Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Preventative Medicine

“You like wax?”

Morgan works Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at North Gate. The first time he sees her, she’s wearing a Beijing Normal University letterman jacket, pink beanie, and Lennon glasses. She’s scraping wax from the edges of a candle and redepositing it at the candle’s center.

“Economics. What can I get you?”

“Tiger. How do you mean?”

She pulls a Tiger Beer from the fridge and plants it on the counter. “We go through about fifty candles a night here.” Billy Joel’s “Vienna”comes on. “I figure if I get the wax from the sides and put it back around the wick, the candle might last longer.”

“In other words, you’re bored.”


Then he’s waiting in the plastic café adjoining the Sanlitun Megabox Cinema, unfolding a laptop five minutes after the showtime.


So I thought it would be a good idea to take a 20-minute nap but it turned out to be a 4-hour nap and I just woke up and I don’t think I can get to the theater in time. (I’m sorry for being a colossal twat.) Can we do noodles instead?

He takes down the address and agrees to meet her there in thirty minutes. It takes an hour on the subway, and when he sees her, she’s standing out front like a frozen lighthouse. It’s a few degrees below freezing. “Fuck me. Have you been waiting out here for thirty minutes?”

“I have.”

They enter the warm fog of the noodle place and order. She shivers convulsively.

“I’m really fucking sorry. I left as soon as I got your email.”

“What station?”

“Dongzhimen to Andingmen. The subway was crazy.”

A hot mug of tea lands in front of her. She looks skeptical.

“Obviously get whatever. It’s on me.”

She shakes her head. “I slept through our movie. That’s pretty bad.” She slurps tea and steam envelops her head and he agrees it’s pretty bad. She whips off the pink beanie and slaps it against her palm a few times.

When they finally see the movie, she cries and they chew gum together afterward. He uses the bathroom and sees a very thin man recording a very fat man flushing a toilet over and over on his iPhone. He tells Morgan about it, and she nods serenely and suggests nachos. After a few crowded Sanlitun quasi-streets, they arrive at a bar and grill that smells like a gym and order nachos.

“How did you know about these nachos?”

“I had a roommate last year with a spreadsheet of every place in Beijing that sold nachos. She would rate the nachos and color-code them by neighborhood and price, so that she could easily sort by a variety of criteria.”

“You’re fucking with me,” he says, shoving beans, cheese, and fried tortilla into his face.

“I would make that up?”

He orders a Carlsberg and drinks slowly. She abstains for a few minutes and then orders a Corona.

“How are you?” he says.

“I’ve been sort of oscillating between tears and rage all week.”

He chokes on the beer. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s a boy thing, which is pathetic.” She puts her head in her hands.

“Tell me.”

She tells him that someone messaged her online in May, asking for a date. She said thanks-but-no-thanks, as she was heading home for six weeks to Eugene, and then Brooklyn for a week before returning to Beijing. She called the guy Fuckface. Fuckface said that that was good and well, but he’d love to hang out when she got back. They did. They got very involved. He planned a lot of dates. She started staying over regularly, was given a toothbrush. His parents heard about her.

Then he stopped calling.

Morgan started calling.

He stopped answering.

Suddenly, they weren’t seeing each other. Morgan confronted Fuckface.

Fuckface said he wanted a relationship on his own terms; he wanted to be making the plans. Morgan said that was bullshit, and that they would both have to work to make the relationship stick. He shrugged, and she stopped calling. He hadn’t called, and she’d been despondent for two weeks. Now it was November, and she was furious.

“It sounds like he’s not willing to let someone into his life.”


“It’s good you got out when you did then,” he says cautiously. “Of course he can’t give you what you want.”

“But what kind of fuckface says he wants a long-term relationship, and then recoils as soon as you show affection?”

“He said he wanted a long-term relationship?”

“It was on his profile,” she murmurs, and drinks.

Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” comes on.

“Have you ever been an asshole to a girl?”

Stalling for time, he says, “A fuckface, you mean?”

She nods.

“Yes,” he says. “I have been an asshole to a girl before.”

A girl?”

“I have been an asshole to multiple girls before.”

“What are you thinking of?” she asks.

