illustrated by fightfair
Xing arrives at Boston’s Logan International Airport with two suitcases and a carry-on, too little sleep, and five missed calls. The calls, in order: three from his mother, an unknown number, and one recently recorded from the university faculty member that has accepted Xing under his wing for the next four years. He wrestles his way out of the terminal and leans against the glass windows that span a panoramic view of Boston. He takes off his glasses and polishes them roughly with his shirt. It’s past midmorning (nearing midnight in Shanghai, his budding headache reminds him helpfully), and the sun hangs high in the late summer sky. The colors and view outside are not overwhelming yet; for all the glamour that America monopolizes in Chinese media, Xing is convinced that no other city in the world can rival Shanghai’s glittering skyline, so sharp and streamlined against a backdrop of endless sky and land. For four years he felt lost in its unforgiving streets and corners; now, he would give anything to turn around and fly back across the Pacific.
A metallic voice-over broadcasts the location for luggage pick-up, and he, along with 70 other disgruntled passengers who suffered the 21-hour flight, trudges down an escalator toward a circular carousal. The instructions printed from the e-mail in his hand tell him to take a taxi to a forwarded location. The university lies on the outskirts of Boston, a river and a highway too far for public transportation, and Xing resigns himself to the growing taxi line. He attempts to articulate the address to the cab driver; a line burrows between the driver’s eyes. The two accents (both thick; one due to new language, one due to language turned habit) clash against each other, and finally Xing holds up the slip of paper, and a look of relief and recognition passes across the driver’s face.
Boston’s roads are narrow with many forks, and Xing wonders idly if the driver purposely takes a few turns too many to jack up the numbers on the fare counter. The thought is fleeting; there is nothing Xing can do to prevent it, after all. As they wind out of the city, thick trees and rectangular houses become more frequent, and the empty silence outside the car windows remind him of the rural countryside, the only place that can escape noise in China. It is not the same, of course; here, the tightly paved streets and manicured lawns boast of urban development (ironical, he thinks wryly, when people move out of the city to flee from it), absolutely nothing like the uneven dirt roads of his adolescence.
The university looks strikingly identical to the pictures in the promotional catalog. Xing is pleasantly surprised. Up close, the old oaks sway gently in the wind, and the wide expanses of grass cut large quads between the buildings. School doesn’t start for the undergraduates for another few weeks, and a few scattered students in various positions of relaxation dot the landscape. The ivy crawling up the rusted brick walls whisper of the stories they have witnessed throughout the past century, and Xing thinks, maybe, perhaps, four years here can be tolerable.
He had always planned on graduate school after college, but only a consecutive chain of fortunate events had lead him to the United States and to Boston. First was a research competition he entered on a whim, at the urging of an over-enthusiastic advisor. His thesis had caught the attention of a professor at this university and before he could properly grasp the situation, his college had already sent his transcripts and appropriate paperwork on his behalf. He had not paid much attention to it at the time; he planned to complete graduate research at a nearby university, somewhere still relatively close to home. As much as he knew education was the only thin line keeping him from the irrevocable life of breaking soil and harvesting, part of him despised the city and craved the lazy sunrises that would touch the horizon when the roosters crowed in their pens. He knew he could never afford school abroad; only a generous scholarship allowed him the luxury of college and, even then, he mostly closed himself off in his dorm. Shanghai neither forgives nor favors the less fortunate, and Xing likewise felt no reciprocal affection.
By extraordinary chance, the friend of a colleague of a relative of his advisor lived alone in an area nearby with an extra room and offered to let Xing stay with him for the first year. Everything would be furnished already, his advisor had eagerly told his parents, and there would be someone to look after him, make sure he adjusts correctly, a friendly face. All Xing needs to do is go, and suddenly he resentfully found himself with a golden deal in his lap that, in one look to his parents and professors, cannot possibly be refused. And so a few months later, he shuffled onto a plane that would cross an ocean of waves that, despite its gleaming blue promises, is still an ocean too far away.
