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[Story]

Forbidden City

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On the morning of his visit to the Forbidden City, the last day of his China trip, James woke exhausted, as he had almost every day he had been there. First, in Shanghai, because of jetlag and the excitement of being in China; then — as the evenings got later, the drinks drunk more numerous, and the morning commitments earlier — from not having enough time to sleep; finally, here in Beijing, from lag-derived insomnia, a potent combination of all of the above.

There was no time for breakfast. There was never time for breakfast. Min, the chaperone from his Chinese publisher, was waiting for him in reception, pre-punctual as always, never tired, always smiling and happy — but often with an air of harriedness beneath that smile as she asked if he had slept well.

Photograph by Jasper James

Photograph by Jasper James

“Wonderfully,” he said. It was the easiest thing to do when you had slept terribly: to say whatever required the least effort or explanation. They shook hands — they had somehow got stuck at the pre-embrace stage of their relationship — and stepped outside. It was boiling already, at eight in the morning. The driver was standing by the car in a white shirt, his hair slicked back, smoking. James couldn’t remember his name. Actually, it wasn’t the name but the face that was causing him trouble: the driver’s name was Feng, he knew that, but he was unsure if this driver was Feng or someone new. So, whereas yesterday he’d said, “Hello, Feng,” today he just said, “Hi there,” conscious that if this was Feng then he might be offended by the downgrade to anonymity. Was that why the driver wasn’t smiling? No, no, it couldn’t be Feng, he was sure. That was the thing about being so tired, you forgot things you should have remembered — things like people’s faces — and then whirred away worrying about them, exhausting yourself still further.

He settled into his seat as the car began its dreadful journey to the Forbidden City. The traffic was dreadful. Beijing was a nightmare city, more crowded than anywhere he’d ever been, combining the intensity of New York with the vastness of L.A. They were on an eight-lane freeway, barely moving. Fine by James: it would give him a chance to snatch the first of what he hoped would be multiple naps in the course of what Min had already warned would be a “very tiring day.”

He closed his eyes, and was jolted awake as the car, having accelerated into an opening, braked and swerved. He’d been asleep for twenty minutes — getting to sleep in a moving car in daylight was so easy, far easier than in a luxurious bed in a hotel at night. And these twenty-minute naps were incredibly reviving — for about twenty minutes. Min, as usual, was on one of her two phones, sorting out the day’s constantly changing schedule. She’d arranged a guide, she said, to show them round the Forbidden City. His heart sank. His heart was prone to sinking, and although few words had the capacity to make his heart sink as rapidly or deeply as the word “guide,” plenty of others made it sink like a slow stone: words like “having to” or “listen to,” as in having to listen to a guide tell him stuff about the Forbidden City he could read about in a book, back in London, by which time any desire to do so would have sunk without a trace.

They were at the entrance to the Forbidden City. James had ridden past it the night before, in a different car, under the Chinese moonlight, after a dinner featuring about twenty different kinds of tofu, en route to a bar with a view overlooking the roofs of the Forbidden City. The highlight of the meal had been spare ribs made of tofu that tasted every bit as meaty as a meat-lover’s dream of ribs without the underlying horror of meat. There had even been a shiny bone sticking out of the tofu meat, made of lotus root. He’d been dreading three things about China: the pollution, the smoking (a subset of pollution), and the food. The air had been clear, he’d encountered very little smoking, and the food — the tofu — had been a new frontier in simulation.

He climbed out of the car, walloped right away by the heat. The guide was running late, Min said before hurrying off to buy tickets, so they would meet her inside.

