BILLY LOOKED AROUND the carriage and surprised himself with the realisation that despite feeling nothing, he was actually floating. He couldn’t articulate, even to himself, why he was in Shanghai, so he tried not to think about it. It was pointless to catch the maglev train from the airport, and Qiang, in one of his many brief emails, had called Billy ‘decadent’ for even considering it. This was quickly followed up with a text message: My silly boy. Billy hadn’t replied, unsure what he should do with those sweetly possessive words, so characteristic of Qiang and so confusing given everything that had passed between them. He sat back and looked out across the station hall; a bleak grey light filtered through the glass roof and onto the platform. A European couple boarded the train and sat across from him, nodding hello and looking around the carriage with excitement. Billy closed his eyes and started to bite at the skin on his left thumb. My silly boy. In the past he’d liked it when Qiang spoke to him in that way but that was, what, four years ago now? A blurred haze obscured everything that had happened since then, and now, somehow, he found himself on foreign soil for the first time.
The train began to move. A digital display at the front of the carriage indicated the train’s speed. Billy felt a tingling in his shoulder as he thought about what the next few days might bring. His stomach danced at the thought of seeing Qiang.
At ten years old, Billy had been fascinated by the floating magnets on display in Brisbane’s Sciencentre. They were doughnut-shaped and placed on a central pole to prevent them from flying away from each other. North poles faced north poles and south faced south, and so they hovered there, suspended in some kind of magical impossibility. He daydreamed about the magnets for days afterwards, thinking that their properties could be harnessed to make flying cars or hoverboards, things promised in cartoons and movies but never delivered in his mundane suburban reality. Later in life, when he heard that it had actually happened, that there was a maglev train in Shanghai, he’d felt a sense of pride, almost as if he’d invented it himself. He’d been unable to resist the idea of a ride on the maglev, now that he was visiting Shanghai. This homage to a childhood that he’d largely forgotten seemed appropriate after travelling across the world to confront his more recent past, one that he’d also been trying to forget: Qiang.
Billy rested his head against the back of his seat, and felt the train accelerate. The numbers on the digital display indicated 230 kilometres per hour, and still rising. Qiang had offered to send his dad’s driver, but Billy declined, intending to keep a polite distance. He wondered, though, if such a distance would be possible to maintain. He’d never been overseas, and was nervous about overcoming the language barrier. Shanghai had long been China’s most cosmopolitan and international city, and had advanced rapidly in the past decade, but could he really make his way around without help?
A titter of excitement rolled through the carriage as the display ticked over to 430 kilometres per hour, and Billy looked up with surprise. He’d barely noticed the speed increase, and the train seemed eerily quiet as it rushed smoothly along the tracks. The thirty-kilometre journey would not last long. His phone lit up as a barrage of text messages arrived all at once – friends asking if he would be okay. Would he? Yeah. But… his thoughts trailed off. The train was on a banked track, curving gradually through the outer Shanghai landscape, sparse and green, but not at all like the sticky, lush green of Brisbane, the small city in which every street, every shop, every corner held a tapestry of memories, layered in place from too many years living there. He shook his head and stared vacantly out the window. As the train came to a complete stop, he noticed the changed scenery: row upon row of dense apartment buildings, cut through by more elevated expressways, all snarling with traffic. He disembarked, ready to let the pulse of the city clear his mind.
BILLY CHOSE TO walk the streets to get his bearings before checking into the hotel. He worried that hopping straight from flight to train to hotel would have left him feeling out of place, disconnected – alone in his room and unwilling or scared to go out again. He’d changed to Metro Line 2 from the maglev and headed in the wrong direction for a while, back towards the airport, before realising his mistake. Anxiety rose as people pushed past him, and again he felt the tingling in his shoulder that crept up on him sometimes, before he slowed down his breathing and regained control. He allowed himself to be swept from the carriage at the next stop and changed platforms so he could head back the other way. Billy touched the phone in his pocket and considered making the call, asking Qiang for help, just a chance to hear his voice. A phone conversation from the same city would feel closer, warmer somehow than the few international calls he’d made in advance of this trip. But no. Billy battled the crowds to head back the right way to change to another line.
Eventually he found himself close to the hotel, but not yet willing to go inside. And so he walked. He put headphones in and walked in pace to the music, feeling part of the street without having to directly engage with it. The buildings around him were old, blackened by age and pollution, and of varying heights. He passed fruit shops, grocery stores, restaurants, apartment buildings. The traffic flew madly around him, horns blaring, drivers yelling. Buses creaked their way in and out of the traffic as they stopped to let people off and on. Eventually he came to a food stall, really just a few tables on the footpath, selling home-cooked food alongside some small pre-packaged items. He spotted a shiny metallic bowl on the table; it was filled with tea eggs.
They used to make tea eggs together, in Brisbane, when Qiang lived with him for those sweet, short months. Billy’s apartment stood on the bank of the murky Brisbane River, where the jacarandas bloomed each year and the poincianas flared bright red as summer raged. Brisbane and Shanghai were linked: such different cities, and yet both cut through the middle by their own turgid brown rivers. Back then, Qiang held Billy tightly and called him a good boy. Billy mixed the tea, spice mix, star anise and soy sauce, and placed the eggs in a saucepan over the heat. When the eggs were half-done, he would smash the shells with a spoon, allowing the rich liquid to seep into the gaps, painting brown marbling patterns onto the cooked egg white beneath.
As the lady at the food stall spoke to him, Billy shook off his memories. With an awkward combination of pointing and holding up fingers, he managed to buy two tea eggs. He remembered the words: chá yè dàn. ‘Cha’ for tea, ‘dan’ for eggs. Dan-dan for testicles, Qiang used to remind him with a laugh, sometimes grabbing Billy’s hand and forcing it playfully towards his crotch. Although he could recall the words, his mouth remained fixed in silence, unwilling to attempt speaking them.
‘Xiè xie,’ Billy managed, feeling a blush rise to his cheeks. The vendor nodded and returned his thanks in English: ‘Bye bye!’
Friends had warned him against coming to Shanghai, especially for Qiang, and most especially for his wedding. Billy hadn’t known what to say, and it was already too late: he’d booked his ticket immediately, without hesitation. He couldn’t deny Qiang’s request.
The tea eggs were warm and delicious. He threw away the shells, wiped his hands on a paper towel, and continued to walk. He needed a drink.
IT WAS A commanding knock that woke Billy. The room was dim, but his head throbbed as he opened his eyes. His mouth was dry and stale. Did he really recognise the sound of Qiang’s knock, still tinged with authority, after four years?
He moved quickly to hide the bottle of gin. His thoughts were a dull fuzz. The room was cold. The whir of the air-conditioner brought him back into the present, and details returned: bottle shop, hotel, bed. Drink. The alarm clock showed 6.43 pm. Part of him wanted to ignore the knocking, let Qiang leave of his own accord. Billy could sleep the night away in the comfortably unfamiliar bed; he didn’t want to go outside again. Another part of him wanted to open the door and ask Qiang, Why? But he knew already: Qiang was marrying due to pressure from his family.
The knocking continued and Billy couldn’t ignore it.
Billy had read stories of sham marriages in China between a gay man – tóngzhì (‘comrade’) – and a lesbian. It worked out well if their families were in remote towns, requiring just a few visits a year. The rest of the time they could be with their same-sex partners. Yet somehow Billy knew, without having asked the question, that Qiang’s fiancée, Lily, would be heterosexual, a Shanghai native, and genuinely in love with him. Qiang wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a tóngqī – a comrade’s wife. Billy wondered how much she knew about Qiang’s past.
His thoughts blurred, somewhere between regret at coming to Shanghai and anticipation of what might come next. He shook off his alcoholic shroud, gulped down some water, took a deep breath and opened the door.
