by Royston Tester
An Heng was nudged.
Unceremoniously, through its sepia gateway — into the station's busy hall. Her parents and Aunt Xiang tut-tuttingly vigilant, at An's heels. Like baying dogs, she thought — staring defiantly at the amber and red lights of Beijing railway timetable and the crescent window above.
Splattered, it feels like being splattered, she mumbled as her family strained to read the board: "Shanghai".
An in her flimsy summer dress and sandals — the cheap, black strapped ones — that felt like Kit’s fingers around her ankle.
He did this to her — threw her like a chicken.
Today was the American lad's fault.
"Platform four," declared her mother.
In line, they marched to the arrivals area, where An would greet a stranger — "China husband-man," as Aunty Xiang put it. She, after all, tracked the betrothable down (and without Internet) through a byzantine network of distant relatives littered between her Sichuan village and the dancing, gold-paved boulevards of Shanghai.
All An could think of was Kentucky Fried.
How Colonel Sanders haunted her — so woven into recollections of Kit from the United States, their winter mornings, Spring Festival jiving, gunpowder, firecrackers, and smoggy lakeside nights.
In spite of their age differences (Kit was twenty-five, lanky haired and bespectacled, Colonel Sanders a permanent middle-age), the two men confounded An. She could not tell them apart anymore: one on a box of chicken; the other, ground beneath her feet.
On entering the station, she noticed his tell-tale, white goatee and glasses: origin and solace of her downfall. The Colonel's mugshot lurking beneath a stone portico — at this art-deco building's western end — somehow resembling Chairman Mao's visage slapped on Tiananmen wall.
What was that about the American's face?
She felt like vomiting.
An Heng in Beijing train station — in KFC land — squirming, paraded.
She would marry Chinese, the happy-go-lucky bachelor of fifty years who played mahjong in a teahouse, like many from Chengdu, his Sichuan hometown — and hers.
For the last decade, "China husband-man" resided in Shanghai and was an amateur actor. He worked in a jade store off Nanjing Road and would one day be sales manager.
In Aunty Xiang's estimation, a respectable catch.
What more could you say?
In her time with Kit from Brooklyn, New York — when they ran out of things to say, which was surprisingly often — An would gaze at the left of Colonel Sanders' face.
His face in shadow — so hard to make out, its sootiness blue — down the chicken king's forehead, temple, cheek and chin.
Darkness increases from the nose to nook of an old mouth, the thick glasses, a suggestion of bushy eyebrow, silken point of beard. Everything dribbled (and defined) in black.
Beneath it the cowboy bowtie, a curtseying crucifix.
It was an art of outlines, she supposed. A look of absence and crevasses that greeted you. Ashen eyes, into which you tumbled — to buy chicken and, for an eat-in moment, live the U.S.A., and be happy like them.
Lips torn out, a paper-cut.
Today — in a glance at KFC — An Heng managed to see closer.
Was she hallucinating? Had they altered the Colonel's lighting? Or had she never studied him this way?
Between those raven fissures and their white-flesh peaks was colour: a tawny gouache (or was it rouge?) as though cheery, ghost-chef Sanders had bought himself some makeup, or acquired post-coital flush, a dab of "peril" to fluff the collar of his shirt— a wing, anyway — and his apron straps.
Whatever, our guy looked doused in flame.
An Heng was despairing of this residual, life-without-man.
She missed wrenching caps from Gatorades, Kit's terror of dogs that snapped.
On a red, bucket-shaped background — the tone of scalded poultry from Kentucky abattoirs.
She introduced him to every Beijing KFC.
So many, she lost count. For three months, they toured the eateries — it was all An could think of, besides places with "Heaven" in their name: temples, parks, a happening bar or two.
After that first night in Tuanjiehu Road, when the scruffy young westerner slipped in through the Colonel’s doors, past a co-worker's feverish mopping. 11-00 pm, closing time.
How An pouted — and tried to raise her tiny breasts, nestled beneath the pink t-shirt. "Anne", askew at the pocket, twisting this way and that.
Look at me, look at me.
She stared at him — until her face felt hot, as she smoothed her hands on grey army-pants.
A girl alongside took his order, while An fumbled over a wallop of nuggets.
The Yankee was a "Mandarin Moron", naturally, as her KFC friends termed it. He pointed at pictures on the menu, and said nothing. Clueless foreigner, with "Ni hao" and "Zaijian" as sole vocabulary — hello, goodbye, and mindblowing gestures in between.
Then you marvelled at westerners' audacity, as well as their sexy-stupid mistakes. Their physical ugliness! Especially the overweight Europeans and Russians, and the bald and gawky brigade.
Huge, round-eyed and bellied. The strawberry nose.
Why did only the malformed come to Beijing? Aliens, so bilious and bleached. Whatever happened to western attractiveness? To the Brad Pitts and David Beckhams? In Hong Kong, were they? Clooney, Gere, royal Harry and William? Lurking in Shanghai? Taipei?