“Great,” James said, meaning that he hoped the guide would be unable to find them amid the crowds swarming through the gate as though this were the only day of the year entry was not forbidden. Min and James followed suit, filing in to the first courtyard — already busy even though they had arrived moments after tickets went on sale. It was tremendous, this initial view, just as James had pictured it: red walls and golden-earth roofs sagging and boatlike under an ocean of unpolluted sky. They walked to the next courtyard. There were a lot of people here too, but the Forbidden City, he knew, was about the size of the town he’d grown up in, so there was plenty of room for everyone. Jeez, it went on forever and pretty much every bit of it looked exactly the same as every other bit: courtyards the size of football pitches, cloisters, sloping roofs with rooms beneath. The guide would explain how all these bits were not really alike, how each part had its own particular and tedious function that distinguished it from the others. All the more reason to enjoy it now, in a state of fully achieved ignorance, without the effort of appearing to listen as the guide gnawed away at the experience with unwanted knowledge and expertise.

Min was in increasingly frequent communication with this guide, then was suddenly waving to her. And there she was, waving back! Her hair, inky-slinky black, came down to her shoulders. Her complexion was darker than many of the visitors to the Forbidden City, who were so pale they had to shelter from the scorch beneath glowing pink umbrellas. She had a big smile and was wearing a long dress, pale green, sleeveless. She walked toward them, in the shadows, took off her sunglasses, and embraced Min. James saw her hold her sunglasses in one hand behind Min’s back. Then she looked toward him. Her eyes were brown, round but subtly elongated. He liked her confidence (it made him feel confident, even if it also made him wish, simultaneously, that he had not worn shorts), the way she stood, wearing sandals with a slight heel, her toenails painted pink. Her name was Li. They shook hands. A bare arm was extended, and then her eyes disappeared behind her large sunglasses. The thirty seconds since she’d waved were more than enough for James to reverse his ideas about a guide. A guide was an excellent idea. What could be better than having the history of this fascinating place explained at length, in all its intricate detail? Without the application of some kind of knowledge, he would not be seeing the place at all, just drifting through it in a mist of ignorance and unachieved indifference.

The three of them stepped out of the hot shade and into the blazing sun of the courtyard or whatever it should properly be called — Li didn’t elucidate. He watched her flash into the sunlight, and they continued their tour. They peered inside a couple of dusty-looking rooms, but there was nothing to see except beds and depressing chairs. Not that it mattered: the interiors were irrelevant compared with the red-and-gold exteriors, all on an unimaginable scale — the full extent of which Li seemed in no hurry to divulge. She seemed so reluctant to begin her spiel that James prompted her with a few questions, the answers to which he would normally have dreaded.

“I’m afraid I don’t really know anything about the Forbidden City,” she said.

“I thought you were a guide.”

“No, I’m just a friend of Min’s. She asked me to come.”

It was mornings like this that persuaded James it would be madness ever to kill himself. Contemplate it, by all means, but never commit to it. Life could improve beyond recognition in the space of a moment. On this occasion, life had been pretty good anyway, and then it had got better still. It got still better when she said, “If you want me to be a guide, I can try.”

“Yes, go on. Give it a shot.”

“Well, let me see. There was a time when the emperor’s wives all lived here. They couldn’t leave. All they could do was walk around. It must have been so boring. Except everyone was always plotting. Not necessarily to get rid of the emperor or one of the other wives, partly just to kill the time. It was intriguing all the time.”

“Your English is fantastic,” he said. “Intriguing.”

“Thank you.”

“Where did you learn?”

“Here in Beijing. And then in London. I lived in Camden Town. It was . . . ” In spite of her language skills she paused, searching for a less bland variant of very nice. “Well, it was rather horrible, if I may say.” Ah, she’d been worried about offending him.

“What else? Not about Camden, which is famously vile. This place — the wives, the emperor.”

“All they wanted, the wives, was for the emperor to love them.” She said it with such conviction it seemed as if she was not just telling their story; she was petitioning on their behalf.

“And what did he want?”

“More wives,” she said. “And to get away from the wives he had.” Was Li married? He glanced at her long, ring-less fingers. Looking at her extremities, her fingers and toes, he felt less exposed than he did looking at all points in between.

Min had gone to buy bottles of water, which glinted in the sun as she carried them over. The three of them retreated into the shade and continued their stroll, gulping water. James watched Li drink: her hand, the bottle, the water, her lips. They sat on a low wall, looking out at the worn grass and cobbles of the courtyard.

