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Red Mansions

The blissful resent each moment for ending. This sentiment only partly explains Karim’s decision to stick a skewered kidney through the fly of his jeans and point it at bewildered passersby along the Tonghui River. As a foreign devil, a young Black one no less, he was inured to blank stares. He took a bite of tangy flesh and chased it with his pocket baijiu. Drunk and alone in the Middle Kingdom, he was determined to prove he was fine.
A young, island-tanned couple strolled past, and Karim hung the skewer from his crotch again, beckoning them with its tip. The boyfriend was the first soul to find this as funny as Karim, and he stopped to say as much.
Jesse and Marjatta were lovers from Finland. Karim told the couple he worked for China’s space program, though he was actually an American supply chain analyst for Yum! Brands. Clutching her auburn ponytail, Marjatta carried herself as one should when standing on a dusty bridge next to a man whose lingua franca was street meat. Jesse indulged Karim’s mischief with imposing charm and a warm grip on his elbow.
“You look like you know where Sanlitun is, friend,” said Jesse. His features were still ethereal despite the recent beating he took in a Bangkok bar for reasons he couldn’t fathom. His meaty, purple eyelid seemed to wink under the light of the streetlamp.
“I do know. Knowledge God.” Karim offered to guide the travelers through Beijing’s nightlife, on the condition they share his bottle. Jesse sipped the holy spirit in agreement as Marj watched, long since resigned to Jesse getting his way.
Kaleidoscopic light splashed the club. Karim danced alone on the bouncing floor, drifting with the rainbow waves. Nearby, Jesse and Marj made out like criminals on the run. Glimpses of ringed fingers around waists flashed in the dark. Karim pulled the Finns out into the open and slipped between their sweaty bodies, yielding to Jesse’s chin grazing against his neck.
Reality’s grip loosened in Karim’s apartment, where they drank gin from porcelain cups glazed in mermaid colors. Karim gushed over the painted scrolls and ceramics around his home. The passion for his objects touched Marj, given its contrast with the condition in which they’d first found him. She got the sense he did not host guests often.
A pyramid of mozzarella sticks bubbled in the oven as Marj and Jesse argued over the virtues of space travel. Karim offered them his bed and promptly passed out where he sat. Feeding off dormant grievances, the couple’s argument grew so fierce that it ended with them on top of Karim’s desk and untranslated books of poetry, stifling gasps with every thrust.


It was the century’s last year of the Ox. Pale Tiananmen Square stretched endlessly into smog. Head in Jesse’s lap, her ocean-gray eyes fixed on the Monument to the People’s Heroes, Marj described the mangled bicycles of 1989 like she’d been there herself. Bouquets of security cameras watched in all directions. Jesse, a man incapable of inertia, got up to explore Mao’s mausoleum. Marj asked Karim how long he planned to live in China.
“Haven’t thought that far ahead.” He made eye contact with a stranger taking his picture. “You staying long?”
“I’m dying to hear back about our Australian work permits. If I have to go back home I’m afraid of who I’ll become.” Words rolled from her lips with the ease afforded to strangers in foreign places.
“What do you want from Australia?”
She shrugged. “A life that’s not so small.” The conversation’s unfettered sincerity gave it the trappings of a dream. “Nothing in this city feels real.”
“What’s real? My most meaningful relationship here is with the guy who sells me bootleg antiquities.”
A stout man in sweatpants strolled past, his shirt rolled up to expose his belly to the summer
breeze. Nearly stepping over Karim, he said something just loud enough for them to hear. Karim jumped and stormed at him, bellowing Mandarin. Masking his surprise, the man faded into the crowd with a conciliatory tilt of the head. Karim resumed his place beside Marj. Knuckles rippling under taut skin belied his measured voice.
“You wouldn’t believe the things you hear when people think you can’t understand them. It’s like being able to read minds.”
Twirling her jade ring, Marj nodded.
After a long silence, Karim said, “How long have you been with Jesse?”
“Since we were sixteen. Nearly a decade.”
“You must be different people now.”
“I’ve changed more than he has.” The prompt admission jolted her. It was as if being around Karim pulled out the secrets she kept from herself. She lit a cigarette, suddenly aware of how yellow her teeth must’ve seemed to him. “What about you? Are you lonely?” She hoped her bluntness didn’t faze him.
“I had a hundred friends back home. I used to want things.” His smile ached with pride. “Now, I’m nobody.”


A drizzle fell. Marj became a tiny ghost far up steps so steep it looked like she was climbing into the sky. She was determined to walk the Great Wall alone. Jesse sensed she was annoyed with either him or Karim. They’d passed a No Trespassing sign a half-mile back, and the slick path crumbled in places. Gazing at the undulating spine of stone cresting emerald hills, Jesse was convinced Marj courted danger as a form of revenge.
In the days since their first encounter, Karim’s equanimity attracted Jesse, as it was a quality he lacked himself. He confessed to Karim that he’d slept with an Israeli woman in Vietnam. “I absolutely regret it.” A thrill took Jesse, and suddenly, he wanted to tell this stranger everything. Craning up at Marj, his anguish turned bitter. “She’s so adrift.”
Karim sighed. “On currents never still.” He placed a hand on the back of Jesse’s damp neck and held his arctic eyes. “Better to be present.”
They caught up to Marj at a battlement on one of the Wall’s peaks, where she sat sphinx-like, peering over forests pregnant with mist. Karim leaped up beside her. In Finnish, she told Jesse that she missed him. Usually quick with the right words, Jesse was now spooked by his own silence.


