Strangers

The cat Baobao noticed first, licking itself in the dust in front of the door to the station, its tail flicking up and down rhythmically like the palpitations of a clock’s hands. She kneeled down to stroke its back. Under her fingers its fur was oily and its small body radiated a nervous, touchable warmth. Baobao tapped her lap to encourage the cat to jump up, but instead it pulled away and began to pace, swilling eddies of yellow-brown dirt around its knobby paws.

Baobao stood up too. The train would be arriving soon. She clicked her tongue at the cat until it turned its face toward her, and she saw that its eyes were a blank, clouded blue, crusted red around the edges:  blind, most likely. She stared at it. The cat swished its tail once, twice, and then it turned and walked away.

The station was mostly empty. Baobao’s shoes slipped over the linoleum as she walked past the ticket counter toward the third terminal. A few men in dirty white wife beaters squatted against a wall smoking cigarettes and mumbling among themselves. Baobao did not recognize them. That, according to her mother, was the plan:  to travel from a neighboring village in mid-afternoon after the clamor of morning trains had dissipated, to travel when few people might know Baobao, when few might ask her what she was doing here, by herself, riding hours away to Guangzhou. Baobao plucked at her dress, gray and misshapen from too many washings. She would stick out in the city, she knew. But at least this way nobody could tell.

Baobao had been to Guangzhou once before, a year ago, to visit Xiaoyue after she left the village for university. Xiaoyue had met her at the train station with her newest boyfriend, and afterward they’d gone to the supermarket together, the boyfriend loping ahead, his hands wrapped around the straps of his backpack, elbows protruding from his sides like underdeveloped wings. He’s a child, Xiaoyue had said to Baobao, standing among the sterile lumps of melons. Her eyes were shiny under the grocery store lights and Baobao understood that what she meant was that she loved him. They had telephoned less and less after that trip until eventually they had stopped talking, but Baobao had not forgotten the city’s glamour and bustle—the stretch of fish-white abdomen that emerged between Xiaoyue’s t-shirt and skinny jeans as she reached to open a high cupboard, the taxis that careened wildly onto curbs as they sped down the four-lane roads packed end to end with vehicles—and when she returned home she flinched every time her father pulled a scrap of napkin from his pocket to blow his nose during dinner.

Baobao rubbed the ticket in her purse as the train rattled into the station. She would transfer at Guangmingcheng to one of the high-speed bullet trains to Guangzhou. She would talk to no one. In her purse she had the address of the clinic that her mother had found, the address she would give to a taxi driver smacking at a dry wad of gum, the name of the procedure she would want drilled carefully into her head. It was a plan, as planned as everything else hadn’t been. The doors of the train clanked open and she stepped onboard.

The boy had been a stranger, a nephew of Mr. Xu, who wore small round glasses a prescription too strong that left him always dizzy. Mr. Xu was retired now and spent his days tending the jasmine that grew in clay pots around his front door, but when Baobao was younger he had been a conductor on the trains and sometimes let her wear his hard black cap with the brim that was a part of his uniform. The nephew was from America and emphasized the wrong words when he spoke. He had hair tipped with silver even though he was Baobao’s age, barely eighteen. Later, after they’d met but before it all happened, she’d asked when his hair had begun to turn gray like an old man’s and he said that it had always been that way and that perhaps he would die young, and she looked at him to see him laugh and saw the rest of her life in the lines around his eyes.

When Xiaoyue still lived in the village she had been the pretty one, with hair that flipped neatly over her shoulders in one motion like a sheet of water. They had sat on the rumpled white sheets of her bed eating slices of watermelon with their legs spread talking about boys and everything Xiaoyue knew they wanted to do to her. At twelve, standing in the back of Mrs. Liu’s funeral ceremony, Baobao had turned around to see Xiaoyue kissing Long with her eyes closed, their two mouths like a single swollen creature pulsing blindly between their faces, and when she cried later it was for Long and not Mrs. Liu, because Baobao had told Xiaoyue how much she liked him, his sly smile, the glasses that she saw had fogged a milky white during the kiss. At the time that Xiaoyue left, Baobao had not yet kissed anyone, although Xiaoyue had tried to train her with cherries, pursing her lips around the sweet dark fruits. Like this? Baobao had asked, and Xiaoyue had nodded and said I think, yes.