No head-turners ever reached the capital.
Let alone KFC, Tuanjiehu Lu.
Something, though, had ignited between An Heng and U.S. standard brickface.
She held her breath.
As the lao wei queued for his chicken bucket.
"You are very nice," he said suddenly, in perfect Chinese, winking.
An Heng's world folded into the wrap and fries before her.
"Bu keqi," she replied. Not at all.
"You are from America?"
"Apple pie as they come."
An Heng smiled very sweetly. Dry city — at unexpected rain.
His order arrived.
From her perch at the counter, before a phalanx of customers, she glimpsed Mandarin-speaking him eating alone at a booth. A stranger joined his table. It was a crowded night. Then another local, and another. He looked embarrassed at the crush. They were Chinese. He was not.
She wrote her cellphone number on a special-offer leaflet — and headed for the washroom.
On her way, An collected several trays. Caught Brooklyn, New York's eye — and grinned, indicating the note between forefinger and thumb.
Mr. America beamed, as if someone sprayed "Have Me" on her face. She went to his table — and stacked three cartons. An Heng prayed her colleagues had not noticed.
The petal falling to his wrist.
That the foreigner would be cool. Such a brazen act could cost the job. She was still at high school, needed kuai for university in September.
Back at her post, everything seemed okay — KFC smokin'.
At midnight, he was waiting at China Post.
"Walk you home?" he said, excitedly — again in flawless Mandarin — as though showering her in champagne.
She ducked — and led the way.
They walked north along Tuanjiehu Lu, past the bank and travel agency to the main road — "Gonti"— where she stopped him.
It was January — a frigid wind blew between the high-rises and Chaoyang Golf Club opposite.
"Show me the Jing?" he suggested — this time in English, obviously rating her hipness. "Sanlitun? Suzie Wong?"
An Heng giggled, pulled her scarf more tightly around her sore, winter throat.
"Tomorrow night," she told him.
"You have my number."
"Yes, yes," he replied, at a slice.
"Meet me here at 7pm?"
The American frowned — and she crossed the busy lanes unescorted.
In spite of KFC, she knew about real appetizers.
"You are very sexy!" he called out in Mandarin, tones every which way in the cold.
He had had his fill — linguistic and otherwise — for one night. She should have left it at that.
But of course did not.
Like most foreigners, Kit was an open book. Or easy reinvention. It hardly mattered. Glamorous and funny, he was a ticket out of Tuanjiehu, or felt like one — even though An's schoolmates ridiculed her naiveté. Western boys were notoriously unreliable — the worst cheats. Which was why, unlike Chinese men, they bought so many presents.
Did An know nothing?
In "The Jing" he cobbled together an existence for himself … a year of intensive Mandarin at Peking University (a Harvard Program) along with "Asian Business Practice", all-nighters messaging buddies back home, two language exchange students for English conversation (pocket money, lust), and thrice-weekly, rather fevered workouts at the gym.
Simply put, he was lonely as hell — and wanted in.
"What does it mean?"
The burning question was Kit's second name: "Tan mian hua!"
Nestled in her warm, fragile arms — from the bedroom, he was listening to a pedlar cycling by, the baritone song echoing in the rear courtyard of An's low-rise building.
"Flick the feathers," she told him. "He stuffs duvet covers."
"With his feathers?"
These March mornings (the highlight of An Heng’s adolescence) branded in her heart.
Parents at work, for an entire month; she skipped school until midday, and invited Kit home.
The neighbourhood cameras and block leader caught it all.
She would never have allowed Kit to steal her innocence. But in January, soon after they met, he confided that his parents died three years before — in a Cape Cod accident. Without siblings and in possession of a hefty inheritance — Mr. America was suddenly much more than a cautious, if titillating, prospect.
In China — well, at Number Eight Middle School, Tuanjiehu KFC and in the tales of Pu Songling — you dreamt of such windfalls: no head of the man's family to deal with. No inconvenient brothers. Kit would always be hers. Alone.
In she jumped — so did he.
Surely her body was home."What does that say?"
"Shou Po Lan Er Lou!"she chimed in, pecking Kit's forearm to the rhythm, growing a little impatient. "Recycling."
"It's like Mary Poppins out there," Kit replied gravely, looking at the bare willow tree, and leafless veins upon a wall. "This one’s got a great voice."
"Lullabies for adults," quipped An, climbing into her school uniform. "We must hurry."
"Comedy for the kids?"
"You got it," she giggled. "They tease the recycling man because he can't keep his bike steady."
"Hard to believe we’re in downtown Beijing."
"Xiang Jian Zi Qiang Cai Dao," she crooned impatiently, stamping her foot. "Don’t ask me what it means, either. Come on! Get up!"
Kit struggled into jeans and coat.
"'Sharpen the scissors, sharpen the knives', dummy," she said, cheeks flushed, heading for the door. "Like we do every week."
Kit looked puzzled; he often looked like that.
"Whitewash" An called it.
Protection from "too hot".