They were winding out, far from the city along the Yellow River, because their weekend together was over, and Wang Mu, sated from two days of sex, was driving his nineteen-year-old mistress back to school. Men squatted in foldout chairs on the iced river trying to hook crucian carp, and Wang Mu wondered if the river yielded fish anymore. The water had turned red with toxicity years before.
Hong Mei leaned against the back seat's passenger side door. They were both from Anyang, but they had rented a hotel in Zhengzhou, the capital of the province, for the weekend. It was the weekend before the spring semester was to start at the university she attended. During that first day in the hotel, they had not left the room's queen-size bed until dinnertime, when they had dressed and taken the elevator down to the hotel restaurant for quick bowls of beef and vegetable noodles. Wang Mu was thirty-two years old and married, but he was out of shape for all-day marathons. By the afternoon of that second day, his abdominal muscles cramped. Afterward, since he was spent and wanted to avoid the embarrassment of being unable to keep up with her drive, he suggested they visit the local museum.
There, they joined a tour group of foreigners. They were Americans, Hong Mei instantly knew and told him, and created a spectacle with loud voices and English. He and Hong Mei followed them upstairs and through exhibits, and while Wang Mu stuffed his hands into his pockets in front of a six-foot tall, egg-shaped seismograph, Hong Mei inexplicably started a conversation with a pair of gray-haired tourists who had branched off from the group. They were pointing at a map and enunciating English into a phone while sometimes trying to speak Chinese, too obscure for him to decipher.
Wang Mu had no idea what they were saying, though he knew Hong Mei was helping. The university she went to vaunted its housing of the biggest number of foreigners on any campus in all of China, and some of her instructors were American. Still, it baffled and slightly irked him that she transitioned at the sight of them into this assertive, strange-voiced girl, mostly because it was drawing attention. The seismograph in front of him reflected his blurry image. Brass dragons curved along oblong sides and spewed water into open-mouthed frogs. The size of the earthquake, he assumed, was measured by how much the dragons' streams of water missed their usual marks.
Wang Mu had met Hong Mei one year earlier, in front of a bathhouse during winter holiday. He had gone with potential business partners, and it hadn't been his first time. He knew the routine of the girl he selected from a lineup, soaping up his body and then slipping naked with him into a tub for scrubbing. For an extra fee, girls finished off customers in nearby bedrooms, but he had skipped that part. He hoped to score a bid to pave a stretch of country roadway, and he didn't know if the businessmen he'd brought partook in such things.
Upon leaving the bathhouse doors, where girls in fur-fringed coats and golden hats said, in unison, Thank you for shining light on our establishment, he stepped out into the cold of an Anyang winter, and a girl who seemed not much older than high-school age was loitering with a friend by his BMW parked in a long line of sedans. The girls' feet had stamped the flaky snow, and Hong Mei was leaning over the rear bumper and laughing. Her friend, she later told him, had dared her to linger there. They'd been walking along the sidewalk and joking about some man with money who might exit the gilded double doors to become their saving prince, like in the soap operas on TV. Still, as he neared his car, Hong Mei clutched her friend's arm and dipped her face, one hand covering her mouth. It seemed they couldn't believe the car they'd been standing by had been his. He thumbed the remote on his key chain, and the car chirped. Red taillights blinked, which startled them. They broke into giggles and hurried away.
"Missing something?" he said. A plastic cartoon figure of a large-faced boy with his mouth wide open, a figure he recognized as a symbol of love-luck, had fallen into the snow where the girls had been role-playing. He lifted the figure up in between his finger and thumb. Still looking back at him over their shoulders, the girls stopped.
Now he parked the car at the gate of the university.
"We're here," he said.
He lifted his head to catch her in the rearview. She'd been slumping in the seat. Her hair really was remarkable. And her mouth.
Snow was drifting down. "It'll be cold until you reach the dorm," he said. He meant she had better hurry. Parents and students were walking all around him, and he was worried about being seen.
