The young waitress approaches our table with all the enthusiasm of a slug on tranquilizers. She stops beside me, not bothering to say a word or make eye contact, and slams the bowl of noodles down so hard that a wave of hot soup splashes onto the table-top.
“Hey!” I bark, loud enough to get her attention over the war-like clatter of cheap metallic bowls and raging voices all around us.
She turns back, tired eyes blinking through a haze of cigarette smoke. “What?”
“I said no coriander.” I give the bowl a poke to highlight my point. It slides a few inches across the table.
Her sour face creases, as if to ask: Where the hell do you think you are? It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself for the past month. And the answer: I’m right back where I started. No wonder I’m going crazy.
“You can take it out yourself,” the waitress suggests after a few seconds, shrugging as she retraces her steps to fetch another (probably wrong) order from the kitchen.
“We can swap if you want,” mumbles Dan, the girl opposite me. “They didn’t put as much in mine.”
I stare into my friend’s bowl. Her soup is swimming with green specks, more so than mine. I tell her it’s okay, although I’m seething inside. Nothing here works the way it should.
“I hate this place,” I hiss under my breath.
“Come on, Fei,” she says, pasting a smile on for my benefit. “It’s not so bad, is it?”
Sun Dan, my oldest friend, is a reflection of the former me. She’s content to take whatever this place has to throw at her – thick clouds of smoke; a kid pissing right beside her sandaled foot; the guy at the next table sneezing into the back of her head as he turns round to spare his lunch – all without standing up and shouting: “This is not fucking good enough!”
Right now, though, I need Dan to understand; I need her to see that this restaurant, these people, this city – none of them are good enough.
“Have you heard of reverse culture shock?” I ask.
She sucks the meat from around a tiny bone and spits the remains onto a growing mound beside her bowl. “No.”
“Well, you know what culture shock is, right?”
I’m about to dive into an explanation of the two terms when the bare-bellied oaf behind her turns round and lets rip with yet another almighty sneeze. I close my eyes and hold the smoky air in my lungs for as long as I can before coughing, which turns out to be just over three seconds.
Unfazed by the germy onslaught, Dan slurps down a long noodle and looks at me with sudden excitement. “Are you doing anything after lunch?”
“I was planning to go home and take a nap,” I say.
I don’t usually take afternoon naps, since I’m not eighty, but the apocalyptic summer sunshine that’s been turning the grass brown and the locals browner for the past couple of weeks isn’t conducive to much else.
“Oh,” she murmurs.
I know she wants me to ask. “What did you have in mind?”
“I’ve got a job interview in half an hour. I thought maybe, well, maybe you could come with me.”
“What kind of job?”
Dan flashes me a cheeky grin. “Dancing.”
Obviously she’s not talking about joining the Bolshoi. In downtown Lu’an there’s only one place girls dance for money – and that’s the seedy club in Renmin Park frequented by middle-aged businessmen and government officials. I know because it’s a stone’s throw from my home. That, and my uncle just so happens to be one of those officials.
“Dancing?” I splutter. I can’t believe I’m hearing this. I’m not a prude – as evidenced by a couple of drunken exploits during my year abroad – but stripping isn’t a path I thought any of my close friends in Lu’an would ever consider.
“It’s good money,” she beams. “They’re looking for girls with decent figures and a background in dance.”
Dan certainly scores top marks in the first category. Ever since she filled out during the first year of senior middle school, young men have been falling over themselves to admire her curves and engage her in conversation. In that order.
She breathes in and out a few times, lost in thought, the grin gone but her eyes full of mischief. Each time she exhales, I notice those substantial breasts stretching the tight cotton of her black and white striped dress. I’m sure I can see her nipples pressing through. She’s not wearing a bra.
“So are you coming?” she presses.
I’m stunned into silence for a moment. Do I really want to accompany my best friend – the girl I grew up with – to a strip club and watch as she gyrates topless onstage in front of the boss and whoever else happens to be milling around? I can’t do much, except clap when her routine comes to an end. Then again, my presence would keep her safe from any unwanted attention. I’ve heard about the whole casting couch set-up – and, given her family situation. I’m sure she’s desperate enough to do whatever it takes to secure such a high-paying job.
