From Oprah Magazine
Author Lorrie Moore already said, “A abbreviate adventure is a adulation affair, a atypical is a marriage.” With Sunday Shorts, OprahMag.com invites you to accompany our own adulation action with abbreviate fiction by account aboriginal belief from some of our admired writers.
Set in an alternative, avant-garde China, Te-Ping Chen’s arresting and appropriate story, “Hotline Girl,” centers on a adolescent woman animate at the government’s “Satisfaction Office” fielding calls from afflicted customers.
It’s a job that’s somehow both banal and stressfully fast-paced, abundant like the well-crafted adventure itself. It’s additionally amidst by sadness: “There were all the abandoned bodies who dialed the government day afterwards day, absent to talk, the aged or mentally infirm, abounding with complaints that would never be resolved.”
And so her action goes, a becloud of addled and accustomed days. Then, one day, the protagonist’s calumniating ex-boyfriend calls the hotline in hopes of reconnecting—and he’s persistent.
By turns affecting and suspenseful, “Hotline Girl” is, aloft all, about a woman acquirements to embrace her own power. The allotment appears in Chen’s admission collection, The Acreage of Big Numbers, out in February 2021, a book awash with agilely adverse belief about Chinese men and women angry with the angle of home.
The highways were adorned with accoutrements of roses anniversary spring. They came in ablaze pinks and adulate yellows, absolute abridged visions in the centermost meridian. The anniversary choreography of thorns and petals usually came in April, afterwards the winter anguish lifted. During those aphotic and asthmatic months, the authorities corrective the anchorage a beaming yellow: For bigger acclamation and action during the gray! The bulletins came like that, dozens of them a day:
Attention, they said. This afternoon, shorthair kittens (and they would arise onscreen, big-pawed and blinking, and commuters would attending up and smile).
Attention: how maple abstract is fabricated (a man in a abrupt backwoods conduct into a tree, gray vats of baking liquid).
Attention: the gingko leaves are axis gold about Nanshan Park—come see!
And so on.
When Bayi stepped out that morning, like every morning, she slipped a red braiding with her identification agenda about her neck. The lanyard’s blush accepted her cachet as a citizen of the city, hard-won afterwards years of jobs at its margins. The agenda had her account and name and assignment assemblage on it. Anyone entering the burghal had to abrasion one. Anniversary agenda synced with the city’s sensors and recorded the bearer’s activity. At the end of the day, you could log on and see the cardinal of afar you’d walked; it was one of the system’s added accepted features.
“I’m activity on a highway, I’m activity on a lightning bolt,” she sang as she absolved to the subway. For years she’d basic to be a singer, approved to accomplish her articulation the strong, attenuate barge she basic it to be, approved to address a blemish hit. They were abbreviate melodies, aloof a few refrains afresh on a loop; she couldn’t assume to amount out how to address a abounding one, chorus, verse, bridge.
The trains were arranged that morning. All the stations piped in classical music at blitz hour; it was declared to allay tempers, but anybody pushed and elbowed one addition anyway. Bayi distrusted it instinctively, anyway; all those long, meandering phrases—it acquainted like cheating. She basic her music precise, to accept a point.
When she’d pushed her way through the crowds, up the elevator seven floors, and into the office, she could see the adipose bristles of Qiaoying’s beard over his screen. “I had a plumber appear this morning,” she said, shrugging, as he stood and frowned at her. “They’re consistently active late.”
She didn’t apologize. She’d accomplished aboriginal on affliction were the surest way for Qiaoying to adjudge that you were ruan shizi, bendable fruit, calmly best on. The added girls didn’t get that. They kept their eyes lowered, about visibly aptitude abroad as he anesthetized their stations. One babe would bounce up and adumbrate in the bath anytime he approached their corridor, the one that bore a assurance adage hotline girls.
“We’ve already had twenty-seven calls,” her acquaintance Suqi abreast to her. They both looked automatically at the babe sitting at the row’s end and sighed. The girl, Juanmei, had been best as this year’s appointment Model Worker. It wasn’t ablaze why, except that she had adorable appearance and continued beard that fell in a cottony atramentous rain about her face. For months her aglow angel had blanketed the alms and billboards above town: Warm, gentle, capable. Government workers can advice you boldness any question, any concern. Alarm the achievement appointment today: 12579.
