At 2:00 PM they had scarcely moved from bed, which was a mattress, the duvet stained, at the center of his room in Hujialou. Jean pulled the window open and looked down at the Third Ring Road– a permanent ribbon of cars parallel the canal, stretching on until apartments blocked it from view. The pollution had lifted. Everything was sky blue or leaf green. Pedestrians passed in and out of view under the trees that lined Hujialou Beijie.
She heard him climb off the mattress, come up behind her and light a Zhongnanhai. “Weather looks better.” The petals dropped from a plum tree on the driveway.
“You mean the pollution’s gone.”
He sucked at the Zhongnanhai. “You don’t like it when I call it weather.”
“You want to go to Tous le Jours?”
She nodded. They dressed and gathered their things and left the apartment. At Tous le Jours they sat holding hands at a table by the croque-monsieur case. Taylor Swift trickled out of ceiling speakers. He ate a purple donut.
“If we keep doing this, in a few months we’ll have our phones out.”
“I don’t like my phone.”
“What exactly,” he said, changing tacks. “Do you mean by ‘doing this’?”
She blushed and squeezed his hand. “I hate this part.”
“Why?” He let go of her hand and took a bite of the purple donut. “This is the good part.”
“The fact that you know that soon we’ll be cold with each other ruins it.” She leaned forward and he kissed the space between her nose and her right cheek. “If we’re lucky, we’ll at least hate each other.”
“What does that mean?”
Tiny shrug. “Better than apathy.”
He took a patient breath. “You don’t mean that.” His patience irritated her.
“It would imply we still cared.”
His lips went tight.
“Even this conversation irritates you, because it’s boring to you.”
“Sometimes I forget you’re younger than me,” he said. “And then I remember.”
She frowned. “Sometimes I forget you’re a condescending asshole, and then…”
He laughed and waited for her to smile. Then, realizing it wasn’t coming, he said, “Get something to eat.”
“Like what?” She watched the shrill, purple donut vanish.
She put her head down on the table. “I want fruit.”
Mouth full: “What kind of fruit?”
She looked up at him. “That’s bitter to you?”
He shrugged and looked around. “No one here today.”
“Because this place sucks.”
“All they sell is bread.”
Summoning all her strength, she picked up her tote.
They walked forever without finding fruit and eventually descended into the subway and rode to Nanluo without complaint and elbowed their way up the bloated hutong between schoolgirls carrying fried squid and lechers carrying fried chicken and bands of man-children with glazed hawthorns, lollypops. After crossing Gulou Dongdajie things calmed down and they came to a fruit shop. She bought a pomelo and pulled off the Styrofoam, but it seemed impractical to eat it in the middle of the road.
“I’ll call Zhuolin.”
“We can eat it over there, if you want to share.”
“Maybe we should buy two.”
They went back and bought another pomelo. Jean held both while he called Zhuolin. “We’ll be over in twenty. Okay. Okay, great. Okay. Yes. Bye.” Then they each carried one pink orb up the middle of the street.
“We could break up today.”
He looked at her sideways. “You’re depressed.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“You’re depressed today, I mean.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Because things are going so well.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Okay,” he said. “We could break up today.”
For the second time today, her cheeks flushed. Looking straight ahead: “Do you really want to?”
He shook his head. “Just stop.” Then, “What made you think of that?”
“Yesterday was perfect.” She felt herself sinking into a deep, acrid pit.
“Last night was perfect.” But having begun, she did not have the will to stop.
“This morning was perfect. This afternoon was perfect. Have you never done this before?”
She could tell she was driving something excruciating into him. It didn’t give her much pleasure but she couldn’t stop.
“Never like this,” he said.
She nodded but said nothing. A breeze moved the leaves in an ash tree. A single cloud floated in from the north. His admission hung somewhere behind them, closer to Nanluo than to wherever they were now. Wings broke the air and a spray of pigeons crossed the hutong and made a tight arc, disappearing from view. “Okay.”
At Zhuolin’s they sat in the dank landing and he lit a Zhongnanhai. “I wonder where she went,” she said.
“Probably out to get something.”
He touched the back of his neck, blew smoke. “Bottle of wine.”
“It’s a miracle,” he said. “Not even the roommates are home.” A speck of his ash landed on her shoulder. She thought about brushing it off but didn’t move. She watched him closely, doing his best to act as if everything were normal. Then she picked the pomelo up off the top stair and dug at it with her fingernails. They were recently cut, the newly exposed skin soft and pink.
Max Berwald is a Beijing-based writer from San Diego. He is interested in fiction and screenwriting. His work can be found at Loreli China, Aweh.tv, Be Young & Shut Up, and in the forthcoming issue of Blackbird.