THE TRAIN SWAYED drunkenly over its narrow-gauge tracks as it lurched from Brisbane’s Roma Street station towards Milton, taking respite from the blazing afternoon sun in the shadows of the Castlemaine brewery. The train stopped, and Billy stepped onto the platform, struck by the smell of hops and grain that hung over the area on hot days. A storm was brewing along with the beer, and dark clouds loomed in the distance as Billy walked down the quiet street towards his small rental apartment. The sun wouldn’t be out for much longer with those clouds rolling in, and he was anticipating a break in the humidity.
Billy lived alone, having grown tired of the various flatmates he’d shared with since leaving home and starting full-time work after graduation. He felt like a 24-year-old nobody, pushing papers half-heartedly for a legal firm in the city, trying to make something of his law degree without actually having to practice law – a prospect that terrified him.
His usual weeknight routine involved a simple dinner for one, a few beers and an endless parade of online dating profiles. Some years ago, he’d begun dating Asian men, and this had somehow evolved into a preference. Was that a form of racism, or did it depend on how he treated the guys he met? Billy had no answers. In a town like Brisbane, his online searches mostly led to international students: fresh faces each semester, and the inconstancy that came along with them. Sometimes, Billy wondered why he set himself up for such failures – and yet he’d never been inclined to stop.
The previous night, a new message had arrived that got his attention: twenty-three years old; Chinese: 179 cm; studying at the university nearby. Sexual position: dominant top.
‘Got Skype? We can chat more there.’
‘Sure cutie, it’s zqfun 20 cm. You can call me Andrew,’ came the reply.
Andrew’s profile photo was indistinct, nothing identifiable, but this hadn’t bothered Billy. After half an hour of chatting, they agreed to meet the next evening at Milton.
Now, standing in the sticky evening outside a café, he felt nervous. He liked being early, yet felt uncomfortable waiting. He didn’t need to wait long.
Andrew seemed serious. He questioned Billy about his life and work, and family. They soon discarded the idea of coffee and started walking downhill towards Billy’s apartment, under the cover of the flowering purple jacaranda trees that scented the air around them. After the first few minutes of polite but stilted conversation, the tone changed, and Andrew’s mood lightened. He had decided, it seemed, that Billy was alright. It seemed important to him.
‘You’re a good guy, I can tell it,’ Andrew spoke in a light Chinese accent.
‘Thanks,’ Billy said, laughing, enchanted by Andrew’s curious way with words, finding him somehow serious and fun at the same time.
Inside Billy’s apartment, they sat on the floor and turned on the TV. Andrew kept talking, and their hands slowly crept together. The room went quiet as they pretended to watch, and it took only a minute or so of hand holding before Andrew pushed Billy’s head down towards his crotch.
‘Billy. Suck me,’ he ordered.
He removed his shirt. He was lean but toned, stronger than Billy. All Billy wanted to do was whatever Andrew wanted him to do.
‘Take off your clothes.’
Before long, Andrew was on top of Billy, squashing him down and dripping sweat onto his face. Their sweat mingled in the sticky summer air, and the evaporation cooled their skin, but not the atmosphere around them. Andrew bit Billy’s ear and told him he was so tight. Andrew changed positions often, so they moved around, arms and legs tangled, and Billy winced each time before sinking back into pleasure. They kissed slowly while Andrew caressed Billy’s nipples, and Billy begged him to keep going.
‘I need you,’ he said.
‘Yeah, you need this?’
Andrew rolled Billy onto his stomach again, roughly yanking his right arm in order to pull him closer.
‘Aaaarrggh!’ screamed Billy. ‘No, stop! You’ve hurt my arm. Stop!’
Billy scrambled to his feet, walking around the room, his arm bent to the side at an unnatural angle. His upper arm was locked close to his chest, with his lower arm stuck out sideways. He tried moving his arm but it was fixed in place, completely locked. The pain was continuous, but it grew in intensity each time he tried to move it back towards its natural position.
‘Sorry! What did I do? What happened?’ Andrew’s face was pale.
Billy continued to pace around the room, gaining speed to take his mind from the pain, unable to stand still, his eyes wide with disbelief.
‘I think it’s dislocated! It’s okay. Oh fuck it hurts. I’m sorry. I’ll be fine. But it hurts so bad. Fuck!’
Billy ran back to the living room, wanting to be alone, his face flushing at the thought of Andrew seeing him like this, naked, broken and in tears.
Minutes passed and Billy continued pacing around the room, wondering if he needed to get to a doctor. How would he even get dressed with his arm dangling like this? Needing some time alone, he shut the door on Andrew, asking him to stay in the bedroom. Eventually a vague feeling stirred in his arm, hinting that it might possibly be about to shift back into place of its own accord. He waited as the feeling grew stronger, and he could sense it gaining some kind of momentum.
Billy cried out, causing Andrew to come rushing out of the bedroom, pale and concerned. With a life of its own, Billy’s arm began to shift before it finally snapped back into place.
Billy returned to the bedroom, avoiding Andrew’s gaze.
Andrew followed. ‘Are you okay? I’m so sorry. Can we start again?’
Billy said nothing, not wanting to displease him.
‘I’ll be gentle this time. I’m so sorry. But I’m still hard…’
So they started again. And this time he was gentler.
THEY SPENT THE evening together, making dumplings at the tiny dining table. Andrew taught him to make the dough from scratch, mixing flour and water and leaving it to rest, then rolling small pieces into flat discs with a rolling pin. Andrew was much faster at assembling the dumplings than Billy, his fingers manipulating the dough and pork mince filling with practised expertise. He tried to help Billy to improve his technique, but with limited success. They drank beer as the sun set, and the bottles sweated in the evening’s heat. They boiled the dumplings and ate them in silence, dipping them into a small black pool of Chinkiang vinegar, with slivers of garlic floating about the surface.
After dinner, at the door as Andrew went to leave, he kissed Billy. Hard. It was almost like a bite.
Billy shut the door and prepared for bed. He texted: Goodnight Andrew, nice to meet you today. Let me know if we can meet this weekend. Have a good week at uni!
The reply came quickly: Let’s meet soon. By the way, my name isn’t Andrew, I just use that on the gay sites. Call me Qiang.
‘Qiang,’ said Billy quietly. Chee-ang. He liked the sound of the name. ‘Qiang,’ he said again, allowing sleep to cover him, dreaming for the very first time of Qiang’s heartbeat and those slow, measured breaths, a warm ocean of sound in which he could lose himself.
‘Billy,’ breathed Qiang as the hotel door slowly opened, ‘you’re really here!’
‘Of course I am.’
Qiang smiled and put his arms out for a hug, which Billy gladly returned.
‘I missed you. Have you eaten?’
Billy smiled back. ‘No, I had some drinks, and a nap.’
‘You drink a lot these days?’ asked Qiang. ‘But you’ve lost weight, you need to eat more. I’ve planned to meet Lily for dinner, let’s go.’
‘You go, you don’t need me there.’
‘She wants to meet you! It’s all planned. You came to spend time with us, right? We’ll catch a taxi and go have xiaˇo lóng ba¯o.’
‘I’m tired. You go meet Lily, it’s fine.’
‘Come on! You came all this way, I’m so happy to see you. I missed you; you know that. Did you miss me? Let’s go.’
Billy started to get dressed, feeling Qiang’s eyes on him.
‘You’re still cute, Billy,’ said Qiang.
Billy’s ears burned.
‘Okay, I’m ready. I’m just nervous. I’m not good at meeting new people.’
Qiang phoned Lily, speaking in Chinese, arranging their dinner plans. Billy tried unsuccessfully to catch some of their words, unable to parse the thick Shanghainese accent. Qiang ended the call.