When the switchboard pinged, no one looked to Juanmei anymore. Anytime aback her accolade she’d been slack, creating added assignment for the added girls. All calls had to be answered aural blaster seconds. All chats had to be replied to aural twenty seconds. It meant that while Juanmei was sitting idly there with her angle on, Bayi and the others were scrambling, acrimonious up, acute hold, acrimonious up, muttering, acute acknowledgment on their keyboards, accounting fast. Aback she aboriginal came to the city, Bayi had formed for a time in fast food. It was that aforementioned complicated affectionate of dance, befitting ten orders in your arch simultaneously, twirl, about-face about, activate again.
The switchboard pinged afresh as Bayi opened up her babble awning and faced a battery of popups. The easiest affair was to accelerate a smiley face. She started all her conversations that way. There were set programmed keys for smiley faces, and addition key that argument out: Hello, Achievement Office, what can I advice you with?
The switchboard kept pinging, the big timer with its red numerals counting down. If no one best up by the time the cardinal hit zero, a buzzer articulate and everyone’s appraisement was docked. Still, the added girls didn’t budge; they were cat-and-mouse for her to booty the call. Anybody knew she’d aloof arrived. She jerked on her angle guiltily. “Hello, Achievement Office, what can I advice you with?”
A army of words belted her ear, a blatant connection. It articulate like the actuality was dialing from a rooftop on a airy day.
“Excuse me, I didn’t bolt that…You appetite a housing—I’m sorry, amuse recapitulate the matter. You’ve been evicted?” She was academic now, bisected the time you could ample in the blanks yourself. There were complaints about base officials, questions about amusing subsidies. There were all the abandoned bodies who dialed the government day afterwards day, absent to talk, the aged or mentally infirm, abounding with complaints that would never be resolved. One mother alleged consistently to analyze about a babe who had gone missing ten years before: kidnapped, she was sure. One agitated man alleged their appointment for months, accusatory there were termites in the timberline adverse his building; he was assertive they’d get into the affairs and assassinate the neighborhood. They’d beatific an inspector, who’d begin nothing. They’d beatific addition who’d affected to spray, to set his affection at rest, but it didn’t amuse him. At aftermost they’d beatific addition to chop the accomplished affair down, and he chock-full calling.
“Excuse me, not a housing—you appetite to address someone?…An unregistered kitchen knife? Let me booty that down.”
She began typing, accompanying acute the button for “Tell Me More” on four altered windows that popped up. One woman was accusatory about a cloister verdict, adage the adjudicator was accompanying to the defendant. Addition man claimed authorities were illegally demanding his restaurant. A chief said he hadn’t been accepting the acceleration in alimony payments he was owed.
Her amateur were starting to anguish and she rubbed her eyes, staring out at the sea of computers about her. It consistently afraid her how apprenticed time passed, demography bottomward notes, sending links, appearance case coercion by color. A few times Bayi baffled red benevolence packets to callers, aloof to bland things over; there was a accepted account for that, for the decidedly boisterous cases who banned to adhere up. “I’m activity to address you to your authoritative agency—oh, I aloof accustomed a notification—thank you for your acceptable intentions. No, I apperceive you are abandoned aggravating to help.” It was amazing how abounding association aloof bare to feel they’d extracted something, anything, from the added end of the line, alike if it was abandoned 10 or 20 yuan.
At apex the deliveryman accustomed alfresco and unloaded two hundred boxed lunches, white containers of rice or noodles with vegetables and disconnected pork. The options were about identical but anybody awash the attenuated anteroom in a agitated blitz anyway, the grease axis the agenda orange and translucent.
As they waited, Suqi continued out her leg and showed off one boot, and she and Bayi squealed. “You got them!”
“I did,” Suqi said proudly. “Do you anticipate I’m crazy?”
“A little,” Bayi said. The boots were knitted from bendable amber leather, brindled with the whorls of tiny seashells, and amount a month’s salary. Suqi had the office’s accomplished bonuses; her achievement amount was extraordinary, and she about never got echo callbacks. It wasn’t because she acclimated the red packets, either; there was aloof article so reasonable and able in Suqi’s manner—she never argued and had an all-embracing ability of the government’s workings, knew aloof what assets she could offer, was absolutely acceptable at allowance people. She was a adamantine worker, too: in the atramentous she best up added accouterment animate in transport.
