D talked about South Africa like it was one of his brothers who’d been taught, since birth, to hate himself. Like Harold, his mother’s bastard son, or William, who had sex with the nanny as a child. He told their stories simply, like inglorious facts of an inglorious world. The same way he told me one afternoon in Taiwan, as billboard trucks and street vendors screeched past our open window, that he’d been raped beneath a highway overpass by a guy with a gun.
I didn’t know anything then but how to love, and even that was like gripping for pebbles in the dark, the interminable selfishness of youth urging me on. I’m ashamed to admit it but, like so many others who cut pieces from him since he was a child, there was something in D I wanted: a fearless vulnerability. A relentlessness that stripped each moment to its purest form. Now I know these things are some of survival’s most complicated scars, but at twenty-one, they seemed like another way to experience freedom.
With D I did things that made me feel like I had been asleep my whole life; like there was a world beyond the one I knew, and to experience it, all I had to do was let go. Like taking the train to the south of the island on Saturday afternoon when I should have been at work; it cost me my apartment and my job, but gave me three days on a white sand beach that still feels as real as you do right now, watching D bob up and down in the crystal blue water, more thankful than I have ever been for any warm summer day, or any chance to play at love.
We had barely been together a year when we decided to leave Taiwan. It was one of those weekends when the party from the night before overtook the next day, which bled into the next, until it had supplanted every other plan. We’d spent the morning scrounging for pennies in the parking lot when we should have been at work. We drowned out scooters and screaming vendors with two high-powered floor fans and a green and yellow sarong. I’ll never forget how unbearably beautiful it was to watch him perch on our shared mattress, cocking his head this way and that, like a bird, or the way he jumped to his feet in a burst of energy and shouted, “Let’s move to China!” Then threw himself on me as if he needed to trap me there, stretching his whole body over mine—leg against leg, arm against arm—until I told him what he should have already known: Yes, of course, I will go. I will go with you anywhere in the world.
We contacted a placement agency, and a few weeks later flew to Beijing where we were given tiny green passports that D called our “communist papers,” and shuffled onto a train that would take us to our new jobs. We smuggled a bottle of gin into a sleeper car and spent the three days it took us to get to Wuxi drunk, watching grey-faced women in stained uniforms shuffle up and down the aisles as miles of rice fields and concrete raced into a blur.
A short man in a black suit met us at our final stop. He presented us, in an air-conditioned Lincoln with tinted windows, to six thousand kindergarten, elementary, and high-school kids with a wave of his hand. They were walking around a gated compound in identical black tracksuits, each with a single gold stripe down the leg and arm.
D loved the way they marched silently between buildings with matching haircuts, and packed fifty at a time into unpainted concrete rooms with simple wood desks and one big blackboard. He even loved the Chinese Teachers, who delivered lessons through battery-powered headsets that transformed classrooms into auditoriums, and the fact that we were the only foreign teachers on the campus of an “international school.”
“They need us,” he laughed, raising his glass of rice wine and orange juice.
Each morning at five, the whole school gathered in a concrete quad, and a woman’s pre-recorded voice blared from mounted speakers on white poles, leading an evenly spaced, perfect square of bodies through knee and neck bends, arm and leg circles. D walked up and down the rows with his camera, looking oblongly into each face, taking unapologetic sets of rapid-fire photos as they squinted into the first rays of the rising sun.
The same voice interrupted all classes every three hours for eye exercises. I’d be in the middle of a round of flashcards, desperately trying to keep them focused, when suddenly the tinny speaker above their heads crackled to life and started to count. No matter what I was doing—in the middle of a sentence, calling up a student to write on the board—all the kids would drop their pencils, bow their heads, and make little mini-circles around their temples and eyelids. There were days when it was the only time I saw them quiet—a passing glimpse into their secret world—but despite the light their obedience shed on their lack of respect for my class, there was something beautiful about standing there with my back to the board, watching the gold stripes of each arm move, in perfect synchronization, from back to front.
When the sun went down, D and I would fix two stiff Chinese drinks and sit cross-legged on our living room floor; in my life, there has never been a purer idea of love than me and D on that floor, marooned in the middle of China, telling stories that made us cry or laugh or puff our chests out, drinking until the borders of our bodies blended, until it seemed we might have crawled inside one another, and peered eerily out.
On our days off we took a taxi into town, and wasted the day walking from one end of Wuxi’s shopping district to the other eating street food. It was a Saturday, and we’d been directionless for hours. I got side tracked by a jumble of red-gold slippers in a junk-store, trying on shoe after shoe that was interminably small, when a long stream of water splattered against my temple, and spider webbed across my cheekbone. I screamed, and just caught myself from falling in the shadow of D’s menacing form.
“Freeze!” he said, knees bent, feet shoulder width apart, fingers wrapped around a bright, neon green water gun.