‘Does Lily speak English?’ asked Billy.
‘She does, but not well. She hasn’t studied abroad. It’s okay, she’s very nice and you’ll be able to talk a bit.’
‘Does she…?’ Billy looked Qiang in the eye, but couldn’t finish the sentence.
‘Of course not. She doesn’t know. You know I can’t tell her.’
Billy’s gaze fell towards the floor.
‘Don’t be like that, dear. Come on, let’s have a good time. We’ll have the best dumplings in Shanghai!’ said Qiang.
It sounded like the word ‘dear’ came naturally, as it always had between them, but it still surprised Billy to hear it again.
Qiang reached out his arms, wrapped them around Billy and held him tight for a moment before suddenly letting go, as if he’d realised his mistake. But Billy returned the embrace, tightly, unwilling to let it end. Billy’s arms began to tremble at the strain. He felt Qiang hard against him as their bodies clung together for the first time in years. They had been together in Brisbane and now they were together in Shanghai, something they had both dreamed and spoken of so many times. Qiang, always the stronger of the two, pulled away.
‘I don’t want to. Stay here with me.’
‘Come on. I’m so happy to see you here. I wanted you to visit so many times, and you never came, but now, before I get married, let’s have a fun time. Life will change, but I want you to celebrate it with me. You will like her.’
‘Have you dated many guys?’ said Qiang.
‘On and off,’ Billy said.
Qiang nodded. Billy thought he sensed a slight pang of jealousy behind Qiang’s expression, but he couldn’t be sure.
‘You’re a good guy, Billy. You’ll be happy, I know it. I’m so glad you came to Shanghai. Let’s go.’
THE STREET WAS bustling and Billy felt out of place amid the noise, the people, the traffic, the unfamiliar sights and smells. The air was thick and warm, and he felt a renewed urge to head back into the hotel and drink himself to sleep. Or, maybe, to fall asleep in Qiang’s arms. He looked around guiltily as Qiang hailed a taxi. He had no choice but to get in. Soon they were a part of the city’s manic flow, swerving from lane to lane in whichever way the driver’s impatience dictated.
Apart from what Qiang had told him in their brief online chats and phone calls, Billy knew very little about Lily. He’d seen a photo; she had the palest white skin, a cherubic face with a sweet smile, and jet-black hair down to her shoulders. In the photo, Qiang had one hand on each of her shoulders, and stood about ten centimetres taller.
As the taxi spun around another corner, Billy took the chance to study Qiang more closely. His hair was ultra-short, as it had been back in Brisbane; he had barely changed. His eyebrows were almost triangular, with a sharp kick at the top, as if he was constantly looking at the world with a questioning irony. His skin was not pale like Lily’s, but neither was it tanned brown as it had been under Brisbane’s relentless sunshine.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Billy, completely lost, but not really caring. It was comforting to finally have no idea where he was after all those years in Brisbane, where familiarity closed in around him from all directions, crushing him with memories no matter which part of the city he found himself in. It was also, he was reluctant to admit, comforting to be entirely in Qiang’s hands.
‘It’s near Yu Garden. Not far from the river. You might have heard of it, a big tourist area with ancient gardens and buildings, and famous tea houses. But we’ll go to a smaller dumpling place for locals.’ He paused. ‘Do you still make dumplings sometimes?’
‘Yes,’ said Billy, smiling. ‘Almost every Sunday; I still use the saucepan and plate that you left behind.’
Qiang looked surprised.
‘But I can’t make the xiaˇo lóng ba¯o, with the soup inside. I make the ones you taught me.’
‘I make the northern-style ones. My grandparents came from there.’
‘You think I don’t remember?’
‘Are you going to visit any gay bars while you’re here?’
‘No,’ replied Billy. ‘It’s not my thing, you know that.’ He wondered whether Qiang was really straight now – had he settled on girls, or was it all for show, a means of settling down and placating his family and friends? Had he been bisexual all along?
‘We’re here,’ Qiang said, paying the taxi driver with a selection of paper notes. ‘I told Lily we were classmates, alright?’
Billy wanted to run, find his way back to the hotel, and hide from it all. Classmates? That wasn’t even remotely true. He left the taxi, silent, furious, wishing for an escape. Qiang had waited until the last moment to spring this trap. Bastard.
‘YOU WERE…CLASSMATES?’ Lily asked haltingly, searching for the English word.
‘Yes,’ replied Qiang quickly, although she had been addressing Billy.
Billy nodded, taking a sip of tea and another dumpling.
‘I would like to visit Brisbane someday,’ she said, also taking a sip of tea.
‘Lily, I don’t think you’d like it. Maybe someday,’ Qiang broke in.
The restaurant was smart and nicely fitted out, but not large. In one corner, staff prepared the dumplings behind a pane of glass, masks over their faces.
‘How did you meet?’ asked Billy.
‘Through work,’ said Qiang. ‘Not for the same company – Lily works for a magazine and I was arranging to buy some advertising space. We dated for…’
‘Three months,’ said Lily.
‘Right, three months, and then I proposed, and we spoke to our parents, and that’s it! So easy.’
Billy tried to smile. ‘Easy?’ he said.
Qiang and Lily both nodded. Qiang grinned. ‘Let’s order some beer!’
‘DO YOU SLEEP with her?’ Billy asked later, emboldened by alcohol and emotion. They’d found a taxi home for Lily and were taking their own taxi to the Bund to walk by the water.
‘Of course,’ replied Qiang, looking Billy in the eye. ‘Well, sometimes.’
Silence shrouded them as the taxi drove them back across the city towards the Huangpu River. Billy moved closer to Qiang, touching his hand, but Qiang’s hand retreated slightly.
‘Do you know why I came to Shanghai?’ said Billy. ‘For your wedding?’
‘Because I asked you to.’
Billy looked ahead as the taxi rushed through the dark streets. And nodded. He couldn’t deny the beautiful and truthful simplicity of that answer.
‘And why did you ask me?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Qiang replied, reaching out to touch Billy’s leg.
Patronising bastard. Yet Billy couldn’t keep denying it, especially to himself – he was still in love with Qiang, the guy who would ruin Lily’s life for the sake of appearances.
‘Qiang?’ Billy asked.
‘Wǒ ài nǐ. Wǒ xiǎng nǐ.’ I love you. I miss you. Qiang had taught Billy these words, and although his accent was terrible, he could not forget them.
‘Billy!’ Qiang replied, looking nervously at the taxi driver, knowing he would understand the words if he was listening.
‘I do,’ replied Billy, touching Qiang’s hand again. ‘And I have missed you, for a long time. Look, I know you’ll get married. I know you won’t come back to Brisbane. But I can’t lie about this anymore. I miss you, all the time. Every morning when I wake up, every night when I go to bed.’
‘I miss you too, Billy, but it’s the past, right? Come on, we’re here, let’s take a walk.’ Qiang paid for the cab.
Billy had seen photos of the Shanghai skyline from a few years earlier, and while the Bund itself looked the same, the scale of the buildings in the Pudong area had increased dramatically. Where previously the Oriental Pearl TV and Radio Tower had stood above the city, almost in isolation, a number of other ultra-modern buildings now peppered the area.
‘You won’t hurt her, will you?’ Billy asked, suddenly feeling for Lily and her situation, the one she didn’t realise she was getting into.
‘Lily? Of course not. She’ll be my wife. Billy, you don’t understand at all. Why would you even ask that? I will treat her very well. It’s my duty.’
Upstream, the river was lined with large billboards, advertisements in Chinese, so many things that Billy could not understand. He’d been stupid to come here for this handsome pig. A lost memory surfaced, bringing an unwilling smile to his lips.