The alarm came about 2 p.m., aback they’d acclimatized aback into their stations, into that midday amplitude aback calls ebbed and it was adamantine to accumulate your eyes open. One of the girls on the band kept a aerosol canteen nearby, periodically misting her face to breach alert. Bayi was activity lazy, ambidextrous with some chats by artlessly sending a comatose face, which bought addition minute afore you had to acknowledgment again.
The switchboard pinged, and Bayi waited until the timer showed ten abnormal left, afresh punched durably and straightened up. “Hello, Achievement Office, what can I advice you with?”
There was a silence. She batten again, impatiently. “Hello?” and “Hello?”
Bayi frowned into the receiver. Occasionally, actual rarely, you’d get a abundant breather. Sometimes they ability say inappropriate things: ask what you were wearing, if you were married, had a boyfriend.
She was about to adhere up aback she heard a voice: “Wow, at last.”
“Bayi. It’s me.”
She sat back, pulled her angle abroad for a moment and biconcave the earpiece, eyes closed. Then, aback she’d composed herself, she put it aback again. “Yes, sir. Why are you—I mean, amuse accompaniment the matter,” she said.
“I alleged apparently 60 times already today,” he said. “I wasn’t abiding I’d anytime get you.”
She looked about to the added girls on the band and batten neutrally. “Is there article I can advice you with?”
There was a silence. “Is that it?” he said.
“This is a government line,” she said coldly. “Is there a amount that requires assistance?”
“Yes,” he said. “I ambition you would see me. I’m here, I’m continuing outside.”
Bayi afraid up automatically, the way one ability bead a shoe at the afterimage of a cockroach scuttling inside. She breathed in, went aback to her awning and best up two added calls in a hurry: an abused wife, a man accusatory about debris in his neighborhood. At 5 p.m., she slipped the braiding about her abutting afresh and exited through the account elevator about the back, affective fast, aggravating not to be seen.
She went home shakily, anchored herself a meal. She acquainted agitated, and assuredly went to clip alfresco for a while afore sitting on the bank adverse the debris cans. Afterwards twenty minutes, one of the alleyway bodies came up and snaked itself into her lap, and she petted it automatically. She stared into the bushes accusingly, as admitting they ability burrow addition watching her.
The abutting day he alleged again.
“It was too much,” he said. “I shouldn’t accept appear over. I was aloof so aflame to accept begin you.”
She austere her throat. “I wasn’t lost.”
“No, of beforehand not,” he said.
They were both silent. He had never been acceptable at authoritative conversation, she remembered. Sometimes they’d eat their commons calm in about complete silence, which, oddly, never seemed to bother him. She airy a little. There had consistently been an art to actuality about Keju. It meant axis off your mind, like appropriation weights or falling asleep. It didn’t feel as bad as it sounded. It was important to be strong, it was important to sleep; you bare both to breach alive.
“You’re here?” she said. “I mean, I apperceive you were yesterday. Are you visiting, or—?”
The burghal was 32 actor people, none of whom were Keju; he should accept been six hundred afar away.
“Just visiting,” Keju said hastily, as admitting to assure her.
They were bashful again, and she watched her awning ablaze up and flash. “I absolutely can’t allocution now,” she said.
“Don’t adhere up,” he said. “It took me two hours to ability you today. Isn’t there a absolute band I can call, to apperceive that you’ll aces up?”
“It doesn’t assignment that way.”
“You’re the Achievement Office, aren’t you?” he said, aggravating to accomplish a antic of it. “I’m not activity to be annoyed until I get to allocution to you.”
She silently clicked over to addition alarm and transferred it to the government’s acknowledged division. A few account later, he was still there.
“I do accept complaints, you know,” he said. “I could acquaint you about them.”
“Fine.” She opened a form.
“They tore bottomward the old schoolhouse,” he said. “They brought in a blow ball.”
She knew the building, could account it. He’d brought her there anon afterwards they’d started dating, on their aboriginal cruise calm to his old village. It was a baby abandoned schoolhouse, aloof two rooms, article out of a actual photograph. They’d wandered it duke in hand, their choir aberrant in the abandoned rooms. For months afterwards they acclimated it as their clandestine affair spot. No one abounding academy in places like that anymore; actually, no one absolutely lived in places like that anymore, with their bad anchorage and tiny aged plots of able land. By the time he was growing up, Keju’s ancestors was one of the aftermost holdouts, poor and actual proud.
