Issue > Fiction
Michael Schrimper

Michael Schrimper

Michael Schrimper grew up in southern Indiana and now makes his home north of Boston. He teaches undergraduates at Emerson College, and Cognoscenti recently published one of his essays reconsidering the value of zoos.

Diversity


The man who was probably most famous for being Natalie Portman's husband was also the director of the Paris Opera Ballet. And he had said of Cheng Lei Song's hiring in The New York Times: "We want more diversity in this company." Preposterous, Georgie thought. What was Cheng Lei to think? I got this job not because I'm a great dancer, but because I'm—Asian?

When he asked Cheng Lei as much, as they sat at the heavy iron table on the Rue Massenet, Cheng Lei frowned and stared at his cappuccino. Georgie had lied and said he was writing a book about the POB. Coffee and sandwiches naturally had followed.

"I don't know," said Cheng Lei, looking rather absurdly beautiful in his black zip-up jacket, his untasseled green scarf. "I mean, I like to think I was appointed because of my talent. But maybe it is because I'm Chinese."

Georgie himself felt like Mr. Quota, Mr. Now-Nobody-Can-Accuse-Us-of-Not-Being-Diverse. Back in Boston, where he taught at Broward College, he was the only gay guy in the department. All of the older poets and professors surely had made their respective forays into the joyous wilderness of sexuality at some point in their lives, but when it came down to it, they had rings on their fingers; they had children, and husbands, and wives.

"Either way, you're the first dancer in their history. That's 347 years. That's pretty amazing," said Georgie, and Cheng Lei nodded.

"I suppose so. You know I used to think of it as the No-China Wall."

The No China Wall, thought Georgie: clever. And that was what it was, wasn't it? When, for 347 years, the Paris Opera Ballet had not a single Chinese dancer.

Georgie hadn't meant to lie and say he was writing a book about the ballet; it had just sort of happened that way. He was explaining he was a writing instructor and then it had seemed weird that he had come all this way, to see Cheng Lei. So he had said, flushing, "Yeah, yeah, I'm just trying to do a little research."

"Research on what?" Cheng Lei had asked him.

"Well..." came Georgie's reply. "You."

They had walked along the Seine, much as they were walking, now, en route to the house of Mme. Odille, a former host parent of Cheng Lei's. Georgie didn't want to meet Mme. Odille. Maybe she would see through him. Maybe she would know what was up.

But what was up? he asked himself, watching a long white ship pulling its way through the river's grey-blue water. What was this, what he was doing? So he found Cheng Lei attractive, with his smooth hairless forearms, with his smooth pale chin. So he very much wanted to clamber into bed with Cheng Lei. That didn't mean anything was going to happen. That didn't mean he was going to make anything happen. It made Georgie think of what Ishyen said, back in Malden, their predominantly Chinese suburb just north of Boston: "You talk too much. You don't do. Nothing is ever going to happen for you if you don't do."

Well, I'm doing, thought Georgie, feeling his left shoulder bumping against Cheng Lei's right as, not far in the distance, the Eiffel Tower loomed bronze and statue-like. It simultaneously looked miniature and enormous, thought Georgie, smiling.

Mme. Odille's was set back on a silent cobbled street off the Rue Bargue. Walking up to the old house, Georgie was quite certain Hemingway, in his Moveable Feast days, had lived not too far from here. And what was that description he so loved, about the morning with the goatherder? The goats turning their heads like tourists?

Georgie registered that Mme. Odille's front door was a distinctly Parisian blue just before Mme. Odille herself appeared in the door. "Bonjour!" she boomed, and she sounded so utterly French Georgie couldn't tell if she was putting on some kind of show for his benefit. Did she know he was American? She was a tall, wide-shouldered woman, and with her short wavy grey-white hair she could, Georgie thought, have looked very friendly. She could have reminded Georgie of his grandmother. But nowhere present in Mme. Odille's blue-grey eyes was the vibrant artistic gaiety that was held in his grandmother's eyes: Mme. Odille's eyes seemed, Georgie thought, rather watchful, almost disturbingly penetrating. Gravely she held out a hand for a shake.

"Georgie," he said, looking at her.

"Odette," she said with a soberness.

"Mme. Odille, Georgie," said Cheng Lei, standing on the side, his feet probably unconsciously wedged into first position. "Georgie, Mme. Odille."

And inside they went, where immediately Georgie found himself mentally accruing impressions of the old woman's house. There was a long galley kitchen with a beige linoleum floor, a small round breakfast table spangled with orange linen napkins. On the walls hung heavy gold frames—most of them containing ghostly, almost invisible line drawings—and gold embossed wallpapering that had browned with age. Overall it was a stifling house, Georgie thought, as he felt Mme. Odille staring at him, and, God, he just wanted to leave.

