It was barely light out when Desmond woke up. The sun always took a while to choke through the blanket of haze that enveloped Shanghai most mornings, leaving Desmond–and this is the first and last pun, I swear–in the dark about what time it was.
He reached across his bed stand, picked up a half-empty glass, and took a sniff. It was warm, stale wine. Desmond gagged, though he was glad it wasn’t more whiskey. He put it back down and squinted around the room, looking for signs of water.
The girl was up and looking around the floor for her bra. God, how old was this one? She was on winter break from Juilliard, where she was studying piano or cello or something else that Chinese parents could really get behind. Desmond was pretty sure he graduated college before she hit puberty. She told him the oldest guy she’d ever been with was 40 though, so he was only the silver medalist in creepiness.
Desmond had a type: he liked girls with confidence. These 22-23 year old girls, they had confidence in droves. It was the myopically optimistic kind based on faulty logic and false reasoning, but the confidence was nonetheless real.
These girls hit 24, and they entered the panic zone. What am I doing with my life? Why am I the only one of my friends not getting married? Should I freeze my eggs? All while the Facebook and WeChat highlight reels of their peers slowly eroded away their self-esteem as they entered and passed their “ideal years.” Ideal for what, aside from panic and depression, Desmond was not sure.
Then the 30’s hit, and those callously deemed in Chinese culture as “leftover women” tended to re-collect themselves. They were educated. They were successful. They had a clearer idea of who they were, who they weren’t, and what they want for themselves. Their confidence was now built on a foundation of wisdom and experience, and they saw a loser like Desmond coming from two continents and an ocean away.
He remembered he postulated this theory to the girl the night before, some time between his fifth and sixth glass of overpriced pear-flavored Grey Goose. She wasn’t impressed by the insight. Or his choice in beverages.
Whatever, still got them panties off.
“Hey, you leaving?” He regretted asking such a redundant question as soon as it slipped out of his mouth.
“Yeah, I’ve got a thing tomorrow,” she said in a tone that sounded uncomfortably close to sympathy. She snapped on her bra and was now pulling her hot little, black dress on over her head.
“Let me call you a cab.”
The cab that showed up at the front of Desmond’s apartment complex was not the cab indicated in his Kuaidi app, but the driver could tell Desmond which cab was supposed to show up and where the girl was trying to go. After a year in this country, Desmond was slowly acknowledging “close enough” as an acceptable customer service standard.
The girl could not have cared less. If the driver had told her he was going to chain her to the drying rack in his basement apartment where he hid his third child from the state tax bureau, she would’ve at least thought it over before deciding to spend one more minute with Desmond waiting for another cab.
She offered Desmond her cheek for a final kiss goodbye and then climbed in the backseat.
“Let me know when you get home,” he said.
“Oh, and, uh…Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas.” She forced out the meekest of smiles. Desmond watched her give directions to the driver and then take off. She didn’t turn back to look at him once. It was alright. He couldn’t have afforded a second date anyway.
The next time Desmond woke up, an hour later that morning, was from his usual alarm at 7:30am. He was a godless man, but he spent most of his self-aware existence accepting that Christmas was the most sacred of holidays and that not working on Christmas was a basic human right. Unsurprisingly for a country that struggled with basic human rights, China did not acknowledge this one as well.
Thus Desmond had to promise his supervisor that he’d show up to the office on Christmas Day. On the other hand, he’d also promised himself he’d stop using Tinder, since his local Chinese salary was essentially room and board and a bag of rice, and that promise went unfulfilled, too. The key to disappointing others was to disappoint yourself first.
The first WeChat message from a coworker came three hours later:
Desmond had heard that in Korea it was perfectly acceptable for men to call off work because they were hungover. Lacking that option here, he decided the best response was no response, at least until he could think of something more tactful than “I’m fucked up, and it’s Christmas, bitch.”
