Mengyin Lin | Fiction
The accountant first heard of Shangri-La Magic Massage from her colleague, who gave her a flyer.
My parents were from Shangri-La, the accountant had said.
Her colleague, who had grown up here in Pittsburgh, laughed. There’s no such place. Shangri-La is an imaginary, beautiful paradise.
The accountant, perplexed, wondered if she had misremembered her parents’ hometown. She had visited it once as a child, an impoverished place surrounded by snowy mountains. Maybe it was a different Shangri-La, the accountant had thought, and said nothing more.
Friday lunchtime, the accountant texted her husband to meet her there after work. All massages were twenty percent off during the opening week. Back when she was a child, her father used to visit the massage parlor down the street on Fridays. This was in Kunming. The few times she had gone with him, her father had said that kids didn’t need massages. She’d lain on the chair next to him and watched his features slowly unwind themselves. Her father kept a cigarette between his fingers and with every puff of smoke he exhaled, his body sunk into the chair a millimeter more.
Today she would stroll to her own local massage parlor and with her own money, buy herself some pleasure. She spent the whole afternoon looking forward to the bright storefront, as if what happened inside not only connected her to her father, but was a rite of passage, from child to adult, girl to woman. When no one was watching, she took off her flats and wiggled her feet under the desk. They danced in anticipation.
At six-fifteen, she arrived at Shangri-La Magic Massage and her husband was not there. These days they mostly went out together, and she’d forgotten that he used to be late all the time. Her husband worked from home as a code farmer for a video game company. When he was not working, he preferred gaming over going out, uttering quiet commands into his headset and occasionally screaming illegible exclamations. The accountant didn’t mind. She felt fortunate that they had found each other. They both came from middle-class families in provincial capitals. Their family exhausted their savings to afford their American education. They had good grades and no hobbies. They both preferred Chinese friends, as superficial as those friendships were, and kept an agreeable distance with Americans. They worked boring jobs that made a decent living. Once in a while, they had boring sex. He was always tender and kept it short; she had no complaints. They had never said I love you to each other. There were many things above love. They were kind to each other’s parents. They fully integrated their finances. He cooked dinner if she was tired and carried her purse if it was heavy. And she knew she would have his child. Neither of them was restless in their boringness.
Outside Shangri-La Magic Massage, her feet were losing warmth in Pittsburgh’s early winter and she decided to go in first. The chimes rang as the door opened, announcing her arrival without invitation. Like her father’s massage parlor in her distant memory, the interior was unassuming, the fluorescent lights clinical but welcoming. She knew instantly that her foot massage was going to hurt like a foot massage should.
She knew instantly, also, that the staff were Mandarin speakers from mainland China. Their faces, hair, clothes, shoes, glasses—she just knew. She said in Mandarin, smiling, two people, one hour, make feet. No performative greetings, no small talk. Everyone looked up at her, including two white women lounging on the bulky black sofas, double chins folded over their phones, legs stretched out on the ottoman. They looked away quickly but the Chinese staff didn’t. Two middle-aged women standing against the wall, a young female receptionist behind the desk, an older man, and a man in his twenties with glasses, sitting on a low stool, all of them fixed their eyes on her. The accountant was used to the stare, the honest and probing look that Westerners often mistook as rude or threatening. The receptionist gestured in front of a vacant sofa chair and said, sit here.
As the accountant settled in, the receptionist kept an excited but slightly embarrassed smile on her face. The accountant often felt the same way when meeting a fellow Chinese at an unexpected time and place. She wondered if she was their first Chinese customer. The receptionist asked if she worked in the nearby office complex, what she did, where she was from, how long she had been in Pittsburgh, if she was married, and if she had kids. Impolite questions that made the accountant feel alive inside. She answered each of them happily and dutifully. She would have told the receptionist her annual salary, which people in Kunming always wanted to know, but the receptionist didn’t ask.
She told the receptionist that her parents were from Shangri-La.
Such a coincidence, the receptionist said, it’s where Yulong Snow Mountain is, no? I’d like to travel there one day.
Does the owner have a connection to Shangri-La? the accountant asked.
Oh no, it’s just a pretty name that lao wai likes, the receptionist said with a mocking grin, trying not to look at the two lao wai customers.