Then this boy, who touched Baobao on the shoulder and looked at her when he spoke. He told her he was surprised that the village had electricity, that small children dragged around stuffed Hello Kitty toys. I can’t get this dirt off my feet, he said, it gets in my shoes no matter how tightly I lace them up. He wore shirts with the sleeves rolled up and layers of sunburnt skin peeled off his nose and the back of his neck. Baobao said, Did you think we were barbarians?  She bought extra cherries from the Wednesday market and sucked the flesh off their stems.

The train lurched back and forth like a drunken woman’s handbag. Baobao sat down in the first empty seat by a window and pressed her cheek to the dirty glass and tried to breathe. At first everything turned her stomach—that was how her mother knew—but now it was only certain foods:  boiled eggplant, overripe melon rinds, fried pumpkin seeds. In those early weeks Baobao spent hours each day scrubbing her clothes in the huge chipped basin of the kitchen sink. Only with her hands busy and nothing but the crisp flat taste of soap in her mouth could she could hold down the nausea squirming inside her throat, the sudden overwhelming dizziness that fractured the world like a broken mirror when she moved her head. The boy was gone by then.

A man leading four pigs by a leash shuffled down the aisle and disappeared into the next car. He did not see Baobao, but she watched his back departing, the skinny shoulder blades tenting the fabric of his shirt, the hooves of the pigs scrabbling against the floor of the train, slipping on the straw scattered in corners. Men did not look at her. She told Xiaoyue once that she did not think she could be married because men did not look at her and Xiaoyue had scoffed because, Baobao thought, she could never understand when she already had their gaze. At home, of course, but even in the streets of Guangzhou Baobao watched the eyes grazing her friend up and down, Xiaoyue’s fingers linked lazily with her boyfriend’s and metallic sunlight crowning her hair, and wondered if Xiaoyue had always known how to walk with her hips. That was talent Baobao could never learn:  not only to have a body but to know how to use it.

Later, the boyfriend gone, they sat on the fire escape of Xiaoyue’s apartment with their legs dangling between the bars and looked down at the glittering lights of the city below. The sky was a vibrant pollution-tinged orange, shimmering, something you could scrape your teeth on. Xiaoyue rubbed her mascara off in black circles around her eyes. Do you like him? she asked, and Baobao watched her shrinking back into something recognizable, the same girl whose hand she gripped as they sprinted down the pathways between the rice paddies they would later help tend. The night before she had lain awake listening to the liquid sounds of their sex coming from the next room. Xiaoyue had to have known. The walls were not that thick.

What does it matter? Baobao said. Out in the air her voice sounded harsher than it had in her mind. You’ve already given yourself to him.

Don’t be so old-fashioned, Xiaoyue scoffed. But that hadn’t been what Baobao meant. She glanced at Xiaoyue, the plane of her face tilted at the moon, beautiful even with her makeup smeared, pockets of light and shadow carving her features into an otherworldly mosaic. Sometimes in daylight she would look at Xiaoyue and believe that her beauty was attainable. At night she would realize that it was not. Baobao remembered once, fourteen or fifteen, climbing onto the roof with Xiaoyue to pick out the toothy glints of stars. There had been a full moon. They had moved quietly so as not to wake the chickens in the courtyard and Xiaoyue’s body had melted into a fluid silver. Xiaoyue had whispered that she was going to kiss Dabei, but without tongue because she was saving that for Yang. At the time her telling had flooded Baobao with warmth. Now Baobao wanted to ask what it was like to be so wanted, so wanted you could choose what pieces of yourself to give away. She felt the words rolling around her mouth like the hard light pit of a fruit. But here, suspended above a cosmopolitan universe that belonged to Xiaoyue alone, the inches bridging their bodies seemed startlingly wide.