The girl from earlier Christmas morning might’ve been taking the same approach. Desmond had sent a few short but emoji-laden messages to her that hadn’t elicited any response. She did, however, post nine selfies to WeChat and captioned them all “Merry Christmas Eve!!” He was glad she made it home safely at least.
He suddenly got another message.
Hey, I’m at the hospital. Can you come today, or are you working?
Shit. His cousin Stella had messaged him the night before to let him know she’d arrived in town and was going to see their grandpa on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, when he got his cousin’s message, he was trying to get some 23-year old girl drunk.
Stella’s son was spending their first post-divorce Christmas with his father’s family in Pittsburgh this year, so Stella decided to spend it with her grandpa and delinquent cousin in Shanghai. She was two years younger than Desmond and, at some point in their past, might’ve even looked up to him. He was a writer. He gave up his job and moved out to LA. He was chasing the dream. She got married, had a kid, and bought a house in Cleveland fucking Ohio.
Yet in the past couple years, reality hit hard for both of them. He wasn’t the screenwriter he thought he could be, and she wasn’t in the relationship she thought it would be. He ultimately ran away to Shanghai. She had to stay, pick up the pieces of her life, and put them back together. In Cleveland.
Just come. Fuck your job. It’s Christmas.
Their grandpa didn’t live far from Desmond’s apartment. It was a quick walk to his hospital, and Desmond made the trek at least every week. Grandpa had suffered several strokes of various severity throughout the past decade and lost the ability to speak and use the right side of his body. About a year and a half ago, he just couldn’t handle living at home anymore, even with a full-time personal caregiver, and had to move into the hospital. That was why Desmond came back to Shanghai in the first place. Lately though, he’d often questioned why he stayed.
Stella was already in their grandpa’s hospital room when Desmond dragged himself in. She turned and grimaced at his gray sweatpants and UCLA hoodie.
“You look like shit,” she greeted him. “Are you trying to relive your glory days dropping out of grad school?”
“Hi Stella. How’s my favorite middle-aged, divorced woman?”
“I’m not middle-aged.”
“You are in Cleveland.”
They embraced. It’d been years, and both were perhaps the other’s favorite cousin. Per Desmond’s usual custom, he got the week’s update from Grandpa’s caregiver, a woman in her 50’s from a remote Chinese town now working in Shanghai for a cot at the hospital and just enough cash to send her son and grandkids back home. She reported on Grandpa’s health, his eating habits, his every outburst of anger, and way more gossip about the romantic lives of patients and hospital staff than Desmond ever cared to know about.
“Where’s Bobo?” Desmond asked Stella later while playing his grandpa in Chinese Chess on the iPad, a game which Desmond was about to lose for about the 52nd time in a row.
“Grandpa’s roommate. The old guy over there.” Desmond motioned to the empty bed next to his grandpa’s. The caregiver furtively ducked out of the room.
“Oh that guy? That guy’s dead.”
“Yeah, he was dead when I got in this morning. His whole family was here. The daughters were just wailing and crying for hours. Then they put his body in a blue bag and wheeled him out.”
Desmond stared at her dumbfounded. He turned to his grandpa.
Grandpa nodded gravely. Desmond sat back in his chair. Bobo was five years younger than Grandpa and had been his roommate since September. Recently, he’d developed a nasty habit of crying and talking all night in his sleep. His three daughters rotated nights looking after him, and each would have to get up multiple times a night to shush him.
All of this kept Grandpa awake every night, and his own health deteriorated to the point he had to be put back on medication drips. The week before, Desmond had gotten into a three-way shouting match with one of the daughters and the nurses about this, which meant the nurses and Bobo’s daughter had an argument while Desmond yelled a bunch of shit that no one else could understand.
Had Desmond’s Chinese not been so pitiful, he would’ve communicated that he understood it wasn’t anybody’s fault. Bobo was old and sick. So was Grandpa. So was everyone in this hospital ward. Many of the people who checked in took a few weeks to recover from illness and then left. Some took months. Some took years. Yet for some, this was their last stop. Grandpa had been here for a year and a half, and Desmond had accepted that Grandpa was most likely falling into that final category.