The door chimes sounded again when the accountant’s husband walked in. He sat next to her without explaining himself. One of the middle-aged masseuses and the young man with glasses disappeared into the dark hallway and reappeared with face masks on, holding two wooden pails half full of hot water. The accountant dipped her heels in, testing the temperature. As expected, a little too hot. She lowered her feet inch by inch, taking pauses in between. The masseur stood by the ottoman in silence.
Once her feet were properly soaking, the masseur asked her to sit on the ottoman and started rubbing her neck and shoulders. His fingers moved in firm and forceful strokes, their tempo rash, as if hastening to finish a mud sculpture before it dried into a nonmalleable brick. For some inexplicable reason, she trusted those imprecise hands to hold her. She relished being held, handled, her shoulders relaxing, her belly hollowing, a rush of heat softening its way into her crotch. When his hands ran closer to her bare neck, she got a whiff of a familiar scent. It was the permanent fragrance of tobacco that her father had smelled like. Above her crown, she could sense the young man’s lips opening and closing under the mask. She wanted to know if he also had that sour breath that her father and her uncle and their whole generation of men had. She took an inhale, as lightly as she could. Yes, he did. It was an aroma that predated her intelligence, primitive in her body before she understood that it was hers, those kisses on the cheek from men who first loved her floating in the undefined mindspace of what she could not remember. She glanced at her husband, who was the only man she had been with and did not smoke.
That night, the masseur handled her feet with the same sureness. He did it without once looking at the accountant, which emboldened her to look at him all she wanted. He wore a white Nike t-shirt with the black Swoosh at the center of his chest. A gold chain around his neck, dark blue jeans and tasteless sneakers. Typical outfit for people like him. Behind his mask, behind the slim-framed glasses, his eyes looked distracted, gazing nowhere in particular. The glasses made him look more educated than he must have been. Nerds from school and people with desk jobs wore glasses, not people like him. People like him—why did she keep using that phrase? Of course she knew what she meant: in China, people like her and her husband, though far from wealthy, were city people. Then, there were people like him who were leftover kids of migrant workers, whose education halted at the mandatory nine years, who started working, at sixteen, in restaurants, hotels, hair studios, nail salons, construction sites and massage parlors. Rarely seen were masseurs. Most men would rather risk their lives climbing a steel structure unprotected than performing the unmanly job of rubbing a woman’s feet.
If the accountant and the masseur were sitting in these exact same chairs in Kunming, she wouldn’t have thought anything about him at all. In their own country, he would have been invisible to her. But in America, in Pittsburgh, in the neighborhood they both worked, the accountant couldn’t look away from him. What had she done to sit at one end of the sofa and the masseur the other? What was he thinking, she wondered. Did he ask himself the same question? How old was he, how did he come to America, what visa was he on? How did he become a masseur? Where was he from and where did he live now? She would have asked had he looked at her just once, granting her an opening. But he kept his head down and hands on her feet so she kept her mouth shut. Her husband, like her father, kept his eyes closed. She stared at her own feet. They looked like they belonged to the masseur more than herself, and she wished it were true.
On Saturday, the couple’s friends came over for barbecue on their humble balcony. They sat around the kitchen counter, threading marinated meat and vegetables onto wooden sticks as they made boring conversations. Crypto, stocks, promotions, bonuses, corporate packages. Later, on the balcony, against an orange sunset, skiing and surfing. Skiing won the popular vote for a future group vacation. While they chewed on overcooked Wagyu, the Shanghainese girl informed everyone that there was, finally, an omakase restaurant in Pittsburgh. Only when her husband asked her if she wanted to go did the accountant realize that she barely said a word all night. It was not that she was uncomfortable with the discussion; it was that nothing spoken had not been said before, only in other words. Always the same boring things at every social gathering. It reminded her of those Japanese blindboxes she loved to buy as a child: she kept buying them in hopes of being rewarded with a different toy, but she opened to the same ugly plastic doll time and again. She wondered what the masseur would say if he was here. Crypto or stocks? Skiing or surfing? Omakase or not? The thought of him, his strong fingers kneading her calves, made the back of her neck burn. When her mind returned to the room, her friends were reminiscing about KTV parties they’d had in their late teens, how fun it had been to get drunk and sing terribly. Next time, they said, they should have a home karaoke party, which the accountant thought would be much less boring.
