When Liu wakes up, he imagines he’s a bear crawling out of his cave. It makes him feel stronger, a giant to be feared, that is until he encounters a girl. Around those hypnotizing creatures, pretty or not, he stiffens up like a museum skeleton.
In class he was caught staring at one. Wen Tian, despite her overly permed hair and pockmarked skin, was strikingly beautiful. His teacher saw that his face was not pointed into his book and made an example of him by having him stand up and answer some impossible question. Liu couldn’t answer and instead mumbled, “Sorry, sir. I don’t know.” As his teacher lectured him, telling him that his English was worse than a child’s, Liu stood with his head bent down like a penguin’s.
Wen Tian put her tiny hand over her mouth and giggled like her classmates. Her burnt hair, dyed the color of dates, hung over her face. After school when she was chatting with two of her friends, Liu hesitantly walked in the center of their circle. He was going to ask her to go to the coffee bar, regardless of the fact that he couldn’t stand coffee, but remembered the way she looked in class. There was no sympathy or empathy, only derision. Very unbearlike, he raised his chin and instead of opening his mouth, turned around and walked away fretful.
Liu isn’t like other Chinese boys. He doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t style his hair like he’s in a boy band; he keeps it short like a soldier. He is uncomfortable with patriotic uniformity and doesn’t think having Japanese writing on his water bottle is disrespectful to the people who died during the Rape of Nanking. Basketball doesn’t interest him. He reads sci-fi magazines wondering which fictional future is more likely to come true.
After dinner with his stoic parents and writing an essay for homework until his hand cramped up, he slid under his electric blanket, ready to sleep. Usually he laid face down on his rigid bed and imagined he was a bear in his winter cave. Going into this false hibernation was vivid and comforting enough to let him sleep soundly.
That night though, he tossed off the blanket and climbed out of the window planless. He drew upon the fake animal inside of him and strolled the streets he had always called home. Four old men played mah-jongg in the dark, the moonlight shimmering along their cigarette smoke. He walked by them, growling under his breath. He called a taxi before he knew what he would tell the driver.
“Take me somewhere,” he told him once he’d sat in the front seat and weakly slammed the passenger door.
From the taxi window, he studied every girl that went by. Some had high cheekbones that made them look like they were always smiling. Some had cute bangs, wet mouths, long legs, delicate porcelain hands, lip gloss, undefined hips, or taut jeans. He imagined what every one of them would look like in thirty years.
He was sick of spotting planes in the sky and wondering if he’d ever have the courage to get on one. He wanted to be a bear out of bed, to have stories to tell. The driver stopped downtown at a quiet intersection.
“Does this work?”
Liu paid him and walked down a street he didn’t recognize.
A red neon sign for an Internet café stuttered in the night. Steam climbed skyward from the windows of noodle houses. Liu meandered through alleys until he was lost in his own city.
He found a raucous nightclub and stood rigidly in front of it.
Liu envied the Spanish dancers he saw on TV. He was jealous of cocky guys in leather jackets with two women on their arms.
Walking hurriedly, he went in the club. He tossed his jacket on an empty, wooden chair and gawked with uncertainty at an adorable girl rolling a Blow-Pop in her mouth. She wore more lipstick than he liked and from where he stood looked to be taller than him, but scratched at something under his chest. She smiled at him. He gently grabbed the sleeve of her palm-green sweater and pulled her towards the dance floor, scared as hell.