“To our left,” said Li, “you will admire the Hall of Mental Cultivation.” They were looking at a sunlit sign that said hall of mental cultivation.

“You’re too modest,” said James. “You actually know a great deal about this place. All sorts of arcane stuff that the foreign tourist could never work out for himself.” The Hall of Mental Cultivation sounded so much more relaxing than sitting in the Bodleian and ordering up dreary books from the stacks. Perhaps — in a way that seemed vaguely Chinese — the sign showing the way to the Hall of Mental Cultivation was the Hall of Mental Cultivation. He was happy with this thought, a sign that he was right, was already cultivating his mental faculties, which were becoming concentrated, almost entirely, on Li. Conscious of this, of how rude it might appear, he tore his gaze from her and chatted with Min until she had to take a call updating the afternoon schedule.

They could only be out in the sun for five minutes at a time. It was roasting, the sky a fried blue. A month earlier, walking through London at ten on a cloudy evening, he’d been told that this was what Beijing looked like at midday: nearly dark with pollution. He’d had a cough at the time, and that was also a foretaste of Beijing, apparently; it was impossible to visit without succumbing to a serious throat or lung infection. He told Li what he’d heard: that the pollution was so bad, you could see it raining from the sky.

“A few years ago we broke the record for air pollution. We didn’t only beat the record. The machine for measuring broke also. The pollution was so bad the measure — how do you say?”

“Gauge?”

“Yes, the gauge could not measure it.”

“It was off the scale.”

“It was terrible . . . ”

It was terrible, but James detected a certain pride in her face as she said all this. Li took out her phone; she had an air-quality app that confirmed that the air today was, relatively speaking, mountain-clear. Expats he’d met all had these air-quality apps, too, but the source for their measurements was the U.S. Embassy, whose figures were always twice the official Chinese figures. None of that mattered as they walked through the magically unpolluted but still roasting air of the Forbidden City, which easily lived up to its billing as one of the wonders of the world. If it was one of the wonders of the world; offhand he could remember only two others, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the pyramids. Did the Hanging Gardens even exist anymore? Had they ever — in the solipsistic sense of “within his lifetime” — or had they only been included on the list as a mythic leftover from the vanished past? The whole idea of seven stately wonders had an elegiac feel — a standard of excellence rendered obsolete by bucket lists of a hundred things to do before you die: bungee-jumping over the Zambezi or losing your mind on mushrooms at a full-moon party on Ko Phangan, neither of which he had done and both of which were on his list of things to avoid before giving the bucket its final kick.

They paused in the corner of yet another square before heading to the Imperial Garden. He watched Li drink water. As she raised the bottle to her lips he could see her armpit, hairless and unsweating. He was also drinking, his shirt drenched in sweat. He noticed a small scar at the edge of her mouth, could only see it when that side of her face was turned to the sun. Min offered to take their picture. He put his arm around Li’s shoulder but didn’t dare touch her bare skin. Looking at it later he saw that the photo was marred by his hand, bunched in a fist like a potato.

“You look so handsome,” said Min, glancing at the image on the back of the camera, taking another. She was always saying things like that. A surprising number of her colleagues from the publishing house said the same thing, in fact, and James was not at all displeased to hear these nice things. It might even have been true in a way. The friend who’d warned him about the pollution had also warned — in the sense of “reassured” — him that Chinese women found white, middle-aged men attractive. Was this true or was it just a kind of mirror projection of the yellow fever to which Western men succumbed? Either way, the constant flow of charm from Min and her friends, combined with the way that everyone in China looked so young, lulled James into forgetting both his age and his appearance. He became so at home with this new self-image that, as he’d walked along Nanjing Road in Shanghai, he’d glared at a middle-aged Westerner coming toward him with an expression of barely concealed contempt. The mirrored window had been polished to such a shine that the awful truth took another second to reveal itself: he had bumped, almost literally, into his own reflection. The self as pink-faced other! Right now, flattered by Min, having his picture taken with Li, that was a faded, possibly false, memory. And Min’s capacity to make him feel better about himself and the world knew no bounds. It was too hot for her, she said. She had to make arrangements with the driver; she would meet them outside in half an hour.