The apartment is on the third floor, in the middle of a row of other apartment buildings absolutely identical in shape and stature. Xing hesitates nervously for a moment before knocking, and he hears a muffled crash inside. A few minutes pass and, when the door still doesn’t open, he tries the knob and finds it turning easily. He cracks the door open wide enough to peek inside and—
–discovers the furniture in complete disarray, papers strewn haphazardly all over the floor, overflowing garbage bags in the kitchen, and a 3-piece luggage set sitting primly by the front door.
“Do you think the traffic to the airport will be heavy?” a voice asks him from his left. A man in his late thirties, maybe early forties (the elusive Mister Wu that his advisor had vaguely mentioned), exits from what Xing glimpses as a bedroom in an unbearably white suit and bright blue bowtie. He has a sheaf of papers in his hand that he flips through absently, and he rubs his head while scanning the room, as if in search.
Unsure of what to say, Xing finally replies, “There wasn’t any traffic on my way here.”
“Good,” the man nods approvingly, “Missing flights are always such a pain, and airports have never been conducive to mental stability. But what can you do, when your boss phones you on a Sunday morning and tells you to take the next flight to Berlin? An asteroid didn’t kill the dinosaurs, work did. Just like how work will kill us all.”
Xing blinks at this sudden rapid monologue and tries desperately to grab hold on the conversation. “You’re… leaving?” he stares at the luggage set and pushes up his glasses nervously.
“Only for a few months,” this Mister Wu answers with a nonchalant wave of his hand. “Or maybe forever! Who can ever predict these things?” He laughs.
“But–” Xing attempts to parse the situation calmly, and he feels a trace of panic creeping into his voice.
“No worries! There’s enough food to last maybe a week, your room and bathroom is just down the hall, and none of the neighbors here should be bothersome,” he tosses a silver key chain to Xing before adding generously, “Oh! And you can use my car while I’m gone – it’s the dark red sedan parked downstairs.”
“I don’t have an American license,” Xing tells him weakly.
“There’s a BMV nearby,” he says dismissively. “I have to run – my taxi’s probably here, and I’m late enough as it is.” He slings a laptop bag over his shoulder and grabs two suitcases. Xing wordlessly holds open the door for him; he doesn’t know what other reaction to take. “Don’t burn anything!” he calls back as a final farewell before disappearing down the stairs.
Xing turns back toward the ransacked mess before him. So this is how it is, Xing thinks and takes a deep breath; he is studying in America with classes and research and an unexpected apartment and an even more unexpected car and — still very, very much alone and lost.
The graduate research labs are located several miles off the main campus, and Xing attempts the bus system the first few days, but the sporadic time schedules and inconvenient stops eventually drive him to try the car Mister Wu (if that actually was his name; he never properly introduced himself) left him. The car is no different than the ones he had driven in China, and the roads here are much more accepting than Shanghai’s suicidal streets or the country’s rough dirt roads.
He works out a routine. Classes in the morning, research in the afternoon; he stalls around the lab until after rush hour to avoid the traffic, and the sun has already disappeared deep into the ground by the time he arrives back to the apartment. The elusive Mister Wu appeared to have been an ornithologist; various bird paraphernalia decorate the walls, and the clock in the living room chimes a different call every hour. The twittering of what looks like a cardinal marks dinner, and he lets the news channel buzz in the background. The few hours afterwards are spent on homework and reviewing experiment abstracts before crawling into bed and waking up to live the same steps again. Occasionally, his mother will call late at night and ask him largely irrelevant questions. He fields them with soothing details about the university, the helpful students in his labs (the majority of whom he has yet to exchange words), the pleasant weather, the nonexistent crime rate. He omits how his supposed patron left him to fend for himself on the first day and instead waxes long on the clean air in America, the strict sanitation expectations in diners and restrooms, and the reassuring atmosphere of forward progress.
