall in line and stand at attention, “Run the scene again!”

Zai lai yi ci!” SunFlood repeated in Mandarin, his voice a rumbling blast.

The imbecile stopped his meandering and stood smiling, at spitting distance’s remove from Lao Chen.  Lao Chen’s face assumed a cross-eyed expression, as if an insect had dive-bombed his nose, and he hacked phlegm.  

“Good, good!” you shouted, Sandra.  “Vladimir, you’re physicalizing your concerns about impending boredom now that Pozzo and Lucky have departed.  Keep going!”  I couldn’t tell if you were genuinely applauding Lao Chen’s method, or if you were desperately trying to prevent him from spitting on the stage again; if the latter, your effort failed.

Shuo ba,” SunFlood ordered – literally, “speak.”  Sandra, I’m guessing you thought SunFlood was translating for you, but most of what you said never stood a chance.  And, Sandra, it looked to me like he wasn’t even trying to translate your words; he was deceiving you, thinking you’d never know.  That’s just my opinion, of course, and I’m telling you, not just because I think you should reconsider your relationship with this carny, but also because, if you’re committed to bringing drama therapy to the migrant masses, you’ll need to address this flaw in how you transmit your methodology.

Na ge hua le shijian, shi ma?” Lao Chen grunted.  Above the proscenium, a super-title projected, “That passed the time.”

“It would have passed in any case,” Estragon replied in Mandarin.  The migrant worker playing Estragon was plump and endlessly pleased to be onstage.  He delivered his line with the same incongruous grin that’d accented his every moment on stage; then he reached into his pocket for a melon seed, which he cracked between his teeth and afterwards spat the hull onto the stage.

“Estragon!” you hollered, Sandra, “live truthfully under imagined circumstances!  The circumstance is that your friends have just left.  Why are you smiling?  Is that truthful?”

“Stop eating melon seeds,” boomed SunFlood in Mandarin.  I’m not kidding, Sandra, that’s what he said.  All your insight, however dippy I might think it, was squandered.  “Do the line again!” SunFlood commanded.

“It would have passed in any case,” Estragon dutifully repeated, beaming.

“Yes, but not so rapidly, Fatty,” Lao Chen pronounced.  I was surprised to hear Lao Chen address Estragon as “Pangzi” – “Fatty” – because the nickname is one that I associate with Beijing, where it’s applied with profuse abandon; but then I noticed from the super-titles that “Fatty” wasn’t in Beckett’s script.  Lao Chen seemed to be delivering a Waiting for Godot with Chinese characteristics.  I immediately looked at SunFlood, to check if he was telling you about Lao Chen’s liberties with the lines, but he was absorbed with giving you a neck massage.

“What do we do now?” Estragon piped.

“I don’t know, Fatty.”

“Let’s go.”

“We can’t, Fatty.”

“Why not?”      

“We’re waiting for Godot.”  Lao Chen farted, a long, loud emission that squeaked off at the end.  

SunFlood guffawed.  Estragon maintained his amiable countenance and, interpreting SunFlood’s laughter as signaling a break, resumed eating melon seeds.

“Not sure about that capstone,” you called, Sandra.  “I’m losing the emotional through-line in this scene.  Your delivery doesn’t come across as the kind of emoting that conquers emotion – you don’t seem to be emoting at all.  You’re not connected to these lines.  Can we try it again, emoting, connected, this time?”

Without bothering to translate your observations about the scene’s deficiencies, SunFlood ordered a re-do: “Zai lai yi ci!”

Lao Chen demanded 50 kuai.  

I began to feel that your advice, Sandra, that Billy would learn from watching the rehearsal was sound.  Observing Lao Chen on his own drama therapy odyssey was teaching me that I needed to start demanding bonuses for meeting my therapeutic benchmarks.  

“What are you doing, squatting back here?”  Billy loomed over me, eyeing me with dour concern.  “I thought you went to the bathroom to spit – ”

I dragged Billy down beside me and hushed him.  “I don’t want anyone up there to know I’m here,” I hissed between clenched teeth.  “We need to go.”

“We just got here,” Billy objected.

“Then you stay.  I gotta go.”
“To Lisa’s?”  Billy’s expression was disappointed and censorious.  

“No, not to Lisa’s,” I retorted defensively.  “This has nothing to do with Lisa.  That’s my driver up there.  The so-called migrant worker playing Vladimir is Lao Chen!”

Billy’s face expanded with surprise.  “I thought I recognized —”

“— I can’t let him see me, otherwise he’ll want to know how I know Sandra, and my secret will be —”

“— but what’s he doing here?  How did Sandra find him?”