“Really? Are you sure?” said James, glad that he was wearing his sunglasses, in case any sign of excitement manifested itself on his face, his tanned and rugged face. Min was sure; she would see them in twenty minutes. She began walking back the way they had come, sticking to the borders of shade. So now it was just the two of them, just James and Li and about a million other visitors, strolling though the Forbidden City. He was becoming oblivious to everything except her, her green dress, her arms, her dark hair. It would have been the most natural thing in the world — and entirely impossible — to take her by the hand, to stroll hand in hand through the Forbidden City. It would have been nice to wander for the rest of the day, like Adam and Eve in some crowded paradise of the ancient East, until they came to a distant and shaded spot, to have found this place and sat down where no one could see them, away from the prying eyes of wives and visitors, far from intrigue and at its exact center. She drank from the sun-scalded bottle until it was empty. The repeated word in all this — “until” — bounced and echoed in his head until it was time to leave, to go and meet Min.

They walked out of the gate, found Min, the car, and the driver, who was standing there in a white shirt, his hair slicked back, not smoking — but smiling, pleased to see him. This was Feng, for sure.

“Different car to this morning, same model,” Min explained. “And different driver. Same driver as yesterday.” She got in the back. Li sat in the front. James sat with Min, behind Li, her jet-black hair and bare shoulders. They drove for ten minutes until, at some unknown place in the city, they pulled over so that Li could get out. He clambered out, too, surrounded by the heat-roar of traffic. She had to go back to her work. It was fine to shake hands and to kiss her goodbye, on the cheek, on the side of the face with the small scar. They talked about their respective evenings. She gave him her bilingual card, holding it with both hands.

“I’m afraid I don’t have a card,” he said. “But perhaps we will be able to meet later tonight, after dinner. I hope we can.”

He’d said it casually but wondered if he had ever said anything more heartfelt. He was reminded of being a teenager, when the prospect of going on a date with a girl he’d just met crushed his chest with excitement.

She also hoped they could meet later, she said before turning away, leaving. He tucked her card carefully into one of the many pockets of his shorts and climbed back into the cool car. By the time he looked out of the window she had already disappeared. The car eased back into the traffic. As he chatted with Min, he touched the sharp edges of the card, resisting the urge to take it out and pore over the amazing information printed on it: her phone number, her email address. He was old enough to remember a time — it seemed to last from his mid-teens to his forties — when it was so difficult to get women’s phone numbers that you counted a night out a major success if you came home with a single one scrawled indecipherably on a piece of paper: a number you called with some trepidation, unsure if a father, or, later, a boyfriend, might answer. On reflection, Li had been a little reserved about handing over her card; in Asia it was usually the first thing anyone did.

The afternoon was, as Min had promised, exhausting: a succession of interviews that involved James saying the same thing over and over, with less and less conviction, sometimes drifting off in the middle of his shtick and forgetting what he was saying, had said, or was planning to say. While he talked about his latest book — a history of improvisation in music, a major theme of which was the necessity of being at home in the moment — or waited for the interpreter to translate his answers, he replayed sequences of Li walking through the Forbidden City, her bare shoulders, her green dress, or thought about the evening ahead, calculating the earliest possible moment they could meet again.

By the time the interviews came to an end, he was in a waking coma of inattention. Min phoned Feng from the lobby of the building. He was stuck in traffic, she said. Not far away in distance but with no chance of getting to them for at least an hour. The sidewalks were jammed with people trying to hail taxis, all of which were full, none of which were moving in the dreadful traffic and the terrific heat. It would be quickest, Min said, to take the subway.

“We must improvise!” she said. “Though it will be very crowded.”

“That’s fine,” said James, a much-jostled veteran of the subways of London, Tokyo, and New York. “Any half-decent city has crowded subways.”

