by Kaitlin Solimine
It started that day: sitting with Zuo-Zuo the parrot, your parrot green and red in his cage, and you and your mother chatting in the kitchen until you departed, jackets flapping on backs, the door slamming shut behind you, so as to slam shut the door. This song I wrote for you, this song of departure:
Swap. Slap. Swish.
Zuo-Zuo and I sat in the corner of the kitchen, not heading to work (the layoff from the newspaper hanging about us, about that room and the apartment complex with its squat Soviet buildings, like a long, low dirge). You had left with your mother to buy new Double Star sneakers for school or dumplings for dinner or was it piano lessons with that chin-haired Mrs. Li with the missing front tooth and garlic breath?
I laid the People's Daily out before me and perused the headlines of stories I knew so well, stories that were exactly the same as the stories that came before, would become the same as the stories to come. Stories, this week, of a farmer who sold his land for the development of twenty-five new town homes and then retired to the city, or last week it was that story and this week it was a factory owner with cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling, shipping them to Meiguo—Beautiful Country—for men and women to stack them again and send them back to Zhongguo—The Middle Country—for more men and women to refit the boxes and stack again.
The nonsense! I shouted, that old song I wrote for you still reverberating in my ears, shaking Zuo-Zuo's cage.
I wanted to tell you:
the nonsense of this thing,
this thing about the cardboard boxes.
But you were not here to hear me.
Did you hear me?
You heard the door slam shut, slam shut behind you. You heard me in the kitchen, flipping the dry newspaper pages, licking that starchy paper taste off my fingers and thumbing the edges.
Zuo-Zuo want a cracker? I practiced. I pretended you laughed at my laughter, that we were laughing together, that the laughter was the laughing, the pretending my practice.
One more uneaten cracker on the kitchen table became crumbs on my newspaper, the clock ticking above the microwave (the microwave we bought on sale last year at WuMart, the microwave your mother/my wife never uses, the microwave I once stuck my finger inside to see how hot it could become when turned to high…it got quite hot).
Do you remember the song I sang the day we went to the zoo? That was the same day we knew you were one-of-a-kind (not a newspaper story retold each week), the same day we all rolled our sleeves up to our elbows and felt the sun warming our forearms and your mother/my wife bought you a popsicle and I said it was from me, handing it to you so that the orange would turn your tongue brown. How can orange become brown? Never mind that. Do you remember?
It started with the sun on our sleeves—or no, the sun on our skin—and we were walking in the crowd, the crowd walking around us, the sun skittish on our skin, like a warm heat percolating within our brains.
You looked up at me and smiled.
You looked up at me and smiled, front teeth missing.
You looked up at me and smiled, lips drawn tight.
You looked up at me.
In the distance, a song: an ice cream vendor pushing his popsicles through the Beijing Zoo calling for customers and your mother/my wife saying yes, yes, when you asked her for a popsicle. An orange one, you said, and you looked up at me and smiled.
Your mother/my wife said yes. (How later she would become a woman who said no no no no no.)
I said: I think it's a good idea. You pinched my hand. We were walking with the crowd pressing in around us, the zoo crowd going zoo-crazy for all the animals locked up in cages (China's finest Chinese alligator, Chinese giant salamander, the whitest Siberian tiger in a thousand li, and as many clipped-wing cranes you could ever wish to fly away). We were three within the crowd. The crowds of cranes. Craning crowds. We were three. You were holding my hand.
This is when Beijing is tolerable, your mother said. I said to her, this is when Beijing makes living worthwhile. We shared a memory of Beijing in spring before it could become a memory: the day we visited the Beijing Zoo in Xicheng together for your birthday and the orange popsicle you licked all the way to the splintery wooden stick. We shared the memory of climbing city walls built up around the city in a time that was before our time. A memory of Beijing's sky all blue, no clouds, and how you tilted your head up at that sky as we swung you in our arms, the crowd around us three, the craning crowd that was always there those zoo days. Zoo-ing like Zuo-Zuo in his cage.
You looked up at me and sang a song. That song.
You're singing about the monkeys, you said, the monkeys we'd come to see—not Lulu, China's pride, the panda bear everyone in the crowd desired, all the jumper-wearing children on tip-toes with orange popsicle tears dripping down their arms, all the jumper-wearing children on their fathers' shoulders, on their way to see the pandas, the baby panda, Lulu. China's pride.
Lulu, you said.
No, you said something else. You said: the monkeys.
You said the monkeys because we knew the monkeys from National Geographic programs on Phoenix TV. Because we sat in the living room when your mother burnt her finger on the stove the day before she used the microwave for her first and only time. You said you wanted to see the monkeys when she screamed Cao! cursing her finger, cursing me, cursing the room in which we sat watching the National Geographic program that only aired on Monday nights on Phoenix TV out of Hong Kong. The monkeys.
The monkeys, you said. Yes, the song about the monkeys. You looked up at me and smiled, popsicle-stain-orange on your lips, popsicle-stain-brown on your tongue.
