A week after my twenty-fourth birthday, a friend and I decided to take a trip to Lijiang. Many people went there just to fall in love. Having an affair in Lijiang was not like having an affair in the city. It was blameless, pure and otherworldly to sleep with someone in Lijiang. No dust, no grime, could touch that place.
Before I visited Lijiang, I read a book about an artist and his wife who owned the Yao Wang hotel. The girl was from a wealthy business family in Shanghai. She had met the struggling artist when they were teenagers. Now they had a one year old baby. I decided that we would stay at the Yao Wang, where each room was unique and carefully designed, just like a piece of art. When we arrived I felt I was a different girl. In the past I had done things that I was ashamed of, like the time I had threatened to kill myself if my parents didn’t let me see the boy I was dating at the time. Purple wisteria bloomed everywhere. When we arrived I stood on a bridge in the city centre and looked down at the broken reflection of lights in the water. I imagined that someone might propose to me on that bridge, while fireworks exploded behind us.
The friend I was travelling with had recently broken up with her boyfriend. In the evening while we tried to rest her keening kept me awake. I rubbed her back and told her that she would find someone else. Finally I managed to get her out of the hotel room. In the dining room we saw the artist and his wife, both beautifully dressed.
“Can we join you?” the artist asked.
My girlfriend was surprised but I knew this was part of their hospitality. They spent time with all the guests that stayed at their hotel – I had read this in the book. We drank a lot of wine and my girlfriend flirted with the artist, who was handsomer and younger than I had thought. His wife noticed, and laughed along. But at the same time she placed her elegant white hand on the artist’s thigh. Afterwards I helped my girlfriend back to our room. She kicked off her shoes and I pulled the sheets over her. I sat on the edge of the bed and took off my own shoes. I rubbed the arch of my foot and thought about the artist and his wife. For some reason I thought about them in bed together, the smooth marble of their tangled bodies, the baby sleeping nearby. I walked up a wooden staircase that led to a bathtub right under the glass ceiling of the room. I ran the hot water and added some dried lavender. I lay there until the water grew lukewarm, staring at the blanket of stars above me. I ran my thumb over my wet lips and tried to imagine what it would be like to be the artist’s wife, to be loved.
The next morning my girlfriend was listless over breakfast. I ate mango and drank endless cups of green tea. We spent the day walking around the city, tiring ourselves out. Later that evening my girlfriend perked up and suggested we go to the bar. She wanted to meet some boys we’d spoken to at the hotel. We both put on dresses and high heels. At the bar, I began to chat to a boy who had also grown up in Chengdu. He had serious brown eyes and a way of twisting his beer bottle round and round with his slim fingers. He made me laugh. My girlfriend was a few steps ahead of me, another boy’s arm draped around her waist. She was leaning in to him and when our eyes met, she winked at me. I smiled and closed my eyes for just a moment, listening to the smooth voice of the boy. Without quite knowing how, he had begun to hold my hand.
I was in the middle of this warm cosy glow when the artist appeared at the piano in the corner of the bar. He sang about lost love and a boat that had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. But then the ocean was really a bathtub and the fish were not fish but his own lifeless toes. It was nonsense. And he sang badly. I realised that he was drunk. He sang a few songs, picking at the piano keys with practiced clumsiness while the whole bar ignored him. Only the bar staff politely clapped after he was done. A few drunken people cried out in English, “Bravo! Bravo! Encore! Encore!” Suddenly I was not interested in the boy from Chengdu. I walked over to the bar instead. I looked at a painting on the wall. It was a portrait of two poor children in a field. There was something sincere and ghostly in their expressions. It was like they were asking for help. Who knew where those children were now? They could have died from malnutrition or drinking dirty water. Or they could be adults by now, with city jobs. I wanted to cry. I felt I had wasted my life, although I was only twenty-four.
The artist came to me and said, “What do you think?”
“It’s yours?” I asked.
He leaned forward so that his shoulder was nearly touching mine and told me how he had visited a village in the mountains of Daocheng and come across those two children. They were brother and sister, the children of a barley farmer.
