“Do you have to breathe like that?” she asked sharply. Her voice had that edge to it the way it always did when she was about to pick a fight. Her eyes narrowed now and he imagined that if she were a tiger, she would jump over the table between them and then possibly maul him to death.
She opened her mouth and rounded her lips into a circle and breathed noisily; like a runner gasping for air at the end of a long run. She glared at him as she mimicked his breathing.
“I don’t sound like that. I’m not that loud. Besides, this is the way I’ve always breathed. Why should I change now?”
“You should change it because it’s really annoying and I can’t concentrate on anything when I hear it. Can’t you breathe through your nose like regular people do?”
He didn’t say anything. He simply looked down at his plate and stabbed a slice of cucumber with his fork. He brought it to his mouth and crunched it noisily. She was still looking at him.
“Hello! I’m right here. Are you going to answer my question? Can you breathe through your nose like a regular person?”
He ignored her and stabbed a cherry tomato instead. The little red ball was juicy and it squirted him directly on the chin. Sarah laughed loudly.
“Even the tomatoes don’t like hearing you breathe,” she said triumphantly.
He stood up, pushed the chair back, walked to the door and slipped his feet into some shoes. He didn’t bother to tie them as he stepped out into the hallway. He could hear her laughing still as she called after him.
“Oh come on, Alex, don’t be so mad,” he heard her voice drifting toward him as he slammed the door shut behind him. He was standing on the backs of his shoes since he hadn’t bothered to put them on properly. He walked awkwardly over to the elevator and pushed the down button. He knelt down to put on the shoes as he waited for the elevator. The door slid open after a moment and Alex got on and pushed the button for the lobby.
It was chilly outside as he stepped out of the apartment building and into the fall night. It reminded him of that night in China years ago. He called me and asked me to meet him for coffee. He usually called me when he wanted to get something off his chest. I agreed to meet him in a few minutes.
The coffee shop always played jazz. Tonight, Duke Ellington gently floated through the small shop as I walked through the door.
When we had both sat down in the chairs at the back corner of the coffee shop with our cups, I asked him what the problem was. Instead of answering right away, he looked down at the black liquid in his cup for a moment.
“Bear with me for a minute ok? I just want to tell you a story,” he said. His eyes pleaded with me.
“Not a problem. I’d love to hear a story,” I replied with a smile. He nodded and began.
“I moved to China after I graduated from college. I went with a buddy of mine, Ray. We shared an apartment and taught English to freshmen at a technical college there. Neither of us spoke much Chinese at all beyond a few words like ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and ‘I don’t speak Chinese.’ So we had to rely on one of the Chinese teachers who lived in the same apartment building to take us to places that we wanted to go. The guy’s name was…” Alex tapped his chin with his forefinger as he tried to remember. “Kenneth!” He snapped his fingers and set his cup down on the table.
It was already past eight o clock and there were only a couple of other customers in the coffee shop. They looked like students. One flipped through a pile of note cards while the other tapped at his lap top computer. The girl behind the cash register wiped the back of the pastry display case.
“Kenneth used to get a little annoyed that we asked him to take us everywhere. He’d say ‘I’m not your translator.’ But we’d still be able to convince him to take us to places. So anyway, one night, Ray decided he needed a haircut. We’d seen plenty of barber shops around town but since we’d only been in China for a few weeks at that point, neither of us was confident enough in our Chinese to get a haircut. We were afraid that if the hair cutter didn’t know what we were saying, we might end up with Mohawks or perms or something. So we dragged Kenneth along with us one night after work.”
I nodded to show I was still listening and set my cup down on the table too.
“Up until then, we’d seen plenty of hair cutting places around but they were all very different from barber shops back home. There was usually one of those electric striped barber poles in front of the place and there would be a girl at the front whose only job seemed to be opening the door for customers and saying ‘welcome’ to them. Also, most of the barber shops have people who wash your hair and can do quick massages. And then, the barbers themselves weren’t at all like what they look like here in the States.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I tried to picture a Chinese barber and an image of Bruce Lee holding a pair of scissors popped into my mind.
“I mean, the barbers there are these young guys who dress as cutting edge and fashionable as possible. Well, I mean, we’re talking about Chinese cutting edge fashion. So their hair will be dyed all sorts of colors. Their clothes are very trendy; like leather pants and medallions hanging around their necks.”
I chuckled at the thought of a blue haired rocker type cutting my hair.
Alex shook his head. “I tell you,” he said. “It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence or hope when a guy who insists he’s not your translator, tells another guy with spiked orange hair and tight leather pants how to cut your hair in Chinese. I was betting that Ray would need to shave his head after the hair cut.”
“So anyway, we drag Kenneth with us to the closest hair cutting place to our apartment. It was some place with the striped barber pole spinning next to the glass doors. We didn’t see any customers but we went in anyway.”
Alex stopped to take a quick sip of coffee and then continued his story.
When Alex, Ray, and Kenneth stepped into the barber shop, they noticed that not only were there no customers, there were also no hair cutters. When Kenneth asked the manager at the front how much they charged for haircuts, the manager replied that they did not have anyone to cut hair at the moment. They did, however, he quickly added, have very reasonable priced massages available.
The man pointed behind them at a group of about twelve girls seated on a circular couch. The girls were all watching a television show but seemed a little bored. Kenneth repeated this to Ray and Alex in English.
“No thanks, man. I just need to get my hair cut,” Ray responded. He tugged at his bangs which did indeed look to be much too long for his round face.
“The manager says the massages are very cheap because there aren’t too many customers now,” Kenneth informed us.
“How much are they?” Alex asked. “Not because I need one, but just out of curiosity.”
Kenneth turned and asked the man.
At this point, Alex’s cell phone began ringing on the table in the coffee shop. He looked down at it.
“I’m not going to pick it up right now. I don’t feel like talking to Sarah,” he told me calmly.
“So, you guys had a fight?” I asked, setting my coffee cup down across from his. The girl behind the cash register checked her watch and then rearranged the napkins on the counter.
“Well, yes, but it’s something I don’t really feel all that eager to talk about. I’d much rather just tell you this story about China. Is it boring you?”
“No, not at all. I was really getting into it, but just thought you might want to, you know, get this stuff off your chest.”
He waved his hand dismissively.
“Later. Do you have time though?”
“Yes, definitely. Don’t worry about me,” I responded.
“So, the manager told us the massages would be about thirty eight yuan or something like that,” Alex said. “I did some quick calculation and realized that it was less than five dollars US at the time. Ray said that at a price that cheap, we definitely needed to get a massage. So we asked Kenneth, who agreed, and the manager pointed again at the group of girls seated on the couch.”
– to be continued –