That evening, Professor Wang’s flavour—but not his likeness, which was gone—remained with Sam, a lingering aftertaste as he, Tianliang, and Auntie sat around a chaffing dish full of skewered fish balls, thinly sliced meats, and vegetables, simmering in a spicy sour broth.
‘I ate the other day at Yu Chun, the Northeastern restaurant in the West of the campus,’ Auntie said. ‘I’m surprised I didn’t run into you there.’
From the time she opened the door, Auntie intermittently offered Sam words of welcome and entreatments to guilty for having returned to Beijing without visiting her. Sam felt embarrassed but kept silent in the absence of anything redeeming to say. He had breached the bond they had established in the summer of bliss—forgotten scores of intimate lunches and delightful, little secrets about Wei Da University, where he had returned for study abroad.
‘This broth is delicious,’ Tianliang said, punctuating the moment’s thick silence, ladling some of the soup and dregs of vegetable into a bowl. Tianliang beheld Auntie, as if to see whether this flattery would make a dent in Auntie’s armour. It would not. Auntie continued to look into her bowl. ‘Eat with appetite,’ Auntie told Tianliang, cutting their direct conversation short. Tianliang looked away. Auntie had to that point never once looked Tianliang in the eye. Not even as Tianliang entered her apartment.
Sam’s phone buzzed. He held it under the kitchen table and gave it a quick glance as he shovelled fish balls into his mouth with his chopsticks. It was a text from Alim, the Uyghur Wei Da student—a poem of just a few lines for the Mid-Autumn Festival that described two people who were not physically together but both united by the act of watching the same moon. A moment later, Sam received another text. You’re in my thoughts, it said. I hope you’re well.
Sam didn’t respond. He felt he didn’t have the energy to make more fast friends, only to find such relationships at once heavy and hollow like he did in that moment.
‘How are you liking Wei Da campus life?’ Auntie asked.
‘Good — everything is good,’ he said. He wanted to cry to her about his interlude with Professor Wang earlier that afternoon and be mothered, but he felt he couldn’t with Tianliang there. Sam got the sense that Auntie also would have preferred that Tianliang disappear.
Sam had already inquired after Jiaxin and Jiaxin’s ever-absent father. The uneasy gaps in conversation felt to Sam like an affirmation that despite his feelings of shame, he had done well to avoid a reunion with Auntie and Tianliang. Their month together was what it was, he thought; it is best to be unsentimental about things, to fold before you remember that other people always end up dealing you a losing hand, that hell is others.
‘You’re staying in the dorms?’ Auntie asked.
‘Yes,’ Sam responded.
‘In Building 46?’ Auntie asked.
‘Close, in Building 45,’ Sam said. I have classes in Building 46.’
‘It’s said that Building 46 has a—complex history. Very complex,’ she said, savouring her own mystery, as though it had been a blonde wig, a trench coat, and sunglasses. This was how Auntie passed the time alone in this apartment, Sam imagined—spooking herself. ‘Let’s just say, it’s better for you to let sleeping ghosts lie,’ she continued.
‘Sleeping ghosts?’ Sam asked.
‘No one has told you, then,’ Auntie said. ‘Building 46 has entered itself into the annals of Wei Da legend. People say there’s a ghost in the basement of Building 46. And that you can hear it sobbing late at night.’
‘In the ping pong room?’ Sam asked, mouth agape like a child. He recalled the humming he had heard from his ordeal in the Grand Hall. It had a certain warm musicality to it. Had the humming been sobbing? Sam’s memory of the humming morphed as he processed it through his mind. The sound waves shifted in his imperfect recollection until they did produce a kind of lyrical sobbing. Yes, Sam thought, The sound had been sobbing, muffled by distance and whatever structures—walls, stairs—came between Sam and the ping pong room. Or had the faint sobbing been right up in Sam’s ear? Had it been a ghost, whispering tears into Sam’s ear? And what then of the hand, detached—it seemed, that night—from the cries?
‘Yes, in the ping pong room—the one behind the staircase, down the stairs. So you’ve heard of it?’ she said. Sam realised that of course Auntie knew the layout of the building. She must have been there herself. Like Sam, Auntie was a constitutionally curious person.
