“Why can’t we just stay here, now?” Bao asked. He pushed open the warehouse doors and we stepped into the humid Austin night.
“Because I’m sixteen and you’re fourteen. The US would just send us back to China—and if we get caught like that, Shifu will never let us come back. We have to be patient.”
“But what if we didn’t get caught? How many Yuan did you make for beating up the bull?”
“Dollars, Bao.” I said it in English and waited for him to repeat it.
“Dorrahs.” His accent was terrible, but we could work on it.
I counted the roll of bills. “There’s five hundred here. We could live off it for a few weeks, but we aren’t old enough to rent an apartment in the US.”
“Old enough? What does that matter?”
I shook my head and gave him a little nudge to keep him moving. “That’s just the rule here.”
“I don’t want to spend my whole life at the temple,” Bao said quietly. “Like old Shifu Xinping with his iron balls. He still has not moved one with his Qi. And he hasn’t left the monastery in decades.”
“I’m not sure he ever will.”
It was past midnight now, but the city was still bustling with life. There were hundreds of people walking the streets. A college-aged group across from us were singing a song I didn’t recognize. I wondered if they were drunk.
“Look at those robes!” one of them yelled, pointing at us. “Hey! What are you supposed to be?”
“Is he talking to us?” Bao asked. “What’s he saying?”
“Our robes attract a lot of attention. Just keep walking.”
We walked with the crowd for a while, drinking in the sights of tall buildings and colorfully lit nightclubs, neither of us really knowing where we were going. I desperately wanted to crawl back to the hotel and sink into my soft bed, but Bao’s curiosity was endless.
The street we were on spilled out into a plaza where a crowd had gathered around a man on a raised platform. He was juggling a pair of glow-sticks and a pair of live chainsaws. While he juggled, he spoke into the crowd through a wireless microphone hooked up to several speakers.
“Don’t forget to tip me,” he said in a thick Australian accent. “Or I’ll be stuck here, and I’ll have to marry one of your daughters.”
I laughed and translated for Bao. He didn’t get the joke.
The street performer put down his chainsaws and tossed the glow-sticks into the crowd, then pulled out a racquetball racquet and announced that he was going to squeeze himself through it.
“John,” Bao said, his eyes on the stage. It was the first time Bao had ever called me by my real name.
“We could do this.”
The Australian had to dislocate one of his shoulders to squeeze his torso through the racquet. People cheered; others threw money at him.
“This is what we do for China,” Bao said. “We perform like him, but the PRC is the one that comes and collects our money.”
The Australian had the racquet down to his waist now. He made a joke about this being the hardest part as he pulled it down past his groin.
Bao got that joke without needing a translation.
“The Americans like dick jokes,” Bao said with a grin. “We could do Iron Scrotum, like Shifu Yan Ming.”
“I think they have laws against that, Bao. But it would be funny—we could get some ropes and lift someone up out of the audience. That would be a great headline for the newspaper: ‘Runaway monks tow audience member around with their balls.’”
His laughter caught the attention of the crowd around us. The Texans’ stares lingered on our robes, confirming Bao’s suggestion: we would be wildly successful as street performers. We were probably the only people bold enough to wear orange in this city of brown leather and blue jeans.
“Come on, Bao. Let’s go back to the hotel. Forget about this for a while. We still have to wait a few years.”
I had trouble sleeping that night. My future in the US suddenly seemed like a real possibility, and a moderately lucrative one, at least for an eighteen year old.
I tossed and turned for a while, watching the red minutes slip by on the digital clock near my bed. 3:47. Too late to call her, but Seattle was PST. That was two hours behind Texas, right?
I picked up the phone and watched my fingers dance over the dials, compelled by impulses I barely understood.
Before I knew what was happening, a man’s voice answered. He sounded angry. “Who is this? Do you know what time it is? It’s 2:48! Who calls at—”
He stopped suddenly, listening to a buzzing voice too distant for the phone receiver to pick up. The next voice I heard was hers.
“Shaolin,” she said. “I’m glad you called.”
I never told her my name. I am such an idiot.
“How’s your nose?”
She laughed. “Did you like the book?”
“I read it three times.” I paused, swallowed a lump in my throat, and added, “And I read your note a hundred times.”
I heard her sigh into the receiver. “Where are you?”
“Texas. I return to Dengfeng tomorrow.”
“Oh.” She sucked on her lip. “That gives us a few hours to talk, then.”
We talked until the sun rose, a brilliant gold over Austin. We talked of Richard Dawkins, of my religious beliefs, of the monastery and their doctrines, of her college plans, and of my precarious status as a dual citizen of China and the US. We talked about Fight Club and The Matrix, “The two best things American culture has produced in my lifetime,” she said, and we made plans to see them if I ever came back to Seattle.
I promised her that I would. One way or another.