"So you're—an American?" said Mme. Odille, worrying with her knuckle a bit of her scalp.

Georgie nodded. "You familiar with the States?"

"Am I familiar with the States?" Mme. Odille smiled and turned her eyes to Cheng Lei. "Do you want some fruit? I've cut a honeydew. It's terribly fresh. I can put it in a dish for you."

Mme. Odille walked out of the room, leaving Georgie and Cheng Lei alone. As Georgie smelled Cheng Lei's gorgeous, clean yet boyish-milk-and-flower scent, Cheng Lei said, "It's nice to be back. I've missed it here." Cheng Lei had lived with Mme. Odille before becoming a full-time dancer with the POB. As a student, he had stayed with her for two years. Georgie didn't say that, judging by the stifling, lonely atmosphere of the house, Mme. Odille had missed him, too. In just a moment she came back brandishing a knife, and a shallow white bowl holding three crescents of a very pale green fruit.

"Fresh melons are hard to find in Paris," she said, before apparently thinking it was time to switch to French and thus cut Georgie out of the conversation. Wahzeen, da, da, class, da-wahzeen, it sounded like she said.

"Parler-vouz francais, Georgie?" she asked, perhaps sensing his annoyance, and Georgie shook his head. They were seated now on two of her buttery striped couches.

"No, I don't speak French."

"Oh." She plucked for herself a wedge of melon and then continued on in French, to Cheng Lei.

Furtively, deliciously, Georgie watched as Cheng Lei nibbled on a section of honeydew curved like a smile, then listened as Cheng Lei announced he would use the bathroom. Alone with Mme. Odille, Georgie sat and very consciously surveyed her. She seemed lonely, sitting there with her knitted white shawl hanging loosely over her shoulders. Part of him wanted to feel sorry for her; it was clear she lived a forlorn life; but he couldn't move past the notion she disliked him.

All at once a furry little dog charged into the room and perched itself beside her. The chou had fur the color of the dried pine needles Georgie and Ishyen would see scattered all over the ground during their walks through the Lynn Woods: coppery, a burnt earth-orange.

"So what do you do here?" he asked her, hoping to grind his thoughts away from Ishyen. "Are you retired?"

Mme. Odille flinched. A bag beneath her left eye twitched. "I am not retired."

"So what do you—"

"Do you like your melon?"

"It's good," Georgie nodded.

The old woman and her dog studied him, watched him oh-so-closely, four eyes staring directly at his face, and the deceit he was carrying out seemed to ensconce him in a humid, sweat-smelling haze. But what deceit did he have festering in him, really? So Ishyen, his partner of five years, was back in Malden, waiting for him to come home. So he had told Cheng Lei he was writing a book. What, really, was the terrible deceit?

"It's remarkable to think of all that Cheng Lei has accomplished," said Mme. Odille stroking the chou's fur. "I mean, coming all the way from that little village in China. Not speaking French or English. You realize how rare it is for a boy to be permitted to dance ballet in China, don't you?"

Georgie, hearing pipes rattling through the walls, imagined Cheng Lei's narrow pale face, his almost feline eyes.

"Yes," he said.

"How well do you know Cheng Lei? Is it true you just met?"

"It is."

"So what's your interest in him?"

"Excuse me?" Her face had gone long. Papery.

"He says you're writing a book. You look too young to be writing books."

"It's a book," Georgie lied. "Not books. And young people write books."

"Do they?"

"They do."

But what more could he say, if she pressed him further? I came here to escape my life, to flee the Chinese grocery store in Malden, with all its flies and rotting fruit? Always, always Georgie seemed to be shopping in that grocery for Ishyen, who couldn't stand to have American products on his shelves. They were full of chemicals, he said, American products.

"You know he was really hurt by what Millepied said about him in the Times," Mme. Odille said. "Saying it's because he's Asian that they hired him. And other men have gone after Cheng Lei in other ways."

Georgie shifted on his seat. A squeak—something—came out of the old polished legs of his couch. He smelled linens, silk pillows. "I see," he said, as down the hallway there was the sound of a door, and then in came Cheng Lei in his black t-shirt. He had removed his jacket and hung it on a tree-stand by a mirror.

"Are you talking about me?"

"No," said Georgie. And then Cheng Lei sat down beside him.

"Yes, we were," said Mme. Odille, and once again she started speaking in French.

