The waiting is intolerable in the soupy Beijing heat of Liang Huiping’s sixth floor flat. She glares at the hourglass spinning endlessly on her computer. The screen glares back—a palimpsest of her warped reflection in the curved glass of the monitor, superimposed on her Instant Messenger. She clamps her legs together and squeezes, looking down at her black silk stockings and hoping her spider veins won’t show on the webcam. If you can’t see the map of broken capillaries, sprawled across her thighs with the same haphazard logic as Beijing city planning, she has nice legs for a forty-five-year-old.
“Ta ma de,” she mutters under her breath to the computer. “Hurry up!”
“Eh, Liangzi, where’d you get the computer?” her ex-husband Zhang Wei had asked earlier while dropping off their teenage son Pengpeng—whose name meant ‘friend of Premier Li Peng’—for his weekly Sunday visit. Zhang Wei eyed the machine squatting on a white linen doily and taking up most of the little folding table in Liangzi’s dining nook.
“It was a farewell present from my work unit, but it keeps crashing.” Liang Huiping hardly looked at her ex-husband. They’d been divorced for eight years and she was still disgruntled that he’d left her to marry his secretary. Her only consolation was that Secretary-Wife finally turned thirty-six this year—the age Liangzi had been when Zhang Wei left her. Out of spite, Liang Huiping purchased a pair of massive, red woolen underpants—the kind a country grandmother might wear—for the Secretary-Wife ‘s benmingnian Chinese Zodiac birth year.
Pengpeng peered at the screen and said, “Win ’98.” Her ex-husband nodded. Liang Huiping had no idea what they meant.
“I see,” she said, unwilling to admit ignorance in front of them. But she was desperate to find a solution. She was also afraid that if either of them started tinkering with the machine, they might find the pictures she’d been downloading. Her secret stash.
Oh the pictures! For a while they had satisfied her. At first she’d been embarrassed even to think of them waiting for her on her hard drive. Later, she began to see it as her right, as if this stable of young, white stallions existed solely for her pleasure. Unlike the other lovers she’d had, she didn’t have to talk with them, didn’t have to put up with their smelly socks or their inane blather about the World Cup or cricket fighting. It didn’t even matter whether they were nice or had decent personalities. She could turn them on and turn them off at will, and never had to worry what they thought of her overbite, her spider veins, or the disconcerting dumpling of fat collecting on her belly.
“You need Win 2000,” said Pengpeng. He had been such a good boy, but his father had turned him into one of those know-it-all ‘little emperors.’ “You can buy a pirated copy on any street corner in Zhongguancun. Then the system won’t crash. I can pick up a copy and install it for you, Ma.”
It touched her that he would offer to do something for her for once, but she worried he would find her stash.
“Never mind,” she said. “It’s fine.”
As she sits waiting for the hourglass to stop turning, Liang Huiping can no longer imagine how she lived before the arrival of the computer. It has so thoroughly consumed her, that even her layoff has been tinted with a serendipitous glow.
After she’d been pronounced “redundant” by her work unit, and sent home to “wait,” indefinitely, for work, Manager Li had paid an evening visit to her one bedroom flat in the shoddy, state-owned enterprise “big block” tenement between the Beijing Zoo and the Xizhimen subway station, where everyone from her work unit lived. Liang Huiping peered through the iron panels of her anti-theft door at Manager Li. He’d arrived with a crate in his arms, breathing hard from the staircase, his thinning comb-over a clump of glistening threads on his sallow scalp.
“Li Jun,” she said, unlocking the door.
“Sorry about today. I brought you something from the office.” Manager Li stepped inside and slipped off the pleather dress shoes she’d given him when they became lovers two years earlier. Liang Huiping noticed the chunky, gold-toned letter D—which had once so jauntily off-set the somber black, giving it a European flair—had lost its plating. Only a few sad flecks of gold-colored coating remained. Still, she mused, watching his slouchy middle-aged shuffle across the floor in socks threadbare at the heels, his devotion to these shoes showed his true feelings for her.
Li Jun, set the crate on the floor, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and unpacked an old Legend Brand PC and monitor. “We’re getting rid of these to make room for newer ones. I thought you might like one. Now you can look for a new job online.” He set up the machine and showed her how to use the 163 dial-up connection, email and the Mozilla browser. He showed her the popular job search site, Zhaopin Dot Com and set her browser to the search engine Sohu.