He looks at the nachos between them, no longer hungry. What was I thinking of?

“What? I have to talk about it?”

She thinks about that. “No.” She takes a nacho from the pile and eats it.

“Before I came here, I was in LA for a few days. And I acted like I was in a sort of vacuum, with no history with this person, and acted based on what came naturally to me. Then this person pointed out that there was history, and that I had already hurt her more than anyone else in the world had ever had cause or ability to hurt her. And now I was behaving based on what I wanted from one moment to another, in denial or ignorance of how she may have felt.”

“Well,” says Morgan, crumpling and uncrumpling the pink beanie. “Which was it?”


“Was it denial, or was it ignorance?”

He thinks back to the couch. “It was ignorance.”

She nods.

“It sounds a bit fuckfaced, doesn’t it?”

“A bit.”

“She says she never wants to talk to me again.” He takes out a Dubao and lights it.

“Your ex?”

He nods. “First love.”

She nods, and he resists the urge to apologize.

“What did you do to her in the first place?”

He thinks back. “I said the wrong things. I did the wrong things. I don’t want to talk about it.” It makes him sick to realize he’s never thought about this stuff. Maybe because it’s all filed under “self-contempt,” and he knows these are the reasons he suspects he’s no good. He doesn’t have to rehash the details, he just knows that they’re there if he ever cares to look. He doesn’t. Of course, it’s just as likely that he never looked back because he wants to believe he’s some kind of a saint with girls, and that’s the reason he’s never hooking up with big-toothed Polish students named Elka when Tibetan hedonists take him out on the town. In reality, the issues are either unrelated or related in ways he will probably never understand.

Morgan nods and sucks down the last third of her Corona. Whatever she wants from him she seems abruptly to have gained. He can’t tell if he’s passed a test or failed a test or if they’re just being honest with each other.

He goes home to his hostel. A new Chinese boy who can’t be older than sixteen is fast asleep in the bed beneath his, black bike helmet still on his head. The lights still on.

The next night he returns to North Gate. Morgan is working the bar again and he’s guzzling Tiger Beer again and “Vienna” is playing. He’s actually starting to like that stupid song.

“Thanks for listening to me go off the other night,” says Morgan.

“No apology necessary. I went off on you too.”

“I wasn’t apologizing. I was thanking you.”

“No thanks necessary,” he says, and drinks, and drinks, and drinks.

But he keeps arranging dates.

One night, drunk outside North Gate, he walks beside her bike.

“This is me,” she says, indicating her cross street.

A dam bursts. “You’re just out of something really, really bad, and I’m just passing through, and you need someone who will actually be there for you, but I haven’t been this into someone in a long time. Like, I’ve been wandering around San Francisco, Oakland, for months, just looking, trying to get excited about someone and there’s no one. I came here figuring I’d take a break from trying. I’m old enough to know that you don’t find someone you want to be with so strongly—like, in your fucking meat—every day. You can’t count on it happening often, or when you’d like it to, or ever.”


“I guess I’m just like, looking to get rejected.”

She cracks a smile. “That’s what you’re looking for?”

“No. I want to keep taking you out, but I also don’t want to keep texting you and bothering you if you’re way too close to this bad thing to see someone or if you’re not into me at all.”

“You mentioned that you’re ‘just passing through.’ You don’t think that’s the reason you feel this way?”

He thinks about that. “No.”

She walks her bike into a spotlight. The smile is gone, but there’s a moth over her head like a thought. “What information do you need from me, exactly?”

His brain stops working, so he scratches the back of his neck.

“How about this: I have a fantastic time hanging out with you. So let’s keep doing that.”

“Okay. Get home safe.”

“You get home safe. You know the way?”

At 3:00 p.m. he wakes up and walks to Beetle on Jiaodaokou. The wind makes his eyes hurt. He scans for a seat.

“Hey, kid.”

Robin is nestled into a pile of jackets in an olive armchair at a corner table. A bare bulb illuminates a pile of spaghetti on a purple plastic plate. She’s sipping a Long Island Iced Tea through a yellow curly straw, shocks of blonde hair escaping a Russian faux fur hat and the smoldering nub of a Dubao between her fingers. When she sees him, she grins and extends the cigarette hand to the olive armchair across from her, tipping ash onto a vacant seat.