It is not like he should be unhappy, Xing reasons. The other graduate students are not difficult, and he has even made an acquaintance with one of the girls in his section. Short, Korean (“Well, as least she is not Japanese,” his mother grudgingly allows, and Xing bites his lip and fights off the urge to properly reply), rectangular thick-rimmed glasses, perpetual scowl ready to be whipped out at a moment’s notice. She chews gum noisily in the break room like it were oxygen, and Xing knows she carries a miniature mountain of graphic novels hidden under her lab reports in her banana yellow messenger bag because the contents spilled onto the floor one day, and he spied the neon-colored covers.
He never attempts to initiate conversation, but that does not deter Roxanne (“Don’t you dare call me Roxy,” she warns menacingly, “ever.”) from elbowing him in the lab, her goggles eating up half her face, and complaining about the fastidious procedures and low success turnout in the experiments. He usually nods along and agrees, in fear of inciting her wrath, but he really doesn’t mind her chatter; the work would be mind numbing otherwise. He’s lucky that his section is so informal and relaxed. The doors welcome a constant influx of lab directors or professors walking through to inspect development, and even undergraduates stop by to observe or ask questions or help with some of the menial tasks. Xing has always enjoyed people-watching; it made the stifling cities more bearable, more accepting.
He notices after two weeks that the same boy comes every afternoon and sits in a chair on the far side of the lab tables. Asian, though Xing only realizes that detail in afterthought. He always dresses in faded jeans that have started to rip at the seams and worn t-shirts decorated with slogans like, “CHICKEN OR EGG? OR JUST CLEVER ENGINEERING?” and carrying what Xing assumes is a black backpack graffitied in pins and stickers that usually holds a pile of nondescript books with plain covers and tiny title print. He spends the entire day reading against the wall; he never touches any of the equipment and machines, and his messy hair flips over his eyes so that Xing wonders how he can even see the words on the pages. He brings a brown sack lunch that he eats sometime during the afternoon, the contents of which appear to always include a sandwich and a juice box.
After a few days of observation and during a lull in Roxanne’s long rant against the new guest policy regulations for on-campus housing, Xing asks distractedly, “Who’s that boy, anyway? The one that always comes in and reads.”
Roxanne looks at him in surprise. He realizes it may possibly be the first non-work related question he has ever asked her.
“You mean Max? He’s not part of the science department. He’s in grad school for history and political science, but he claims he reads best in the science labs and personally asked the director for permission. I don’t know why the director said yes. I mean, it’s not like he’s a nuisance, but he has his own department! And this place isn’t exactly a playground or anything. We actually do work. That matters!” Roxanne proceeds to dive into the political and often contradictive rules of each department; Xing tunes her out after she hits the inequalities in the distribution of university resources, and he sneaks a look at — Max, is it? — who does not even bother looking up from his book. Odd person, Xing thinks. Back in Shanghai, security guards and university staff would chase away strangers who sat on the front steps of campus buildings, and students were expected to strictly adhere to guidelines; nothing was ever out of place. He turns back to the spectroscopic cuvettes in front of him. Much like the disappearance of Mister Wu, Max’s intrusion is curious but not disruptive to any part of Xing’s life. Which, he reasons, makes it ultimately unnecessary to worry about.
Life proves him wrong, of course.
Xing wakes up one day to find a continuous screeching where the second hand on the birdcall contraption has jammed itself on the seven, and he spends an hour cursing ornithology and trying desperately to shut the sound off before the other tenants can complain. By the time he succeeds and finally rushes out the door for his first class, he manages to hit prime-time traffic and arrives in lecture only to realize he completely forgot all of his lab reports. He has to race back to his apartment between classes and work and only just speed-parks his car in front of the lab building and hops out before a voice jolts from behind, “You can’t park there.”