By the time he was done, the jar of green tea she’d made him had grown tepid.
“I’ll make another,” she said.
“Don’t bother.” Li Jun jiggled his right leg, which was crossed over the left. “I have to get going soon.” He uncrossed his legs and rose.
Liang Huiping came close and rubbed her leg along his inner thigh. “So soon?”
“Look, there’s something I have to tell you.” Sweat beaded on his sloping forehead. “We can’t see each other anymore. I’m really sorry.”
Liang Huiping took this news like a paper cut. Something so small shouldn’t sting like that, but it did.
“Don’t try to weasel out of it with a cheap, ‘I’m sorry!’ Start explaining.”
“You know I don’t like it when you get aggressive like that.”
Liangzi had shown him her tough side before and Manager Li had recoiled, saying she didn’t seem like a woman. Her best friend Wang Jingping had advised her to sheath her claws. “Better pretend you’re helpless. Men need to imagine that they’re in charge.”
“I’m sorry,” she told Manager Li, lowering the slate-colored rectangles of her tattooed-on eyebrows, once so fashionable and in demand among the ladies of Beijing. She gazed at the floor and modulated her voice until it was high, and light with lilting pathos. “So, who is it?”
“What are you saying?” Li Jun wobbled on his heels and looked at point near her ear.
Pi hua! That’s fart talk! She thought, wanting to reach out and cuff his ear. Instead, she folded her hands meekly, and tried to sound pathetic. “Who’s the new woman?”
“What do you mean?” His eyes drilled into the door.
She studied his face. How many women were left? Remotely attractive women, that is. She counted on her fingers and came up with three. Had they really laid off that many people before her? How had she not really noticed until it was her turn? She listed the names of the three possible women. Li Jun’s face betrayed him on the third name. The secretary.
He’s fucking the secretary, she thought. “But I’m all alone in the world without you to take care of me.” But she said it unconvincingly, without the requisite baby voice. Li Jun eyed the door. She had been a manager just like him. Competent, organized, efficient. A regular nü qiang ren —’power woman’ type. But they always went for the simpering secretary in the end. She wanted to stand up and put him in his place, but restrained herself for the sake of saving the relationship. “Don’t leave,” she wailed as he inched crabwise toward the door and slipped on his shoes.
After he left, Liangzi washed her face three times and stared at herself in the fluorescent bathroom light, feeling revolted at herself. How good it would have felt to make Manager Li stand there, shriveling in his socked feet, cowed before her.
“You think a computer is a fair trade?” She jabbed at his imaginary frame in the air before her with the tip of her finger, once-slender, but now sleek as a seal. “First you lay me, then you lay me off. You’re really interesting.”
With one hand inside a box of stale moon cakes left over from the last Mid-Autumn Festival, Liang Huiping began to click random links on the Sohu website Li Jun had opened for her.
She found news stories, human-interest articles, commercial sites, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and pictures of naked women.
Liang Huiping had grown up in an era of prudery and political marriages. Her divorce had coincided with Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to modernize and his iconoclastic proclamation that getting rich was glorious and patriotic. Comrade Xiaoping pronounced the Maoist ideals of her youth a mistake, while her husband pronounced their marriage over—just one more political alliance tossed into the dustbin of history. Let China reach capitalism first so it can build a material base from which to build communism! Let fine young party members replace their aging wives with smartly-dressed young secretaries! The Cultural Revolution was a declared a mistake, and with it so many ill-fated unions such as hers.
After the humiliation of the divorce, she’d kept to herself, frustration seething in her. When Manager Li had made his first pass two years ago, Liang Huiping had surprised them both with the ferocity of her response. Afterwards, Li Jun lay in his socks next to her on her narrow bed, his cheek against her buckwheat pillow, his thinning hair fanned out like a cock’s comb.
“Sanshi ru lang,” he said, repeating the famous saying, “Women in their thirties are like wolves.”
“Sishi ru hu—and women in their forties are like tigers.” Liang Huiping grinned, before remembering that this made her overbite stick out. She closed her mouth, pulling the saffron-colored sheet over the embarrassment of her legs. She hadn’t had a man in six years, she felt grateful for the attention.