During her lunch break on Monday, the accountant took a walk so she could pass Shangri-La Magic Massage. When she looked in, she saw two Chinese women working on two hefty white men. Their feet, chapped and calloused, almost poking the masseuses in the face, looked disproportionally large in their hands. Leaning on the wall behind them was her masseur, sitting on the same low stool. She only knew it was him because he wore the same blue jeans and tasteless sneakers. His shirt, a neon green jersey that made her want to look away, was pulled all the way up to cover his face. At first glance she didn’t understand what he was doing looking like a headless ghost. Just then, his right hand fell out of his lap, his fingers limp, hanging on his side lifelessly. He was sleeping, the accountant understood. Standing under the early afternoon sun, she felt her body heavy with his exhaustion. Back in her cubicle, she imagined getting close to his face under that neon green jersey. What did it look like without glasses? If she got close enough, would she be able to see his dreams?
The next day she did it again. And then the next. A lunch time walk down to Shangri-La Magic Massage and a quick peek into the front window. Between meetings and spreadsheets in the afternoon, when she closed her eyes, her mind had a place to go. The older female masseuses often chatted amongst each other, but her masseur always sat by himself at the other end of the room. If he wasn’t massaging someone’s feet, he would be sleeping with his shirt over his face, watching videos on his phone, or looking into the void with headphones on. Listening to music, she presumed. One day, he spotted her outside the window, locked eyes with her, but the accountant didn’t think he recognized her. A few days later, when she turned onto the street, she saw him smoking out front. From the end of the block, she watched his lips gather into a small circle around the cigarette, as if reaching for a kiss. With the contouring of the sun, his features looked sharper. And he looked smaller. In fact, he was quite short, around her height. The accountant thought she preferred taller men—the top of her head reached her husband’s shoulders—but now she wondered what it would feel like not to regard a man’s face like she was looking up at the Buddha in a temple. She kept walking toward her masseur and he didn’t shun her gaze. Without his mask, without the window between them, he looked slightly different, like someone the accountant knew, but whose name escaped her. Their eyes lingered on each other. She smiled and thought that there was an intimation of a smile, too, on his face.
At Shangri-La Magic Massage, Thursdays and Fridays were the busiest, and her masseur was off on Mondays. On a Tuesday, she called to tell her husband that she was caught up at work and headed to Shangri-La as soon as she got off. When the young receptionist asked her if she wanted a foot massage, a full-body massage or half and half, the accountant heard herself choosing a ninety-minute session of the third option, the most expensive service on the menu.
Ninety minutes, the receptionist repeated in a higher, more delighted register.
Next to the receptionist, the accountant froze. An older masseuse sat alone by the wall; her masseur was nowhere to be seen. For more than two weeks, she had been thinking of him as her masseur and it hadn’t occurred to her that he might not be available. Just as the receptionist turned to the masseuse, her masseur appeared at the opening of the hallway.
I’ll take her, he said to the receptionist.
His accent sounded Northern, hard and dry, far away from Kunming’s subtropical dampness. The accountant followed him into a dark room. A toweled massage bed, a maroon lantern buzzing in the corner.
Afterwards, she wished that she could trace every look, every touch, every word that was said and unsaid, every minute gesture of offense, defense, hesitation, submission, and surrender that led to their penetration of each other. That was how she understood it, she was inside him as much as he was inside her. Or that it was more than their bodies that transgressed each other, though what else more precisely she couldn’t say. She seldom felt compelled to translate feelings into words, wary of language’s incompetence. She only had an incoherent idea of what happened between them—something to do with his rashness, almost clumsy but unapologetic, with his muscular, angular fingers that turned soft and dainty when she held them, with the feeling inside her to give, give way, to be taken, shaken, awaken, to be brought so close to death, death in the sense that one loses oneself, that she had to push it away.
She came under his fingers in a way entirely unlike when she did it herself. Her husband was no good at it. She appreciated his effort and faked it often, convinced that he did not know the difference. It was not like they were ever going to talk about such an unspeakable subject. Her masseur deserved a promotion, a year-end bonus and a goddamn fat corporate package for how he made her feel. The ecstasy attacked her veins so aggressively that, for a second, her body’s convulsions scared her. But the accountant did not make so much as a mousy squeak, not because she was minding the people on the other side of those paper-thin walls, but because that she didn’t want to let out of her body a moan or even a fraction of an exhale. She willed her flesh and bones to contain all of what her masseur bequeathed her, like a water balloon on the brink of breaking. The accountant wondered how many women he had been with and what they were like—if women without a college degree, without a job behind a desk, without having lived in another country, had sex in different ways. Were they better than her like he was better than her husband? Had they taught him what he knew?