“I don’t bethink it,” she lied.
“Are you sure?” he said, and his articulation was teasing. “I apperceive I do.”
She acquainted the calefaction acceleration in her cheeks. “Not a absolute complaint,” she said. “Next.”
“I aloof appetite to see you, Bayi.”
She fabricated a ambiguous noise.
“I accept another,” he said.
“Okay.” She beatific a smiley face to a new chat. She affected the instructions on how to book a bigmouth address into addition window that was aflame repeatedly, and hit send.
“My parents aren’t accomplishing well,” he said. “My father’s alcohol accept been bad anytime aback we were relocated. I anticipate the government should do article about it.”
“Like a doctor.”
“Not like a doctor. He’s apparent doctors.”
“Like what, then?”
“I was cerebration compensation.” She aloft her eyebrows. This was new. Keju’s ancestors had been relocated from the countryside a decade ago, aback he was fourteen, to a burghal twenty afar west of their old home. It wasn’t far, but it ability as able-bodied accept been addition nation. It was a actor bodies active in carefully set blocks, with bus curve and supermarkets; it was parks with baptize appearance that lit up and sprayed arcs on the hour. It was area the two of them had met, aback aback they were in aerial school.
“I’m apologetic to apprehend he’s not accomplishing well,” she said, and she was. She had consistently admired Keju’s father. He was bedeviled with accession gourds. He’d started the addiction aback in their village, and in the city, area he struggled to acquisition work, it had become a fixation. Their accommodation had two atramentous bookshelves abounding about wholly with gourds, big ones like baptize bottles, baby ones like toy tops, a few painted, others carved. Some he’d carved himself.
“There’s a two-year statute of limitations for petitions on alteration compensation,” she said, afflictive a little. “You ability try one of the spirit administration committees; they generally accept subsidies he could administer for. You should alarm his bounded achievement office,” she said. “They’ll advice you.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“I’m apologetic I can’t do more,” she said, and meant it. She had admired his family. She admired the way his mother fabricated their kitchen fragrant, dicing red and blooming alarm peppers into pixels, bond them with arena pork and $.25 of chopped vermicelli for lunch. She admired the way his ancestor knew the seasons, how annihilate grew and how to aces the kinds of melons that were sweetest—she’d had no abstraction they came in macho and changeable specimens (the changeable ones, with their slight cavity up top, were sweeter).
“That’s okay,” Keju said. He articulate sad. Against the end, alike aback he’d addled her (never so hard, annihilation acute a doctor; there were girls who’d had it worse), he’d been so terminally sad and apologetic afterwards that she begin herself patting his hand, authoritative shushing noises, able they’d get through it, which of beforehand she knew was a lie, because alike afresh she knew that Keju was a baneful allotment of sea kelp that was activity to adhere and adhere to her, that she bare to escape, alike if it meant acid off the limb he clung to. Still, she absent his family.
Her awning was aflame with changing messages, and out of the bend of her eye she saw Qiaoying starting to rise. “I absolutely accept to go,” she said desperately. “Please stop calling. It hurts my appraisement whenever addition calls aback so quickly. Alarm your bounded achievement office, okay?”
“Bayi, would you aloof authority on a moment?” His articulation was accepting affronted now, bladed.
“I achievement you adore your time here,” she added hurriedly. “There’s a cine tonight on the screens. You can watch it in the Central Square. Check your buzz for the bulletins.”
“Thanks so much. Goodbye!”
After work, she rode her scooter with some of the added girls to the basic downtown. There was a aggressive array appointed for the abutting day, which meant the government had austere the anchorage in beforehand and all the streets were long, august stretches of abandoned burghal that they could ride their scooters bottomward and feel like queens, could do zigzags all over if they pleased. A balmy dusk ablaze bent the animate and bottle of the barrio and encased them in gold.
At the mall, they ate Korean aliment and chock-full into one of the dozens of photo parlors that busy accommodation by the hour. They were abounding of altered backdrop and costumes, behemothic cream dumplings and amethyst ruched gowns, animation cat masks and ablaze parasols, a little bedimmed but cheap, and you could bandy in and out altered backgrounds, a blooming lagoon, a floodlit stage, a ballroom, whatever you wanted. The girls awkward into one allowance and took afresh shots of one another, Bayi dressed as a feudal princess, Suqi as a tiger.
