A night halfway through a family trip to Xian: my wife picks up a comb and looks at herself in the mirror. The kids are asleep and watched over in their room across the hall. The day’s walking and looking, the day’s climbing and looking, the day’s banal and pointless arguments have left us stupid with exhaustion, and also thirsty.
As my wife combs her hair, she tells me to choose where we will go tonight, and for a moment I think she is baiting me, because whenever I choose where to go, it never works out. Then I see that she is simply tired, simply wants me to choose and there is nothing more to it.
This whole business of me choosing has become a joke between us though it is not at all funny: how can it never work out? And by “never” I mean never: one night a month ago back in Beijing I chose and wrote down directions to five separate bars, and we went to all of them that very night, and the first was closed and the second was closed and the third was awful and the fourth no longer existed and the fifth was closed.
Tonight the odds are still worse, as the Guide only lists two that look worth trying, and of course: the taxi rides are very long and one of the bars is unfindable and the other is inside some sort of hostel that is apparently closed, tonight and/or forever, the gates locked, the doorman’s hut empty. Somehow my wife avoids sneering, and I am grateful.
Another taxi into the city center, and we choose a main avenue at random, Dongdajie, and walk. It is fairly lively in spots, and at one point I see a club called 1+1 on the far side of the street. I remember the listing in the Guide: it sounded like a place my wife might like if she were in a dancing mood, which she usually is, but just now I am not, and I am a horrible fucking person and don’t point it out. I don’t want a club. I want a bar. I am four years old and want a bar, a bar, a bar.
Everything else is closed and we check our watches: eleven o’clock on a Sunday night. On and on to the east, still hoping. Finally we find a bar that is open. We climb up a steep narrow fake-wood-wallpapered staircase, the laminate starting to peel, into a space that is odd and large and dark and empty except for the owner, his wife, and their ten-year-old daughter.
The wife disappears. The daughter watches us, then leaves as well. There is pop music from Hong Kong playing not too loudly. Dirty Christmas decorations are everywhere: tinsel along the banisters, cardboard Santas and reindeer and elves pasted crookedly to walls and pillars. There is also a karaoke machine, and no one singing, and a video playing that is not to the song we are hearing.
My wife asks me to sing to her and because she didn’t sneer I agree but first we order drinks: I ask for a beer and she orders a Pink Lady, just to try one. They take their time in coming, and the owner spills both as he sets them down. The beer is fine. The Pink Lady is Children’s Panadol on ice in a sherry glass.
I ask the owner for a list of possible karaoke songs, thinking that with luck there will be at least one I know. He shakes his head and shrugs. I try again, my Chinese as shoddy as ever, and mimic singing into a microphone. He nods, smiles, assures me that now he has understood. Then he brings my wife a Krazy Straw.
And this Krazy Straw, brilliant red, somehow it works where everything else has failed: we observe it and smile and shake our heads, start to talk, then to laugh, then to tell old stories, ones the other hasn’t heard before. This is fairly rare for us, eight years together now, three-and-a-half years married. It is also a good thing, this reminder that we are not yet wholly known to one another.
Several drinks later it is another taxi home and a sweaty muffled romp; then my wife sleeps, and I sneak out onto the balcony. When the cigarette has burned all the way down, I squeeze the filter until the coal falls out — an obsession of mine — and now the coal trails away, falls bright through two hundred feet of dark air, a tiny skydiver in a day-glow jumpsuit, the smoke like a failed chute and thank god for backups.