The accountant drove herself home like she always did, but she never enjoyed driving as much as she did today. Today she liked sitting behind the wheel. She liked that she was the one who commanded the car to go left and right, forward and back. She liked that cars on the road communicated silently with signals, as if they were animals of a higher order. The accountant rolled the window down and let the brisk autumn air mess up her hair. She couldn’t truly understand what she had just done, and she didn’t want to. She could still feel the phantom weight of the masseur pressed against her pelvis, her molecules still thrusting. That smoky tang in his breath was now in hers, too, rather unpleasant, but it was not mere pleasure that she was after. When she swirled her tongue in her mouth, rehearsing their kisses alone, she tasted a strange pasty texture. At a red light, she flipped open her lower lip in the rearview mirror and saw red oozing from a small patch. The accountant remembered that her masseur had bitten her in an impassioned blur of searching and possessing, the twinge of pain had aroused her in the moment. She smacked her lips. It was a thick mixture of salty, metallic, and caramel, like a rusty penny coated in sweet, melted butter.
On the days he didn’t work, which were mostly Mondays, though it often changed without notice, the masseur would still ride the Ford Econoline into the city with his colleagues and meet the accountant in an hourly hotel room she paid for. She’d never known that these unsentimental cookie-cutter establishments offered such arrangements. She booked, for no reason, a different hotel every time. These hotel rooms looked identical to her, but her masseur would find inconsequential variations that pleased him—a higher water pressure, a smart TV, a clock and Bluetooth speaker in one, an actual painting, a window they were able to open. He liked all the rooms, most of all the white sateen sheets that he wrapped her body in. She would come during her lunch hours, then for an hour or two after work, not knowing what her masseur did in between. If they had time, the accountant would order deliveries for dinner with an extra entree to bring home for her husband. She always let the masseur choose the restaurant, cuisines that he’d never tried and may never afford: Greek, French, Italian, Ethiopian. But after a while, they ordered exclusively Chinese.
Foreigners’ food doesn’t taste as good as ours, he told her.
The masseur was from a town near Xi-An in Shaanxi Province. His mandarin sounded nasal and he didn’t speak a word of English other than hello, yes, pressure good? and bye. He preferred noodles over rice, spicy over sweet. He had touched the Yellow River and knew what snow tasted like. He had dropped out of high school and operated a bulldozer at construction sites for four years until he saw only dirt in his waking hours and heard only clash, clank, clangor in his sleep. When he’d learned that his uncle was seeking asylum in America, he wanted to do the same, though his only knowledge of America came from Hollywood B-movies he pirated. So that was how people like him came to America, the accountant thought. Meanwhile the people she knew were on the good-for-nothing F-1 like she used to be, impossible lottery H1-B like she had now, or the absurdly priced EB-5.
What reason did you give for seeking asylum, she asked.
He only needed to tell two lies: he wanted more than one child and he practiced Falun Gong. Everyone said something like that, if not Falun Gong, then Buddhism or Islam, if not the one child policy, then some other Party stance. He said that she’d be surprised about how much Americans disagreed with the way things were in China.
I knew one guy said he liked men, the masseur remembered, but I don’t think he lied.
One day, a few months into their affair, as the accountant was slurping noodles from the cuisine of his home province, boiling hot chili oil poured over wide noodles and minced garlic, and feeling ravenous, which she constantly did in his presence, the masseur said, out of the blue, that he had forgotten to tell her that in order to be granted asylum, he hadn’t been able to go home and wouldn’t be able to for another three years. He had known this was the condition but hadn’t thought that he would care much because he didn’t have much to go back for. The accountant wanted to ask why he came to a foreign country in the first place before she realized that she had no answer to the question herself. While she hesitated, her masseur said the noodles were not bad and asked if she was okay with the spice.