She was still looking into the rearview when she jerked a hand over to the car door handle. She paused and bit her lip. He knew she wanted him to see she was angry. He didn't move to stop her, and he didn't have to. She scooted toward him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Why do you do this to me?" she said. She dug her nails into the fabric of his coat. The feeling was exquisite, and he suddenly needed her to forgive him for sending her off like this. He needed to go somewhere, to a nearby hotel (as risky as that was right here around campus), before he returned to his home and work in Anyang.
"I told you this couldn't happen," he said.
"I hate you," she said and let her head fall forward onto the back of the passenger seat. He shifted the car into drive, then reached an arm back. He ran his fingers through her hair and drove.
Students were pouring out of buses. They carried backpacks and dragged swollen suitcases. And there were other sedans, black with the same kind of tinted windows as his BMW. They were mostly fathers, he knew. It was how he imagined everyone perceiving him and Hong Mei when they were together near campus. She still had her head leaned against the seat, and his fingers trailed down her back. He was pushing his fingertips in small revolutions, then opened his palm and rubbed. When she finally lifted her face, a red mark would be on her forehead from the seat.
At the hotel, his tires churned through slush that had accumulated on the asphalt. He felt his nostrils dilate and breathed harder. He was imagining the girl's body. He was imagining where he would put his mouth. It was something he had never done with his wife. It was an arranged marriage, he said to coworkers he drank and gambled with at mahjong tables, knowing that, though they would nod in agreement, they had their own "little thirds" they met on weekends or, for those who could afford it, they housed in apartments.
"We're here," he said.
She kept her face tilted down when she pulled from him (it was the sullen routine, which didn't matter: she was coming in). She threw open her door and closed it. He had to squint in the snow when he got out, and the flurry stung his eyes. It was soaking his head when he realized she wasn't following. She was back by the car, standing ankle-deep in snow. She had thrown her fists down, still twisting her mouth in that ugly way. She was glaring at him, and snow speckled her hair.
His foot slipped in slush when he rounded the BMW's fender. He fell sideways into the car bumper, and his pants snagged on an edge of metal around the headlight. The white skin of his thigh showed through a hole in his pant leg. They had cost him five hundred yuan.
This made her laugh.
"You think that's funny?"
He walked to her, and she was still making the face. He would have to be rough upstairs. She would pretend to resist, but in the end, it would be as it always was between them.
"I could have just left back there," she said. "Then you wouldn't have to worry about anybody seeing us."
"Then why didn't you?" He said it, and meant it, partly as a dare.
"I don't leave helpless people."
He laughed it off and wrapped his arm around her. "It's cold," he said.
As they trudged toward the door, he tucked his head down in case anyone was watching.
As Wang Mu had lamented to coworkers and associates rich enough to socially, if not legally, earn a mistress, the marriage to his wife had been arranged. His father worked for hers, at the business where Wang Mu had recently become local director. They were in the road-paving business, which entailed winning bids, hiring workers, and appeasing local ordinances. All this required money, which usually meant connections and incentives, and often bribes. Upon marriage, Wang Mu was given a job, and in return he gathered one hundred thousand yuan from close and distant family members and presented it in a decorative red bag (the color of man luck, which covered luck associated with money and life in general). He gave the money to his wife's father when, as prescribed, he'd come to take the man's daughter away on the morning of their wedding day.
His wife had been twenty-two then and had recently graduated from a third-tier public university in Anyang. He had just turned thirty and gone through the usual failures and small exhilarations of miserly saving and playing the stock market for some big pot of money throughout his twenties. Girls during those years had entered and fled his life in predictable arcs. In the beginning, they seemed to hunger the sending of text messages and late-night phone calls, and holding hands while walking through parks or malls. When he was lucky enough, he rented cheap hotel rooms and met them. Soon afterward, questions of marriage and his bank accounts arose, and Wang Mu knew the girl was scrutinizing him from the icy perspective of parents. True estimations of what he could offer showed that, in the end, he was broke and still had no stable job. The girl's father and mother would never allow them to be together. Sometimes, after a couple of months, he concocted preemptive excuses for why they had to split up, and he would refuse the girl's phone calls (his whole body feeling drained of energy, as if he were suffocating something inside himself) until the girl gave up.