Billy’s question prompted an involuntary nervous response that felt like a bowling bowl dropping through my torso.  Prior to this moment, my anxiety had been fixated on the possibility of Lao Chen recognizing me, and the questions that would follow such an event.  I had been thinking that a combination of 150 kuai and the claim that Billy and I had wandered into the theater under the misapprehension that a performance by the Shaolin monks was that night’s entertainment would satisfy Lao Chen and assure his silence.  I had barely begun to calm myself, when Billy raised this fresh problem.  “He answered a casting call announcement?” I hazarded, knowing even before I articulated the words that the answer was “no.”

Billy reached out a hand to steady me, and I realized that I was shaking like a seismograph recording an earthquake.  “So you didn’t introduce them?”

I shook my head.

“Couldn’t she have met him when he dropped you off at your sessions?”

“He doesn’t drop me off at my sessions.  I didn’t trust him to take me.  I mean, if he knows I go to therapy, the information’s that much closer to Lan and her parents.”

Billy, savior that he is, didn’t prolong the inquiry.  “Let’s get a drink, man,” he concluded and shepherded me out of the theater.

We didn’t talk in the cab.  Billy directed the cab to Face, an overpriced Orientalist trap for the overpaid Occidentalist, and I didn’t comment.  We took our seats at the bar, ordered double scotches, and finished them, all without a word.  On the second double scotch, Billy said, “Lao Chen never took you to International Harmony for sessions?”

“No.”  I was beginning to suspect that the alcohol was exacerbating, rather than relieving, the tremors, but I decided to ignore my hunch; I gulped my scotch.  “He picked me up a couple of times.”

“Really?”

“Sure, but so what?  It’s not unusual to have to go to International Harmony.  I told him it was for a checkup.”

“Lan almost certainly pays him to spy on you.”

“You’re paranoid.”

“It wouldn’t be unusual.”

“I pay him to keep his mouth shut!” I shot back.  I probably sounded brash, confident.  But I wasn’t.  I was, in the Chinese expression, ti xin diao dan: my heart rocketing, my guts hanging.  What an idiot, buffoon, moron, fool, dolt, dunce, simp, ass I was!  How had I never considered that Lan was paying Lao Chen for his speech, just as I was paying him for his silence?  As general manager of our company, she’d hired him, and she paid his salary every month.  Sure, I’d called Billy paranoid, but I suddenly realized that of course Lan added a little extra to Lao Chen’s salary every month for a special report on where I’d been, who I’d seen, and what I’d done.  

And I had no doubt, as between her kuai and mine, whose money was more valuable to Lao Chen.  I might’ve married into China, but I was not and never would be, Chinese; I was confident that, in matters of subterfuge, being Chinese mattered: regardless that we’d worked together for six years, Lao Chen would be loyal to Lan, his countrywoman, over me – I was sure of it.  In fact, with money and loyalty at stake, Lao Chen had an incentive, not merely to report, but also to investigate.  What’s to say that, after the fifth or sixth time that I asked him to pick me up at International Harmony, he didn’t poke around and discover that I had regular sessions at the family counseling clinic?      

“So you think that Lan knows I go to therapy?” I asked, my throat tight.

“I wasn’t thinking about therapy, Dean,” Billy said in his grave-digger’s voice.  “Cheating might be in the rules, but so’s discretion.  You can’t get caught.”  

My hand was shaking so insistently that I feared I’d drop the tumbler.  I’d lost my taste for the scotch anyway, so I placed the glass carefully on the bar and looked at my hands.  Lao Chen had driven me and Lisa to the Full Link Center on May 12.  Had he followed us to the Kuntai Hotel?  Or maybe he hadn’t needed to – she and I had been kissing in the alley.  He might’ve seen us.  In any event, we must’ve looked to be in heat when we got in his car.  

It’s okay, Dean, I tried to calm myself.  No one but – and here I drummed a finger on the bar for each person I counted – Sandra, me, Lisa, Billy, and Lao Chen knows.  One hand, five finger’s worth of people – that’s all the people who know.  But the tally didn’t allay me.  Ren duo zui zai, I thought.  Five people, was that “too many” for secrecy?  Of course, one person might be too many for secrecy, if that one person was Lao Chen.  I looked at the other hand and counted out Lan, the General, Yuemu and, after a pause, P.J.  If Lao Chen knew, they knew.

“Are you still shaking out of lust?” Billy asked.

“No,” I admitted.  “Now I think I’m physicalizing fear.”

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