I eased from a crouched position, hands over my head, “Maybe we can work something out?” I grabbed a handful of shoes and threw them while diving behind an aisle of cooking utensils. He chased me to the back of the store, shooting until rivulets of water collected in puddles on the floor. We knocked into a display of hoola hoops, laughing as tee shirts wrapped in plastic fell down around us. When the store clerk started yelling about the mess, D wrapped his arm around my shoulders and walked me out the door.
On the taxi ride back to the compound, he rolled down his window and started taking random shots into the crowd. The driver caught on quick, chuckling with pleasure as he slowed down beside innocent Chinese workers so D could line up his shots: delivery men with gas tanks strapped to their motorcycles; old women on bikes, grocery bags swinging from their handles; teenagers in school uniforms; a family of four squeezed precipitously onto one scooter.
Every time a stream of water made contact he would shout out a number—a running tally of his victims—and the driver would howl with laughter as he sped up. “D!” I screamed, watching him slide down so low in the seat only his eyes were visible. Springing forward and shouting bang bang bang! with each pull of the trigger.
I knew what he was thinking: these people, going about their lives, fell asleep years ago and never woke up; I tried to laugh, but each breath of air caught in my throat. “So they can breath,” he said to me once, after spending an afternoon singing every time someone tried to talk to him. “So they can open their eyes, and see how dull it’s all become.”
It could have been anything for the driver: the rush of two foreigners in his cab, feeling accepted by some far-off, idealized world. When D ran out of water, he took us to a KFC and yelled importantly at the zit-faced girl behind the window. Her eyes darted nervously between D’s cocked gun and the driver until she handed over a water-filled, waxed paper cup.
“Isn’t it enough?” I said, unable to help myself.
He clucked his tongue and looked at me as if at a disruptive child; sometimes, when I was with him, I didn’t recognize myself. I was nervous and high-strung. An unreasonable parent failing to impose control. I couldn’t stop imagining how each of them felt, or what might happen if the spray caught them off guard, sending tire and metal careening across asphalt, so I put my window down and let the wind rush over my face, forcing my eyes shut.
The next morning D walked into the long snake of identically dressed bodies hurrying from dormitory to classroom, and scattered them off the concrete with streams of water from the gun, screeching excitedly as they ran cock-eyed into the street to get away from him.
He aimed for the face, and laughed as they tried to escape, like he was playing buck hunter at a dive bar. The boys broke into sprints, but the girls panicked, hiding uselessly behind pink-white forearms as expensive white powders and foundations ran down their cheeks and stained their uniforms.
I began reliving memories, like us on the train in Taiwan when he led me through three passenger cars full of dark, sullen faces to the little metal platform for smokers. It was dark and cold, but he wrestled me to the ground with kisses and pulled my underwear off over my shoes, dangling them delightedly over the three black steps that disappeared into a blur of quickly-passing rice fields. I watched with a mix of excitement and disbelief as he let them slip from his fingers into the dark, then turned to me, happy, like he’d just unburdened us. I compared that look to this one—the way his eyes lit up as he ran, dodging imaginary obstacles.
After classes I stood in the window of our apartment and listened to him off in the distance, his animal sounds ricocheting off the buildings of the high school. When he finally slipped through our front door it was well after dark. His shirt clinging to his chest, his face lit up and wild.
“It’s a war zone out there,” he said, collapsing on the floor.
“Did you win the battle?” I asked, desperately wanting to stay a recognizable part of his world, but he was already gone. Gliding effortlessly to sleep on the flat wood of our living room floor.
We were buying groceries when he found the pellet gun. It was sitting on top of one of those huge discount bins where they put all the junk, and he laughed so long and loud when he picked it up, turning it over in his hands, even I felt like he was a foreigner.
We were walking down the path, and I was telling him how the kids in my class were so bad that day I’d run to the Chinese Teacher’s office twice, begging one of them to sit in the room. D dropped his backpack and broke through a cluster of middle school girls like they were a barrier in an obstacle course to take a sucker shot at one of his students. The kid was a tenth grader named Sam who D liked a lot. When he saw his teacher sprinting towards him at full speed he just stood there, smiling, his hand reached dumbly out. D fired while running and hit him in the stomach, causing the kid to double over.
I screamed for him to stop, watching in horror as he took a sharp right into a smattering of trees, and disappeared into the thin veil of trees that lined the path.
“D one, Chinese zero!” I heard him yell.
I found him in our apartment, naked from the waist down, holding a fizzy vodka and coke. He’d been taking off one piece of clothing at a time, blasting house music with the windows open. I let him waltz me into the bathroom and lay me down in the tub. The porcelain was hard, and the back of my neck scraped against the faucet, but it had been days since he had touched me, and I needed him. We were pressed together and drunk when we noticed Sam standing our window with a flashlight, angling the beam into our living room and turning it on and off to the beat of the drum. D yelled for him to come up.
He was always better at languages than me, and the two of them sat for hours, speaking Chinese and talking about God knows what. The boy looked happy as any sixteen-year-old sitting in his teacher’s apartment drinking vodka and coke might look. I’d catch a word here and there, but they were just the same words repeated back and forth…boy, school, alcohol, parents, teacher, class, China…a circle of words that meant nothing without the connecting ones.
