China Hands

My last night in Beijing, Xiao-na came to my room with two bottles of Five Star beer. This was utterly forbidden. We had somehow agreed to it earlier in the evening, as he drove me to my hotel from the dull ceremonial banquet held in my dubious honor. For a week, he had chauffeured me from temple to palace, from Mao's tomb to the Great Wall. I sat in the back with my English-speaking guide; Xiao-na steered us resolutely through shoals of bicyclists and clouds of dust.

He was six feet tall or so, towering for a Chinese man. It was his Manchurian blood, my guide explained, somewhat disapprovingly. Xiao-na had savage cheekbones and soft brown eyes and full lips that always looked as if they were ready to make a joke.

I spoke about three words of Mandarin. His English was the same. But over the course of the week we came to an understanding. Maybe it solidified the day I got him a pack of Marlboros in the foreign-currency store, then slipped it myself into the pocket of his flimsy shirt. Or the time he pulled over suddenly, bought a watermelon off the back of a truck, cracked it open, and fed it to me, shard by ruby-red shard.

We were both 21, after all—that was a language we had in common. Still, I was nervous when he finally showed up in my room. Chinese citizens were not allowed in foreigners' hotels, except to work. He would at least lose his job if we were caught, and he might even be arrested. And how would we talk to each other?

We opened one of the beers and I brought out my Berlitz phrase book. For a few minutes we sat on the bed together reading sentences about pressing matters like finding a dentist. Then we came upon a list of adjectives. Xiao-na pointed to the Chinese character for beautiful, and then he pointed to me.

We had seven hours or so before I had to catch a train to Siberia. We didn't spend any of it sleeping. I don't remember how he told me he was a virgin, but he did, and so I took my time with him. I gave him everything I knew, all the freedom I had that he did not. He was shy about kissing and held his mouth closed at first, until I teased it open. In the half-dark of the hotel room he let me take off his clothes, and then he let me take him in my mouth. After this, he grew bolder.

Somewhere around two in the morning, he led me into the bathroom—a gleaming space the size of some Chinese families' sleeping quarters—and started running the tub. Gently, he guided me into the water. With a washcloth and soap he went over every inch of me.

Later, back in the bed, he looked through the book for a particular phrase, and held it out to me: Wo ai ni. I love you.

The guide was with us again on the station platform the next morning. As the train huffed impatiently, I extended my hand to Xiao-na in farewell. We held onto each other for a few seconds longer than was proper. Anything more was forbidden.

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