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Sabrina Tom

Free Bellies

I am thinking about the men in Beijing, how they walk around with their shirts hiked under their armpits, exposing their firm and brown and perfectly smooth bellies.

I decide to ask Chinese Boyfriend about it.

"Chinese Boyfriend," I say. "What's up with men and their midriffs?"

Chinese Boyfriend is slunk down in the couch watching television. He is wearing a white linen shirt and his hands fold over his stomach like a decorative flower on top of a cake.

"It's to cool the fire inside," he says.

"But everyone is so friendly here," I say. And it's true. Since I have straight black hair and brown eyes and, racially, I am Chinese, I have not had any problems getting by. I smile and they smile. I point and they nod. I offer them money and they offer something back. It is wonderful to communicate. The only difficulties occur when I try to speak the language. Then they know that I am from somewhere else. So I don't talk a lot. Neither does Chinese Boyfriend, which has not worked out very well. I feel something is lacking.

I watch him watch television. He is expressionless and I can't tell whether he is happy or peaceful or sad. At the commercial break, he gets up.

"Where are you going?" I say.

"I have to pee," he says.

"Can I watch?"

"No," he says, his voice even. He shakes his head to emphasize the point. He does not turn around to make sure I'm not following him.

When I was six years old and on summer vacation, I walked into my father's bathroom and saw him sitting on the toilet. I felt funny about this—that he peed just as I would struck me as inappropriate. My father smiled at me, or maybe he smiled at me with his eyes. He was trying to say something, but in my memory there are no words, only an image of him bent over, palms down on bare thighs.

Chinese Boyfriend walks into the kitchen, where I am pushing carrots into the juicer. He stands right behind me, not touching me. I can smell his distinctive scent of mildew and detergent.

"Let's go dancing," he says. "I want to show off my American girlfriend." He sounds like a salesman selling an encyclopedia set.

"Why not?" I say, wiping the carrot juice off the counter with my skirt. The juice stains form a pattern of orange polka dots. We start to twirl around. Without a word, our feet find a natural rhythm. The dancing comes off easily. We make a few turns around the room, picking up the pace with each step.

We work up a sweat. The kitchen is hot and steamy. Chinese Boyfriend unbuttons his linen shirt, working from the top down. I watch his fingers maneuver the buttons, progressively revealing a sliver of neck, then breastbone, then diaphragm. His breathing is fast. I can see his ribs poking out from his chest. He unbuttons one more button, stopping two short of the end. He pours himself a glass of water and tilts his head back for a long drink. The glass covers his face.

"I'm going to get dressed," I say. I make my way out of the room before he can respond, his features still obscured.

In many ways Beijing is a modern city, replete with shopping malls and skyscrapers. On the other hand, the people have not caught up with the changes. I don't mind living as an anachronism. I've always preferred candles to halogen bulbs. One casts a soft glow over everything, the kind of light that compels you to lean in to the person who is speaking. The other forces you to look away. It's too bright. Too intense.

We get to the club around midnight and are instantly surrounded by men and women who look just like us. It's not only the clothes they wear or how they style their hair. It's the eyes, the nose, the particular slope of their necks. It's in the shape of their legs, the smoothness of their skin, the darkeness in their eyes. I know that only a non-native would marvel at how similar Chinese people look, but it never ceases to amaze me. All this homogeny.

The place is packed. Chinese Boyfriend motions to the bar and I follow. We order three rum and Cokes and drink two of them at the bar. The third is for sipping on the dance floor. There's barely enough room to move around, so we dance without lifting our feet. I try to keep the drink from spilling as my arms bump up against other arms, but occasionally a cold splash hits my wrist.

I close my eyes and the music gets louder. My feet find the space to dance. The body follows. I shout to Chinese Boyfriend that I am happy. I feel good.

My glass is empty. I decide to take a break. I make my way across the dance floor, getting tangled up in a web of limbs. Arms around arms around legs. It is impossible to tell whose body belongs to whom. I feel skin and bone wrap around me, and for a moment, I am absorbed into the network.