She hadn’t told anyone about Keju, or about the animals. There was the time, six months afterwards they’d started dating, that she’d appear above a asleep abrasion in a box in his room. It was bendable and angled and gray, stiff-limbed, advanced crusted with blood: addition had partially burst one of its legs.
When she’d confronted Keju, he’d said it was aloof a mouse, it was activity to be dead as allotment of a academy science experiment. He’d accustomed it a few canicule of abandon but he couldn’t accumulate it, and so he’d had to annihilate it; it was abandoned humane. The account was advancing but possibly logical, and so she’d approved to put the anticipation aside.
Then there was the neighbor’s dog. It was a furry aureate animal with no neck, like a shark, and eyes usually half-closed in slumber, a comatose thing. Once, they’d been sitting in the courtyard bench and she’d been nickering at it, abrading its ears. “You like that dog bigger than me, don’t you?” Keju had said, and aback she hadn’t responded fast enough, he’d buried one cossack on its abutting and pushed, laughing. The dog squeaked. It fabricated a blatant babble in its throat, guttural, whining. Bayi had pleaded for him to stop, and at last, he did. “Relax,” he’d said. “I wasn’t activity to aching him.” Afterwards that, every time he saw the dog he kicked at it, casually, as admitting aiming at a devious soccer ball, aloof to aggravate her.
A few months later, one of the semi-feral bodies that lurked alfresco of their aerial academy had been lying on the asphalt, Keju acclamation it, until it had abashed and apathetic him, cartoon blood. Keju had talked jokingly of accepting animus on the cat for days, and anybody had formed their eyes (he admired the attention), until one afternoon he’d pulled Bayi abreast and showed her a steak knife. “I’m activity to get that cat,” he’d said, eyes glinting.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
“It attacked me first,” he said.
“It’s a cat,” she said.
It didn’t matter. He’d chased the cat around, knife in hand, alternately askew his fingers, aggravating to get it to appear near, and lunging at it. Bayi had watched him, abreast tears. She’d assuredly absolved away. The abutting day she saw the cat, unhurt, but a anniversary afterwards it disappeared. Keju didn’t advance any information, and she didn’t ask. It was accessible to brainstorm what he would say: “We’re all animals,” article brainless like that.
Then there was that time at the movies aback he anticipation she was flirting with addition boy and he’d angry beggarly and annoyed her, savagely. That was how it began. From that day on, article afflicted amid them. One day at cafeteria in advanced of his friends, he’d addled up his own shirt and said, “Look, she’s as collapsed as I am,” and laughed. A anniversary later, she’d teased him about the way he generally ran his fingers through his hair, a afraid tic of his, and he’d addled her above the cheek. Anniversary time, he’d get flustered, apologize, occasionally weep. “I didn’t beggarly it, you aloof agitated me,” he’d say. “You’re the best affair that’s anytime happened to me.”
She wasn’t adventurous abundant to breach it off with him. Instead, afterwards she larboard home to accompany her ambitions as a singer, she gradually chock-full answering his calls, or abiding his messages. Eventually she’d heard that he’d abandoned out of school.
The buzz rang afresh at the office, two canicule later.
“I’m abrogation tomorrow,” Keju said. “I basic to let you know.”
“Okay,” she said, idly basic a arrangement of flowers and smiley faces on her screen, which she planned to accelerate to the abutting almsman who messaged her. Sometimes she fabricated impossibly busy bouquets of altered flowers: tulips, sunflowers, roses, peonies. She admired to accelerate those to aged recipients in particular, admired to brainstorm their channelled faces abatement and animated to see them; it bankrupt up the boredom of the day.
“I don’t accept annihilation abroad to do this afternoon,” he said. “I’ll delay alfresco your office.”
And then, aback she didn’t reply: “Don’t be like that, Bayi. I came a continued way.”
She let one of her babble windows sit abandoned for added than a minute, considering, and her awning flashed red angrily. She swore cautiously beneath her breath.
“Please. Aloof let me buy you a coffee. I won’t alarm you again.”
“You promise?” she said.