“I’m in,” I blurt out suddenly.
“Great. Let’s get going.”
Dan jumps up from the stool with a fresh smile curling her lips. I follow with slightly less gusto, and a minute later we’re in a taxi shooting across the city. The driver is on his mobile – he took the call as he pulled over to pick us up. I tune his scratchy voice out and look over at my friend.
I’m not sure what to say without sounding patronizing, so I soon turn my gaze to the river and park running beside us instead. A dozen or so elderly women are hunched over at the bank, rubbing clothes with soap in the scummy waters. I’d hate to wear anything that’s been washed (and I use that word loosely) in the treacly Pi River and then bashed dry on the gum-encrusted concrete slabs that line it.
The car swerves into Qiupai Road, which skirts the vast circular expanse of Qiupai Park, and zooms past my apartment building. I look out at the six-storey structure, at the chipped and stained white tiles covering its front. It appears to be on the verge of collapse, although it’ll probably outlive me – unless some businessman with the right connections snaps it up for redevelopment and replaces it with a skyscraper that will, alas, look equally shoddy six to eight months after completion.
Though the mouth of the narrow road that leads to Renmin Park is approaching, the driver doesn’t seem to be slowing down. He’s still babbling away on his phone.
“Renmin Park,” I remind him, trying not to sound too pushy.
The driver keeps the phone pressed to his ear with one hand – and keeps bellowing into it – while using the other to turn the steering wheel hard. As we cut through a lane of traffic, we’re immediately treated to a chorus of beeps and toots from offended vehicles. It’s a miracle we’re in one piece when the car finally screeches to a halt.
I pay the five kuai fare and hop out, holding the door for Dan as she slides her bottom over the grimy carpet that’s been laid over the back seat and emerges into the baking early afternoon sun.
“You’ve still got time to change your mind,” I say, one hand shielding my eyes from the nuclear glare.
Instead of responding, she pulls me into motion and we set off down the cobbled road. Fifty metres later we’re in the park, which is utterly deserted.
I remember coming here when I was very young with my mum and dad. That would make it almost two decades ago. Back then it was the only proper park (i.e. with grass) in the downtown area, so hundreds of families would wile away their weekends here. As we march further into the depths, I get a chance to examine the ghostly remains of my childhood – an empty swimming pool pocked with weeds; a lifeless merry-go-round that sports rusted metal rods where horses once stood; and, perhaps most depressing of all, a boat I once rode with my parents now half-sunk in an algae-covered pond.
“This place is dead,” I sigh.
Dan wipes the beads of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, then points ahead to the two-storey brick building that’s slowly revealing itself through a canopy of trees. “Not quite.”
“How did you hear they were recruiting?” I wonder.
“A girl on the street told me. She said I’d be perfect for it.”
Despite her jolly tone, Dan’s not smiling at all now. Is she starting to have second thoughts? It wouldn’t surprise me. The structure we are currently approaching is shielded from almost all sunshine, which makes it look haunted. To be honest, I’ve rarely seen such a grim and foreboding place.
Inside it’s even worse. There’s no light, artificial or otherwise, so the tunnel we find ourselves pacing down seems to extend on forever into dark nothingness. The air is suddenly old and stale, too, spiked with the twang of cheap disinfectant. I can only imagine what messes they’ve had to clean up here recently.
Dan pauses next to an open door and waits for me to catch up. I stand beside her and we gaze into a small office. A man, late thirties or early forties, is sitting behind a huge wooden desk that was clearly designed for a company president. He’s running one hand through his slicked-back hair and puffing on a cigarette. He looks up from a magazine.
“You ladies here for a job?” he asks. His vocal chords sound like they’ve been scoured with sandpaper.
“Maybe,” Dan replies, stepping into the smoky cell. She’s holding my hand again, so I have no choice but to follow.
The man at the desk closes his magazine and proceeds to inspect the pair of us. I notice his gaze lingering on Dan’s full chest.
“I’m just here with my friend,” I blurt out.
His gaze skims over my modest boobs and lands on my face. “Pity,” he says, treating me to a sleazy wink before turning back to his original target. “You can call me Mr Yan,” he tells her. “And what’s your name?”