Since they were nearly strangers, making love with his wife had started out careful and awkward. She concealed her body under blankets, and they never made eye contact. He didn't blame her. The lack of passion was at least half his fault, and he'd learned that those early patterns established in bed could not easily be changed. Because of only modest interest, ten to fifteen minutes in, it began to hurt her, so he had conditioned himself to finish early. Afterward, they dressed and retired to different areas of the apartment.
Through a connection her uncle and aunt had, his wife had gotten a job as a nurse's aid at a hospital. Soon, though, she ballooned up from pregnancy. When she reclined in the hospital bed for those days after giving birth to their daughter, a smell of peroxide and bandaging wafted off the blankets. Wang Mu held the child that first night, and he bent over, overwhelmed by the instinct stirred in him to protect, but also some fear propelled him back. He realized in a sort of panic the risk of resources and time, the gamble, of creating a child. Suddenly he felt like the relatively weak one.
In a photo in their living room, he held the newborn in his arms. His face, at least to him, looked glazed with the kind of sweat seen only on sick people. Maybe he was sick, because the smile in that photo, over the three years of marriage and multiple girls, no longer seemed convincing. He darted his eyes away from it whenever someone commented. He had searched the expressions of family members who visited the baby and studied that photo and was sure they knew he was insincere. Especially after what he had been doing, he imagined they were speculating when he might finally set up a house with a mistress or disappear entirely. His father-in-law had given him a job and money in return for his daughter, as well as for the socially implied assurance that, when the in-laws were old and could no longer work, Wang Mu would take care of them. The old man, when he visited now, confirmed what the family members really thought. He had once jerked his head in a nod when someone asked if he'd seen that photo of Wang Mu and the baby, then stared out a window.
Sometimes Wang Mu hammered his fist on his BMW steering wheel and wondered why he had to grow older. He wondered why a seemingly endless supply of eager girls had to wait by his car, or wait for him in the bathhouse, or flirt with him at the bank when they spotted his balance. He also wondered, after the first phase of blaming others had passed, at his desperate urge not to waste the attention.
Now, lying with Hong Mei in the hotel room bed, he stared up at the ceiling, where a water stain browned one corner. Soon he had to take her to her university. It was getting darker, and growing flurries blocked out sunlight. The roads would be choking up, and traffic would be slow. At least that would be an excuse when he got home late.
When he turned his head and leaned away, a motion she must've seen coming, she tightened her arm. She'd frozen her whole body into that position. Her head was leaning against his shoulder. She had her eyes closed, and her tousled hair fell in erratic bands over her face.
"I told my mother about you," Hong Mei said, as if talking in her sleep.
"What?" He sat up in the bed. "Why would you do that?"
She lifted herself on one elbow. "I didn't tell her you were married."
He didn't sense a tone of blame in those last words, but still he wanted to end this conversation, to create distance between himself and this moment.
"Don't you want to know what she said?"
"She didn't say no. She said that it's best to be cautious and to think about it clearly." While she spoke, her black hair fell in bands down her shoulders and breasts. She touched his chest with her fingertips and lightly scratched small circles.
"Your father will say no."
Hong Mei twisted up her mouth in an anguished smile. "Don't you even want to try?"
For a moment, he imagined replacing his wife with Hong Mei. The prospect of family fallout and the lost job and ruin rushed over him.
"I know what that silence means," she said.
"We have to go."
"You have to go," she said. "Not me. Because I won't."
She didn't speak (and wouldn't, he knew, the entire drive back to the school) when she disengaged from him. She scooted from the bed and gathered her clothes. His cell phone was among them, still powered off. He noticed but had never worried that Hong Mei might use it to call his wife. His wife already knew. How couldn't she? It was just that some things were supposed to be denied.