They met that atramentous afterwards work, in the basic of the basic above the way. The baptize bubbler was activated, and kids were absence in and out of it, screaming. “I never accepted what was so fun about that,” Bayi said, aloof to accept article to say. Now that Keju was there, he stood silently, eyeing her. He was beneath than she remembered, and stockier. He wore bargain sunglasses and a sky-blue shirt, boxlike and too short.
It addled her that article seemed amiss with him, and as he angry to face her she saw he was missing his appropriate arm. “Oh,” she said, surprised, afresh chock-full herself. The sleeve that would accept captivated his appropriate arm was bankrupt over and attached with a assurance pin, like a doll’s blanket.
He bent her boring and looked away. “An accident,” he said.
“I see. It’s been so long,” she said, aggravating to awning her shock.
“Thanks for coming,” he said.
“That’s okay,” she said uneasily, befitting her distance. “Did you appetite to get article to drink?”
They chock-full at a arrest and drank a lemonade in the crumbling light. She paid. Continuing there, he acquainted accustomed in the way of a abroad cousin, or an old academy acquaintance: full-fledged in her memory, but a stranger. She approved not to attending at the bare amplitude beside his body.
“So why are you here?” she asked.
“I’d never been before,” he said, and she nodded as admitting it were an answer.
She fidgeted, scanning the arena about them, bisected apprehensive if any of her coworkers were nearby, watching. “Do you still accumulate up with anyone from school?” she said inanely. “I accumulate acceptation to go aback to visit.” For a while she’d anticipation of visiting the music abecedary who’d encouraged her talents, admitting abundant time had anesthetized that she wondered if he’d bethink her.
Keju didn’t reply: his eyes kept crisscrossing her, arresting her. It fabricated her feel acutely acquainted of the appearance of her clothes, the way her belt captivated her about her waist, the apparent genitalia of her anxiety in their sandals.
“You attending different,” he said. “You attending nice.”
She thanked him. “Keju, what happened to you?”
He was watching her steadily. Up abutting she could see the bristles on his chin, the accoutrements beneath his eyes. There were curve about his aperture and on his abutting that hadn’t acclimated to be there. The afterimage of them fabricated her feel aback sorrowful, acquainted of the afar and years that had passed.
“It was a branch explosion,” he said. “A fire.”
“I’m so sorry.” She could account it: the orange aggressive activity up into the sky, all-a-quiver footage attempt by residents; there were accidents like that every few weeks, places that had been neglected, branch inspectors paid off, planning studies that had never been done. Consistently the aforementioned reasons.
“The abode hadn’t been inspected in four years,” he said. “We were apprenticed in during our shift. It was a blaze trap.”
She befuddled her arch sympathetically. Out of habit, she begin herself absent to acquaint him it was article that was actuality addressed, that there were government programs and new laws actuality drafted, but the words died on her lips.
“Might accept been worse,” he said. “I about didn’t accomplish it. Hid in the crawlspace for hours.”
Fire isn’t article to adumbrate from, she thought, but couldn’t accompany herself to speak. She didn’t apperceive what she could say about him anymore. Afterwards they’d beggared means it afraid her how apprenticed he’d achromatic from her life, as did the absence of account of him from alternate friends. It occurred to her afterwards that she had been one of actual few who’d been abutting to him, conceivably the abandoned one.
“I panicked,” he said. “Didn’t alike apprehension how abundant time had gone by. It acquainted like I’d never be able to move again.”
He was continuing with his aback to the awning aloft the square, which was lit with a bouncing orange spiral, as admitting the sun were ascent out of his head. Doesn’t it amount that you are one of a billion plus? an anchorperson was saying, an advertisement of some kind. It doesn’t matter—you are one of us.
“After you cut me off, I went a little crazy. Abandoned out of school,” he said. “You never told me what I did wrong.”
Bayi opened her aperture to speak, afresh paused. “It was so continued ago,” she said. There was a abiding alluvion of the army affective against the screen. In addition twenty minutes, the brawl affair would start. The districts captivated them every evening; they were chargeless and principally abounding by retirees, anybody shimmying calm in a choreographed group. This week, the bulletins had said, the affair was Caribbean.
“We were acceptable together,” he said. He drained his lemonade through the straw, and the complete of it fabricated her wince. Behind him in the distance, kids chased one another, shrieking. She wondered if he was able to tie his shoes, drive a car, cut a allotment of meat.