Something shattered on a lower floor, followed by a woman’s shrill and muffled curses. Baobao heard herself laughing, sharp and bright, the noise meeting Xiaoyue’s, and the air softened between them, collapsed. There was a pause. An ambulance roared by, the pitch of the siren rising and falling. Xiaoyue stood up. Good night, she said, and they smiled at each other like strangers.

Until her death Baobao’s grandmother had warned her never to undress in front of a mirror:  an invitation for the devil to bring bad dreams, she’d said. But after the sounds of Xiaoyue running the sink had quieted, Baobao went inside and stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stripped, tugging the worn articles from her limbs. When she was finished Baobao looked at the figure before her:  puddles of fat and skin, the ugly dark centers of her breasts, her shoulders and face bruise-green under the bare bulb’s glow. When the boy—months later—came for her, smelling of sweat and rust from scaling the fence, always in the dark because the electricity cut out in the night, she was grateful that he did not see what she saw.

In the end, she realized, she knew nothing about him. But until then there were his hands on her body, shoulder to waist to cheek to breast, her consciousness of each soupy softness beneath them, the loudness of her breathing. She noticed herself moving before him as though she were rediscovering the existence of her limbs. They met behind the hot stacks of bricks that lay broken along the dirt paths; he found her and put his nose against the sweet hollow of her neck when she was weeding in the fields. Don’t you have anything better to do, she said, why are you even here. He touched her coarse hair. Parents didn’t want me for the summer. That’s a reason to bother someone like me, she said, and he smiled with all his teeth and she imagined flying at Xiaoyue and saying I understand I understand I understand. He appeared when she was unaware like a half-remembered song, until she became aware, constantly aware. He slipped into her spaces as quietly as rainwater into the gravel cracks of the main road where nameless mossy flowers bloomed each April.

If her parents knew, they didn’t let on. All her mother said was that she had grown careless with her chores, that she left clumps of weeds behind in fields she had once picked clean. I found dried rice in the cooker you scrubbed, she said one evening as Baobao passed through the living room after dinner. Baobao paused at the door. Her parents were sitting on the couch, their faces awash in the television’s blue-bright flicker. Pay better attention, her mother said. Though she didn’t shift her gaze from the screen, Baobao nodded, expressionless, inside a knot of shame. Her parents’ love was sterile and whatever she felt for this boy, his fingers smudging her windowpanes, adjusting his shirt collars, smearing string with boiled fish paste and smashed glass for kite fights with the younger children, was not. Gossip must be spreading about them. Someone pinning up the washing, Have you seen Baobao and that meiguoren?

Let them have their fun. Baobao hasn’t had a boy her whole life, and now that Xiaoyue is gone—

Poor girl. But with a huayi?  It will go nowhere. He will return to America.

A bit of fun. They are young.

It’s time she began to look for a husband. She should think of her father, son-less.

Baobao heard them in her head as she fell asleep, conversations she invented when she was left alone in her mind. The gossip that must have spread when she was born, a girl, and then three or four years later when no second pregnancy was announced. When Zhang and Ming married and she followed her mother to the market to buy a kilo of raw peanuts that they boiled with salt and set out to dry, to be arranged at the ceremony with the longan and the lotus seeds and the shriveled red sweet dates, zao sheng guizi, birth a son soon. When Xiaoyue left and Mrs. Luo told her that when Xiaoyue returned, if she returned, it would be with a husband. She and Xiaoyue had laughed about it on the phone later even as Baobao’s ribs ached with truth. She imagined being a shengnu, alone and unwanted at 27. She had heard of other families selling their daughters to be married in far-away villages to men they had never seen before. She imagined her father, swollen-lipped and graying, his hair downy soft and stuck in patches to his skull, giving her away to a man with a blurred box of pixels for a face like the ones interviewed on the television, in exchange for a fistful of bills. She slept and let the images eat her eyes.