‘Zhū tóu,’ Billy murmured, poking Qiang in the stomach.
Qiang laughed, grabbing Billy’s arm and twisting it lightly. ‘Pig head? It’s a long time since you called me that.’
They walked along the Bund, dodging tourists and locals alike, all of them admiring the spectacular view. Behind them were the colonial waterfront buildings, still a part of Shanghai but overshadowed by the progress that loomed around them.
‘We lived together for only ten months, right?’ Qiang asked, pausing in his stride and resting his arm on Billy’s shoulder. A cool breeze tickled their faces.
Billy felt tired; he wanted the coloured lights around him to fade to nothing. Ten months overlooking the Brisbane River each morning at breakfast, ten months waking up to each other’s morning breath.
‘Best time of my life,’ said Qiang. ‘Really. I love you too, Billy. And I miss you. Let’s head back, I’ll stay with you tonight.’
Qiang’s eyes were a dark, dark brown, almost black – the same as his hair. His pointed eyebrows were raised, as if challenging Billy to say no, even though he hadn’t framed it as a question.
They walked back slowly, sharing the silence as if it were the only thing connecting them, something to cling to. Billy didn’t feel like a good boy. He could see Lily’s sweet, welcoming smile and her pure pale Shanghai skin. He tried to put her out of his mind as he walked alongside Qiang, feeling warm, and glad that they were going to spend a night together after so long. He would try to remember every detail.
THE CITYCAT GLIDED into the terminal at the University of Queensland and Qiang boarded, happy to see the families with prams and small children who were enjoying the ferry ride from the city out to the university and back again. The river was brown, a swirling mud pool, but this was such a clean city. Large eucalyptus trees held the riverbank together and rustled musically in the breeze against the backdrop of a bright blue sky, which broke into orange hues as the sun began to set over the campus’s sandstone buildings. He thought of Shanghai, its days of grey skies and poor visibility, how he sometimes couldn’t even see the tops of the tall new buildings in the hazy air.
When Qiang first arrived in Brisbane, he’d found the quiet Brisbane nights unnerving. When he walked home from dinners with his friends, the streets were often empty. He wondered why the locals chose to stay at home so often.
He saw no future here. Back home, with connections, he could land a high-level job on the back of his overseas study and English skills. Here there seemed to be no chance. He’d heard that many bosses would see a Chinese name on a job application and not even bother offering an interview. And besides, he’d promised his mother.
Still. A life in this smaller, simpler, blue-green paradise was tempting to him. A city, yes, but on a quieter scale: easier to relax and be himself. Weekends at the beach, or walking in hinterland rainforests. He thought about Billy: cute, quiet and polite. And so willing in bed. Qiang watched as the CityCat passed the squat lone tower of Toowong Village and pulled into the Regatta terminal. He could imagine their life: cooking together, watching movies, going out for dinner. But could a relationship last in such a way without a family to bind it together?
Qiang shook his head. They’d only met two weeks ago, but he felt their connection turning to love with a sense of both hope and alarm. He could never stay in Brisbane. His parents had sacrificed so much to save the money so that he could study overseas. He would have to return, work hard, look after them. And find a girl, although he would try to delay that for as long as he could. Part of him felt that he should let Billy go now, before things became too dangerous between them, but he had decided to simply let things happen and enjoy the moment.
‘Qiang!’ He heard his name called as a stream of new passengers got onto the ferry, passing by his seat.
‘Hi, Joe. Sit here with me. How are you?’ said Qiang.
‘Bù hăo,’ replied Joe, before correcting himself: ‘Not good.’ They had been trying to speak more English.
‘Group assignments! Doesn’t matter. Where are you going?’
‘New Farm. Meeting friends for dinner. Actually – an Aussie friend.’
‘Can I come?’
Qiang felt trapped. It seemed too risky to allow Joe and Billy to meet. He found it hard to admit his same-sex attraction to himself, let alone his friends.
‘Sorry, Joe, not this time.’
The CityCat passed beneath the Riverside Expressway, a pale imitation of Shanghai’s elevated highways, before reaching the wharf at North Quay. Joe looked hurt as he left the ferry, and Qiang wondered whether he was suspicious. He closed his eyes and asked how such a simple thing as his feelings for Billy could be made so difficult.
BILLY AND QIANG squeezed up the narrow staircase and into the second-floor club in Fortitude Valley. The night was hot, but there were few patrons and the air-conditioning cooled the space. They walked towards the bar and Qiang stood there, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot as they waited for service. He looked askance as a drag queen passed by, caked in make-up and walking gracefully in high heels across the dancefloor towards the stage. Billy smiled. They sipped from their drinks, looking around as more people entered the club.
‘Hey, Billy?’ Qiang asked as a song started to fade out.
Billy smirked. ‘What’s up?’
‘If we meet my friends sometime, you’ll act straight, right?’
‘Sure. If you think I can,’ he said. ‘Speaking of friends, I know those guys.’ He pointed towards the edge of the dancefloor where a group of five guys had gathered. He walked over, leaving Qiang behind. As the lights dimmed further, the music’s volume increased, as if the two were inversely linked. The Saturday night crowd was much thicker now, and the room was warm and stuffy.
When Billy came back, Qiang, struggling to be heard over the music, said: ‘You like this place?’
‘Not really,’ Billy replied.
‘I think you do. And those guys you went to speak to – why are most of them Asian?’
‘Qiang, I’m sorry–’
‘Why would you take me here?’
Qiang walked out, but Billy didn’t follow. He stood, confused, angry, unsure what to think. He downed his drink and walked away. He went to the bathroom and stood there at the trough, with guys on either side of him, unable to pee.
A LOUD KNOCK roused Billy from the couch. He was expecting Qiang, and was nervous. Three months since parting at the nightclub, they hadn’t spoken until they noticed each other on the bus one afternoon. Qiang had been with friends, and Billy kept his distance, but when he left the bus, Qiang followed, alone. They’d quickly made plans to meet again.
Billy had moved from Milton to St Lucia, proud to have bought his own place and now excited to show Qiang. He opened the door.
‘Nice to see you again,’ Qiang said. ‘Sorry–’
‘It’s been so long? Me too. I thought you–’
Qiang wore a close-fitting grey T-shirt and plain blue jeans. His skin glowed and his smile held true warmth. He approached Billy and stood close, looking into his eyes, and then wrapping him in a tight embrace. Heat passed between them, nullifying the winter night air. They stood for a few minutes; Billy felt overcome, but tried to hide it. Qiang held him even more tightly, and while Billy didn’t want this reunion to start with sex, as their first date had, the inhibition was melting away. He was hard after being held so tightly, and could feel that Qiang was too.
Qiang pulled away. ‘I brought some groceries,’ he said. ‘I want to cook something from my home, the way my mother does. I bet you’ve never had stir-fried potato? You will love it.’
‘Where is that from?’
‘This is Sichuan style.’ Qiang unpacked the groceries, taking out a bottle of black vinegar and placing it on a nearby table.
‘Want to see my new place? It’s not very big…’
Qiang smiled, hugged him again, then pushed him against the wall.
‘I missed you, Billy. Why didn’t you call?’
‘Why didn’t you call me, pig?’
Qiang kissed him firmly.
Billy dragged Qiang to the main bedroom. ‘Look! You can see all the way over the river, towards West End and Highgate Hill. And I have a proper bed now!’
Qiang laughed. ‘You are a real grown-up. I’m proud of you, to have your own place. But you hate your job. You should be more ambitious. Why not be a lawyer? Or something else? Why not rent this place out and go overseas?’
Billy touched Qiang’s stomach, softly, and felt it warm the tips of his fingers.