Three years after his uncle and cousin settled in Pittsburgh, he had made it in. He moved into their shared one-bedroom that the accountant never got to see. His uncle stocked shelves at the Chinese supermarket on Forbes Avenue. His cousin, a woman of his age, had been trained at the same massage school and worked in a massage parlor downtown, another location owned by Shangri-La’s proprietor. A year ago, his cousin switched to a nail salon. A quick learner, she started as an apprentice for no pay and secured a permanent position in a month. It was the same long hours but less grueling on her body, though hunching over people’s hands gave her terrible neck pains.
She also said she didn’t like touching American guys all over, the masseur said.
The accountant thought of the chapped feet so close to those older masseuses’ faces and said she could understand. But now the masseur’s cousin complained about headaches and nausea after inhaling nail polish for ten, twelve hours at thirty bucks a day. The accountant did not know how little the salon workers were paid. She wondered if the masseur was paid the same but she didn’t feel that she could ask, not when his face was this close to hers under a translucent sheet, the warm light from the bedside lamp illuminating the illusion of a sunset, or perhaps it was the actual sunset out the window. It doesn’t matter which. She tried not to care about time when they were together.
The accountant vowed not to go to nail salons anymore. As a teen, she had always done her own nails and was, frankly, quite good at it.
No! the masseur was adamant, then my cousin would make no money and that’s worse.
She considered the matter for a few seconds and decided that there was no right thing to do in this situation. It was a familiar feeling that kept coming up in her life but nevertheless took her by surprise every time. She promised her masseur that she would keep frequenting various nail salons, but she would only go to one massage parlor.
I only want to be touched by one person, she said, her hand resting on his chest.
His face looked like it belonged to someone whom she had known for much, much longer. She lined up the tip of her index finger with the beginning of his right eyebrow and stroked it slowly, as if her finger was a paintbrush, then the left eyebrow, right eyelid, left eyelid, the bridge of his nose, the rim of his upper lip, the rim of his bottom lip, excavating the buried face beneath, lightly, lovingly, lustfully, until his skin welded into hers, burning.
The accountant could never have guessed how easy it was to have an affair. It had crossed her mind that the situation would have been much more complicated had her husband been a different kind of spouse or had she chosen a mutual friend of theirs. For reasons unclear to herself, she couldn’t feel the guilt that she thought people in her position would be subject to. It was not difficult for her to accept that her life merely branched into two realities. Her masseur existed in a different universe, an alternative orbit without crypto, skiing, or omakase. There were, instead, day wages, cash tips, lunchboxes, free sites to watch Chinese TV, carpooling trips to Chinese supermarkets, and an almighty WeChat group, which the accountant discovered one lunch break, when, instead of postcoital conversations, perhaps because they were running out of things to say, they were each swiping around on their phone.
It was a WeChat group for people like the masseur in the Pittsburgh area—people working at Chinese dry cleaners, laundromats, housekeeping agencies, restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries, nail salons, massage parlors. People offered the accountant their services and accepted her payment on a daily basis. When she leaned in to look at his screen, she didn’t expect what she saw: pictures of a backyard full of flowers and vegetables.
Whose backyard is that?! she exclaimed.
What she meant was how could people like him afford a backyard like that. The masseur explained that the lushness belonged to a woman who was sold to a white American man as a wife two decades ago. Half of the WeChat group were women in the same situation, women as old as the accountant’s mother. They spoke no English at first and their husbands no Chinese to this day.
These women were happy, the masseur insisted.
As long as the women took care of the Americans, they led a much better life, “lucked out” in his words, than they would have slaving for and beaten by Chinese men in remote villages. The accountant zoomed in on the pictures: chives, baby bok choy, Chinese celery, sprouts, scallion. To farm your own vegetables—what a dream! The masseur chuckled and the accountant realized that she had spoken this thought out loud.
You can go to my village! Everyone farms their own vegetables there, said the masseur, looking at her as if the accountant was a little girl begging her grandmother to buy fluffy baby chicks at a market.
Sounds better than my boring balcony with a boring grill, said she.
There’s rich boring and poor boring, said the masseur, teasing.
I’m not rich, said the accountant.
You’re not poor, said the masseur.