He turns around in surprise; his mind blanks for a moment and then remembers, right, the historian. Max. He’s chaining a bicycle to a rack, his bag slung over one shoulder. Xing can see the corner of a brown sack peeking outside the flap. “What do you mean?”
“See the striped yellow lines? That means it’s a fire lane,” Max points to the ground. “For, you know, fires and emergencies.”
“But I’ve parked here before,” Xing insists. “And there isn’t a no parking sign here.”
“Everyone knows it’s illegal,” Max shrugs and, before Xing can properly react, Max already has the passenger-side door open and is sliding in with a cheerful, “Here, I’ll show you where you can park.”
Xing looks at him helplessly and thinks about telling him that he already knows where the parking lot is. He shakes his head and starts the engine.
“Are you running late today? You’re usually already in the lab by the time I get here,” Max says conversationally.
“Yeah,” Xing sneaks a look at Max in surprise. He backs the car out and turns it toward the parking lot behind the building.
“You’re always very focused with whatever you’re doing,” Max continues, “though the girl who works with you talks too much.”
Xing isn’t sure how to respond, so he doesn’t. Max keeps a steady stream of conversation from the parking lot to the laboratory doors, wherein he heads toward his usual reading spot as if the day is no different than any other. Which it isn’t, Xing reminds himself; he opens his lab notebook and Max opens his book and Roxanne immediately fires away about the people who live below her who constantly throw parties. Nothing has necessarily changed; at least not yet.
Life proves him wrong, again.
Xing learns rather the hard way of Max’s easy-going and immediately familiar personality, which is really just a euphemism for he imposes himself on others with a quick flick of a smile and minimal guilt. It starts when Max inexplicably begins joining Xing for lunch in the makeshift break room, which is really just an old biotech computer room with a plug-in coffee machine, a microwave that fizzes out in 30-second intervals, and a mini-fridge that can barely fit a quart of milk. Xing is unsure of what to do; usually he already has his lunch (mostly leftovers from the previous night’s dinner) on the table when Max appears out of nowhere with his sandwich and juice box, and Xing mysteriously finds himself in the middle of a conversation and his lunch half gone before noticing.
“Do you cook this yourself?” Max asks, sinking a bite into Xing’s cold noodles.
“It’s not hard,” Xing tells him and surrenders the rest of his lunch. “Do you always bring a sandwich?”
“I’m not very adept in the kitchen,” Max admits sheepishly. He looks at the chopsticks in Xing’s hands and asks between bites, “What does your name mean in Chinese? I mean, I assume that you are. Chinese, that is.”
“Yes,” Xing tells him and, a little embarrassed, adds, “and it means star.”
Max grins, “That’s cute.”
Xing suddenly wishes his mother had named him something less suited for a rising pop star. “Where are you from?” he asks, by way of changing the subject.
“Connecticut,” Max tells him blithely. At the look of confusion on Xing’s face, he amends, “My grandparents were from Hong Kong. I’ve never been there before, though. What about you?”
“A town a few hours from Shanghai,” Xing pauses and then continues, “My parents are farmers.”
“So you’re a proletariat!” Max exclaims, delighted.
“No one uses that term anymore,” Xing frowns.
“But I do,” Max smiles slyly. “And, believe me, I am completely jealous.”
Xing furrows his eyebrows and spends the rest of lunch fielding questions on rural lifestyle (“Yes, we have electricity. And water. No, we don’t have animals.”). He thinks back to Mister Wu and now to Max; America, he’s becoming to learn, has a lot of peculiar people.
Even Roxanne notices that Max seems to have developed a surprising attachment to Xing. He isn’t sure how this happens, but he has by now resigned to the fact that, with Max, things happen first and he only catches on to them afterward. First is lunch, and then Xing finds the few hours he normally spends alone after lab and before heading back to his apartment invaded by Max’s inquisitive questions and sudden conversations. These developments are wholly illogical and startling, and Xing has spent so much of his life perfecting the art of camouflage that he doesn’t know how to deal with Max, how to turn him away.