I went into the bathroom and stared at the slowly rising bruise along my back and neck, tracing the oddly shaped red and purple lines with my finger. I imagined him walking through the door and taking me in his arms; imagined all the ways I might convince him to leave this place, and go back to Taiwan. I pretended to watch two hours of Chinese soap operas I couldn’t understand until finally the front door opened and closed, and before I could wonder if someone had come or gone, D was standing beside me, shedding his clothes.
“These kids are so lost,” he whispered, slipping beneath the covers.
“D?” I was surprised at my voice, squeaking like a hopeless, buried bird. He turned to me, eyes closed, as I looked over his long, lanky form.
“D,” I said again, desperation clawing at my stomach. “Don’t shut me out.”
He smiled, opening his eyes to slits. “You’re all I’ve got.”
I examined what was left of him with my knees pressed to my chin, absorbing his stillness through a slowly encroaching hangover.
The next day I waited almost an hour for him on the path between our schools, then went home and propped myself up on the floor with a bottle and a book, determined to see what he looked like when he walked in that door. I woke up alone in the hot sun, my neck locked at forty-five degrees, my shirt soaked through.
I went to school not caring what happened; my hair barely brushed, my shirt untucked and rumpled. I was holding flashcards to the mixed result of muffled laughter and raised hands when he barged in, pellet gun out in front, wearing the same jeans and white button down from the day before.
“What’s going on in here!”
He looked at my students, as if I weren’t there at all.
I searched his face and clothes. Had he been with someone else? Found a way to get drugs in China?
The class fell as silent as I’d ever seen without the presence of a Chinese Teacher.
“Be quiet!” he said needlessly, walking up and down the aisles, tapping their desks with the barrel of his gun. I had to hold myself back from throwing the flashcards on the floor and tearing him from the classroom, this compound, China.
“Hands out! Eyes forward!” he shouted, which was something the Chinese Teachers yelled.
Most of the kids fell into place, their faces hard and narrow, staring blindly at the board, while others looked eagerly between themselves, as if they’d just begun a roller coaster ride at an amusement park.
“Who’s been misbehaving?” he glanced at me, but before I could answer he paused over one of the kids I liked most, and pointed the gun at his chest.
The boy stood.
“He’s been all right,” I said, suddenly unsure who I needed to protect more.
He positioned the gun flush against the boy’s temple.
“D,” I said, watching as his nine-year-old eyes found an imaginary place in the distance to fix themselves. He stood at attention. Arms down, shoulders back.
“No talking!” D screamed; there was an edge of something like humor in his voice, but nothing else.
I walked towards them, then stopped.
D towered at least a foot over the boy, and looked down over the crown of his head as he barked questions. “What’s your name?”
“Michael.” It was his English name—the one written on a piece of loose-leaf and taped to the front of his desk.
“Have you been listening to your teacher?”
The boy looked to me for help. I couldn’t believe the way his face was so complicated, as if it were his duty to stand there.
“He’s one of the better ones,” I said, hoping D would move on, but his face glazed over, and I could tell he was lost in stage directions: you stand here with this gun to your head, I hold it…I imagined him in the arms of a skinny Chinese woman, or dancing with Sam in some cheap hotel bar.
The boy’s face began to absorb a tense terror, as if he were being held up by an actual gun.
“D,” I said suddenly, “that’s the pellet gun.” As if he may have simply overlooked it.
“It’s not loaded,” he said, and for a second his eyes shifted from the boy to me and I felt, in that moment, that even he was wondering what would happen. As if it wasn’t his decision anymore.
I took another step, and suddenly his eyes shifted back to the boy, pressing the plastic barrel further into his skin and shouting out—“Bang!”— as he pulled the trigger.
The boy’s face went white, then filled completely with blood. His mouth quivered, but he stayed erect. Immobile. Until his little fingers began to tremble with the barely visible shaking of his chest, a product of his not yet fully formed tears.
I heard the sound of plastic rolling before I saw it, and when I looked down, the tiny yellow ball was sliding beneath a chair. I picked it up, put in my palm, and held it out to D, who looked at it as if it weren’t there.
The boy’s eyes collected pools of water that held tight in his sockets, trying to deny themselves. As I stood with the pellet in my palm, and D’s gun slowly lowering, I was struck by the identical gold stripes stretching from shoulder to wrist on fifty-three nine-year-olds’ arms. Flashing, with every elbow-bend, like endlessly blinking fields of golden grain and yellow stars, and at the way the little boy’s face struggled to harden, as if punishment were a thing he had been born to endure.
Amanda Fiore’s fiction has appeared in New Madrid, The Baltimore Sun, Prick of the Spindle, The Sentinel Quarterly, and Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, among others. She is a lecturer at the University of Maryland at College Park, and currently lives in Baltimore.