He had just wanted to resolve the problem and give his grandpa some respite. Now the problem had resolved itself.
“嗯，嗯…” Grandpa motioned to the iPad. It was Desmond’s turn.
Stella and Desmond ducked out for a coffee afterwards. They sat down at one of the many cafe chains in the city that allowed expats and wealthier locals to satisfy their craving for overpriced caffeine. Desmond ordered an Americano. Stella got one of those foamy things with the cream in the shape of the fucking leaf.
“Twenty-three?” Stella was thoroughly unimpressed. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“We both swiped right; what do you want me to do?”
“Not date 23-year olds. Let me see a picture of this girl.”
Desmond pulled out his phone and showed Stella the girl’s WeChat Moments.
“Wow, she’s pretty.”
“I know, right? She does those sexy Asian girl playing the piano videos on YouTube and Meipai. Also, she asked me maybe two questions about myself all night and took 100 selfies.”
“She’s 23. Her whole life’s a selfie. That’s how you spent Christmas Eve? I don’t feel so bad spending mine on a plane anymore.”
“Christmas Eve was great. It was this morning that was depressing.”
Desmond shook his head, sipping on his coffee.
“Because I woke up, and I’m still an idiot. What about you? How’s Tiger?”
“Okay, first of all, that’s racist. His name’s Eli. And he’s fine. Confused though. Doesn’t understand why I’m not spending Christmas with him and his dad.”
“He’ll get over it. Or he’ll be fucked up for life. I don’t know, I guess both are possibilities.”
“Thanks. You always know just what to say.”
“I’m sorry. I’m trying to be empathetic, but I’m too hungover to pretend like I understand anything about that. My friends with the kids, they get together, start talking about seven-seat minivans and shit, and I’m just hoping there’re enough Instagram photos I haven’t looked at yet. Shit, what’s this?”
His phone buzzed with another WeChat message.
“What is it?”
“They want to know if I delivered some PowerPoint.”
“What’re you doing, by the way? Are you still teaching that hot actor?”
“Sean? No, I don’t teach English anymore. I’m back doing films.”
“Weren’t you doing films with him?”
“I was on set teaching English to an actor. That’s not doing films.”
“You were working directly on a movie set. Now you’re in an office making PowerPoint presentations.”
“Yeah, and hopefully one of those PowerPoints turns into a movie. There’s no career mobility in teaching actors English. What am I going to be, 40 still hanging out with production assistants sitting on plastic stools eating my lunch off a cafeteria tray?”
“You’d meet more 23-year olds.”
“Yeah, pros and cons I guess.”
“Are you still writing?”
Desmond groaned and clunked his head down on the table. Stella smirked.
“That’s how I feel when people ask me if I’m going to get remarried. Not how I look; I’m a lot more dignified than you are. Just how I feel.”
Desmond checked his phone as it buzzed again.
Henry not happy. You come to company?
“Damn,” he said.
“Still haven’t gotten a reply back from the girl yet,” he sighed.
So it was that Desmond finally fingerprint scanned himself into the office at 2:00pm on Christmas Day. He considered going in his sweats as a silent protest, but he chickened out, took a shower, and put on a raggedy winter sweater and old jeans. It was an outfit he considered just slovenly enough to say “I don’t give a fuck” yet also appropriate enough to say “But seriously, don’t fire me though.”
His coworker Priscilla ran up to him, grabbed his arm, and started pulling him toward their CEO’s office. She was a short but determined young lady who’d just graduated from Tsinghua University that year and moved down to Shanghai to join this production company.
In fact, the majority of Desmond’s coworkers were also female and recent college grads, though most didn’t have Priscilla’s pedigree. In this company, Desmond was considered ancient. However, two things helped him fit in. First, he had no family of his own and was incredibly immature. Second, the girls loved him.