The gray sky had deepened to black, and wet flakes clung to the windshield.
Hong Mei would be in her dorm by now. Maybe she had eaten dinner with her roommates. He held his phone in his hand, then thumbed the power button. Several messages were waiting. They were all from his wife. She had tried calling eleven times. Even his mother-in-law's number showed up. Where was he? His other hand gripped the smooth finger grooves of the wooden steering wheel. The car's tires splashed through accumulated snow on the highway, and the only light came from his headlights. Trees on both sides shivered with naked branches.
These road conditions, as hazardous as they were, would not come to mind when, for years afterward, he recalled the accident. His serious thought of divorcing his wife, and leaving their two-year-old daughter, would always be the cause for the man's death.
The man had been walking along the freeway berm. He had been pulling a rope knotted around a donkey's neck. Snow flurries had been blowing when the front end of the BMW clipped him. Wang Mu's entire body tensed up around the wheel. When he shot his eyes down at the speedometer (a detail he'd never forget), the impact had slowed him almost exactly ten kilometers per hour.
He hit the brakes and slid to a stop.
"No," he said.
In the rearview, sleet slanted in the red glow of taillights. Farther back, nothing else was moving. No headlights from other cars. Nothing. An alarm inside him screamed that he had to get out of here, but something was moving.
The car's brake lights gleamed in the eyeballs of the donkey. It trotted right toward the car, eyes wide and mouth open, into the cloud of exhaust from the tailpipes. Maybe the car's lights had blinded the animal, or maybe it had always been blind. It collided with the rear bumper. The car jolted with the impact. The animal slipped on the asphalt, then stumbled down the slope on the side of the highway. It became a shadow in the roadside area of grass and mud. Beyond that was a fence that separated the highway from a field of saplings.
A car approaching from behind him slowed. It was a black sedan, a Nissan. The driver tapped the brakes but kept going, and Wang Mu knew why. People got sued by victims, or charged by police, for stopping. Why else would people be at the scene if they hadn't caused the accident? Vaguely Wang Mu recalled the incident of an infant being run over by a van outside a mall. The driver had kept going, knowing that if the child died, he would pay a fine and a burial fee, but that if the child lived, it could mean years of hospital costs and pricey operations.
Wang Mu couldn't be sure why he did it, and he would never admit it to fellow coworkers he gambled and drank with—even years after the fine and perfunctory trial for vehicular manslaughter, even after the talk with his father-in-law when he inferred a death threat if he continued with the mistress. Wang Mu put the car into park and turned off the engine. He flipped on his phone and pushed the three digits for the emergency number.
When he opened the car door after calling for an ambulance, cold air made him cough. Snowy sleet stung his face and settled on his eyelashes. He tightened his jacket around his throat as another vehicle, this time a truck weighed down with some load beneath a tarp, swerved left of the center line. Slush off the truck's wheels showered his legs.
Down that slope of ground, the donkey was still standing. Its ears swiveled. It was a soundless gray outline bending its upper body back toward the point of collision, back toward the man behind Wang Mu's car who had crumpled onto his side. The man's mouth was open. His eyes squinted shut at the glowing taillights.
"Don't kill me," the man said. An oval pool had leaked around his leg.
"I don't want money."
Wang Mu stood over the man and faced back down the highway. He searched for the tracks of his BMW, which crisscrossed with others.
The man was shivering. His coat was open, so Wang Mu crouched down to pull it closed around his throat. Afterward, on impulse, he reached for his cigarettes and offered one. The man didn't notice or move. Wang Mu cupped the flame from his lighter and the tip of his cigarette, and he smoked, himself shivering. He took deep drags until he realized an inch of smoldering ash dangled from the end. The heat momentarily singed his forehead.
Far down the highway, past zigzagging flakes, ambulance and police lights flickered.
"You still there?" he said.
When the man didn't answer, Wang Mu stood and raised his arms.
Title graphic: "Frenzied Drive" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.