The train stifling hot, oppressive. Baobao sliding in and out of knowledge, wakefulness slippery as the insides of thighs in August. Every time she opened her eyes the scenery had changed. It was difficult to breathe. The air sat jealously on her chest, her shoulders, the limp strands of hair that stuck to her mouth. The loneliness of the empty car beat against her ears.

The secrecy was meaningless. Everyone by now must know. She hunched over, kneading her collarbones with the knuckles of a fist, a new nervous tic, kneading as though to make sure they were still there, protruding beneath her skin like old roots. They had emerged when she began to stop eating:  in part because of the nausea, in part because it disturbed her how she felt her body growing and shifting like the plates of the earth long before anything began to show. This before anyone knew. Before her mother took her hand and they both knew. Before her mother walked her to the bus station a kilometer away where a boy scarred with acne nodded them into the white cloth box hitched to his tricycle. Before they were pedaled and swaddled into the cold room with its pocked white ceiling and the growling belly of the ultrasound, before the cool gel spread over her skin, the wet alien touch of a latex-gloved hand, the words—nuzi—that fell on her as though from a long distance away, a promised punishment. If Xiaoyue saw her now. Baobao wondered if she would still recognize her, carrying the ultimate ownership, the mark of having belonged to someone. For Xiaoyue she would stand up straight.

One night he had pressed his face into the toothpaste stains on her nightgown, the space between her breasts, had slipped his hands beneath the cotton and slid them down her stomach and then further down. No, she had said. Please, he said. His voice vibrated inside her. No, she said again, then softened. Another day. He repeated it:  another day. In his mouth the words relaxed, flattened, ran together. He stroked her hair. The old cat, Mimi, nudged open the door and yawned her plaintive meow, her eyes bright bulbs in the blackness. They shushed her together and giggled.

In daylight he seemed afraid of the cat, shying from her when she crossed them together, creaking across the road or through the long grasses beside the wooden building where the farmers stored their new equipment, her fur dust-filled, her eyes rheumy and unfocused. Mimi was old, twelve or thirteen now, and plodded around the house on arthritic toes. Baobao’s father had brought her home as a shivering kitten when Baobao was seven, retreating from his customary silence to remark that her patches reminded him of the cat he’d had as a boy. Then he’d coddled her with chunks of fish and a physical warmth that he had never shown Baobao when she was younger. When the cat kittened when Baobao was almost nine, it was her father who argued against killing the babies, even though there was nowhere to keep them and no way to feed them. In the end Baobao had helped her mother drown them one by one in a bowl of milk. Their tiny limbs had splattered the liquid all over her arms and dress front, their warmth in her hands as tight as clenched teeth.

Even so, Baobao liked Mimi. As a child she’d meowed at her and rolled smooth pebbles across the floor for her to pounce on and stacked the plastic stools they kept around the house in towering obstacle courses. As an adolescent she’d protected the cat from the village children, who liked to kick their crumpled tin cans and grimy soccer balls at her, their cruelty born of boredom and humidity. In middle school, when Baobao had been convinced that she was in love with Long, he took a shine to the cat and sometimes stopped by during the lunch hour to offer her crumbs or bits of string. Baobao and Xiaoyue had lengthy, serious discussions about whether these offerings meant Long liked Baobao too, and Baobao preened with the hairclips given to her by Auntie Gao and began to hang around outside with Mimi instead of taking her post-lunch nap so that Long would have a chance to talk to her. But each time he saw her he gave her only a blank nod and said nothing.

A thump, a jolt, and the growl of the train’s engine grew suddenly louder. Baobao opened her eyes and looked outside at the landscape:  a few spindly, sparse-leaved trees, long yellow fields of wheat. They had stopped. Her head throbbed. She stood up, gripping the wooden back of the seat to steady herself, and nudged out into the aisle. Something or somebody was panting like a dying man. Voices, feet, something slamming. A gaggle of workmen with clean-scrubbed boots carrying cloth lunch bags shoved their way into Baobao’s car, gesturing and speaking loudly in Cantonese, their voices lacing into an unintelligible tumult. An elbow jabbed into Baobao’s side. She smelled sweat and the tang of slick metal and wanted to gag.