Wah-zeen-du-bhurabatti

mnem-slash-un-hoss-perr

boo-ben-humen-ree

it sounded like she said, and Georgie watched Cheng Lei's face, his heart palpitating.

Cheng Lei looked at Georgie. He did not smile. Looking back at Mme. Odille, he nodded. Georgie watched Cheng Lei's Adam's apple perform a slight bob in his throat. What was she saying? What did Cheng Lei think of what she was saying? After a moment, Georgie and Cheng Lei watched as Mme. Odille and her chou rose and then left the room. Into the kitchen, again, it was for her. They heard her banging around some pots.

"What did she say?" but even as Georgie said it Cheng Lei dropped a hand on Georgie's arm.

"Want to see my old room?"

So Georgie followed Cheng Lei across the faded rug, past a long buffet table, down the hall. He watched as Cheng Lei pushed open a door beside what Georgie surmised, judging by the still-shrill-sounding hiss of pipes, was the bathroom. A dim yellow room was revealed, its walls sheathed in very 70s pine paneling.

"Where I slept," said Cheng Lei, and as he led Georgie in Georgie felt an almost convulsive pleasure. Here he was in the room of the young man whose blog he read almost religiously back in Malden. Here was the room where the young history-making dancer Cheng Lei Song had spent his early nights in Paris. It was too much. If only they could close this many-paneled door behind them, and fall down, there, on that bed covered in a leaf-printed spread....

"It was her daughter's room," said Cheng Lei, as Georgie's eyes fell across a stack of sun-worn records: Tchaikovsky, he saw, as well as Simon and Garfunkel and Jim Croce.

"Her daughter's?"

Cheng Lei nodded. And suddenly it made a thrum of sense to Georgie. Who took in a dancer they had never met—somebody from far across the world—but a person who was wallowing in loneliness, in despair? That something had happened to Mme. Odille's daughter Georgie was quite sure of. He felt it wrapped around him like her shawl. Smelling a scent of dried flowers, which he noticed were waiting in the whitish light on the sill—yarrow, he thought, nodding—he made to ask Cheng Lei about her daughter, where she was, if she was living, then he decided the mystery seemed welcome. He sat down on the edge of the bed. Cheng Lei sat down beside him. Back in Malden, Ishyen was probably reading about machine learning. On his bed, about the size of this one, his brows were probably furrowed, pushed together in his wide tan face. The words on the page were ones Georgie would never understand, did not care to understand. And here, in Paris, he dropped a hand to Cheng Lei's knee. But perhaps the burden was too great for Cheng Lei. Cheng Lei could be a dancer in Paris—he was allowed to dance ballet—but maybe like so many Chinese, like Ishyen, he was afraid to come out in the open. Maybe his feelings for Georgie, if he had any, would have to remain a secret.

Cheng Lei pulled his leg away. Georgie's hand came to rest on the leaf-printed spread. And in the doorway appeared Mme. Odille, her eyes, Georgie thought, rather wild. At her feet was the chou.

The dog barked and darted into the room. "Out! Out! I don't want you in here!" Mme. Odille screamed, and it was as if she was slapping the air. Her hands seemed to move about frantically. "Out!" she said. "Out! You—Asiaphile!"

And up Georgie lunged from the bed. The dog was at his feet. He may have kicked it on his way out. He didn't know.


* * *



"She didn't like me," Georgie said to Cheng Lei as they walked side-by-side down the street.

"I don't know... Why do you think?"

After a moment Cheng Lei asked him, "What did that word mean?"

"Which word?"

"Asiaphile?"

Cheng Lei said it in such a way that Georgia wondered if Cheng Lei doubted whether it was the correct word, the word that, in fact, had been spoken. "Oh—" Georgie said.

But of course he would not tell him. He would not tell Cheng Lei because it wasn't true. Yes, so many of the men he had been with had been Vietnamese, had been Chinese—but what did that matter? In the grand scheme, so what if one saw patterns? One took love, attraction, those fitful bursts of life, where one could find them.

"I don't think that's the word she said? I don't think that's a word," said Georgie, and knowing the truth—a dictionary entry—was just a few thumb presses away, on Cheng Lei's iPhone, made him dizzy.

But, bless his heart, Cheng Lei didn't get out his iPhone; he did not look up the word. Perhaps he, too, thought Georgie, no longer really yearning to seize Cheng Lei's hand but rather just stand alongside him, and breathe with him the same air, perhaps he, too, is tired of feeling wanted for the wrong reasons, for being some asshole's idea of diversity.

So they walked. So they said nothing. So, standing side-by-side, they watched the grey-blue waters of the Seine.

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