Desmond was tall, worked out, and wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but he’d never before been in a situation where he was that dude. That dude whom all the girls knew and gossiped about. They didn’t even know his name, and the ones who did usually couldn’t remember it. They just called him The ABC, which was a total misnomer.
In America, ABC meant American-Born Chinese, which Desmond was not. In China, ABC meant you looked like you could be Chinese, but your Mandarin sucked and you didn’t know shit about Chinese culture. He fit that bill. For a skinny, nerdy Asian kid who grew up in the Midwest, all this adoration was a strange and awkward yet enjoyable feeling. And it filled him with confidence, the kind that put thoughts in his head like, “Fuck it, date that 23-year old chick. Look at all these other 23-year old chicks who love you!”
Priscilla was staring at his raggedy sweater with such aversion that he might as well have just worn the stinking sweatsuit. If she also had a crush on Desmond, today was giving her all sorts of reasons for a second opinion. She herself often looked like a teenager trying on an aunt’s clothes that were just a little too mature for her. It was kind of cute.
Desmond told her that once. He wasn’t sure if it was the language or the culture barrier that turned the compliment into an insult, but she yelled at him and then didn’t talk to him for an hour. Again, he was lucky they adored him, because this kind of shit happened daily.
“我宿醉了,” he said, trying to buy sympathy with his hangover.
Desmond rubbed his temples and sighed again.
“好好好，算了吧。算了,” Priscilla decided not to prod. “Henry is waiting you.”
She pushed him into Henry’s office. Henry Chan was an old school Chinese boss. He was a stocky man from Anhui with a short haircut who wore a traditional Mandarin collar suit and black Prada shoes at all times. The guy always kept a trunk of new iPhone 6S Plus’s behind his desk, because he’d inevitably throw at least one a week across the room in rage. The office had grown accustomed to it. He told everyone that he flipped out by default. If he was yelling at you, everything was fine. If he was quiet, something was wrong.
As Desmond and Priscilla entered, Henry leaned back in his giant, antique wooden chair behind his giant, antique wooden desk. He held a lit cigarette in one hand while the fingers on the other tapped on that day’s iPhone. He motioned to the two wooden chairs on the other side of his desk, and Desmond and Priscilla sat down. Desmond pulled his laptop out from his bag and began setting up. Henry stared at him. Desmond cleared his throat. It was very quiet. Very, very quiet.
To his credit, Desmond’s Chinese was vastly superior to what it was when he landed in Shanghai a year ago. He’d diligently been taking classes, going to language exchange meet-ups, and adding as many local Chinese girls as he could on WeChat so he could message them to practice his reading and writing. Among other things.
“我们的…首先我们的第一个创意，it’s like，比较 surreal。Priscilla，surreal怎么说？” He turned to Priscilla for help.
“我们的第一个创意比较超现实,” she clarified.
Learning languages often just seemed like a lot of memorization. It was natural to assume the more grammar and vocabulary you learned, the better your language abilities became. But if you charted your progress, it didn’t look like a straight incline. Maybe it did at first, where every step you took helped you up a level. But eventually your progress would plateau for long periods of time until you hit a certain checkpoint, and then you’d rocket up to the next level.
The first major checkpoint was being able to string sentences together into concepts and ideas of your own design. In other words, you hit the first checkpoint when you could have a conversation outside of the ones you regurgitated from your language book.
As soon as you could converse with a stranger in a foreign language, the doors on your exposure to an entire culture just blew off the fucking hinges. You previously were limited to academic books, classes and maybe a few basic TV shows, but now every living speaker of this language became your potential teacher. And you soared up to that next level.
Added enough Chinese friends on WeChat to hold multiple Chinese conversations? Next level! Could read a Chinese newspaper or magazine? Next level! Got a job at a Chinese company? Next level! Got a Chinese girlfriend? Next level! Moved in with her? What the fuck were you thinking? But next level!
