The North Drifters

Winter 2006, Doro It was the era of Carsick Cars, Second-Hand Rose, and Queen Sea Big Shark. The names ticked off without any meaning to Rong. They were garbles syllables in Chinese or their English incarnations. Big names that tried to say too much with opaque metaphors. Cars that vomit. Roses from second-hand loves. Sharks spotted in Houhai. It was all a new world to her, a world filled with rocker girls in leather boots, skinny boy vocalists with stiff shoulders, cross-dressers in red qipao — what a world for a girl who came from a small town outside Dalian.

Rong didn't know about any of this until she met Mao, and she fell for him when she watched him shake hands with the vocalist from Carsick Cars and they shared a cigarette in silence. Mao was the quiet type, but even quieter was this vocalist (except when he's channeling Thurston Moore's love child in his diaphragm). The entire time only a few words were traded in the castle of smoke backstage, but the rapport was evident in their every nod. If Mao had spent more time on playing the guitar instead of video games, maybe he would have been in Carsick Cars too. He certainly had the pretty boy looks for it — side-swept hair and huge, innocent looking eyes that gazed at you with the patience of a newborn.

This became the Beijing she knew. She was one of the beipiao kids, the north drifters. Kids with a past to overcome trying their luck out in the big city. She'd come to the city to audition for admissions at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. Somebody in Dalian once told her she moved like she had a story to tell, that her eyes had the depth of an old soul. She rode the train all the way to Beijing for an audition, staying with her childhood friend, Doro. Instead of getting into the school, she met him.

Doro loved him. Rong could tell from the way she first introduced him. There was a nervousness in her nonchalance that was endearing. Doro had a big laugh, big boobs, and a big heart. She moved away two years ago and kept in touch by writing postcards instead of emails. From Doro's postcards of Beijing, Rong learned about the hutongs that were the dying arteries of an ancient city. She hung every postcard she received in mosaic form on the wall in her room, and vowed she'd get to the city one day.

Doro and Mao were in a band together. She played the keyboards and sang. He was the guitarist, and their friend Liang played the bass. Doro and Mao were a funny match. She was a ball of energy punctuated by fists punching in the air, rude cursing, and yes, the peels of laughter that would always burst from nowhere and tackle you hard in the stomach. Mao spoke in a monotoned voice and preferred monosyllables. It was difficult to tell when he was excited or stressed because the pitch of his voice would never change. He talked more when he got more comfortable. In fact, when he had something to say words fell like chalk dust from a black board and went on and on like he was conducting a lecture. When Rong noted this, Doro explained that Mao's father was some famous professor of history at Beijing University.

"And you're sure you're not together?" Asked Rong.

"No," Doro's voice jumped an octave. "NO! We're like, super good buddies."

Rong recognized the layers of emotion in Doro's voice but couldn't do anything about it. For some reason Doro was resigned that she and Mao couldn't, wouldn't, and shouldn't be together. For god's sake, he was, well, skinnier than she was, and such a bleeding heart they would just curl up in a ball of pain and never see daylight again and what kind of boy is so in love with Björk that he's been saving up for a trip to Iceland, and has a MSN handle ReykjavíkMao? Honestly. They worked well together, musically, that was all.

Rong bit her mouth and swallowed the words she held at her throat. Doro didn't believe in it, but she was good for him, they were cute together, and her ball of insanity may be just the right amount for his melancholy. Rong knew all this but couldn't bring herself to say it out loud, because Mao had looked at her for the first time the way the man who told her her eyes were those of an old soul did. He was Mao Mao and she was Rong Rong and that was that. Within the week he took her to every live house show in the city and his grades started dropping faster than Beijing's temperature during a ruthless winter. He left nonsense on his tests with answers like, "Dear Professor, I'm really sorry but I think I'm falling in love with this girl and I just gotta spend more time with her and I just didn't have time to study the material. I just gotta be with her."

Her audition to the Beijing Film Academy didn't go so well. The girls there were more beautiful than she and knew how to put on makeup and carry themselves like graceful swans and cite roles from their private acting lessons. Years of summers spent by the beach had given her skin a permanent tanned glow that all of a sudden made her feel like a country bumpkin. When she escaped the hot lights, she went straight for the McDonald's outside the school where Mao was waiting for her in a booth. It was the end of fall semester and everyone seemed listless around them, but when she laid her head on his lap the world stood still on a pin as she whispered: "Time to go home."

He petted her long hair until she could have fallen asleep right there in the afternoon sun. When she opened her eyes again he'd taken her hand into his coat pocket and they walked on like that for what felt like miles. Neither of them proposed to take the subway or taxi. They simply walked, on and on, even as the sun dipped to the horizon and slid away like a cold orange yoke. They didn't say much other than she: "it's cold, how could this city be so cold when it's snowing?" and he, the Shanghai-born Beijinger who grew up at the foot of the Forbidden City, "this is the coldest winter in my memory."