“This seat taken?” he asks, collapsing into the armchair.

“Invisible boyfriend. How’s tricks, Pixy Stix?”

He looks around Beetle. “I closed North Gate at 5:00 a.m. yesterday. Today.” He had started working at North Gate.

“And just woke up.” She grins.

He orders a black coffee from a passing waitress.

“He wants one of these too,” says Robin, tapping the Long Island Iced Tea with her yellow curly straw. The Dubao’s coal tips ash onto the ice. The waitress goes away, and Robin violently extinguishes the Dubao. “You haven’t answered my question, kid.”

“Just writing.”

“Not today you’re not. You’re getting drunk with me.”

He rubs his face with his hands. “No.”

“Well,” she says. “Well.” She lights another Dubao. “What’s wrong, kid?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“You’re stressed. Stressed or nervous. Why are you so nervous all the time? Relax!”

He nods and sinks back into his seat. “I’m fine.”

“Tell me about Morgan.”

His coffee arrives. He shakes his head.

“But you love her?”

He sucks down scalding hot liquid and burns his tongue. “You know Snow had her baby,” he says.

“Well, ‘really like’ her, anyway.”

“I get it.”

“Touchy, touchy  . . .”

He tells her Morgan doesn’t seem to be there.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s just out of something bad,” he says. “And she just doesn’t seem . . .”

“. . . To be sending you signals?”


“Does she know where you stand?”


Robin nods. “Well,” she says. “That’s it then. We’ve all been there, kid. Hate to say. You’ve been there before, I’m sure. People don’t always return these crazy feelings we have! I think you love her.”

He looks at his coffee.

“Either way,” says Robin. “Does she make you happy?”


“It feels good to be in love,” she says. “Doesn’t it?”

He doesn’t know. “I don’t know.”

“It makes you happy, kid!”

He nods, still studying the coffee. “It makes me happy.”

She tips ash into the actual ashtray. “Told you. You’ve got to relax. What you don’t want to do is end every night wondering if there’s some way you can grind a smooch out of the situation, you know? You both get it now, if she really does know where you stand. She knows you want to smooch her, so if she wanted to smooch you too, you’d probably be smooching. Don’t be awkward about it, and don’t try to get her to order one more tequila because ‘what if’ every fucking time, you know what I mean? Not saying that you would, but . . . you get it. We’ve all been there, where you get out of something bad and it feels fucking great to have someone who’s into you just being into you. So if she wants to hang out with you—does she want to hang out with you?” He nods. “So if she wants to hang out with you, I consider that a win-win situation: she gets harmless ego stroking and you get the sheer fucking joy of her presence. Eh, kid?”

At a place called High Altitude, he and Morgan order steaming Guatemalan pour-overs, and she removes a sack of warm roasted chestnuts from her bag. They eat the fleshy nuts and drink the coffee while the shells accumulate between them. The light from the street is cold and clear. They speak warmly to each other. She’s wearing a cat sweater. Eventually she looks at the street and complains about Fuckface’s silence; she wonders aloud whether to write a letter, an email, call.

He says maybe she should forget about Fuckface.

She’s quiet for a while, staring into her coffee. “This has happened to me before.”

“What has?”

“Guys are always fucking pedestalizing me. In Eugene, when I moved to LA, now here. I meet these guys, and they immediately think I’m amazing and want to fuck me. They come after me, but I keep my distance for whatever reason. For my own reasons. Then I start to like them. But as soon as I can tell them how I feel, as soon as I can express what’s in my heart, these good feelings I’ve started to have for them, they don’t give a fuck about me. All of a sudden. It’s like the chase is over, and they have the thing they thought they wanted. It’s really hard, and it really hurts me. I mean, isn’t that some playground shit? Don’t go after someone if you’re going to lose all interest if they reciprocate. Fuck!” Misty eyes.

He looks into the pile of shells, ashamed. At the same time, he wants to take hold of her and tell her that he will not run from her. Was that what the other boys thought, and had they said as much?