‘A friend asked me to go down there and take pictures with my phone,’ Sam said.
Auntie laughed a performative cackle. And then she collected herself. ‘A friend! Heavens! Your friend must take you for an idiot. I wouldn’t go down there if you paid me,’ she said. ‘And I would advise you not to go down there either. And maybe stop talking to this friend. That’s not much of a friend.’
‘Why wouldn’t you go there, Auntie?’ Sam asked, chopsticks frozen in the airspace over his bowl.
Auntie laughed again, another exaggerated Beijing radio theatre laugh. ‘I’m sure whatever’s down there, you don’t want to see it. But more than that, there’s no good that can come of poking around that sort of thing.’
‘What would happen?’ Sam asked, and then in English, he uttered a phrase he didn’t know in Chinese: ‘Spiritual possession?’ He waited to see if Auntie or Tianliang would understand, and then he explained himself in Chinese as best he could—‘That the spirit enters my body, like a demon?’
‘No, no, no,’ Auntie said. ‘I’m not talking about superstitions or magic, I’m talking about another kind of occult activity. You remember when I told you about the Suicide Department? You remember when I told you the university has everything more or less cleaned up by sunrise?’
‘Of course. How could I forget?’ Sam said.
‘Well you came back to Beijing for a whole year and forgot to phone me, so maybe that’s how’, she said, with a grimace like a dagger. ‘The point is, the university doesn’t take kindly to people poking around its hidden business, even among Wei Da students and staff. I’ve asked around about the kids dying in and around the Suicide Department, and it’s not worth it. You just stay above ground while you’re in Building 46, Sam, and you’ll be fine. If your friend wants to see what’s in the ping pong room, he can go down there himself, understand?’
Tianliang had been silently eating and listening the whole time. She had nothing to say about Wei Da; she’d never been. To Tianliang, Auntie and Sam were worth the sacrifice of her Friday evening only because they were important to Jiaxin, who was very far away, showering at that very moment with her white Canadian boyfriend. Tianliang had understood full well that she was not welcome at that table, and yet she was there, in order to feel close to Jiaxin.
Sam’s phone buzzed—another text. This time from Sandra. Come out and play, booboo? Followed by another: I’ll pay for the cab downtown. Sam could not answer; he was transfixed by his conversation with Auntie.
‘How do you know so much about the ping pong room and Building 46?’ Sam asked Auntie.
‘I’m a nosey old woman. There’s no helping it,’ Auntie said with a smile. They had suddenly recalled some of the energy of the month of bliss. Tianliang beheld it, silently.
For dessert, Auntie served a sweet red bean and haw soup, which she told the table she typically made herself when she donated blood to restore her blood sugar level. ‘Anyway’, she said echoing herself from the month of bliss, ‘sweets are good for women. They make us feel loved. Isn’t that so, Tianliang?’ Auntie said, looking directly at Tianliang for the first time that evening. Sam was uncomfortable but also appreciated that something unspoken had transpired between Auntie and Tianliang. Something capable of electrifying inconspicuous words.
Before Sam left, Auntie told Sam that it would soon be winter jujube season in Beijing and that there were several winter jujube patches near Wei Da. ‘I’ll take you for sushi, and we’ll make a day of it,’ she said. The invitation had not been extended to Tianliang. Sam was embarrassed by the transparency of Auntie’s omission. ‘You can even bring your foreign friends from school, if you like,’ she added, for sport.
On the drive home, Tianliang revealed to Sam that she had a girlfriend and that she wanted to introduce her to Sam. The three would go to a bar together, she said. The road into the Wei Da campus was blocked, so she dropped Sam at the Eastern gate.
Sam walked across campus, back to Building 45. The asphalt glistened—It must have been hosed down by the janitorial staff earlier in the evening. Sam saw his shadow stretch out before him, dancing across the asphalt, shimmering under the dim lampposts guiding the way back to the Western end of campus, where the foreign things were. He passed the Suicide Department, Building 44, which he avoided, out of superstition.
