Men’s faces always appear old to me. Most of the ones who visit the karaoke parlor are ageing, with wives and children at home. They were born in the ’50s, dedicated the prime of their lives to the socialist cause. They say to me:
“Bastard, life is so unfair to us, girl, I tell you, I was looking after stinky chicken farms for thirty years, now I’m fifty and got some spare money to spend on you. How will you satisfy me tonight for my thirty years of misery?”
Or even worse: “This is my plan: I’m going to divorce my old wife and have different girls every week. Why not? I have got money now and you have to respect me tonight, understand?”
It’s their revenge, perhaps.
Monday night, not much going on. Contracts still to be negotiated, deals being discussed in white office buildings. Bored, I start to watch a soap on TV with two other girls. It’s called “I fell in love with a police officer’s wife.” It’s not bad. A man walks in. I can’t be bothered to raise my eyes, but he picks me out. I stand up and lead him into the karaoke room he’s hired, handing him a menu on the way.
He orders some Bordeaux. Instead of talking, he starts to study my face. He is surprisingly young, about thirty, and doesn’t seem too confident about having his hands on my lap.
Then he says, “You know what? I think that . . . you look like a classmate of mine.”
I give him a smile. “Sure. Was she cute?”
“Yes she was. But really, you look like her.”
“Come on, there are millions of girls in this city with my kind of looks.”
He carries on studying me as he takes the wineglass from my hand. I’m getting nervous: there’s something familiar about his face, as if it comes from an old dream. But no one should know who I am. Nobody is allowed to know.
“You definitely look like someone I’ve known,” he insists.
I turn away towards the TV and change the channel at random.
“Where are you from?” he goes on.
Where am I from? That accent is so familiar. I start to panic. I glance at him—I must have known this man in my former life, back home. My mind starts to reel, searching for ways to escape his questions, to make up a story. I’ll say I’m from some tiny unknown town in Shan Dong or in Hu Nan province, something like that.
But he doesn’t wait for my answer. He says the dreaded words: “Are you Zhang Yan?’’
I am lost. I pretend I have never heard that name before. Impatient, he carries on:
“Your hometown is Jiu Long, in Fu Jian Province, right?”
He knows my past. Definitely. I can’t escape. Or can I? Trying to sound cool and casual, I reply, “You must be mistaking me for someone else, mister. You are too drunk.”
“I am totally sober!” He protests angrily. “You are Zhang Yan from Jiu Long primary school and I am your former classmate Ma Yue San.”
My eyes leave the TV screen and look at his face, trying to recall my old classmates. Yes, this man really looks like Ma Yue San from Jiu Long primary school. I remember he was good with numbers and always got top grades on our math tests.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, mister. I am from Si Chuan province, so I can’t be your schoolmate.”
“So you have a twin sister then?”
I turn the TV on louder, a Hong Kong song covers his voice.
“Sorry, mister, I don’t care about your classmate. The only thing I care about is making you feel good. Shall we have another drink? Do you have enough money for this?”
“I haven’t made my millions yet. But I am not poor, we design antivirus software that sells all over the country.”
“Antivirus software huh?’’ I repeat, trying to think of something to say.
“Yes. We just bought a building on the Fourth Ring Road.” He pauses, scrutinizing my face again. He sighs and continues.
“You don’t want to admit who you are. But I have a good memory.”
He’s got a good memory, but I have a thick skin, and I don’t let the world upset me, particularly when it comes to men. But this schoolmate’s rambling unsettles me. If the people in Jiu Long know how I make my living, I won’t be able to return home anymore. Zhang Yan works in a state-run factory in the capital, that’s what my parents know. And she has a good boyfriend who is her colleague. I can feel a tingle of anxiety creeping down my spine. I must make this Ma Yue San shut up. I’ll drown his brain in liquor and make sure that when he crawls out of bed tomorrow morning, he’ll have no memory of any Zhang Yan schoolmate working in a karaoke parlor. Besides, nobody here knows my name. Here, I am Ai Lian, Lotus Lover, a name men like to spend a night with. There has never been a Zhang Yan here, never.
And so after a few songs by Faye Wong, the Bordeaux is finished. I persuade him to order some whisky, the most expensive thing here, the boss always tells us we should get the men to order it.
We drink scotch until Ma Yue San is soaked in it. Twice already I’ve gone to the bathroom, my throat is raw. I’ve learnt the trick from the other girls: when you drink a lot, you stick your fingers down your throat and vomit it up again, it’s the only way you can last the night. After my third trip to the toilet, I taste a trickle of blood dripping down my throat. But that doesn’t matter right now. My mission is to persuade Ma Yue San to drink even more and to sing karaoke with me.
My classmate has passed out on the sofa, he is as dead as a drunken shrimp. I don’t think I need to worry any more. I get back to the counter, write down the list of what he’s drunk, and tell the waiter that he’ll pay in the morning. Then I get back to the reception room and drink some tea while waiting for my next customer.
Four in the morning. Sitting alone under a neon light in a windowless room, I reach for the remote control and mute the TV. Laughing and singing is coming from every corner. I’m tired. My only other customer tonight was an overweight businessman from Hu Nan with a coarse drawl that reminded me of old videos of Chairman Mao. The weight of his enormous body made me choke, and as I lay under what seemed like a ton of stale sweat and beer, the tang of sour vomit seeped back into my mouth.
I drink a cup of green tea, then another one, and then a third. I start to feel better. Ma Yue San’s words are ringing in my ears. I’m hungry. I miss the South. I miss a bowl of congee and the smell of boiled rice. An image of rice fields spreads out in front of my eyes, covering the vast horizon of Beijing. The wind is warm and fermented, I can smell the grain, the soil, the grass, the sweetness of those fields, the fields where I grew up with my hometown kids. I look at the dim carpet, the red neon illuminating my skin. The high heels are hurting my feet.