Somewhere in between Max telling Xing about his Social Evolution in Asian Cinema class and his intended thesis topic, he invites himself over for a Chinese film marathon; before Xing can protest or feed an excuse, Max is already walking away and calling over his shoulder, “Hey, don’t worry, I’ll look your address up in the student directory. Tomorrow at seven, then? I’ll bring the movies!”
And, though Xing had hoped desperately he had misheard or imagined everything, Max is waiting expectantly outside this door the next night, a pizza box and a two-liter coke in one hand and a bag of DVDs in another.
“So I think we should start from the earliest and work our way forward,” Max breezily walks past and drops the bag of DVDs on the floor by the couch. Xing lags awkwardly behind him and watches him snap open the entertainment cabinet and flick on the DVD player. “This place is pretty nice. How did you find it?” Max asks over his shoulder.
“The apartment isn’t mine. The owner has just–,” Xing pauses, “–relocated elsewhere for the current time. Anyway, what are we watching first?”
“The Spring River Flows East – I think it’s about differing gender roles in a patriarchal society.” Max sits down on the couch and looks up at Xing; Xing stares back, unsure, until Max prompts, “You should probably turn off the lights,” and he flushes and hurries to the light switches.
He has tried pizza a grand total of two times thus far, and he looks down at the mess of cheese and tomato sauce in his hands and takes a bite out of politeness. Max is already sprawled comfortably across the seat cushions, and Xing thinks that it’s a little ironic that Max looks more at home in the apartment than he himself has felt at home living there in the past month, but he has stopped being surprised by him.
“Why do you read in chemistry labs?” Xing asks him suddenly just as the opening credits flicker across the screen.
Max finishes his glass of coke and sets it down. “I find chemistry very romantic,” he says after a pause. “The spontaneity and chain reactions; the constant movement and interactions; the idea of taking a reactant and making it a product. I’m just always been very ungifted at it, but reading in libraries and under trees have gotten old. And that’s really all main campus is, a lot of libraries and trees.”
“I’m surprised the director let you read in there,” Xing tells him honestly. “Not that our work is confidential or all that important, but even undergraduates have to ask permission to enter.”
“Yeah, well,” Max shuffles his hands together. “Having your father as the president of the university probably helps with exceptions.”
“What?” Xing drops his slice of pizza on his lap and scrambles for a napkin.
“I’m not at the university because of him, though,” Max tells him defensively. “The history department here has an impressive faculty.”
“Of course,” he manages between blotting the grease off his pants. “I just wouldn’t have guessed– I mean– I’ve seen the president before. He’s never without his briefcase and he’s always in a hurry.”
“So?” Max frowns.
“And you’re, I mean, the way you… dress and…” Xing trails off, embarrassed he ever brought the subject up. Max looks down at his dirty gray t-shirt and fraying jeans.
“I guess you’re right,” he grins. Xing lets out a breath in relief.
“You two just seem very different,” he explains. “I never would have made the connection.”
“Hey, Boston is pretty far for a communist proletariat,” Max elbows him in good humor.
Xing laughs. “I guess I see your point.”
“Are you glad you came?”
Xing hesitates for a moment and replies, “Yeah, I am. I think my English is getting better.”
“Really? Because I’m pretty sure my English has been getting worse ever since I started talking to you,” Max’s smile is bright even with only the television screen as illumination and before he can properly react (or even look affronted at the comment), Max is leaning in and touching his lips to the corner of Xing’s mouth, and he can feel his body go still under Max’s.
“I lied earlier,” he murmurs softly against the junction where Xing’s ear meets his neck. “There is something alluring about chemistry laboratories, but I saw you through the glass when I went to run an errand for a professor the first week. I don’t know why you piqued my interest so much.”
And then Max lightly tongues Xing’s bottom lip, and Xing not unhappily discovers that, yes, he can still be caught off guard by him. “But you just sat on the far side and read without ever looking up,” he breathes.