“Do you feel like I’m withholding?”

“What?” he says.

“I feel like maybe I have this . . . withdrawn quality, because I can’t tell people how I feel until we’re really . . . right there. Close. And it becomes this catch-22, because every time I tell someone I love them, it ends the relationship. So why the fuck wouldn’t I withhold? But some guys . . . they like that. At the beginning. Whatever I do. I don’t mean to do it.”

“I don’t think you’re withholding,” he says mildly. “It never occurred to me.” But he recognizes that it isn’t compelling evidence for the phenomenon’s nonexistence. She gets on her bike and rides away. He tells her to get a fucking helmet.

Robin leaves Beetle, urging him to come with her. He tells her he has to write. She frowns and pats him on the head and vanishes. He stares at the empty olive armchair where she had been.

Seven hours later, he puts his laptop away and leaves Beetle. It’s freezing. He texts Robin.

MB: You at De La Poste?
RI: COME KID!!!!!!!!!!!!

His stomach rolls over and growls, and he realizes he’s starving.

He stops on the way to De La Poste and eats an enormous, steaming plate of mapo doufu, ladling chili oil onto the rice until he’s crying and the cooks are watching him with their arms crossed, looking baffled. He reads a chapter from Blood Meridian and continues for De La Poste, where Robin is beset by a potbellied “documentary filmmaker” who wants badly to sleep with her. She wheels on him when he comes in. “The kid is here! Hail to the kid!” He sits down and tries not to blush.

“You want a drink, Robin?”


He buys them two Tiger Beers from a skinny Nepalese bartender.

Robin is already very drunk.

The filmmaker says, “Where are you from, kid?”

“San Francisco.”

Robin says, “I’m the only one who calls him the kid, understand?”

“Ah, okay,” says the potbellied filmmaker. “I’ve been to San Francisco,” he says, looking into his beer.

“Hey!” Robin slaps the filmmaker across the face. “Look at the kid when you speak to him!”

The filmmaker frowns. “You’re mean when you drink.”

“I’m mean all the time.” She jams the tip of a fresh Dubao into a candle.

The skinny Nepalese laughs loudly. “Robin’s a bitch.”

“Cunt!” she screams.

The dude leaves, and Robin takes his hand in her hand, cigarette dangling from her lip, and says, “You know, you’re fucking doing it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re fucking doing it. You want to be a writer?”


“More than anything?”


He feels a silver ring on her index finger. Somehow, her holding his hand turns into him holding her hand. Candlelight flickers over her eyes.

“Then you will be.”

They are both quiet.

“That’s all there is to it. That’s what I mean when I say that you’re doing it.”

A fog creeps over his brain.

She laughs. “Don’t look so glum. Write about me when I’m dead, all right? You want to smoke some fucking hash?”

He says of course he does.

“Where’s my fucking shawl?” she asks, standing and spinning and searching.

He gets close to her and grabs a corner of the shawl she has on. “This one?”

“Yes, but let’s pretend that it’s not and that didn’t happen.”

He’s sitting across the bar from Morgan again while she dries pint glasses. The wind howls and the window fogs.

“This is really unfair.”

She lifts an eyebrow.

“Half the time we hang out, you’re stone sober and I’m on a stool replacing all my blood with Tiger Beer.”

“You’re drunk?”


Later, the bar is empty and Morgan’s exhausted.

She climbs onto a bench on one side of a table.

He takes the bench on the other side.

A single candle glows between them.

“I’m going to nap, okay?”

He doesn’t believe her.

She falls fast asleep, on her back on a wooden bench, hands buried in the pockets of the Beijing Normal University letterman jacket. There’s something “Dracula” about it: unnatural symmetry and candlelight. He watches her for a few moments then grabs a novel, Isabel Allende’s Zorro, from the shelf and starts reading. No one enters the bar.

After forty pages, Morgan sits bolt upright. It’s 1:30 a.m. They close North Gate together in silence. When the door is locked behind them and they’re standing in the subzero hutong, Morgan looks up.

“So many stars.”

He looks up.

Some stars. More than he’s seen since arriving in China. A cold, clear night in Beijing.

“Really nice,” she says.

