Authors: Charles McCarry
A Mysterious Press Book for Head of Zeus
For David Laux
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.
Those who keep an eye on me
think I have a weakness for Chinese women. This is true as far as it goes, but it goes both ways. I am a hairy man, and certain East Asian women like that. My first Chinese girl called sex with me “sleeping with the chimpanzee.” Her name was Mei, easy for a chimp to pronounce and remember. We met cute. One day, as I pedaled along Zhongshan Road, she crashed her bicycle into mine. In those days I was new to the life of a spy, so my paranoia wasn’t yet fully developed, but I immediately suspected that this was no accident. My first thought was that Chinese counterintelligence had sniffed me out and sent this temptress to entrap me. Then I took a look at the temptress and wondered why I should mind. She was lying facedown, miniskirt awry, next to the wreckage of our two bikes—curtain of blue-black hair, slender legs the color of honey, snow-white virginal panties covering her round bottom. She was in pain—writhing, moaning, sucking in air through her teeth. I crouched beside her and in my stumbling Mandarin asked the usual stupid question. She turned her head and looked at me—starlet’s face, unblinking dark eyes filled with tears. I asked the same question again, “Are you all right?” First she heard me, now she saw me. And smelled me. It was a hot, muggy day. I needed a haircut. I hadn’t shaved. Chest hair tufted from the open neck of a shirt I had been wearing for three days. Her lips twisted, her eyes blazed. All expression drained from her face. She said nothing. I might as well have been attempting to communicate in American Sign Language. Then she sat up. Her face, her whole person radiating anger, as if I had pinched her in her sleep. Her eyes went cold. She shouted at me. At length. In Shanghai dialect. I understood almost nothing she said, but had no difficulty grasping her meaning. A little crowd gathered. They understood every word, and it made them laugh. When she stopped talking, the crowd drifted away.
The girl got to her feet. Her knees were scraped. She bled from an elbow. She cradled the wounded arm in her other arm, as if in a sling.
Taking great care with the tones, I attempted to say, “Please speak Mandarin so I can understand the insults.”
Daggers. She kicked her bike—the front wheel was as bent out of shape as she was—and said, “Your fault.”
I said, “You hit me.”
“My machine is ruined. Look at the front wheel.”
“That proves you hit me. If I had hit you, my bike would be the one with the broken wheel.”
“You speak this language like you ride a bicycle. Ugly Chengdu accent. Was that clear enough for you to understand?”
“I think so.”
“It thinks!” she said. “I think it had better give me some money for a new bike before I call the police. They’ll be here any minute anyway, so hurry up.”
“Good. The police will see who was at fault.”
In the middle distance I saw a knot of witnesses leading a policeman to the scene of the crime. The girl saw them, too.
“Now you will find out about China,” she said.
I didn’t doubt that she was right. Getting mixed up with the police was the last thing I was supposed to let happen to me. I was in Shanghai to speak Chinese, not to get the cops interested in me.
I said, “I’ll go with you to a bicycle shop and pay for the repairs. But no money.”
The cop and the witnesses were getting closer. I said, “Let’s talk about it on the way.”
She smiled triumphantly, lips pressed together. “I ride. You carry my bike.”
I picked up the wreckage. She vaulted onto the saddle of my machine, a four-thousand-dollar one bought on the expense account, as if she were leaving Lourdes after being cured by the patron saint of lady bicyclists. I watched her go—her legs and the rest of her, in motion now. She was even better to look at. Dutiful to my vocation, I wondered why would she wear a miniskirt and that skimpy top instead of jeans and long sleeves if she had planned this collision or had it planned for her? Paranoia 101, as taught to novices in a secret installation in Virginia, answered the question: precisely because her handlers knew that her tiny wounds, her lovely face, her shining hair, her sweet body, her sharp tongue, her crackling intelligence, would cause me to think with some other organ than my brain. It was obvious that this girl had been born knowing this.
Oh, she was wily. So were her handlers. Nevertheless—couldn’t help it—I thought
as she weaved her way through the river of bicycles. Her figure grew smaller and smaller as she pedaled faster and faster. She turned recklessly across traffic into a side street, leaning the bicycle within centimeters of the horizontal, sprocket, pedals and feet a blur. I kissed my bike good-bye. I thought I’d never see it or her again.
I was wrong. A short way down the side street, she waited in front of a bicycle shop. Band-Aids now covered her wounds. She must have had them in her backpack just in case. Inside the shop, bicycles hung from the ceiling.
She pointed. “That one.”
The proprietor got it down. It was the very best bicycle available in China, therefore in the world, he said, the only one of its kind in the store, and perhaps in all of Shanghai, since this model flew out of the shops and the manufacturer was in despair because he could not keep up with demand. He named the price. I flinched.