But none had subways as crowded as Beijing’s. Every part of the process — buying tickets, going through barriers and along walkways (the longest he had ever encountered, on any subway anywhere in the world) — was exhausting, and every part of the subway system was packed to bursting. Any corridor they had to go down was a solid mass of citizens from beginning to end. There was no queue-barging and no pushing and shoving; everyone had adapted to living in crowds and went politely about their tightly packed business.

He was shattered by the time he got back to his hotel, to the room where he’d woken up feeling shattered ten hours earlier, but there was time only to shower and change into fresh underwear, a clean blue shirt — his last clean one, kept in reserve — and jeans before meeting Min in reception. There she was again — ready to escort him to the restaurant to eat Peking duck. This, she explained, would mark the symbolic end of his visit: the eating of Peking duck in a restaurant in Peking famed for its Peking duck. It was only a five-minute walk away. The pictures in the elevator showed dozens of the world’s leaders and celebrities eating Peking duck, though the restaurant in the pictures didn’t necessarily look like the one they stepped into when the elevator doors opened.

There were six of them for dinner, in a private dining room. Qiang, the head of the publishing house, was there, along with Wei, whom he hadn’t seen for a couple of days. She was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt with something written on it in Chinese characters and carrying, as always, a pink rucksack made out of some soft and fluffy material. When they’d first met, he’d guessed that she was Qiang’s daughter, accompanying him on his rounds during the school holidays. In the rucksack, he had supposed, were a few toys or computer games to stop her from getting bored — until he passed it to her and found that it weighed a ton. It was stuffed with books, a laptop, and various electronic accessories. She was twenty-four, the marketing manager.

The reason he hadn’t seen her for a couple of days was that she’d been taking care of another visiting writer, Jun, who’d come from Hong Kong. Wei introduced them; they shook hands. Jun was exactly the same age as James but, unusually in a part of the world where everyone seemed a decade younger than they were, looked five years older.

Like the Forbidden City, the Peking duck lived up to its considerable reputation, but all the time James was folding slices of duck into the pancakes, adding scallions and other bits and pieces, constantly commenting on its deliciousness, he was conscious of trying to speed things along so that he could meet Li again, even though there was no point in hurrying because she was busy eating dinner herself and — he was sure — not gobbling her food, not fretting and worrying about when they might meet.

He soon had something else to fret about. He’d left his phone at the hotel, in his shorts, and so Min — obliging as ever — called Li and fixed up a rendezvous. It was at a bar only twenty minutes away. To James’s surprise, Jun, Min, and Wei were all coming, too. Not quite how he’d envisaged the rest of the evening panning out, obviously, but perhaps it wasn’t a bad idea to dilute his eagerness, to prevent it acquiring a touch of desperation. They found a taxi immediately; the roads were almost empty. For ten minutes they sped along, then were obliged to slow to a crawl before crawling to a halt when the traffic congealed around them. They were still in the car an hour later, had waited twenty minutes to make a left turn onto the road the bar was on. If they’d known this they could have jumped ship and walked to it in five minutes. Except even when they did get out, on the street itself, they couldn’t find the bar. It was a street full of bars — horrible places, some with pole dancing, all crowded with young youth, the youthful young — like a shinier, slightly less ghastly incarnation of Camden Town. Surely she wouldn’t have chosen one of these bars. And if she had, then where the fuck was it? Where was she? More time ticked pointlessly away. One minute was like five. Ten hours from now he would be on a flight to London.

Then he saw her, waving as she had that morning in the Forbidden City, minus the shades. She was wearing a blue dress, shorter than the one she’d worn earlier. Darker too, knee-length, but also sleeveless, revealing her shoulders and arms. No wonder they hadn’t been able to find the place: she was outside a nail bar. He looked down at her feet, her sandals, her toes, her pink nails. Min introduced Jun and Wei to Li and they all followed her along a passageway to the side of the nail bar. They came to a dented gray elevator, large enough to accommodate a patient on a gurney in an underfunded hospital with weary staff and anxious family members. The doors squeezed shut, and the elevator shuddered upward until the doors opened again to reveal a dim landing that lacked all distinguishing features except some partially erased graffiti. It was an evening where one kind of disappointment followed on the heels of another, interrupted by surges of hope and renewed expectation. James followed Li up a flight of concrete stairs. He could see the muscles in her calves flex as she took the steps. Where was she taking them? To a crack den?