‘I want to stay here with you,’ he murmured. He knew this wasn’t the time to get serious, but in the moment his words felt right.
‘Silly boy. Maybe you can come to China later. You should learn to speak Chinese.’
‘It’s so hard, I can’t speak the tones,’ said Billy.
‘Stop making excuses. Let’s cook! You can help.’
‘I’ll do what you say,’ said Billy.
They both laughed and headed to the small kitchen, barely big enough for both of them. Qiang sliced the potatoes and carrots into perfect matchsticks while Billy cut the ginger and garlic and crushed some Sichuan peppercorns. He fetched the old iron wok from his cupboard, lit the gas, and watched as Qiang stir-fried the ingredients.
They sat down to eat. The stir-fried potato was delicious; not too soft, still a bit chewy, but not undercooked. The Sichuan peppercorns tingled on their palate and numbed their lips.
‘Do you like it?’ Qiang asked, touching Billy on the forearm.
‘I love it,’ Billy replied, wondering at the luck that had brought them back together.
Billy washed the dishes, and they took turns showering. Without words they both knew that Qiang would stay the night. It was early, but bed was the only place they wanted to be.
‘Billy,’ said Qiang. ‘Did you know this is my final year of studying?’
Billy stiffened. ‘No, you never told me. What then?’
‘I don’t know what I will do next year. But I wonder – could I move in and stay with you for the rest of this year? I want to be close, and have somewhere quiet to concentrate for my final semester.’
‘Of course,’ he said eventually. ‘I’d love it. You can come whenever you’re ready.’
They went to sleep, cocooned against the cold night air.
‘I HEAR YOU don’t live with Jamie anymore,’ Joe said to Qiang as the two of them prepared the table for a hotpot dinner with their friends. An assortment of fish balls, vegetables, tofu, thinly sliced meat and sauces were scattered around the table.
‘I moved in with another school friend. I had to get away from Jamie, he’s such a girl. I couldn’t deal with it anymore,’ said Qiang.
‘Well he is tóngzhì, obviously,’ said Joe’s girlfriend Amy, laughing, ‘although he never admitted it to me directly. It must have been torture for him living with a handsome straight guy like you.’
Qiang smiled. ‘I think it was. He acted like a princess so I had to get out. I think it’s best for him. He needs to find some local friends – I think he’s planning to stay here after graduation.’
‘Yes,’ said Joe, ‘he told me. He can’t face his parents back home, so he’ll stay and try to work here if he can get the visa. It’s probably for the best.’
They all nodded.
‘I thought he might have found a local boyfriend, but he said he was spending most of his time at home with you, Qiang.’
‘Bullshit,’ said Qiang. ‘That’s a lie. He goes out all the time, maybe to the gay bars. And I haven’t seen him since I moved out, anyway.’
Qiang fired up the gas burner to keep heating the large saucepan of soup that Amy had brought in from the kitchen.
‘Who’s this classmate you’re living with now?’ said Joe.
‘A local friend, from Brisbane. Nobody important,’ Qiang said, swallowing dryly and reaching for a beer. ‘I’m leaving soon anyway, after exams. I just needed somewhere quiet to stay until then.’
The spicy hotpot numbed Qiang’s mouth; the beer numbed his mind. Billy, he thought, was like a child who knew nothing about the world. Maybe he needed to know the truth: that Qiang had been living with Jamie and sharing a bed with him for the past two-and-a-half years; that it had still been going on when he first met Billy; that they’d been living together in a temporary marriage of convenience; that he told Jamie he was straight, but had sex with him anyway. The hotpot simmered and Qiang opened another beer, raising it in toast to his straight Chinese friends – his real friends. He’d be a different person, he thought, back in Shanghai.
Later, as he walked home in the moonlight, he thought about his mother. She’d suggested he could stay for a few months with his friends. Her kindness was welcome, but Qiang sensed the pressure of implicit expectations behind her words. Before leaving Shanghai for Brisbane, she had cooked him a special meal but told him quite plainly: ‘You can have fun and be yourself in Australia. But study hard and then come back. Your dad is never here, you know how things are, what he gets up to. You are all I have, really. So come back, settle down, and give me a grandchild.’
While his mother spoke, Qiang had pulled at the skin of his thumb, hiding his hands beneath the table. When she finished speaking, she smiled, then ran her hand gently across his forehead, a rare physical sign of her affection. Above the table, he smiled back and gave the slightest of nods, but below he gave the quick one final wrench, pulling the skin away. He sat there, looking at his mother as blood spread across his thumb and onto his other hand, trickling in a bright red stream.
‘Of course, Mum. Don’t worry. I’ll come back.’
Then, a year ago now, they’d argued over the phone when he mentioned working in Australia and applying for permanent residency. Eventually, he’d said he’d be able to bring her here to retire. That idea had been shot down immediately. Now, Qiang supposed, she was happy to let him take an extra few months. As long as he came back.
He had known, of course, since the day he met Billy, that their time together had an expiration date, a fixed point to mark the end of his university life. He knew the life that lay beyond, as did his parents – and it didn’t involve Billy.
And wasn’t Billy too clingy anyway? And his other Asian friends in the gay club – had he slept with them all? Qiang felt anger quivering up his spine and out to his fingertips. His friends had seemed suspicious tonight, and almost mocking when they talked about his time living with Jamie. What would they think if they ever met Billy? Clenching and unclenching his fists, he reached home. No – his home was in Shanghai. This was Billy’s home. He looked up at the tall building, feeling dizzy, and wondered which of the lights were from Billy’s apartment. He walked inside, still quivering.
‘YOU LITTLE SLUT,’ said Qiang.
‘What?’ Billy asked.
‘You know what, you little–’
‘Did something happen at dinner?’
‘How many guys did you sleep with in the past six months?’
‘Tell me you fucking little slut! How many?’ Qiang’s voice rose, carried by a wave of anger.
‘None of your business,’ Billy replied quietly. ‘Qiang, what’s wrong? What happened?’
Billy moved closer to Qiang, holding out his arms in a pathetic gesture, wanting a hug.
Qiang laughed loudly.
‘You’re so silly. Silly boy! Silly fucking little boy! Let me tell you…’ His voice trailed off, not quite ready to push further.
‘Tell me what?’ Billy asked. ‘Why are you such a fucking pig? Yeah please – tell me!’
The slap came quickly, unbidden, unexpected. Right across the face. Back-handed, hard, enough to knock Billy off his feet. Qiang felt good.
‘I’ll tell you,’ said Qiang over the sound of Billy sobbing. ‘I lived with a guy for the past few years. His English name is Jamie. He’s gay. We lived together and slept in the same bed, to save money. I didn’t love him, and I told him that, but it was convenient for us.’
Qiang stood over Billy, calmer now, wondering what he’d done.
‘And you call me a slut?’ Billy rose, angry now. ‘And now you hit me? What is wrong with you? Get out!’
Billy pointed to the door and Qiang punched him in the ribs.
Billy kneeled on the floor gasping for a half minute. He stood and attempted to hug Qiang. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘Don’t do this. I fucking love you.’
Qiang pushed him away, hard. Billy stumbled.
‘I love you!’ said Billy, returning for another attempt at a hug.
Qiang couldn’t escape Billy’s tight embrace. Until he decided to bite, sinking his teeth down into Billy’s shoulder. Now that – that felt good.
THE MOUTHWASH BLASTED the dank morning from Billy’s mouth. He sat down on the bathroom floor and tried to think. His face had only a small scratch, and the multi-coloured bruises that ran the length of his right arm could be hidden by a long-sleeved shirt. He also had a large mouth-shaped bruise on his shoulder and another, small and barely visible, near the base of his ribs. He could barely breathe because of the pain. He’d searched online to see if his injuries could be a fractured rib, but had given up, deciding it didn’t matter. He would make it through the day and he wouldn’t go to the doctor.