“I’m a very talented individual,” he answers loftily, and Xing can feel the curve of Max’s mouth against his skin. One of Max’s hands reaches up to slip off Xing’s glasses, and he folds them neatly on the table; his other hand skirts the waistband of Xing’s pants, and Xing’s hips arch involuntarily.
“The movie is still playing,” he says quickly, “don’t you need to watch it for class?”
“I already saw it at home,” Max tells him dismissively, currently too busy exploring the area above the collarbone to pay much attention, and his hand travels upward beneath the shirt.
“You’re rather clever, aren’t you?” Xing asks wryly, but he has still not moved away, and he increasingly is starting to think that he isn’t going to. Strangely and unexpectedly, between one of Max’s hands rubbing small circular motions around his ribcage and the other inching tantalizingly up his inner thigh, Xing doesn’t feel as out of place as when he first arrived or when he sits in his classes or even when working in the lab with Roxanne talking his ear off. Max gives off an air of always belonging, of fitting in so perfectly that you wonder how his absence would ever have existed, and Xing feels himself falling into the illusion.
Max’s teeth graze Xing’s ribcage as his head dips lower. “I’m going to assume that you, being from the communist farmlands of China–” here, he nips at the thin, pale skin by Xing’s hips, “–have never been with a boy before?”
Xing shakes his head, his fingers starting to curl into the couch fabric. Max unzips his pants and slides them past his knees. “Then you’re very lucky that I am indeed quite talented,” he says smugly, lowering his mouth onto the waistband of Xing’s boxers, which is already tenting from anticipation.
Max palms the hardness through the fabric before placing a light kiss where a wet hole is starting to form. Xing lets out a strangled muffle and his body jerks upwards; he doesn’t even feel his boxers sliding down until Max circles the head of his cock with his tongue, and he gasps and grabs a fistful of Max’s hair.
“Stay relaxed,” Max instructs soothingly, and the vibration of his lips against Xing’s cock makes it twitch in excitement. He drags his tongue from the tip to the base and back again in one long movement before taking the head into his mouth and sucking softly. Max’s hands come up to cup the sensitive area where Xing’s thighs end, and when he lets his teeth scrape against his cock, Xing has to bite his lip to force down the sound pushing up his throat.
A buzzing sound fills his ears, and Xing allows his head to fall back against the couch, his fingers flexing open and close around Max’s shoulders. Somewhere outside his muted senses, he can vaguely make out a birdcall chime, and he fleetingly thinks how he ought to get rid of that contraption masquerading as a clock when he’s coming, so sudden and so quick, and he can’t hold back the moan escaping his lips and when he closes his eyes, he sees a splash of color that’s brighter than any sunrise he’s ever experienced in his life. Max works him through the climax with his hands, and he rises to messily kiss a circle around Xing’s chin.
His body is completely limp, and his eyes feel suddenly excruciatingly heavy, but he forces them open long enough to lean toward Max and coax his mouth open; there’s still a lingering taste of his cum in his mouth, and he runs his tongue lightly along the bottom lip.
Max pulls away a few inches, enough to ask, “You own a bird clock?”
“It’s not mine,” Xing mutters defensively and shuts him up with another kiss. Max laughs into his mouth, and the tremor tickles down Xing’s throat.
“I have to admit I’m pretty surprised,” Max continues after they surface for air.
Xing blinks his eyes open. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, I thought I’d make you uncomfortable. Or that you’d be uncomfortable with this. With me.” Max’s hair falls over his eyes, and Xing raises a hand to brush it away. He chews the inside of his cheek, not sure how to tell Max that he couldn’t be further away from the truth, that he hadn’t realized how confused he had been until tonight happened, much like how he currently has to struggle to remember what lab was like before Max.
“You didn’t make me uncomfortable,” he says finally, voice soft. “And I’m not.”