No! To a rooftop bar. When they emerged into the hot night, it was like a dream of Ibiza. He almost expected to find a swimming pool amid the sofas, the music, the fairy lights. It was one of the wonders of the nocturnal world.

“What’s it called, this place?” he asked Li.

“It is called the Bar of Mental Cultivation,” she said. “Did you not see the sign?”

“I’m pretty sure there was no sign,” he said. “But maybe I was looking for the wrong kind of sign. Like the Dog and Duck.” It was a pub joke, wasted on Li.

The bar was surrounded on three sides by high-rise office buildings, gleaming and new — some so new they were not even finished. On the fourth side the city stretched away forever: neon-topped skyscrapers, the blinking lights of planes. The music was not loud. She had chosen the perfect place, but it was not quite perfect: there was nowhere to sit. Li introduced two friends, both women, who had been there awhile, trying, without success, to secure a table. The best option was to crowd into the psychedelic pod in the middle of the roof, on cushions, but that would have been like being indoors, not out in the night with the stars overhead.

These stars were nowhere to be seen, there was too much light pollution for that — come to think of it, where had last night’s moon got to? — but the light was not pollution at all, it was its own kind of magic. They milled around in a way that was like a standing version of being back in the car: close to where they wanted to be, close to what they wanted, but stuck at a frustrating remove from it. There were a few empty chairs scattered around, but not enough to combine and seat a party of seven. Then a large group, all male, Chinese and Western, got up to leave, vacating a large sofa and some chairs. Li pounced. Once they’d grabbed two extra chairs, they were in place, all of them together around a low table, with James next to Li on the sofa. He basked in having made it here, in having secured a table, in sitting next to Li without seeming to have done so deliberately.

A waiter took their complicated drinks order: beer, cocktails, gin, wine. Now that they were settled, with drinks on the way, everyone was reintroduced. One of Li’s friends turned out to be her sister.

“You don’t look at all alike,” said James. Her face was angular, sharp, almost hard.

“She is not my real sister,” said Li. “She is my cousin-sister.” The cousin-sister was a dancer, though she looked too tall to be a dancer. And she’d just had a baby. Everything James was learning was interesting. The waiter came back with glasses, bottles, ice, drinks. Li had ordered a Singapore Sling (“whatever that is,” she’d said); James was drinking beer. Min proposed a toast to James and Jun. As soon as they all clinked glasses James offered one back — “To the Chinese century!” — and they all clinked again. The beer was only Tsingtao, but it was cold, wonderful, tasted okay. For the first time since leaving the Forbidden City, he was able to give himself entirely to the moment. But if a moment is this perfect there is a need to preserve it, to photograph it. When people are having a good time they take pictures to show and prove they’re having a good time. Everyone was taking pictures, not only the people in James’s group, but all around. What was the point? These pictures never captured the magic of magical evenings, they just showed people getting red-eyed drunk and taking pictures of one another, but the act of taking the pictures was part and proof of the moment. It was something he associated with the young, but Jun was at it, too. The difference was that Jun was using a proper camera, not a phone, and taking considerable care, altering the focus and aperture. At one point he changed the lens in an unobtrusive, unfussy way, still drinking beer, not talking. Then he got up and left the table to photograph from a distance. When he sat back down he passed around the camera so that everyone could see the results.

They were fantastic. James had never been in a situation where something he was experiencing had been caught so perfectly on film. This was what the inside of his head looked like. The photographs were beautiful but, everyone agreed, the best ones were of Li’s cousin-sister. The colors were slurred, gorgeous, drenched. In one picture there was a yellow smear of light and, to the right, a string of blurred blue dots stranding her in shadowed clarity. Had Jun known what the result would be? If so, how had he done it?

