I seriously need to get out of Beijing.
There’s the fact that the air is trying to kill me. No joke. The American embassy over in Chaoyang does readings of the air quality in Beijing, since the Chinese government doesn’t, or won’t reveal the results anyway. A while ago it was so polluted that they ran out of normal descriptions and came up with one of their own, so what went out over Twitter was that the air was “crazy-bad.”
Thanks, guys. Remind me not to breathe.
There’s also that it’s been another long winter, and while you think I’d know what’s coming after three years, it still takes me by surprise: months of wind so cold and dry that sometimes I feel like I’m breathing razors. Now that it’s the last day in February, temps are getting up above freezing at least, but it’s still the kind of cold that settles into your bones and makes my leg ache even more than it usually does.
My apartment’s comfortable. There’s a central furnace that controls the radiators in the living room and the two bedrooms; the enclosed balconies provide a buffer against the chill. I broke down and got a cheap flat-screen at Suning, and I have a stack of DVDs from my favorite DVD store off Andingmen, every American movie or TV show you could want. I’ve got take-out menus from half a dozen restaurants, and right at the end of the alley there’s a great jiaozi place and some snack stands, plus there’s a tiny store about the size of my bathroom that sells toilet paper and Yanjing beer and a bunch of snack foods, including my favorite spicy peanuts, that’s just across from the entrance to my apartment complex.
So it’s not like I really have to leave my apartment all that much right now. Or go very far if I do.
It’s just that I can only take so much of my mom without a break, and I’ve about reached my limit.
“Ellie, do you know where’s the best place for me to find peanut butter?” she asks from the doorway to my bedroom. “And chocolate chips?”
“Any of the foreign supermarkets’ll probably have them,” I say. I’m sitting on my bed with my laptop propped on a pillow on my legs. I don’t really look up. She’s always asking questions like this, and I admit I tune them out a lot of the time.
“Really? Because I went to . . . what’s the name of that French one? Carrefour? And they had peanut butter, but it was chunky and I need smooth. And I didn’t see any chocolate chips at all.”
“I don’t know,” I mutter. “You could always buy chocolate bars and hit them with a hammer.”
“I guess I could.”
Now I do glance away from my screen. There’s my mom, her streaked, bleached hair rising in a halo of static, wearing a SunRise T-shirt (I'VE FOUND MR. RIGHT AND HE'S PERFECT! ISAIAH 62:5) and sweats, solid through the middle like a pound cake, the bramble-rose tattoo above her elbow sagging a bit, which is what happens with a tat inked twenty-five years ago.
“Aren’t you cold?” I ask, because even with the radiators on I’m wearing a sweatshirt.
She snorts. “Not right now. I’ve got my own heat.” She mimes fanning herself. “Hot flashes.”
Like I needed to know.
“The thing is, I want to make my special chocolate-chip cookies for Andy,” she continues, cheeks flushing.
And that’s when I know I’ve got to get out of Beijing: That nice Mr. Zhou next door has become Andy.
Given my mom’s track record with men, no good can come of this.
“Maybe try Walmart,” I mutter, and turn back to my laptop.
I love my mom.
Seriously, I really do. She did the best she could do with raising me, which maybe wasn’t always very good, but she comes through when it counts, like after I got blown up in the Sandbox, for example, leaving my leg busted in too many places to count and the rest of me not much better.
It’s just that a month now, living in my apartment in Beijing? That wasn’t what I had in mind when she said she wanted to come and visit me.
“Just to see how you’re doing,” she’d said, “since you don’t have time to come home.”
This of course was a lie on my part. I didn’t want to come home. Long story.
After a couple of weeks, where I did my best to show her the tourist sites—the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, the Silk Market for fake Prada, and the world’s largest IKEA store—she showed no sign of going anywhere, other than to the guest room in my apartment by the Gulou subway station, which used to be my office. I finally asked, “So, Mom, when’s your flight home again?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s really up to you.”
“What about work?”
“Well…” She hesitated. As I recall, she twisted her hands together. “The job didn’t really work out.”
It’s not her fault, I tell myself now. She worked hard for years. It’s not her fault that the U.S. economy is in the toilet, that she’s fifty-one years old and no one wants to hire her for anything. Not her fault that Refinancing Roulette didn’t pay off. The condo was a shithole anyway. Sometimes it’s even sort of cool having her here, like when she makes tacos, cooking being an activity at which I suck.
But I seriously need some away time from her right now.
“Don’t talk to me about Jesus,” I said about three days after she got here, Jesus being one of the things that we used to have in common but that pretty much got blown up, along with the rest of my life, in Iraq. Mostly she’s been pretty good about it, but every once in a while Jesus slips out.
For example: “You know, that nice Mr. Zhou next door belongs to a church. And I think it’s Christian, more or less. They worship Jesus anyway. He invited me to attend their service. Would you like . . . ?”
Like I’m going to go to some weird-ass Chinese underground house church, featuring Brother Jesus Christ of the Righteous Thundering Fist, or what have you.
Like I’d set foot inside Sunrise, for that matter.
Sunrise is the church that my mom and me used to go to in Arizona. It’s a big church, in this fake-adobe complex that always reminded me of an Indian casino. But I still used to believe in it all. Take comfort in Reverend Jim’s air-conditioned sermons. Snap my what would jesus do? rubber bracelet against my wrist when I needed an invisible helping hand.
When people talk about how your faith gets tested, they always say that trials make your faith stronger. What they don’t say is that sometimes faith just dissolves like desert sand between your fingers.