Elaine Barnard was born in Brooklyn, New York. After traveling extensively, she now resides in Laguna Beach, California. Her plays and stories have won many awards in the U.S.A and abroad. She is also a film actor in Los Angeles.
I am called Snow because snow was falling in Jinan the day I was born. “It was piled high in the streets,” my mother said, “like so many small Buddha Mountains. It was beautiful to see as you were beautiful that special day. Your father wanted a boy, of course, but secretly I wanted a girl. I have never told him that, never told him how happy I was that you, my Snow, were given to me.”
I have lived in Jinan all my life. But now that my mother has gone, I long to leave it, its sky, like a plate of porridge with a dollop of butter where the sun should be. I have read there are cities in the world where the streets are clean and the sun shines bright all the day. How I long for such warmth.
I am here in the Shandong University clinic because of an infection. I am not certain how I got this infection but it has caused me much pain. Today is the third day I am coming here to recover from this illness. The doctor has given me a prescription,
which is in the vial above me. It drips through a long plastic snake into my hand. The nurse inserted a needle to draw blood. Now, through that incision, the healing potion flows.
In the bed next to me is an Accounting student. She is in her second year. Orange – that is her favorite color so that is how she calls herself – is very optimistic about her future. “I want to be an international CPA,” she giggles behind her palm, her black hair swishing like the tail on a new pony.
I wish her well as she turns from me to sleep. I wish everyone well, that is my habit of late. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. At one time I was jealous of all who were under thirty, who sought bright futures. But now I see how foolish that was. They could no more help desiring brightness than I could help resigning myself to the darkness which I fear might become my fate.
On the other side of my cot, next to the rain streaked window, lies an American student who coughs in spasms. She does not know what is wrong with her only that she, like many people in Jinan, cannot stop coughing. The doctors X-rayed her lungs to see if she has the dreaded TB, but fortunately the result is negative.
“I waited in line with those freshmen taking their military training,” she complains. “I couldn’t believe they were still using equipment like that. I thought China was well, like, a—a— modern country. I mean, like they just had the Olympics and all, ya know.”
It is difficult for me to answer but I try my best to help her understand that my country is still developing. “We are trying to become modern,” I say. “But it is difficult when there are over a billion people even though we are limited to one child per family. If it’s a girl you can try again in six years but that rule only applies to the countryside.”
“Bummer,” she says as she inspects the flaking walls of this clinic that is especially for teachers, students and their families.
The old sweeper enters. He is as bent as his broom. A large surgical bandage covers his forehead. I can only imagine what terrible wound it conceals. He sweeps some debris from the floor and empties it into the trash container. As he starts to carry the trash away, the American points to the lights. She knows no Chinese so is reduced, like a child, to pointing and waving. He obliges with a bow, turning on the ceiling fluorescent, the others do not work.
The girl reaches for the call button to tell the nurse that her medication bottle is nearly empty. But the call button does not work either.
I get up from my bed and lift my vial from its cradle. Holding it above me, I walk the grimy corridor to the nurses’ station. I wait my turn to speak as she is busy filling other prescriptions. Her blue smock is frayed around the edges. Safety pins hold up her torn pockets but her eyes are gentle behind her surgical mask. She follows me back to the bed where the American waits, adjusting her lumpy pillow, smoothing her soiled sheets which have not been changed between patients.
The nurse removes her empty vial and returns with a full one, checking to see that it flows correctly into the girl’s hand, advising her not to disturb the needle.
“What’d she say?” the girl asks.
“She told you to keep your hand still,” I answer with pleasure, as I am a teacher of English at Shandong University.
“What’d you say?” the girl asks again, looking confused.
I repeat what I’d said. She frowns. Again I tell her but she seems dense and does not understand me even though I speak slowly for her benefit.
“Oh,” she sighs. I think she finally understands, as she lies very still as if she were dead. I wonder what would happen if she did die. How would they transport her back to America? I envision her in a cart pulled through the streets of Jinan by men stinking of sweat, their muscles tight and sore with exhaustion. Behind her cars blow their horns while drivers talk on cell phones. We know it is dangerous to talk on cell phones while driving but no one pays attention to such warnings. They think it is cool to be seen talking on a cell phone. That is why we have so many accidents, because no one pays attention.
It was that way coming here this morning. I tried to cross between cars and bicycles. Many, many bicycles but also the cars have increased, never slowing, blowing their horns instead to frighten me. The guards at the North gate tried to control them but they just blew louder. I was almost struck as I crossed but swerved just in time, landing on a cart full of oranges, bananas and kiwi. The vendor tried to charge me for squashing
his fruit but a policeman chased him off and helped me to the clinic. As it had rained the night before, the streets were slick so we jumped puddles to the crowded courtyard where
the mob of freshmen in khaki uniforms waited at the entrance for eye exams. The exams were necessary to be eligible for the weeks of military training. Holding a paper over one eye, they read with the other, looking pleased if they passed the test.
I placed a mask over my mouth to dispel the noxious odor of the toilet as I rushed to the cashier’s window before the freshmen would finish their exams and crowd me out. I deposited the necessary yuan before I could see the doctor. Placing the receipt in my pocket, I climbed to the second floor and waited outside the doctor’s office. There were three physicians so I chose the one where the line was shortest, only two families ahead of me waiting in the dingy hallway.