“Oh Liangzi,” said Manager Li, sighing into the space between her small torpedo-shaped breasts. “I knew you had a tiger in you.”
Thus began their two-year fling and when it ended, Liang Huiping knew what it felt like to be on the losing end of being both a wife and a mistress. Sure, men want their women to be like tigers in bed, but when it comes to life, they still prefer the whiny secretaries, who pretend they are only paper tigers.
Liangzi made a vow of celibacy that night, clicking links until her fingertips were sore. Men were too much mafan.
She clicked the half-naked shot of a schoolgirl. The girl was on her elbows and knees with her bottom in the air. The darkness of her pubic hair shone through the pale blue of her cotton panties like the outline of a body in a steamy shower. She found the image shocking, but it intrigued her that young people were so much more open about sex than they’d been in her day. She ran her hands along her thickening waist. Would she trade if she could and go back to being a naïf? She remembered what it had been like to believe men and their lies. She clucked out loud with her tongue and gave her head a wry shake.
The days that followed were filled with a frenzy of sites she found clicking link after link. The schoolgirl’s diaphanous panties gave way to Japanese women trussed up with ropes, and then somewhere in all of it she found the men. White men—their bodies huge and ursine, their erections firm, purple and long as the eggplants she was so fond of cooking. There were men with muscles so broad she thought she could hardly get her arms around the girth of them, men with moustaches like the golden sheaves of freshly cut wheat she’d helped harvest as a schoolgirl during compulsory volunteer days. The men in leather caps like Comrade Lenin’s, with harnesses, whips, and rings in places heretofore unimaginable, frightened and thrilled her at the same time. But it was the hirsute men—their hulking bodies covered with a thatch of golden fur, springing from their loins, and coating their backs and square-muscled rumps in a downy fuzz into which she ached to plunge her fingers—oh, it was these hairy beast-men, who brought her to high tide. They were probably capable of nothing more articulate than a few grunts, and that was just how she wanted it.
Liangzi had never abused herself much before. She’d discovered sex could be enjoyable with Manager Li, but it was nothing like the pleasures she could induce on her own, as she imaged her every whim being serviced by these Western He-Men. She bossed them around, put them in their places when they didn’t meet to her standards, and reveled in generally being smarter and more powerful than any of them.
That first week passed in a daze. She left the computer only to use the toilet, ate instant noodles raw out of the bag, and slept only when her eyes and nether parts were so overloaded with sensation that they could take no more. It was a glorious week.
After an agonizing weekend, during which she took Pengpeng to the movies, out for ice cream, for walks in the park and an afternoon at the swimming pool—more activity than he’d seen during the past year of his visits—to ensure that he wouldn’t start playing with the computer, she was finally alone with her darlings again.
But the damn computer was so slow. If she loaded more than one picture at a time the machine would freeze. As the number of pictures on her cramped hard drive grew, the machine slowed down even more. Drastic measures were needed. She called Cao Jing, the computer technician from her old work unit, who’d been laid off a few weeks before her.
“What’s Win 98,” she asked, “and what’s wrong with it?”
Cao Jing told Liangzi the operating system was unstable. Her advice echoed Pengpeng’s. Install Windows 2000 and it would stop crashing all the time.
The search for Win 2000 took Liang Huiping to Zhongguancun. Even though she’d been there just last year, she was shocked by the changes, as she rode the bumpy 310 xiaoba mini-bus along Baiyilu. The road construction begun in ’97 was complete. The once traffic-clotted two-lane street was now a streaming thoroughfare, with towering ‘sky bridge’ pedestrian overpasses above, and a wide swath of sleek asphalt below.
Zhongguancun was a vortex of high-tech hustling. Around the corner from Beida, China’s premier university, the Hailong complex rose in sheets of burnished silver-toned glass. Outside the imposing doors, pirated software vendors milled about, hawking their spit over the edge of the marble stairs, and plying their wares in cardboard containers or black trash bags. Every kind of software imaginable was for sale, music CDs and VCD movies.
A young peasant woman, face prematurely leathered from the sun and sleeping toddler bound to her with a cloth, tugged Liangzi’s sleeve. “Maopian’r,” she whispered.