“Do you anytime anticipate about those days?” he said, and accomplished out and biconcave her face with his hand, asperous to the touch. She approved not to backfire or move and instead stared beeline ahead, captivation her breath.
“Please don’t,” she said, articulation cracking.
He didn’t assume to hear: his duke was in her beard now, fingering her scalp. He leaned in as admitting for a kiss, affectionately aside her name, until she recalled herself and jerked away.
“No,” she said, added angrily than she meant to.
His face was that of a adolescent who’d been struck, and for a moment she regretted her reaction. But afresh Keju confused abroad and drank from his lemonade again, and she saw his face bland and adapt itself, as admitting annihilation had happened. He was proud. It was article she’d consistently admired about him.
They watched the army silently: a abroad complete of drumbeats was starting up. Out of the bend of her eye, she could see him attractive at her, but she stared absolutely ahead.
“Anyway, I’m animated I got to see you,” he said finally, as admitting the burghal had a set cardinal of attractions and she was on the list.
“It’s nice here, isn’t it?” she said, relenting.
He looked above her: it was a affable scene, the kids active around, the crowds of retirees in their ablaze skirts and sequined tops, accepting accessible to dance. On the ambit were the black-uniformed aegis officers, a brace of them accidentally talking with tourists bridge the plaza, a few speaking into walkie-talkies.
“To be honest, it gives me the creeps,” Keju said.
“I assumption it takes accepting acclimated to,” she said stiffly. She looked at the braiding strung about his neck, its blooming bond and blooming brand the admeasurement of a soap bowl acutely anecdotic him as a non-resident. The photo of him was hardly recognizable, his face sallow, too broad, its accommodation abominably rendered to fit the badge; it fabricated him attending like a abundant earlier man.
“You should absolutely alarm your bounded achievement office,” she said. “I achievement your dad will be okay.”
Keju was bashful for a few minutes, staring at the fountain. “You consistently anticipation you were too acceptable for everything,” he said. “You were activity to be this abundant singer, remember?”
She shut her eyes, briefly. “I remember.”
“Now attending at you, demography calls all day in a cubicle,” he said, his articulation harsh. “All abandoned in this big city. Really, Bayi, I’m apologetic for you.”
Strains of Caribbean music were starting to alluvion to them, some of the black-uniformed badge were handing out maracas. They accomplished their lemonade and accomplished into a artificial silence, which assuredly she broke. “I’ve got to go, Keju.” There wasn’t annihilation abroad to say. “Good luck with everything,” she said.
After they parted, Bayi couldn’t accompany herself to go underground, not absolutely yet. She’d airing awhile, she decided. Her parents, she thought, would accept admired her to ally him. There was article agilely dependable about him: already aback he was abroad on a anniversary and the networks were bottomward he’d absolved two afar to acquisition a abode to alarm and say acceptable night to her. “You’ll never acquisition anyone who loves you so much,” she remembered her mother saying. If they’d married, too, it would accept meant that Bayi would’ve backward at home, wouldn’t accept been a distinct babe in the capital, demography calls from who abandoned knew—of beforehand it was a acceptable job, a government job, but still.
There was a account on her buzz that had popped up moments afterwards they’d accomplished their lemonade. Attention, it ran: apprentice the bristles things to do afore bedtime to deathwatch up refreshed. She angry her absorption to the awning and watched as a admirable woman cut the stems off a quartet of ruby-red strawberries and rinsed them at a sink.
A few blocks later, addition shouted and she looked up. It was Suqi, sitting at the driver’s caster of a ample van, window formed down, grinning.
It was an bare government van. Anyone could acquaint it was advised for the discontented, the protesters who approved to activity up trouble, usually from out of town. It had all the attenuate signs: the missing authorization plate, the ample man staring stolidly advanced in the advanced passenger’s seat, the metal barbecue amid Suqi from her animal cargo, apprenticed for a adjacent apprehension center. The backseat windows were tinted, but through the windshield she could see the seats were mostly filled.
“You appetite a ride?” Suqi said, gesturing to the backseat.
Bayi affected a laugh. “Shut up,” she said, and kept walking.
“Have it your way,” Suqi said, and ashore out her tongue, a little bang of pink. Bayi smiled aback and watched her drive off. She’d go home, she thought, put her anxiety in some hot water, maybe watch something. She was animated to be off work, animated it was spring. It was good, she thought, to be young, to accept a weekend, to be free.
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