The crowd closed in around us—tiptoes and shoulders and craning cranes flapping away flight—and the monkeys sat before us watching, waiting. The blue and yellow screen reflecting on your face.
Where is Africa? You asked.
I said it was over there, pointing to the left, the left side of the living room to which we never went, the side of our apartment cluttered with rotting pots of fichus plants and stacks of old newspapers from the days when I was a newspaper man. The newspapers that would tell me stories, the same stories I tell you now.
On our maps, Africa is on the left, I said. China is in the middle. The Middle Kingdom.
Why did you do that?
Orange popsicle dripping down your arm, the skin of the sun, the sun-kissed skin: spring in Beijing does things to the brain. Warm things.
Daddy, where is Africa?
The monkeys picked at their ears like bored housewives. Your mother/my wife played Paigow games on her mobile phone. You made me lift you higher. You leaned toward the cage. You were in my hands. We were proud of you. You were waiting for the monkeys to call your name. To sing your song. I wrote you a song, I said, and you said you were waiting for the monkeys to sing it.
Outside drawn curtains: Beijing was fading, fades, pale. Night was something, is something, we can cling to—that night we arrived home from the zoo, walked in the dark through the empty city streets. That night we scaled the steps of the Dongzhimen City Wall a block from your parents' apartment to smell the earth beneath our fingertips. We climbed the stairs, climbed into your bed. You held me in your arms. We were only children then. Midnight moon colors—navy and gray. We felt the moon on our skin. Your bedroom had a wicked feeling.
It started to rain. Why do you always read the paper? You asked me. You were sitting on the couch, the television's blue and yellow mask atop your face. You were at the park, bored monkeys picking beneath their fingernails like housewives, your mother/my wife playing Paigow on her mobile phone. You were on my shoulders. You were licking an orange popsicle down to the splintery stick. I told you to watch for splinters. You looked up at me and smiled.
Your tongue was brown/gray. Orange-popsicle-brown/gray.
I like the stories, I said. You said, you like the stories? You were drinking doujiang. You were making us doujiang in the morning, the morning we awoke with our arms clinging to one another, to the memory of that night. Remember the city wall? Your mother/my wife said. She was saying she liked the story about the city wall. You said you liked the way the stories told you about other places. You said you liked Beijing in spring. The way you could taste it.
The sun on our skin. The warmth doing strange things to our brains.
I said I was reading the People's Daily so I could sing you the stories you wanted to hear. I wanted to leave Beijing, I told you. You reached the highest step, we stood at the top and the city spread before us from all directions like a yawn.
We conquered this city, you said.
I said: No, the city conquered us.
Take a shower, your mother/my wife said.
I said I did.
You said it was morning. Your mother/my wife said it was evening when we sat around the table and I told your mother/my wife the news.
Zhang gave me the news, I said. You said: the news? I said it would be okay. I said: A job is only a job so long as it is working.
Working is a job, your mother/my wife said.
Work, work, work, you sang. We flipped the page of the People's Daily so I could read you my song. You looked up at me and smiled. Your mother/my wife was in the kitchen wearing only her pink robe, no underwear underneath. She listened to us but didn't say a thing. We all felt the sun on our skin beneath our clothes. We all sang the song of that sun to ourselves.
Outside: golden glinting rooftops and pigeons with whistles on their wings waddling through puddles. We raised curtains for you, I sang. We climbed city walls for you, walked empty streets for you.
You said you wanted steamed buns for dinner. I said buns were only for breakfast. For breakfast, you drank your doujiang. It was doujiang you poured into bowls, warmed in the microwave the morning you departed, leaving me with Zuo-Zuo the parrot in his cage and my own laughter. Is emptiness a companion?
What is wrong with Beijing? you asked me when we crested the city wall.
What is wrong with Beijing? you asked me in the pink bathrobe.
What is wrong with Beijing? You asked me with your mobile phone beeping your Paigow win, your arms clenching the meat beneath my ribs.
Beijing is not what's wrong, I said. You asked me to sing you a song. You liked the song about Beijing. That song we sang at the Zoo. Atop the city wall before it fell. The song I believed I'd one day sing to the wailing violin of Ma Si Cong, that famous song of missing home.
When I sang, your mother/my wife wore her pink robe, heated tea on the stovetop; she was sipping the lukewarm doujiang you made for us in the morning. She was pretending not to hear you, not to remember me. I drank the doujiang I made for you, you made for us. We slurped in harmony, tried to make our slurping a song.
I wrote this song for you, I said, only I didn't write it, this song that I wrote, that wrote itself for Beijing, Beijing for it.
Did you not hear me?
I wrote this song for you, I said, the song your mother wanted me to sing atop the city wall. Steamed buns clung to plastic bags swinging from wrists. Condensation seeped onto streets. We walked home, Beijing spring sun on our wrists, the smell of a song. We were outside the city walls. We were within them.
Where was the city of my youth? Your mother/my wife stood in the kitchen in her pink robe, still smelling of my sex. You still haven't taken your shower, she said. You tuned the television to Phoenix TV and watched the monkeys scratching behind their ears, yellow-blue reflection on your face, brown on your tongue. Bored housewives. Your mother/my wife made the bed. She said things that shouldn't be said. You said she shouldn't say those things. I said, I sang this song for you.