I stand in line outside the bathroom, staring at the door. I want to bust it open, to expose the secrets within. But the door remains closed and whenever someone comes out, I immediately turn my head. Etiquette dictates that I look away. I am expected to uphold a person's right to anonymity in this movement from private to public. I am expected to be nonchalant about what goes on inside. If a man and a woman come out, I should remain neutral. If two men come out, I should be even more disinterested.

The summer when I was six, I saw a man walking out of my father's bedroom. First I'd hear the turn of the knob followed by a short click. Then the sound of footsteps, always the same shuffle of leather soles on parquet floors. The dim hallway light cast long shadows across his face, and I never dared crack open my door any wider to get a better look. I would only venture out when I knew he'd reached the front door, when there was nothing left to see but the back of his head as he was leaving.

I return to the dance floor. I stand at the edge and watch the rings of people. In the outer circle, several men have taken off their shirts. Their stomachs glow red and green in the spotlight. Next to them is a layer of women, trying not to get too close to their sticky torsos. At the center of the ring is Chinese Boyfriend, dancing with another man who looks just like him. From a distance they could be twins. Both have spiky hair and white shirts, small waists and thin arms. Both turn away when they see me approaching.

"Are you having fun?" I say. He mouths something incomprehensible.

"What did you say?" I scream into his ear. He shrugs and gives me a blank look. He points to the bar and I shake my head. I gesture behind me and he makes no response. There is no point in talking, words come out as muffled gasps over the blare of the music. He gives up and goes back to dancing. I continue to shout at him, even though I can't hear a word I'm saying.

The next day is Sunday and Chinese Boyfriend and I decide to go for a walk. We hit Wanfujing Street and it takes me a moment to adjust to the honking cars, flashing LCD screens, clothing stores blasting pop music. We stop in front of the large tent set up in the middle of the promenade to watch a promo for the latest technological innovation. The salesman talks at rapid speed through the megaphone. I have no idea what he's selling. Further down, the food vendors implore us to stop and eat something. I see that each stall offers the same thing—vegetables and meats on sticks. The smell of charcoal is unavoidable.

I feel myself fading. There are an infinite number of objects to consume and my senses are overwhelmed by feedback. I look over at Chinese Boyfriend, who is walking beside me, an arm's length away. First his face, then the rest of his body begins to blur. He blends into the background and I imagine him as a cell phone, then a kabob, then a t-shirt. I think that he, too, is a choice I have to make.

We sit at a table under an umbrella and order coconut drinks. I down mine in one gulp then drum my fingers against the glass. It's hard to be still. I concentrate on the people in the street. An old man walking around with a giant garbage bag. Two teenage girls playing games on their cell phones. A group of Australian tourists drinking cans of Coke. A woman running in high heels. A handsome young man, and next to me there is Chinese Boyfriend, whose button down shirt is neatly tucked into his pants.

"Where's the belly?"

There is a long pause as Chinese Boyfriend considers what to say. His eyes wander.

I continue to scan the crowd. A few feet away, a couple lingers in front of a store window. The woman is weighed down by the shopping bags in her hand. The man, dressed in slacks and a t-shirt, smokes a cigarette. Behind them, music blares out of the storefront, a popular love song with a catchy tune. It's one of the few songs I know all the words to. Just as the first chorus hits, the man lifts up his shirt to air his belly. It is the perfect tableau and I think that life here is just like a love song. Predictable and heavy-handed. Repetitive and meaningless. Everything looks the same and sounds the same because we're stuck in a genre. We've lost the freedom to be different.

I catch Chinese Boyfriend humming the tune. When he realizes that I'm looking at him, he stops.

"Are you gay?"

He shifts in his seat, shying away from me. I can only see half of him, the soft slope of his nose, the curve in his chin, the straight line from his shoulder to his waist.

"It's okay," I say. "I'd be okay."

Chinese Boyfriend takes my hand and squeezes it. It's the first time he's touched me in weeks. I can feel his pulse through his fingertips, then my own pulse beating in syncopation. I wonder if there is anything I could do to match my heartbeat with his, to reconcile differences from the inside out. I wonder if there is a word for this understanding.

©2007 by Sabrina Tom

Sabrina Tom is the Fiction Editor at Hyphen. She has no dogs, no children, and a fair amount of time to do her favorite things—traveling, eating out, and karaoke.

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