“Sun Dan,” she says croakily. She coughs and repeats her name in a clearer voice.
Yan drops the end of his cigarette into a paper cup on the desk. There’s a brief hiss as the fire dies.
“Do you have any dancing experience?” he asks.
“Well, experience isn’t essential. We’re more interested in girls with great figures.” A hungry look spreads across his face as silence envelops the room. He lights another cigarette and takes a long puff before continuing: “I’m sure you know what this job entails.”
The combination of smoke and stagnant air is making me feel light-headed, so I slump down on a rickety wooden chair against the wall. I consider asking Yan to open the small window behind his head, but I don’t really want to engage him in conversation. The way he looked at me earlier… I’d rather pass out and choke to death than suffer that seedy wink again.
“If you can impress me, you’ve got the job,” he says, eyes still fixed on Dan’s chest. The cigarette is perched on his lips, slowly burning down.
Her face is stone. She must know what he’s looking at. “Okay.”
“Okay,” he repeats.
I can only imagine what comes next.
My question is answered a few seconds later when Yan reaches under his desk and pulls out a hi-fi. Dan is frozen on the spot, hands by her sides, palms pressed against her outer thighs. If she wants this ordeal to end, all she has to do is say so. Just one word.
She doesn’t make a sound.
Yan presses play and music suddenly fills the room, a sensual track with a gentle beat and – in the background, but loud enough to be heard – the orgasmic breathing of a young woman. I’m caught unawares by how sexy it sounds, and for a moment I forget just how sordid this situation is.
Dan is already swaying from side to side, eyes shut, lost in some faraway place. Her hands creep up from her thighs, over her smooth stomach and onto her breasts. She cups each one, squeezing and kneading as her body writhes on the spot. In the fevered confines of Yan’s office, those soft mounds of flesh peeking out above her dress are moist with sweat. Every few seconds, as she contorts her top half, the droplets converge and trickle down the deep valley created by her breasts. A wet patch is growing across her chest.
Yan is entranced by the seductive vision before him. The cigarette has burnt out on his lips, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Surely he’s had hundreds of girls pass through this office, desperate for a job, willing to dance – and almost certainly more – for his approval? Then again, most Lu’an girls don’t possess the kind of curves that my friend does.
Dan’s hands trace her shape back down to her sides and her fingers slowly wrap around the hem of her tight dress, which covers her behind by two or three inches at the most. Her eyes are still closed. I have no idea where her mind is or what she’s thinking of. The music, the smoke, the heat – they’ve swept her to another place entirely and left behind a mere shell of raw sexuality.
The girl in the song lets out a yelp. In response Dan begins to raise her dress. The cotton creeps up inch by inch until the pink and black striped boy shorts that cling to her sweaty cheeks are fully exposed. She continues to raise the material, slowly and delicately, until the dark skin of her toned stomach is also on show.
Yan leans forward. His mouth opens and the dead cigarette falls out, bouncing a few times on the table-top before rolling onto the cold concrete floor. His eyeballs are about to burst out of their sockets, or so it seems.
“Stop!” I screech, shooting out of my chair like a missile.
Dan opens her eyes and immediately lets go of her dress, which tumbles back over her stomach. At the back it sticks to her damp skin, forcing her to pull it down manually. She’s breathing heavily, like the girl in the song, but she’s no longer in a trance. Her eyes blink through the veil of smoke and heat, and she’s back in the room. I take a step forward and seize her hand.
Yan stands up and turns off the music. I’m expecting him to fly into a rage or possibly launch a physical assault, so it comes as a huge shock – and relief – when he sits back down and lights the final cigarette in the pack.
“Nice work, Dan,” he says, treating her to the same sleazy wink that I got just a few minutes ago. “But you’re going to have to go further if you want to impress our regulars.” He tries to blow a ring of smoke, but fails miserably. “Come back tonight, around 8pm, if you think you’re up to it.” His focus shifts to me all of a sudden. “And you’re just as welcome.”
“Never!” I squeal.
I hear Yan laughing to himself as I yank Dan’s hand and march out of his debauched office.
An excerpt from Benton Cade’s novel, a work in progress, Beijing Cherry