You looked up at me and smiled. Brown/gray tongue. Popsicle sun.
When I made the bed on top of you, she didn't squirm.
When I drank the doujiang she made cold and mineral, you didn't ask how it tasted.
When I walked outside to join the crowds, no one noticed that you hadn't showered.
Did you hear me?
The street surrounded me.
Jackhammers hammered for me.
Mobile phones rang for me.
Your mother/my wife buying you a pair of Double Star sneakers, dumplings for dinner, a new piano.
Where were you?
For you/for me.
For me/for you.
A man in a white coat and doppa ashed his cigarette on the toe of my shoe. I walked the long, lonely block to the Dongzhimen City Wall. I wanted to know where it was. Where it went. We stood on the top until the wind toppled us, until Fragrant Mountain purpled the sky, until the world was yellow-gray, until we heard that song. The song of the city crumbling beneath our feet. Missing home.
Sing me that song, you say. You say it the morning you leave to buy new Double Star sneakers for school. For school, you bought new Double Star sneakers, slammed the door behind you, slam went the door. The song that day:
Swap. Slap. Swish.
Television blue-yellow, mountain purple outside drawn curtains. Popsicle-orange tongue.
They don't teach us Marxism anymore, you said.
When did you become so condescending? I asked. You didn't tell me when.
When was that?
The kitchen and the pink robe. The doujiang mineral-taste on our lips, brown lips turning brown-orange-gray. The Gobi desert's sun, dust storms in spring. The orange sunset on the rooftops, gray evenings and gray ashes on my shoes. The man in the white coat and doppa. A Uyghur, I said. You asked: Are there Uyghurs in Africa?
How could we know? We'd never been there. Beijing was all we knew.
The city walls crumbled. You lost a shoe at the zoo. You bought Double Star sneakers for school. New shoes, your mother/my wife said, walking out the door beside you. Double Star sneakers for school! She shouted. The slamming shut. The shutting slam.
This song I wrote for you.
A New Beijing; A Civilized Beijing—you said you read it somewhere. I asked you where you read it.
You said at school.
You said on Phoenix TV.
You said it was in the newspaper.
Towers of faces looked down at me. This camaraderie a thing of the past. A thing of my youth. Comrade, you said then, the city wall in shambles around us. You, my Comrade, you. We smelled the earth on our hands and you looked up at me and smiled.
You looked up at me and said: sing me a song.
You looked up at me as I walked down the subway stairs. Chongwenmen Station swallowing us like a cavern, a cave. Teenagers squatted, shouting into mobile phones, the mobile phones for Paigow. We didn't have a map for our memories yet: what map we had was torn to shreds when the city forgot its song. City walls became a cocoon of walls that wasn't, that was. Tourists, like the blind, fingered maps printed a decade ago, traced their fingertips along the old lines of the city, the city walls we climbed. Your mother/my wife. You and I scaling the crumbling bricks crumbling beneath us, spring air in our lungs, the Gobi Desert in the distance, Fragrant Mountain like a purple bruise against the sky. On our skin. The sky that held the sun, spring sun that made a stain of sun on our skin, sleeves rolled to our elbows, and you on my shoulders, singing a song. The sun makes the brain go warm, warm like a well-worn song.
Do you know where Dongzhimen is? The tourists point on the map. Their map has old lines. Borders that don't exist anymore. Animals in zoos are caged, capable of being observed. Watch the crowds crowding in around us, craning crowds. The headline reads: A New Beijing, A Civilized Beijing.
You sip your doujiang, the robe crumpled on the floor in the kitchen, the hearing you do is not called listening, you are not listening, but you ask me to sing you a song.
I hear the train approaching. You wait for me to sing for you, to trace the lines of that misplaced map on your back:
A map. Of skin. Yellow and wanting like the Gobi sands, that desert rain, a sandstorm on the days we remembered when.
Where are the city walls?
Where is Africa?
How many news stories can you read in a day?
The day we met, the day your mother/my wife and I climbed the city walls, we wore matching Double Star sneakers. At the top, she tripped. She reached for my elbow. I caught her. She looked up at me and smiled. The city spread east, west, north, south around us, all the way to Tiananmen Square. She held my hand, told me to sing the song of Beijing, to sing above the sound of a city, the city falling down around us. Wo ai Beijing Tiananmen. These walls. The song of our city. She stood with the city's stones beneath her feet, prostrate at the memory of Beijing. I try to remember that day. I hold the map in my hands, dig my fingers beneath the crumbling stones of the old city wall.
You want to know what is hidden behind my walls. You ask me for a popsicle. The subway squeals. The doors slam shut, slam open.
Swap. Slap. Swish.
You ask me where I'm going. I ask you where you've been. There is Tiananmen. Dongzhimen. Changwenmen. Gates to a city without walls.
I took a step. I took your hand. I take a breath: Air beneath me. Squealing subway wheels, a yawn of earth, unmade city, in that chasm below.