During the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s, China had endeavoured to stamp out the so-called 四旧 – Si Jiu – Four Olds, among which were superstitions like Sam’s fear of ghosts and spiritual possession. In Mao Zedong Thought, superstition was believed to run counter to the free-thinking adroitness of a communist future. This was, to Sam’s mind, an attractive part of what he understood to be Socialism with Chinese Characteristics—the exhortation against maddening Magical Thinking. And yet the Cultural Revolution that had shattered so much else had failed to smash the superstition that was still prevalent in much of Chinese society, even with all the innocents killed at the time and the historical treasures burned to cinders. Sam thought on how buildings in China still omitted a fourth floor in the way the so-called Western countries’ buildings sometimes omit the 13th floor. As Mr. Fan told Sam, in China, the word for four—四 – si—is homonymous with the word for death—死 – si. Sam longed to be free of this and his own superstitions, but he also admired the way that these senseless anxieties seemed to endure policy, bloodshed, and better judgment.
The other buildings Sam knew were closed. The Department for the Study of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics was closed. So too was the Muslim canteen. He inspected the bushes for lovers, and, at least at that moment, he could not find any. Sam felt there was something sinister about Wei Da in its perfect stillness that night. Perhaps the majority of the campus’s usual inhabitants had gone to the bars or the waterfront at Houhai to enjoy the last of the pleasant weather before harsh autumn winds arrived in Beijing and forced people indoors. But something about the near-emptiness of a place the size of some small Chinese and US cities showed Sam his vision of apocalypse. His heart rate increased then as it had earlier in the day, first in the shower room in Building 46 and then as Professor Wang verbally obliterated his fragile sense of security.
Sam passed Building 46. One of the front doors was slightly ajar and beyond it was darkness. It seemed that Wei Da was forever saving money on light in Building 46. Sam thought again on the mass of colliding flesh he had seen earlier. He thought on the open door to the Forbidden Record Room. He could not stop thinking about the two. Those thoughts raised his pulse. Perhaps late at night, both in the public baths and Forbidden Record Rooms, Building 46 became something else altogether. He imagined pits of iniquity in the showers—something like a Berlin sex club, but without any of the sofas and other niceties that might exist in those spaces. He entered the front doors. The foyer had no independent light of its own. It was in near-darkness, lit only by the lampposts on the lawn outside. A light on the second floor illuminated the steps, but nothing else also helped Sam to see.
Suddenly, a door swung open and a night guard in a uniform poked his head out and pointed a flashlight at Sam’s face, making Sam wince. In the night guard’s office, Sam caught a glimpse of some security cameras, a desktop computer, and a cot. The guard had been watching a film on the computer to pass the time. He had plugged a pair of large headphones into the computer tower on the desk, so as not to wake the guests on the upper floors.
‘I left my textbook on the sixth floor,’ Sam said.
But the attendant had already been satisfied to see a lone foreign face—however obscured—in a building meant for foreign people. The attendant knew very few of Building 46’s residents’ faces, so just Sam’s conspicuous foreignness was his ticket into Building 46. The guard turned his flashlight away and lifted a hand in silent approval. The guard returned to his office, leaving the door slightly ajar.
As Sam ascended the staircase, guided only by a flickering light from the floor above, a sudden, sharp scraping sound stopped him in his tracks. He stood atop the first flight of stairs, waiting for the sound to reproduce itself. The sound had been ever-so-light. Sam was worried to miss it over the sound of his incessant breathing, so he held his breath and listened closely. The front door to Building 46 creaked a bit at the fore of the foyer, where it had been flapping in the breeze. Just as Sam was prepared to continue making his way up to the sixth floor, to the bathroom where he had seen sex for the first time, he heard the scraping noise again. It was like a scraping against the concrete walls or floors of the ground level of Building 46. It was followed again by another scraping sound and then several at the same time. Sam felt his pulse elevate. He had never to that point bothered to fully inspect the curious, hidden space between those stairs and the Grand Hall. He had only seen it once in passing, when he registered for class. Sam imagined now that behind those stairs was another set of stairs that led downward to a lower level. And on that lower level would have been the ping pong room, he realised.
Auntie’s words at dinner echoed in his thoughts: ‘Let sleeping ghosts lie’. The scraping noise produced itself again. It was now almost certainly feet shuffling against the floor below the stairs. In that moment, Sam’s thoughts turned suddenly to the strange words etched on his desk by an earlier class of foreigners at Building 46: If you want to die, go die. He wondered not just what but where the little note on his desk was referring to? Was death up above or down below?