The door of the car opened and Baobao, borne along with the crowd, flowed out into the white breathable air. How long had they been traveling?  Nothing looked familiar. She remembered the conductor’s searching gaze when she had presented her ticket to him earlier, the confusion of a man seeing a girl alone. Then, nauseated by the train’s rocking motion, she had pitched into a restless sleep. But for how long?  Baobao looked at her cloth shoes sinking into loose gravel, unfamiliar gravel, and realized that her neck hurt. She felt dizzy, feverish. She longed for a smile. She longed for someone to touch her, gently, a moment only, a touch of kindness. Once, some weeks after Mrs. Liu’s funeral, Baobao had found Xiaoyue crying in the shadow of the schoolyard’s brick wall. Long doesn’t like me anymore, she had blubbered, and when Baobao tried to tell her it didn’t matter Xiaoyue had slapped her hand away. You don’t get it, she said. I just want to be enough for someone. But you are enough! Baobao had wanted to spit. Everybody sees you. She thought of her mother avoiding her eyes that morning, the scrap of paper with the clinic address slipped under the bowl of porridge she ate for breakfast, a double ring stain of water cutting between the characters.

Baobao looked up. The workmen had evaporated. A suggestion of evening was falling over the land like a set of heavy drapes, the air cooling, the scratchy music of locusts rising into a cacophony. She could not have missed her stop; they must be in the stretch of countryside preceding the city proper. They had travelled so long that it must not be much farther. She would find the train station here and inquire about a bus or taxi—yes, that is what she must do. Baobao began to walk, slushing through the gravel past car after car streaked with rainwater and bird shit. Ahead was a mess of buildings: a village, perhaps. But no, as she got closer she realized it was more than that—a town, really, with rickety houses that leaned into the road as though they were whispering confessions to the opposing façades. Though it was not quite dusk, some windows, already orange with electricity, smoldered behind grids of chicken wire. Old women with buns and baskets of scallions sat on wooden stools in the street, stripping the broken leaves from the bulbs. A patch of squinting children bent over a dirt hole and flicked at marbles with their nails.

The station couldn’t be far; all she needed was to find the downtown area where the shops were, to get out of this residential division. She walked block after block. Gazes slid past her like water off a tarp, as though she were invisible, as though something in her body prevented them from catching onto her skin. She could feel a vein pounding in her right temple. People slid in and out of her peripheral vision. A man methodically slicing a newspaper into long shreds with a pocketknife. Two children dipping their feet into a plastic bin of water. A woman knitting a narrow scarf, her needles flashing in the dying light, a ball of creamy wool nestled in her lap. Baobao longed to touch the scarf, to feel something beneath her hands. She saw her father in her mind, his thin white lips after her mother told him that his daughter had been ruined. She saw the boy, his eyes growing blanker each day his departure closed in on him, the final wave he had given her as though to a stranger on the street. Everyone had become a stranger in the end.

A woman in a tattered dress carrying a carton of unpeeled lychees leapt into Baobao’s vision, appearing from nowhere, from darkness. Hungry, girl? she asked. Fresh lychee, the last of the season. She shook the box and the fruits tumbled dryly against the sides.

No, auntie, thank you, Baobao said. The words bored into her mind as though the voice belonged to someone else. How long had it been since she had last spoken?  Her throat felt swollen with disuse.

The woman lurched nearer. Baobao resisted the urge to back away. Please, buy my lychee. A yuan and I’ll give you the whole box.

No, auntie, thank you. Close up, her face was pocked and startling, her eyes entirely black beneath the thick folds of her eyelids. Baobao could smell her:  something acrid and sulfuric emanating from the surface of her skin. Her stomach turned. Please just tell me where the train—

Please. The woman reached out a clammy hand to grab Baobao’s wrist, her hot sour breath washing over Baobao’s face, and Baobao staggered backward, wrenching out of her grip, and ran, her shoes slipping on the dusty road. She felt something pinch her back, whipped around, frightened, saw the ravaged face of the woman rearing back with another pebble, her features contorted and hideous.