On the days they didn’t meet, the accountant would take her lunch walk along the same old route and steal a look at her masseur through the same old window. She hadn’t been able to bring herself in for a massage for a long time. Instead, she took baths, basking in the pleasure of being alone, which she had only learned to appreciate after becoming acquainted with the pleasure of company. When she imagined stepping into Shangri-La and being greeted by the friendly receptionist as their source of income, she accepted that she had crossed an invisible line that would be uneasy, messy, excruciating even, to cross back.
It was on one of those walks that she finally realized whom her masseur resembled. On that day, he wore a bright red hoodie and leaned back on the wall, dozing off as he often did, the hood pulled low on his forehead, casting a mysterious shadow over his eyes. If she were to use the first two fingers of both hands to make a rectangle viewfinder’s shape and take a close-up of him above the neckline, the picture would look exactly like the cover of her favorite singer’s second album, the one that came out the same year she learned that the female body bled once a month, the one that she put on repeat when she had her first crush, the one that made her fall in love with the shy twenty-year-old Taiwanese who became the biggest pop star of her time. She couldn’t believe that it had taken her months to see the likeness in their features, albeit having seen the singer’s face only once in person from the opposite end of a stadium seventeen years ago.
In bed, she asked if the masseur liked the same singer and the masseur said yes and listed the singer’s more recent songs, reminding her of their small age difference.
His second album is my favorite, she told him.
He typed the singer’s name into the Chinese music app he used and picked the album with the singer in a red hoodie on its cover. The first song came on. The accountant had memorized every word of it and could sing the whole song without processing its meaning. As the song played, something inside her wasn’t computing; she witnessed herself, like a glitch on a monitor, losing shape, changing color, splitting into two composites—the girl who had loved this song, still inside her somewhere, and the woman in this bed, next to this man, in this country that was not her own, the irreversible time and distance in between.
Good listen, the masseur said after the song.
She was speechless.
On their way out of the hotel in the elevator, he reached into his backpack, suddenly remembering something.
Almost forgot—I got something for you.
He held out a small zip lock bag. Inside was a handful of black kernels, like a swarm of ants.
It’s scallion seeds, he explained. The aunties in the WeChat group said they’re easy to take care of. You said you have a balcony?
I asked an auntie and she mailed me these. She said her seeds were better than the ones you can buy in the store.
She accepted the bag and said, thank you.
By the time the scallions’ young green stems lined the perimeter of her balcony, the accountant had stopped booking hourly hotel rooms, stopped taking lunch walks, stopped calling the masseur her masseur. She had bought a Bluetooth microphone, a mic and a speaker all in one mushroom shape. Her husband invited the same friends over for karaoke night and the Taiwanese pop star’s songs were the most popular. Between songs, the friends took turns to admire the accountant’s scallions, brainstorming recipes that could feature her crop—scallion pancakes, stir-fried lamb with scallions, steamed whole fish with scallions and ginger—before steering back to familiar territories: stock market, investments, vacation plans.
After their friends left, the accountant’s husband went to the balcony and praised the scallions, too, as if noticing them for the first time. The accountant turned off the balcony light and leaned on the doorframe. Against the starless sky, she told her husband that she was with child. That night, they had sex in the way they always did.
But before she knew she was pregnant, before the scallions sprouted, before her friends came over to sing and sing terribly, her masseur got to hold the karaoke mic first. The day the mic arrived at her office, she had brought it to their hotel room, which had been feeling unromantic, even to her masseur. His touch had seemed distracted. His skin lukewarm. His handling of her deliberately civilized. Or was it her who was distracted, her body distant to herself, not willing to give herself what she wanted, that second of everything and nothing at once. It wasn’t guilt toward her husband that changed things between her and her masseur. She had kept up her wifely duties, cooking dinner, Netflix and chill, and the occasional carnal activities. The two worlds of hers were so far apart that they never entangled in her mind. Perhaps that was the problem—ultimately she could only belong to one. She was not, could never be, and didn’t want to be in the same world as her masseur. It was as if the two of them were cursed characters in a fairytale who were permitted human form only within the confines of their hourly hotel rooms. As soon as they were on the other side of the door, they reverted to their animal incarnations, the masseur a clam in the ocean, the accountant a flycatcher in the sky, hurrying to catch up with her flock.