The problem was, if you were truly improving and trying to improve at the same time, you were also always frustrated. You kept raising the bar on yourself, and you could always speak just enough not to be able to say everything you thought you should be capable of saying. You knew something was wrong, but you didn’t know how to fix it. You could see how high the next plateau was, but you couldn’t tell how long it’d take to get there as you were walking on this one.
It was a shitty feeling, and it always discouraged Desmond until a very good Chinese teacher let him know that it wasn’t a wall that he hit. It was just a long stretch of road, and as long as he saw it for what it was and kept moving forward, he was on the right track.
“然后这个主角，他跳楼。He，like，jumps off…他跳楼。Um，然后，Priscilla, how do you say ‘life flashes before his eyes?'”
The other problem was that Desmond was too old. Not too old for this Earth, but too old for many things. He was too old to learn how to dunk a basketball, he was too old to become a master pianist, and he was too old to start a new language without incredible struggle. You know those foreign exchange grad students who went to America for college, and all the assholes made fun of their accents? That was the maximum limit to what Desmond could become, and he wasn’t even close to it yet.
If he’d gone down this path ten years ago, it’d be a completely different story. But he didn’t. So now he struggled presenting a PowerPoint to his boss and looked creepy hitting on girls.
Desmond stopped talking and stared at the presentation on his laptop, the one on which he’d slaved away for days so he could bounce off work early to go on a date on Christmas Eve. Henry stared at him, then looked to Priscilla. A slight panic had started to build in her.
“是这样。” Priscilla explained. “我们的——”
“等一下,” Desmond held up his hand, asking her to give him a moment.
It would’ve been so much easier for Desmond to learn Chinese if he were ten years younger. But ten years ago, there was no Baidu Maps. There was no Taobao. There was no Dianping. There was no Pleco or Youdao or the dozens of other translation apps available at Desmond’s fingertips. There were no revolutionary devices in everyone’s pocket that let a noob expat like Desmond go to any major Chinese city, find a decent bar, and hop on the metro to get there.
Even more importantly, ten years ago he didn’t possess the hubris to leave everything he was familiar with behind. He didn’t have the desperation to stick to a plan when he knew an easier life was just a plane ride away. But most of all, ten years ago Desmond didn’t have the wits or the balls to talk a girl out of her panties in a foreign language. And if you didn’t have that, kid, then stay the fuck in America.
“不好意思,” Desmond restarted. “让我重新开始。”
Henry nodded, motioning with his cigarette for Desmond to continue. Desmond took a breath. Giving a presentation in Chinese usually required both his mental and physical preparation. Now he was hungover, he was tired, he was stressed out, he was distracted, and he’d barely spoken any Chinese all day. Each of these things significantly reduced his language skills. Combined, they were a nearly impossible blend for him to overcome.
Yet sometimes when life hands you lemons, you just hold onto your balls and chew your way through all the tears and pain.
“我们的团队想出了很多很有意思的创意。然后我和 Priscilla narrowed down to 三个。我们觉得VR电影的重点是让environment讲故事。所以我们选的故事都有恨丰富的环境。虽然每个片子只有两三分钟，但是用户可以看好几次。每次他们可以看到 a different perspective on 我们的故事。”
Henry nodded, lighting up another cigarette. Desmond glanced over at Priscilla, who looked back at him with an “everything seems legit” expression on her face. He continued, slowly pacing his way through the three VR film ideas his team had put together, occasionally pausing to dab the hangover sweat off his forehead and ask Priscilla for a better translation of what he was thinking.
He’d completely exhausted every iota of Chinese ability he had by the time he’d finished, so the next ten minutes of Henry giving his feedback in his thickass Anhui accent were basically in vain. Desmond just nodded and plotted to get a summary from Priscilla later.
At the end, Henry offered Desmond a cigarette, which he took despite the fact that he didn’t smoke. The three of them all lit up together and chatted and laughed about…movies? Life? China? It didn’t matter. Desmond showed up to work at 2:00pm, gave a presentation in Chinese half-hungover, and seemed to still have his job. This was a win.