“He must be in love with her!” said James, answering his own question. This romantic and technologically ignorant reaction was also a vicarious declaration and attempted deflection of what, he feared, might be obvious to everyone. If you were to fall in love with someone on a rooftop bar in Beijing, this was what it would look like. Or was it just the camera that was in love with the cousin-sister? He’d read that Muhammad Ali, along with his other attributes, even had the perfect face for a boxer, with rounded features that made him less susceptible to cuts. Li’s cousin-sister had the opposite kind of face. The camera didn’t glide or slip from her face in the way that punches slid off Ali’s. It clung to her as you hang on someone’s every word when you are falling in love with them. The shutter speed, presumably, was however many hundredths of a second, but something about her face meant that the camera held it fractionally longer and, in the process, softened it. Her face allowed, even encouraged, the camera to do this, to bring her inner life to the surface. She was removed, not quite there. Maybe she was thinking of the child at home? She looked — and again the softened sharpness of her features played a part — abstracted. Maybe this was what Jun had noticed, that her face had that special quality or capacity.

James was glad to be able to concentrate on the pictures, to avoid directing his attention too completely on Li — especially since, as they had bent forward together to study the camera, their shoulders had touched. They were still touching — his shirt against her bare skin — as they clicked through the images and came to one of themselves, taken five minutes earlier, sitting where they were now, before their shoulders had touched, surrounded by a blue like the blue of the oceans seen from space, with the moon above their heads. (He glanced around — yes, there it was, peeking out from behind a huge building.) She was laughing at something he’d said, raising her hand to her mouth, a gesture blurred and colored by the fairy lights: slow yellows, stretched reds. The softness of the night was implied, its heat and promise, and the uncertainty about whether he was responding to something that existed, in a haze of intangible and unspoken signs — or was he just projecting? That was also there in the photographs as they looked at them, forearms damply touching, certainly.

Li pointed at his face on the screen, clicked to enlarge it.

“Ah, you rook rike George Crooney!” she said, eyes wide, before laughing. She had never r’d her l’s like this before. By breaking the spell she cast him into it more deeply. And she had out-pub’d him, too.

Li handed the camera back to Min — having first taken care, James noticed, to click back to a different picture: an unincriminating wide shot that showed the whole group together. Min passed it to Jun. The waiter arrived with another tray of drinks. The music grew louder but not loud enough to cover up the way time, which had already ticked away pointlessly in the car, was continuing to tick away, more loudly by the minute.

Then, everyone agreed, it was time to go. James checked his watch. Two in the morning. His flight was eight hours from now. They paid — the Chinese paid; James’s money was stuffed back into his hand — stood up, and left the roof. The dismal elevator returned them to the still-busy street with its crude lights and lusts. There was much milling around, waiting for taxis. Some people in their group were heading in one direction, others in another. Li was by his side. With a little contrivance he could whisper to her, “Can I come home with you?” or, “Will you come back to my hotel?” It was premature to propose such a thing and, at the same time, almost too late. And even if she said yes, how to navigate the complications of taxi-taking, how to avoid the assumed arrangement of sharing a taxi with Min, Jun, and Wei? There was, in addition, the gulf between the polite reasonableness of the question — “Can I come home with you?’ — and everything the answer to it might allow. Why was it — what law of the barely possible decreed — that these situations only cropped up on the last night? Instead of falling asleep and waking up together, instead of eating breakfast and spending the day getting to know each other, he would get on a plane a few hours later and leave with an even greater sense of regret because, instead of having missed out on all of this totally, he would have experienced just enough to make him realize how much more he had missed out on by not missing out on it entirely. Li was still by his side. Two taxis pulled up, one behind the other. Hours and minutes had ticked by. Doors were opening, goodbyes being said. There were not even minutes left, only seconds before she would turn toward him so that he could kiss her goodbye, and then turn away. Or turn toward him and not say goodbye, not turn away.

’s many books include Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; Zona; and But Beautiful. His article “Stop Time” appeared in the June 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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December 2014