Baobao ran faster. The sky was blackening and the flares of windows were sharpening and filling with silhouettes. Faces bobbed before her, tightened with anger or sadness. Each step made her head throb harder, the hammering vein shading into her vision—or perhaps it was the night descending in pitching waves of darkness. Ahead a door opened and light and raucous laughter splashed into the street. Baobao moved toward the door, the warmth promised inside. The interior of the room warped as though seen through a glass bottle:  a long low brown leather couch, scarred with cracks; a rug colored a kaleidoscopic magenta and green; a wooden hostess stand; manicured nails tapping the surface. She followed the nails up and saw the beautiful painted face of a girl her age, who smiled at her, then frowned. Baobao pulled towards the smile. The girl, looking uncertain, said something, but Baobao couldn’t hear her, music pulsing through the floor and all through her body, her chest tight, her head cotton-stuffed and heavy. Please, she said, let me stay here. I just want to rest. The room spun.

More words Baobao couldn’t hear; she felt herself nodding—anything for the smile again, for silence, something to quench the dry roof of her mouth. An image of her parents arose in her mind:  her mother’s face looming over the bed when Baobao was sick, the cool dry back of her hand brushing her temples. Her father cradling a cup of cold water, letting a stream of it trickle over her cracked lips and down the back of her throat, piling winter coats onto her shivering and feverish body. Waking in the darkness to their whispers at her bedside. How she longed for them now—how she longed to tell them how young she still was—

A cool touch, gentle fingers against her arms. This way, please. Baobao felt herself guided to an open door, up a set of stairs drowned in darkness, stumbling, feeling them squeak wetly and suck at her feet, another door, buttery light under the cracks. She pushed at the darkness and felt it give way. Then the fingers were gone and she saw loafers smudged and crossed on a low coffee table. A television blaring and a thick yowling voice and laughter. Men’s voices, men’s laughter. She felt herself clutch at the cheap wood of the doorframe. Are you the new girl. Come over here—twitchy little thing. Over here, over here. Their voices were not unkind, merely liquid, difficult to grasp. Their faces seemed to melt before her, features scrambling and unscrambling:  widow’s peaks, mustaches, square glasses sitting on close-cropped hair. The darkness behind her eyes shaded in and out. She felt a palm on the small of her back, her fingers releasing from the doorframe, someone steering her into the center of the room. A cool glass pressed into her hand. Thirsty, girl? A bottle tipped, the tinkle of liquid falling. She smelled the sharp bright smell of baijiu. The music still going, finally piecing itself into recognition in her mind: American pop songs, their insistent rhythm, the thin warble of a woman’s voice trailing in the background.

A karaoke bar. She had never been in one before, had not even imagined there would be one in such a small town. The men looking at her kindly, crushed on the couch. Look at those bones. Do you eat, girl?  So much noise rising around her she couldn’t hear. Someone touched her shoulder. I can feel them. Someone her knee. Sit here, girl, someone pulling her into a lap, the rustle of polyester, warmth lining her whole back. So much warmth. She felt it radiating. Baobao wanted to be enveloped by that warmth. Their eyes crinkled at her, soft and dry as onion skins. Well, she’s not bad, really. Drink up!  Someone pushing the glass in her hand. Are you afraid? She felt breath in her ear, wet and hot, someone’s fingers undoing her braid, want in those fingers, want around her, someone stroking her hair, hands coming in under her breasts. Wow, they’re like melons! Feel this. She felt the boy’s fingers slender and strong, caressing the same flesh, the power she knew when she walked before him, wanted. She tipped the glass into her mouth and the warmth flared within. Another. The bottle tipping again, then her mouth, sticky and heavy, her limbs sunk in deep water, the bright paths the fingers traced all over her skin. Another.