They were nearing the fall. Wanting to fête Jesse, as everyone invariably did, the hostel staff took him out drinking. Marj chose not to join them but accepted Karim’s offer to visit his favorite night market. Jets of flame licked the bottoms of blue-black woks, releasing precious vapors infused with red lantern light. Marj bought a scorpion on a stick so she could wag it from her loins, eliciting a high-pitched giggle from Karim.
At a boba stall, they befriended Cuifen and Janice, cheerful sisters from Lanzhou. On a hospitable streak, Karim led them all to his apartment to sip cheap booze out of doucai ware. There, he slipped playful mistranslations between Marj and the sisters, encouraging an offbeat mood.
The warm, tipsy looks Karim and Marj exchanged required no translation. Cuifen thanked their host and made excuses to leave, practically dragging her sister out of the apartment. The thin door hardly muffled their parting giggles.
Heavy rain battered the windows. Marj asked if he truly wanted nothing. Karim said he had a feeling she would ask something like that. As usual, when she was with him, her inner thoughts tumbled out of her: she accused him of affecting dispassion only to bury a corrosive sadness, one that was evident from the moment they first met. He admitted that he wasn’t expecting to hear that.
They fucked on his stale silk sheets. Intimacy had eluded him for so long it almost stung to have it now. When he finished, she hopped off the bed and they laughed at the severity of her tan lines.
As she dressed, he dropped his head on the pillow, aware that everything to follow would be empty. Marj could just see the coasts of Australia. At the knock on the door, they froze. The knocks grew heavier and slower, like the flagging heartbeat of their time together. After five eternal minutes, Karim looked at her and shrugged. She shook her head violently.
“He can’t know I was even here.”
Deep booms threatened to wake the building. Karim left the bedroom and walked to the door. He opened it to see Jesse, his rain-dropped face a brittle mask flushed red. He asked if he’d seen Marj. Karim told him that after the night market she’d left in a taxi and would probably be at the hostel by now. Just about everything passed between them with a glance. Karim said good night and returned to the bedroom.
Marj sat on the bed with her head in her hands. They waited a few more minutes in silence, and then she moved to leave. On instinct, Karim stopped her. He crept to the entrance and peeked under the door. Jesse’s boots loomed like black dogs. Karim tiptoed back to Marj, who knew what he would say. Jesse would wait for her as long as it took, like death. Karim’s sweat glistened in the red neon glow from the high-rise across his window.
Time stretched. Leaning into the absurd, they refilled their cups and played a game of Monopoly on the bed. With such thin walls, Karim spoke in a low voice that the downpour often drowned out. He told her it was useless to delay the inevitable, as futile as swimming up a coursing river. Marj squeezed the little red mansions in her hands until her palms drained of color.
“I’m not this kind of person,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t go back; where am I going to go?”
“But was it ever going to last between you two?”
She threw the game pieces at his face.
“Fuck you.”
“I only mean that everything is momentary. You and Jesse and me. This place. This life we’re living—it’s not real. You said it yourself.”
Marj stared at him with bafflement. His eyes were black pots of simmering water. She saw how badly he needed to believe this. He reached out and took her hand. With his thumb, he spun the jade ring around her finger. She didn’t pull away.
Night gave way to dawn and oriole voices. Karim went to look under the door again. Jesse remained at his post, as if unable to accept that things like this could happen to guys like him. Karim stood and looked back toward the bedroom, where he’d have to face the cracks in his non-being that the Finns exposed. Dreading tomorrow’s unrelenting solitude, it depressed him to learn that he was indeed susceptible to desire and loss.
Karim slipped into his Jordans with wings on the ankles and out the front door. Jesse sat up to attention. Assuming the most casual circumstances, Karim invited him to breakfast. Jesse declined, saying he would stay in case Marjatta came looking for him. Sick with guilt, the fantasy of contentment popped, Karim disappeared down the hall.
When she finally emerged from the apartment, Jesse’s mask shattered, and he sank into himself. She wrapped her arms around his shuddering back.

Alula Selassie

Alula is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Wharton School. He currently works in tech in DC. When he’s not reading, writing, or being outwitted by his children, he’s watching Training Day and Beau Travailon repeat and forever. “Red Mansions” is his first published work of fiction.


Alula is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Wharton School. He currently works in tech in DC. When he’s not reading, writing, or being outwitted by his children, he’s watching Training Day and Beau Travail on repeat and forever. “Red Mansions” is his first published work of fiction.