He’d tried to call the police, which led to Qiang throwing the phone against the wall. He’d tried to hug him, again and again, a foolish gesture that only made things worse. More than once he’d found himself lying in shock on the floor, with black dots obscuring his vision.
Billy left the bathroom and laid down on the dark leather couch, his back already clammy in the morning heat.
Qiang emerged from the bedroom, his face dark, and walked quickly into the bathroom.
Billy had spent the night trying to reconstruct events, piecing together where things went wrong and how they escalated; it had all seemed to emerge from nowhere. They’d slept in the same bed, eventually – Qiang had gone to the spare room, trying to make do on the floor, but Billy had followed him, trying to hug him again, leading to another round of shouting and hitting. At some point in the night, Qiang joined him back in the master bedroom and slept like a baby with Billy beside him, eyes wide open.
Billy didn’t mind that Qiang had been living with Jamie. It was in the past, and Qiang was living with him now. But what had made him so angry, and why did he call Billy a little slut, over and over, as if he’d been cheating or sleeping around? When Qiang asked how many guys Billy had slept with during their time apart, he’d been almost ashamed to say ‘none’. He’d been online, browsing the usual dating sites, but had met nobody.
Billy blinked and a single fresh tear ran down his face. He felt dehydrated.
Qiang emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed. They didn’t speak. Billy wanted to know what would happen. He wanted Qiang back, he wanted to reverse the clock. And yet he also wanted him out of there. He wanted to feel safe in his own apartment. It was difficult to consider anything beyond those first safe, sweet moments of solitude.
‘Goodbye,’ said Qiang quietly, opening the door and leaving before Billy could respond.
‘Goodbye,’ said Billy to the closed door.
QIANG WASN’T HOME when Billy returned from work, so he went to buy wine. The rain had broken the humidity and a light breeze swept gently up the tree-lined streets.
Back home, with a cold glass of Riesling sweating in his hand, Billy lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling, trying not to think.
Qiang had a key, but Billy knew that knock. Did it have a conciliatory edge, or was this wishful thinking, a hope that the previous night could be wordlessly erased? Billy gulped down his drink, got up and opened the door. Qiang, looking serious, said nothing, so Billy poured more wine and took him out to the balcony where they stood together, holding hands. The mosquitoes started to bite. He squeezed Qiang’s hand tighter, waiting for him to speak.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ said Qiang. Conciliatory. Apologetic? It sounded like Qiang’s usual air of confidence was diminished, but not lost.
‘Okay. But if you–’
‘Don’t be silly. I’m sorry about what happened. I don’t know why I became like that, but I promise I won’t hurt you again.’
Billy looked away.
Billy left the balcony and went to the bathroom. He brushed his teeth and stared intently at the bottle of fluorescent green mouthwash, bringing the day full circle. It attacked his palate with a violent shock, reminding him of Qiang’s blows the night before.
In the bedroom, he sat on the bed and emptied his mind. He could feel the bruises under his shirt, marking him as damaged; despite the heat, he decided to sleep with his shirt on. Qiang entered the room and they lay down to sleep. He kissed Billy, firmly as usual, giving no leeway. He wanted sex, so Billy let him, leaving his shirt on. It was gentler than usual, and Billy wasn’t sure whether he liked that or not.
The tears came unbidden, and he decided that, in the morning, he would ask Qiang to leave. By morning, he’d changed his mind.
AS THE TAXI made its way stop-start through Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, Qiang stared vacantly out the window. Billy had offered him a lift to the airport, but Qiang declined. He didn’t want a scene, not in public, even on his last day in the country. It was a Sunday afternoon, and as the taxi passed The Wickham, Qiang watched groups of gay men and women sitting at tables, drinking and enjoying the sunshine.
Billy and Qiang had stayed together after the fight, each walking on eggshells. It had been a peaceful few weeks, even sweet, but he’d sensed Billy’s fear beneath the surface. A slight flinching at Qiang’s touch, an extra shine to his large brown eyes. Shame rose to Qiang’s cheeks as the taxi merged onto Kingsford Smith Drive, hugging the river and heading towards the airport.
He remembered his final moments with Billy. He didn’t want to farewell on the public street, so instead they’d hugged at the door, briefly encased in their own private column of silence, until finally he needed to leave.
‘It’s been a good time together, Billy. I love you and I’m sorry for what happened at the end.’
At this, Billy’s hug tightened quickly, but then he let go. ‘The taxi’s waiting, you better go.’
And so he had.
The taxi turned away from the river and onto the highway. It felt like Brisbane was already in his past. The small cluster of buildings marking the CBD was behind him now, fading to nothing. There was nothing left to do in Brisbane except arrive at the airport, check in, make his way through customs, wait for boarding, then fly home to his family. And his new life.
The plane vibrated roughly and Qiang was pushed back into his seat as it gained speed. He closed his eyes and felt joy at the lightness as he left the Australian soil and flew out over Moreton Bay; he could almost smell the earthy rotten tang of the mangroves. Freight ships crawled their way towards the port, hanging low in the water, weighed down by row upon row of brick-like shipping containers. Probably from China, his real home.
BILLY SAT ALONE as the jazz band walked onto the stage, quiet and unassuming, dressed in jeans and black T-shirts. Without acknowledging the audience, they shuffled their chairs, tuned their instruments, and placed their glasses of water and bottles of beer precisely around them. It may have been part of the performance, so the crowd began to hush, their conversations dispersing into the auditorium. The drummer scraped something metallic across the top of one of his drums. His scraping was soon joined by the pianist touching his keys lightly, gentle taps that resulted in complex reverberations that magnified as they spread throughout the performance space.
The double bass joined in, striking just three notes, repeating them again and again, plucking the thick strings more fiercely as time went on, each thwap a punch in Billy’s side, recalling that day three years ago earlier, when Qiang had attacked him. He realised with a guilty start that he almost enjoyed reliving the past, letting the music beat him. It replaced all traces of the present, bringing back the good along with the bad.
The scraping continued, now joined by the occasional sharp tapping of the hi-hat. Tap-tap-tap, an insistent woodpecker that might crack open his skull. He tried to keep the sound of each instrument distinct in his mind, tracking the almost imperceptible ways they were changing over time, wondering how the music had gradually made its way from Point A to Point B. The initially disparate parts had merged to become a single swirling mess.
Earlier in the day, he’d been for a HIV test, long overdue. The doctor had been friendly; the staff at the sexual health clinic were well trained, asking the necessary questions without judgement.
‘I see it’s your first time here. Is there anything else I can help you with?’
‘No. Just the tests today.’
The doctor smiled. ‘Just a few questions first. When were you last tested?’
Billy answered that it had been a while; yes, he was sexually active, though not so much lately. He didn’t bother adding that he rarely met new people these days, preferring to stay home and drink. After a long string of random encounters, he’d simply stopped. He still went online out of habit, and loneliness, but he’d developed a habit of making excuses whenever people wanted to meet in person. Only recently he’d realised how many times those random guys hadn’t used a condom.
The doctor sent him to a private toilet stall, where he swabbed for the syphilis test, flushing with shame as he placed the swab into its plastic bag. He wanted to throw up. Outside, he sat down and looked away as the nurse found a vein in his arm and stuck in a needle. As the blood flowed into the syringe, his thoughts stumbled over the cognitive dissonance of not caring about his life anymore, while simultaneously caring – and fearing – what the test results might bring.