He nods, and they stand looking at the stars.

“Get home safe.” She rides away on her bike, and he tells her to get a fucking helmet.

At the hostel, he looks at the bed under his and finds it neatly made up, no trace of the Chinese boy, except for the black bike helmet that now rests on the floor.

One night, after grilled cheese sandwiches, Morgan negotiates a pedicab for thirty kwai back to Yonghegong Temple. He leans for her lips and his heart pounds and when he arrives, her lips are gone; she’s slipped him the cheek, a warm and impossibly soft patch just above her scarf.

“Okay,” she says.

“Get home safe.”

He climbs into the pedicab and disappears.

Robin rides her bike home from the bar—weaving drunkenly—and he runs alongside her like the first night they met. She brings tea up to her bedroom, and they sit drinking Earl Grey from a pink teacup and listen to Kate Bush. She puts her head on his chest, and he runs his hand through the closely cropped hair at the back of her neck, where the black roots are showing. Robin kisses him, folding him over her. He kisses back fiercely, ducks out. “Don’t know.” She says, “Oh, you don’t know?” but she’s smiling. He says, “I’m not there.” She laughs. “Yeah, I heard that one earlier.” She drags off her shirt and her bra. He kisses her sternum, and she kisses his ear. “Take off your shirt.”

His kiss flags. “No, I’m going home.”


“Because I’m not here! I’m not feeling it! I’m drunk, and I don’t want to fuck!”

Robin says, “You are, quite literally, right here, right now.”

She smiles.

He stands up and goes to his backpack.

She leans against the headboard. “Matt?”

“Yeah. Yes?”

“Why the fuck would you go back to your hostel right now?”

He stands with one hand on his backpack, wondering why he doesn’t want to fuck Robin.

“You don’t even have to fuck me,” she laughs.

He laughs too, but it sounds fake.

“Come on.” She strips off her pants and holds up the blankets. Her bed is large and not plywood, and she’s glowing against the sheets. He strips off his filthy jeans and T-shirt and climbs into bed beside her.

She hits the light and turns on her side, and he wraps himself into the curve of her back, throwing an arm over her. She clutches it to her chest. His erection builds immediately against her. She responds with her hips, and he strips off her underwear, and she strips off his and tells him to put his fingers inside her.

He rolls her over and puts himself against her and immediately loses his erection.

They kiss fiercely again, entering a routine. The more fiercely they kiss and grind, the more flaccid he becomes. Finally they lay completely still, barely touching, and his erection returns, stronger than before. As soon as they begin to touch or grab or fuck, it vanishes. Once the pattern is obvious, he laughs.

“Why are you laughing?”


“Relax, kid.” Her voice is warm.

She says it and he has the feeling she understands something he does not.

After thirty minutes more of grappling in the dark, Robin rolls off him and puts his arm over her again and murmurs, “Relax, kid,” and almost immediately begins to snore very softly. He kisses her spine and lies still beside her, awake until dawn, the taste of cheap beer and cheap cigarettes clinging to the backs of his teeth.

Suddenly he’s awake and being karate chopped and the sun is strong. “Oh. Person,” says Robin, remembering.

He kisses her forearm because it’s across his face.


They sit naked in a pool of cold sunshine, drinking Earl Grey from the same pink ceramic teacup.

Another night outside North Gate at 2:00 a.m., everyone asleep but them, he leans in again. This time Morgan doesn’t turn. He takes her top lip between his two and takes three long breaths of her. He tries to create the memory of what it’s like to be in that kiss. He pulls away, suspicions confirmed: Beijing looks different post-kiss. Breath clouds between their faces.

“What do you think?”

She shrugs.

He sees her one more time, outside the subway stop closest to her apartment. Producing the abandoned bike helmet from his backpack, he says, “I don’t know if it’ll fit.”

“Oh, where’d you get this?”

She puts it on her head and fiddles with the buckle while he watches Beijing stream in and out of the subway station in a thick, unending cord. “Hey. It fits.” She punches herself in the helmet.

“I hardly recognize you. How’s it feel?”

“Safe.” She smiles like the first time.

The next day he leaves Beijing for Ürümqi.  

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