The bars on Yongkang Lu were packed on Christmas night. It was one of the biggest nights of the year for going out anyway, and this street of bars catering 100% to Shanghai’s expat community was a like a nexus for those seeking an appreciation for coniferous plants, fake Santa beards, and Mariah Carey on repeat.
In truth, Desmond hated this place. The best advice he’d received when he was struggling through his first few months was to localize as soon and as quickly as possible. That meant stop hanging out solely with the other foreigners from his Mandarin school, stop only going to restaurants with pictures of its food hanging on the walls, and insist on speaking Chinese even when you’re with a local who spoke English.
YKL was basically the hangout of everyone who didn’t follow that advice. If you sat in a bar and looked outside, you were no longer in Shanghai. It might as well have been Munich or Montreal or Minneapolis. Basically, Desmond thought there were way too many white people here for a Chinese city.
Yet today was Christmas, so why not? Also, Stella had brought her friend Cheryl, who was an ABC that’d lived in Shanghai for nine years, worked at a Chinese ad agency, dated a local Chinese boy, spoke Chinese fluently, and absolutely loved this place. As he didn’t want to be the douchebag who screamed “Gentrification!” next to someone who’d been in the neighborhood nine times as long and didn’t feel the same way, Desmond just kept his mouth shut about that opinion.
The three of them sat around a bench table at a tequila bar towards the end of the street. Cheryl and Stella were working on a couple of margaritas while Desmond was getting housed on that most festive of holiday drinks: Patron. Cheryl was inspecting his phone.
“Yeah, she’s definitely hot,” she concluded. “Just like every other 23-year old chick in Shanghai.”
Cheryl and Stella were old business school classmates, except Cheryl didn’t saddle down with a husband and a kid in Ohio. She came to Shanghai, and like many highly-educated, successful women in a city flooded with young, hot little tarts throwing themselves at every guy with a car and/or foreign passport, she struggled to hold down a meaningful relationship. This was actually her third try with her current boyfriend.
Desmond’s phone buzzed in Cheryl’s hand. He perked up like a dog who’d just heard the word “treat.”
“You want your phone?” she furrowed a brow at him.
“No, I’m good.”
“You want to know if it’s her?”
Cheryl rolled her eyes and handed the phone back to him. He tried to check his WeChat as casually as possible. Wasn’t her. Damn.
“Stella,” Cheryl changed the subject. “You need to try Tantan while you’re here. It’s basically Chinese Tinder. Find yourself a Chinese boy for New Year’s.”
Stella looked like someone just suggested she take up smoking crack as a new hobby.
“Ugh, do you use that? Those apps make me want to put on sweatpants and go to bed at 8:00pm.”
“Of course I don’t use it, but I live here. I actually have to deal with the consequences of my mistakes. You’re on vacation. Just watch out for your cousin, because I’m sure he’s on it.”
“I’m on all of them,” Desmond replied, toasting his Patron to the ladies before tipping it back.
“Least surprising discovery of the night,” Stella said. “Cheryl, I love how you’re pushing this on me when you’ve never even tried an online dating app before.”
“I haven’t,” she thought about it. “But if I’m being honest, that’s how I met my first boyfriend. Back when we could still get on Facebook, everyone who lived in Shanghai would add each other. And then we’d all hit on each other. Man, Shanghai really has not changed. Only the buildings and the apps have.”
“So I didn’t miss out on anything the last nine years?” Desmond asked.
“Well, a shitload of better job opportunities for expats. Plus me when I was younger and dumber, but the pipeline is endless if you’re looking for those kinds of girls. How long have you been in Shanghai now?”
“Do you like it?”
The answer was intentionally curt. Stella and Cheryl stared at him and waited for an elaboration that wasn’t coming.
“Should we ask you again in a week after you’ve forgotten about the 23-year old?” Stella asked. She and Cheryl both snickered.
