i.The boys share a single room. They sleep on the floor, stomachs splayed on bamboo mats, passing stories in muffled whispers as their mothers’ incense filters through the sliding door. They lay in clusters and pop sunflower seeds in their mouths the way their grandmothers do every night in the kitchen, sticky rice glued to their gums to fill in missing teeth. Tonight the boys debate whether they can sneak beer from the night market. Zhou thinks that there will be pretty girls from Beijing, the ones with wide set hips and straight eyebrows and fake double-eyelids carved on the front of cheap magazines that the boys hide beneath the floorboards. The boys lick the salt from their lips and under the blankets you can taste swordfish and pickled vegetables fermenting between their teeth. Yong claims an old man once beat him for stealing cigarettes from a push cart. He rolls down his pants to show everyone his purpling bruise. Wang Wen doesn’t believe him, kicks Yong in the shin and cusses him out with words that would later be washed out with his father’s fingers down his throat. Limbs push and pull against each other as the boys arm-wrestle, placing bets to see who will be the first one to sneak through the window. Bei Qing bumps into another boy, the one named Chao Cheng whose chin grows facial hair as sparse as the fuzz on rambutan fruit. Piss off, duanxiu, Chao Cheng shoves him away. He spits from the space between his two front teeth. Bei Qing rolls over, feels a foot come down on his neck, hot and thick against his throat. Duanxiu, dianxiu, the other boys chatter. Short-sleeves, short-sleeves. They pile on him, a feast of humming termites and whistling cicadas, snapping their fingernails against his back, dotting his skin with red bites. In the other room, the fathers slide their hands across their laps and the mothers get on their knees and pray, pray their sons go off to university and become doctors in America and marry delicate wives with V-shape chins and thin calves perched upon tiny feet. Behind the symphony of fluttering hands and cracking belts and rustling clothes, Bei Qing’s mother prays for her son to marry a lady, marry her until she drowns in oranges and rice wine and her stomach swells twice times—once for a boy and once for a girl.
ii.Bei Qing. The professor never gets his name right, always pronounces it bitching. Bitching, bitching, bitching. The class laughs and the professor flushes red, blue veins popping out from her forehead. The girls sitting behind Bei Qing giggle in sharp intonations. Mei guo qi, American flag, they cackle. Today the class studies Emperor Ai of Han. All the students remember the story from high school, but the professor insists they don’t. When she opens her mouth, Bei Qing realizes she does not speak in an English he understands. He squirms in his chair and watches the boy sitting in front of him. The boy spits on his desk and uses his finger to spread the wetness across the table. When it dries, he reaches his hand under his shirt and wipes what’s left on his stomach. The girls behind him shift around, hike their skirts up a little higher and gossip in a dialect Bei Qing doesn’t recognize. The professor is engrossed in her own motions, pointing to an image on the projector. It’s a painting of the emperor and his commander. The commander’s head lays on his lap, face fixed in a calm smile. It’s the passion of the cut sleeve—rather than waking his commander, the emperor simply cuts off the sleeve of his robes, leaving the other man undisturbed. The professor uses a yardstick to outline a triangle on the painting. Renaissance beauty, she explains. This three-sided composition. Heavily inspired by Italian artists, no doubt. She shrugs her shoulders, pushes her glasses into her bulging forehead. How many of you are familiar with the story of the cut-sleeve? It’s spectacular, really. Spectacular. The boy sitting in front of Bei Qing wets his thumb and forefinger again before raising his hand, slick and shiny. He ignores the professor’s glare and asks, did the emperor also chop off his arm off?
iii.Bei Qing proposes to the girl on her nineteenth birthday. They fly back to Beijing but lose themselves on their way to City Hall. They stop at street vendors and old men huddled on cardboard boxes, mouths forming shapes but sounds getting caught on their tongues. It’s a hellish midnight hour and they’re whisked underground by the enticing smell of salt and smoke. A single room, surrounded by heavy limbs and heavy breath and heavy bodies swaying in the hiccups and the laughter. Everywhere bleeds music, and Bei Qing feels the bass pass through him with every stroke. His wife sits next to him at the bar, one leg draped over his, the other clinging to a stranger’s ankle. Bei Qing finds the boy thrashing against the far wall. He is dressed in a silver suit with matching pants and nothing underneath. His jacket throws blue and white across his face. His neck is pink from a single shot of baijiu, his chest as bare as the professor’s engorged forehead. Mei quo qi, mei guo qi, the words are passed under tables and between wadded bills. There’s a not-quite-throbbing in Bei Qing’s head. Thoughts protruding in sharp angles, begging for release. So he waits, runs a hand down his wife’s calf and teases her hair with his middle finger. He stares past the crowd to observe the curve of the boy’s Adam’s apple, to count the red marks on his collarbone. The boy is swarmed with bodies, bulging thighs, fabric and flesh cut from broken wine bottles. Ya nan, Bei Qing’s father would call them, whisking the young boys out of the night markets, ya nan ya nan ya nan. Bei Qing feels one slide up next to him, dressed in a sleeveless white shirt and metal cuffs, a holy uniform, the kind his mother wore when she bent in half between Buddha’s legs and prayed for her son with her mouth wide open and she prayed so hard and she prayed until her upper lip melted with sweat and her tongue tingled with a bitterness she couldn’t swallow. Bei Qing’s hand tightens on his drink. He takes a sip, curls his lips around his teeth and holds the ice cube there, numbing his chin. But the pounding in his head gets louder, more insistent, and Bei Qing knows this warmth, this slow buildup of warmth in his gut and the drumbeat heat radiating off his cheeks. He loops his fingers through his belt loops and swallows. Across the bar, the boy continues to dance, his spine bending and bowing, still searching, still seeking. A ya nan rips off his jacket and three more bear down on the dragon tattoo etched on his shoulder. China’s symbol of divinity, legs spread, mouth weaving through slick bodies, dribbling saliva as the boy waves and ripples beneath the pulsing lights. Krystal Yang is a high school senior from BASIS Independent Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. Her work, inspired by her travels and personal experiences, has been featured in Crashtest Magazine, Polyphony Lit, and Rising Star Magazine. Aside from writing fiction, she is also a lover of dance, sharks, and green tea (unsweetened).