The nurse taped a cottonwool ball gently over his arm and he left the pathology clinic feeling numb. He could go home – nobody at work would care – and spend the afternoon with a bottle of wine, some music and maybe a warm bath. But he’d already bought his ticket for the jazz concert, and the performing arts centre was close to his office; if he went home, he’d never find the motivation to go out again. In the end, the lure of a night out, even – or perhaps especially – one spent alone, overcame his desire to stay home.
Following intermission, the band returned and the pianist placed a metronome on the piano’s glossy black frame. It was hooked to an amp, so its sound filled the theatre as he set it ticking. He began to play – not music exactly, or at least not melody, tapping at just one or two keys, repetitively, in time with the constant ticking, slowly building, but never so loud that they drowned out the metronome’s beat. Billy relaxed, closing his eyes for a moment to savour the effect, listening carefully for the slightest change in their patterned sounds.
The metronome’s amplified ticking counted the number of seconds since he had laid peacefully in Qiang’s arms, the number of days since Qiang had been inside him, the number of months since their brutal final weeks together. Each tick brought to mind another random hook-up that he’d had in the time since Qiang left, the nights he’d spent at home alone, drinking, and his current dread at waiting for his medical results. Tick, tick, tick.
But then the drummer broke in – and refused to keep the same beat as the metronome, moving in his own direction. The tangential rhythms became disorienting and Billy felt a rush as his pulse quickened. The bass player thwapped the strings again, but it was hard to discern the effect of his efforts on top of the now screeching cacophony of manic piano. It was the drummer who was really shaking things up, hitting his kit hard, completely freed from the restrictive bounds of the metronome’s tick, his own beat somehow emerging from chaos. Goosebumps formed on Billy’s arms and the fine blonde hairs stood to attention. He felt tears in his eyes and, thankful for the dark theatre, let them run down his cheeks. A crash of cymbals took over, and it was no longer a beat but a crashing wave of sound, meeting the piano and bass with destructive force.
Despite the cacophony, all Billy could focus on was the thin pendulum of the metronome, still swinging from side to side, although it could no longer be heard. Gradually, as each musician slowed and their sounds danced over the top of each other, the ticking sound returned and Billy could hear each instrument as three distinct elements. The metronome continued to tick, even after the musicians stopped playing. Finally, the pianist raised his hand and killed the pendulum’s movement. The audience broke out in stunned applause.
THE WEEKEND CAME and Billy went to another gig. He stood alone by a window, waiting for the band to start. A crowd was building, and the room was hot and dark. He looked outside to the street, hoping for a cool breeze, and wondered why he couldn’t find a partner who shared his interests. As the traffic lights outside turned from green to red, the aspect of the scene shifted sharply, as if the world had changed in that moment. He wanted to stand on the windowsill and fly, above the city and away, free to find something new beyond his dull Brisbane life. He went to buy another beer.
Later, a man came over and said hi. Billy turned from his perch near the window and nodded. Great band, right? Billy nodded. I always say: songs without words, you know? Songs without words. Instrumental, but still a rock band – and still songs. Billy smiled at the man’s enthusiasm. Hey, uhh, wanna share a joint before they start? Sure, sure, join me, why not? We can hit the toilets real quick before they start, let’s go.
Billy shrugged and followed him. A cubicle for privacy, with tags etched into the door around a polite sign: please don’t vandalise our venue. Guys pissing outside and the music muted by the walls and doors around them. The man reached into his pocket and produced a tremendous spliff and a lighter. Gotta be quick, the band’ll start soon, yeah? Billy knew why the man had asked him of all people to share the joint, but it felt like a win-win and he slid to the floor, his knees in piss and reaching for the man’s belt buckle, but the man took a step back and the walls closed in. Hey – dude, dude, not what I’m after. It’s just that you were alone and I wanted to share this, and hey, don’t worry, I’m straight. Let’s smoke, it’ll improve the show. But Billy ran, ears burning, hands shaking, insides twisting: just keep moving, get out – OUT – and go home to bed.
Unable to sleep, yet still bone-tired, Billy gave up at around 2 am, and went to drink some water. Standing in the small kitchen, still ashamed of the way he had debased himself the night before, he decided it was time to make some changes – let more people into his life, more friends, more normality.
When Billy woke early the next morning, he checked his emails. His felt his body come to life as he saw Qiang’s name. But, as the subject line registered, he sank back to reality with a thud: Wedding invitation. He closed his eyes and pictured himself being dragged through gravel. Tied with thick rope to the towbar of a car and drawn through rock and dirt, slowly at first, his skin scraping the ground in sharp pain and then fast, so fast that everything blackened before he snapped himself back into the bright morning. His head ached and his insides still burned with the shame of the night before.
He lurched out of bed and ran to the bathroom, heaving and emptying his stomach into the toilet bowl.
BILLY WAS FORCED back against his seat as the plane rose and banked, allowing him a view of his hometown. It looked so small. The river’s benign-looking curves seemed traitorous after the month that had just passed, and Billy was glad to be leaving it behind.
The usual parade of hot humid days tempered by crackling afternoon storms had given way to something different: a December full of rain, relentless. Billy closed his eyes and could still hear the sound of large raindrops hammering tin roofs, and the rush of water flowing down hilly streets and pooling around clogged drains. Home alone, avoiding the world, he’d found comfort in night-time walks along slick glistening streets. Inside, he’d listened as the rain pelted neighbouring buildings and houses, waterfalls rushing from drainpipes to the ground below. He remembered the percussive roar of the jazz band, both orchestrated and chaotic, and how he’d felt a strange connection to a theatre full of strangers.
He’d planned the trip to Shanghai without considering the specifics of seeing Qiang again, or what that meant. Right now, he simply relished the idea of getting out of Brisbane and having something to look forward to.
In January, water had been released from the dam upstream and the Brisbane River had risen until much of the city’s low-lying areas were underwater. Water covered the bottom of Billy’s street, and his building was evacuated. As emergency services knocked at his door, he sat on the living room floor with a bottle of wine and stayed quiet, wanting only to be left alone. He had food – though no electricity – and he had water, after rushing to bottle up as much as he could before the system stopped functioning.
Thinking back, as the plane levelled out over the ocean, he felt stupid. He’d contacted nobody during the flood, none of his friends or family – he’d already pushed everyone away so hard that it seemed selfish to get back in touch when emergency struck. As the waters rose, the city became eerily quiet. He’d sat out on his balcony looking across to West End – the park and CityCat terminal were gone. Covered. The days were long and he spent them thinking about the mess of the past few years, about the shame he still felt: about Qiang, about his desire, about his lack of real friends. And then the waters started to drain away, as quickly and calmly as they’d risen, but leaving a thick brown sludge of rotten mud in their place. Rather than helping with the clean-up, he was leaving to see Qiang. Perhaps, he thought, as his head started to fall against the plane’s window, he just needed to make sure that Qiang had been real. Not good, not bad – just real. And that the hurt and shame of the past few years had been for something. He scoffed at the thought of ‘love’, discarding it with the cynicism that he’d learnt to coat himself with. While the Brisbane River had revealed its strength, slowly rising and engulfing large parts of the city, leaving those thick smears of mud and devastation in its wake; while his riverside suburb drowned; while armies of people went out to help those in need, volunteering their time to clean up; while Billy stayed home, not feeling a part of anything at all – while all of this happened, he’d realised escape was the only thing that could save him.
THE TOILETS STANK of piss – no different to those in Brisbane’s gay clubs. Billy laughed to himself as he finished up, earning a look from the guy at the urinal closest to his. He laughed again and walked back out to the bar, where he’d been ordering scotch and the bartender had been serving up full glasses instead of single shots. A few guys had come up and spoken to him, with varying degrees of success: a spectrum from those with perfect English, sometimes British- or American-accented, depending on their teachers’ backgrounds, to those who thought they spoke English but whom Billy could barely understand in the noisy bar.