“My first day in LA,” Desmond explained. “I knew I made the right choice. I loved it there right away. But here? I spent the entire last year trying to decide if I made the right choice coming here. I still don’t know. Maybe I’ll never know. But I’m not a fan.”
“Why not?” Cheryl sat up in her seat. Desmond was sure that, in nine years, she’d heard every stupid excuse to love and to hate Shanghai, and she was clearly ready to pounce.
“It’s a shitty reason,” he evaded.
“What is it?”
“It’s an embarrassingly pathetic reason.”
“Stop dragging this out. What’s the reason?”
“It’s hard,” Desmond shrugged. All his cards were on the table, and it was a garbage hand. “That’s it. It’s just hard. I know that’s a loser reason, but that’s it. Everything is hard. I want to order some food. It’s hard. I want to explain something to my coworkers. It’s hard. I want to return something I bought online. It’s hard. Much harder than buying the original thing, which was already hard. All these things that I used to take for granted, that I could do without even thinking about it, suddenly it’s hard. And it’s not just the language. It’s the culture. It’s the way of thinking. Okay, hitting on girls, that’s been easy. But even that.”
He tossed his phone down on the table.
“Even when it’s easy, somehow it’s still hard.”
He looked at the two women, not sure what to expect.
“I get it,” Cheryl said.
“It was hard for you, too?”
“Oh, of course it was. It’s hard for everybody, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that I get you’re a mopey fuck.”
Desmond laughed, though he wasn’t sure if that was a real insult. Cheryl was about it make it very clear.
“Yeah, all those things are hard. You could look at it that way. Or you could look at the fact that you’ve successfully done all those things plus a ton of actually impressive things. You’ve got a job. At a Chinese company. In the film industry. I’ve seen your resume, Desmond. You were an assistant on a TV show that no one in this country has even heard of, and your Chinese–to be perfectly frank, and I know you’ve studied a lot–it sucks. Yet here you are, fully employed in your chosen industry in a foreign country. That wasn’t all luck. That was really hard, and you did it. You’ve got an apartment. You’ve got friends in the industry. You have a fucking Alipay account. You know how hard it is to set that up? Of course you do, because you did it. I don’t even have an Alipay account. And girls? You want to fucking cry about girls?”
She grabbed Desmond’s phone off the table, opened up WeChat, and started scrolling through his messages.
“‘Desmond 圣诞快乐!’ That’s girl no. 1 wishing you a Merry Christmas. You didn’t reply to her.”
Cheryl scrolled down to the next message.
“‘圣诞快乐!’ And then she used like ten of the bashful, rosy cheeks emoji’s. Didn’t reply to this girl either, Desmond.”
“‘Hoping you all the happiness of the holiday season.’ Nah, this girl sent that shit to everyone. Okay, but this one. ‘Merry Xmas, Desmind!’ She didn’t spell your name right, but your name kinda sucks for Chinese people. Oh, this next one! ‘圣诞快乐~！Are you celebrate tonight, Dezmund?’ From Priscilla. She’s asking you to ask her out.”
Cheryl held Desmond’s phone out towards him, as if challenging him to take a look for himself.
“Even when it’s easy it’s hard? It sounds more like when it’s easy, you make it hard. And why? Are you in love? With a Tinder girl who was just trying to get laid?”
Desmond took the phone back, glaring at it like it’d just betrayed him. He couldn’t meet Cheryl’s gaze.
“You can do better, Desmond,” she said. “I don’t mean better than this girl; I don’t know anything about her. I mean you can do better at life.”
The three of them sat in silence, each staring down at their drinks. Sounds of holiday revelry burst out around and passed over them. A waiter showed up to their table with a tray full of shots.
“Yeah, we’ll take that.” Stella grabbed three shots.
“I’m sorry,” Cheryl’s demeanor took a 180, like She-Hulk calming back down into Jennifer Walters. “I didn’t mean all that stuff.”
“It’s cool,” Desmond waved it off with one hand while hiding his other shaking hand under the table. “I…I needed to hear all that, so don’t worry about it.”