Finally, the doctor signaled me. Her hair fell in gray wisps over her surgical mask. Her sallow face was wrinkled and dry as the skin of a forgotten lemon. She listened to my heart through the stethoscope hanging about her neck. Her breath smelled of onion and garlic as she wrote a prescription. I brought the prescription downstairs to another window and waited once more, then paid my yuan and proceeded to the nurses’ station. After my blood was drawn, I was given the medication that is flowing into my hand.
“I would like to go to your country,” I tell the American to make conversation between her coughs. She looks at me with eyes the shade of blue on an emperor’s porcelain. Her hair is spiked and blonde as if she has recently visited a salon where they color it to order.
“Why?” she smiles as if my reference to her country delights her. “I’ve always wanted to come to China. It’s so, like, well, different. That’s why I’m here with these
kids from California. But I’ve, like, spent most of my time at this clinic.” She coughs again.
“I am sorry.”
“Oh, it’s okay. I guess it’s to be expected, all this pollution and stuff. But you, you must be used to it.”
“We never get used to it. It is simply our way of life. My husband is lucky. He travels frequently selling sports equipment for American companies with outlets in China. In fact, he is away right now.” I feel myself wince as the pain comes again.
“Is it this thick in all of China?” The girl coughs and reaches for her water bottle.
“No, there are places in the mountains or near the beaches that I am told are clean because there are no cars or factories. Maybe someday I will be lucky enough to visit them.”
“How come you’re here? I mean, you look pretty healthy and all.” She gazes at me with those wide eyes, the double creases on her lids lending them a pop star’s splendor.
I watch the potion slowly drip into our hands. The fluid contains glucose, some sodium and vitamin C to make our bodies strong enough to recover without medication. “I—I have an infection.” I hesitate as the pain surges upwards.
“What kind?” I mean, it’s okay if you don’t want to say.
It is difficult to tell her, like revealing a secret between my husband and myself. When I told my husband I had a vaginal infection he did not believe me. “How did you get it?” he shouted between bursts of shower water.
He liked to wash his hair every morning, smooth it with pomades so that it glistened in the lamp light. We have a modern apartment, on the seventh floor of a walkup on the west side of Jinan. At one time there was talk of installing an elevator but that never happened. The building has only been erected four years but already the exterior is crumbling, the pipes in the bathroom rusting, the electricity often out.
On the Sunday I told him of my infection, he came from the shower in his slippers, a towel around his hips. His buttocks were slender, almost as thin as a boy’s. I loved his thighs, the genitals curved deeply between them, muscles strong and supple. He turned on the television. We have a large television, almost the length of the wall. We loved to watch it, reclining on the soft beige couch that curved the corners of our apartment. That morning a soccer match was playing. “How did you get the infection?” he repeated as he dried himself with the towel. It had the imprint of the last hotel he had visited.
I looked at him and rolled more dough for the dumplings I always prepared for Sunday breakfast. I filled one with the pork and onion mixture I had prepared earlier that morning before my husband rose.
“I am hungry,” he yawned. “Will they be ready soon?”
“The water is almost to boil. I will steam them shortly.”
“I hope so. I have to leave again.”
“But it is Sunday. Do you have business even today?”
“I am ambitious. I always have business.” He went into the bedroom to dress while I steamed the dumplings. Drops of perspiration ran down my face. He came from the bedroom in his sports outfit and sat at the table tying his Adidas. He smelled of his favorite French cologne.
“I thought you had business.”
“I am meeting some friends first for soccer.”
“Will you return for lunch? I could prepare orange chicken and beef in crab oil.”
“I do not think I will be back this afternoon. I might return this evening depending on how things go.”
“Would you like me to wait dinner for you?”
“If you like, but do not depend on my arrival.”
I set the plate of dumplings on the table. They smelled sweet. I had added some bean curd to the pork. He skewered one on his chopstick and waved it to cool the dough before he bit in. “Good,” he said between mouthfuls.
I watched him eat, happy that he found my dumplings to his liking. I did not want to bring up the subject of the infection again as it seemed to make him angry. I collected his plate when he finished, washed it, and set it on the drain to dry.
“Are you not eating?” he asked.
“Later perhaps, I am not hungry now.”
“That is too bad. Your dumplings are better when they are hot.”
“I can boil more water, reheat them.”
“Your infection,” he belched as he left the table, “how did you get it?” He stared at me as he pulled his baseball cap low over his deep set eyes that had just begun to wrinkle at the corners.
“I do not know,” I whispered.
“I might surprise you this evening, come home a bit early. But don’t wait up.” He slammed the door behind him. I heard his key turn in the lock, which meant he expected me to remain at home waiting his return. I went to the kitchen and retrieved a half eaten dumpling. It was cold. I tried to swallow it anyway but it caught in my throat.
For several moments I had not spoken as I dwelled on that memory. Finally, my voice returns although it does not sound like my voice but as if someone else were speaking. “The doctor said it is a vaginal infection but I am hoping he is wrong. I would like to have a child, a boy, it would please my husband.”
“What would you name him?”
“Yuan. Money is very important to my husband. We would name him after my husband’s deepest desire.”
The girl laughs, “Yeah, that’s the big item in my country too. I thought it might be different here. In fact, I was hoping, like, maybe I could find another place somewhere that maybe, like, ya know, all that stuff wasn’t so important. Know what I mean?”
“I think I do but I have never found one. Such places are only in my dreams now…”
We watch the final drops of fluid flow into our veins. Our vials are empty.
©2009 Elaine Barnard
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'Water' a Barnard story at Apple Valley Review
'Hidden Valley', a Barnard story
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