I still held her wrecked machine in my arms. I said, “Wait a minute. What we want is to have this one repaired.”
“New bike,” she said.
To the proprietor, I said, “How much to fix this bike?” He looked at me blankly but did not answer.
She said, “This man does not do repairs.”
“Then we’ll find someone who does.”
The girl said something to the proprietor in Shanghainese. He went to the door of his shop and shouted. In seconds a very stern policeman appeared.
In English the girl said, “Shall I tell him you assaulted me?”
“And if you do?”
I didn’t reply. She studied my face and apparently saw what she had been hoping to see—profound anxiety. In Mandarin she said to the policeman, “This man is new to our country. He wants to know if this is a good bike.”
“The best,” the policeman said. “Very expensive. Worth the price.”
He left without even asking for my passport. Another little thrill of suspicion ran through my mind. How did this policeman happen to be nearby? Why did he turn himself into a sales assistant? Where was his officiousness? The girl did not trouble to read my mind. She was bargaining with the proprietor. Or seemed to be. They were speaking Shanghainese, a language I didn’t understand. Long minutes passed. The volume rose. At last they stopped talking. Proudly the girl told me the staggering price she had negotiated—a month’s pay for a rookie spook. Fortunately, I had just been to the money changer, so I had enough yuan in my pocket to pay the bill. I got out my wallet. She smiled happily, but at the bicycle, not me.
Outside, she said in Bostonian English, “What made you hire a teacher from Chengdu?”
“It was all Chinese to me. Where in the States did you go to school?”
“Concord-Carlisle High School, in Massachusetts.”
“I came home for that.”
“To which college?”
“Questions, questions. What are you, an American spy?”
She was watching my face. I asked her name. “Mei,” she said, and in Mandarin asked if I could remember that. She asked my name. I provided an alias. It was a difficult name, Polish with many syllables and odd diphthongs, that belonged to a Hessian running back who played my position for my school while I sat out my senior year on the bench.
She said, “I’m supposed to take that seriously?”
“Why not? Are you some kind of racist?”
“Of course I am—I’m Han. We look down on everybody. I’ll call you Dude. It suits you.”
“We’re going to be friends?”
“Up to you, Dude.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s give it a try. One thing I insist upon. Never speak English to me again. You can have your way in everything else.”
Apparently this was okay by her. She called me Dude for the next two years. I called her by the only name I knew, Mei. I never asked—never—what her real name might be. Who cared?
On the day of the bicycle wreck, I took her to lunch, then showed her where I lived. Later I took her dancing and, at her suggestion, to a rave where I was the only foreigner. We went for rides on our new bikes, picnicked in parks, found a group to join for morning calisthenics. Soon we were making love three times a night, twenty-six times a month, and sometimes, when the coast was clear, in the daytime. I was twenty-nine. She was five or six years younger, so we were both indefatigable. It was not part of her assignment, or in her nature, to love me. In that we were alike. In bed she was a comic. Everything about copulation, my simian body especially, struck her as funny, and laughter excited her almost as much as fur. She giggled during foreplay, guffawed with joy after her orgasms and made funny noises during them. When we were not going at it, she loved to talk about books and movies and television shows. So did I, so we had a lot to talk about. We watched television and went to the movies, sitting in different rows. She read to me in Mandarin and required me to do the same and get it right before we got into bed. She insisted that I make phone calls to numbers she provided—friends of hers, she said—on the theory that no one really understands a foreign language unless he can understand it over the telephone. For the same reason she taught me songs in Mandarin, and we sang them to each other. Many laughs about my mistakes at first, but my Mandarin improved as my ear quickened in a hopeless attempt to keep up with her. I even learned to flounder around in Shanghainese, a Wu language that is incomprehensible to speakers of most other Chinese tongues.
I was sure from the start that she was on duty, that she reported everything, that she had bugged my room. The funny thing was, she never asked for information, never probed. She showed no curiosity about my family, my education, my politics, my first love, or the girls I had slept with in high school and college and afterward. Probably this was because she had been briefed about these matters by the folks at Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service (within Headquarters called “MSS,” short for Ministry of State Security) and had no reason to ask. I never questioned her, either. She dressed well, she glowed with health, she had money, she disappeared in the daylight hours, so presumably she had a job or another lover. She explained nothing, never mentioned her primary life, not a single detail, though I did learn that she had gone to Shanghai University, where I was auditing a couple of courses, when I ran into someone who knew her and this person seemed to know about us. Just another inscrutable encounter. I didn’t bother to be suspicious. Either Mei was an agent or she was a lunatic. If the former, we were both on duty. If the latter, the benefits were terrific. Besides, I was fulfilling my mission. I had been sent to China to learn to talk like a native, and I was certainly making progress with that. Mei insisted on living entirely in the here and now. That was okay by me. In time we got to know each other very well indeed.