“No, it’s not cool. I just–I’ve had a lot a long week. And a lot to drink. Not that those excuse what I–”
“I got it. I’m not mad. Let’s just do these shots, okay?”
“The thing is I feel like–”
“Cheryl,” Desmond clenched both hands together on the table to stop the shaking. “Let’s do these shots first, and then you can keep apologizing if you want to.”
Cheryl picked up a shot glass and raised it to the others. “Deal.”
“Merry Christmas,” Desmond pronounced as he and Stella each grabbed a glass as well.
“Merry Christmas,” replied the others as they shot down the cheapest, fakest tequila that the bar had in stock. Each of them made a face like they just swallowed shoe polish.
“Oh my God, that’s that Mexican gutter shit,” Desmond said, chasing down his shitty tequila with slightly less shitty tequila.
“It’s worse. It’s that fake Chinese shit,” Cheryl replied. “I’m going to be blind when I have to see Jing tomorrow.”
“Where’s your boyfriend tonight, by the way?” Stella asked.
“Beijing on business again. We’re going to do like a post-Christmas brunch tomorrow morning.”
“I feel like Jing is always in Beijing.”
“Yeah, well maybe that’s where his wife and kids live.”
Desmond started to laugh, then cut it off at a snort when he saw Cheryl didn’t have a humorous expression on her face.
“I’m going to use the ladies’ room.” She got up and walked away.
“Hey,” Stella got serious all of a sudden and glared at Desmond. “Don’t sleep with Cheryl.”
“I’m serious, don’t sleep with Cheryl.”
“I’m sorry, did you miss that part of the conversation where she called me a mopey fuck?”
“Desmond, I know you’re not an idiot, because you’re a whore. So stop acting like you don’t know what I’m talking about, and just promise me you won’t fuck my friend, alright?”
It was still dark out when Desmond woke up in Cheryl’s bed. She was lying next to him, shaking him awake.
“You gotta get up.”
“What time is it?”
“Am I getting kicked out?”
“I get it. I know the drill.”
“That’s what makes me feel worse.”
Desmond smiled at her. He brushed a strand of her hair back and gave her a kiss before getting up and looking around for his briefs.
“You shouldn’t,” he said. “I knew what I was getting into.”
“So you’re not going to obsess over me, too?”
“No, you were really straight up with me.”
“I’m kidding. I know you’re not.”
“Well, you don’t have to make us both seem like assholes.”
Cheryl flopped back onto her pillow as Desmond pulled his pants on. She clasped her hands together and held them to her forehead as she stared up at the ceiling.
“What’re you thinking right now?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She shook her head. “What’re you thinking?”
He thought about it. “Nothing.”
Desmond pulled on his sweater, and Cheryl started to get up.
“No, no, don’t worry about it. I know my way out.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, it’s freezing outside. Stay in bed.”
He moved over to her and gave her a last kiss.
“Okay,” he said. “Keep in touch.”
“And Merry Christmas.”
“That was yesterday.”
“Right,” he lingered a bit, wondering if he was forgetting to say anything.
“Bye,” she said, helping him out.
He walked out of the room, turning around to wave goodbye as he closed the door. She was smiling at him.
As he left her place, he bumped into the mother and daughter who lived next door. Cheryl had the one apartment in the building renovated for westerners. WiFi, dishwasher, an A/C unit in every room including the bathroom, nearly all the amenities to which a westerner was accustomed.
This mother and her daughter were bundled up in winter coats and using water from a bucket to flush the toilet in their unheated community bathroom. Desmond smiled and nodded at them. They stared back at him blankly.
He hit the street as the first rays of sunlight squirmed their way through the haze. Street vendors were setting up their booths. City workers were sweeping the dust and garbage off the road with straw brooms. Locals on bicycles slowed down to avoid an expat jogging on the street.
Desmond took a minute to check Baidu Maps, and then started down the street. He popped in a pair of headphones, turned up his music, checked his WeChat, and then walked home.