An extract from the novel-in-manuscript, Shanghai Wedding.
The taxi made its way stop-start though Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, past the Wickham Hotel, a gay pub on Brunswick Street. Qiang looked out the window, feeling nothing, or at least not allowing himself to; Billy had offered him a lift to the airport, but Qiang had declined. Billy could be so emotional, and he didn’t want a scene. Not in public, not even on his last day in the country. It was a Sunday afternoon, and outside the window there were groups of gay men of various ages sitting at tables on the street, drinking and enjoying the sunshine. This wasn’t Qiang’s life, not anymore.
Even after what happened, Billy hadn’t asked Qiang to leave. They’d stayed together, walking on eggshells in a strange limbo; that fixed point in time, the expiration date of their relationship, seemed to need this middle period, a chance to cool off after the… incident. Qiang’s flight to Shanghai was booked for just one week after his final exam—he’d decided against spending some holiday time in Australia—and so Billy had allowed him to stay for that little bit of extra time. Qiang felt the shame rising to his cheeks, as he often had in the past few weeks while trying to finish his exams and treat Billy kindly to make up for his actions. It had been a peaceful few weeks, really. Even sweet. But he’d been able to sense Billy’s fear beneath the surface. A slight flinching at Qiang’s touch; an extra shine to his large brown eyes as he held back tears. Biding his time, trying not to set a foot wrong, probably hoping deep down that Qiang would just leave. They’d had sex a few times, but not in the same way as before. Qiang had suddenly felt the need to be gentle. And somehow even that didn’t feel right.
The taxi merged onto Kingsford Smith Drive in Hamilton, hugging the river and leaving the city towards the airport.
At Billy’s house, when the taxi arrived, there’d been nothing much to say. Qiang carried his luggage downstairs by himself, leaving it near the letterboxes, not wanting Billy to farewell him on the public street. Instead, they’d hugged at the door, encased together in a numb column of silence, neither warm nor cold, happy nor sad.
“It’s been a good time together, Billy. I love you and I’m sorry for what happened at the end. For hitting you.”
Billy’s hug became tighter at these words. Tight and vulnerable in equal measure. But then he’d urged Qiang to leave.
“The taxi is waiting, you better go. Hurry.”
And so he had. And that had been that.
As 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, fading to nothing, and he had no connection with this side of the city. He’d packed his phone in his suitcase and left the prepaid Australian SIM card behind—on purpose—so that their final goodbye would have to remain as such. For now, there was nothing left to do except arrive at the airport, check-in, make his way through customs, wait wait wait, then fly home to his family. And his new life back in Shanghai.
Qiang couldn’t remember Billy’s mobile number. 0423 … something? It had a few sevens in it. What was it? He fidgeted with his wallet, wishing it was his mobile phone. The phone that he’d put in his checked baggage. The phone that contained Billy’s number. What a fuck! He looked around the tacky departure lounge, smirking in spite of himself as he remembered the way Billy teased him whenever he used that phrase. His phone was so close, probably just a few hundred metres away out there on the tarmac, glossed black from a light drizzling rain, nestled inside his suitcase as it waited for the baggage handlers to throw it onto the plane.
Why hadn’t Billy come to say goodbye properly? Sure, Qiang had discouraged it, and his logical side realised it wasn’t even realistic—Billy wouldn’t have been able to come through customs and wait with him, so what was the point travelling all the way to the airport to mock the same quick goodbye they’d had back at home? And what kind of a scene would Billy have made? His prudish side shrank away from the very idea. There would have been tears. And yet—why hadn’t Billy fought a bit harder for the right to see him off at the airport? Why hadn’t he insisted? Qiang knew that Billy would move on quickly, and perhaps he already had; perhaps he was at home right now getting back onto all of those gay websites. Their time had ended, after all. He tried to think about home.
In the past few years, most of his friends had flown back home between each semester—and especially for the three-month summer break, which culminated in Chinese New Year celebrations with their families—but Qiang hadn’t returned home since he first arrived in Brisbane. He could still hear his mother’s encouraging words: stay, have fun, go see Sydney, Melbourne, Uluru, Tasmania, stay stay, you will come back home after your studies. He knew she missed him, and he also knew she was playing the long game, happy as long as he returned to China eventually; but she did genuinely want him to enjoy these years of freedom. Temporary freedom. Surely now it was time—at the age of twenty-three—to repay his parents’ generosity and start a serious life.
He didn’t need to wake up beside Billy each morning, hard and wanting sex, and getting it. He didn’t need to have sex with guys at all. He needed to find a job, work hard, socialise with his colleagues, spend his downtime at the gym, and find a girl to marry. Duty wasn’t a prison but a path to follow, leading towards a respected, successful and normal life.
Still. It would be nice—if he had his phone—to message Billy from Australia for one last time. Not that he had any idea what to say. Except maybe ‘sorry’. The pressure between them had erupted in the worst possible way, but there was nothing he could do about that now.
There was twenty minutes until boarding, and the departure lounge was becoming crowded, thick with people. The clock ticked away slowly as passengers milled about the terminal with their dazed travellers’ eyes, hollowed-out and unreal. He watched the clock, almost frozen, another instant of time imprinting itself into his memories.
What would Billy be doing at home? He didn’t really think Billy would start prowling the internet again so quickly, the silly boy. Cleaning, maybe. Or shopping for groceries. Planning his dinner. Silly good boy, he even enjoyed cooking dinner for one, and he preferred to try cooking Chinese dishes rather than Wester ones. Oh, Billy. He sometimes wished they’d never met. Other times, and in this moment especially, he felt lucky to have spent those months together and regretted the time they’d wasted apart. He chose not to dwell on the violence that had erupted from him in the past few weeks as their time had drawn to a close.