Snow crunched beneath their feet, but other than that, the night was quiet. They had taken a route through the Hutongs to get to Doro's place. Mao walked on as if he knew the labyrinth of hutongs by heart. Rong followed him, head down, hand still in his coat pocket. She thought about booking a ticket to go back home. She thought about the 10 hour train ride on her own, the smile on her parents' face to see her back for the New Year, but she could only feel the sadness. So that was that, her grand beipiao plans thwarted in three weeks. She knew in her heart that she didn't get into the Film Academy, but what will she do when she gets the letter in the spring, when fate stamps failure so ruthless onto her, followed by naivete, don't forget that, and what of Mao, what of this boy that she spent every waking hour with in the past three weeks, who was he really and what were they other than a torched moment in the frigid winter?

They arrived at the Drum & Bell Towers, her favorite place in Beijing so far. He'd taken her after the Carsick Cars' show one night and her heart instantly felt at peace. Regal and magnificent, the Drum Tower emerged like a gray whale from the night. Around them, construction cranes poked into a sky where a Hutong neighborhood was circled off to be redeveloped. That one night she'd told him everything about her past — how she grew up in the village and her family had always lived very frugally, how her father went into the shoe business but figured out that he could make more money by selling the shoe storefronts than running the shoe business, how by the time she was twelve they'd moved into a big, fancy apartment in town, how she was favored more in the family than her younger brother, and instead of putting herself through the grueling college entrance exams in her third year in high school, she went ahead and fell in love with an older man. The older man turned out to be married with a kid. The relationship destroyed her. She couldn't even finish high school.

At nineteen, she didn't know what moved her to tell her story to this boy, with his seemingly perfect life, the scars of her past. She could have simply ridden this fling out with the less jaded, more desirable version. She was the daughter of a small town nouveau riche, a fuerdai with the big dreams of making it in the city. She could speak English nearly fluently from watching a lot of Spongebob Squarepants. She would give the shirt off her back if she could to someone else in need. She was simultaneous a woman beyond her years, and a girl, just a little girl.

Just like this night, they spent that night walking through the endless alleyways of the Hutongs as she told her story. As they passed street vendors and family restaurants, there were stories that she hadn't even told Doro, and in the end when they made it to the square between the Drum & Bell Towers, she thought for sure she'd gone and scared the him away. Instead he kissed her that night. They'd known each other for four days, five nights, and three concerts later he'd kissed her in the middle of the square between the Drum and Bell Towers. It was a kiss made of hunger, hunger to discover every little thing about someone so precious and new.

"I don't know what it is about you, Rong, you have a way of making people want to take care of you, and love you, and spoil you. It's your parents. It's Doro. It's me."

"You're not scared of me?" she'd asked him.

"As long as you're not afraid of me. I'm made of flaws."

"Tell me about them."

"You'll find out soon enough," he shuffled his feet.

When they made it back to the square for the second time, face frozen from the cold and excited but sad, touched by new love, someone so new and perfect in each other's imperfections. He touched her face and said, "Don't go," then, "come back, come back to Beijing, come back to me. I like you. Rong Rong, I like you a lot. Come back from Dalian."

Her mind sped with thousands of thoughts on the way back to Doro's apartment. She thought about how she could possibly convince her parents, and how she could possibly afford living in Beijing. Would she try to study maybe? Or try to find work? Would they pay for her living expenses? Would they even let her come without a school lined up?

"I'll figure out a way," Mao said. "Go home, be with your family for the holidays, and I'll find a way, just wait for me."

"Ok," she said. "I'll wait."

After she closed the door behind her and slumped down to the floor, heart still racing and hands shaking, Doro appeared by the doorway like a ghost. "Mao was with you?"

Rong nodded.

"Oh right, ok."

"I'm buying a ticket to go home tomorrow."



"Rong, you know, somehow, I feel like I've lost both you and Mao in the past three weeks. It's really great that you're falling in love and spending every waking hour together and all. It's really great, but—"

"You love him."

Rong wished the flash of hurt in Doro's eyes were made of anger, but it was the inexplicable sadness that made her heart break. The rush of happiness with Mao just moments before were immediately replaced by guilt.

"I know it doesn't make sense. Him and you, that's what makes sense, a prince and princess, but I dream about him Rong. I mean sometimes he appears in my dream and he's stroking my knee and I wake up crying because it's just a dream, it's just a dream."

"You should have told me."

Doro shot her with a look that Rong could never forget, it was a moment frozen in time, when you know some thing broke between two people and could never be mended, that no matter how many apologies you attempt to pile on or how many conversations you try to initiate, you know things will never be the same again.

After that winter, Doro and Rong never spoke again. The only time Rong would bring Doro up would be when others asked how she and Mao met. With a touch of sadness she would say, through a mutual friend, she introduced us but we then both lost touch with her.