On the day the karaoke mic arrived, the accountant let the masseur unbox it. He’d seen these mics on Douyin and asked the accountant if he could give it a try. He connected it to his phone, stood up on the bed, naked. He hit the play button and she knew from the first three drumbeats that it was the third song from the Taiwanese singer’s second album, its lyrics the most obviously romantic. She’d never heard him sing, an act so revealing that it was unlike him. As the intro was coming to its end, he held the mic tight and swallowed. Just before the verse was about to start, he dropped the mic and jumped off the bed.
What are you doing! she screamed, cracking up.
He was digging through his clothes. Seconds later, her masseur returned to his stage mark on the bed in a gray hoodie, the hood pulled over. He restarted the song, blushing as he tugged the hood lower. The same intro began again: eight beats of drums first, then the guitar layered on. The rhythm always made her want to shake her head to it, and she was doing it now, her body swaying side to side, hesitantly. He whispered through the verse but in chorus, his voice was full and free.
I want to hold your hand and never let it go
can love be forever simple
She stood up, too, and heard her own voice singing those earnest and callow words, forgetting herself for a few bars of unsophisticated melody.
I want to take you biking
I want to take you to baseball
just like this, nothing to worry
singing a song as we walk on
Neither of them had a good pitch or voice. So they stopped singing, collapsing into each other on the bed, and laughed silly for the rest of the song.
It was clear to her that when she carried another life inside, her boring life as she knew it was over. There would be countless things she needed to learn, to accomplish, to devote herself to. Her days would take on a new purpose. And in doing that, she needed a partner, a partner of her world, not the masseur’s. Ending their affair was as clean as having it. The masseur didn’t ask incriminating questions, didn’t call her hurtful names, didn’t contact her ever again. She didn’t have to block him on WeChat. Months later, when she was searching for an old friend’s contact, she paused on his profile picture for a moment, now the cover of the Taiwanese pop star’s second album, and continued scrolling.
During her pregnancy, the colleague who introduced Shangri-La to the accountant still employed their services. The accountant overheard her recommending the young man with glasses to others in the office, saying that she couldn’t have predicted that a skinny Chinese man had such strength. The accountant looked away from the colleague’s heavy frame, unable to dwell on the image that surfaced in her mind. Then she took her maternity leave, happily lost in buying organic diapers and researching breastfeeding. The baby came on a rainy spring day, a boy who was silent for a few seconds too long before he erupted into his first cry. She held the naked boy to her heart, feeling both of their pulses, no longer attached by the umbilical cord, reluctantly fall out of sync.
The accountant returned to the office a few days after the baby’s hundredth-day celebration. She gleaned that the masseur had left Shangri-La, as had a few others who had worked there since opening. In any case, she didn’t have time for massages anymore. When her workday ended, the only thing she wanted was to go home and be with her baby boy, though when she was with him, between fleeting bouts of intense joy, she mostly felt desperate and helpless. Eventually she changed her job, got her Green Card, and bought a house in the suburbs. She farmed a dozen different kinds of Chinese vegetables in her own garden. When her son was five, her husband had an affair with a mutual friend. She waited for him to confess, and eventually he did, asking for forgiveness. During the extended silences in their many conversations, the accountant considered telling her husband about the masseur. But she couldn’t, out of fear, not for what it might stir up in her marriage, but for how her memory might change if she tried to put it into words. When her son was seven, she signed him up for piano lessons, hoping a life with music would be less boring. As he practiced, she often sat next to him on the piano bench. Those fingers moving across the black and white keys reminded her of a pair of hands that once took her breath away. One day, when the accountant turned to look at the boy’s profile, her heart expanded in her chest at the likeness to the face that still emerged in the corners of her dreamscape. She hugged her boy close, stopping his Bach Minuet midair, and listened to the cadence of their hearts beating in each other’s company.
Born and raised in Beijing, Mengyin Lin is a Chinese writer living in the US. Mandarin is her mother tongue and she writes in English as her second language. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College where she won the Himan Brown Award and a BFA in Film from New York University. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Joyland, Epiphany, Fence, Pleiades, and Best Debut Short Stories 2023; her nonfiction can be read in The New York Times, Guernica, and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. She is the winner of 2023 swamp pink Fiction Prize, 2023 Pen/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and 2022 Breakout Writers Prize. Her work has been supported by Tin House, Bread Loaf, VCCA, KHN Center for the Arts, Saltonstall Foundation, and more.