Billy looked out the window and saw nothing. He didn’t see the brilliant blue of Brisbane’s summer sky. He didn’t see the dense greenery dotted around the houses and apartment buildings that lined the banks of the city’s lazy river. Birds circled above, dancing their three-dimensional dance, free from the constraints of gravity. A kookaburra laughed at him as he filled his glass, the thick inky cabernet sauvignon that he’d ordered online by the case. His stereo blared with a mix of early-90s grunge and late-90s avant-garde guitar noise. He let the shuffle gods decide which order to select tracks from the playlist, not really caring as long as it was loud.
The wine tasted like bottled dust. It felt old, important and worthwhile. I’ll drink to that, he thought, smirking at the ceiling as he raised his glass, toasting the flaking paint that was still there, waiting to fixed. He picked up his phone and, without thinking, texted Fiona:: he’s gone.
He sat back and considered the ceiling some more. His phone began to ring and he watched it, flashing and bright with Fiona’s name, as he took another swill of wine and poured again to refill his glass. His attention turned to the wall, where a small indentation remained, the only physical reminder of that night when Qiang had thrown the cordless phone at the wall after Billy tried to call the police. His phone kept ringing and he thought about throwing it at the same spot, maybe remove that indentation and open up a larger hole. It stopped ringing.
The music blared and he continued to drink, emptying the bottle, tonguing it to get the last drop. He looked out the window again and saw not the sky, the trees, birds, or river, but the whole city of Brisbane, as if every detail was laid out there before him: his old street in Milton, just by the Park Rd café strip and the XXXX brewery with its red brick walls looming over the congestion of Milton Road, the place he’d first met Qiang. He saw the bland outer suburbs of his childhood. Empty as they were, devoid of hope or future, he saw himself reflected there for the first time. He’d never even left Brisbane and he knew Qiang pitied him for it. The room turned to mud and Billy sank into its warm embrace.
The plane vibrated roughly and Qiang was pushed back into his seat as it gained speed. He closed his eyes for a moment and felt joy at the lightness as he left the Australian soil behind him and pulled out over Moreton Bay. He looked down at the dull Brisbane coastline—ironic in a state famed for its beaches—and could almost smell the earthy rotten tang of the mangroves that he remembered visiting, and hating. Freight ships crawled their way towards the port, hanging low in the water, weighed down by row upon row of colourful brick-like shipping containers. Probably from China, his real home.
He’d taken a road trip the year before, with Jamie, his gay flatmate. They drove all the way down the east coast and it seemed they spent much more time in the car than they did stopping to enjoy the country. One Spring morning in alpine Victoria, they’d left their motel early at 4 am under a brilliant milky-white blanket of stars, like nothing he’d ever seen before. They’d stayed with him, those stars, and he could see them now behind his eyelids as the plane banked, continuing its ascent. He dreamed of those stars sometimes, but it was the kangaroos that returned to his thoughts on nights when he couldn’t sleep.
They’d hired a small car, not ideal for country driving but good enough, and they drove along an uncommon route that the GPS suggested, cutting through rolling hills and dairy farmland. With high beam on and the stars still cast above them, small insects and larger bogong moths flew past and into the windscreen, splatting dramatically as Qiang sped through the early morning with Jamie already nodding off back to sleep beside him. He felt not quite scared, but perhaps unwelcome, a foreign intruder in a magical landscape, so different to the Shanghai he’d grown up in. He rolled his window down just a crack to let the cool fresh air into the car, a refreshing jolt to keep him alert. And then they came.
The kangaroos—first by the side of the road and hopping away from the car, then sometimes looking up towards him, mesmerised with gleaming eyes—showed Qiang what he’d already known: he didn’t belong here, or anywhere. There were rabbits too, or hares, or whatever. The startled ones froze and stared into the headlights’ glare, while others ran madly into the long dry grass beyond the road’s shoulder.
Until somehow the kangaroos were on the road and he was chasing them, slowing to match their speed and not hit them, but still surprisingly fast, maybe 40 kilometres an hour. They loped along the tarmac as if they owned it, hopping kings of the dark morning, veering across each other’s path at times, side-to-side, but not leaving the road. Soon others joined from the side of the road and some even behind the car: he couldn’t slow down or speed up, for fear of hitting them. They seemed to be going… somewhere. Qiang sweated and Jamie still slept beside him. He could only follow and hope not to hit them. His mouth hung open in wonder.
It was in his desire not to wake Jamie amid the swarm of kangaroos that he realised their relationship of convenience had to end. They’d been living together, sleeping together, and having sex, but it all felt so insubstantial, and he felt a sudden urge to experience this moment alone, without Jamie beside him. The kangaroos, though surely oblivious to the young Chinese man driving the car, had shown him something. He wondered, not for the first time, if maybe he could find a way to stay in this strange, large, quiet country.
Eventually the kangaroos veered right, away from the tarmac and onto the roadside, tiring of the road and finding a new path. Qiang sped up to get past them, hoping they wouldn’t move back onto the road and into the side of the car. And then they were nothing more than a memory, not even visible in the rear-view mirror. The sky was lightening up, turning to pink dawn and Qiang drove on, thankful that Jamie had remained asleep, not wanting to talk.
A chime sounded inside the plane’s cabin and Qiang blinked, his eyes not wet, but dry from the blasting air-con. He drank from a water bottle then glanced at the Australian couple seated beside him. He had got Billy back, for a little while, and now both Jamie and Billy were back down there on the ground. The faint taste of failure at the back of his throat began to fade, and he couldn’t even think of the dream as a memory, since he had already decided not to remember it.