“Do you like it?”
I touched the rim of the wine glass to my teeth and said, “It’s very beautiful. But it also makes me sad.”
“Many things can make us sad. But that doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful.”
While he spoke his fingers trailed across my forearm. In that moment I felt no longer drunk. I felt full of purpose.
“I want to see all your paintings,” I said.
This time I was the one who put my fingers on his wrist. He held his hand out to me and I took it. Before we walked out, I saw the looks my table was giving me. My friend waved at me while the boy from Chengdu was pretending very hard not to notice me.
Upstairs in his studio he showed me his other paintings: huge canvases, many of them unfinished, with thick brushstrokes of colours over them in no particular pattern. Some of them looked as though they had been painted by a child.
“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of abstracts,” he told me.
He lit a cigarette with shaky fingers. He put his hand on the canvas, telling me how the brushstrokes were careless on purpose. He called it a careful carelessness. I kept walking around and came across a painting that was propped up against a wall. It was a portrait of the artist’s wife, but much younger, a teenager. Strands of hair had come loose from her ponytail and her hands and mouth were wet, as though she had just been washing her face. In her expression there was something off-hand: she knew she was being captured but did not care. She seemed bored with the whole idea of painting.
The artist slipped his arms around me. I felt his breath stirring the hair at the nape of my neck. I pulled away from him and turned around to see his anger. Rich and powerful men like him did not take rejection well. A shudder ran through him and he dropped to his knees. His arms were around my waist and he was crying. “Please,” he was saying. “You are so young. You don’t know what it’s like to be unhappy, to feel stuck. Please, let me kiss you so I can forget for a while.”
I felt a mixture of wine and disgust in the back of my throat. I couldn’t breathe with his hands on me so I pushed him, hard. He careened back and lost his balance, splaying out on the floor. He looked up at me in total shock and I laughed.
He got to his feet and said, “Stop laughing.” He lurched towards me and I felt a far-away fear, almost separate to myself. I ran towards the door and in the second before the doorknob was in my hand, I was afraid that it would not turn. But it did. And a few minutes later I was in the brightly-lit hotel lobby.
Later in our room, my girlfriend was drunk but solicitous.
“What happened?” she said. “We were worried about you. Why did you go with him?”
“I…I don’t know,” I lied.
“That wasn’t like you,” she scolded. “Oh,” she said. “I miss Wei.” And she began to cry in wet gulps.
The next day we took our cases down to breakfast after checking out. We wore twin expressions of penitence. My girlfriend forced herself to eat some eggs. I could not face the thought of anything heavier than fruit and buttered bread.
I noticed that the artist’s wife was having breakfast a few tables away from us. Her son was in a high chair, and she was feeding him porridge. When she saw us she came over to our table.
“The staff told me you are leaving us today. I do hope you enjoyed your stay,” she said.
“Yes, thank you,” I said. “Everything here was so wonderful.”
“It’s a special place, Lijiang,” she said. My girlfriend and I both agreed.
“Lijiang is special. But you are not,” she said, looking at my girlfriend. “Whatever he told you, whatever he promised you, he has said so many times before it’s become like a script. You are exactly like every other worthless girl he has ever slept with.”
With that she walked away to greet guests at another table.
Years later, after I had put the baby to sleep, I saw a picture of the artist’s wife in the newspaper. She was standing next to her son, now a teenager who was nearly her height. Behind them was the lush green of the hotel gardens. I put down the cup of tea I had just made and began to read about her success. Artists from across the world came to Lijiang to stay at that hotel and hold exhibitions. In the very last line, it said that the woman’s ex-husband, whom she had started the hotel with, had faded into obscurity. According to one source, he was now a homeless drunk. I heard the baby fussing and was glad for the distraction. I smoothed down his dark, fine hair and thought again about the artist’s wife. I thought about her in the painting, her wet hands and mouth. I saw the barley farmer’s children, pleading with their small, dirty faces. I rocked the baby back to sleep and thought no more about it.