Phoenix couldn’t figure out why Jake refused to eat her hometown stinky tofu. After all, she had gone out of her way to try his moldy, milky and chunky blue cheese.
“They from one house,” Phoenix put it into their fridge, “All smelly, all blue.”
Jake said NO again in the living room and insisted she take it out. “It’ll stink up everything.”
“Then where I put?” Phoenix said and rested the tofu inside, making sure Jake heard the fridge door shut.
A year ago, Jake had proposed to Phoenix on her twenty-fifth birthday with a two karat diamond ring from Chow Tai Fook, the best jewelry shop in Pulandian, a town on the outskirts of Dalian. All her “sisters” including the lady owner of the Happy Feet massage parlor turned green with envy yet were suspicious. Why would Jake, a fat and limp foreign man ask a young Chinese massage girl twenty years younger to marry him? And, why would she agree to marry a guy like him?
Jake was not the only white guest the massage parlor had served in recent years. Multinational companies had gradually populated the area, building factories and creating new businesses like theirs. Villas were built overnight. Bars and western restaurants burgeoned like mushrooms after a rain. But he was among the few who visited regularly—like it was his ritual every week to have his body pressed and rubbed.
After trying foot massages by several different masseuses in the house, Jake was sold on Phoenix after their first session.
She talked only with her fingers, which tapped on his feet with the right amount of force. Her sensitive digits knew when to stop and go gentler, and when to be aggressive but not hurt. Jake saw a slim figure with a studious face in the dim light, half of which was shadowed by her loose and flowing hair. He was surprised that, unlike the other masseuses, she had shared no chatter with him: How much money do you make? Are you looking for nighttime fun with Chinese girls? Bad luck to massage such huge feet with a fixed fee.
Phoenix was calm and soothing, enabling him to feel the same way.
After his promotion, Jake requested a whole body with Phoenix. His massage buddies from work had told him that a full body massage would be moved to a private room upstairs. Phoenix led him there. Okay. Kamoo, she said with the few English words she knew.
He glanced at her while she was setting up the bed. She was about his shoulder height, tall by Chinese standards. When she subconsciously put her free hair behind her ear, he saw the side of her face he had not seen clearly downstairs, displaying a two inch scar. Jake wanted to know what had happened, but instead he asked, Where are you from?
Phoenix looked up, shyly smiled and shook her head. Then he switched to his humble Chinese. Ni Duo Da? He felt awkward asking a young girl’s age, but he had been told in his cultural training class that it was ok to do so just to break the ice.
As if she were listening to an alien, Phoenix shook her head again and pointed him toward the bed: Time to lie down and be worked on.
Jake practiced more on his Chinese pronunciation after that day, while Phoenix surprised him from time to time with more English words. The two steadily communicated during their sessions with scraps of what they could pull together - syllables that were missing and body language that helped to express meaning.
Jake showed her his children’s photos, explaining that he was divorced. His kids were now grown and living on their own. He said he was from a ranch in Texas where he rode horses in his younger years. He shared his photo in cowboy gear sitting on a handsome white horse, taken before he injured his hip.
On a Moon Festival night, Phoenix told him her story. She had met a man from Shandong and married him against her parents’ will. She followed him to their promised sweet homeland in Qingdao where he carved her face with his knife one night after brutally raping her. He believed she was flirting with a man in the neighborhood. She escaped to her home in Pulandian only to find that her parents had stopped farming on the plot of land that was now a half-completed high rise. They had fallen ill during the fight to save the land into which they had poured their energy for so long.
Fāt -ah, she said, Werry empautunt. Phoenix sighed towards the sky as if she picked up the stark contrast of the emptiness she felt and the fullness of the moon. Jake asked her out that night. The two lonely souls talked and walked until mouths were parched and feet were scorched. They had to stop, rejuvenated from each other’s warmth and strength.
But Phoenix said NO when Jake proposed. We like. It not love.
Put this on, Jake said holding the ring, till it’s love.
After they argued about her chou tofu and his blue cheese, Phoenix bought another of her blue food favorites - century eggs, as if to fight this stinky war to its smelly end. In front of Jake, she undressed one egg coated with clay and rice hulls. Little by little the naked egg emerged to the surface, grey dotted with dark blue spots. Inside, the egg white was dark brown marked with crystal patterns. She carefully placed the fragile egg on a white porcelain plate, using a sewing thread held tightly in her hands to cut it into halves. The egg opened. On sight of the bluish sticky liquid inside the dark navy egg yolk, Jake groaned and walked away as if an emergency called him. After he had completely left the kitchen, he declared to the heavens, YOU WON, MY DEAR!
Phoenix did not respond or make a sound. When Jake returned to the kitchen, she had already been inundated with silent tears. She fought against his hug, HOW TWO PEOPLE GOOD IF THEY NOT SHARE FOOD?
Jake took a walk that day, thinking and looking for a solution. He entered an electrical shop to seek two small iceboxes that could embrace their smelly treasures, separately.