His pulse felt as it had on the sixth floor when he saw the shower sex. He remarked that terror and whatever sexual feelings he may have had in the shower room were ultimately so similar. Just a moment’s elevated heart rate.
Sam felt he knew ghosts existed. The West had destroyed the Four Olds in its own way; it was unacceptable for an adult, educated man in the US to believe in ghosts. But Sam had always felt there to be something more, always felt attuned to that strange frequency and that he was born to grow into that strange sense of hearing someday. The ghost of the ping pong room could continue to haunt him, as it had in the Grand Hall, or Sam could turn to it and grab it back, as he had the alleyway man of his childhood nightmares. By grabbing the alleyway man of the ping pong room, Sam could commute his horror into a sort of pleasure. Sam gingerly climbed back down the stairs to the ground level.
There was a distinct point where the little light that there had been on the stairs and the foyer stopped, as Sam entered the corridor behind the stairwell. That was the precise point where Sam stopped caring for his own safety. Nothing in his life was especially beautiful in that moment. Nothing was indispensable—none of the people he had met. How much longer would his grandma Nora live? Nothing is constant. Sam had become unrecognisable to himself in his short time there. He had become undependable, a lush, and a slacker. For some, this line of nihilism bursts into technicolor when they go parachuting; for Sam, it was in this pursuit of the ghost of the ping pong room of Building 46. Sam began to feel not dread but a luxurious weightlessness in the dark beyond the furthest extent of the light, in the corridor behind the stairwell of Building 46.
Sam traveled along the corridor much as he had the tables in the Grand Hall. He dragged one of his hands against a wall and continued to walk. This time, as he moved forward, there was no humming. There was another sort of ambient noise—gentle, airy breaths, at times like whistling and then the scraping of feet shuffling that he had heard before. A chorus.
Sam continued to drag his hand along the wall until he happened upon an unsteady surface, and just as he was about to tumble down what he envisioned in his mind’s eye to be a rabbit hole, a wide hand reached out and grabbed him, holding him back. There was a giggle, like a human giggle. It was not coming from whatever was holding him. Sam felt the borders of his eyes widen with ecstasy and terror. He began to collect his mind and was fixing to scream, when the wide hand that had saved him from Alice’s Wonderland pressed itself over Sam’s lips. Sam struggled. And then he felt a pair of lips on his neck, gentle and consoling, traveling from his jaw to his shoulder in a perfect line. Luxurious, silken embraces. Not gentle kisses, but not terribly aggressive—a peace offering that had produced more than just feelings of calm. The hands that belonged to the lips were delicate and small. They held his face on either side. Sam worried that they would suddenly become violent, but they did not. Finally, the large hand over his mouth took Sam’s hand and placed it on the small of a back that seemed to belong to the lips and the hands that were busying themselves with Sam’s neck. This was what human affection felt like. Sam’s rapture was punctuated by a sense of sorrow—He was losing The Virgin. He was becoming no more or less than a human. And just before that could become true, just as Sam’s heartbeat and pulse began to syncopate with these lovers, a familiar burst of light shone upon him like a halo. It was the night guard’s flashlight.
‘Out of here, now!’ shouted the guard who had been torn away from his film by the sounds of fornication in the corridor. The flashlight revealed the others to have been two of the three Italian classmates who had mocked the sea turtle song on Sam’s first day with Ms. Yi. ‘Oh! Hello!’ the female of the group told Sam, surprised that she actually knew the third in their little adventure. She had been Sam’s first kiss.
‘Out!’ repeated the guard, a bit too young to be taken very seriously and worried now that these were hoodlums who would not listen to him alone. The attendant stepped into the corridor and shone his light toward the foyer to reinforce his directive. As the three left the scene, the attendant guided them by passing his flashlight against the wall. ‘Watch your step,’ he said.
As the flashlight passed along the wall, the path was punctuated by two swinging doors, held together by a piece of wire. Sam would have liked to stay awhile and inspect them further. He realised in that moment that this was the doorway to the ping pong room. Beyond the doors and wire were some stairs, and beyond those stairs, as far as Sam could see, there was a darkness, black and fecund like the earth.