Liang Huiping had never seen a yellow movie before. “You got Win 2000?”
The woman smiled, exposing a half-rotted incisor. “Sure. Want some movies, too?” She leaned close. “Good western porn.”
Liangzi blushed. “I don’t watch that stuff, but my husband wants a few disks. You recommend.”
The vendor returned with the disks in a thin cardboard envelope.
The installation was easier than Liangzi had expected. What she did not expect was to lose all of her files. She clicked frantically on the new interface, but everything was gone. Her stable of stallions, emptied, gone off to unknown pastures.
While she was repopulating her stable, she discovered a foreign man’s profile posted on My Rice Dot Com’s online dating site. His bio stated that he spoke rudimentary Chinese and came to Beijing regularly for business. He was a graybeard in his fifties, with eyes blue as a ghost, and a thick tangle of silvery chest hairs sticking out from his collar.
Liangzi sent him a message in English. It took her over an hour to formulate it with the help of Pengpeng’s dictionary: “about woman of sex passion chinese say ‘thirty like wolf, forty like tiger’. I forty more, crazy of want with western man do love.”
Within twenty-four hours, she received a message back: “My little Cherry Blossom! Send me pictures. I am coming to Beijing in three months. We must meet!—JerBear.”
Soon they were sending each other instant messages. The language barrier made communication difficult, but it also blocked out any inhibitions she might have had about asking for what she wanted. Liang Huiping took another trip to Zhongguancun and returned with a webcam, electronic Chinese-English dictionary and a book on PC maintenance. It made no sense to rely on men to take care of something so important.
Now the waiting is nearly intolerable in the soupy Beijing heat of Liangzi’s sixth floor flat. She glares at the hourglass spinning endlessly in space on the ancient screen of her computer. After installing the webcam software and opening Instant Messenger, the computer seems to be up to its old tricks again. The hourglass spins as Liangzi waits for JerBear’s face to finally appear on screen. She runs her hands down the smoothness of her black silk stockings and feels, perhaps for the first time, truly sexy.
A frozen image emerges. It’s him! He is yawning, his mouth exposing teeth like gambling dice, dotted with the black of fillings. After an infuriating 45 seconds, a new frame appears. JerBear is waving at her and licking his lips.
“My Cherry Blossom,” he writes, “do you know about one-handed typing?” And although Liangzi’s simple English cannot interpret his message, the motions of JerBear’s hand on his penis speak a language she understands immediately.
“Wo xihuan ni de jiba,” she writes. Of course, the slang for penis is not in the electronic dictionary, and so the ji in jiba is rendered ‘chicken. “I like you of chicken,” reads her response. Liangzi is wondering how to explain that by ‘chicken’ she doesn’t mean the ji for ‘prostitute,’ when JerBear writes back.
“Chicken? Maybe you mean cock?”
She looks up the words one at a time. Ji? Yexu ni beibi gongji? Something about a base, unkind rooster. It doesn’t make any sense, but the florid stalk in his fist does. Even in freeze frames coming every 45 seconds, she can tell by the blur that his hand is moving. It makes her silk stockings sticky.
“I like,” she writes, mouse poised for the next translation.
“Show me your pussy.”
She hovers her mouse over the text. Out comes more nonsense. Biaoxian gei wo ni de maomi. She guesses at what it might mean, hoping he isn’t into anything too kinky involving animals. She’s seen those bestiality porn sites. Some westerners are truly sick.
“So sorry,” she writes finally, “I against cat allergy.”
“Your cunt. Show me.”
Not in the dictionary.
“I want to see you naked.” JerBear leers at the camera. Liangzi wishes the images weren’t coming so slow. Mercifully, she finds the word for ‘naked,’ and grins back, no longer caring if her buckteeth show.
“You first,” she commands. Her perfect syntax is rewarded. JerBear’s shirt comes off. His chest hair is so thick it looks like he’s wearing a gray woolen sweater. This drives Liangzi wild. Her clothes come off with such frantic motions that she rips her new stockings. Oh, but she doesn’t care anymore. She is a dark swollen plum beneath her fingers. She imagines him eating her like overripe fruit, dripping juice down his chin when she comes.