‘Good drink?’ the bartender asked.
‘Perfect size,’ Billy laughed.
‘Why are you in Shanghai?’
‘My boyfriend,’ he said.
‘He lives here?’
‘I wish I could go there. So you have long-distance relationship? Why isn’t he with you now?’
Billy shrugged and drank the scotch as if it was water, pretending it didn’t burn.
‘Complicated,’ he said.
The bartender nodded, smiled, and continued serving other customers.
Qiang was his boyfriend, whether he liked it or not. Hadn’t he stayed over last night while Lily was at home in bed? Hadn’t they had sex as if nothing had changed, as if Billy was his and nobody else’s? He looked around the bar, but knew he didn’t want to go home with anyone else.
He began to shake. First his hands, then his arms and shoulders. He took another drink, gulping it down and ignoring the sweaty press of guys around him. He wiped his forehead and picked up his phone, scrolling through the contact list with trembling fingers. No. No, no, no. He closed his eyes and saw the purple galaxy, pinpricks of light spinning behind his eyelids, the deep dark bruising on his shoulder where Qiang bit him, and how beautiful it had become, how he sometimes craved to be hit by Qiang again, as if that was what he really needed. How he’d failed again and again in his dating and sex life since that time. How he’d started to drink as if his life depended on it. He blinked back the tears and picked up his phone.
‘I need you, I fucking need you, come get me now. I need you–’
QIANG PUSHED BILLY onto the bed and grabbed him by the belt loops of his jeans, pulling them roughly down, exposing his cheeks and spanking them, hard. He removed his own pants then his underwear, which he balled up and shoved into Billy’s mouth.
‘You like it?’
‘I know what you need. Right?’
Qiang pushed Billy hard against the bed, walked into the bathroom, and closed the door. He looked in the mirror and saw nothing.
He wanted to destroy Billy. Erase him. Fuck him, kill him, love him, hold him, kiss him. He gripped the basin and tried hard to stop himself from headbutting the mirror. Love him, hold him, kiss him. One more night. The shame that had enveloped him for years now lifted like a veil and he saw himself in the mirror, who he truly was and who he would be. He left the bathroom.
Later, in the dark room, with Billy’s sleeping head on his chest, the night outside glowed from the city’s lights, so different to the full, bright Brisbane moon that he remembered. Shanghai had neither the immense scattering of southern stars, nor the birds that would cry out even in the middle of the night, nor the possums that would climb the trees and hiss at each other in hot hateful lust.
Qiang’s arm tingled with pins and needles, locked in place by the weight of Billy’s head. He remembered the shock, years ago now, of accidentally dislocating Billy’s arm, and the remorse he’d felt once he realised he’d bent another person’s body beyond its limits. And then the outlet of his anger and confusion in those final Brisbane weeks. The hits, the punches, that bite on Billy’s shoulder. Fuck. He needed to move his arm, which had begun to tremble from the effort of keeping it in place. Billy breathed, drooled and dreamt in ignorant peace. Qiang knew that he couldn’t abandon his future now. He would marry Lily, of course, but tonight – one more night – he would sit here, arm deadened with pain, and he wouldn’t move until Billy woke up of his own accord.
BILLY AND QIANG stood closely, packed onto the crowded barge from the Bund to Pudong. The day was hazy, the tops of the taller buildings obscured in grey.
‘Do you think you’ll visit Brisbane again?’ said Billy.
Qiang hesitated. The barge pushed off, heading for the opposite bank of the Huangpu River.
‘I mean with Lily. We’ll show her around.’
‘She wants to travel, but for now we both need to work hard.’
‘You could move here. Learn Chinese – I’ll teach you. Foreigners can find good jobs here. I miss Brisbane, dear, but Western countries will go backwards. This is the future.’ He gestured towards the shrouded skyline.
Billy shrugged helplessly, knowing that he could never make it happen.
‘Will you be okay at the wedding tomorrow?’ said Qiang.
‘I’ll be fine.’
He wouldn’t be fine. A creeping dread worked its way through his veins as he considered the reality of it; maybe he wouldn’t attend the wedding. He could stay at the hotel and drink, or explore the city on his own. Or find a date, just someone nice to show him around and keep him company until his flight home.
‘Billy?’ said Qiang, placing his arm around Billy’s shoulder.
‘I said I’ll be fine.’
They disembarked and Qiang kept his arm in place, something that Billy knew he would never have done in Brisbane. They rushed past restaurants, footpaths lined with fluttering Chinese flags in bright red, a colourful advertisement with the English words ‘do-it-myself beer’ printed against a washed-out green background, rows of bicycles parked along the roadside, multistorey shopping malls glistening enticingly. Qiang used his arm to guide Billy through the crowds, crossing street after street amid the frenetic traffic. Billy wanted to stop, to rest, to stay calm, but Qiang led him insistently on. Then, as they reached the base of the Oriental Pearl Tower, he knew that Qiang wanted to take him to the top. He smiled. A crowd of people pressed around them, and Qiang kept his arm around Billy protectively.
At the base of the building, astride one of its colossal grey concrete legs, a red sign with gold writing in both Chinese and English proclaimed ‘Welcome’. Billy’s gaze followed the grey leg up to the first spherical part of the building and then up, up into the sky, to another spherical structure. Above that, he knew the tower soared higher still, but he couldn’t see out past the thick haze.
‘Will we be able to see?’
‘Let’s go anyway, you’ll like it.’
Standing in line with Qiang, waiting to purchase a ticket and head to the elevators, he felt a sense of calm despite the people crowding around them. Maybe he could try and make a life in Shanghai. Qiang had Lily and things would not be like this, but he knew that Qiang would be there if he needed help. And what was there for him in Brisbane? His friends – what friends? No. And maybe he could find his own family in a new place. Qiang squeezed his shoulder and Billy smiled.
The elevator attendant gave her spiel in both Chinese and English as they whooshed up into the sky; an electronic display counted their ascent until they reached the observation deck at 267 metres. Qiang’s arm against the small of his back guided Billy out of the lift and onto the deck. People rushed to the glass-floored section while Billy and Qiang walked slowly around the room, circling the tower to scope the view in every direction.
Outside was a dull, cloudy grey, but the city’s surrounds were visible. Billy stopped to look out across the buildings, holding a metal handrail. The room was cool, and the handrail sent a chill through his fingers. He stood quietly, ignoring the buildings below, gazing out into the void. He imagined he saw a bird, flying up into the air above, soaring beyond the man-made playground of the city; but there were no birds. He shivered and gripped the handrail tightly. The population of Shanghai matched that of Australia very closely, he remembered, turning to Qiang to ask if he knew the numbers, missing that touch on the small of his back, the warm breath on the back of his neck. Where had he gone?
Billy walked to the glass-floored section and felt like he was stepping onto air, floating above the city. He looked down and felt his legs give way as he spotted the grassy area many storeys below, so tiny at this height, and the concrete path that formed a perfect circle around the tower’s base. Where was Qiang?
Billy dashed around the observation deck, alone, panicking, and the floor lost its solidity with each step. Outside, just greyness – no birds, no life. Inside, no Qiang – just faceless strangers ignoring his anxious dash around the observation deck: around, around, around again and still no Qiang.
He stopped and sat, heart racing, and imagined himself floating outside, a bird struggling in the wind, falling into the grey. He thought about Qiang, his boyfriend, always his boyfriend, now vanished into the swirling grey air outside. He felt vertigo overcome him as he emptied his stomach onto the clean floor, people calling out in Chinese around him then stepping back to avoid his sick. Qiang had vanished; and tomorrow, he would marry.